Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Tolkien weblog

Three things I've seen online of interest lately.

1. Review of the Carpenter and Grotta biographies. Perhaps not many people who aren't Tolkien specialists would read two biographies of him in short order. Would this intelligent reader pick up on the relative value of these two books? He would.
(Note this was written in 2008, so probably he was not aware of the then-recent publication of Scull & Hammond's Companion & Guide, which deserves mention in any consideration of the best single source on Tolkien's life, albeit it is not a narrative biography. Note also that it is the second and slightly less horrible edition of Grotta that is being read.)
Also embedded in this is another review of Carpenter by a reader not personally interested in Tolkien's work at all, but who found his an interesting life to read about. An intriguing perspective to have.

2. Media article on misconceptions about Tolkien's sub-creation. Most such articles are from the perspective of the Jackson movies; this one is largely a defense of the book The Lord of the Rings from misconceptions generated by the movies, of which "Sauron the helpless giant eyeball" is the one I was most pleased to see debunked. But at least one misconception predates the movies, the perennial favorite "why didn't the Eagles just ...?"
Perhaps it is condescending of me to compliment a media site writer for knowing Tolkien's writings pretty well, but this is better in that regard than most such articles I've seen. However, it's not good enough to have prevented two of the entries from having factual clangers in them, one fairly obscure but one extremely major. Can you find them?

3. A friend sent me this, though one might sardonically wonder what conception of friendship would make them send you this. (Only sardonically, T.: thanks for the links.) It's The Lord of the Rings told backwards. Backwards? Yeah, read it for yourself, and prepare to be stunned. Then brought back to life. One. Two. Three.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

RT his own self

Last weekend I spent in virtual Oxford attending a Tolkien conference. This week I went virtually to a studio in a business park in outer London for a live solo concert by the legendary singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson. One paid in advance and got a link by e-mail, and the video and audio were of excellent close-up quality.

This was one of a series of online concerts that Thompson is giving, and this one's theme was his early years in the late 1960s in the band Fairport Convention. That's an old favorite of mine, so that's why I picked this concert. His selections included about half each of the Fairport albums Liege and Lief and Full House, mostly songs he didn't originally sing himself, but since Sandy Denny and Dave Swarbrick are no longer with us, he'll have to do it.

RT particularly thrilled me by adding, from his first solo album, "The Poor Ditching Boy," which is the title I'd submitted at his all-requests show that I attended a few years ago, and which he didn't happen to pull out of the bucket. Well, I got it this time. I am happy.

Further happiness came at dinnertime with my first attempt to take cooking instructions from YouTube. B. had sent me a link to a video aimed at "young Indian individuals" new to cooking on "How to Cook Every Indian Dish Ever." Though I am none of those things (neither young, Indian, nor living as an individual), I was intrigued. I copied down these instructions, bought the couple of ingredients I didn't already have, and tried it out tonight. By carefully omitting the chile parts of the recipe, I wound up with a tomato curry that was highly flavorful without being hot-spicy, which is B.'s problem with much Indian food, which she otherwise loves. The instructions say you can cook anything in the sauce that you want. I went with cubed fresh chicken and chopped zucchini (courgettes), which cooks fast. Good meal.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

non-concert review

I finally had another pretty fully satisfying online classical concert. This one was supposed to be a joint event by the Jupiter and Jasper String Quartets. (They're connected: two of the Jupiter players are sisters, and their brother is in the Jasper.) The Jupiters would play Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet, the Jaspers two newly commissioned pieces by Lera Auerbach and Joan Tower, two composers I was willing to hear, and then they'd combine for the Mendelssohn Octet, a piece that should always be played when two string quartets get together.

It didn't quite work out that way. The Jupiters, who work at the University of Illinois, were unable to travel to the concert site due to the pandemic, so they mailed in a videorecording of their Beethoven, and the Mendelssohn was played with four local musicians taking their place. But since the concert site was in Syracuse, New York, I was hardly likely to have been there if it were live, so the online version was definitely better than nothing. (Syracuse: curious, because it was also the source of an excellent performance of the stage play Amadeus that I saw online in April. It's also where our nieces live: they seem to have picked a good city.)

The "Harp" Quartet (so named for a generous use of pizzicato) is supposed to be the small-scale and modest one of Beethoven's middle quartets, but the Jupiter played it with great vigor and aggression, making it lively and crisp, the kind of work that helps gain the listener's attention in an online performance.

The Mendelssohn, by contrast, was gentle and relaxed, watering down the drama of the first movement and giving a fast but not feathery scherzo. It was less arresting to listen to, except that the style gave the slow movement an unexpected fullness and depth.

As for the Auerbach and Tower, they were both modernist (as opposed to postmodernist) movements with a coherence and stability that mark recent works in that style more than their pioneering predecessors of a century ago. Auerbach was more apt to explore extremely high registers and percussive playing, while Tower reveled in squeeze-box chords with tangy but not unpleasant harmonies. Not uninteresting to listen to.

One other thing about online concerts: even if an artificial deadline is imposed, it's still usually possible to hear them after the event. You have to buy a ticket to hear it, but you can still do so up through Sunday evening here. (At that page you can also catch an embedded older recording of slightly earlier incarnations of the Jasper [on the left] and Jupiter [on the right] playing a more hefty and vigorous version of Mendelssohn's first movement.)

Thursday, September 24, 2020

on the audio

I'm going to listen to this. You should too.

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. Adapted as a radio play. Berkeley Rep & partners, Tuesday Oct. 13, 5 pm Pacific. On YouTube. No charge. With David Strathairn, no less, as Doremus Jessup.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

why I say that The Golden Compass has "a crudely manipulative plot"

The driving engine of the plot of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass is Lyra's gradual discovery of the facts about her own life and background. Events, as opposed to information, happen in the book, but the pacing and grip of the plot are driven by these revelations.

Most of them occur with Lyra overhearing conversations that she's not supposed to be hearing. Characters discuss Lyra and her background for the purpose of having her overhear them, even though they don't know that she's within earshot. It's enough that Pullman knows she's there, so he can make the characters talk about her.

Why do I say these conversations are being held at the author's direction, rather than as the characters would naturally behave? For several reasons. 1) They're full of "as you know, Bob," the technique beloved of all bad fiction writers whereby characters tell each other things that they both already know, so that the reader can catch up. 2) Although each conversation is supposed to be independent, each rests on the knowledge base established by the previous conversations. For instance, that Lord Asrael is Lyra's father is the deepest of dark secrets until she finds it out, after which it's just assumed background knowledge. 3) The remarkable frequency with which Lyra happens to be perfectly placed to overhear critical conversations.

From the beginning, where she crawls into a cupboard (or something: I forget) at an Oxford college fortuitously positioned to hear the first such conversation, to the end, where she overhears Lord Asrael and Mrs Coulter emoting loudly and as-you-know-Bobbishly at each other, the whole book is built around this.

It's a terrible, terrible way to structure a novel.

Monday, September 21, 2020

more than three

Something else I heard about at Oxonmoot is that a few months ago Dimitra Fimi ran a snap poll on Twitter, asking readers to name their candidates for the three best fantasy authors besides Tolkien. "Best" is a big word, but I'd have had no trouble naming my three favorites fitting that criteria, and all three came fairly high in the final results: Ursula K. Le Guin (#1), Mervyn Peake (#14), and Lord Dunsany (#15). If I'd been limited to my three favorite post-Tolkien fantasists, it'd have been Le Guin, Diana Wynne Jones (#6), and Patricia McKillip (#18). My three favorite individual works of post-Tolkien fantasy would have been somewhat different, however. Along with a Le Guin (Always Coming Home) and a Wynne Jones (Fire and Hemlock), I couldn't single out one McKillip: her books all exist on the same level for me, and indeed I have trouble remembering which ones I liked better than others. But I could not omit a favorite by an author whose other works don't much measure up, and who indeed does not appear on Dimitra's list of the top 30: Watership Down by Richard Adams.

Analyzing my reactions to the remaining 8 of the top 10 is a more dismaying sight. Two of them, C.S. Lewis (#3) and Neil Gaiman (#4), have written books I like very much, and which I often re-read, and I've written scholarly articles on both authors. Yet I'd classify both as writers whose works I find it easier to admire than to love, so I hold them at a slight distance. Robin Hobb (#5) I'm somewhat blank on. I enjoyed her Wizard of the Pigeons, written as Megan Lindholm, but I've never re-read it, and I've never tried anything from her Robin Hobb oevure. I understand they're mostly epic fantasy trilogies, a genre that, after Stephen Donaldson and Guy Kay and all, I'm thoroughly allergic to. (But you love The Lord of the Rings? Yes, but it's not at all like any of its imitations.) That perhaps puts her in a category with George R.R. Martin (#8), an author I liked very much until he became an epic fantasist. I actually tried the first volume of that monster, and it bored the bejesus out of me.

The famous series by J.K. Rowling (#9) took longer to elicit a negative reaction from me. I enjoyed the first Harry Potter book, a light and sprightly children's fantasy, though not anything I'd have marked down as a masterpiece for the ages. But the subsequent books got heavier as well as repetitious, and reading volume 4 was like trudging through thick mud, so after that I quit. Terry Pratchett (#2, and the only all-around favorite after Le Guin) I just don't find funny. His attempts at humor seem to me terribly labored. Nobody agrees with me on this, but then a lot of people also disagree with my finding Douglas Adams utterly hilarious. Philip Pullman (#7) and Brandon Sanderson (#10) are authors I tried one early book by each, and found them both so dreadful I have no desire to continue. The Golden Compass is supposed to be the good one of Pullman's first trilogy, but though I found it readable, the crudely manipulative plot and the cardboard sub-creation were enough that, if that's the good one, I'd hate to see the bad ones. For Sanderson, I tried a stand-alone called Elantris. I could make no sense whatever out of the plot, the character motivations, the rules of magic, or even the physical layout of the setting; it was complete gobbledegook.

If these are the ten best fantasists, then I don't really like fantasy very much, a conclusion I came to long ago without the help of this poll. What I like are a few good authors who happen to write fantasy. I triangulated this finding against various lists of the ten best classical composers, and found that I liked as many of them at least as well, and didn't reject any so emphatically or entirely. Music, then, I like, but not fantasy.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Oxonmoot, day 3

I didn't attend very much of the programming on the last day of Oxonmoot because I was asleep much of the time, something unlikely to have blighted an in-person conference, or at least I hope not. In particular anything from the breakout track that interested me was only on when I wasn't there to try it, so that feature of virtual congoing remains mostly untried by me.

Highlight of what I did hear was the concluding keynote talk by Yvette Kisor on the conference theme on Tolkien and diversity. This was fascinating and lucid, and turned out to be a sympathetic analysis, rather than a critique, of racial/ethnic/species hierarchy in Tolkien. This is based rather straightforwardly on the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, and Kisor spent considerable space explaining that, all of which I remembered from medieval civ class. Kisor wasted no time criticizing Tolkien for employing this concept, but concentrated entirely on what he did with it, which included adding some free choice by peoples to explain their exact places in the hierarchy: thus the responses of the varying Elven peoples to the call of the Valar. Kisor concluded by considering how this hierarchy is read: it's regretful that it affords the works the opportunity to be co-opted by racists, but The Lord of the Rings itself emphasizes diversity among the good guys. (And all the Star Trek fans in the audience were murmuring "IDIC" in the chat function.)

Kisor attributed much of the co-opting of Tolkien to reinforce racial bias to the Jackson movies and their treatment of orcs. Tolkien doesn't devote much attention to orcs and rarely describes them physically, but you can't miss the constant camera attention to orcs in Jackson. And their skin color is black.

What Kisor didn't note is that this contradicts Tolkien. She did quote that Tolkien envisaged orcs as "degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types" (Letters 274), itself a racist stereotype, but she didn't emphasize that the few occasions Tolkien does describe orcs reinforces this: their eyes are slanted and their skin is "sallow," i.e. yellow or light-brown. Thus, if Tolkien's orcs are a racial abuse it's of Asians, not Blacks; but unlike Jackson he doesn't wallow in it. Tolkien was uncomfortable with his own treatment of orcs and never came up with a satisfactory resolution of this.

The other paper I heard all of was Mariana Rios Maldonado on ethics, femininity, and the Other, which was interesting enough to keep me awake for a half an hour at 4 am, even though it was more a precis to her research than an account of any findings. (To be fair, I think she's just starting working on this for a PhD.) She seems to have independently re-invented Melanie Rawls's concept of the feminine principle in Tolkien, and when I found on asking that she hadn't read that paper I urgently recommended it.

This was preceded by a summary of a lecture on dragons that Tolkien gave in 1938, and which I'd just discovered yesterday had been published a couple years ago in the facsimile printing of the first edition of The Hobbit, but not in the form of that that I bought. So now I've hived off to order the right one online, and it'll have to be a late addition to the Tolkien Studies bibliography.

Oxonmoot traditionally closes with a wreath-laying at Tolkien's grave in Oxford. That had to be done in absentia, so we got a film of the ceremony performed by just the two con chairs and the chairman of the Tolkien Society, who belied his reputation for disliking poetry by reading aloud the entirety of the long poem "The Adventures of Tom Bombadil."

Due credit to the Tolkien Society for an awesome job putting this conference together, and for their gentle but not pestering reminders to their membership to sign up for it. I didn't attend the virtual Worldcon so I can't compare them, but technical glitches here were minor and short-lived, and in general everything worked and ran on time, and was easy to use. I contented myself with being a silent audience member on the main programming track, kibitzing in the chat function and asking an occasional question of the speakers. That I didn't much try out the breakout tracks with live social interaction was a function of my own lack of ease with this online idiom in any forum other than with limited close friends, and not due to anything the TS did wrong. Nevertheless I'm glad the Mythopoeic Society didn't try to hold this year's Mythcon this way, because I'm sure I would not have been able to give it the kind of full-bodied participation that would have been expected of me as a Guest of Honor, or that would have been a completely enjoyable Mythcon to me.

Still, I wouldn't have been at Oxonmoot at all without this, even in the absence of a virus, so better than nothing. And better too for all those others who couldn't attend for reasons of distance, cost, or personal physical limitations. Adding an online component to future in-person conferences is the obvious next step, and they're on it.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Oxonmoot, day 2

The fullest day of Oxonmoot began with papers at 9 am, which is early by sf-con standards but is usually when we begin them at Mythcon too. However, that's 9 am British time. Over here it was 1 am. However, since as usual I was up for a good part of the middle of the night, I got to attend some of those papers, and finished up at the late night time of 1 am British, which was only 5 pm here. I think all the post-11 pm presenters were Americans, which made it a little easier.

One paper I heard consisted of its presenter rambling learnedly but incomprehensibly for half an hour on the deep structure of Tolkien's sub-creation, but most of the items were impressively lucid. I particularly liked one on Tolkien's role in the hippie/counter-culture of the 1960s (some very thoughtful considerations on the significance of this), a light but interwoven comparison of Tolkien to A.A. Milne, and the personal account by the woman who, out of a sheer sense of charity, undertook to equip many of the cash-poor small-town school libraries in Montana with copies of The Lord of the Rings to supply their clamoring students who'd seen the then-new movies. Her most ingenious move was to recruit customers by attending a Montana state library association conference as a vendor.

Unsurprisingly, the most entertaining paper of all was another scientific study by the learned and vivid Kris Larsen, this one exploring how Tolkien messed up the phases and visibility of the Moon. Don't worry, she said; everybody makes these errors. At least the phases were right in The Lord of the Rings, because Tolkien was working from a desk calendar (but that still doesn't mean he knew what times the Moon would be visible or from what angle). But in The Hobbit, the lunar cycle is 28 days. It's amazing how often this wrong figure is put down as correct.

There were a few other good papers which I only caught part of, either because I only then got up or because I had to get back to sleep, but one thing I was up for all of was a panel on "New Voices in Tolkien Scholarship," featuring four PhD students (one already with the degree) from various countries working mostly on reader-reception issues. (One of them would like you to fill out her survey.) They were posed questions on how they've found their research careers going, their own relationship to Tolkien fandom, etc. Unfortunately I was distracted through much of this by the chat function where someone wanted to berate me for a complete misunderstanding of what I was saying.

An hour's interview with the most definitive Tolkien scholars Wayne Hammond & Christina Scull consisted mostly of recollections of how they got into this. That, still as yet somewhat inexperienced in the work, they got commissioned in 1992 to write a book on Tolkien's artwork is not so surprising as the stunningly thorough and authoritative tome they published only three years later. That's where they proved their genius. And of course much more has followed. This time the distraction in the chat function came from the audience's attempts to identify the books shelved behind them as they spoke, which were not part of their Tolkien collection.

Also during the day were items that I might have sat through contentedly were this in person, but which just didn't appeal so much from an office chair on a small screen and headphones: a set of entertainments (including a reading from Beowulf, by Danes, in Modern English) and costume presentations (which at least included closeups), a slide show of bad Tolkien-based artwork (including identifications of which David Day book the piece was usually from), and an attempt at a conference-wide group meal (which I didn't even attempt to participate in: who would want to watch me eat lunch?).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Oxonmoot, day 1

I want to get this down, regardless of other events.

Even though I'd already signed up, I was not mentally prepared to be spending my entire day at a Tolkien conference. That's because the prep work usually involves taking an elaborate trip somewhere, and that gives time and a framework to put the mind in gear. This time I just went upstairs and clicked on a Zoom link, and there I was at the Tolkien Society's Oxonmoot in England.

I've actually been at a couple Oxonmoots in person, but those were a long time ago. This one was much more heavily programmed than the light relaxacon Oxonmoots I knew, but due to the online environment the social achievement was more questionable. We'll see if it does better tomorrow.

There were a few interesting papers by scholars of various nationalities. There was an excellent keynote address by the estimable Dimitra Fimi, celebrating the 40th anniversary of Unfinished Tales, a book she perceptively described as having been intended as a supplement to The Silmarillion, published three years earlier, but which turned out to be more of a precursor, a pre-existing last volume, to The History of Middle-earth, which began publication three years later. I also liked her suggestion that Erendis's distress at the absence of Aldarion on sea voyages had something in common with Kipling's "Harp Song of the Dane Women."

But by far the most interesting and provocative item was a panel on "Diversity in Tolkien Scholarship and Fandom," featuring three women, all of diverse Asian ancestry, two of them young, I think in their 20s, and one older. Elyanna Choi, UK-born of Hong Kong ancestry, was the author of this distressing report of her experiences with racial backlash at last year's large Tolkien Society convention, and she became tearful while recounting this, concluding that she's been hurt less by racial markers in Tolkien's texts than by the community.

It seemed to me that the discussions here had much in common with the similar ones that have been going around through science-fiction fandom lately. I wonder if the hostile reaction she describes had anything to do with the framing of the discussion, since I for one see nothing to object to in the panelists' analysis of Tolkien as both racist and not-racist at the same time. That's hardly nonsensical, as Tolkien was a complex and contradictory man, and it's long well established that, for instance, he was optimistic and pessimistic at the same time. That his non-racism better employs his imagination and creativity, the qualities he's valued for, makes it of more interest to me; but if a reader is struck by a particular undercurrent of racist parallels, that will of course be of more concern to them. Judging by the chat function going on through the panel, most of the audience agreed.

What was eye-opening to me was the readings of racial echoes, especially from panelist Sarah Westvik. The imperialism of the Númenóreans is not always criticized, for instance; and Westvik read Fëanor as a conquering invader from the West; while US Blacks, Westik also noted, tend to read Fëanor as a freedom-fighter rebelling against the oppressive Valar. (In that context, Choi sees Sindarin expansion as more equivalent to "soft" East Asian imperialism than the Western kind.) Growing up in Singapore of mixed ancestry (if I followed the description correctly), Westvik read the Elves, fair-skinned and raven-haired, as Chinese, since they were the only ethnic group in Singapore that fit that description. Westvik also reads Sauron as a queer-coded character (shape-shifting, seductive). These are all interesting and valid readings irrespective of the author's intent - it's only when you claim that your personal reading was the author's intent that it irritates me - and I felt enlightened to hear them.

Moderator Sultana Raza, an older woman from India, reported having felt welcomed in the TS, finding such racism as existed as ingrained and not conscious, and feeling similarly about Tolkien's work, the richness and complexity of which makes up for a lot of problems.

On the more social side, Oxonmoot featured a trivia quiz run successfully on an online platform. Here I was able to answer a question or two and make a few jokes in the chat function, and it felt odd but exciting to type in such a remark and then a few seconds later watch the moderators chuckling as they read it. The social breakout room I wound up in after programming was over never progressed beyond desultory conversation, and I couldn't figure out how to get a display that showed everybody who was there, so as I was getting a little tired out from all day at the computer, which wouldn't happen at a real con, so rather than look for a more congenial breakout I just signed off.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

books report

You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia by Jack Lynch (Bloomsbury Press)
Defining a reference book as one to be consulted rather than read straight through, this book itself almost fits that definition by consisting of a roughly historically-based arrangement of short essays on (mostly) famous tomes. Begins with the codes of Hammurabi and Justinian, but includes no further legal codes; but it does cover dictionaries, lots and lots of dictionaries. When it gets to books I'm well familiar with, like Grove's (the music encyclopedia) or the Mansell catalog, I found a few misleading statements or omissions - like not mentioning that librarians call it the Mansell catalog or that it's only a part of the National Union Catalog, not the whole - but no major errors of fact. This is a pretty well-researched book, and I'm inclined to search out more of its author's works. (There are statistics for each work discussed, but no photos, which is too bad, because the Mansell is a really awesome sight.)

In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs edited by Andrew Blauner (Blue Rider Press)
I cam across this on the virtual shelf and picked it up out of curiosity. Only a few of the writers had I ever heard of. Their essays are arranged in chronological order of the Beatles song discussed. Most of the early ones fit the title by discussing the place of the song in the writer's life, often as latter-day youthful discoveries by writers too young to have heard the songs when they were new. With the later songs, more of the essays turn to analyzing the song, often preceded by disclaimers that the author isn't much of a Beatles fan. A close semiotic analysis of the lyrics of "Good Day Sunshine" is a little daft, but I got something out of a consideration of the question of what exactly did Charles Manson do to the reputation of "Helter Skelter." Discussions of where "goo goo g'joob" might have come from, or of how the harmonic shifts of "Penny Lane" resemble Richard Rodgers (no kidding), or of how "A Day in the Life" and "You Know My Name" (talk about a weird pair) were put together in the studio, were also interesting.

Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music (and Why We Should, Like, Care) by John McWhorter (Gotham Books)
Get off my lawn! This book isn't an old fogey complaining that nothing is as good as it used to be, it's a young fogey making the same complaint, and it sounds just the same. McWhorter considers it self-evident that the old stuff is good and the new stuff is anemic, so he spends more space declaring this than analyzing it, devoting much attention to poetry even though he says he doesn't much like poetry. But I was most interested in the last chapter, on popular music. McWhorter praises lavishly a lot of dull, meandering, unmemorable and fairly obscure "Great American Songbook" era-songs, not even always getting their titles right (the song from Mack and Mabel is "I Won't Send Roses" not "They Won't Send Roses"), and only mentions one first-class melody, Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight." Which is realy just a fragment, the complaint he has about newer songs. The absence of any better examples, of which there are lots, is glaring, but McWhorter thinks he can prove his case from lesser songs: he can't. Meanwhile he brushes off genuinely melodic, and genuinely full, newer pop songs like "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Oops, I Did It Again." My guess is that what McWhorter is displaying is his personal tastes, which would be fine if he weren't setting his tastes up as the infallible judgment of civilization.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (HarperCollins)
I don't dispute the facts in this book, but they're framed as a thesis that humans live a perverted, unnatural, self-deceptive, and destructive lifestyle, and always have, in a context in which biology is the only truth. Surely there's a way of communicating some of these facts without the dismissive and condescending air of one of those infinitely superior species with giant brains out of a 50s skiffy movie. I had enough of those movies back then and have no taste for another one.

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha C. Nussbaum (Princeton UP)
Sounded like a hopeful title, but I stopped dead at chapter 3, which purports to explain why young humans need an education, and does so by propounding totally daft Freudian ideas of how the human mind works. If this kind of reasoning is what a humanistic education leads to, we could do with less of it; fortunately I don't think this necessarily follows.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

in the facility

Yesterday was the previously-mentioned medical procedure, for which the preparation was more difficult than the event itself. It went quickly and fairly painlessly, with everything normal except everyone wore masks. I had to take mine down twice, once when the nurse took my temperature and once at the procedure, to have the doctor make a quick throat inspection and for the tech to attach the tube to my nose. (There's a name for these breathing things, but I forget what it is.)

The delightful part is that every single person, from the woman at the check-in desk to the man who wheeled me out to the pickup area, up to the nurses and the doctor, was helpful, friendly, agreeable, responsive: everything you want but so often don't get. If you have to have these procedures, this is the way to go. But then I usually get good service from Kaiser; the only exceptions are when I'm in great pain and consequently testy, which makes them bridle.

An even better surprise was when they asked at check-in if I wanted my flu shot. (Those started this week.) Sure, I said; if you're offering I'll take it: it'll save a lot of trouble later. So while the nurse was taking my vitals and entering them in the computer, another nurse came by and gave me the shot.

Among the paperwork I received, there was a page on how to sign up online for a drive-through flu shot appointment. So I gave that to B. after we got home.

After 26 years of marriage, it still gives me a small thrill when, for instance, I'm asked who's going to pick me up afterwards, that I get to say, "my wife."

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

the Inklings' first names

Time for a distraction.

One of the recent additions to my bibliography of the Inklings in fiction is a semi-novel which has C.S. Lewis referring to Tolkien as "J.R.R." as if that's what he addressed him as.

That reminds me of the question I had when I first began reading the Inklings, which is what they called each other. "Good evening, J.R.R." "How are you doing, C.S."? It sounded unlikely. In those days there were no published biographies of the men to consult for answers. So here's what we subsequently learned.

First, both Lewis and Tolkien were of a generation and class where men customarily addressed and referred to each other by unadorned last names. "Good evening, Tolkien" was not an unlikely thing to have been said.

But when more personal forms of address were used, Lewis was always called "Jack." It was a lifelong nickname he'd borne from childhood. His legal first name was Clive, but I've never encountered him being called that except in school reports.

Tolkien was less of a first-name guy, and his situation is more complex. In the family he was called Ronald, his middle name. In his later years, as personal address became less formal, he tried to get some of his closer friends to call him that, but it didn't really take. Most of the time, if they called him anything other than "Tolkien," it was "Tollers." This was his last name as run through the Oxford student slang process of his youth, which usually took one syllable from the original word and appended -er or -ers.

(One word from this odd slang has leaked out into the general language. For the game association football, the users took soc from association, appended -er, and called it soccer. This name has subsequently dropped out of usage in the UK, where it's just called football, since there's no American football to distinguish it from. But some British speakers still apply the slang process and call it footer, so there you go.)

Sunday, September 13, 2020


Despite the heavy smoke, I went out on Saturday for another virus test, this one dictated by an upcoming medical procedure and hence given not by the county but by my medical provider. Don't worry; I got the results today and it's still negative.

The testing center was set up in a parking lot of one of the provider's hospitals. I had an appointment time, but when I got there a few minutes early there were cars lines up in a row which turned out to be half an hour long. A screener read your ID through your closed window, and when I got to the tester, who wore shield as well as mask, she asked if I'd had this done before.

In addition to swabbing the lower nostril, there was a dab towards the back of the throat, which I hadn't had before and which was only briefly gagging. The tester said they don't go into the upper nostril any more, which leads me to expect that what I'd read about upper nostril and never experienced is merely a variation that further research on the virus led to be considered unnecessary by the time I had my first test.

Now I need to isolate until the actual procedure, which shouldn't be too difficult.

Saturday, September 12, 2020


Looks like I spoke too soon. The layer of smoke which had been turning the skies eerie and keeping the temperature down, but was far above ground so it didn't affect breathing - yesterday it settled down to ground level, producing a smelly miasma worse than the previous smoke attack. All we can do now, as recommended, is stay inside, so here's another reason to shelter in place. It looks like it will still be here for some days to come. And, it's turning the skies a miserable grey instead of pretty colors, and it's not blocking the heat as well. Fires continue to burn in various scattered places.

Friday, September 11, 2020

in the crucible

1. Easiest to just paste my response to a far-distant friend, who'd written to those she knows in the fire zones asking how we were:

Several people I know had to evacuate from the fires, but as far as I know none had homes burned. Fortunately for us, the Santa Cruz fire never crested the mountains, but if any future ones are on our slopes, I anticipate trouble.

The smoke earlier on was bad enough that we bought an air purifier and have been hunkering down at home with that. The latest smoke is mostly in the upper atmosphere, so the breathing isn't bad, but for a couple of days we were living in a good simulacrum of the darkened sky in a Ted Nasmith painting of Mordor.

It's the heat - now off the table as the smoke is blocking the sun quite well - that's been causing me the most suffering; I got an air-conditioned hotel room for a couple of days when it got above 100F.

2. We're being encouraged to vote early, but we haven't yet heard anything from the elections department. Endorsements on the state propositions have come out both from out local paper (which I don't entirely trust) and one local political blogger whom I do trust, so at least I know what those are; and we're starting to get the phone calls earnestly soliciting us to take one side or another on, say, Prop 16, always assuming that we can recall offhand which one Prop 16 is.

A little searching has also revealed the names of the candidates for my city's mayor, the first ever direct election for the post. They're 3 of the 4 previously generally-elected council members whose (first) terms are up this year, at least one of whom lives in one of the new districts that isn't up this year, so this is the only thing he can effectively run for. I noticed that two of the candidates both claimed endorsement by the same political club, and thought I'd caught a falsehood, but no: on checking the club's website, they've endorsed both of them. Criminy. More on this later, especially if there's a candidate forum.

3. We're also being encouraged to get flu shots early this year. But not too early, because it wears off after a few months. (This will be the problem with a covid vaccine, since that's the same type of virus.) Some pharmacy chains are already offering it. Kaiser, my insurer, is not, which is probably a wise restraint for the moment. But it will be soon, they say, and it will be drive-through, so maybe that's what all the rope barriers clustered up in their back parking lot are for. We'll see.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

fire in the valley

It wasn't until yesterday evening, when I received a mass e-mail from the director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, postponing an impending online event, that I learned of the fire that is roiling their valley. Subsequently I searched for some news on it, and found that it started as a brush fire at the far north end of Ashland, which promptly was wind-driven to the northwest, away from Ashland but on to the smaller towns of Talent and Phoenix, and even causing major evacuations in the larger city of Medford. Medford! Where can they even go? I suppose to Grants Pass, 30 miles away; there's nowhere else in three counties large enough to handle that many evacuees.

This morning an article in the local paper on people who've scouted out Talent since the fire passed through revealed that the town was partly burnt. They weren't mentioned specifically, but our favorite restaurant in the area and the OSF scenery warehouse, which is also in Talent due to lack of space in Ashland, are on the side of town described as generally OK, so here's hoping. No more word on what the fire's doing now.

This is all profoundly weird, as Oregon is traditionally immune from raging fires, due to being sopping wet all the time. But the Ashland area has been dry for two months now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

darkness at noon

Now it's after 3 pm and still dark enough that I have to have my desk lamp on in my office to do any work, not usual on what is still a summer afternoon.

The thick smoke that's been pulled in from the fires to the north and east has been blanketing the entire urban area for some 24 hours now.

We're staying inside with our recently-purchased air purifier.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

heat wave

The current heat wave is predicted to be short-lived, but it's even fiercer than the last one. Temperatures have been above 100F here, which hadn't happened before (though it's not unknown in some other parts of this area, parts where I have no intention of moving to even though the housing is less expensive). And it's been worse elsewhere: an unbelievable 121F was recorded in the San Fernando Valley of LA.

I tried to get some relief on Sunday by driving my air-conditioned car out on the mountain roads to the coast again, with more success than last time. The temperature dropped 30 degrees F in the ten miles between La Honda and San Gregorio, and it was a balmy 76F on the coast. I parked among the beachgoers on the side of the highway, but I didn't go to the beach. I just sat in the car with the windows open and read and listened to music for a while. Coming home was dicey as I drove all the way up to Pacifica to avoid the heavy beach traffic on the narrow mountain roads.

There was no relief at night, though. Even sitting out in my car with the air conditioning on didn't help. Even though B. turned all our fans on, it was still sufferingly hot, too hot to sleep until about 3 am. I had had enough. So, since we had another day of this in store, during those restless late-night hours I reserved a hotel room for the following night, and that's where I stayed in peace and comfort last night, my first night away from home since January. (B., who handles the heat better or at least thinks she does, decided to stay home, the better to cat-wrangle.)

Am I flaunting my privilege, especially economic privilege (hotel rooms are not inexpensive), by doing this? Is it environmentally dubious to put this extra air-conditioning to work, not to mention driving my car around on spare-the-air days trying to keep cool? Am I going to have to do even more of this in the future as the climate continues to warm? In all three cases, yes. But in the absence of a society-wide program to address climate change, a program which would have to be coordinated and promoted by government, so that we would all be in this together, I'm not going to let my tiny mite of a contribution to the environment sacrifice my livability when another option is open. All those tiny mites added together won't mean anything in the absence of that program. And that's where we sit. Yes, it's pretty miserable in several senses.

Monday, September 7, 2020


"Trilling" describes the vocal sound that Tybalt almost constantly makes, making it easy to find him when he's snuck past the doorwarden into the darkened bedroom.

But it also describes something else, the delightful experience of reading Calvin Trillin. Waiting for the next batch of library books to arrive, I dipped into the stash of Trillin volumes I scarfed from my late mother's books, and came up with Enough's Enough, a collection of his newspaper columns from 1987-90. Quite a trip to be reminded of what was newsworthy back then. And yes, there's a column about Donald Trump. This was back in the days when I wondered why so much attention was paid to this man. What had he done, other than promote himself?

Anyway, some good reading. While nobody will surpass George Orwell as the master of the arresting opening sentence of an essay, Trillin does pretty well with "I live in Greenwich Village, where people from the suburbs bring their car alarms for late-night testing."

But what made me most laugh was the start of an essay on the occasion of Reagan's retirement. (I've slightly abridged this quote.)
Ronald and Nancy Reagan will now be living in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles, at what used to be 666 St. Cloud Drive. They arranged to have the address changed because in the Bible 666 is the number of the Devil. So their house's new address will be 668 St. Cloud Drive. That's all O.K., except now where's the Devil supposed to live?
You say it's silly of me to worry about housing for the Devil because the Devil doesn't actually exist. If the Devil doesn't actually exist, why are the Reagans changing their address?
It's true that in the high-rent district of Manhattan there's a well-known office building called 666 Fifth Avenue. The Devil could live there - I would assume that he spends a lot of time in Manhattan anyway. It happens to be a particularly unattractive building; I suppose if anybody at the time had thought to ask the architect why he chose to erect such a weird-looking structure, he might have said, "The Devil made me do it."

Sunday, September 6, 2020

a work of art for living in

One of Ursula K. Le Guin's more unusual essays is titled "Living in a Work of Art." It's in her collection Words Are My Matter. It's a description of the house she grew up in, in Berkeley, and of what it was like to live there. She describes the house as beautiful but eminently livable (unlike some architectural houses which exist for their artistic qualities only), and made mostly of finely polished but untreated wood. It was designed by the noted architect Bernard Maybeck in 1907, with extensive gardens laid out by John McLaren, the designer of Golden Gate Park.

You can now see something of what it looks like in realtor photos in this news article, for it is now for sale. It's very wooden, and very open and airy - I expect there are other parts not quite so much so, for Le Guin writes elsewhere of her father's study, and I doubt it looked like that - and the gardens are thick and elaborate.

Anyway, interesting to see. The article says that Le Guin herself once owned the house, but I don't think that's true. It was her parents' house, which they bought from the original owners in 1925, soon after their marriage, a few years before Le Guin was born. She writes that her family lived in it until her mother's death in 1979, and I would presume it was sold at that time. Le Guin herself never lived in the house, except for visits, after she went off to college in 1947, and for the remaining dozen years of her father's life, her parents spent most of the time on the East Coast where he was now teaching, and when she stayed with them it was there. Then she got married and established her own household. But the essay testifies that this house did shape her childhood.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Labor Day weekend

Once on a time, Labor Day weekend meant Worldcon, whether I was attending it or not. But a number of reasons, including the gradual departure of Worldcon from that once-sacred date, have eroded that connection. For many people, it's a last opportunity to have a summer grilling party, as suggested by the dearth of raw meat in the market when I went there early this morning to fill the holes from yesterday's weekly grocery order.

But I don't go to those, so for me it's just another weekend with no opportunity to look forward to a postal delivery on Monday.

Except that this weekend we have scheduled another heat attack. At least it won't be as lengthy as the previous one, so it may feel less enervating. But I am considering going out in my air-conditioned car to a naturally air-conditioned spot. Today's weather forecast suggests that part, though not all, of the coastal regions will be foggy and thus cool. So if the same holds for tomorrow, I may go out then. The only catch for a car trip of any length is the difficulty in pandemic times of finding a usable restroom.

Meantime, we hope that B's computer has been fixed, again. A few days ago her programs began slowing down and freezing. Took it into the repair store (the same one where we'd bought this computer a couple years ago, not that that makes any difference). An expensive day later, it came back, only to prove susceptible to sudden OS collapses and a subsequent error message declaring a refusal to boot. Took it in again. Apparently all the settings were wrong, but who set them that way? Anyway, it seems to be working now.

Friday, September 4, 2020

inside the quartet

So this week is the virtual and online Banff Centre International String Quartet Festival, which is what they hold on years in between their celebrated triennial competition, which I've attended twice.

But however good the performances are, what's most intriguing me are some pre-recorded interviews with quartet members from the 2013 competition, which say things that I haven't heard before about the musical relationship among members of a quartet.
Back when we first started the quartet, Joel and Bryan used to switch first and second violin. And Bryan made the decision that he wanted to play second violin. For multiple reasons. One reason was he thought Joel just wasn't a good second violinist. Which is a funny thing, but they're completely different roles, they're completely different strengths that you need to do each role. And Joel, on the other hand, loved when Bryan was second violin, because Bryan has that solidity, that groundedness; he knows when to project when he needs to. So, in the end, it was Bryan's decision, but that's how we ended up with the formation that we've now used for years. - Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola, Dover Quartet

A lot of audience members often ask, is it the first violinist that leads the quartet, is it the first violinist that sort of cues everything. But really, at least in our quartet it's sort of the opposite. I think that in many ways I just kind of float on top of the rest of the players and I sort of let them lead me and show me how to play and what to play. - Sarah McElravy, first violin, Linden Quartet

Well, I think a violist should really love, support the others from inside. The role of the violist is usually not in the facade. You don't really see, you often don't hear exactly what he's doing inside the quartet. But yeah, it's supporting the others from inside. It's an internal part. - Avishai Chameides, viola, Noga Quartet
But this all makes sense to me. Because when I hear a really good quartet playing (the Dover, which I've reviewed twice, certainly qualifies, and the others were also competitors in this top competition), the musicians are audibly responding to the nuances in each other's playing, letting those features lead their own performance, building a structure out of their interactions. They really are supporting each other, as the Noga violist feels his job is, as the Linden first violinist expects from her colleagues, as the second violinist of the Dover provides to the first.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

exercise vehicle

Probably the biggest impact of the pandemic on us personally has been the closing of the local gym, a 24-Hour Fitness outlet, where we had memberships. Even with spacing and the cleaning down of machines between users, it's still full of sweat and heavy breathing, so not a good place to go in the circumstances.

The problem is that that pretty much put paid to my exercise program for about six months. I'd been relying mostly on the gym's reclining stationary bicycle, which is far superior to the upright kind on the tuchis. I'm no longer steady enough to ride a real bike, and I can't walk fast enough to build up any cardio benefit.

Eventually B. bought online a portable pedaling device. It's not all that portable, and it's not all that steady and smooth, but it works if you're seated in the upright chair in front of the tv without causing discomfort, and I can watch old episodes of something or other while exercising. Time to go down soon and do that. I'm trying setting my exercise sessions mid-evening; let's see how that affects my sleep.

Meanwhile, today's mail brings official notification that 24-Hour Fitness has declared bankruptcy, with instructions for potential creditors. We're not that, as they suspended monthly membership fees when the gyms closed, which was civil of them but doubtless contributed to the current crisis. Bankruptcy is more often to restructure debt than to terminate the company, so here's hoping they're still in business whenever it's safe to go there again.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

alternative universe VII

The alternative universe is beginning to diverge enough from the bleak one we're living in that it's starting to get harder to say what I'd be doing in it. The fall concert season would be gearing up, and I'm sure I'd have assignments to review concerts, but I'm not going to go hunting down now-abandoned concert schedules to try and guess what these might have been. The one thing I can say for sure is that neither of the fall series I'd bought tickets for included anything from before October.

So the one place I'm sure I'd have been during the alternative September was in Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which we'd be arriving for on the 28th and leaving on October 2nd. Three of the plays we might have been seeing had actually made it to the stage at the start of the run in February, and OSF released reference videos of these to their members later on. The one Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, I found enjoyable, though not a patch on the brilliance of the National Theatre version which I've also seen online. The two other plays, The Copper Children and Peter and the Starcatcher, however, were quite tedious, and I'd have been squirming in my seat through them, something that's only rarely happened to me at Ashland before. Though at least the former was short, and I got through all of the video, while for the latter I bailed out early on. The problem wasn't the acting or the production, but the scripts: the plots were meandering and failed to make meaningful points, and the texts were loaded with exposition which becomes deadly on stage. I was more looking forward to the Henry VI set boiled down into two plays, a process I've seen before and which made dynamite. But this year's version of that one never made it to stage, so no video. I hope OSF does better next year.