Saturday, September 30, 2023

a hole in the Senate

To the death of Dianne Feinstein, I've been seeing much less in the way of admiring obituaries - and those I've seen haven't been that admiring - than discussions of the resulting vacancy in her Senate seat and how to fill it.

Some people are upset that Governor Newsom will have appointed both of California's senators. Well, the Constitution and the legislature (which has to approve this power) give him that responsibility. And though he did originally appoint Padilla, Padilla has since been elected.

This happened once before in California. Earl Warren, then governor, appointed both the sitting senators. Again, one vacancy because of a death, the other because the previous incumbent was elected Vice President. (And you remember who that was, right?) But also as in this case, the first appointee was subsequently elected before the second vacancy occurred. So I don't see too much untoward about this.

Newsom has pledged to appoint a Black woman, possibly because his previous appointment of a Hispanic man replaced a Black woman. I think it's fine if he does appoint one - there's plenty of qualified Black women in California politics: the Secretary of State is a Black woman; the mayors of both San Francisco and Los Angeles are Black women (though whether any of them would be willing to give it up for 15 months of an unrenewable Senate term is doubtful); if he wants to go hog-wild, both Oprah and Whoopi are California residents, I believe - but to say so in advance of the vacancy seems tacky in both a ghoulish and quota-fixing way. He's also said he won't appoint Barbara Lee because she's a candidate for the next term and to appoint her would give her an unfair advantage, a remark that has not won favor with Barbara Lee. (Who am I supporting? Haven't decided yet. Adam Schiff has won a lot of gold stars from me for his work on the 1/6 committee, and the Republicans hate him, which is another advantage; but his other political positions don't track mine closely.)

But what nobody seems to have mentioned is McConnell's pledge to block the seating of any Democratic replacement senator that Newsom appoints. (He could do that, because the Democrats have lost their majority with Feinstein's death.) That would be an unprecedented break in Senate norms, but unprecedented breaks in Senate norms are a regular thing for McConnell. You can't wear shorts and a hoodie, but you can do this.

Someone I spoke to about this says that the Republicans couldn't do anything if the appointee just walks in and sits down, but this isn't a social event, it's a legislative body. You aren't recognized until the body votes to do so; otherwise you're just an interloper.

As for DiFi herself, recall how her major political career began with the accident of her being the official in line to be acting mayor of when George Moscone was assassinated in 1978. Until then she only had local fame as a city supervisor, and, her previous bids to become mayor having failed, she'd been planning to retire from politics when her supervisoral term expired. Instead, she parlayed acting mayoralty into being elected for two terms. She was a controversial mayor, furiously accused of being too right-wing for the City, but she did enough other things right to survive an impeachment attempt.

Afterwards, she ran for Governor, lost, and then for Senator and won, and she's been there ever since. Again, some doubtful positions, including cozying up to faithless Republicans, but she also led some great investigations and got played by Annette Bening in a movie about doing that. I was more approving of DiFi than not, but I wish she hadn't run for her last term, because she was already fading and risked only tainting her legacy.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Shakespeare meets Marlowe

I read about the production at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre of a play about Shakespeare and Marlowe collaborating on the Henry VI trilogy, and bought a ticket for an upcoming streaming performance, before I learned that OSF has put the same play on its schedule for next year, so I'll probably see it again. It's called Born With Teeth by Liz Duffy Adams.

It'll be worth it, if it's well enough acted. I've seen it now; it's a virtuoso script for just the two actors as the playwrights taunt and test one another and yes, get some writing done. It starts with Marlowe in command, smirking and belittling the tyro Will. At one early point Shakespeare complains about Marlowe arguing with him and Marlowe says, "You think I'm arguing? I'm not even sharpening my teeth on you yet," and Shakespeare replies, "I think you were born with teeth."

Pause. Then they simultaneously point at each other and exclaim "I'm using that!" (It's in part 3, describing Richard of Gloucester.)

Marlowe shocks and disconcerts Shakespeare with tales of his other life as a spy working for the Queen's chief minister Lord Burghley. In this police state, as it's openly called in an expository aside to the audience, the currency is accusations against others, whether true or false, and Marlowe makes no bones about, if he's ever caught in a situation where he'd have to accuse Shakespeare to save himself, then it's him or me.

The play has three scenes, each about a year apart, as they work on the three parts of Henry VI, and Shakespeare grows in confidence, especially in his explanations that, while Marlowe displays himself in all his work, Shakespeare wants to hide himself behind his work and speak only through his characters. The play hits its real stride halfway through, when the two have a long discussion of religious belief, more even-handed than their earlier exchanges, and then act out a long passage from Part 2 (Suffolk's and Margaret's farewell). As always in plays about Shakespeare, the long quotes are the highlight. If you're wondering how Marlowe's death in 1593, the same year as the third part of this play, will be alluded to, patience, it'll get there.

Due credit to the actors, Dean Linnard, big and blustery as Marlowe, and Brady Morales-Woolery, smaller, darker, and less bold, but capable of equal firmness, as Shakespeare. I hope OSF finds people as good as these.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

guying Sondheim

As long as we're talking about Sondheim, here's something I picked up: a parody medley on the premise, what if his lyrics were all Jewish? Not that the sound quality is very good, but some of them can be picked up.

The original songs are (thanks to B. for identifying some of these):
1. The Ballad of Sweeney Todd
2. The Little Things You Do Together (Company)
3. Beautiful Girls (Follies)
4. Finishing the Hat (Sunday in the Park with George)
5. The Miller's Son (A Little Night Music)
6. A Little Priest (Sweeney Todd)
7. Marry Me a Little (Company)
8. Joanna (Sweeney Todd)
9. I Remember (Evening Primrose)
10. You Could Drive a Person Crazy (Company)
11. Into the Woods

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

lyrics in aspic

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat (Knopf, 2010); Look, I Made a Hat (Knopf, 2011)

It's only in recent years that I felt I've come to know Sondheim's work as a whole well enough to read these collections of his lyrics. In one sense I still don't: I was dismayed to find that many songs that I knew, or thought I knew, I could summon up no memory of the tune by seeing the lyrics on the page. On the other hand, these books, especially the first one, are full of fascinating and witty commentary on the art of lyric writing.

Sondheim distinguishes lyrics from poetry. Poetry, written to be perused on the page at the reader's own speed (but what about live poetry readings?), is free to be dense and complex, but lyrics have to be understood while sung, so they have to be simpler, but as they're written to be accompanied by music, the music can carry much of the emotional charge, so the lyrics can get away with being simpler, which is how Oscar Hammerstein (Sondheim's mentor, whom he nevertheless isn't very much like) could do it.

Still, complexity is part of Sondheim's appeal (what about "Getting Married Today," which is rattled off at top speed?), and I enjoy inner and trick rhymes like "It's alarming how charming I feel," which Sondheim castigates his young self for putting in the mouth of Maria in West Side Story, who isn't otherwise so verbally precocious. I like it, though.

Elaborateness is one thing, but Sondheim has an essay fiercely defending exact rhyme, which he feels is essential for the ultimate purpose of lyrics: clarity. He castigates a contemporary lyricist who avoids exact rhyme because it interferes with his idea of feelings. Sondheim doesn't name this person, and otherwise avoids critiquing the living. The first book is full of little essays evaluating past lyricists, though, because being dead their feelings can't be hurt; and Sondheim lets loose on a lot of them whom he considers imperfect, which is most of them. His funniest remark on those lines is on Lorenz Hart, whom he finds sloppy and careless. Like "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable." "Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire," Sondheim says, "surely what Hart means is 'unphotogenic,'" but there aren't many good rhymes for that.

(In that connection, this is the only book I've read in which the author can write 'Gershwin' and the reader knows it means Ira, not George.)

But Sondheim could write about George, because he's musically trained - he was a student of Milton Babbitt, which may sound surprising, but Babbitt was fond of popular song - and usually writes his own music, in a very distinctive style. (He chafed at being hired to write lyrics only for West Side Story and Gypsy, but Hammerstein persuaded him to do it, because they'd be great learning opportunities). But he avoids discussing the music, because while lyrics are just words and the technical side can be explained to any English-speaking reader, analytical writing about music can only be understood by the technically trained. Hey, I've had some technical training, I bet I could understand it; I wish he'd gone into it. If only he'd seen Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music, which is so full of technical analysis that even I skimmed over parts, but which has been read with appreciation by many with even less technical background than I.

Sondheim explains why he doesn't write the "book" (plot and spoken dialogue) of his musicals. He says that as a lyricist he's a miniaturist: writing the book requires a larger-scale feeling for development and pacing that he doesn't think he has. He's in awe of those who can do it well. He doesn't see himself as creating the characters he writes lyrics for; he's enriching and filling out the characters the book-writer creates, and he tries to do it in a manner befitting that particular writer's style. I knew that, and that's why when I cited Into the Woods in my Mythcon GoH speech as an example of mashing up fairy tales, I credited it to Sondheim and James Lapine. It was their idea, not just his. When Sondheim tells the story of its creation, he writes "James came up with the notion" and "we remembered something he'd concocted," not "I."

Buried in the back of the first volume, Sondheim explains why he titled it Finishing the Hat. That song from Sunday in the Park with George is "the only song I've written which is an immediate expression of a personal internal experience"; everything else, he's writing for the characters, not about himself. And when he gets to Sunday in the second volume, he tells what that personal internal experience is: it's the rare occasions on which he's gotten so wrapped up in his work that hours pass without his having noticed them, what he calls "trancing out." He wishes that could happen more often because it's amazing when it does. And I thought, hey, he's discovered monotropism. It happens to me all the time, mostly when I'm doing library research. Sondheim thinks it happens to everybody at least occasionally; I'm not so sure about that.

The book starts with what he considers his first mature work, Saturday Night, and goes on to his better-known stage shows from there. Only at the end of the second volume are there sections of apprentice work (which he cheerfully rips apart critically), unproduced and incomplete shows, TV musicals, incidental contributions to other people's shows, movie songs, and an amazing number of personal birthday songs for friends.

Sunday, September 24, 2023

food according to cats

It was approaching 5 p.m., a time of day when the cats are normally fed.

B. was already out, having gone to Saturday vigil mass, and would be back around 6:30.

I was about to head out to a concert.

Whether the cats would be fed or have to wait until B's return would be, we decided, a matter of circumstances.

But Maia came into the bedroom as I was getting ready to leave and gave out such importuning meows that I could not be so heartless as not to feed her. Cats know how to manipulate their humans. They rather resembled the meows that the late Pandora would use to try to persuade us not to take her to the vet, only in that case they didn't work.

But I didn't give the cats the treats that customarily follow the evening meal, and didn't they let B. know about that when she got home.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

autumnal equinox

It's that day which counts as the legal end of summer.

I know it's been much worse in other places, and ghu forbid I should be taken as denying global warming, but around here, this summer was not as hot as the last three summers.

For a couple of years now, I've been tracking local weather forecasts in a spreadsheet, mostly to keep tabs on impending heat waves. So I have documentation. This is daily forecasts, not weather reports (which I've been tracking much less long), but it gives an idea. If I define a heat wave as "above 90 F" which is about when I start feeling really uncomfortable, there were 21 days this year which passed that, and only one above 100 F, and they were all in July and August.

Last year there were 30, and they ran from early June to late September, with 4 above 100 F, and one brutal shot with 9 above-90s in a row.

The year before that, there were not so many above 100, but 40 above 90, and they ran from late May to early October.

The year before that I don't have figures for, but that was the year I went out one evening and got myself an air-conditioned hotel room for the night. On September 7. It was over 100 F. September 7 this year was 84 F, it hadn't been over 90 for over a week, and that only for one day.

I haven't felt it necessary to do that again since. Especially with B. having developed the practice of turning fans on in the upstairs rooms in the late afternoon when the temperature starts to go down, and not waiting for evening. It makes the nights fairly tolerable.

Meanwhile there have been large forest fires in the more isolated parts of the northwest corner of the state, generating smoke which has interfered with the outdoor shows at OSF, and is now drifting down here. But the first big storm of the season is arriving, and while it shouldn't hit us very much, it should drench the fire zone.

Friday, September 22, 2023

gone with the fish

I should take a time to pen an obituary for The Fish Market, a small restaurant chain whose last local outlet closed last week, cast out by the wave of expanding housing development.

The Fish Market had faded a bit in recent years, but it never lost its quality as some fading restaurants do, and in its heyday, 30-40 years ago, it was a very popular place, one of the few full-service restaurants around here which specialized in fish and had a wide variety. It had four or five outlets in the area in those days.

It was a favorite place of my mother's, and when I was working at Stanford, she'd pick me up for lunch once a week and we'd drive over to a nearby Fish Market. I'd usually have a lunch special they had in those days, two small fillets of cod (I think) and snapper, which I got with rice and green beans, and a cup of chowder. Otherwise the trout, which was butterflied and whose skin was an iffy proposition to eat.

I was in that same outlet of the Fish Market several years later, with my mother and brother, when Obama's image appeared on the little tv set over the lobby area and announced that Osama had been got.

Since my mother died, I hadn't been back all that often, but I went there with my brother, who liked it too, on his most recent visit, and a good thing too, as it was soon after that the closing was announced for a couple months hence. Of course I let him know right away.

I couldn't get there for some time, because this was when my car was in the shop for extensive repairs, but afterwards I did get back a couple times for my current favorite dish, extraordinarily lightly coated pan-fried petrale sole.

Well, there are still two Fish Markets in San Diego - one downtown on the waterfront and one north of town in Solana Beach - and if I ever get back to San Diego, it'll have to be on my list.

My mind keeps nagging me that there's somebody I need to tell about the closing. When I think it through, I realize that that somebody is my mother.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

not done

Our new patio fences are up, but there's still a lot of rubbish around and they're starting on our neighbors' fences, so the staging area occupying my parking space is liable to be there for a while. And one more thing ...

Yesterday morning, the chief workman came to our door and asked us to move B's car, which we'd put back in the driveway after they were done putting up the fence. He said they'd be painting the fence. We moved the car. The fence wasn't painted yesterday, or today either.

This is going to take a long time.

Monday, September 18, 2023


No. 8 in this post (there don't appear to be any internal anchors to link to) discusses others whom people commenting are reminded of by Elon Musk: their personalities, particular talents, methods of operating.

Walt Disney. Napoleon. Stalin.


Sunday, September 17, 2023

concert review: Nova Vista Symphony

The last symphony I'd heard in concert was at the beginning of June. It was Schubert's Great C Major.

Last night the summer hiatus finally ended, and I heard Schumann's Rhenish.

The Nova Vista is a community orchestra that conveniently played in the Mountain View CPA, and gave a pretty adequate performance, very plain interpretatively but competently played, thick and bold in sound despite a somewhat undersized ensemble, only losing the thread a little in the slow movement (the first one, nitpickers). I'm not surprised at the quality, as their music director, Anthony Quartuccio, who shows up locally a lot, is a pretty good conductor. Not a criticism: this isn't the major leagues, that's all.

Also got through two other works from the same milieu, Brahms's Academic Festival Overture and Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1, and gave an impressively supple performance of the encore, Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5. And if you think all this echt-German repertoire had a lot to do with why I chose to attend, you wouldn't be mistaken.

Solo violin in the Bruch was the winner of their young soloist competition, Riona Zhu, who's 14. As tall as an adult but otherwise obviously young, she put a lot of power and not a minuscule amount of expressiveness into her playing, only getting a bit awkward in some of the more complex fingerings in the finale. Quite impressive, in truth, and I'm sorry there wasn't a bigger audience to give her a bigger round of applause afterwards. The only thing she really has not learned to do is to take a bow with flair.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Thursday, September 14, 2023

day out

I avoided all the drilling and pounding going on in our front patio by taking a day out. My destination was an evening concert at the Freight by an Irish traditional band called Socks in the Frying Pan. Trio of accordion, fiddle, and guitar. Mostly jigs and reels played with the requisite speed and energy, interspersed with occasional guitar-led songs, not all of them slow. Small but appreciative audience. Enjoyable withal. Between numbers, they regaled us with travel horror stories from their current tour.

And as long as I was headed as far off as Berkeley, I made a full day of it by going out to Marin to plug a few loose ends from my previous visit.
I drove on the country road past Skywalker Ranch again with a better map, and this time was able to spot the entrance, which is a large gate with no markings or ID except the street number in large and conspicuous print.
I went back to Bolinas and had lunch in the cafe which I'd missed the previous time as it had already closed for the afternoon. Good soup and salad, and above the bar is hung, like a trophy head, the directional sign to town that the natives liberated from the now-unmarked highway turnoff years ago. They don't want anyone coming to Bolinas who doesn't already know how to get there.
And then I drove the high mountain back road to Fairfax that Tom B. had recommended to me. Twisty through alternating meadows and forests, very beautiful countryside, much like the back roads in the Santa Cruz Mountains that I'm more familiar with. Except the views were more spectacular, and there's a place where the road crosses a reservoir on top of the century-old dam, which is something else you don't get in Santa Cruz.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

do fence me in

update from

Having hauled away the old fence around our patio, dug (dugged?) new postholes, and cemented in the posts, the workers are now putting the slats of the new fence up. At least it has blocked the cats' unprecedented view out the window into the exotic lands of our neighbors' yards across the access road.

Finish this week? Let's bloody well hope so. We want our parking spaces (which they need to stage work in) back.

Monday, September 11, 2023

book discussion report

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo (

Eight of us gathered in a small apartment to discuss our fantasy literature topic of the quarter. We'd all read the book, which is kind of rare, and we all liked it! Which is rarer. Well, one of us whose usual reading is epic trilogies and the like felt about a 98-page novella rather as if she hadn't had a full meal, but that was a quibble.

The deeply Asian (I guess Chinese?) setting seemed a bit alien to some of us westerners. Lines like the one about the moon having gone off to visit its other wife allude to folk tales we know nothing of. I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to remember which of a group of characters with equally strange (to me) names was which. But in the end that wasn't much of a problem, mostly due to the author's superb characterization. There's six traveling together and they're all memorable and distinct, and they each remain themselves despite changes in circumstances.

This is a story about storytelling. The characters tell stories to each other and the principal viewpoint character, Chih, a cleric - really a scholar, who I guess became a cleric because that was how you can pursue scholarship in this culture - who's on a quest to collect stories and history, laps them up and writes them down. One of us said it's a little like the Canterbury Tales. (Only much more succinct.) There are even more stories being alluded to, like the one about the moon, than are told, so there's always more outside your grasp, a sure way to lure the reader on. Chih, who knows little about the local customs and listens much, is our guide to the world.

I thought the characterization was most excellent in the scene where they find the dead body in the shed. This had impact to the reader mostly because of the way the characters react, and the full descriptions of how they feel about taking the body down and burying it. Then they all look at Chih. Oh yeah, I'm a cleric, I should say prayers over the grave, even though obviously pastoral work is not Chih's normal job.

There's more I could say but won't, because it didn't come up at the meeting. There's two more of these, also involving Chih but not, I gather, most of the other characters, and they look worth reading too.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

aged sportsman

Have you ever played bocce ball? I'd never even heard of it when B.'s sister announced that that's what she wanted to do for her birthday. We were all to gather at a local Italian restaurant-cum-bocce ball court, play for a couple hours and then have dinner.

I had to look it up and watch a couple instructional videos before I was sure that it was something that both B. and I, neither of whom can move about with any degree of alacrity any more, could physically do. Most of the instructions bogged down in details of the scoring and turn-taking rules, but I figured others could worry about that and tell us whose turn it was.

The playing itself was very simple, and I described it to B. as like the accuracy round of Golfimbul as we play it at Mythcon, except instead of hitting a doll's head with a bat at a stuffed bunny, with your hand you set a ball rolling along the ground at another ball.

The target is a small metal ball whose name I picked up as Il postino or some Italian movie title like that,1 except it was easier to think of it as the Golden Snitch. The balls you roll at it are bigger and heavy and made of ceramic I think, about the size of croquet balls, not that I have any memories of croquet less than half a century old.

Whoever comes closest to the Snitch wins, and an annoying number of our games (we played in teams of two) began with one of the opposing players rolling a single lucky ball that nestled up right by the Snitch, and the rest of the game consisted of an exercise in finding out how many other balls they would win by.

The game is played on a long court, maybe 10-15 yards in length, and while it's not slippery to walk on, it's almost frictionless as far as the balls are concerned, and most of my early rolls went right up against the backboard. I never quite got to the point of transferring to this hand movement my halfway-decent abilities at cue-striking on the much smaller field of billiards, because it turns out that the best action in bocce ball comes when you hit one of the balls that's already there and knock it out of the way.

The billiards master among our party turned out to be my niece Beth2, who was ruthless and skilled at hitting just about anything.

Meantime, as we were gently exercising on our reserved courts, the proprietors, who remember are also an Italian restaurant, were plying our party of 14 with enormous quantities of appetizers: fried calamari, crab cakes, bread, and cheese pizza, set out on the adjacent counter. The drinks menu included a lot of items like lemonade or ginger beer mixed with vodka, so they taste like the other thing but are firmly alcoholic.

When our time was up, we moved to an adjacent picnic table inside this cavernous space and dined on the contents of large serving platters passed around: pasta with meat marinara sauce, pasta with alfredo sauce, chicken milanese, and beef marsala. Basic Italian food, but quite good, and, most importantly, efficiently served. They got 5 stars on my Yelp review for that.

An interesting and unusual way for us to spend a birthday party.

1. It's actually il pallino, which I only mention to prevent people from telling me that. I could look it up, you know, and I did. It's just funnier to record how I got it wrong.
2. Beth is related to me exactly in the same way as Elizabeth Longford was related to Lord Dunsany. I'm her husband's mother's sister's husband, got it?

Saturday, September 9, 2023

I warned you this would happen

When the Peter Jackson-directed movies of The Lord of the Rings were about to appear, I warned you. I said that unless they were total commercial failures, they would bury the book. Media colonization of literature - it's a common thing.

Defenders of movie adaptations say, "The book is still on the shelf." That's about the most useless answer that could possibly be made. It doesn't matter where the book is, if the movie is in the head. The book is doing no good on the shelf unless somebody takes it down and reads it, and they won't read it if they think they already know what's in it because they've seen the movie. How shocked are people on first encountering Shelley's Frankenstein at how unlike the 1931 movie it is? How often do people get basic facts about the books The Wizard of Oz - The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, actually - or even The Princess Bride wrong because they got them from the movie? It's happened with Tolkien too. The frequency with which I read Sauron described as an impotent, helpless eyeball - he's supposed to be a powerful, threatening menace! The story doesn't work if he isn't!

It wouldn't be so bad if we could wall the movies and other media adaptations off. They do their thing over there, the book does its thing over here, all is peaceful. One can shuttle between them if one wants, and not if one doesn't. The movie defenders imply that. If one complains about differences, they say "movies are different from books." Fine, then, let them be different.

But that doesn't happen. The media keeps colonizing. You can't avoid the colonization. At Oxonmoot last week talk of The Rings of Power was frequent - a series that, whatever its virtues, is completely unlike Tolkien in tone, in style, in content, in fact in everything except a few character names. Surely that's not enough to fool Tolkienists into accepting it as an allied work. But apparently it is.

The proof came in the foreword to a new book, Tolkien in the Twenty-First Century: The Meaning of Middle-Earth Today by Nick Groom. My friend CFH, one of the few really sensitive to this issue, alerted me to this. Groom writes,
In contrast, Twenty-First-Century Tolkien takes as its starting point the Tolkien phenomenon today: a multi-media mix and fix of literature, art, music, radio, cinema, gaming, fandom, and popular culture - a never-ending Middle-Earth. We cannot return to a purely literary Middle-Earth independent of, primarily, Sir Peter Jackson's extraordinary films. We should therefore accept that any assessment of newly published works drawn from the Tolkien archives - as well as new adaptations of his tales and imagined histories - are inevitably going to be deeply coloured by the multifaceted twenty-first-century Tolkien 'industry', for want of a better term.
So there it is: as far as Groom is concerned, you can't just read the book any more. You can't take it down from the shelf and ignore the movie: the movie you will always have with you. It's even appropriated the name of Tolkien, though Tolkien had nothing to do with any of this: he just wrote the book.

"In contrast," Groom begins: in contrast to what? To books dealing with "arcana" for the "cognoscenti," "bogged down in the minutiae," or whose "extreme erudition stifles the appreciation of the works" with their "twists and turns of invented languages."

Well, look. This is a caricature. Yes, there are books that deal with the "arcana" of the invented world, though some of them, like Robert Foster's Complete Guide to Middle-earth, are easy to use and to understand and are designed for the beginner. And many of the most devout fans of movie and media adaptations are very eager to delve into that arcana and minutiae. You won't pick up half those character-name references in Rings of Power if you don't. (Harfoots, for instance.)

As for the erudite scholarship, yes it can be boring if done poorly, but I'm impressed by how much of it is done very well. When done well enough, it bristles with mind-exploding insights. Skip the first chapter, maybe, of Tom Shippey's The Road to Middle-earth, but you can't read the rest without learning so much about Tolkien's work and what he intended to convey by writing it. In one of the few things Groom writes that I agree with, he says that if The Lord of the Rings were the simplistic story of good and evil it's sometimes charged as, we wouldn't still be reading it now, 50 years after the author's death.

And what made it last? It was the deep thought and erudition that Tolkien put in to the story, things which a fluent and captivating scholar like Shippey - or many others - can bring out for you. You don't have to be a scholar yourself to understand the basics here, and it will help your appreciation a lot.

As for what Groom wants from other books, ones which avoid details and erudition and encourage "the appreciation of the works as literature," there are those too. That's what I tried to do in my article "J.R.R. Tolkien: An Introduction to His Work" in my book Gifted Amateurs. Shippey's other Tolkien book, J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, goes into how and why Tolkien is appreciated. And Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon by Brian Rosebury is the best of several books which show how Tolkien is a masterful writer and fun to read. No arcana, no cognoscenti. He even, as his subtitle suggests, goes into adaptations and the wider "phenomenon," insofar as it existed 20 years ago when he wrote. Yes, Jackson is discussed. It's like an earlier version of Groom, but much better. (Judging from Groom's aggressively obnoxious foreword, and his first chapter, which is a foggily cluttered potted biography of Tolkien: that's as far as I've gotten so far.)

Thursday, September 7, 2023

construction update

Lots of jackhammering and other loud noises from outside as the workers dug new holes around the patio for the fenceposts. Concerned looks from the cats.

At one point they struck against the water pipe, so our water ran brown for a while. Fun!

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

give me destruction

Our dining nook has a glass outside wall, with sliding glass door in it, that faces a concrete patio in front of our house. The patio has a wooden slat fence around the other three sides, with a gate in one corner, and a stucco facing on the outside of the far wall.

We don't use the patio much, although once we had friends over for B's birthday and did some of the festivities out there. Mostly it's a home for our trash bins.

The fence has been a problem. The gate sags and has already been replaced once. More recently the slats from the fence have started coming loose and falling off. I was thinking about hiring somebody to replace them - it'd be beyond my skill - but now I don't have to.

The association for the townhouse complex we live in has decided to replace all the fences. Work started today. We're at one end of the complex and they started with us. All this morning, men were knocking down the fence, sawing up the stucco with a battery diamond saw, and hauling it all away. Not only did they appropriate the patio, which they'd warned us of, they also took over our parking spaces and driveway, which they had not warned us of. B. was out and I had to phone to alert her.

They seem to have gotten most of that done, and have started on our neighbors, but there's still a lot of trash around. I suspect they'll gut all of the fences before they start building new ones. Meanwhile our cars are parked way out on the street. It'll be no fun bringing groceries in.

Also, our house number was on metal digits attached to the stucco. They saved that part - I saw them do it - but it's no longer up. I know that the post office disapproves of delivering to homes without visible numbers, so I printed out our number very large - 256-point seemed to do - and taped it with packaging tape to the garage door just over the mail slot. I hope that will do for now.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

it must be delivery day

Because, assuming everything's going OK, that's what comes after labor, right? Three items today of increasing seriousness.

Item 1. Of all the things I never expected to see a live stage performance of, this is up near the top.

Item 2. By far the most valuable paper I heard by Zoom at Oxonmoot, but which got left out of my previous list because it was one of several entries that had disappeared from the "earlier events" online schedule by the time I wrote, was a brilliant piece by the Rev. Tom Emanuel on how the works of Tolkien, an author rooted in Christian ethics and metaphysics, can make such a strong emotional and even ethical and moral appeal to non-Christian readers. Basically it's that he points at his spirituality but doesn't evangelize. But there's more to it than that. Anyway the really good news is that now you can read Tom's complete paper.

Item 3. A newly-prominent civil rights issue: caste discrimination among Indian Americans. That's my state senator who introduced the bill; this is going on right here in Silicon Valley, but as I'm not of Indian origin it's invisible to me except as I read about it. Lots of opposition to the bill: either because it singles out an ethnic group (but what other ethnic groups have this?) or denial that the discrimination exists. But there's lots of testimony that it does, and the denial is coming from the high-caste beneficiaries of any discrimination. Allow me to be skeptical of the denials. Do I remember Southern whites denying that there was any discrimination against Blacks? Yes I do.

Monday, September 4, 2023

the president sings Amazing Grace

Cody Keenan, Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America (Mariner Books, 2022)

We all know about how President Obama, speaking in 2015 at the memorial service for the victims of the Charleston shooting, wowed the congregation by seguing from talking about grace into actually singing the hymn "Amazing Grace." And Zoe Mulford wrote a song about it, "The President Sang Amazing Grace." I wrote about the song and linked to Joan Baez's recording.

So I'm browsing in the public library and find this memoir by Obama's chief speechwriter at the time, and think, "I bet he has some interesting background information on that." He does. First is that the speech preparation is embedded in a week of utter chaos, as the president and his staff also wait for the Supremes to issue rulings on the ACA and marriage equality, and the speechwriters have to prepare speeches in advance for every possible way those could go. Then there's the challenge of a white guy writing a sermon, basically, for a Black president to deliver in a Black church (actually in the basketball arena down the street, because it was larger), which he handles by intense collaboration with the president and by a lot of consultation.

So they've just finished reacting to the Obergefell decision, Obama reads the good-news speech and calls Obergefell to congratulate him, and then rushes off to fly to Charleston. Keenan, as keeper of the speech and manager of any changes to be made to the text, is at the president's side for the flight, and as they get into Air Force One, this happens:
He stood up, ducking under the ceiling as he buttoned his coat. "You know, if it feels right, I might sing it."
Halfway through stuffing the pages into my backpack, I froze and looked up at him. I was pretty sure I'd just heard him say he might sing "Amazing Grace" during the eulogy. ... But I wasn't about to tell him that singing was a risk. I knew he thought of himself as a good singer.
He was looking at me, waiting to see what I thought ... Bone-tired, all I could come up with was a phrase he'd recently told me Sasha was fond of.
"You do you, man."
When they arrive at Charleston, the Obamas go to the arena while Keenan, the pressure off because it's out of his hands now, relaxes on the plane. He sends an e-mail to his staff back at the White House.
"P said he might sing 'Amazing Grace' in the eulogy."
"Um, what?" Terry replied.
"OMG," added Kristen.
"That would be the greatest thing ever," Ben wrote. "Such a good idea. People will love it."
Keenan watches the speech from the plane on TV. He gives a detailed report from a professional speechwriter's perspective: how the speech is going, the reaction of the extremely responsive Black audience, the particularly moving passages, where Obama had written the text himself and where he improvises while speaking. Then we get to it.
Now he'd outdone himself, stepping up to turn the text into a script ... A Black president, backed by Black bishops, eulogizing a Black victim to a crowd of mostly Black mourners. A Black church service on national television. How often did America see something like that? How often was something like this a quintessentially American event? ...
He'd long since grown into being president. We were watching him make the presidency bigger in real time. And there was one act left ...
"If we can find that grace ..."
"Uh huh ..."
"... anything is possible."
"My my."
"If we can tap that grace, everything can change."
Fewer than a dozen people in the world knew what was about to happen.
"Amazing grace."
He paused, then repeated the words for good measure.
"Amazing grace."
Obama looked into the distance, looked down at the text, and shook his head in awe.
Eleven seconds went by. It was a moment of genuine drama. Was he making up his mind? Was he going to take the leap of faith?
I wondered what people who were watching must be thinking: Had he lost his place?
Then he began to sing.
After the first two syllables, "Ah-maaaay," one of the bishops laughed in astonishment. But it was too early for most of the world to know what Obama was dong.
Obama leaned into the next two syllables - "ZIIII-iii-iiiing graaaaaaace" - to make damn sure they knew.
The choir leaped to its feet ... By the time Obama hit "how sweet the sound," the whole arena was singing with him. ... Obama's bet, that he wouldn't be left alone, had paid off.
On the flight home, he explains something:
"What was with the pause? [asks Keenan] Dramatic effect?"
"No, man. You know what the thing about 'Amazing Grace' is? ... You gotta start low. Or by the time you get to 'a wretch like me,' you're in trouble. Your voice cracks."
Later, Keenan marries his co-worker Kristen. A week after Joe Biden is elected, they have a daughter. They name her Grace.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

Tolkien's yahrzeit

Saturday is, as one of the Oxonmoot speakers pointed out, the 50th anniversary of Tolkien's death. To think I first read his work when he was still living ...

I heard several papers online today. I haven't got everything, though, as the program they're running the schedule on causes most past events to disappear from the list even after you press the "show earlier events" button. But all of these were very fine.

1. The noble Jeremy Edmonds traces the history of the assumption that "the Authorities" who mysteriously rule on the legitimacy of Bilbo's "What have I got in my pocket?" riddle (in the Prologue to LR) are the Valar, and concludes that yes, that was Tolkien's intent, regardless of scholars who can't believe the Valar would spend their time on something so trivial. Regarding the One Ring? Maybe not so trivial after all. Remember also that the riddle game is a mighty matter of lore in Norse mythology ... and often includes, as a legitimate riddle, a question to which only the questioner knows the answer.

2. Christian Trenk on Galadriel and Celeborn as a power couple. He's not a cipher as sometimes thought: he's the home affairs guy, welcoming the visitors and seeing to their comfort. Galadriel is the Foreign Secretary. Of course, when Celeborn says that if he'd known about the Balrog he wouldn't have let them in, that doesn't speak well of his immigration and refugee policy.
This paper was apparently inspired by the "They're taking the hobbits to Isengard" video (the only form of the Jackson movies I actually enjoyed), which contains Celeborn saying, "Tell me where is Gandalf, for I much desire to speak with him." In the book it's Galadriel who says that, and she says "tell us." Christian thought there was a paper in that, especially when he brought Tolkien's drafts in.

3. The redoubtable John Rateliff on writing to Inklings (Owen Barfield, Robert Havard, David Cecil, Nevill Coghill, some others). He undertook this in the late 1970s and early 1980s, figuring they'd not be around forever and the worst they could do was brush him off. Actually they were very friendly and he met some on trips to England. He showed some letters on screen and read from them and others. The main thing he learned is something I've been trying to put across for some time: that the Inklings were an amorphous, loosely-knit group, not a tight club. Many didn't know each other or their work very well; some didn't consider themselves Inklings at all. (They weren't the only ones.) I took notes.

4. Cameron Bourquein, very illuminating on a character history of Sauron across the history of the legendarium. Most people there knew he started out as an evil monster cat in The Book of Lost Tales, but there were also a wizard and a demon in that book that went into the oft-mutating and many-named character. (Wizards and demons and cats? Oh my!)

5. Hannah Emilius on anthropocene environmental issues in Middle-earth. Yeah, I should say so. Sorry I missed most of this paper as my internet connection kept fritzing out.

Friday, September 1, 2023

queer theory and Tolkien

Last night began the online Oxonmoot conference from the Tolkien Society, which since it's there and I'm here meant much of the most interesting material was on in the middle of the night. Fortunately I'm often up in the middle of the night. There's been a lot of work recently applying "queer theory" - the deconstruction of standard gender and sexual identities - to Tolkien, and in the middle of last night I found two outstandingly excellent papers exemplifying the genre.

One was by Mercury Natis on Bilbo and Frodo as leaders of a "chosen family." LGBT people are often ostracized by their biological families and build up social support networks that become their families of choice. Bilbo is unmarried and without close relatives, he's estranged from his closest, his cousins the Sackville-Bagginses, he's considered odd and crazed by many of the neighbors (the word "queer" is actually used in this context), so he makes his friends among his younger cousins when they begin to grow up, even adopting one of them, Frodo, as his heir. Frodo was another isolate, an orphan, a Baggins in Buckland, a Brandybuck in Hobbiton. He needed the family Bilbo could provide, and in turn follows Bilbo's pattern, making his friends, like Merry and Pippin, among his younger cousins. When Merry says they'll follow Frodo on his quest because they are his friends, he's understating the case: they're taking on a really awesome responsibility because they're his family.
Did Tolkien intend this reading? Maybe to an extent: he too was an orphan and needed in part to build up his own family, so he understood. But whether he intended it or not, this is a reason so many queer readers love his book and identify with the hobbits so closely.

The other was Sara Brown on Eowyn and Dernhelm. Brown's main point, her queer-theory reading, was that Dernhelm was not a disguise, a false front that Eowyn puts on in order to fight, but is the masculine part of her. Brown described the repressed background that put Eowyn in this situation - Gandalf's lecture to the clueless Eomer in the Houses of Healing is a major source text here - and Tolkien reinforces this by always using the masculine pronoun to describe Dernhelm, and at the moment of revelation penning the definitive sentence, "Eowyn it was, and Dernhelm also." They're both real people within the story, and yet both the same person.
Brown goes as far back as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to draw a distinction between physical bodies and sexual identity. You're born with a female body but you have to become a woman. And she had several more theoreticians making the same point. And I was thinking, "Here's the exact argument that's being made by supporters of trans rights, decades before the current discourse arose, the argument that the 'X and Y are the whole story, the end' crowd refuse to accept." I've not seen these earlier writers cited in defense of trans rights, though I suppose they must have been. Anyway I'd like to see it more often.