Wednesday, December 12, 2012

MINI BOOK REVIEW: Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose (Yes, That's Really Her Name)


I can pinpoint the moment when I more or less gave up on "serious" American fiction.  Probably about 15 years ago.  The book was Susan Minot's Evening.

The book was hugely praised, as had been her previous short stories and novels.  Raves from all quarters.

I overcame my negative reaction to the photograph of the author on the back cover -- I'd purchased it in hardcover -- which struck me as self-satisfied and somehow unserious for an author of serious fiction:

All right, it's unfair.  But I didn't judge the book by its cover.  I bought it and I started to read it.

In fairness to Ms. Minot, I had been souring on serious American fiction for a long time.  By "serious" fiction, I mean fiction that aspires to be literature, to be art.  This would exclude most modern crime and "best-seller" romantic fiction, although some would call (for example) what Elmore Leonard does "literature," and I would not entirely disagree with them.  Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, absolutely.   I'm talking about fiction that explores fundamental human issues like love, freedom, power, sexuality, family, memory, God, gods, truth, beauty, and what to do with one's damned life.  I had been reading American literature, past and present, for a long time, before I had to start reading law texts and since I was able to stop, and there was a time when I loved much of what I selected. 

But sometime in the early-to-mid Nineties, I started hitting some clinkers.  Novels and short stories both.  I blamed the academy, notably the Iowa Writers Workshop, whose graduates were turning out dull, solipsistic fiction about extremely uninteresting humans.  And of course there was that old villain, the New York Literary Establishment, a bunch of people who all went to the same parties and who reinforced one another's judgments about the Bright Young Things that were emerging amongst the baby boomers.

So maybe I was unfair when I stopped reading Evening about a third of the way into it.  I thought I might be able to pinpoint the page.  Sometimes when I put a book aside, which is not often, I'll leave a bookmark in there, thinking I might come back to it.  I just went to my library -- nope, apparently I did not think it could be salvaged.

My memory of it is vague.  A woman was dying.  There were recollections of love affairs, betrayal of friends and lovers, I think.  There was not an appealing or affirmative character in the bunch.  Mostly women, as I recall.  Nothing wrong with that; they just weren't interesting or likable women.  Their thoughts were pedestrian, their urges dully sexual.   (I admire many female authors:  Willa Cather, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Jayne Anne Phillips, to name a few.)   I think there was a sister or best friend involved somehow.  I don't remember what I thought of the writing, but I can tell you that during this period, the Minimalists (Ann Beattie and the like) had seriously infiltrated American fiction, misunderstanding the appeal of Hemingway and writing in prose so plain that it had the unintentional effect of revealing with great clarity that the authors had little of interest to convey.  This book was like that.

So I stopped buying new serious fiction.  My next read?  Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and that was that -- I began devouring crime fiction and never really went back.  (Two marvelous exceptions:  Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest -- both leading candidates for Great American Novel -- really, Martin Amis has so nominated Augie March.)  And I started reading poetry. 

I was in a bookstore at Logan Airport recently and my eye rested on Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer.  If there is one thing I like as much as reading fiction, it's reading about writing fiction.  I probably have forty books about writing reposing in my library. 

I loved it.  It consists of very close readings of excerpts of word use, sentences, paragraphs, narrative, dialogue, and other literary devices mostly taken from classical literature -- interestingly, comparatively few examples from modern English-language fiction.  Her readings were convincing and themselves delightful reading.   It made me remember the pleasure I took (and still take) from great writing, from careful prose no less evocative for being careful. 

It also made me remember that I had a book sitting on my shelf that had been a Christmas gift two years ago from a reader whose intelligence, taste, and judgment I trusted:  Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, winner of the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award and lavishly reviewed everywhere.  Oprah and Obama both raved about it.  Although you may remember Franzen from his dustup with Oprah when he declined to cooperate with Oprah's selection of his previous smash hit, The Corrections, for her Book Club.  Apparently, she had no hard feelings.

It's next on my list.

I'll give you a report.

N.B.:  I just checked Susan Minot's Wikipedia entry.  Evening was published in 1998.  She published one other novel (Rapture, 2002), and that was it. 
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Monday, November 5, 2012

I Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way I Probably Think the Wind Might Conceivably Be Blowing, Possibly

I am not a student of electoral trends and I am not good at predicting the results of elections.  
For example, earlier on in 2008, I believed that Obama would suffer a loss of McGovernesque (RIP) proportions.  I lived in Chicago.  I knew about Obama.  I knew him to be an impressive-appearing-and-sounding pol.  I knew him to be far left of the American mainstream.  I knew him to be a poorly-regarded state legislator and an undistinguished Representative.  I knew he had never accomplished much of anything else in his life, nor could I describe a single community organizational initiative with which he had been associated.  I believed that these things would become known to the electorate.  
Obviously, there were some things I did not know.  I did not know John McCain would be such a weak, old, candidate, or that he would make the Palin misstep.  I knew of the electorate’s deep dissatisfaction with George Bush (I shared it), but did not know how profound that revulsion was.  I assumed Obama would disguise his leftism, but I did not foresee the mainstream media’s wholesale abdication of its duty to report what it knew, or should have known, or should have discovered about the man if it cared to stand back from its lover’s blindly protective embrace.  By the time the election rolled around, I was not under any illusions as to its outcome.
This time around, the auspices were not much more comforting.  With the exception of Fox News and The Drudge Report – formidable exceptions, to be sure – the media’s coverage of the Administration and the campaign has run true to their 2008 form.  The layout of the electoral college appeared to be seriously tilted against Romney.  The polls in the swing states didn’t look good for the GOP.
And then there’s that immovable 47%.  Saw a great article on who is supporting the President that I thought hit the nail on the head – of course, I’ve lost track of it and I’m not going to remember all of its points.  It’s blacks; Hispanics to a somewhat lesser extent; people who rely on the government for welfare or employment or contracts, a truly frightening slice of the electorate; and college graduates steeped in “social justice” theory and socialist/collectivist economic and political dogma.  And, of course, there are those people who cannot shake off the romance of a skinny black "cool" president.  Others, of course.   
These people are not insincere or dumb (at least, not in numbers any greater than those on the other side) – they may really think that the socialization of medicine and cheap doctors is a good idea, and are happy to support and defend everything the President has done.  I’m not arguing with them here.  The point is, there’s nothing Republicans can do about those people (just like there’s nothing the Democrats can do with the Tea Party folks), and Romney needs pretty much everyone else, in addition to a major change in the prospects in the swing states.  
So post-conventions, things did not look good for Romney.  And I'm hearing that early voting in some swing states is favoring POTUS.   On this Election Eve, the polls still give Obama a decided edge in the Electoral College.
But for awhile now, I have had a feeling that Romney was going to win.   I felt that yeah, there’s a good chance Romney is going to get a lot of those undecideds and things were going to tighten up in enough of those swing states to give him the victory.  I see the Electoral College polls that continue to give Obama the swing states and the election. But I just get a feeling that the President is going to be defeated, possibly decisively.
I think the President believes it too. 
In the closing days of the campaign, he has become increasingly angry. He is astounded that the electorate no longer perceives his magnificence and inevitability.  His remark the other day that "voting is the best revenge" perfectly portrays his smallness, his bitterness, and his conviction that the American system is an oppressive one against which "revenge" must be taken through his policies attacking it.
I'm prepared to be wrong about that prediction.  But I think I'm right about a larger point this election is likely to prove:    
In important respects, even if he secures another term, Barack Obama has already lost.  
Because as this dreary administration stumbled through its term, certain things were becoming clear about this President to a whole lot of people who voted for him in 2008.  An administration that began with such excitement over its historical grooviness has grown pouty, angry, and even smutty.  Many people who didn't vote for the man, like me, were willing to see whether his administration would usher in an era of bipartisanship, improved race relations and international harmony.  
But the promise was false, the man himself not what he pretended to be.  And the media could not possibly cover it up over the course of a campaign where people really had to think had about who they’d put in the White House.  Even if he wins, it will be the victory of a hack, the baleful legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society spawning a host of hands-out Democratic client constituencies -- not a glorious affirmation of the wisdom of inclusion.
I started ticking off the reasons this election is even close after Barack Obama’s extraordinary electoral achievement of 2008, and each time I return to this draft I think of a couple more.  But I'll stop with an even dozen:
            (1)        His Policies Don’t Work and Will Damage the Country Even More as Time Goes By.    I’ll pass this – too big a topic for this entry, and others have done a more thorough job on any one of them than I could. 
            (2)      When It Comes to His Job, He's Lazy and Disengaged.  He makes George Bush look like a paragon of concentration and a dervish of productivity.  Historic levels of golf.   Many parties – Michelle especially loves them, and vacations.  Can't be bothered to attend national security briefings.   And did you read that article by Obama fan Ryan Lizza in Obama fanmag The New Yorker?  His style of decisionmaking is to examine checklists created by aids that he writes little comments on or checks off ("OK").  He doesn't like to meet with people.  He really doesn't like to do press conferences.  I was not at all surprised at his game-changing performance in the first debate – stories of his loathing of studying up for it had been circulating for some time.  
            (3)        In Fact, He Doesn't Like to Be Questioned At All and Is Discomfited and Angry When Challenged.   Because a guy who's gotten promoted on a record of near-zero accomplishments in private or public life is not going to be able to answer those questions or bat back those challenges.  And because he is not, in fact, “eloquent.”
            (4)        Now That We See that He's Not All That Capable, that Shadowy Personal History Starts to Matter.  He can't help it that his parents were who they were or that his father was unreliable and gone.  But he could have done a whole lot more to put the Kenya/Hawaii business to bed, and he behaved badly about it even when that somewhat peculiar birth certificate finally emerged (and was peculiarly exposed to a friendly press) –I wrote about it here, my point being that Obama does not think where he was born should matter, the Constitution notwithstanding.  I think he was born in Hawaii, but does anyone really believe that the 1991 book promotion blurb saying he was born in Kenya was an error deliberately introduced solely by his agent or anyone else?  Wouldn’t you like to see what he put on his college application? 
            It is now pretty widely accepted that he did not compose Dreams from My Father, but that it was written by radical professor William Ayres.  And that much of that book is (1) put generously, a composite of experiences and people (including women) Obama claims to have experienced and known and not a reliable autobiography, and (2) put ungenerously, false.  His academic career?  Extraordinarily opaque.   Evidence of self-composed “eloquence”?  Similarly missing.  His mysterious world travels, his contacts, his ties to radicals, his ties to race hustlers like Rev. Wright, his financial support – smoke/fire.  There remains much about this man that is unknown, and that is going to come out sometime, whether or not he is elected.  Like the Kennedys’ incredible womanizing while in office, there will come a time when we will be staggered at the character of the man we elected, and some of us loved.
           (5)        If Anything, His Policies and Attitudes Have Exacerbated Racial Tensions.   Even though his 2008 campaign repudiation of Jeremiah Wright was half-hearted, it was a step in the right direction.  I thought we would hear more about the value of education and other critical steps to continued improvement of race relations and the economic circumstances of urban blacks.  We did not.  The message continued to be the standard Democratic line of continued dependence.    He has been entirely content to let his supporters accuse his critics of racism.  His economic and labor policies have discouraged employment.  On balance, resentment over Democratic celebration of his mediocre tenure has fueled interracial suspicion – yep, contrary to the hagiography, his story is one of affirmative action writ large.
            (6)        It's Really True – He Believes in the Forced Redistribution of Wealth.  And I don't mean "wealth" in the sense of "a whole lot of money owned by people we would all agree are 'rich,' whatever that really means," I mean "assets owned by a person who has more than another person, irrespective of talent, industry, judgment, family, and other circumstances not controllable by the state."  His morality – in fact, the morality of much of the left – is that forcibly leveling prosperity is “right,” irrespective of the tendency of that policy to retard economic progress.
            (7)        It's Really True – He Believes that the United States Has Been a Force for Ill in the World, and that the Principles of Freedom and Capitalism Should Not Be Promoted.  No doubt the U.S. has made mistakes as a world leader, and has proceeded clumsily and sometimes corruptly.  On balance, though, the United States has been and remains (so far) a beacon of freedom, opportunity, and progress.  This President believes in the same leveling of countries that he promotes among persons of unequal wealth in the country he runs. 
            (8)        He's Actually Rather Unpleasant.   Mitt Romney suggested in his (disappointingly bland and shallow) convention speech that Obama is a nice guy.  I don’t think he’s a nice guy.  I think he’s motivated by jealousy and insecurity and this campaign is Exhibit 1.     He believes that wealth and merit should be punished, is an adversary to be defeated.  His campaign has been angry and negative.  He has refused to lend his personal charm to Democratic candidates.  His bus can’t move, there are so many corpses stacked under it.  The buck always stops well short of him.   
           Every president must have a healthy-self regard, but he is singular in is inability to disguise an ego bordering on megalomania.  The comparative frequency of his use of “I” in his public addresses is well-documented. 

Can you imagine any other campaign releasing a formal photo like this?
            (9)        It Matters that He's Never Accomplished Anything, Other than Electorally.   The public was aware of his lack of work experience and his relative lack of legislative experience, and that experience was decidedly lackluster (and notably unindustrious).  This was deemed not to matter with his personal charm and exciting message on the other side of the scale.  But now that that charm and message are in tatters, voters are recalling that this guy is pretty much just a guy, nothing more.  
            (10)        His 2008 Posture of Moderate Bipartisanship Was a Fraud.   No one, not even the 47%, is any longer claiming that he is a moderate or interested in bipartisanship.  I’m not a big fan of bipartisanship myself where principles are at stake, but the point is that this is how he held himself out, and how the media portrayed him, and why the center voted for him.
            (11)      He Is Protected by a Biased and Dishonest Media Establishment.  Speaking of which, his coddling by the mainstream media is undeniable.  You can howl about Drudge and Fox News all you want, but they are the exception and do not self-righteously deny their opposition to POTUS.   For the purposes of this list, the point is not whether either of the sides is right or wrong, it’s that the public can see that the MSM is steadfastly refusing to report carefully on this administration, and they resent it. 
            (12)      He Believes that He is Historically Inevitable.  And believes as well that that is a substitute for positive governing results.  Many of the moderates and undecideds who were caught up in the historic possibility of our first black president – and one with undeniable charisma when his fury over opposition isn’t bubbling to the surface – now perceive that the drama of his election was just that, a drama, a story, show biz.  They suspended disbelief and went with that story, but the second act has been a bust.  The President, however, has the sand to make “Forward” his campaign theme, and Mrs. Obama was caught the other day exhorting a crowd to think ahead to the wonders that can be accomplished if her man is awarded four more years.  But he has not proven to be an inspirational leader, or, in the solitude he’s most comfortable with, any other kind of a leader.  The mythology constructed for his 2008 campaign was brilliant – but, in the end, only a myth.  His presidency is no more a natural result of historical forces than is the administration on Mt. Olympus.

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The reader will have noticed I didn’t say anything positive about Mitt Romney.  It is true that among the reasons I have voted for him is that he is not Barack Obama.  But he has run a strong campaign, he has a strong record of public and private achievement, he supports American capitalism, and he believes in American exceptionalism in the world.  Lots of reasons to vote for the man.
I’m caught up in his momentum and I am not going to deny that I believe the momentum will carry him to victory because I want to believe it.  Even if he loses, though, Barack Obama will be governing a country where more and more people have found him out. 
The textbooks of the future will dutifully report his historical significance.  The illusion of transcendence, however, has evaporated.  The promise of competence, a murky half-remembered dream.  For many of us – including those of us who did not vote for him but who were ready for a fresh breeze blowing through the White House – his defeat is already assured.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A New and and Questionable Observation About Raymond Chandler's PLAYBACK

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This isn't much of a literary theory, as literary theories go, but it is of interest.  Perhaps only to me.  And other Raymond Chandler enthusiasts.

In the past, I have favored you with a minor theory on Elmore Leonard's novels, which I presented here and followed up on here.  It was a nice little theory.  Won't revolutionize Leonard scholarship, but it was fun to be the first to point something out.

I think I've may have another one.

Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler, of course, is the author of the Philip Marlowe noir private eye novels -- the one's you've heard of are The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and Farewell, My Lovely, although many critics would add The Little Sister to the list of his best -- and widely recognized as one of America's finest writers.  He also wrote the screenplays for the Hitchcock classic "Strangers on a Train" and managed to make Fred MacMurray seem evil as he was manipulated by Barbara Stanwyck in "Double Indemnity" (before he was found out by Edward G. Robinson).   In recent years his work has been honored by republication by the Library of America.

His last novel is Playback.

It is set in the fictional California coastal town of Esmeralda, which he describes as follows:  

"Like most small towns, Esmeralda had one main Street from which in both directions its commercial establishments flowed gently for a short block or so and then with hardly a change of mood became streets with houses where people lived. But unlike most small California towns it had no false fronts, no cheesy billboards, no drive-in hamburger joints, no cigar counters or pool-rooms, and no street corner toughs to hang around in front of them. The stores on Grand Street were either old and narrow but not tawdry or else well modernized with plate glass and stainless steel fronts and neon lighting in clear crisp colors. Not everybody in Esmeralda was prosperous, not everybody was happy, not everybody drove a Cadillac, a Jaguar or a Riley, but the percentage of obviously prosperous living was very high, and the stores that sold luxury goods were as neat and expensive-looking as those in Beverly Hills and far less flashy. There was another small difference too. In Esmeralda what was old was also clean and sometimes quaint. In other small towns what is old is just shabby."

Esmeralda is universally taken to be a stand-in for La Jolla, where Chandler lived the last dozen years of his life.   This paragraph and other references in the novel could easily be taken for La Jolla in 2012, and this was probably also the case in 1958 when Playback was published.  I thought about linking to a couple of references to Esmeralda being La Jolla, but there are so many of them that there seems to be no doubt about this in the commentary on the novel.

The one thing I didn't find was any reference to Chandler saying that Esmeralda is based on La Jolla.

During my residence in the San Diego area, my favorite place to visit was Del Mar, the village bordering La Jolla on its north.   And my favorite place in Del Mar, next to the seaside park on a bluff overlooking the beach, was the Esmeralda Bookstore in the Del Mar Plaza.  It was named after Chandler's fictional village, and a snip of the foregoing quotation was reproduced on their bookmarks.  

Unfortunately, the shop closed some years ago in a dispute with the Plaza landlord.  I cannot find a copy of their logo online, but I have a T-shirt with the logo, which I also can't find, but I did find a copy of their bookmark, from which I have made this enlargement

showing an observant octopus appearing to shelter two contented dolphins, in turn protecting the precious printed word.

Anagrams are not a hobby of mine, I don't go out of my way to rearrange words or phrases to make other words and phrases – the Internet has pretty much made that pasttime superfluous anyway. and I'm not one of those "mystic spellers" who sees letters buzzing around the room during a spelling bee.   Pretty much, I read what's on the page and that's that.  But for some reason, as I was looking at the logo one day, I saw the transformation before me as clear as could be, the letters just seemed to fall out of the word:


D E L   M A R   S E A

I returned to the bookstore on a visit to tell the proprietors what I had discovered.  Perhaps they had noticed it too; perhaps that's how this Del Mar shop got its name.  But  the store had closed not long before.

So, was Esmeralda was a stand-in for Del Mar, rather than La Jolla?   Maybe.  The fictional Esmeralda seems to have a tonier business strip than Del Mar, the latter's consisting only of shops along the Pacific Coast Highway, and I suspect that difference was more pronounced in 1958.  La Jolla is where the commercial money is.  But in other respects, the description fits Del Mar somewhat better than it does La Jolla.  Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

So I've brought you all this way to say:  I dunno.

As I said, it's not much of a theory.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Obama Campaign's Money Shot

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These ads are everywhere.  I glance at them -- how can one help it?

They come in all shapes and sizes.  Some are in black and white.

And they come in a variety of shapes:

Every time I encountered them, they gave me the creeps.  Why?  Lotsa Romney ads out there, too, shilling for dough.  Nothing wrong with that, part of the process.  First Lady out there shaking the tree.  Gotta have swag to run a campaign.  From what I read, the President needs it pretty bad.  So why was this particular ad so odd-looking and unsettling?

My first thought was that it did not seem very compelling to suggest that the candidate's wife was supporting him.  

I was also uncertain whether her endorsement is even a plus.  I have no idea whether Michelle is popular with voters.  She's a strikingly lovely woman, quite impressive at the lectern.  But after a good start as a candidate's wife and First Lady, it appears that -- the White House vegetable garden aside -- her main interests are celebrity hobnobbing, White House parties, and extravagant vacations with and without Barack.  Like her husband, she's gradually acquired a patina of unlikability.  

No, it wasn't her presence in the ad that was saying weird.

Suddenly, it struck me.

It was the slogan.

Join Michelle and tell Barack You're In.

I know, we all know, what it its author would say it means:   "Hey, we all like Barack -- he's my husband, you know, I call him Barack, you can too! -- so come along with me and join the Barack team!"

But  .  .  .  

Join Michelle.

Join her in what?

Must be:  join her in doing something 

What is she doing?

She is "telling" Barack, "you're in."

I know, I know, you don't have to say it, the "you" isn't "you, Barack," it's "you, reader."  

But I do not believe for an instant that whoever composed and approved this -- and I doubt the President or First Lady had anything to do with it -- didn't calculate that this is easily interpreted, even by those whose minds don't trend that way, as Join Michelle and tell Barack: "You're In."

There it was, the creepiness, the weirdness, the ick:  A pitch for cash accomplished in terms of a suggestion of POTUS coitus.  

Capitalizing, albeit subliminally, on what his handlers believe (and, I've come to think for other reasons, is the President's own belief) to be his sexual magnetism. 

I have some long thoughts about this President's emerging strangeness which I will spare you.  For now. But this bizarre and ubiquitous batch of Internet ads reinforces the thought that his handlers, some of them, seem somehow unserious about his re-election.  

The campaign's advocates for this ad knew how easily it could be read to summon up a carnal image.  (Try to imagine this ad with Hillary Clinton in that photograph in 1996 -- long before the Lewinsky scandal broke -- saying "Join Hillary and tell Bill You're In.")   Obama's ad guys think they're being clever, and that the clever people they believe to be their natural constituency will identify with it and applaud that winking naughtiness with their checkbooks.  Whether they are right, I don't know.  I do know they have diminished an already shrinking presidency, and man.  

Monday, July 9, 2012

Frank Cady, RIP

I have a soft spot for Hollywood's journeymen, those actors and actresses who were not stars and knew they never would be, but who toiled more or less anonymously and found work whenever a "type" was needed.  I guess they call them "character actors," but they were actors nonetheless.

Once in awhile, one of them would get a defining role.  Bad for a star who doesn't want to get pigeonholed, good for a journeyman who wants to stay employed.

We lost a great one on June 8.  Frank Cady -- Sam Drucker on "Green Acres"  (and "Petticoat Junction" and "Beverly Hillbillies") proprietor of the Hooterville general store -- passed at 96.  (Eddie Albert was 99 when he died -- must be that "fresh air" he sang about in the theme song.)

Fun fact:  He was also in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window."  No, not as Sam Drucker.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Itsy Bitsy Spi -- Uh, Wait

The Schwinn Moab 3 is not one of those speedy road bikes.  I believe the Schwinn people called it a "mountain bike" when it came out, but I've always thought that gave people the misimpression that I seek out mountains for biking, not that there are any around Dallas.  I've always called it a "trail bike," which also gives people a misimpression about my biking abilities, but a less severe one.   On bike rallies, obese women on sleek bikes with skinny tires go flying past me.  That's OK.  Like me, the Schwinn is built for comfort, not for speed.  And pushing some extra metal up the road is going to burn some calories.

And because I don't go very fast, I can enjoy the view.  Most of those views I have already seen many times from a car.  I keep my eyes on the road, partly because I am not a skilled rider and need to keep it in view at all times, and partly because one finds some interesting things there.

Lately, I've been taking a nifty little Canon Powershot S95 with me.

It usually goes like this:  I'm pedaling along, some odd shape dashes across my vision, and five seconds later, when I'm some ways down the road, I realize it was too symmetrical, or too large, or too moving-around to be standard road crud.

It was a beautiful day for a ride one weekend morning a couple of weeks ago.  Warm, but cloudy and windless.  I was headed east on Panther Creek off Preston, cruising along, when I had one of those what was that? moments.  Something dark but oddly well-defined next to the curb, now receding into the distance behind me

I pedaled back to the shape, excited.  Was it a large speckly spider?

Well, yes  .  .  .

.  .  .  and no.

Sure, it was a wolf spider, which, as spiders go, is large.

But look a little more closely.

At first I thought the same thing you might have thought which was:  Cool, the mama spider is carrying her eggs on her back!  Ain't nature grand?

Two problems with that surmise:  Upon mulling this over for a moment, I thought:  How does a mama spider get eggs on its back like that?  Maybe this was the papa spider, or some spidywhipped boyfriend spider conned into hauling some wolf spider babe's eggs.

Second problem:   On looking into this on my return home, I discovered that a mama wolf spider does carry her eggs around with her, not on her back but in a sac under and to the back of her abdomen, where the eggs come, you know, out, as shown in this image from the Internet:

Which means that those bumps on mama's back are  .  .  .  dozens of baby spider asses.  I was looking not at one spider, but many, some of which were, indeed, itsy bitsy.   Sure enough, here's a genuwine Internet image of a mama wolf spider with spiderlings (which is what one calls a baby spider):

I was hoping she would hang around long enough for me to get a container and catch her to show our grandsons, but on my return trip she was gone.  I did find a burrow nearby which I believe may well have been her home, where she undoubtedly dreamed of the day she would become an empty-nester.

I suspect many of you do not like spiders, and really do not like large spiders, and really really do not like concentrations of lots of spiders in a small area, irrespective of size.

So I will conclude this post with a picture of an adorable Maine Coon kitten, and hope you will check back again soon.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snark du Soleil

Don't misinterpret that title.  The Memsahib and a grandson and I went to "Quidam" last night and enjoyed it very, very, much.  If you have a chance to see Cirque du Soleil, grab it. Take the kids, if you don't mind exposing them to some pretty skin-tight costumes in some of the routines, and here and there a fairly mild sexual reference.

This will have been my third – or is it fourth? – Cirque show, and was by far the best. But I came away from it with a slightly jaundiced view that I'll get to in a minute. In the meantime, let me recount some of its virtues:

Although one attends Cirque for the acrobatics, I must begin with the highest praise for the music in this show. I am not entirely sure how to describe it. First thing to say about it is that it was live, and strongly interactive with what was going on onstage. The musicians provided sound effects which had to be precisely aligned with certain stage business, and it was extremely effective. However, the real revelation was the beauty of the songs and the orchestration. There is probably a name for music that sounds like this, and I guess "New Age" comes about as close as anything, but there was a (tasteful) orchestral bombast about the whole thing that I found quite moving. Moving enough to shell out twenty bucks for the CD of the score, recorded when the show was new in 1996.

Here are some of the highlights, each one a delight:

     --  Rolling Guy:  An acrobat rolls around the stage in a device known as a German wheel, weaving in and out of it as he rolls and manages not to roll right off the stage.

     -- Asian Yo-Yo Women:  four of them manipulate a device called a diabolos, which is a spool spinning on a string suspended between two sticks that they manipulate. Amazing and a delight to watch.

     -- Naked Skintight Costume Guy on Floor-to-Ceiling Red Sash:   How strong do you have to be to wrap yourself up in a couple of silk streamers way above the floor and more-or-less hang around in different contortive positions for 10 or 15 minutes?

     -- Group Jump-Roping:   You have to see it to believe it.  In and out, over under, and not a single trip or misstep.  This isn't so much acrobatics as it is phenomenal sensitivity to rhythm. I suspect that the music plays a large part in getting this one right onstage.

     -- Slo-Mo Human Sculpture:  A man and a woman engaged in a very close-order floor routine at molasses speed that must require incredible strength. You may have seen similar exhibitions at the halftime of Maverick's games. The last Cirque show I saw featured two men doing the same thing. You can feel parents sucking in their breath all over the arena.

And there's lots more.  Maybe a little too much more -- I thought the show dragged in places and could have done without a couple of what seemed more standard circus-y items.  Not that they weren't good and even astounding, but the show is nearly three hours long, with an intermission.

Highlights -- much needed to break up the routine of the threatening-to-become-routine acrobatics -- were the clowns, and I don't mean pancake makeup, red noses, and fright wigs.  There were a couple of guys who were the jokers of the troupe, and they would come out and do improvised routines with people they would call out of the crowd.  The best was the clown's attempt to direct a movie scene with an attractive young (each of whom had arrived with other dates), a schlubby suitor to the woman, and an overweight director's assistant, each selected from the audience and each of whom hammed it up most amusingly.  All of this, by the way, is without speech, the action carried solely by stage business and the music and sound effects.  Very funny.

As I say, a great evening of  .  .  . 

Well, of what?  Is it a circus?  Is it theater?  Is it an old-fashioned happening?  Does it make a difference what we call it?    Herewith a few general Cirqueular observations:

There are moments in the show when you get a flavor the the French obsession with mime and Jerry Lewis.  And not in an altogether good way.  The whole show is in mime, with a very few and brief shouted exceptions, and it's sometimes difficult to know what story they're trying to tell.

Ah  .  .  .  the story.  The  .  .  .  philosophy of the whole thing.

When you get right down to it, this is a fairly straightforward bunch of acrobatic acts – amazing and fun to watch, but conventional acrobatics all the same -- embedded in a very thin narrative, and I mean very thin, with some choreography thrown in that doesn’t bear any discernible relationship to that thin narrative, exotic costuming, and lots of people on stage (or sometimes hanging from the rafters) who don’t do much except observe mutely or dance around or behave oddly.

So while these guys (and gals) are risking their lives and dignity in doing these amazing stunts, there’s liable to be a woman twirling around in a hoop skirt off to the side, or a cadre of androgynous hooded figures marching about. This show features a pale devilish figure with boxing gloves, and a large headless figure carrying an umbrella, evoking Magritte.  And the little girl and her mother and father wander on and offstage.

This is apparently all in aid of the story, which is this: A young girl has parents who are kind of dull. She tries to engage them but they remain dull. She conjures up this fantasy life which takes place in this imaginary place named Quidam (or maybe Quidam is the name of the headless figure), and she becomes enchanted with all of these acrobatic acts. And if you read about what this story is supposed to be about, there’s a lot of talk about everyone being “everyman,” or “any man,” or perhaps that’s what the headless guy is supposed to be.  I'm not making this up.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

"The entire show is imagined by a bored young girl named ZoƩ who is alienated and ignored by her parents. She dreams up the whimsical world of Quidam as a means of escaping the monotony of her life

"The show's title refers to the feature character, a man without a head, carrying an umbrella and a bowler hat. Quidam is said to be the embodiment of both everyone and no one at the same time. According to Cirque du Soleil literature "Quidam: a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past. ... One who cries out, sings and dreams within us all."

I mean – that’s it. That’s really all there is.  There isn't even any magic in the show, nothing that really moves all this great circus stuff into the realm of the spiritual, or even the trippy -- just great, stunty, stylish acrobatics.  That's enough, it's terrific, but what's all this other mute carrying on?

Now maybe the costumes and the random entrances and exits of these various symbolic characters enhance your enjoyment of the acrobatics and clowning. Myself, I found some of the dancing and random movement at the margins of the stage distracting. I do confess to having enjoyed the music, and the lighting was effective – but regular old circuses have music and lights, too.

So I don’t want to be too snarky about something I did enjoy immensely. I’ll leave it at this: It was a great evening of entertainment, and I was entertained.   But not particularly enchanted by the vaporous story line and the oddly-clad guys who mainly just walked around.

Do go see it.  And tell the kids that the guy wrapping himself around the red sashes really does have something on.

NPR's Subtle Bias

National Public Radio is biased.  There doesn't seem to be much question on that score.  Oh, by the way, it's biased to the left.  It would like to be America's news source of choice, but its obvious slant and that of its left-of-center colleagues the networks, CNN, MS-NBC, and the major metropolitan daily newspapers (and their websites) has sent folks flocking to Fox News and the Drudge Report.

Sometimes the bias is overt.  Sometimes, it's a little harder to see. 

I used to listen to it frequently, but hardly at all anymore.  I happened to be in my car early this morning and with nothing on KTCK SportsRadio 1310 AM The Ticket here in the DFW area, I punched over to 90.1 FM KERA to catch some news and maybe a fun story or two.

What I heard was a report on yesterday's Republican primaries.   Kansas and Wyoming, mainly, and Guam and the Northern Marianas and other South Pacific entities. 

If you get your news from NPR, you would think that Rick Santorum was the big winner yesterday with his 51% Kansas victory.  NRP led with that angle and played it up big.   Near the end of the report, it was mentioned that Romney won Wyoming and those others, but it came across as an incidental news item second thought and was very noticeably brushed off.  And it was followed with a report that Romney is in big trouble in the South because he's a Mormon.

But Rick Santorum was not the big winner yesterday.  Romney won the delegate battle yesterday, increasing his lead.  Not a lot, just a handful of convention votes, since not a lot of delegates were at stake in the aggregate, but he increased his lead with his victories everywhere except Kansas.  And, as one observer did manage to note in the overall negative piece about Romney in the South -- if he's the candidate, he'll sweep it in the general election because of the large distaste the region has developed for President Obama.

Why would NPR pitch its reporting this way, and why do I say that it is biased since we're only talking about feuding Republicans here?

Because Romney is electable, Santorum is not, NPR knows it, and a Romney candidacy has them terrified that Obama will be booted come November.  So it is in NPR's (and all the others') ideological best interest to take the nutty Rick Santorum seriously, and you end up with skewed reporting such as I heard this morning, just before I switched back to bad syndicated sports talk.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Minor Legend Passes

Oh, we were all so sophisticated and cool in those days, all out of college and law school, some getting other advanced degrees, some real money in out pockets for the first time, living in the big city -- Chicago, in this particular case -- girls even showing some interest from time to time, for awhile.  Young men out on the town, oh, we were something to see.  Men of the world.

But being mid-twenties males, there would come times -- rather more frequent than some of us would like to admit -- that we would settle in some private place with our drug of our choice (alcohol, in that particular group), put on the headphones, and listen to some screaming-guitar, heavy-chord, metal rock, and, roll.

And even though we're talking about the late Seventies and early Eighties here, one of the choicest slabs of vinyl we would spin -- and it was an early CD purchase when that technology took over -- was an album released in 1973:

"Montrose" featured guitarist Ronnie Montrose, who played for the Edgar Winter Group on the smash album "They Only Come Out at Night" ("Free Ride," "Frankenstein").   "Montrose" was also notable as the vocal debut of Sammy (then Sam) Hagar, later of Van Halen and a solo career ("I Can't Drive 55").  Drummer Denny Carmassi is still a fixture on the music scene. 

Ronnie Montrose
But it's Ronnie Montrose's guitar that cuts through the phlegm, even after all these years.  He was not extremely "fast," that most prized of guitar-playing qualities in those days, but he got this big, fat, searing, soaring solo tone out of his Les Paul, and an extremely satisfying industrial crunch out of his power chords.  And there wasn't a weak cut or sudsy ballad on the whole album.  The lyrics (many by Hagar) aren't going to make you forget Johnny Mercer or even Kurt Cobain, but spinning those tracks still puts a big smile on my face.  Sometimes, you simply had to hear "Rock Candy" or especially "Bad Motor Scooter," and nothing else would do.

Come to think of it, nothing else will do these days, either.  I'm going to go listen to them right now.

Ah.  Most satisfying. 

Ronnie Montrose died a few days ago at 64.  He had continued to play, but after "Montrose" he lost interest in hard-rockin' metal rock-and-roll and his subsequent albums under the "Montrose" band name ("Paper Money," "Jump On It") weren't very good.  He had one more moment in the sun:  He recorded a luscious solo guitar version of Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity" from the old Kirk Douglas movie.   You can find it on You Tube.

He was an influence not only on guitarists, most notably Eddie Van Halen, but on record producers who worked to get the sound of that first "Montrose" album.  Van Halen's first album (1) was named after the band, just like "Monstrose," and (2) laid out its tracks in the same way, the same number, and approximately the same length. 

Somewhere along the line, he seems to have turned into another person altogether:

There were rumors that he and Sammy Hagar were going to get the band back together and tour, but it didn't happen before he died on March 3 at his home in Brisbane, California. 

Ronnie, thanks for the tunes and the memories, and rest in peace.

My Pal Lou, Looking for ET

One of my best friends from childhood was a kid named Lou Nigra.  Mrs. Cooke's class, fifth grade, Belleaire Elementary School, Bellevue, Nebraska.  He remained my friend when we both became guys, and I'm proud to say that we have remained friends as men. 

Lou has had a varied career, but he finally realized a dream that many boys of a certain generation had -- I know it was on my short list of dream professions when I was in my early adolescence.  Lou and I and our buds all grew up during the space race and the excitement of the early years of space travel and unmanned deeper-space exploration.  And, speaking now only for myself, I was a science/nature nerd.  (Was?, I can hear you asking.) 

And so there was a period of time when I was certain I was going to be an astronomer.  One day I realized it involved calculus and hard physics and almost no actually looking up at the sky through the eyepiece of a big honkin' telescope, and that was the end of that.  (Also, I noticed that it was cold at night.)   But not for Lou, who got his Ph.D. in the subject a few months ago from the University of Wisconsin.

Not only that, but he landed an extremely cool job:  He's Project Scientist for SETI Live (SETI = Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) based at the very cool Adler Planetarium in super cool Chicago, right by the fabulously cool Lakefront.   I mean, it's a damned cool life for my pal.  You can read his first blog here:

       Science in the Moment

Here's an even cooler thing -- the citizenry (that's you) can participate in the search for ET by devoting some of your computer processing power -- and, more importantly your own powers of observation -- to analyzing radio signals from outer space collected by the Allen Telescope Array.  I think you can get instructions on how to do this at the main site,  (Note that you will need a recent version of one of the popular web browsers to access this site and participate.  You can download one for free from the intro screen.)   You can get additional information by clicking on the SETILive banner and reading a couple of earlier posts by project head Jill Tarter. 

I should add that this is not related to some earlier citizen SETI efforts, like SETI@Home, where one just lent part of one's home computer to processing signals.  This one actually asks you to attempt to see patterns that might stand out from the "background noise" of the universe and call them to SETILive's attention.  I don't know exactly how it works, but it sounds like a very fun way to get involved in something we're all curious about -- who's out there broadcasting (and, we hope, listening -- unless, of course, they're murderous monsters from beyond).

Allen Telescope Array, Listening to the Universe
And keep an eye on The Science Channel, which has a sponsorship role in SETILive and will be reporting on it.  So you might see Lou himself on your TV screen holding forth on this project, with images of the Trifid Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy in the background.  Can't miss his handsome mug (he was absolutely the fifth grade throb), he looks just like this:

Dr. Louis M. Nigra
(Can't you see him in one of the early scenes to those old-timey alien invasion movies gazing through his refractor and trying to warn the countryside of an approaching UFO?  I don't think he smokes a pipe, though.)  

It's making news elsewhere as well:
       SETI Website to Crowdsource Alien Life.

So if you want to personally join the search for ET, Lou and SETILive have what you're looking for.  If you find anything Out There, let Lou know immediately!  And then drop me a line so I can scoop the Journal of Astrophysics, not to mention Sky & Telescope.

I'll have updates as the project progresses.

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