Thursday, March 31, 2011

Book Review: House of Chains by Steven Erikson

House of Chains is the fourth novel in Steven Erikson’s monumental epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The tenth and final novel of the series has just been published and I’m in the process of re-reading the eight that I had already read so that I can finish the last two novels with what has come before firmly in my gray matter. I realized after reading House of Chains that I never reviewed it—indeed, I never reviewed any of the subsequent novels. This was not because I didn’t read them or didn’t like them—in fact, I have a hard time not gushing about the series, at least what I’ve read of it, and what I’ve read of it gives me full confidence that Erikson will have pulled off the ending that his masterpiece deserves. If anything, I suspect my lack of reviews had to do with feeling a bit unequal to the task. 

The novel starts, chronologically, earlier than the previous novels, and with characters wholly unfamiliar, focused on three members of a savage tribe of a giant people. These are a people to whom killing, plunder, and rape are the meat of existence. They are horrendous in their savagery. Yet Erikson is fascinatingly subtle not only in the nuances of this culture but especially in the subtlety and nuance of the characterization, particularly between our central character, Karsa Orlong (who, I’ll tell you now, figures large not only in this novel but in future installments) and Bairoth Gild. I remember being struck by the absolute mastery Erikson exhibits in the drawing of these two characters, each of whom both underestimates and otherwise subtly misunderstands the other, while also absolutely understanding the other in a way that even the other himself does not. There’s something so absolutely authentic about this and at the same time so amazing to see portrayed so well. It’s brilliant.

The action of the story moves gradually from there to show us events from some of the other earlier novels from a different perspective, even while House of Chains is following its own plot. In the process, certain earlier events are clarified and the overall action is taken forward beyond what had been reached in any of the previous novels. Specifically, we see Felisin as Shai’ik reborn, preparing the Army of the Apocalypse for battle with the Malazans as her sister, Tavore, leads that army across through the continent of Seven Cities to put down the rebellion.

I don’t want to offer spoilers, so I’ll keep my comments brief and just say that it’s quite a ride. We see a number of characters we’ve known from previous books: Fiddler, Kalam, Crockus/Cutter, Apsalar, Gessler, Stormy and the rest of the Coast Guard, Felisin and Heboric, the villainous Korbolo Dom and Kamist Reloe, Pearl and Lostara Yil, Iskaral Pust and Morgara, plus cameos by some others (and I’m probably missing some!). Many of these characters see more development here, as we get further inside their heads. 

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating (probably in every review of every book of this series): I think Erikson understands epic fantasy in the way that is perhaps most true to life: big events require large casts. A big decision that any writer has to make involves the point-of-view character. It's important to have someone in this role who is actually going to be present at all important events, a convention which in the past has led to fictional heroes who are virtually the center of the universe--other characters may exist and earn our interest, but everything really hangs on what so-and-so does. One way to get around this limitation, common in epic fantasy today, is shifting perspectives. This is great, allowing for a larger scope without unrealistic expectations on one character being present for everything and rather more multi-polar storytelling. Erikson (and I don't mean to imply that he's the only one doing this) goes one better--not only do we have a large cast of point-of-view characters, none of them really manages to assume paramount imortance. A question like "who's the main character" loses meaning in The Malazan Book of the Fallen series.

As a result, character development may well be spread out over the course of several novels. That’s going to be hard for some readers to either follow or approve, but I think it’s brilliant for the realism it brings (into a world where many characters have reality-bending magic and power). All of these characters are woven together in such a way that they’re all (well, pretty much all) necessary for the resolution of the plot. And the payoff with these characters is, to me, greater for the fact that we’ve lived with some of these characters so long.

Also, I’m finding that there was an awful lot that I picked up on a second read-through. This is dense writing. I’m a pretty good reader, if I do say so myself, but there was a lot that only really made sense on a second read, because now I had the perspective of having read the first 8 books in the series, so I could see some of the things that were setting up things to come, could sort out some of the larger story that can seem tangential to the main storyline because it’s more relevant to the over-arching story than to the particular novel. Which is to say, I suppose, that you should plan on reading this whole series twice if you really want to appreciate it—and it probably wouldn’t hurt to give it more re-reads than that.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Families' Feud

In my post about The Woods, I referred to the on-again off-again feud between my parents and the neighbors. Largely it was a feud between my father and the man of the other house. My parents tended to trace the ill will back to their purchase of the house from the man’s sister and her husband. I think I’d heard it said that Don didn’t know his sister was selling the house until it was a done deal, though that seems unlikely. I don’t know a thing about the relationship between the siblings, but what I do know is this: they built houses next to each other, with Don owning most of the land, and then the sister sold her house and ¾-acre and moved into the nearby town. Doesn’t it suggest a strained relationship between them, perhaps starting with the hope of close family ties between them, that they might live out their lives as neighbors, but ending with one—the one with less property, likely even a lot cut out of the other’s land holding—moving not hundreds of miles away but far enough not to be neighbors any more, far enough, perhaps it was hoped, not to be in her brother’s shadow.

Be that as it may, relations were not always hostile between our families. Not by a long shot. But they got pretty strained for a number of years, and the cause of that was that my father built a garage on the corner of our property. The issue was a dispute over the property line and whether my father’s new garage crossed it. As it turned out, an official survey concluded that the garage was wholly on our property, though just barely. If it had been over the property line, it couldn’t have been more than a few inches or feet across the line, and we’re talking about a few feet out of acres and acres that he owns, we’re talking about a few feet that are perhaps a hundred yards from their house and into land that was never, ever used for any purpose. Seriously. He didn’t even mow it, which is all he did with most of his land, because there were trees right there and the grass didn’t grow. It was, in short, a ridiculous feud, which would have been fairly ridiculous even if my father hadn’t been in the right. But the whole thing didn’t fail to generate hard feelings, even when it was officially resolved.

I guess that’s the way with these things. While they may, materially, be about questions of fact, they end up being something else—questions of ego, questions of emotion, questions of me vs. you rather than the of the truth vs. error.

I said earlier that relations were not always hostile. For some years, we celebrated the 4th of July together; one year, Don had a huge party for the whole neighborhood as well as for the members of the church they attended, and we were invited as well; for a few years, we were invited to use some of their land as a garden, right alongside their own garden. And, finally, the feud came to an end when my father was diagnosed with cancer. When life and death became the issue, they became good neighbors, and for all the years since then and since my father died, they have been the best of neighbors.

This was not, after all, the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, just a couple men with a ridiculous quarrel.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Basketball Weekend

Yesterday's post was getting long, so I left out one of the central themes of our (extended) weekend: basketball. Starting last year, Lauren and I have entered a bracket in her brother's good friend's annual pool. Before the weekend started, although our brackets were fairly thoroughly busted at that point, we had some hope that an Ohio State national championship could get us through to make some money. Friday night, as those of you following the tournament already know, busted that hope. But Shaka Smart and his VCU Rams pulled out a tight win soon after OSU's defeat to keep them going in the tourney. So that was kind of cool.

Saturday, we left my mothers internet-free zone to visit my in-laws and their high-speed internet plus borrowed projector to stream the Boys 3A Indiana State Finals, in which our school's boys were present for the first time ever. In fact, this was the first year that the school's team won Sectionals, much less Regionals and Semi-State. So it was a pretty big deal. My mother-in-law put together a dinner of really good pulled pork sandwiches, mac 'n' cheese, and broccoli slaw and we settled in for the game, against the defending champion Washington Hatchets. Our opponents got off to a faster start, but by halftime our boys had taken a 1-point lead. Sadly, the Hatchets came out of halftime fired up, rattled off perhaps a dozen unanswered points, and our boys could never quite make up the difference. We were pretty disappointed but, of course, it really is an honor just to be there and marks quite a successful season.

On Sunday, as we were returning to Indiana to get ready for today's trip, we were unable to watch the NCAA game we really wanted to watch, but we were very excited when we saw that VCU not only upset #1 Kansas, but did it convincingly, by 10 points.

Naturally, we're not the only Kenyon alumni on the bandwagon, so I've seen a lot of buzz about it over on the book of face. There were links to a couple great articles on Shaka. This article says a lot about who Shaka is as well as what so many of us love about Kenyon. One quotation says a lot, I think:

Just having players graduate isn’t enough for Smart. He challenges them as intensely in the classroom as he does on the court.
Haley recalled Smart telling him that he needed to make a 3.5 grade-point average this year.
“And he means it,” Haley said. “He’s serious.”
Even the New York Times, in a shorter article, has taken notice. And then there's Sportscenter which had him on the phone recently. This interview is probably the least interesting thing I've linked to, but hey, it's SportsCenter. I wanted to smack the interviewer at one point when he got a look on his face and asked Shaka why he choose Kenyon over Harvard (and, he might have added but didn't, Yale and Brown). Didn't this guy get the memo? Kenyon is one of the New Ivies. More to the point, I think, is a quotation from one of the several Kenyon posters that graces my office. I can't remember exactly what it says, but it amounts to the way that personal interaction shapes the experience. Certainly, that sounds like Shaka's experience, whether that's with the coach who made him and his teammates write letters home and who would also eventually give him his first coaching job or with the history professors who wanted to see him go into academia and eventually return as their colleague, central to the Kenyon experience are relationships with remarkable individuals, from faculty and staff to one's fellow students. And, as one of those fellow students, I salute you, Shaka. Good luck in the Final Four!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sick and tired of being sick and tired

Almost two weeks ago, I wrote about mentally pushing through the first symptoms of a something (cold? sinus infection? bubonic plague?) to keep working out. Two weeks later, I'm still dealing with crud in my sinuses and throat. Some days it's seemed like I was just about over it, some days it's seemed like I'm nowhere close to being over it, and yesterday was one of the latter. This morning isn't great either. I'm typing this blog while I wait for the Dr.'s office to open, probably to tell me that they can't see me today.

Which will be a shame, because I don't have a great window for getting this taken care of. Lauren and I have non-refundable tickets to fly to San Francisco on Tuesday, and I hear flying with sinus problems is only slightly more fun than flying with a baby with sinus problems (fortunately, except for a day of sniffles each, neither my wife nor daughter have showed signs of being as miserable as I've been).

I should have gone to a doctor before now, but right after break started, we made our way out to Ohio, as alluded to in Saturday's post. We were staying with my mom, who no longer has internet (and since she previously had painfully slow dial-up, it's arguable whether she's ever actually had internet). Yet, you may have noticed, I blogged with more regularity than I managed in, well, quite some time. The reason for that is that I made an effort to write up some blogs to post each day while I was gone. There's something a bit peculiar about the fact that I can sometimes blog more regularly when I'm not able to blog regularly but instead blog in a burst and then let the results trickle out.

Now we're heading out to San Francisco tomorrow, and I doubt that I'll have enough blogs written up to see me through the week, but it's not completely impossible. I've got a few already. We won't be taking our computers along, though we will have internet access and our iPods, but a touchpad isn't exactly the best way to blog.
Well, I did get through to the doctor this morning and broke off writing this entry so that I could head to the office to get checked out. It turns out I have a cold, albeit a particularly long-lasting one. A ridiculously long-lasting one, in my opinion. I think I've got it all figured out though--normally, a cold lasts a week. Lauren and Thea only had to suffer through one day, so where did those other six days go? That's right--I took them upon myself. I'm going through three weeks of a cold so that they don't have. They haven't offered a thank you, but they are welcome.

Since I apparently have no choice in the matter.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Breastfeeding: positive or negative?

I recently saw a report about a couple studies suggesting that women who breastfeed are viewed as less competent. Now, for what it's worth, the subjects in each of the studies were college students, so that age category may have something to do with the findings. I don't know, for myself, whether my opinions about breastfeeding have changed since I became a parent except to the extent that I didn't really have opinions on the subject. It just wasn't something I thought about.

Now, however, I have very definite opinions on the matter, and they're almost exactly antithetical to the findings of the study. I assume that a woman who is breast-feeding is probably more knowledgeable, at least when it comes to knowing what's good for her baby and herself. And therefore, as likely as not, more competent, more intelligent, better. Although I know it isn't fair in the other direction, I have a tendency to look down on women who don't breastfeed, because they seem to be thoughtlessly conforming to the norm that's pushed by the interests of formula producers rather than science. I realize that there are legitimate reasons why people can't breastfeed and have to feed their children formula, but my first reaction is still negative--they're guilty until proven otherwise.

And now that I've admitted my own prejudices, where do yours lie on this matter, gentle readers?

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more.
~George Gordon, Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

We're spending a few days visiting Thea's grandparents at the start of break before we head to San Francisco for almost a week, and I was walking our dog Beaker around my mother’s yard when I was struck by the power of The Woods in our cultural imagination. There’s just something about a forest, isn’t there? I remember, as a kid, loving to go off into “the woods” that was next to our house. It felt like a place to disappear—from parents, from neighbors, from everyday reality. It was the place to pretend to be Frodo or Aragorn or any other fantasy hero. There were the trees themselves, the undergrowth, the woody vines creeping up some of the trees, the birds and occasional other wildlife, secret places, fallen trees to walk like balance beams. It was a place for the imagination, for play, for escape, for refreshment.

And the funny thing to realize, as I was walking the dog, was that it was, perhaps, 15 yards deep. It barely even deserved to be called woods, though it ran from the road to beyond our property line (granted, our house sat on less than an acre, and the woods ran along the long side of our rectangle). Maybe that was part of its appeal, too. It wasn’t ours. It belonged to our neighbor—our sometimes-crabby neighbor, our sometimes-feuding with my father neighbor. They lived on the other side of our property from the woods, and across another couple acres of open grass (in point of fact, other than the right-of-way represented by the road, it was impossible to leave our property without going onto land owned by that neighbor). But along most of the woods there was an old, rusty fence, and that plus our neighbor’s sometimes-ill-will added, I think, to the allure of the woods, as every forbidden place has an allure to it. You had to either enter through the one area that didn’t either have a fence or a veritable hedge of thorns blocking the way, or you had to make your way over or through the fence. It hadn’t been maintained, so there were places where it had been pushed down or where holes had been made, but it was also a metal fence and it also had a row of barbed wire—rusty barbed wire!—at its top. So it was a barrier, however easily navigated at places. 

As I’ve grown up, though, there’s still a great appeal to woods. I wish that the land we bought had a woods that was really worthwhile—I would love to have a ready source of good firewood and, ideally, a stand of maple trees to tap, to say nothing of the Forest Garden I plan to plant with fruit and nut trees. We already have perhaps 4 acres of woods on our nine-and-a-half, but they’re pretty worthless trees, except for the fact of being trees, which is some value in and of itself. It’s an aesthetic value, and that’s not something to be discounted. 

These beauteous forms,
      Through a long absence, have not been to me
      As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
      But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
      Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
      In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
      Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
      And passing even into my purer mind,
      With tranquil restoration:--feelings too                        30
      Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
      As have no slight or trivial influence
      On that best portion of a good man's life,
      His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
      Of kindness and of love. Nor less, I trust,
      To them I may have owed another gift,
      Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,
      In which the burthen of the mystery,
      In which the heavy and the weary weight
      Of all this unintelligible world,                               40
      Is lightened:--that serene and blessed mood,
      In which the affections gently lead us on,--
      Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
      And even the motion of our human blood
      Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
      In body, and become a living soul:
      While with an eye made quiet by the power
      Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
      We see into the life of things.

 --William Wordsworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"

Friday, March 25, 2011

Food Friday: another delicious week or two of weight watching

I missed a week of "Food Friday" in there, and during the last two weeks we've continued trying more of the recipes on Gina's Skinny Recipes. We tried the Sicilian Rice Ball Casserole, which seemed oddly named, since there were no discernible balls in the whole dish. It was a good casserole, though, that worked out, point-wise, even though I used ground beef instead of turkey, perhaps because I also used brown rice instead of white.

We made a skinny version of rice crispie treats, which were little different from the less skinny version.

We had a "lightened up" Chicken Divan which made a nice one-dish meal with its chicken and broccoli combination. Another night we had Cuban Black Beans along with Sauteed Collard Greens with Bacon. Both were good, even if I don't always feel a natural affinity toward greens.

Then there were the enchiladas! We had a vegetarian version made with shredded zucchini, which offered the realization that it doesn't matter so much what fills an enchilada, as long as there's cheese and a spicy sauce. So why not zucchini? We also, for good measure, tried one of her chicken enchilada recipes. It wasn't much different, just more chickeny and a little less cheesy.

And then there was the tuna noodle casserole, a good combination of tuna, peas, with just enough cheesiness.

Did I mention that Lauren continues to lose weight at a reasonable pace? We're hardly suffering for it, though!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

State of the Baby

So. Here's where our daughter is at 14 1/2 months old.

Our efforts at sign language were limited, and thus her signing vocabulary is similarly limited: "please" and "all done" are the bread and butter of her self-expression. Verbally, she can say "mama" and "dada" (thought that sometimes also means "diaper") and "ra-ra," her nanny Rhonda. "Nah-nah" means she wants to nurse, though I think she also uses it to mean that she's distressed and wants comfort, because she doesn't always take what she was apparently asking for.

Her favorite toys are mommy's or daddy's iPod, followed by mommy's phone and daddy's phone, followed by Beaker's food and water. We put our phones in Airplane mode to minimize the damage, but the corollary to that is that we miss calls because our phones are essentially off-line. She loves to dump Beaker's food all over the floor, she loves to food Beaker one piece of food at a time, she loves helping to fill Beaker's food dish, and she especially loves slapping her hand down in Beaker's water dish. The corollary to this is that Beaker's food and water dishes spend a lot of time up on the table, which translates to a thirsty pup sometimes. She's getting better at asking for her water, though, or I'm getting better at interpreting.

Of her actual toys, she loves books--and recognizes many of them by name--and she loves her plastic tea set. There's something delightfully archaic about the whole idea of a tea set, as though we need to train our daughter for the proper etiquette of a tea party with persons of quality and need to get an early start. But she does love the different pieces. She likes stirring her cups and bowls with the spoons, and she even pretends to drink. "Cheers" is still more than a little dicey. At other times, though, she just loves the tea set as something that makes noise and can be dumped out of--and put back into--its container. Just as she can happily stir her imaginary tea or soup, she can also ignore the function and appreciate it as objects to be manipulated: out of the box, in the box, out, in (mostly out, though, to judge by our living room at any given moment).

She's walking around like a champ. She still falls over sometimes, but she does pretty darned well. With the nicer weather we had last week, she's gotten outside a lot more. She loves going out, and there's another word she knows: out. If I ask Beaker if she needs to potty outside, our two-legged daughter will be making a bee-line for the door, before the dog has even answered the question. If anyone's going out, she wants to go with them. She knows what "shoes" and "socks" are when we tell her she needs them to go outside. She loves walking around outside, but she's a little yucked out by the ground. It's just so... dirty. If she falls down, she has no desire to put her hands down to push herself up. It's like she's looking for somewhere clean to put her hands, can't find it, so her hands just sort of hover there and she fails to get back up. She also likes holding Beaker's leash, although she only seems to make that demand of mommy.

She loves to tease Beaker. She'll take Beaker's ball and then run away, to hide behind the recliner or on the other side of a parent. She'll hold the ball out and then pull it back when Beaker goes for it. Like I said, a tease. Much of the time, she's a happy, smiley baby. No one, and I mean no one, can get her laughing quite like mommy can. Even--at least sometimes--when she's crying.

She's not the easiest when it comes time to go to bed. She pretty much needs mommy in order to fall asleep, which can be awfully difficult for mommy, both because she tends to have more "take home" work than I do and because she tends to fall asleep with her in the process and re-rise only with difficulty. Part of the problem is that it can take an hour or more to get her to sleep, which not only a big chunk of the evening by itself but also raises the likelihood of falling asleep together.

All in all, we're happy happy parents of a happy baby. We all have our ups and downs, but life is good.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Motto Lotto

As though there were nothing more important to be done, Representative Randy Forbes (R-Va), along with 64 co-sponsors, has introduced a resolution in the House to "reaffirm" the official motto of the United States as "In God We Trust" and encourage its display "in all public buildings, public schools, and other government institutions" (full text here). It has been our official motto only since 1956 when, during the Cold War, the U.S. wanted to distinguish ourselves from the godless Soviets. It's our official motto, but as mottoes go, it's pretty lousy.

Why? First because of the obvious way it marginalizes non-believers and polytheists who, believe it or not, can be good Americans. Besides which, we're not truly a nation "under God." We're a secular nation under secular laws with religious freedom. That's why we have so many believers--and so many different beliefs. If you want to see "One Nation Under God," go visit an Islamic nation under Shariah Law. I'd rather live in a country where I'm free to practice a religion (or no religion) with only the most basic constraints (we draw the line somewhere this side of human sacrifice, for instance).

If we're going to talk about a national motto, we should think about truth in advertising. If we're set on "In God We Trust," we might at least add a clause to it: "All other pay cash." That would allude to our capitalist ethos. Except, of course, that we're a nation of debtors, cash-optional. "Born to Spend" captures nicely the way that we've come to think of ourselves primarily as consumers. "Greed is Good" might work for us, or if the Republicans took complete control it could be "I got mine (good luck getting yours)." Maybe "Every Man for Himself." Perhaps my readers have some ideas of their own?

If we're dead set on "reaffirming" a national motto, we could do worse than to go back to Latin motto adopted in 1782 as part of the national seal: E Pluribus Unum, "out of many, one." Doesn't that capture our ideal of who we are as a nation--a whole nation--better than "In God We Trust"?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

March, the time of Madness

I don't know how many of my readers are following the NCAA Div. I basketball tournament ("March Madness") but among the other storylines (most of which are killing my bracket), there's the story of Virginia Commonwealth University, one of the teams that had to play its way into the first round--that's right, before the first round started, they had to beat USC just to get into the field of 64 teams (technically, their play-in was the first round, but it's not the way most of us think about the tournament, I suspect). They demolished USC, 59-46, then put an even worse beating on Georgetown, 74-56, and finally wrecked a lot more brackets by knocking out 3rd-seeded Purdue by an impressive 94-76.

Their coach is one of the youngest in the tournament, and he's not only my age but actually graduated from the same college as I did. We were very close in college, in that his name--Shaka Smart--is extremely close to my name alphabetically. Thus, we probably had mailboxes in the post office adjacent to one another and very likely sat next to one another at graduation. And I saw him play basketball a few times. He probably wouldn't know me from Adam and I doubt we exchanged half a dozen words in four years. And when I said earlier that he's my age, I meant that we actually share a birthday. Weird, huh?

Anyway, it's always nice to see a fellow Kenyon grad make good, even if it does cause me to wonder what I've accomplished since graduation, while he's been steadily climbing the coaching ranks and building a successful division 1 basketball program. Really though, it's pretty neat to see him having success and making a name for himself. Here's wishing him and his players the best of luck during the rest of the tournament--my bracket's thoroughly busted anyway, so I might as well have more opportunities to bore everyone I know by telling them of my tenuous connection to a successful basketball program that they've probably never heard of.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sinful Saturday

I missed my Food Friday opportunity yesterday, missing with it my chance to talk about the good, Weight Watchers friendly food we've eaten this week. So instead, I'll dig into the darker side of my culinary psyche for today's post.

You see, last week, Lauren (actually, our nanny on Lauren's behalf) made cupcakes for her Mentor-Mentee group. There was some batter leftover. Cake batter is not particularly W-W friendly, but it's a damned shame to waste anything in this economic climate, so this afternoon, while Lauren was safely away from home, I made use of that batter, but not to make cupcakes, not to make a regular cake. No. Something better.

Because, you see, the best part of cake--IMHO--is the icing (or, if you prefer, frosting). The actual cake may be good in and of itself too, but that's really secondary. Especially if we're talking about a cream cheese icing. I could eat that on wads of scrap paper.

So what I did was use my cake batter to make something resembling a pancake, a thin version of cake, to which I added cream cheese icing. Perfect. I may never bake a full-sized cake again now that I've discovered this brilliancy.

Friday, March 18, 2011

I'll name it Lenore

I came into my office today to be confronted by this:
I assume it alighted upon my phone because of a lack of suitable pallid bust of Pallas. It sure startled the bejeezus out of me. It happens not to be real, though it is made with real feathers. In fact, it inexplicably startled me twice. Just one of those days, I guess.

I strongly suspect a particular student, aided and abetted by a particular colleague with a key. I intend to see the student kicked out of school and the colleague fired, because of the old saying: "Fool me once. Nevermore."

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Conscious decisions vs. the weight of circumstances

Maybe it's not a general phenomenon, but I have a tendency to want to think of human existence in terms of conscious decisions, of will-power, of human will. "If I work hard..." "If I stay focused on..." "If I decide to..."

I think that being a book person reinforces this, because books so often offer explanations for what decisions led to a particular outcome, explanations for why people make the decisions they do. It's the choices that are crucial. If there's a climactic battle at the end (can you tell I'm a fantasy lover?), we expect the outcome to hinge on the choices, whether of the leaders of each sides, of the lower officers, or of the common soldiers. If a freak mudslide wiped out one side, giving the other victory, or a storm sank one fleet and gave the other victory, in a novel we would feel cheated, even though exactly these sorts of non-human agents are, in the real world, the actual causes. Our satisfaction stems not from our sense of reality but from our sense of what we think reality should be.

And don't our religious traditions teach much the same thing? While Christianity, for instance, may ultimately boil down to one decision, our overall sense is that our eternal fates are decided by the sum of our actions, by the choices we make.

The thing is, it's not always so easy as that. In very many cases, we are inclined to recognize mitigating circumstances if we really look at it. We recognize, for instance, physiological changes that make a person either not responsible or less than fully responsible: dementia in the elderly, chronic pain, mental illness.

I was thinking about this in a rather different context the other day. The Monday before last, I started a new workout program. The first week was tough, but really good. I did all the workouts plus a couple other workouts. This week got off to a good start... and then Monday evening I started to feel congestion in my head and a sore throat. I hated it. I've been there before: the November before my wedding I was doing the Lean and Hard workout, starting the fifth of six weeks when I got sick. I had been seeing excellent results, but then I couldn't do it for a week and a half and it just threw me completely off (Thanksgiving and then Christmas didn't help either!). An intense workout program is hard enough when it's just you fighting against your own desire not to workout or your own desire to eat chocolate chip cookies instead of a healthy, well-balanced meal. But when circumstances make it really hard to follow through, what's a mere mortal to do?

Tuesday morning, I woke up with a vague sense of congestion and a clear sense of sore throat, but get up I did, at 5:40, to head to the gym. I did my workout, but I felt exhausted the rest of the day. When I came home, I had to nap before going back to work for an evening on duty--which brings me to another point. Tuesday was, from a weather standpoint, a lousy day: rainy and cold. It can be hard to feel good on a day like that, and I didn't. But then Wednesday and today came along: sunny and in the 50s and then 60s. Spring had sprung. And even though I got up at 5:40 on Wednesday, even though I felt more congested and my throat was more sore, I spent most of the day feeling pretty darned good. When I came home, I didn't need a nap because I felt great.

But there it is again: forces outside my control influencing me. I didn't choose for it to be a sunny day, but the fact that it was made it better, despite my sinus whatever feeling worse. And the same was true today. I went to tennis practice, I spent an hour and a half doing yoga, and I felt awfully good. Strange but true: I felt congested at the beginning of my yoga workout and I felt congested again after it was over, but during my workout, my sinuses felt pretty darned good.

Now, was my willpower involved here? Sure. I could have not gotten up Tuesday. I could have indulged in feeling bad and feeling sorry for myself yesterday and today. But I was also helped out by a bit of good weather.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Music Monday: A Day at the Races

Although they won't hit North America until May (for Brian, I guess), the UK (and who knows where else) are getting remastered versions of Queen's albums right about now, and as a result I came across this review of what is my favorite Queen album, "A Day at the Races."

You should be aware that "my favorite Queen album" is not an altogether meaningless distinction, coming as it does from someone who has at times been positively obsessed with this band. I was a Johnny-come-lately, not discovering Queen until Wayne's World (which I didn't actually see) and, while I was in Canada on a Spring Break trip with the French Club, the televised Freddie Mercury tribute concert. I fell in love with "Bohemian Rhapsody." Who didn't? I nearly picked it up on the Wayne's World soundtrack, but instead I reasoned that if I liked this song so much, I might well like others by Queen. So I picked up Classic Queen and, in fact, did love just about everything on the album. So I picked up Greatest Hits. And from there it was just a small step to buying more or less every album they had released.

Lauren will tell you that I have a tendency to fixate on a band and listen just to them over and over, but she didn't even see me in high school. That was obsession. We had a six CD changer and it would be filled with Queen--the real decision being which six albums would make the cut. The thing about Queen was not just that they were a phenomenally talented band, though that was surely part of it. As a band and choir geek, I could appreciate the complexity of what they were doing, and that was part of it too. The thing about it, too, was that most songs on any given album were very good. If you only know Queen's hits, you're really missing out.

And now we're starting to get at why A Day at the Races is my favorite Queen album. There are certainly reasons why A Night at the Opera, its predecessor that included "Bohemian Rhapsody" along with what is surely one of the most amazing songs--from a musical perspective--that they wrote, "The Prophet's Song." Yet there are enough songs on that album that don't do it for me in a way that isn't true of A Day at the Races.

I've often used A Day at the Races as an introduction to Queen. The album opens--and closes--with a sort of overture that alludes to the 7th song on the album, "White Man," before building in stair-step fashion to the opening track, a rocker that became a hit, "Tie Your Mother Down." The introduction, though, speaks to the concept of unity (well, of sorts), or at least the conception of the album as an album in a way that most are not today.

The rocker, though, is followed by a sweet, soulful piano ballad that (so I learned from the review I referenced earlier) is all Freddie, right up to the overdubbed vocal harmonies. It's a sweet, beautiful love song, with haunting piano figures and just a bit of musical complexity to contrast its basic, simple nature.

Each song on the album, despite what I said earlier about some kind of unity, is a contrast from each song that's come before, as does "Long Away." It was written and sung by Brian May, and it's a fairly straightforward guitar-and-vocals song (I'm afraid my descriptive powers fail). It's a nice enough song, reflective and a bit melancholy while still thrumming along--not too heavy, not too light.

"The Millionaire Waltz" is simply incredible, though I'm sure quite overlooked. It's something of an oddity, but just so brilliantly executed. I mean, it's a waltz. Who does that? Sometimes it's driven by piano, sometimes by guitars. Its stylistic shifts are not so pronounced as "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it has the same creative genius behind it. It's also a song that really shows off the fact that Queen was made up of musicians. This is a song of shades, of changes both gradual and abrupt in musical texture, in dynamics, in its push and pull... just brilliant. And, for me, it's sometimes the little touches that do it for me, and in this song, it's the utterly perfect use of triangle. Seriously.

The mood shifts to something a bit more straight-forwardly pop with its rolling piano. And it leads well into one of the biggest hits from the album, "Somebody to Love," with its gospel sensibility and layered textures. This is a song that I imagine everyone knows, so I don't know that there's much to say about it. The song that follows is another less-known song, but probably the most musically powerful. It doesn't have quite the same richness and depth as either "The Millionaire Waltz" or as the song it's most easily compared to from the previous album (which is to say "The Prophet's Song"), but it's musically quite powerful. At the beginning, the guitar reminds me--incongruously--of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata," because in both there is a latent power to the chords underlying what is a soft statement. Soon enough, however, the guitars turn driving and louder, crescendoing to a climax that is staggering. At the same time, the lyrics are some of the deeper and more--I'm not sure the right word is political--broadly social lyrics in the band's output, dealing as they do with the treatment by European settlers and their American descendants of the Native Americans. It concludes with the poignant criticism of the "White Man": "What is left of your dream? / Just the words on your stone. / Man who learned how to teach then forgot how to learn."

And then, the air clears and we have a song that's just flat out fun and sexy with "Good Old Fashioned Lover Boy." It's hard to be in a bad mood when listening to this song.

And then there's "Drowse," on of my favorite Roger Taylor songs. I know a lot of people like "I'm in Love with my Car" from A Night at the Opera, but it doesn't do anything for me. It's softer than anything else Taylor was behind, more thoughtful and, ultimately, better for me.

Finally, there "Teo Torriate (Let Us Cling Together)." It's a nod to their success touring in Japan as well as a stirring anthem, and beautiful.

Book Review -- A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Often, it is difficult for us to put ourselves into the frame of mind of a different era: even just a decade before we were born--or, for that matter, precisely when we were born--can be a difficult imaginative exercise. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman does an excellent job of helping the modern reader understand not only what happened 600-700 years ago in Europe at the end of the Medieval period but also to understand better the profound differences in the way that people viewed themselves, each other, and the world--which, of course, was quite a different world. As the title implies, however, there are perhaps some parallels to be drawn between recent history and more distant history, but if we lose sight of the profound differences then we're missing a great deal of the causality of events.

The unifying thread that Tuchman puts her finger upon is Enguerrand VII (1340-1397) de Coucy, a French nobleman, as the thread to follow through the century, though her lens is considerably wider than just his life. He is a central character in her work, but the proportions of her history are much larger. Still, Coucy was a young lord when the French got their butts handed to them at the Battle of Crecy, and as one of the more important families in France, he was one of the hostages demanded by the English to let the King of France go free. Despite being at war, the English and French nobility had a sort of brotherhood that included partying together, hostages and captors all together. Coucy was renowned for his grace and charm and, indeed, he ended up marrying the King of England's daughter, so in the course of his life he fought along side kings of both countries and straddled a line between them. All in all, a good choice.

However, as I alluded to earlier, this is not simply a biography of Coucy. At times, in fact, it's easy to lose sight of him. Tuchman does a great job of portraying the times and illuminating the forces at play, both the personalities involved and the broader natural and social forces, and to do so she has to expand her range. As the subtitle notes, it was a "calamitous" century: the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Schism in the Catholic church, crusades, brigands, revolts by the commoners, pogroms against the Jews, and the unraveling of chivalry. More than that, though, it's striking what a harshly brutal period it was.

At times, the level of detail may seem like too much for the average reader, but on the whole she makes a pretty exacting piece of historical writing read like a novel.

I listened to the audio version of the book which, overall, was quite good, though I think I would have had an easier time following everything if I had been reading it--but then, if I'd been reading it instead of listening to it, I wouldn't have read it at all, since I only picked it up because it was freely available from the library and caught my attention when I was browsing.