Friday, March 27, 2015

84, Charing Cross Road

You probably know that I love books. 84, Charing Cross Road is not a novel, but rather a real-life collection of correspondence between Helene Hanff and the staff of a London bookseller. It is charming, and touching, and very, very much about the love of books. So... if you love this, or this, or this place, you will want to check out this short and delightful read. It got me reading Latin again!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Giver

Good Lord. I knew that this is what the young people were reading in school nowadays, and I wondered quite a bit what it was about. I had NO IDEA. If the kids are actually reading this, everything is going to be fine. My favorite English teacher, Henry Brady, used to have us read Brave New World, trying to get the same effect, but it was too enmeshed in the adult world, and was too dated to make much sense to most students. But this is something else again. Its fundamental premise is that left unchecked, society will ultimately rob us of our humanity. It is thoughtful, deep, multilayered, imaginative, elegant, bold, and deserving of its many accolades. Ron Rifkin makes a passable reader for the audiobook, but the director of this should be ashamed of himself. Terrible synthesizer music at the same frequency as Rifkin's voice pops up at various key points in the book and basically ruins them.

I guess I should read the sequels. Thanks, Lois Lowry, for protecting us from ourselves!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Mikado

When I was young, I became quite obsessed with Gilbert and Sullivan. It came via my father, I think, who took us to see the (surprisingly excellent) performances at the local college. He also had recordings of the big three, Pinafore, Mikado, and Pirates, with lyric sheets, and an interesting annotated book that contained text from all the plays. The summer after sixth grade, I remember, I worked every day to learn the complete lyrics of the Major General song, and I worked away with a dictionary to learn what every word of it meant. But somehow, the Mikado ended up being my favorite. I think most of all, I liked the irony of it -- the layers and layers of irony. The whole premise of it is that everyone is so serious they cannot see how ridiculous they are. And perhaps that is the message of the play? Ofttimes the reason for a huge amount of seriousness is to cover up how ridiculous a thing is, perhaps? Everyone in it knows they are a character, going through the motions, but it is all they have, so it is what they do. Anyway, it is certainly my favorite of the plays. It keeps moving, and every song is a delight. So, when the Pittsburgh Savoyards (yes, that's a thing, now in their 77th season) offered a performance just minutes from my house, it was hard to stay away.

And they had a lot of fun with it! They always have a mix of players, some more and some less professional, but this cast had a some wonderful performances and singers. The overall choreography was a little clownish for my taste (again, I like irony of the show, which I think comes through more strongly with more serious choreography and blocking), but it was all very pleasing, and wonderful fun. The songs, the rhymes, the logic puzzles, the wistfulness, the decapitation jokes, the second trombone, I think I will never tire of this show. I think these four lines sum it up best...
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,  
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock, 
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock, 
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Divergent Series: Insurgent

So far, this wins for most awkward movie title of the year. I guess the title so long since "Divergent: Insurgent" sounds like a joke, or maybe a Bob Dylan song. Anyway, I didn't set out to see this, but my daughter was into it, as she read and enjoyed the books, and also the first movie. I went in knowing not much more than to expect something like Hunger Games with Standardized Testing, and I had super low expectations. For the first half of the movie, my low expectations were met. Whether this was because I had no connection with the characters or because it was such a lot of corny nonsense, I'm not sure. Probably both. About halfway through, the movie started to win me over with a bizarre fight scene on a double-wide train. Not that the fight scene was very good (it was kind of silly and baffling, honestly), but because my mind was fascinated with the notion of a double wide train. See, there are four rails, and the engine, in the front, rides right up the middle, on rails 2 and 3, pulling two sets of freight cars on rails 1 and 2 & 3 and 4 respectively. I kept wondering.... could this work? Are there no trains going the other way? What would happen if this weird system went around a curve? Maybe I'm obsessed because I helped make this. Anyway, uh, after that, they finally started getting into the VR thing that is apparently the hallmark of this series. See, you plug a bunch of air hoses into your back, and, uh, somehow you float around and play videogames in your head. For reasons that are unclear, these mental videogames can kill you. Tris, our hero, spends a huge amount of the movie in fistfights, falling down stairs, etc., and never gets a scratch, and her makeup never smudges. But, man, when she plays a videogame, blood comes out her nose, her ears, all over the place. Anyway, the first half of this thing bored, me, but he second have interested me mainly because I like visualizations of futuristic videogames. And weird trains! So, uh, if you like those things, uh, maybe you'll like this?

Oh! I almost forgot. This movie is more evidence that young people are preparing for some kind of revolution. I don't think they know what kind yet... but they know one is coming. This article explains further.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

An Apology For Idlers

I have many books from the Penguin "Great Ideas" series, but this one, by Robert Louis Stevenson, with its clever cover, is the first I've read all the way through. This volume is really a collection of Stevenson's essays using the old trick of using the best essay, with the most intriguing title, as the title for the whole volume. Other, longer, duller essays are included as well, about topics as preparing for life as a painter, love, old age, and some travelogue pieces about Stevenson's life in California. The wisest statement from these last regarded the nature of land ownership in California: "...the Americans had been greedy like designing men, and the Mexicans greedy like children..." I think there is rather a lot in that bold statement.

But the main essay is the most interesting, I think, even though it is quite short. In it, he makes many arguments in favor of idleness. It is some of our most pleasurable time, and most memorable time. Time spent in self-reflection is generally more educational than time spent in lecture. Further, he rails against busyness as overrated, and unnecessary.
And what, in God's name, is all this pother about? For what cause do they embitter their own adn other people's lives? That a man should publish three or thirty articles a year, that he should finish or not finish his great allegorical picture, are questions of little interest to the world. The ranks of life are full; and although a thousand fall, there are always some to go into the breach. When they told Joan of Arc she should be at home minding women's work, she answered there were plenty to spin and wash. And so, even with your own rare gifts! When nature is 'so careless of the single life', why should we coddle ourselves into the fancy that our own is of exceptional importance? Suppose Shakespeare had been knocked on the head some dark night in Sir Thomas Lucy's preserves, the world would have wagged on better or worse, the pitcher gone to the well, the scythe to the corn, and the student to his book; and no one been any wiser of the loss... This is a sobering reflection for the proudest of our earthly vanities.
This is a deep and provocative statement, calling into question what really matters. Conventional wisdom is that grinding away at "important work" means either safeguarding yourself and family, or doing work that helps the world, now and in the future. This question resonates with me quite a bit, because I am constantly up against this dilemma. Am I wiser to relax and take pleasure now, or fuss and fret about my work so that I'm better off in future? I constantly run into situations where I am overwhelmed with responsibility, and wonder if I am making a mistake. At the same time, though, my hard work in the past (writing my book, preparing lectures, growing my studio) has done a great deal to secure my current situation. But on the other hand, in the last thirty years, I have not stopped working for more than a week at a time, and I have a lengthy wish list of things I would eagerly spend time on (books, games, solo projects, performances, etc.) if I somehow had time. I hear people tell me tales of how they retired, but then quickly became bored, having nothing to do... that boggles my imagination... I always have more and more things to do. I guess the central question in my life is one of obligation... walking away from my teaching or my studio would leave many people disappointed, not to mention how much it would scare my family. One day, not too far off, I hope to find a way to take a significant kind of sabbatical, where I do nothing but pursue my interests, perhaps do some writing, coding, crafting, or performing, but at my leisure, with no set deadlines. But how can that happen?

Since it's late, I may as well bring this up. More and more, I am becoming uncertain about the nature of time. I am not at all clear that it runs in a single direction, or that it is linear, or that it only happens once. I have a suspicion something far more complex is going on, that we have trouble seeing, due to the limited nature of our consciousness. It seems, more and more to me, that time is all of a piece, that we receive messages from the future all the time. As I've mentioned before, I often run into things that seem to have special significance, as if they are going to be important. I've learned to pay attention to these moments. Somehow, they seem to lead me to positive, successful situations, even though sometimes they can take a long time. And then, later, the magic seems to go out of them entirely, as if somehow, I know they are no longer useful. My Hohner Trumpet Call Harmonica was like that. As is the Atari 2600 game, "Room of Doom." I saw it in a magazine in 1984, and it seemed terribly important. It has seemed important all that time. I finally ordered it recently, and it sits here on my desk, ominously. I know that I will play it, when the time seems right, and somehow, something will come from that. It always sounds crazy to talk this way -- but I'm not rambling. The nature of time is central to Stevenson's thesis. Does our place in the future matter more than hedonism? Does the universe have a goal? If it does, is it in a hurry to carry it out? Does it matter if I help it reach that goal? I know I often feel like it does have a goal, and when I work hard, and fill my life with busyness, it is in a belief that I am helping it achieve that goal, as arrogant and egotistic as it sounds. I cannot hold, I think, with Stevenson's proclamation that Shakespeare didn't make a difference to the world -- he has done a great deal to shape the doings of humanity, and one suspects that somehow, he knew this... there is a weight in his work, a weight of responsibility, that suggests, no, implies, no SCREAMS that he knew about the tremendous responsibility that was upon him, that he was doing work that no other could do, work that would shape the world in intricate ways for thousands, if not millions of years. This point of view seems to argue against idleness. But does it? For extreme industry can lead one away from what is most important. If our most valuable tasks are to serve the universe, we will be unable to carry those out without listening to the universe, and we can only do this kind of listening in moments of idleness. All of this makes me realize that what I seek more than anything else is not a life of no industry, or no idleness, but rather a life of intense industry, and intense idleness, but free from obligation. For obligation to others promotes industry, and destroys idleness, and obligation to others makes one focus on doing the work that others need most, not the work that the universe needs most. But can I be brave enough to cast aside these obligations so that I might do the work the universe needs? This is exactly what Jesus talks about on the sermon on the mount, of course. Following your faith takes a lot of idleness, a lot of industry, and a lot of bravery.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Silas Marner

This is one of those books that everyone has heard of, but I'm not sure very many people have read. I think there was a time it was required reading for high school, or maybe junior high english students, but I think that time has passed. I read it as part of the Lexica reading challenge we are doing at Schell games. Lexica has approximately 400 books in it, and we are trying to see if collectively as a studio, we can read them all. No one in the studio signed up for Silas Marner, and I've always been a fan of George Eliot, so I went for it.
I can't say it is an excellent book. It is definitely a good book, but it has a kind of uneven feel, and the main character, an antisocial weaver who becomes a miser, and then, uh, stops being one, is a bit hard to relate to, and doesn't always seem completely believable. But for all the uneven parts, the strength of the book for me is the moments. It has fascinating and powerful moments. The attention to detail draws you in, and makes you feel like you are there. I'm realizing, now, as I write this that most of those moments are when characters are alone, and noticing things in their environment. And that is a really fascinating part of this book -- it is very much like a time machine. You get a really clear sense of what it would be like to be in a village tavern in the mid-1800s, or at a loom, or what cooking over a fireplace was like. How George Eliot (really a woman named Mary Ann Evans) had such insight into the world of men (taverns, the workplace, a private argument between brothers) is somewhat beyond me. She must have been an amazing listener.
I did enjoy it, it kept moving, and I'm glad I read it. It makes me want to go back and finish Adam Bede, and makes me look forward to Middlemarch, which people generally call her masterpiece.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957

I found this book of W. H. Auden's poems in a cool bookstore/cafe in Edinburgh. It was one of those "recommended by the staff" books. It called to me, somehow. I didn't buy it at first, but after I left, I kept thinking about it, and returned the next day to buy it. I'd never really read Auden before. It's weird that it was in a Scottish bookshop, I guess, given that he's an English/American poet.

He's kind of a scary poet, honestly. He works very hard, and his hard work comes through. He makes it rhyme, dammit. Not that his poems feel forced -- rather, they feel like they are made out of hardened steel. And they are dark, too. Not that they revel in darkness, instead, they are bright and welcoming, but they always have an eye on the grave, and when it comes to facing it, have an unflinching quality. Here are some various quotes I saved as I went through the book.
Among the half dozen things for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least. 
Each has his comic role in life to fill, though life be neither comic nor game. 
Love like matter is much odder than we thought. 
Any heaven we think it decent to enter must be Ptolemaic with ourselves at the center. 
Let us honor if we can / the vertical man / though we value none / but the horizontal one. 
I’m afraid there’s many a spectacled sod prefers the British Museum to God. 
O stand, stand at the window as the tears scaled and start; you shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart. 
Clear, unscaleable ahead / rise the mountains of Instead / from whose cascading streams / none may drink except in dreams 
When I’m a veteran with only one eye / I shall do nothing but look at the sky.
 It was a pleasure getting to know Auden over this thirty year collection. The poems are sorted chronologically, so I really got a sense of his growth as a poet as I passed through his life. He is a sturdy companion I am sure I will visit with often.