Cromwellʼs Descent

Sitting at my chiclet keyboard on a gloriously sunny, clear-blue-skies afternoon,* with Eric Claptonʼs exhilarating Derek & The Dominos-era guitar ringing from the iTunes-inspired Bose computer speakers, I realize that my previous perfervid post wasnʼt much of a literary review. I really just raved about how excellent was Hilary Mantelʼs Wolf Hall (and I really did like the book, a lot). Letʼs rectify that slackness just a little.

This portrait (of Thomas Cromwell) and Holbein painting it receive much attention in the novel.

This portrait (of Thomas Cromwell) and Holbein painting it receive much attention in the novel. Mantel successfully brings this hardfisted, aggressive fellow to sympathetic life (and her character even sees himself reflected somehow truly in Holbeinʼs image).

Wolf Hall is the story of as-yet-to-become English Lord Chamberlain Thomas Cromwell, whose reality had until this novel been thoroughly colored, for me, by Leo McKernʼs indelible and ruthless characterization in the film version of Robert Boltʼs A Man for All Seasons.** The (21st century) book covers most of Cromwellʼs life, from childhood (it begins with a shatteringly evocative, harrowing sequence of young Cromwell being beaten by his father — the provocation for the youth to leave England and commence his wayward career toward politics, via trade, mercenary soldiering and finance) through the execution of Sir Thomas More. Some of the bookʼs pleasure, for me, arose from clever (and appropriate) resituating and revisioning of Moreʼs memorable bon mots as recorded in Boltʼs play and film. The published (and also Man Booker prizewinning) Bring Up the Bodies covers the years through the execution of Anne Boleyn, and the third volume will take us through Cromwellʼs own extralegal but state-sponsored demise.

Mantel turns Boltʼs seriously cold, cruelly calculating villain into her protagonist (perhaps tragic hero) by placing the novel firmly within his point of view (that vivid opening set piece establishes the perspective while promptly and efficiently promoting our sympathetic identification). Seeing the world from his mindframe keeps him very human (uxorious, family-loving, generous in spirit, cultured) even as his actions gradually turn vengeful and (not noted to himself in Mantelʼs prose) scheming. Cromwell reappears, grown to middle age, as Cardinal Wolseyʼs utterly competent jack-of-all-trades*** just as the crimson-robed butcherʼs son is about to fall (failing to acquire Henry VIIIʼs desperately sought divorce from first wife Catherine of Aragon). Wolsey, perceived through Cromwell, of course is also a mostly positive figure, whose humiliation, defeat and death earn our sympathy (and Cromwellʼs, naturally — very importantly stimulating motivation for the blacksmithʼs sonʼs subsequent political career in this novel: those behind and present for Wolseyʼs destruction almost all “get theirs” by the end of Wolf Hall****).

Once Wolseyʼs died, Cromwell moves into the orbit of Anne Boleyn, unwillingly (she caused the cardinalʼs fall, after all) and over the years (and the pages) while suffering his own losses and successes arranges the necessary divorce, then the royal (not legally a “re-“) marriage and crowning for Queen Anne, meanwhile putting various enemies (unstated, until toward the final pages) and friends in their places (negative and positive places) as he rises and grows close to the king. What Cromwell and Anne share is then-modern religious feeling and theology, both being firm to-be Protestants supporting vernacular translation of the Bible and corresponding faith and doctrines.

Thomas More — also by Hans Holbein (one of the fun moments during the book was figuring out who “Hans” might be… )

Thomas More — also by Hans Holbein (one of the fun moments during the book was figuring out who “Hans” might be… )

Stubborn, fanatical zealot Thomas Moreʼs descent from power and doomed course toward execution — all capably managed by our sympathetic Cromwell (he really does sympathize with the thoughtful Catholic philosopher but not with his heretic-burning, self-flagellating, regressive and reactionary creed). As More participated in Wolseyʼs ruination (not to mention multiple burnings at the stake for personal friends and religious compatriots of Cromwellʼs), his destruction brings our protagonistʼs rise from the ashes of his becrimsoned mentorʼs defeat to a vengefully victorious climax. Also, tellingly (although the book ends with Cromwellʼs scrupulous care for Moreʼs bereft, scholarly daughter being able to acquire her traitor fatherʼs head for burial) we witness in the final stretch Cromwellʼs satisfactions here and there as various enemies are managed (capably, competently, effectively) and revenge (for Wolsey and others) accomplished. Clearly, the abused boy (grown to calm, proficient maturity) has coarsened his character, steeled his soul, descended morally — he is quietly but definitely headed toward his own fall, barely six years in his future.

It is a lovely book, engrossing, colorful, detailed, marvelously told and brilliantly written. It brings both the people and the era to vibrant and fascinating imaginative life.***** Mantel richly deserves her many accolades and awards for this wonderful book.

Now to relax a bit. Claptonʼs still playing (the computer has offered almost no blockages to my work, even with iTunes in action), and the day is yet lovely. Later, gentil readers.

* (it snowed, heavily — huge flakes obliterating any view whatsoever for hours midday — yesterday, piling up at least two and a half inches of snow here in Our Town, more to the north)

** Andrew students had to suffer (or possibly enjoy) that movie to introduce Renaissance England (and ultimately Shakespeare and Hamlet) in Advanced English for, I believe, decades. (I at least enjoyed the ritualistic annual indulgence in great storytelling… ) Just as McKern made Cromwell in my perception (from my mid-teens onward), so did Orson Welles embody Wolsey and of course Paul Scofield for Thomas More.

wolf-hall*** His capable and smooth omnicompetence (at just about everything, so literally so) is the manʼs major characteristic in the book. We witness the multitudes that he knows and understands within himself and how others (at least say they) perceive him; the king in particular comes to value Cromwellʼs ability to get done whatever needs to be accomplished.

**** And much as we may come to identify with and care for Thomas Cromwell (invariably in the book just “he,” often confusingly — but deliberately so), his hardening heart and vindictive progress are revealed… quietly.

***** Thus we come to the big topic — historical fiction. But I have said so much on just this book that I had better reserve my thoughts on books about (and from) the past for some other post.

Images from Wikipedia

©2013 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

A Really Good Book

So. I missed “yesterday,” as stated in my previous post. And I missed yesterday, as in relation to this post (I hope) as well — meaning that I also missed posting on Pi Day (preferably known as Einsteinʼs Birthday), as well. In both cases we must blame the computer (and somewhat my own sloth — but mostly the computer: bless you Apple with all sanctimonious and cynical sarcasm). Even today, with a new update for Mountain Lion, I have spent most of the day with the iMac frozen and (seemingly) forever restarting (fortunately, The Lovely One asked me to clean the house in preparation for some guests, who called last night to indicate illness all week was undoubtedly going to prevent their visit; so I could at least go away from the detestable device and do something worthwhile today — as yesterday I determined to not just sit and fume at spinning gear images and what not but read instead).*

Clearly I should keep this brief before the computer interferes with working successfully yet again.

KindlleHere it is: I love my Kindle (not so fond of the Kindle app for Mac, however, as it now takes a full five minutes to start and run, when not in “safe” mode when it loads perfectly fine and fast, and also apparently caused the most recent system freeze and forced hard restarts). It is really cool to be able to carry a full library around with me in one little, thin device. And I do mean a full library. Although the Kindle Reader only counts 437 books downloaded and included, a huge number of those are the cheap and usable “complete” collection available from various packagers of royalty-free material, meaning that about 50 of the “books” include from twenty to fifty books each!

However, the best thing about the amazon.com device is that I really get into reading things on it — new, old, reread for the umpteenth time and utterly fresh. I have always been a lover of the actual, old-fashioned book — the scent, the feel, the comfort of real pages in a real binding (paper or otherwise). But on the Kindle, reading works just as well, and I get perhaps even more lost in the stories. In my contemporary state of increasing joint pains (sometimes desperately excruciating), holding the Kindle beats trying to keep a hardbacked book open in my lap (not to mention the utter delight for My Beloved to be able to make the font just as large as necessary for her post-surgical eyeballs to perceive readily).

wolf-hallAnd one of the best things that I actually read (new and complete) thanks to the electronic reading machine has been Hilary Mantelʼs Wolf Hall, a brilliant book that thoroughly captured me and kept me up late, late (intolerably so when it came to arising sometimes less than four hours later to get out and work out), unwilling to pause at any story break and go to sleep.

I had first encountered her text in portions published in various literary magazines before the book was actually published (at least here in the U.S.) — in the TLS for certain and I also think in the New York Review of Books and possibly The London Review of Books** as well. Although I read the material each time (and also the subsequent glowing reviews), I wasnʼt entirely whelmed at the third-person present-tense imprisonment in the protagonistʼs perspective.

I did eventually buy the hardback at a Borders going-out-of-business 80%-off price a couple of years ago, but I never got further than the first fifty pages. Maybe, for an old man weened on the hagiography of A Man for All Seasons, it was too hard to imagine a Thomas Cromwell not utterly wicked and venal (although one can clearly perceive his hardening character in Mantelʼs telling, once I did read the book).

In October or November (I donʼt now remember just when I bought the e-book version), with the next volume in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, well reviewed and winning Mantel her second-in-a-row Man Booker Prize, I sprang the nine bucks for a Kindle version. And have been devouring it since (spaced judiciously for other reads, particularly various research items for Sepharad and other books I whimsically have afforded to create the massive library that fits into my pocket).

Wolf Hall. Wonderful stuff. Incredibly well written and easy to read voraciously.

Now I am postponing the start of Bring Up the Bodies (also on the Kindle for some time now) in order to enjoy other things — The Moonstone for the fifth time and for  second time Anthony Burgessʼs Earthly Powers, which became available in January. And triter trifles, too (like Jack Vanceʼs Demon Princes series again and a pleasant discovery from a dead favorite — a mystery by Roger Zelazny, The Dead Manʼs Brother, already completed and archived). And more to come.

* And even now Spotlightʼs incessant cataloguing keeps taken over from my typing and leaving me with not a cursor but an Apple-effing spinning beachball.

** That periodical did publish the text of the speech the author gave recently about the royals which got her into trouble for (not really) disrespecting the expectant mother of the heir-to-become.

©2013 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Wow. A Post. “On Art and Beauty”

Although I have been pondering any number of short little (and several long and humongous) posts to start 2012 (at least since The Lovely One and I returned from a News Years break to Chicago), some of which you are likely to read soon, I have something a little diferent for today. It does, however, remind me of the kind of thing I was posting here two years ago.

I got an e-mail after Christmas that made me think. And since Janet enjoyed receiving her BCC of the answering e-mail I finally wrote today, I thought I would post my response to the stimulating e-mail for the blog.

The e-mail I received went to about two dozen (or more; I never actually counted) recipients from the lovely woman who gave me the chance to portray Picasso just over a year ago. She was going to speak to an art class at one of the Dubuque colleges and wanted some input from people she considered artists of various kinds (including me, perhaps the non-artist of the group). She had six questions (probably the ones she was supposed to discuss for the class):

·         Why did you become an artist (i.e., why do you do what you do)?

·         What characterizes someone as an artist, in your view (i.e., what specific characteristics does an artist possess)?

·         What is art, in your view (i.e., what makes something be a work of art)?

·         What is beauty, in your view (i.e., what makes something be beautiful)?

·         In your view, does a work of art have to be beautiful (i.e., is beauty an essential element/characteristic of a work of art)?

·         In your view, what is the purpose of a work of art (i.e., why do you produce works of art; what role do they play in your life and/or in the lives of others)?

I had a hard time getting past the first one, but as she needed answers by today (yeah, I am a great procrastinator), I finally buckled on the necessaries and got to typing. This is what I wrote:

clip art

I took my time answering this because I am afraid I donʼt really consider myself an “artist,” rather someone who went into eduction for as long as possible, and thatʼs about it. However, I will try.

I became who I am because I like the arts, visual/performance/literary (I like art enough to be pretty cautious, even derogatory about considering fashion or advertising arts). I act because I liked it from childhood on (beginning with memorizing and performing the Ronald Coleman 78-rpm records of A Christmas Carol for my family when I was still preschool age) and got kind of pushed into performing by an excellent high school speech and drama instructor, Mrs. Marilyn Vincent at Mt. Pleasant Community High School. I write for vaguer reasons, except that I seem to always remember writing stuff ever since I learned the skills, memories extending back to comic books created with a friend at lunch time in first and/or second grade and my Adventures of Capt. Furgo in third or fourth grade that I was polishing into an illustrated booklet in eighth grade (gone now, sadly). Itʼs just what I do. An anthology of poetry I scammed from my motherʼs shelves also stimulated writing in verse (and probably also condemned me toward becoming an English, speech and drama teacher, too). Writing and theatre meet in my plays, of course (mostly written so the students at school had something to perform… cheaply).

An artist is somehow compelled to (meaning: by nature a person who does) perform the activities that society or culture has deemed artistic. Perhaps there is a desire for prominence or polish in those activities as well. One is able to become wrapped up in the details and even the frustrations of making something (or making something happen). One can remain focused on such excruciating details for prolonged periods of time. One daydreams (is that imagination?). Most artistic persons I know seem somehow withdrawn socially or perhaps self-involved (I worry about the relation between artistic involvement and the spectrum of autism). One seeks perfection or at least polish and skill.

Art reflects reality (as a victim/offspring of the Western Civ Romantic movement, I have to acknowledge an indoctrination at least that “self-expression” may be involved, but I find that issue is probably socially conditioned and not necessarily basic to artistic endeavor). Art imposes something new (but not always novel or innovative) on reality as well. Art is less practical than related activities such as, say, philosophy. Art may move people emotionally (I think thatʼs the “beautiful” aspect of art that I am getting at, not a mere tearjerking maudlinism). A work of artistic creation may reveal significance or meaning, if only to the maker, upon reflection. (And letʼs not forget the now obvious deeply prehistoric roots of artistic practices, which have to be [perhaps] rooted with magical or supernatural practices and/or speculation.)

Beauty is an experience for me personally, not a thing capable of definition. Culturally, beauty has traditionally been a philosophical construct (all the way back at least to Plato, obviously) and thus a muddled (yeah, I am thinking of you Thomas Aquinas) and muddied concept (no thanks whatsoever, Immanuel Kant). My personal take is that beauty comprises a set of notions attempting to abstract or describe a deeply emotional (and therefore limbic [as in brain construction] and therefore also pre-verbal) response to natural and possibly supernatural stimuli, often felt as a sense of exaltation or insight or calm assurance or personal awareness. Since its roots and nature are emotional, “beauty” is thus not conducive to getting into words or making into an abstraction. Beauty is deeply connected to the imagination. I personally question the Romantic supposed natural connection/identity between beauty and art.

The beauty of art would consist in a work of art modeling reality in an emotionally/imaginatively suggestive or stimulating way. A beautiful work of art, like a beautiful mathematical theorem or scientific theory, models reality well (although not necessarily “realistically,” just as quantum dynamics defies common sense).

Art has no “purpose.” Frequently, on a social level, art entertains, but I deeply question/disbelieve that entertainment is the purpose or reason for art. I write and I do plays because itʼs fun for me. I get pleasure from the activities involved in the process(es). As an art “consumer,” I frequent museums because I enjoy looking at the works of art (I like examining the brushstrokes, for instance, as well as “appreciating” the image on a canvas; and my wife, who adores Impressionism, and I get a kick of trying to find the correct distance from such a painting when the image, as we say, “pops into focus,” like a brightly illuminated slice of reality in a tiny rectangle [and from our experience they always do, although no museum yet has given us enough distance to really appreciate Monetʼs Water Lilies]. And thereʼs amazement in realizing just how far away from the canvas that point of clarity is. Did the artist ever see it that way, having to paint right up next to the canvas?). I like the historical aspect of museum-going, too. I like attending plays because of personal pleasure as well, getting caught up in the story but also studying the production and performance techniques being used. My most constant artistic pleasure is reading, mostly for the story in fiction and the communion with better minds and wider experiences than my own. And to experience what I simply never could unimaginatively/practically, getting beyond my own dull reality (which fits all kinds of art).

Since high school I have written wanting to become “a writer.” But throughout my teaching career a lot of what I wrote was for school in one way or another, deliberately (as in plays) or provocatively, as in bringing in my own poems (not often) to help explain and experience poetic analysis and interpretation. I do wish to/dream of getting published (although I donʼt enjoy the drudgery and rejection of actually making the effort to submit stuff), but I get a good deal of pleasure from reading my own sentences, too (even if that means I then need to revise or correct or improve).

I have acted because I could and I enjoyed it (and once now I have even been paid to act — thanks). I have directed and done technical stuff in theater because itʼs been necessary (and can be fun/pleasurable). I do like making things, even though other people often have greater and better skills than mine, so I would rather let them do that painting, construction or designing. The audience aspect can be interesting as a director, but essentially I donʼt really enjoy the performances; theyʼre just what it all builds up to.

Often I draw or act or write because me doing it is easier or simpler, faster or more practical than acquiring the result in another way.

And I never even considered music in this whole little dissertation! (And music may complicate a lot of what I said above.)

Does any of this help?

A better closing question here on the blog would be: So what about you? Whatʼs your answer to any or all of those six questions?

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Itʼs a Guy Thing

Our production of One Flew over the Cuckooʼs Nest at The Grand Opera House in Dubuque is past the halfway point in its two-weekend run. The remarkable cast and crews have made us very proud (and themselves, too, I hope)  — so far (I hope I havenʼt jinxed us somehow with this observation before the run is over, but the performances and the technical efforts have been exquisite and amazing).

Although a rehearsal shot (the setʼs not even finished yet) — the moments before Ratched inflicts electroshock, attempting to control McMurphy (and Chief Bromden). I was kind of proud of our electroshock machine and the “crown” which inflicts the voltage on the patientʼs brain. The actual lighting is far better than this posed photograph reveals.

Although the run seems long (the last show in which I was involved with more than one weekend was Gypsy, just after the turn of the century, and the only other production with seven nights of performance to my record was My Fair Lady back in the early Nineties — both starring The Lovely One, coincidentally), the approach of strike after Sundayʼs final performance weighs me with a certain vague dread. However, even if itʼs just a few of us (which, by the way, cast, it will not be), and even if we end up missing the cast party because the work takes so long, it will eventually get done, and all I will have to worry about is returning the two large storage cabinets to Andrew Community School on Monday. Then this production, too, like so many hundreds before it, will be memories. And in this case, almost all will be pleasant and proud ones.

Sitting in the balcony observing the show night after night (and it was Monday through Sunday for tech week and the opening weekend — seven in a row with a break), all kinds of critical and directorial thoughts flicker through my mind. Few of them are critiques on the acting or production. Mostly I ponder the patterns that have emerged in this production, deliberately from the beginning, through one or more actorsʼ inspirations, developing from an almost random observation, or by other confluent synergy or synchronicity. Most of my emotions and intellectualizations are the appropriate consciousness-response (or intuition) to the action and the play, evaporating when I try to recapture that deep insight into the script and/or our production that a particular moment enflamed. (The depth to any work of art is what goes on within the reader/viewer/audience/participant; and the achievement of critics is to objectify and communicate that subjective experience.) So these next three nights, since (I hope and expect) my directorial suggestions or corrections will be reduced to almost nothing, I am going to try to take notes on those fleeting impressions and inspirations to see if I can assemble a set of observations on the play (and perhaps the book if I sit down to reread it fully).

If I succeed, you may have to read about my supposed insights here.

Billy pleads, in the aftermath of the big party, for Ratched not to tell his mother of his moral disgrace — also pleading, whether her no-longer-virginal victim is fully conscious of this truth or not at this moment, for her to spare his life, to rescue him from the suicide into which she has, probably deliberately, cornered him.

One realization arose from last Saturday nightʼs show, when my sister Margaret was watching, and from her responses. When asked, she observed that by far her favorite performer was Nurse Ratched (an appropriate critical stance, as Andrea is wonderful and many-toned in her performance, developing gradually a hardness to Ratched that results perhaps primarily from McMurphyʼs almost pre-adolsecent defiance). When asked to judge McMurphy (whom we all have sat back awed at Danʼs spirited and uninhibited characterization and embodiment thereof), she wondered if she were quite certain if he didnʼt belong on the ward. Both Janet and I felt she really didnʼt like McMurphy (the character here, decidedly not the actor). I think Margaretʼs preference for Ratched might have resulted partly from her response to a male-female, early-Sixties war-between-the sexes conflict in the play that I hadnʼt consciously considered since the earliest days of rehearsal.

It is a show for men, with a woman as the villain (whether Ratched deliberately means to be a bully or not) and the group identity and evolving mutual empathy of the patients revealing a kind of male-bonding (which we did strive consciously to develop) in antipathy to the Big Nurseʼs authoritarianism. But conversing with Margaret, I began to realize that One Flew over the Cuckooʼs Nest is also certainly (at least somewhat) misogynistic. McMurphyʼs alpha-male behavior is decidedly preferred (through the plot and the play) to Ratchedʼs antagonism to everything (male and) chaotic — gambling, noise, physical exertion, game-playing, fraternizing. If the perfect state is achieved for her in the stillness of a lobotomized patient in a post-operative coma (“Thatʼs fine,” she says. “Thatʼs just fine” — her final words in the show, over a motionless and quiescent McMurphy on a hospital gurney), it is Macʼs manic exuberance, violence, rebellion and wildness that have driven her to that extreme.

A grim mother-figureʼs quiet home versus an overgrown boyʼs testosterone-driven, no-holds-barred frat party. Iʼm glad our production (perhaps unconsciously, possibly as a result of Janet and me cooperating as directors) gives expression to both sides.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Cur•mudg•eon

(noun)  — bad-tempered or surly person

(with my most insincere apologies, of course)

Maybe this post results just because I have had time, with our production of One Flew over the Cuckooʼs Nest up and running — beginning its second weekend tonight — but I have been astonished and annoyed by unimportant things lately. Like commercials. And Facebook links.

Having been able to watch a little TV over the past few days,* I have again realized that commercials not merely appeal to the stupidity in us all but actively cultivate vapid witlessness (the most egregious examples being the selfdestruction-instructive “Do the Dew” series from the late Nineties and early Aughties and the interminable Hardeeʼs ads from the last few years that presented consumers at those restaurants as moronic males with severe limitations not just in taste but all matters beyond the selfishly animalistic**). Admittedly, studies have shown that it is far easier to sell stuff to folks who have shut down their higher-order thought processes, thus the historical stream of “entertaining” and/or amusing commercials over the history of TV. But do advertisers have to cultivate imbecility?

Hmmmm…

I think I may have, if blogs must discover such, found my niche for Wakdjuknagaʼs Blog… and an apparently endless stream of future posts: advertising analysis and criticism. The Old Curmudgeon rides again?

But first, for today, a really minor annoyance from Facebook (yeah, the ultimate time-waste of my mostly doltish existence), which I think results from the powerfully promoted “live stupidly”*** culture of consumer commercialism.

Lack of thought enters into many phases of ordinary life, even as television casts its dull glow into every cranny of existence. And Facebook is one of those forums**** for dim-wittedness. Just in the past few days, a supposedly cute bit of humor (check the picture, above us here, to see it) has been making the regurgitation circuit in the Newsfeed. I think I have witnessed its appearance about a dozen times from as many friends.

Ignoring the subtle antiCanadianism***** of the concept, the problem with the joke is simple geography. Mt. Rushmore is in South Dakota, kids…

“A” marks the spot, with the Canadian border near the very top of the map

Imagining the enormous length of the unseen torsos between those famous faces and that quartet of historically inaccurate asses (not to mention the lack of continuous mountain between Rushmore and wherever in Canada… unless, of course, the torsos are wormholed into some alternate universe between the two distant sites…) kind of saps the laughter.

Geography — itʼs reality.

Ah, but geographical ignorance ties in so well with (evolves so neatly from?) the Dextremeʼs Big War (of lies) on science… Doesnʼt it? Talk about the power of mindless advertising.

And while I am at it, how about this example, below, of pure non sequitur? Nonsense is nonsense, even if it suggests a political perspective some would like to feel (unconsciously perhaps, probably at the urging of corporate interests, of course) is appropriate.

And so, The Old Curmudgeon raises his grisly head to utter some grumpy commentary into the digital æther again.

* (with no rehearsals or performances to attend, we can make use of the over-priced “services” of DirecTV again)

** Probably I perceive the idiocy of those commercials as a consumer of neither product… ?

*** (Which advertisers and consumers would prefer and falsely believe to be “live stupid”)

**** It still hurts slightly to use that incorrect, unLatinate plural (which should, of course, be fora). But one can only push correctitude so far, you know… After all, data serves as both singular and plural. And donʼt get me started on the loss of medium to identify one of the mass media…

***** How many well-dulled dolts seriously have taken the South Park movie premise to heart?

Map image via Viola from GoogleMaps™

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Past Blast

As the dextremist Enemies of Americans at Fox News attempt (tiresomely, repetitively, again) to distort real news/events for Their own smarmy purposes (abetted by that shady and seditious shark, Andy Breitburp), I, who have mowed the lawn today (such a major accomplishment, we must say), feel the best post I can make for this Labor Day is the one I published one year ago. You may read it here.

Our Iowan 2011 Labor Day brings/continues the midwestern coolth we first experienced yesterday, and, even as I type with sweatshirt and long pants upon my body, the temperatures are a pleasure. The Lovely One and I traveled on Saturday to Mt. Pleasant to visit Dawn and Kevin (she has been suffering from chicken pox, a truly unpleasant experience as an adult), returning yesterday. Dawn was pretty completely recovered (even being permitted back into her elementary art classroom this past week), and (I think) all four of us enjoyed a good time together.

I came home a bit lighter in the head (very marginally) when my just-more-than-a-week-old crown fell off the stump of my tooth about 11:00 AM Sunday! Fortunately, I wasnʼt chewing anything, and the $1000 misinserted (or failed) part is nestled in my vest to be restored for free (or so I presume) early tomorrow (or so I have requested). Happy holiday to me. And I certainly hope you, gentle readers, have enjoyed more fully your three-day weekend (which corporate powers and the dim Dextreme, along with their utterly mindless Teabots, would like to render more meaningless than the day has become).

By the way, the birthday bash for my mother-in-law at Timmermanʼs Friday evening was very fun. Janet brought home a full meal of leftovers from her order (Chicken Chardonnay with added artichokes), while I consumed both of my Greek-style pork chops. My Beloved is right now on the phone with her sister, but that call is probably drawing toward an end, so I should cease saying somewhat less than nothing here and be ready to actually speak with my spouse.

So thatʼs the news for now. Power to the People, and welcome back to work tomorrow.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Formulaic

Lots of probably valid advice are* flickering out there in the digital ætherverse about how to improve and maximize the potential of “your blog.” WordPress offers some, and many bloggers have repeated (and repeated and repeated and…) some basic notions, achieving a clear-cut and simplistic formula for the blog-writer to obediently follow directly to success.

Fourth (it had to go here because I already had my three points in the post), a cute or snappy image (or two) is recommended to increase interest and attention. Not that this horrific picture qualifies. This image is one The Lovely One snapped of me for the program for One Flew over the Cuckooʼs Nest (I didnʼt choose to use it for reasons I believe are pretty obvious). Perhaps it should replace my aged Gravitar…

First, I am supposed to keep it short. Sometimes I do but not nearly as short (enough) as many, if not most, blogs, boasting just four or five short little paragraphs as a post. A short one for me runs about 400-500 words…

Furthermore, I need a very snappy lead (opening paragraph in just a sentence or two), followed by no more than three basic points, each stated as directly and briefly as possible. I should frame the post around a single clear issue and finish with a question to stimulate responses in the comments section. I have read some (some pretty good) blogs that follow this format, excessively programmatic as it seems. Most read like theyʼve been brewed (overly quickly) to a formula, bland and all-alike — like Hollywood movies. And the clever little question at the end often smacks of drooling manipulation (of the readers) or a desperate effort to turn a simple, gentle observation into a debatable controversy (or pose a question so bland no one really should feel motivated to bother answering).

Third, I should post regularly but not too often, so that my gentle readers donʼt feel overwhelmed with the responsibility of perusing my mortal observations. And my tags, that list of words in various sizes revealing the number of posts tagged with that term to the far right below the Category Cloud, need clarification and normalizing. This matter seems to preoccupy WordPress powerfully of late, because once I post manually, I arrive at a screen telling me how many posts I have made and how long this particular one is in words (a count that varies significantly, lower, from my own in Scrivener and theirs in the editing window for new posts, strangely), topped with one or more suggestions about more normative or obvious tags to draw seekers to my blog from search engines. For instance yesterdayʼs “You Have Posted” page got me to add the “dictation software” tag to my list, and I might have tried “Dragon Dictate,” “microphone” and about a half dozen other terms drawn directly from my text. Personally, I figure if I just tagged posts with “sex,” “naked” and suchlike lazy lures, Iʼd have all the pornseekers hitting on my blog all night and day.

So what do you think? Is pat formula preferable to crotchety, quirky curmudgeonliness? 

* It took me a second look, too, but “Lots,” the subject of that first sentence, is** clearly a plural.

** However, the word “lots” itself is just one word, therefore singular.

Footnotes are undoubtedly a poor idea, according to the formulæ, I feel sure. My cantankerous apologies.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Life Near the Mississippi

…or Bumbling Ineptitude

Mark Twain did a remarkably clever thing when writing the memoirs of his youthful riverboating days, Life on the Mississippi, recapturing that long absent and nostalgic time when he was learning the multiplex and intimidating skills required of a riverboat pilot. The writer “invented” a “character,” the naïve and bumbling Sam, his younger self caught in the coils of his apprenticeship. (At least this character creation gimmick is what the critics frequently say.) Sam really is a goof, constantly missing the point of his pilot mastersʼ instruction, doing the wrong thing (almost inevitably), and suffering immense frustration at the overhwhelming quantity of learning being imposed on him. Sam is pretty comical, which is of course Twainʼs point, and the young manʼs scatterbrained ineptitude is good for plenty of laughs in the book. (And as I have myself demonstrated on this blog, it is the lot of younger selves to be mocked by their older versions in the good fulness of time.)

Actually, although I have read the book twice, my favorite and most familiar connection to the story is the John Deere-funded movie adaptation on public television from back in the early Eighties, which I showed annually to the American Literature and English III students as part of their Mark Twain units just before they began reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The screenwriter did an incredible job of boiling down Twainʼs meandering and often disconnected recollections (with quite a few supervising pilots) to a straightforward story of the youthful Sam irritating his master Horace Bixby, originally just one of the many pilots from the book. And the actors, exceptionally well cast, did a wonderful job bringing the late 1850s and Twainʼs treasured recollections to life (which is the reason I liked to show it to the students, other than the fact that I love the movie — to permit them to visualize and perhaps even participate in that historical past).

Anything by Twain is highly recommended, Life on the Mississippi ranking very high among all the rest of his writing, right up there with Huckleberry Finn itself, the book Hemingway said was the original source of all American writing. But I bring up the character of Sam for a mostly nonliterary reason. Undergoing training as a novice, even at my doddering and hoary age, for my current job with USDA APHIS PPQ, I notice my behavior and incompentence mimicking the bumbling young Clemens. And I begin to wonder if a halting and frustrated inadequacy isnʼt the rightful and unfortunately necessary lot of trainees.

What the possibly semi-fictional Sam and I have in common is learning by doing on the job under the tutelage of experts who are not themselves teachers. Teachers get trained to be aware of the need to explain (and re-explain and even explain again in a whole different way) concepts and skills to their youthful charges. Workers assigned to train a newbie donʼt have that educational expertise, and so their explanations tend to be slight and even vague. As Mr. Bixby says, both in the book (I think) and the film, “I canʼt explain how, but someday youʼll just know the difference naturally.” That same point covers my training in the recognition of ash trees — a few details (like the tight diamondness of the bark, the opposite branching and not much else) and reassurances that with experience “youʼll just start to get it.”

Iʼm not complaining about the instruction I received, although I am fairly sure my supervisors and partners may have some complaints about my level of acumen and skill (just like the nebbish Sam). I simply recognize what I first experienced in literature being absolutely true in real life. Absolutely and sadly true.

And tomorrow my big boss from Des Moines is coming out to “ride with me.” I am sure thatʼll be an eye-opening experience for him…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Visitations (or “Family Values”)

Some families are less outgoing than others…

Today the parents-in-law get their new computer and network installed. To ease their initiation into the digital etherspace, I promised that I would be present when the Geek Squad arrives this morning (sometime — the appointment is between 8:00 and noon) to help with questions or concerns the pair might have. And to get them actively online with at least one e-mail address and an awareness (I hope) of what a browser is.

Since retirement began, I have visited them on my own a couple of times, generally to help with something or to get their help (like acquiring their used lawn mower last spring). And those two are the only parents of any kind that I have on earth these days (fortunately, they’re the kind of spouse’s parents who accept their sons-in-law and daughter-in-law and actually seem like another set of parents). But it’s still kind of odd visiting with one’s in-laws, no matter how much the mutual appreciation. For instance, I adore Janet’s sister, Diane, but when she visits I do realize that the two women spend long, unwearying hours together while I generally read or something for parts of the weekend, leaving them on their own, sometimes for hours.

That was not my pattern last weekend when my sister, Margaret, came to visit. She and I were talking (not as nonstop as Janet and Diane, but then our family is far from as social as theirs) from Friday afternoon until noon on Sunday. And although Janet made herself much more present than I tend to do (notice that comment about Wakdjunkaga’s family sociability index above), she was the one being silent for long stretches and on Saturday night retiring two hours earlier than the siblings.

The Lovely One has let me know that perhaps not everyone is enchanted with my political insights (and I don’t mean wisdom, but everything that all-too-easy internet research has made terrifyingly visible to me over the past year or so — it is a very scary Dextreme out there, selfRighteous and wrongheaded religiously and lunatic politically), nor amused by incessant discussion of science fiction and fantasy or childhood recollections or my various analyses of Homer’s Odyssey (about which I really should write, having been reminded of those arguable theses in debate with my sister), nor enthralled with theological discussions (Margaret taught me about “adoptionism” and about a half dozen or more contemporary theologians and Biblical scholars, Saturday night). Clearly role reversal, for sure, dependent on which family is visiting.

Antigone burying/honoring Polyneices

One’s own family is the one that one knows and that knows one the best. (Like that? The objective third person derives from helping sophomores with their persuasive essays for the last month — their real teacher doesn’t appreciate writers using first and second person, so utterly unlike this blog, for instance…) That profundity reminds me of another, critical literary observation I used to impose on certain classes: about Antigone — so obsessively infatuated with death, purity and finality — choosing her original family into which she was born over the potential and future family she might have made for herself (electing to bury her dead and dishonored brother instead of marrying her espoused cousin, who himself, on another hand, elects to die with/for her, his unrealized bride, against his father).

And oneʼs own family alters, blooms and grows wider in compass. Margaretʼs husband, Brian, was one of the best goads and inspirations in my life, brimming with wisdom, learning and wit (his spirit surely supervised and stimulated our sibling conversation this past Saturday night). Yet so many think of in-laws as pests or problems somehow… Dianeʼs husband, Steve, is, I think, no actual nameable relation to me (is oneʼs sister-in-lawʼs husband considered to be related to one?), but he is an important part of my family, right along with his son, one of my two nephews (a named relationship interestingly, although the two nephews — one on Janetʼs side and one from mine — arenʼt themselves related. Are they?). And my brotherʼs son is going to get married this summer…

Oneʼs family is a living entity, not a narrowly predefined cold case.

Antigone and contemporary zealots are wrong. Real families grow and change, sharing the love, as the anonymous They like to say (some time). And unlike the “views” of mindlessly vanderplaatzed Tighty Righty radicals selfsnared in their rigid, irrational Dextremity, real “family values” accept and embrace those innumerable, questionable and uncertain strangers who bring the future — surprising and disorienting, breathing life and renewal, embodied as their neoteric present and beloved selves.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Getting it all wrong

I like the Times Literary Supplement. Unfortunately, it is so expensive that my subscriptions to the periodical run for a year and then expire for year or a few months or a few years. Why? Because every now and then the publishers offer a really reduced come-on, I think for “educators,” which I can afford, about a third or a quarter of the real subscription price. When I get one of those offers, if I’m feeling sufficiently flush, I subscribe. (Or at least I did so subscribe for nearly three decades, all the way back to the time Janet and I met.) I entered my subscription most recently back in the fall (in an orgy of spending, thanks to a full week of substitute teaching, I resubscribed to most of the periodicals I had let go when I retired, TLS included).

Saturday morning I finished reading my current copy (they are never very current, being mailed from Great Britain — that issue was for February 11) and felt surprisingly interested in many things I had read, some of which you may get to read more about soon (or not). Actually to choose the word “surprisingly” is inaccurate, as I usually enjoy at least half of the reviews and articles in every issue. I had begun the magazine on Thursday, I think, getting through the first 24 or 25 pages (I am dictating, having resurrected the pairing for the Bluetooth headset, which had evaporated, and I am still uncomfortable with Dictate’s predilection for digits over letters when I speak numbers; an old-school old fart, I still think numbers should be words through one hundred, or at least through twenty and the even tens to a hundred — and I had to edit the digits the software included in what you just read). I paused at an article reviewing a new book on ethics that constructs an elaborate system of rationale to clarify making moral decisions.

Reading the article, I thought about conflicts in medieval dar al-Islam (particularly in al-Andalus) between conservative religious figures and progressive philosophers. The philosophers held very broad and liberal views that frequently diverged entirely from traditional Islam and even verged into atheism (or at least a rejection of paradise and hell, an afterlife, and post-mortem reward or punishment forever). But these subtle thinkers devised and articulated some of the most astute insights into morality and science ever (in part or in total because of their [lack of] religious views), powerful enough to sway the scholastic philosophers of medieval Europe a few hundred years later, including (or in particular) Thomas Aquinas. (And the swaying didnʼt just involve the science but the ethics especially.) The religious guys, on the other hand, imams and jurists, argued that no matter if any of the philosopher guysʼ moral arguments were correct, the common person just wasnʼt built to understand such sophistry and intellectual finesse. The ordinary fellow could only be swayed morally by the threat of punishment, if not instantly here and now, then in the hereafter, regardless if such a supernatural retribution were actually real (for the philosophersʼ reasonings had some power in devout Muslim circles, too).

Back to the TLS article? I wasnʼt sure any typical lowbrow yahoo, like folks who post comments to Dextremist blogs (and even those who write the blogs themselves), would act morally based solely on the refined principles espoused in the book under review. That consideration made me wonder about the dubious power of narrow and judgmental fundamentalism today (and I am not just talking about Islam now, either, obviously). Does such a rigid system have any benefits whatsoever?

I may loathe the terrible folly of trying to twist oneʼs mind into accepting every word of scripture as valid (and no one does that; they all cherrypick instead — a friend posted a very funny “oops” article about someone tattooing an OT verse against homosexuality on his arm but getting the citation wrong: it referenced a verse forbidding tattoos!*), but now I wonder if goofs need the threat of hell to be decent people…

If so, what kind of dark and selfish cesspools of vileness are such supposedly simple people? And consdering the negative impacts of fundamentalism around the globe today, is that presumed moral-rectification by posthumous paddling even real?

Thatʼs a pair of scary thoughts.

* Although the source I located says the tattoo is accurate, the verse against tattooing is later. Even so… pick and choose, pick and choose…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.