Monday, March 20, 2017

Here Comes the Sun

The equinox is back in in town, and this is the one that points to brighter days: the literal kind. The metaphorical sort remains to be seen.  In some ways brightness can be a modest virtue. At least until nature’s green camouflage returns in force, the scenery in the ever more abundant light is not altogether pretty.

As the residue of the final (I hope) snowstorm of March melts away in this part of the world, what lies beneath emerges. Much of the grounds on my property is a mess. The broken branches that litter the lawn can be tidied up without too much trouble, of course, while verdant regrowth soon will soften the appearance of shattered trees and brown patches. The human artifacts, however, do not regenerate themselves with exposure to a little water and sunlight; on the contrary they’ll just accelerate the decay. Retaining walls crumble, siding rots, shingles curl, and asphalt cracks. Inside my home appliances fail, carpets fray, and furniture sags. Entropy chuckles.

First Law of Thermodynamics: You can’t win.
Second Law: You can’t break even.

Entropy always wins in the end, but we do what we can to delay the inevitable. Fresh shingles, cedar siding, and Type S Portland await my hammer and trowel outside. The inside deterioration I’ll address to the extent my wallet allows.

The Second Law applies not just to human artifacts but to humans. Telomeres will tell. My mirror isn’t giving me the best of news these days, and spring won’t help much with that. Maybe a little. More fresh air and sunshine won’t hurt, but they won’t reverse the general trend. I still can see the 17-year-old in the face looking back at me from the mirror, but I doubt anyone else can see him.

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” said not my generation’s Dylan but that other guy. I think not. I’d rather just take it in my totter instead. Entropy’s assault on my house and grounds, however, will feel my wrath. Well, my hammer and trowel anyway.

Kelly Osbourne – Entropy

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Double Header Derby Recap

The sport of roller derby was invented by Leo Seltzer in 1935, though the rules by which it is still played (with tweaks around the edges) weren’t settled until 1939. Originally it was a mixed gender sport with men and women alternating on the track. Despite winning loyal fans, the sport by the end of the 1970s had trouble staying commercial and the major professional teams folded. Though it never entirely disappeared, derby didn’t really regain traction until 2001 when it acquired new life in Texas with all-women’s teams – typically skated on flat tracks simply because they were more readily available. The revised format spread quickly to the rest of the country and internationally. Nowadays roller derby teams can be found almost everywhere. The fact that overwhelmingly they are smallish and local only adds to the enjoyment for local spectators. I’ve been following the nearby Morristown, NJ, teams for seven years, and still find it one of the most pleasant ways to spend a Saturday evening.

The 2017 season opened in Morristown last night for the New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) with a double header. The evening started with a junior division (ages 8 – 17) bout: NJRD Small Stars vs. Gotham Girls Tiny Terrors. It was followed by an intraleague adult bout of the NJRD, which divided itself into two teams for the evening (Blue Bombers vs Betty Whites), largely for the purpose of introducing and putting to the test its expanded roster of skaters. (NJRD’s first interleague bout of the season will be with the Jersey Shore Roller Girls next month.)

In the juniors bout the NJRD girls took an early lead with jammers Alice in Horrorland and Mia Slam aided by well-coached well-coordinated blocking. Energetic defense by Gotham and effective jams, notably by Bea Sting and Juggernaut Jataun, kept the bout from turning into a rout. The second half began with NJRD ahead by more than 100 points, but the Gotham girls redoubled their efforts and steadily chipped away at the lead, Scary Poppins also doing her bit. They closed to within 50 points, but impressive NJRD defense made every point hard. In the final few minutes successful jams by the NJRD left Gotham no time to overtake them. The final score was 153-220 in favor of NJRD Small Stars.

The NJRD divided itself well for the adult match of Blue vs. White. The result was nailbiter of a bout that was undecided until the final minute. Defense for both teams was extraordinarily aggressive, but especially for White, with Shorty Ounce frequently in the path of the Blue jammer. This was counterbalanced, though, by a slight edge in jammers by Blue, notably Marie Furie, Tiger Munition, and veteran skater Tuff Crust Pizza – plus a strategic use of star passes. The score, accordingly, seldom was more than a few points apart, and the first half ended with the board reading 104-109 in favor of White. White’s aggressive blocking and solid jams by skaters including Ferocia Rose, Malicen Wonderland, and Fizzing Whizbee built up a sizable lead through most of the second half, but it disappeared in single 24 point jam by Tuff Crust Pizza. With 5 minutes remaining the game tilted toward Blue. Pizza puy the last points on the board as the clock ran out, with a final score of 188-174 in favor of Blue.

I’m looking forward to what they can do as a united team against Jersey Shore. They seem ready.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On the Move

I move a couple times per year – not myself but other people. Not counting college dorm rooms, I move my own place of residence only about once per decade, and even then only if you include a move from one house to another on the same property: in the 80s I bought a property with two cottages on it and in the 90s moved from the smaller to the larger. This is pretty static by modern standards. Moreover, most of the moves have been local. I live 10 miles from where I was born, 4 from where I went to high school, and 3 from the family cemetery section where there’s a vacancy. (I wasn’t involved in that purchase, but there it is.) Nonetheless, my friends always remember who has a truck and an as yet uninjured back, so rarely does a year go by without putting my GMC and my latissimi dorsi to use in a move: most recently a week ago.

I usually get tagged for the large heavy pieces. I actually prefer these, for even though they are…well…large and heavy they are therefore few in number so the endeavor is over soon. (Friends who have lots of large heavy objects hire professional movers; no one yet has made an utterly unreasonable request for my help.) I invent excuses to avoid the tedious packing and moving of the usual small sundries from water glasses to sweat shirts. The one occasion when I regretted handling only the big items was when a friend (you know who you are) moved into a fourth floor walk-up. We carried up the steps a foldout couch that to account for the weight must have been made of uranium.

The few times I have moved on my own behalf have convinced me not to do it again without necessity. I’ll stay where I am for as many years as I can, but the cost – particularly NJ’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes – of retaining the family home as I presently do is unsustainable in the long run. So, necessity eventually will arrive, assuming John Maynard Keynes’ remark about the long run isn’t applicable first. I’m not looking forward to it – either possibility actually, though one of them is less work. The most daunting task will be disposing in some way of all the stuff that won’t make the move with me. The barn alone, despite my ongoing multiyear effort to diminish its contents, still abounds (my dad was a builder) with such sundries as mismatched trim, shingles, random hardware, window screens that fit no windows, mismatched cabinets, and (yes, really) a kitchen sink.

I had a foretaste of this kind of effort when I closed my business office a couple years ago: the removal of desks, copiers, steel file cabinets, and so on. I MacGyvered a makeshift block and tackle to get the heaviest cabinets down from the second floor. It’s not something I wish to repeat or that I’d recommend for the joy of it.

A track from a George Thorogood cd that was playing on my stereo earlier today not only inspired this blog but might contain good advice for my next home. (The song originally was Hank Williams I believe.) So long as it has wifi, a doghouse might not be so bad. It’s cozy and the move after that would be simple indeed.

Monday, March 6, 2017

All I Really Need to Know I Re-learned from Buffy

Ok, not really. But it is a less silly statement than one might think. I’m choosing this moment for it because a few days from now (March 10) marks the 20th anniversary of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Writer/director Joss Whedon grew up with outer-office Hollywood connections a couple of generations deep. His grandfather, for example, wrote for The Donna Reed Show. This background helped to get a hearing and a green light for Whedon’s youthful screenplay Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), but wasn’t enough to give him the director’s chair or creative control over the production. The result, much to his distress, was a far goofier movie than he intended – the line between campy and goofy may be fuzzy but it is real. Nonetheless, it was popular enough that the WB network offered to let Joss try his hand at a TV series based on it in which he would be in full control. Joss had his chance to mix horror, comedy, romance, dry wit, and melodrama (plus, yes, a little goofiness) as he liked, which is to say in a less broad manner than in the film. The combination worked. It worked for seven seasons and generated a spinoff series (Angel) that lasted for five.

I won’t go into lengthy detail about why this is a show adults can enjoy. The vlogger whose video is posted below does this most effectively. I cannot find anything in his argument with which to take issue. In brief, however, the primary point is that the monsters, demons, and vampires in the show are not just what they seem to be. They are metaphors for the troubles and demons we all face in life, particularly while growing up. Facing them, in fact, is how we grow up. Nor does Whedon lapse into a simpleminded morality. All his characters are more complex than that. There isn’t a single major character in the series who at some point doesn’t respond to some temptation or provocation by acting against type, as all of us do sometimes. After all, fundamentally good people can be destructive – even murderous – if triggered in the right way while villains can be kind. Moreover, villains can be truthful. Nearly always Whedon puts the most important (and therefore uncomfortable) truths into the mouths of his villainstruths politely avoided by the “good guys.” Yet, he tells us there are such things as moral choices. Lest all that begins to sound too heavy, did I mention the show also is both fun and funny?

I didn’t watch Buffy during its original 1997-2003 run. Those particular years were filled with my own troubles (a failed marriage, financial woes, loss of my parents, and much else) sucking the life out of me as effectually as any vampire. I didn’t need to seek out any more horror on TV and film. Besides, the movie had struck me as so-so, and I wasn’t inclined to give any of my then sparse downtime to a so-so show apparently aimed at teenagers. Only several years after the series ended did a smattering of re-runs convince me that I had prejudged the series wrongly. I have all seven seasons on DVD and recommend them. There is also a comic book series that continues to this day, though the first volume (the so-called Season 8) written by Joss Whedon is the one that ties up loose ends of the TV series. 

While he does enjoy dry wit, Whedon doesn’t ever rely on this alone. In Buffy and in his later scripts and movies he is never afraid to be sentimental, darkly humorous, grief-stricken, joyful, and passionate. His work is better for it. In a time of cynicism about everything except (regrettably) politics, in which true believers abound, it is well to be reminded that those adjectives are not properly just reserved for adolescents. They are human. Thanks for the reminder, Buff.


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Double Occupancy

I always find it entertaining to watch a movie at home with a Millennial or GenZ. (What’s not to like about the term “Generation Z” and its variants for the latest wave of HS students and younger, by the way? It sounds like the zombie apocalypse.) There are at least three electronic devices competing for their attention: the TV, an open laptop with a game in progress, and a smart phone open to the net and continually buzzing as new texts arrive. There might even be music-emitting earphones around the neck that slide up onto the ears for any dull spots in film, game, or text.

I don’t multitask as well as that. I like to think I “focus better than that,” but in truth it’s a mix of both. Some of this is generational, but a lot of it is surely a personal trait: I just am distracted easily. I don’t even like the car radio to play when I’m coping with heavy traffic, though the radio is enjoyable on an open road. In high school and college I sometimes read and studied with the stereo playing, but not loudly and not any old record. I could deal with the Grateful Dead as background music, for example, but not Jimi Hendrix. Jimi would pull my attention away from the books. Nowadays I generally prefer full quiet when reading, but there are rare exceptions. The exceptions usually are an accident.

A recent exception involved thumbing through David Hume’s Essays while Garbage played on the stereo. I meant no commentary by that particular combination. The Garbage CD just happened to be playing when I picked up the book, got caught up in it, and then was too lazy to walk across the room to turn off the music. (Laziness has had a profound impact on my life in ways both large and small.) On this occasion the effect was pleasant.

After the bromidic Seneca (See earlier blog Polonius on the Tiber), the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was a refreshing breath of breezy 18th century air. Hume is fashionable in philosophic circles at the moment, probably because of his religious skepticism. Yet his more important message was religious toleration – and political toleration. Hume lived in fractious times, as we do today, and his assessment of political factions sounds all too modern:

“Those who either attack or defend a minister in such a government as ours, where the utmost liberty is allowed, always carry matters to an extreme, and exaggerate his merit or demerit with regard to the public. His enemies are sure to charge him with the greatest enormities, both in domestic and foreign management; and there is no meanness or crime, of which, in their account, he is not capable… On the other hand, the partizans of the minister make his panegyric run as high as the accusation against him, and celebrate his wise, steady, and moderate conduct in every part of his administration.”

So too.

The source of his tolerance (other than his personal disposition) was his belief in the limits of reason. Unlike Descartes and most of the ancient philosophers who insisted on the primacy of reason, Hume regarded reason as more of a tool than an answer. He saw all too clearly that people – especially in political, religious, and moral matters – believe something first and then employ reason to justify their belief. When negative proofs are impossible – as they usually are – most people are impervious to reasoned arguments. They can rationalize right back at you. They must be persuaded, if at all, by appealing to their sympathies – to their emotions. They will see logic in a new belief only afterwards. Recognition of this human foible made Hume a skeptic with regard to all beliefs including his own. It’s hard to be both a self-skeptic and a zealot.

As for popular music, the sounds from one’s youth are notoriously dear to the heart, which in my case primarily means basic blues-based rock-and-roll and its variants. Rarely do the five receptacles in my CD tray not contain at least one disc that meets the description, whether a classic band such as the Animals or a contemporary one such as Dorothy. But I do play other artists and genres originating both before and after my teen years. Bands from the ‘90s (high tide for GenXers) in particular occupy an outsized quantity of space on my CD shelf: Offspring, Radiohead, Guns’n’Roses, Soundgarden, etc. One experimental band I liked at the time was Garbage, which deliberately mixed genres so thoroughly that it really couldn’t be pigeon-holed. Lead singer (and Hume’s fellow Scot) Shirley Manson once called it sci-fi pop, but she didn’t stick with the description. Whatever it is, it combines ‘50s Beat coffee house-style lyrics with synthetic sounds and traditional instruments to interesting effect.

Garbage has disbanded and reformed several times over the years, but is currently together and performing. Their most recent album, the 2016 Strange Little Birds, is worth a listen (one track posted below) and served as the background music mentioned above.

Thumbs up to book and band. Though the two worked well together for me on this occasion, I think that is because neither was new to me. If encountering either for the first time, I recommend them in sequence, not in concert.

Garbage – Magnetized

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Light Side of the Farce

After my encounter with Seneca last week I was in need of some comic relief. Fortunately some was at hand in print and on stage.

**** ****
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong

David Wong is the pen name of Jason Pargin, editor at Cracked. Several years ago Wong had unexpected success with his self-published cult paranormal/scifi novel John Dies at the End, which was made into a less successful cult movie in 2012. The novel had a sequel in much the same vein: This Book is Full of Spiders – Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It. Wong goes in a new direction with Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits. The newer book employs much more straightforward storytelling and abandons the paranormal, but Wong’s signature sense of humor remains.

In a not-too-distant future, Zoey Ashe lives in a trailer with an aromatic cat and a stripper mother. Zoey learns she is the sole heir to her absentee father, a billionaire entrepreneur in Tabula Ra$a. Tabula Ra$a is a new “anything goes” city in the Utah desert, built because Las Vegas is way too tame. Suddenly she is the target of live-streaming assassins with biological and mechanical enhancements who revel in their viewership count on social media. Her father’s former associates are allies of sorts, though she has no reason to trust them and their agendas. Zoey just wants to survive, which requires preventing an enhanced villain named Molech from making full acquisition and use of her father’s technical legacy. The live-streams of these events are immensely popular, which prompts new actors to enter the fray with their own webcams.

All the quirks and ills of modern society have blossomed into vastly more exaggerated versions in Wong’s future, with marvelous and darkly comedic effect.

Thumbs Up.

**** ****

A Comedy of Tenors

A friend of mine has season tickets to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ, and was kind enough to give me a call (thanks again, Carol) when one of the four seats on Saturday was vacant. The Paper Mill, with its good facilities and proximity to NYC, is known for high production values and for attracting good talent.

Old-fashioned farce has made a comeback in recent years. This is not just an American phenomenon. A recent Guardian article opines, “This atmosphere of absurdity in public life may be one reason why British theatre is currently so fascinated by farce.” Perhaps that is a reason on this side of the Atlantic, too. Perhaps also it is a way of escaping from the atmosphere of hostility in public life. Mistaken identities and slapstick on stage don’t require us to take sides, and so offer some relief from an all too argumentative world. While farce may not be high art, many of the highest artists have tried a hand at it, such as you-know-who, the author of The Comedy of Errors. It takes some chops for actors to pull it off. Credit is due when they succeed.

Written by Ken Ludwig, A Comedy of Tenors takes place in a 1930s Paris hotel on the evening of a major concert of tenors – initially three, but the number of performers rises and falls (sometimes to zero) in the hours before the concert much to the horror of the producer. There are vast misunderstandings with overheard conversations, professional jealousies, misinterpreted visuals, and (as you might expect from the title) mistaken identity. The identity mix-up is between the world famous tenor Tito and his near twin, an aspiring tenor named Beppo who is a bellhop at the hotel. Doors slam and faces are slapped as the misunderstandings multiply.

The cast includes John Treacy Egan as Tito, Judy Blazer as Tito's wife Maria, Jill Paice as Tito’s daughter Mimi, Ryan Silverman as Carlo (a young tenor and Mimi's lover), Michael Kostroff as the producer Saunders, Donna English as Russian opera star Racon, and David Josefsberg as Max. All of them handle their parts and notes well, and no one trips over the furniture who isn't supposed to.

OK, there’s nothing remotely deep about any of this, and were the seat not free it’s unlikely I would have sat in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I went. As the knockabout fun the play is intended to be, Thumbs Up.

Trailer – A Comedy of Tenors

Monday, February 20, 2017

Polonius on the Tiber

My essay on essays a couple weeks ago prompted me to revisit a few essayists who have languished on my shelves. First up was the playwright, Roman statesman, Stoic philosopher, and pedagogue Seneca (1 BCE – 65 CE), who should not be judged too harshly for having had Nero as a student.

I occasionally (meaning every few years) revisit one or more of Seneca’s plays. The critical consensus regarding his tragedies has varied considerably over the centuries along with changing fashions. They are dark, gory, and melodramatic, which suits some eras better than others. I rather like them including Octavia, which he might or might not have written. Modern scholars tend to doubt his authorship of Octavia because its subject matter (Nero’s ill-treatment of his wife) would have been politically indiscreet to put it mildly; I consider this argument against his authorship persuasive but not definitive as he could have squirreled the play away to be published posthumously. As that may be, enough decades went by since I read any of his other writings for me to have forgotten any earlier opinion of them. Having revisited his essays at last, I now recall why I left them on my shelf untouched for so long. (Hume has proved a merrier re-read, amazingly enough, but perhaps more on that another time.)

As a rule, Stoic philosophers aren’t much fun. Their “do your duty” and “straighten up and fly right” admonitions tend to come off as trite and preachy. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it makes them unpleasant. Seneca is no exception. Shakespeare, who was familiar with the works of Seneca, surely had him in mind when he crafted the pompous platitudinous Polonius in Hamlet. As an example, in Consolation to Marcia Seneca “consoles” Marcia, whose son died at 14, by opining that the quality of life matters more than the quantity. He then reminds her that adults can be tempted to disgrace themselves, and now her son won’t have the chance to do that. He asks, “For how do you know it was in his interest to have a longer life, or if this death came as a benefit to him?” It’s hard not to want to bark back at him, “Oh, shut up!” In On the Tranquility of the Mind he tells us of the value of moderation. In On Mercy he tells us he’s for it. He’s against anger though (On Anger). Oh, (re: On Earthquakes) he tells us we can’t prevent earthquakes.

I’m not saying Nero was right to order Seneca to commit suicide. I’m just saying I understand.

Bill Murray as Polonius