Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Factive Fiction and Fictive Fact

Two weekend book looks:

A Necessary End by Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson

Yet another apocalypse? Bookstores and cinemaplexes are rife with them. Are authors and readers/viewers everywhere sensing something in the air? As that may be, this one is a little different. We’ve seen civilization brought to its knees in apocalyptic fiction by plagues, asteroids, zombies, nuclear war, alien invasion, and a myriad other causes. How about flies? This one has flies. A mutated species of fly is infesting the world. It doesn’t spread disease in the usual sense. There is no bacterium or virus. Illness isn’t spread person to person. Instead, the fly’s saliva provokes a fatal autoimmune response in humans and only in humans. The fly then lays eggs in the corpse it has provided for itself: all in all a plausible life cycle. Only a handful of people are immune. The flies have spread so fast that societies are overwhelmed by demands on health care and basic services.

Unusually for catastrophe-fiction, which tends to be action-adventure, A Necessary End is character driven. The central characters Nigel and Abby, who had marital problems even before the arrival of the flies, face their fates with very different philosophies. Nigel is a firm rationalist determined to find physical causes and scientific solutions while Abby relies on her faith. Other characters react with anger, superstition, resolve, generosity, or violence according to their nature and circumstances. Who lives or dies is less important to the story than how they do.

A collaboration between Sarah Pinborough and F. Paul Wilson, both talented authors of horror tales (among other works), A Necessary End is a quick read and is as pleasurable as any story with this premise can be. If you’re in the back seat on a modestly lengthy road trip and have had enough both of scenery and your iPhone, this should keep you occupied for the duration.


Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

There is a 1991 episode of Star Trek Next Generation titled “Darmok” in which the Enterprise has a rendezvous with an alien species called Tamarians whose speech is impenetrable. (The “universal translator” wasn’t ever mentioned in the Next Generation, but it turns up in the later Star Trek prequel series Enterprise and back-explains the oddity that everyone in the galaxy seems to speak English; they really don’t, but a miniature wearable device translates in real time; it evidently fails with the Tamarians.) When the Tamarians speak, the Enterprise crew can understand all of their words but none of their sentences. They say things like "Mirab, his sails unfurled" and "Sokath - his eyes uncovered." Finally Counselor Troi perceives the blindingly obvious. “Imagery is everything to the Tamarians,” she says. “It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It's how they communicate, and it's how they think.”

It is my suspicion that this episode was inspired by a book that made a splash in 1980 entitled Metaphors We Live By. On my reading list for the past 35 years, I got around to it last week. We are Tamarians. Civilizations don’t have knees, books don’t normally splash unless you throw them in a pond, and for that matter we are not Tamarians, but I assume the reader understands those images when I use them. Metaphors are our dominant way of expressing ourselves. Most often we aren’t even aware they are metaphors. For example, most of us would not consider the phrase “inflation is rising” to be a metaphor, but it is. Inflation is not an object that rises up or lowers down (“up” and “down” themselves being directions related to our human experience); it is an abstraction to which we give a numerical value based on a particular set of data. Yet we understand “inflation rises.” We understand “moral fiber,” “falling in love,” "blindingly obvious," "food for thought," “packaging your ideas,” an “ugly side to his personality,” and “a solution to her problems.” Chemistry and math both work for that last one: take your pick. Yet, if we spoke to an alien species about the “foundations of friendship” (friendship as a building with foundations) or "foundations of a theory" they might well be utterly baffled.

Lakoff and Johnson argue that metaphor is the way humans experience reality. It's how we communicate, and it's how we think. The nature of our biological and social existence forms the basis of our metaphors. The biggest challenge of ever getting a computer to think like a human is precisely that computers don’t experience the world in the same way we do. Our metaphors in turn shape our views and actions. Consider the (often unspoken) metaphor that debate is a battle in which one attacks an opponent’s positions, defends one’s own, and either wins or loses. How would a debate differ if instead of a battle metaphor we viewed it as a dance? The authors also discuss the limitations of both objectivism and subjectivism as philosophical systems. They make their point that human understanding is experiential and that new ideas are built upon those experiences, which is to say they are almost inevitably metaphorical. This is fine, they say, but it is “important to realize that the way we have been brought up to perceive our world is not the only way and that it is possible to see beyond the ‘truths’ of our culture.”

You won’t finish this book in the back seat on that road trip. But if you’re inside on a rainy weekend, the book is worth the time it takes to read.

Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Double Derby and the Generation Gap

An unusual double-header took place in Morristown NJ last night.

NJRD (New Jersey Roller Derby) All Stars vs Diamond State Roller Girls
NJRD Small Stars vs Jersey Junior Roller Derby

Since its inception in 2011 the NJRD (adult division) has evolved from a spirited but uneven presence on the rink into a consistently effective force. This was certainly on display last night as the NJRD dominated a bout with Diamond State Roller Girls visiting from Delaware. In the first three jams Shannanigunz, Tuff Crust Pizza, and Maulin Rouge gave NJRD a 26-0 lead. It was a harbinger. Diamond State jammers were not without success, notably Cheetahs Never Prosper and Slashley Voorhees, but it wasn’t enough. Blocking by both teams was aggressive and tactically coherent, but ultimately NJRD jammers more often got through, with Shannanigunz and Maulin Rouge both executing fancy leaps of inside corners. To their credit, neither team eased up when outcome no longer was in doubt. NJRD took the win 387-62.

MVPs: Shannanigunz (jammer) and Bitty Boom Boom (blocker) for NJRD; Cheetahs Never Prosper (jammer) and Copa Kabangya (blocker) for Diamond State.


I’ve seen the junior division (ages 8-17) NJRD Small Stars skate demonstration bouts before, but last night they skated a full-length bout against Jersey Junior Roller Derby. Both teams clearly had benefited from coaching and much practice: blocking was coordinated and good. In that age range, however, a single year makes a world of difference and an apparent edge worked to Jersey Junior Roller Derby’s advantage. For all that the Small Stars’ Lil’ Miss, Breezy, Fast n Furious, and (especially) Dreadga Allie Poe had good nights. But Jersey Junior Roller Derby had a better night, notably jammers Fetty Wapher and Hotroad Hunny. The Jersey Juniors led 90-40 at 15 minutes into the bout, and were able to maintain roughly that percentage spread throughout the rest of the match. Final score Jersey Junior Roller Derby took the win 333-165.

MVPs: Julia Ghoulia (jammer) and Hotroad Hunny (blocker) for Jersey Junior Roller Derby; Cinderspella (jammer) and Crushin’ Skulls (blocker) for NJRD Small Stars.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Diving into the Equinox

A swimming pool is an absurdity in NJ. There is no resale value: otherwise identical houses with and without a pool sell for the same price. Homeowner’s insurance will cost more on account of one. Maintenance is constant, the operational expenses are excessive, and the local climate (cycling between icy and hot, sere and wet) couldn’t be better tuned to damaging a pool structurally: walls push, coping stones crumble, tiles shatter, pipes separate, pumps rust, coatings peel, and covers disintegrate. Let’s not even talk about autumn leaves and spring algal blooms. In the winter, pools become wildlife traps: I’ve had to rescue three deer, including a scarily upset eight-point buck, after their sharp hooves sliced the cover and they fell in. All this for only four months of suitable swimming weather – just two months for the timid.

Yet, I have one. It wasn’t my idea. My parents wanted a pool. When their home became mine, the pool became mine too. Given the trouble involved, however, I’m determined to get as much value out of it as I can. May through September I go in the water every single day, even if the temperature is bone-chilling, as it commonly is. (It doesn’t matter if an outdoor pool is heated: solar cannot keep up in the cooler months while gas is too ridiculously expensive to use regularly.) I’ll enjoy swimming no matter how painful it is.

I jest – sort of. As long as the in-ground vat of water is out there anyway, I really do look forward to opening it in May. I really do go in every day even when very very cold. Also, I’m saddened when the season comes to close it. The equinox is upon us and the season has arrived. The pool was treated and covered today – after my (cold) morning swim.

The passage of the seasons, an inescapable metaphor for the waxing and waning of an individual life, is utterly entangled with the human consciousness and sense of the world. Robert Graves believed that all poetry had a seasonal aspect, whether obvious or not. (His analysis was much more complex than that – see The White Goddess – but seasonal awareness was part of it.) Without this aspect, you could have wordplay but not poetry.  Such awareness was far more intense in the past when people were more exposed to the elements. Today we drive climate controlled cars into heated parking garages and take the elevator in climate controlled buildings, but nonetheless we are conscious of the passing year. The autumnal equinox, signaling the end of summer and the growth of darkness, is an especially portentous marker in the year. All ancient people made a fuss about it. In ancient Greece it was when Persephone returned to the underworld for six months, thereby depressing her earth goddess mom Demeter who expressed her depression by letting crops and forests turn brown. In Japan the Buddhist holiday Higan is a time to remember the dead. According to Julius Caesar, who described the practice in his Commentaries, some Celts would burn a sacrificial victim in a Wicker Man.

I closed the pool. Somehow that doesn’t seem to measure up to burning a Wicker Man, but it resonates with me in its own banal way. Goodbye summer. Welcome fall.

Death Cab for Cutie: Meet Me on the Equinox

Sunday, September 20, 2015

9/19 Derby Double Header – Rip Tide

Women’s flat track roller derby returned to Morristown last night in a double header with inland teams taking on two shore based teams:

The Jerzey Derby Brigade Corporal Punishers vs. the Jersey Shore Roller Girls Beat Down
Garden State Roller Girls Brick City Bruisers vs. Shore Points Roller Derby Boardwalk Brawlers

The first bout was exciting from start to finish. Time and again, the Punishers built a substantial lead only to see it vanish. For the Punishers #22 Apocelyse put the first points on the board in the second jam. #3684 CaliforniKate built the lead. Both jammed extraordinarily well and successfully for the rest of the bout. But a power jam by #356 sevral minutes into the game Novapain put the Beat Down into a 1-point lead.  The Punishers in turn recovered the lead and built up a 20-point advantage only to see #355 Soco eliminate all but 3 points of that lead in a power jam. This pattern continued for the rest of the game. At the start of the very last jam the score stood at 161-141 in favor of Punishers. The whistle blew with a nail-bitingly close win for the Punishers 165-158. Blocking by both teams was aggressive and well organized, with special mention to Beast Witherspoon and Purple Krush.

The second bout was also good hard fought derby, but the power edge of the Brick City Bruisers appeared quickly and persisted throughout the bout. Most often, the difference between two experienced teams shows up in defensive blocking, but the Bruisers and the Brawlers were pretty well matched in this regard. In this case the Bruisers’ advantage came from a depth of skilled and effective jammers including #110 Tess T Rossa (who scored 34 points in a single jam early in the bout), #9999 Tifa Knoxhard, and the very fast #992 Anita Chainsaw: all of them adept at powering through defensive lines and weaving through holes in them. The Brawlers jammers had their moments too, notably #66 Sleyre, #511 Eiffel Terror, and #1979 Kid Vicious. Yet despite good blocking strategy and execution by both sides (special mention to Clara Form and Sweet Action Sally), the Garden State Roller Girls Brick City Bruisers built an early commanding lead and expanded it throughout the bout. Final score was 378-106 in favor of the Bruisers.

Promise Ring: Jersey Shore 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Altai Ink

Earlier today at the supermarket checkout counter, the operator, a pretty Millennial perhaps 19-years-old, flashed the edge of a tattoo on her lower forearm while scanning the jar of jalapenos. From my angle it looked a lot like the semicolon tattoo which I mentioned in a previous blog. I was about to remark on it until the horseradish went by (yes, I like spicy foods) and saw that the marks actually were part of a butterfly image. So, I let the matter drop. They only thing remarkable about young tattooed checkout operators is that they are unremarkable -- at least in regard to skin art.

20 years ago, tattoos were still the exception. Not actually rare. They’ve never been rare. Still, they were the exception, especially among the young. They were most common among rougher subsets of the population: soldiers, bikers, strippers, prisoners, and others with an edgy image. On, say, a bank teller or an accountant they were improbable – possible but improbable. No longer. Tattoos now are mainstream, especially among the young, and they say nothing whatsoever about the social position of the wearer unless they are the work of a famous artist.

Arguably this is a familiar pattern: styles regarded as edgy are adopted by more conventional folks who want the image without the lifestyle. Eventually the style becomes so widespread that it loses its edge. Blue jeans are the classic example. They originally were blue-collar work clothes. More prosperous folk wore them to be edgy, sometimes as a political statement of solidarity with workers. By the 1970s, however, they were so commonplace as to lose all such connotations. Instead, expensive designer jeans became status symbols: a statement that the wearer could afford them. Tattoos seem to be on a similar course.

Today, Pew Research Center tells us 36% of Americans between 18 and 25 are tattooed. 60% of those are women. That’s still a minority of the population, of course, but more than enough to qualify as fully mainstream. Since there is no cut-off age for one’s first tattoo, we can assume many more of the presently unillustrated members of this age-cohort also will acquire ink at some point in their lives. Already, designer ink by noted tattoo artists is most definitely a status symbol, sported proudly by celebrities as such Angelina Jolie and Rihanna.

This brings us back full circle. Long before they were considered rough-edged, tattoos were status symbols. One of the best examples is the so-called Siberian Ice Maiden discovered by Natalia Polosmak’s archeological team in 1993. Also dubbed Princess Ukok, the Maiden is the mummified remains of a 2500-year-old Scythian Pazyryk; she is believed to have been a major shaman based on the elaborate kurgan (tomb) contents, which included six bridled horses. She was alive at about the time Herodotus describes the Scythians in his Histories. They once occupied a vast area in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and spoke Indo-Iranian languages ancestral to modern Ossetian. Princess Ukok had some really great ink. See depictions and photos in The Siberian Times. They have inspired more than a few modern imitators.

I suspect the modern fashion for tats has enough life in it to become not just mainstream but the norm. By then they no longer will upset parents, and so will lose much of their appeal. That point is a while off though. As for me, being neither young, rough-edged, high status, nor female, I’ll likely remain un-inked for the rest of my days. If I choose to make some symbolic statement, I’ll probably drive an inappropriate car instead. It’s less painful, except in the bank account.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

On Green Mattresses

Today, Wednesday 9 September was a lovely 91 degrees (33 C). Complaints about the heat abound, but unless you’re doing something as strenuous as swinging a pick or roofing a barn in the sun (as I’ve done frequently enough) 91 really is not so very hot. Even in NJ-style humidity, it is just another summer day. I am not so tasked – at present anyway – and so I intend to enjoy every last one of the remaining summer days before druids gather at Stonehenge on the 23rd to celebrate the equinox and the arrival of autumn. I enjoyed this afternoon by avoiding work of any kind and napping on the lawn. The grass just looked inviting. I awoke to a blue sky with white clouds.

The house in which I live was built nearly 40 years ago by my father, a life-long builder. I didn’t grow up in it (yeah, I’m old), so it never felt like “home” in quite the same way as the two houses in which my family resided when I was a kid. The first was built in Whippany by my parents in 1949. This was before either my sister or I was born – I’m not that old. I probably didn’t sleep on the lawn there, but I certainly ran and rolled around on it. Back then kids were inclined to do weird things like play outdoors – not organized sports under adult supervision, but play. The next home was built in Brookside in 1959. I did most of my growing up there and even now my dreams are commonly located there. I remember running on the lawn on the day we moved into that house. I had a long stick in my hand that in my mind was a sword; I was Zorro, you see. Back then they didn’t medicate boys for doing that. I also slept on the lawn in the back of the property by the pond several times over the years. Even though a couple of those occasions were during my high school years, alcohol was not involved. The grass just looked inviting. My dog usually woke me up.

My parents built their next house – the one I occupy today – in 1978. Why? Perhaps the grass seemed greener on this plot of land. Or maybe they just wanted a change. Trivia: the aphorism “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” derives from Ars Amatoria, Ovid’s first century handbook on seduction. “Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris”: literally “the crops always are more fertile in other fields.” Yes, he meant that metaphorically. My dad died in 2000 and my mom followed in 2001. While I have lived here since then (having sold my own modest property in 2001), it has felt like my parents’ house: comfortable and familiar but somehow not “home.” Apparently other people pick up on that. To this day, one of my friends consistently refers to this place as “your dad’s house.”

Today all that changed. When I woke up this afternoon on the lawn next to the pines and walked back toward the house, for the first time in 14 years I knew I was home. I should have snoozed in the grass earlier. Also, I’d better keep this place a while longer if I can. I’m not sure I have enough time left to make yet another place “home.”  

Grateful Dead – Ramble On Rose
“Good-bye mama and papa
Good-bye Jack and Jill
The grass ain't greener
The wine ain't sweeter
Either side of the hill”

Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Pause That Refreshes

Blogger.com, a service of Google, hosts blogs of the “blogspot” domain such as this one. In addition to offering bloggers ready-made formats, it provides readership statistics that are fascinating to the bloggers, if to no one else. Don’t worry: blogger.com does NOT tell us who individual readers are. Anyone who reads this site does so completely anonymously. But it does tell us (broken down for the day, week, and month) how many readers there are and from what country. Sometimes peculiarities appear in the stats for Richard’s Pretension that raise unanswerable questions. Real recent examples: “Why did 27 people in Taiwan read my remarks on the closing of the Broadway show Cabaret?”; “Even though more people see movies than read books, why do my book reviews consistently receive more hits than my movie reviews?”; and “In the first 24 hours after I posted a recap, why were 56 Russians eager to read about a local roller derby bout in NJ?” Don’t get me wrong: the more folks who view my site the happier I am, regardless of which post they read or from what country they hail, but I sometimes wonder why they do.

So, it was pleasant to discover that one such perplexing question actually had an answer. Nearly every day for the past several months, I’ve had a handful of hits on a blog I posted years ago titled Save the Semicolon. The blog was a lighthearted defense of a punctuation mark that has been fading in use for the past two centuries. The small but persistent recent interest in a 4-year-old blog on punctuation naturally raised the question “Why?” A Google search quickly provided a likely explanation. People looking for something else were stumbling on my old blog instead.

The semicolon still might be vanishing from books, stories, and articles, but apparently it is showing up on skin in ever increasing numbers. In 2013 Amy Bleuel, who had lost her father to suicide, began Project Semicolon “dedicated to presenting hope and love to those who are struggling with depression, suicide, addiction and self-injury.” Its symbol is a semicolon tattoo, because "a semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but chose not to.”

It’s hard to find much fault in that, other than perhaps the grammar of the singular “their,” though this has its proponents for reasons of gender politics. I prefer to make my own symbolic statements in ways that involve fewer needles, but I fully respect those who choose skin ink instead. Besides, my generation has left younger people little option since we already had tried every statement of hair and dress in our youths. P.J. O’Rourke in his book The Baby Boom apologizes for this. “We used up all the weird,” he says. “Thus when it came time for the next generation to alarm and surprise us with their peculiarities they were compelled to pierce their skins and permanently ink their exposed flesh. That must have hurt. We apologize.”

I don’t mean to make light of Project Semicolon, which makes a serious and hopeful statement for a serious and laudable goal. However, I can see the possibilities for other ink statements of a less solemn sort: ! for extroverts, ( ) for introverts, “” for those without original thoughts, periods for the inflexible, and so on. Perhaps there is something to be said for wearing one’s nature with a properly punctuated dermis.

For myself, though, I’ll continue to let time tell its own story on my skin:

“Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve.” ― Coco Chanel