Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bandstand Grandstand

Few experiences can make you either forget your age or remember it as effectually as listening to popular music. Our youthful selves are so thoroughly imprinted by the songs current during our teen years that we remember their lyrics for the rest of our lives. Hearing them immediately takes us back. The first sign of having exited “the younger generation” is thinking that music on contemporary popular radio stations is terrible by comparison. Perhaps that is the second sign; maybe the first is hearing the songs on the radio instead of some other platform.

With all that in mind I picked up Your Favorite Band is Killing Me: What Pop Music Rivalries Reveal about the Meaning of Life by music critic Steven Hyden. He explores various sorts of rivalries within and between bands and also among listeners. There is the age-old rivalry between generations. That often fades but in one direction only: another sign of aging is noticing that our parents’ music (in my case Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, et al.) isn’t bad. But the most intense rivalries are among coeval listeners. The classic example for my generation was the common question, “Do you prefer the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” On the surface this seems like a simple matter of taste akin to asking what toppings you like on a pizza. It was understood to be a bigger question than that. An entire worldview and a statement about oneself were inherent in the answer. (I tended to sidestep the question by answering “the Animals,” which come to think of it also was telling.)

Hyden is Generation X so he doesn’t get around to Beatles/Stones until chapter 6, and then only reluctantly as “dad rock.” Mostly he speaks of what had emotional import for him, e.g. Oasis vs. Blur, Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna, Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Biggie vs. Tupac, White Stripes vs. Black Keys, etc. I wasn’t even aware rivalry was a thing for most of his opposing pairs, but I get it. Whether or not it is accurate or fair to regard, for example, Nirvana as outlaw and Pearl Jam as corporate (in the 90s I just lumped them both together as grunge), I can understand what a youthful listener might be trying to project by favoring one over the other – often passionately. It’s all about self-image really, and we are inclined to get passionate when protecting that. Hyden gives fair warning of what can happen if you play Metallica’s Black Album in “a room full of borderline psychopaths waiting for Megadeth to come on stage.” I’ll take his word for it. “Musical rivalries don’t matter,” he says, “until they matter to you personally.”

Some of the more interesting rivalries (touched upon by Hyden only lightly) are over alternate interpretations of songs by fans of the same band, but these are intellectual disputes and less likely to be quite so intense. Not always. As a non-pop example (not mentioned by Hyden) Friedrich Nietzsche developed key elements of his philosophy by arguing with himself passionately over Richard Wagner, first as an advocate and then as his fiercest critic. Even when the emotional volume is dialed down, such arguments can be more revealing than other kinds. For obvious reasons I won’t give a name, but in the late 90s a woman insisted to me in all sincerity that Cher’s Believe single was about addiction. Do you believe in life after love of drugs? For her (though I doubt very much for Cher) it was.

This brings to mind an old high school assignment about which I haven’t thought in decades. Every single school day in addition to other class assignments my senior English teacher required a 500 word essay. “On my desk by 5 PM. That does NOT mean 5:01!” To this day I feel I’ve forgotten something as 5 PM approaches. He usually let students pick their own topics but sometimes he would assign one. On one occasion we were told to interpret the lyrics of some popular song of our choice. My first inclination was to pick something truly weird such as MacArthur Park, Windmills of Your Mind, or Some Velvet Morning. I just about had settled on the last of those when on reconsideration I decided it was too much work for only 24 hours. (This was pre-internet, remember, so you couldn’t just look up interpretations online; you probably couldn’t even get the lyrics in 24 hours unless you owned the record and copied them yourself.) Instead I just went with the Beatles Nowhere Man, which really needs no interpretation at all. It means what it says, so that’s what I said in prose. I felt I was just skating by on minimum effort and was surprised (and oddly discomfited) by a good grade. Perhaps my punctuation was good or something. Then again, perhaps the rest of the class had been just as lazy as I in their choices. As that may be, I now realize Some Velvet Morning would have been a mistake. I hadn’t yet read Hippolytus by Euripides. (In case the reader has forgotten, it is about an ascetic young man who refuses to revere Aphrodite; Aphrodite punishes him in tortuous fashion by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him with tragic consequences.) No one on this continent would write lyrics with the name Phaedra in it without intending the reference. I would have missed it. My well-read English teacher would not have. He would have given me an argument and won. I was better off taking the easy route.

Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra – Some Velvet Morning

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Saluting Summer

Summer is the one season to which we insist on giving an unofficial start and finish. Memorial Day and Labor Day are fine holidays in their own right (the former rather somber), but defining summer by them is fundamentally a marketing scheme. I have nothing against marketing schemes per se: they may prod economic activity to the general benefit. FDR tweaked Thanksgiving, for example, to extend the holiday shopping season a few days; formerly it sometimes fell on the last day of the month. But while I don’t object to marketing schemes I don’t feel bound by them either. Summer starts officially on the solstice (June 21 this year, at 4:24 a.m. GMT [12:24 EDT] to be precise) and ends on the equinox (September 22). These are orbital phenomena not subject to the desire for auto, carpet, and beach furniture sales. I’ll stick with the official dates. Stonehenge is a bit far from my house, so I have yet to greet the sunrise there with the Druids, but I take note of the day in my own way.

Richard (not me, another Richard) and
Gill bringing some sunshine to a cloudy
day get-together. No virgins were 
sacrificed in the proceedings
In ancient times the summer solstice was a major holiday. In much of the modern world it still is. This is not the case in the U.S., but I find it a convenient time for a party anyway. Roughly midway between Memorial Day and July 4, it doesn’t compete with other parties and barbecues, and in this part of the country the weather has a good chance of being favorable for anything outside. Despite my remarks above, I’m not overly dogmatic about the date for the celebration, for the calendar doesn’t always cooperate neatly. As a practical matter, weekdays are not ideal celebratory days for anyone with a job or classes. Accordingly, when (as this year) the solstice falls on a weekday, I’ll pick the weekend before for a get-together so that more of the usual guests can attend. At the autumnal equinox I’ll pick the weekend after if need be, though this year I see it falls conveniently on a Friday.

A plurality (29%) of Americans list autumn as their favorite season. To me this seems odd. Autumn has its attractions but I always am mindful of the slide toward winter. There are geographical differences in the answers, of course: summer can be punishing in some of the southern states making it predictably less popular there. Nonetheless summer overall still gets its fair 25% national share, and I’m squarely in that camp. As a kid I used to claim I liked winter best. To be sure, there was fun to be had in snow, but mostly I said it just to be contrarian to the grown-ups who asked the question. In truth I recall far more fun in the summer back then and I had the usual schoolboy’s affection for summer vacation. Since I became an adult (a questionable move, by the way), I’ve had to shovel my own walks, repair ice damage on my own property, and pay my own heating bills. So, I’ve given up any pretense. I’ll openly declare summer to be my season. Given an either-or choice, I’ll opt for a sweltering heat over a bone-chilling frost every time.

A good reason why became evident minutes after I wrote the above paragraph yesterday: the first significant local power failure of 2017 turned out my lights (and computer) for 12 hours. The storm did some damage regionally, but I was fortunate and merely had the outage at my place. Simply contemplatively sitting on the porch in the dark without distractions other than the sound of rain actually was rather pleasant. I often do that anyway (yes, sober), though admittedly seldom for hours at a stretch.  Compare that to my post from November 7, 2012 following Hurricane Sandy:

“It’s another evening hunkered at my office. Power is still out at my home, which means there has been no light, heat, or water (I’m on a well) there since the 29th of October. Snow is falling tonight as is the temperature. This poses a threat to my pipes in which some water no doubt lingers.”

I’ll take watching rain on a warm evening, thank you. Since I jumped the gun by a few days with the party, I’ll also toast the sun (even though it will be below the horizon) 24 minutes past midnight local time tonight.

Sam Cooke – Summertime

Friday, June 16, 2017

On Trees and Apes

From Hell It Came (1957)
In my pre-teen childhood I loved monster movies, as do most kids. Slasher films were not a thing back then and I honestly don’t know how I would have reacted to those, but I loved Wolfman, Dracula, Rodan, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and so on. I enjoyed the outpouring of low budget productions from studios in the 50s and early 60s, some of which I saw in the theater but most of which I watched on Saturday TV; they included such monsters as a giant spider, giant snails, a giant bird, a giant lobster (yes, really), giant octopus, disembodied brains, aliens of all kinds, and a 50 foot woman. One of the most ludicrous was a vengeful murdering tree. TCM, of all channels, played this on Wednesday. I hadn’t seen it in decades, and I couldn’t pass up the nostalgic silliness.

The wooden hearted fellow means to
toss her in the quicksand
The initial crawl sets up the plot: “Our story occurs on a savage island where a Prince is killed unjustly. The victim was buried upright in a hollow tree trunk. The legend says that ‘the tree walked to avenge its wrongs!’” The legend proves not to have been a one-off event. As is common in un-PC 1950s B-movies, the island witch doctor is a scheming murderer; he frames and executes Kimo, the island prince, for a crime. An American scientific research team on the South Sea island soon finds a tree growing in radioactive soil where the prince was planted. The tree has characteristics of both plant and animal; it even has a heartbeat. (It also has a knife sticking in it that was used to kill the prince.) The researchers dig up the tree and take it back to their lab. It seems to be dying but Dr. Terry Mason (Tina Carver) insists on using her experimental formula for countering effects of radiation. She injects the tree and then they inexplicably all go to bed, figuring they’ll check on the tree in the morning. Of course the formula works during the night and the ligneous beastie lumbers off to avenge himself on the villagers.

This is a 1950s movie, so spoilers are hardly possible. You know pretty much the fate of the monster, but he doesn’t meet it until evildoers get their comeuppance. The whole thing is so ridiculous that I couldn’t help but enjoy it…but I don’t think I need to see it again.

** **
King Kong (1933)
After From Hell It Came I did feel the need to revisit the archetype of all monster movies. It wasn’t the first monster movie by any means. The 1925 The Lost World showed what was possible with stop action, but we first see the full panoply of what would become standard plot elements for the genre in King Kong. Besides, while I didn’t see Kong: Skull Island (2017) in the theater, it will be on DVD in month or two, so a revisit to the original was in order anyway as a proper precursor. As always, it was rewarding good fun even though there are ways in which the movie doesn’t rise above its time.

I don’t think the 1933 King Kong needs a plot description. Though I have met a surprisingly large number of Millennials and GenZs who haven’t seen it, I haven’t met one unfamiliar with the plot.

There is a hypothesis widely bandied about on the net that the theme of King Kong is racist. I don’t buy it. The movie is immensely racist beyond all possibility of argument, but not thematically. (The hypothesizers might be on firmer ground with the remakes.) The racism in the original King Kong is overt, unselfconscious, blatant, and simple-minded – not uncommon in a 1933 movie – which are the opposite of subtle, reflective, cryptic, and thoughtful. The minds of Cooper and Schoedsack were thinking more broadly when it came to the underlying theme.

A few words are in order about Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the creators and directors of King Kong. They were adventurers of a type uncommon in their own day and extraordinarily rare today. Cooper flew for the US Army Air Corps in World War 1 and then for the Poles against the Soviets. Shot down in 1920, he escaped from a Soviet POW camp. In the 1920s he met and struck up a lifelong friendship with Schoedsack. They traveled the world together on tramp steamer, acquired cameras and filmed remarkable documentaries from Iran to Thailand. Cooper is much like the Carl Denham character in King Kong and much of Driscoll’s awkward dialogue with Ann (Fay Wray) in the movie reportedly was lifted from Schoedsack’s own utterances. Moving on to Hollywood, they made three iconic films in succession, all of which shared sets: King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game (also starring Fay Wray), and She. The inspiration for King Kong in particular was a World War 1 propaganda poster that was on Cooper’s office wall. Cooper and Schoedsack appear in the movie: they are the pilot and gunner who take out Kong at the end.

What is the theme? That transcending the inner beast is not about the superficial trappings of civilization. Kong, the villagers, and Americans all behave in fundamentally the same (violent) way and for the same reasons despite the surface differences in technology and civilization: at bottom they all act as beasts. When she hears about Kong, a woman in a New York scene even makes a remark about gorillas, “Gee, ain't we got enough of them in New York?” It is only in the pursuit of beauty that any of them transcend themselves. Beauty kills the beast. It’s why we feel bad for Kong, unlike, say, the critter in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms that would have chomped Ann without a thought. It’s why Kong is still the king, and why he keeps turning up in popular culture.

Messer Chups - Curse of Stephen Kong

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonders Never Cease

Two Dianas:

The New Original Wonder Woman (1975)  Before seeing the new Wonder Woman currently in theaters, I whimsically revisited a version from four decades ago.

Wonder Woman in 1975 was no newbie to the superhero scene. She first appeared in comics in 1941 and has been around in one form or another ever since. The character Wonder Woman (aka Diana Prince) was created by psychologist Dr. William Moulton Marston who wrote about the cultural and educational value of comic books. He also invented the polygraph lie detector, which puts the “lasso of truth” in perspective. Marston was fond enough of women to live simultaneously with two; the ladies stayed together after he died. He felt a strong female superhero would be a cultural plus: “Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.”

The two-hour made-for-TV pilot for the 70s Wonder Woman TV show is a generously budgeted and surprisingly elaborate production for what was intended to be a much less ambitious weekly series. Lynda Carter was a wonderful pick for the main part, and the 1940s setting was very much the way to go. (The TV series was later re-set in time to the 1970s for budgetary reasons, which I personally consider regrettable.) The plot: pilot Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) crashes by the hidden island of the Amazons and is rescued by Diana, daughter of the queen (Cloris Leachman). Attracted to Steve and convinced by him and by events that Nazis are dangerous, she leaves the island and joins the Allied war effort. The style of this TV-movie was strongly influenced by the campy ‘60s TV series hit Batman. It imitates much of Batman’s comic book style silliness without going quite so far over the top. It is a well-cast and entertaining TV-movie with old school fx: the flashes on the bullet-deflecting bracelets, for example, are small explosive charges triggered by a button in Lynda’s palm.

** **
Wonder Woman (2017)
This year’s Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot and directed by Patty Jenkins, avoids any hint of camp. It is written, played, and directed in earnest straight-face. All humor (and there isn’t much) comes naturally from the characters, not from self-referential satire (of which there is none).

The origin story retains many elements of the original. The Amazons have been hidden and empowered by a dying Zeus to one day fight Ares, god of war, when he returns and plunges earth into total war. Once again Steve Trevor crashes a plane just offshore of the Amazons’ hidden island and Diana rescues him. Learning of a global war, she is convinced that Ares is behind it; she leaves with Steve to find Ares and kill him. Steve is doubtful about her analysis, but after all he didn’t previously believe in a secret island of Amazons either, so he is unconvinced but somewhat open-minded. In this iteration, however, the time frame is World War 1. The reason, presumably, is that World War 1 morally is a much more ambiguous conflict than World War 2, and this version of Wonder Woman is no Allied partisan. She is an internationalist – or rather non-nationalist – heroine. She does fight alongside Steve against Germans, but not because she sees the war from the Allied point of view. She does so only because she suspects that General Ludendorff of all people is Ares. Steve’s special concern (which puts him and Diana in the same place) is a war-changing new poison gas being developed by Ludendorff’s protégé chemist.

There are the smash’em-dash’em CGI battle action sequences culminating in a big climactic one, as we expect in a blockbuster superhero movie. They are well done, as are the fx in general. What is missing is the cynicism that has tinged characters both in the DC and the Marvel universes in the past two decades. Instead there is noble sacrifice and doing the right thing. Even when Diana comes to learn that Ares alone is not wholly responsible for the darkness in human hearts, she doesn’t lose her empathy for people or her ability to see their redeeming virtues, too. Naïve? Yes. But sometimes a little heroic naiveté is refreshing.

Kitty Kallen The Wonder of You

Sunday, June 11, 2017

June 10 Local Derby Recap

Last night at its home track in Morristown the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) hosted the Jersey Shore Roller Girls, an experienced rival of both Morristown derby leagues. It was a knockabout match with the outcome in doubt into the final minutes.

#8 Emma Effa for Jersey Shore put the first points on the board but JDB quickly built a substantial lead. #8 Lil MO Peep, #235 A Bomb, and #3684 Californikate for JDB all showed their usually skill at slipping past or pushing through stiff blocking. Jersey Shore proceeded to chip away at the lead, relying heavily on #8 Emma Effa, #9 J9 Jolter, and #570 Slammabelle Lee. Blocking was strong with #16 Anita Guiness delivering Lil MO Peep a hard hit while jammer #812 Purple Part Breaka took down a JDB blocker. A particularly effective jam by #9 J9 Jolter closed the gap to 3 points. In a power jam by Emma Effa the Shore overtook the JDB bringing the score to 77 – 82. Though Lil MO Peep brought the score to 81 – 82, Emma Effa widened the gap again 85 – 91 in favor of Jersey Shore, which is where the score stood at halftime.

A 6 point difference is negligible in derby, and the second half saw a redoubling of efforts to widen or reverse the lead. In a spirited jam Lil MO Peep added 25 point while Emma Effa added 17, thereby returning the lead to JDB. For the rest of the second half the point gap would widen to 20 or more points only to shrink again to single digits. Blocking remained tough with #00 for JDB taking down #9 hard in one important jam. In an exciting final jam of the bout the outcome was still up for grabs as both jammers continued to add points. The whistle blew with a final score of 199 – 183 in favor of JDB.

For Jersey Shore Roller Girls – #29 Lita Floor Her as blocker, #8 Emma Effa as jammer
For Jerzey Derby Brigade – #00 Mental Block as blocker, #8 Lil MO Peep as jammer

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Ac-Quitting Well

While channel surfing last night, I caught a bit of Galaxy Quest, a self-referential scifi comedy that is more homage to Star Trek than parody. The actors play actors whose characters live by the slogan: “Never give up! Never surrender!” Nearly all of us since we were small children have been told we should cultivate this mindset. Coaches, teachers, parents, and comic book heroes all harangued us on the virtues of perseverance. There are times when this is sterling advice. If you’re being pursued (as are the characters in Galaxy Quest) by an evil alien reptilian general bent on killing you, there isn’t much downside to resisting to the end. In any sport with a time limit, there also is little downside for players on a losing team to keep playing hard long after defeat in a game is a practical certainty; it is good for players’ morale, they at least get some good practice, and the fans like it. In a lot of circumstances, though, the advice is lousy. Knowing when to quit is at least as important as knowing when to persevere. (I’m consciously avoiding a Kenny Rogers lyric.) “Don’t ever give up on your dreams,” we are told. Well, it depends on the dreams.

Professor Deepak Malhotra advises graduating Harvard MBA Students to “quit early and quit often.” This is harder than it sounds when it comes to the big matters. We resist doing it. “Sunk costs” are the problem. It is a quirk of human psychology that our instinct is to feel pain from losses far more intensely than any joy from equivalent gains. Consequently, a classic error of neophyte investors is to sell only stocks that went up while hanging on doggedly to stocks that went down in hopes that they’ll rise again to their purchase price – i.e. in hopes of not suffering a loss. The result over time is that a portfolio becomes filled with nothing but badly performing stocks, many of which never recover their purchase price. Meantime the investors incur opportunity costs: the rewards they could have from trading weak stocks for stronger ones. In the same way, we are apt to continue in a career we hate because we spent so much time and money on education and licensing. In general, this is not a good decision for either the wallet or peace of mind. Getting out early and moving on to something else is not necessarily failure but can be a path to success; even when it is failure, it may be a lesser one than sticking it out to a truly bitter end. (Yes, I’ve made plenty of quit-too-late and not-quit-at-all mistakes and am sure to make more, so I’m trying convince myself as much as the reader.)

Sometimes the refusal to abandon sunk costs can have horrific results. In the first few months of World War 1 the major combatants suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties – so many that none was willing to abandon the fight lest the casualties “be for nothing.” So, the war dragged on, casualties mounted into the tens of millions, and the end result was to make the world safe for fascism and communism. It would have been better for all in December 1914 to have swallowed the losses and called the whole thing off as a bad job.

How do we know when to persevere and when to quit? Dr. Will Meek at Psychology Today, making a similar point to that of Professor Malhotra, writes “a simple rule of thumb for when to quit is: when something is not improving with substantial effort.” The “substantial effort” qualification is key. Neither prof is encouraging anyone to quit just because an endeavor is tough. They recommend it when the toughness isn’t worth it: when one’s serious efforts don’t move the needle enough (or at all) in the right direction. Personal happiness counts as a “right direction.” Malhotra says, “I'm not saying quit something because it’s hard. I'm telling you to quit something because it sucks.”

So too for our personal lives and relationships. Most divorced couples will say they quit too late rather than too early. Once again, sunk costs (in personal time and effort) held them back. Perseverance is a dubious virtue while dating, too. Contrary to the plots of most RomComs, relentlessly pursuing an unwilling romantic interest will more likely get a restraining order than an inamorata/inamorato. Sometimes you really can’t win. That’s why there is beer and country music.

Linda Ronstadt – Sometimes You Just Can`t Win

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Page Gauge

June is upon us at last, and it is not a month particularly conducive to inside activities. Yet even June has quiet nights and rainy days when a book in hand is welcome. Below are reviews of the most recent five to stain my fingers with ink – yes they were paper-and-ink rather than electronic format.

** **
The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker
Human minds don’t work linearly. It is why AI has so much trouble aping human thought. Even when computing in parallel, AI just doesn’t match the digressions, tangents, flashbacks, and fantasies that make up ordinary thought. One of the best fictional representations of this not-quite-chaos is Baker’s The Mezzanine. The entire novella is the thoughts of a man from his approach to an escalator to the moment he reaches the top. In between he thinks about his lunch, shopping bags, shoelaces, ear plugs, childhood moments, his wife’s fastidiousness, CVS drugstore aisles, the embarrassment of buying a men’s magazine from a female clerk, a Penguin paperback of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, drinking straws, the shininess of the escalator rail, and a myriad other things.

It is a truly marvelous and readable little book. I can’t help thinking though that trips up escalators might on average be less contemplative in 2017 than when the book was published in 1988. Might not the same journey today consist of watching a cat video on a cell phone?

** **
Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by James B. Stockdale
Most of those old enough to remember the 1992 US Presidential election probably remember Stockdale as the Vice Presidential pick of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in an election year that was almost as bizarre as last year. After choosing Stockdale, Perot withdrew from the race at a point when polls showed he had a real chance of victory only to reenter the race late in the election season when his moment had passed. In October of ’92 Stockdale suddenly found himself back in the race and scheduled for a televised Vice Presidential debate with Dan Quayle and Al Gore. He had no time to prepare and didn’t even have an operational hearing aid – too much time around jet engines had damaged his hearing. He came off as confused when he hadn’t really heard the question. A Saturday Night Live parody of him the next weekend was devastating. The Perot/Stockdale ticket nonetheless won 19% of the vote, the best showing for a third party since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

The doddering SNL parodic figure is not the Stockdale we meet in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (published 1995), a collection of speeches and essays from the previous two decades. Here we meet the erudite Vice Admiral Stockdale: awarded the Medal of Honor, four Silver Stars, two purple hearts, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Navy Distinguished Service Medals, etc., etc. With an MA from Stanford in international relations and comparative Marxist thought, he was obviously more qualified than any of the other 1992 candidates. Shot down over Hanoi in 1965 he spent seven years in a POW camp where he got by with a commitment to his values and his hidden book by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. Most of the entries in Stockdale’s book deal with maintaining one’s values under those extreme conditions.

I’m not a big fan of the ancient Stoic philosophers in a general way. (See my blog on Seneca a few months ago.) It’s not so much that their advice is wrong as that it typically is trite and comes from an unhappy place: all duty and no pleasure. Unlike the Epicureans, they seem to lack a sense of fun. However, in a POW camp where there isn’t fun to be had, Epictetus is not trite but deadly relevant.

If only for the reminder not to judge a person on a single un-telegenic debate appearance, this or another of Stockdale’s several books is worth a look.

** **
Schrödinger’s Gat by Robert Kroese
Anyone who has a blog site called Richard’s Pretension is not in a good position to call someone else’s book pretentious, but I’ll do it anyway. Kroese has written a scifi noir mystery into which he has infused his thoughts on free will, theology, time travel paradoxes, determinism, politics, and ethics while basing his plot on a popular magazine-level summary/interpretation of quantum theory. All that doesn’t make this a bad book. It is, in fact, modestly entertaining, but be forewarned that much of it is reminiscent of the nighttime exchanges of undergrad liberal arts students in dorm rooms under the influence of pot.

At the most basic micro level, events are probabilistic rather than deterministic. What if there were a way to change the odds at a micro level but with macro effects? A scientist discovers a way to do just that. A young woman named Tali tries to use the method to save lives, an insurance executive sees a way in it to turn a profit, and a young man (whose life Tali saves) pursues Tali but finds himself caught up in violence. What about the universe itself? Will it allow tinkering with the odds without broader consequences? If by writing this book Kroese inspires someone to invent a way to try it, perhaps we’ll find out.

** **

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace
In this weird but interesting almost-novel from 1999, interviews with unidentified men are interspersed with more or less conventional short stories. The interviewed men are usually talking about sex and they say what we’ve all heard men at various times. Some of the guys are sociopathic. Others play nicely but acknowledge they do so as a self-serving seduction technique. All are egoistic. Are they hideous? Maybe. Their utterings are certainly distasteful, but they are honest. That is the problem. They say frightful things such as, “I’d always had a dread of marrying some good-looking woman and then we have a kid and it blows her body out but I still have to have sex with her because this is who I’ve signed on to have sex with the whole rest of my life.” While the hideousness is overwhelming male, the female characters in the short stories are hard to like too: for example the woman in therapy with the bad childhood who not just suffers from depression but opportunistically seizes on it to excuse always making herself the center of attention and egregiously imposing on her friends whenever it suits her.

Wallace tries – perhaps too hard – to write unconventionally, and he strains the rules to absurd lengths without quite breaking them. A single sentence can go on for pages, but it is technically grammatical. Footnotes can be longer than the chapter being footnoted. One short story (the first one on page 0) is all of two paragraphs. He often resorts to bizarre abbreviations. The result is intriguing even though most of the subject matter is unpleasant.

Parts of the book were made into movie in 2009. I haven’t seen it but only 32% on Rotten Tomatoes like it: the consensus was “tries hard but doesn't match the depth of the book.”

** **
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
For more than half a century novels and films about the end of civilization and about its sole survivor(s) have been so commonplace as to be a genre. I even wrote one myself (Slog) in my more youthful days. Stories in which the end is caused by plague are numerous enough to be a subgenre. Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I am Legend about a sole healthy survivor of a plague was three times made into a feature film: The Last Man on Earth with Vincent Price, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and I am Legend with Will Smith. The granny of the genre, though, is The Last Man.

Mary Shelley is of course best known for her wildly successful 1818 novel Frankenstein. Her 1825 novel The Last Man was not a hit in its day, but it suits 21st century sensibilities better than it did 19th.  After the anti-stylings of Wallace, I also found myself enjoying her highly literary prose with its unabashedly complex sentences and deep vocabulary.

The novel is set in the 2090s though Shelley’s vision of the future involves little technological change from her own day. The social issues of future England are also much the same as in her own day with a three-way power struggle among royalists, aristocrats, and commoners. The tale is told retrospectively by Lionel, a mysteriously immune sole known survivor of a humanity-destroying plague; it is written presumably for the benefit of any other immune survivors who might possibly stumble upon his record. As far as he knows, however, no such survivors exist.

Much of the novel involves the pre-plague personal romances and intrigues of Lionel and his coterie, which happen to include men and women prominent in society and politics. None of the characters acquit themselves well. There are charming aristocrats who lack ethics, ethical men who lack competence, personally likable royalists who are rudely power-hungry, and a leader of the commons who speaks the right words but lacks nobility in the broader sense. All fail to deal with the growing threat of plague and all fail in their personal lives as well.

Tragically having lost her husband and children in the years prior to this this book, Shelley did not entertain a cheery worldview, and it shows in this novel. In an era that believed if not in the perfectibility of mankind at least its amelioration, Shelley’s despair disaffected readers. Today her nihilism is better understood and shared. Her appreciation of transient life while it lasts is better noticed, too. Thumbs up.

Alice Cooper – The Last Man on Earth

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Thousand Words

At a recent concert, as at every sizable one beyond the most sedate that I’ve attended in the past decade, in the audience there was a large crop of alit cell phones atop waving arms. Not that long ago rules against cameras and recordings at concerts were pretty strictly enforced, but with the proliferation of smart phones they are so widely flouted as to be unenforceable in most venues. Not a few of the attendees around me experienced the night primarily through their phones, reviewing photos and video clips immediately after recording them and then posting them to social media; only occasionally did they look directly at the band. Since the marginal cost of taking a digital photo is zero, people take far more than they did a decade or two ago. When someone wants to show you a particular photo stored on a phone, they typically flick through hundreds of pics in order to find it. On hard drives, flash drives, and the cloud they store photos in the thousands. Some people, of course, are very methodical with their files; they separate digital photos neatly into thematic “albums,” each with contents of manageable size. Most, however, are more slipshod: doing the online equivalent of the pre-digital practice of saving pictures by tossing them all helter-skelter into a big box.

1947 model Kodak Brownie
Photography is nearly two hundred years old, but for the whole of the 19th century it was the domain of the specialist. A camera simply wasn’t something ordinary people had around the house to record events of their daily lives. All that changed thanks to George Eastman, a lifelong bachelor who liked nothing more than to bake pies, bicycle (perhaps to wear off the pie), and make photography simpler. Founder of Eastman Kodak, he and his researchers invented a new flexible photographic film and purpose-designed a camera for the film that ordinary folks could afford and use. The Kodak brownie was offered for sale in 1900 at a price of $2. Millions of brownies were sold over the next eight decades. True, they weren’t remotely up to the standards demanded by commercial photographers, but for a shot of your 10-year-old niece on a pony they were just fine. The first camera I remember using as a kid was my parents’ 1947 model brownie.

Polaroid Snap digital camera
Humans are an impatient breed, however, and they dislike waiting for film to be developed, which typically was at least two days in the 1950s; one hour photo shops came along later. They wanted to know right away if the pictures were properly framed and lit. Polaroid came to the rescue in 1948 with their instant cameras. Polaroid had appeal beyond instant gratification: privacy. You could take embarrassing photos without worrying about whether the folks in the photo shop giggled over them or kept their own copies. It became the camera of choice for nonprofessional photos of an adult nature. Polaroid took a devastating hit in the 90s and 00s from digital photography, which also produces instant results, but in recent years it has made something of a comeback. The new Polaroid cameras in a range of prices and sizes are digital but print out an instant hard copy just like the old models. This has distinct advantages: Sometimes, as many people have learned to their cost, it is not a good idea to save a particular photo in an easily shared electronic format; it is better to print a single pic and delete the digital file from the camera. True, it still can be scanned and shared, but that is troublesome enough to be less common than an impulsive finger-tap on a phone made under the influence of brandy.

All this comes to mind because an hour ago I printed out hard copies of a few digital pics for a photo album – the kind with actual pages in a three-ring notebook. I like old fashioned albums you can hold in your hands, just as I prefer actual books to Kindle. Of course I do have purely digital file folders of pics and, for reasons of time and money, I do occasionally read books online, but given a choice when time and money are not significant issues I prefer the bulky material ones. It’s a quadruple sensory thing: not just sight but tactility, aroma, and the sound of pages turning. I suppose one can taste a book or photo too, and thereby employ all five, but I choose to leave that one out. Also, a physical photo album forces one to edit. A good photo album, like a well-written biography, is concise; it contains key information without overwhelming the reader/viewer with boring repetitive details. It is defined as much by what is left out as by what it contains.

Oldest photo in my album: my
great great grandfather
Ferdinand Meyers, b.1832
My physical photo albums aren’t especially good (in the sense of being interesting to anyone but myself), but they serve my purpose. There are three books: 1) family photos predating 1950, 2) photos from 1950 to 1970, and 3) photos from 1970 to present. If that seems unequally distributed it’s because my mom snapped a lot of photos in the two decades between 1950 (the year my sister was born) and 1970 (the year I graduated high school). Even after I trimmed the contents – tossing the excised pics into a box – they still make a larger book than the other two combined. I reorganized the first two albums when they became mine. The reorganization was necessary to suit my chronological taste (I have a BA in history); the two previously weren’t organized that way at all. My mom had selected photographs well out of a big box of them, but if there was any theme or pattern to their place in the albums it was a mystery known only to her; photos decades apart were as likely as not to be on the same page.
Most recent album photo: I mashing
poor Samantha Fish after her concert

I rarely force anyone else to look at the albums, but I do think they are more graspable to others in a holistic way than images called up to an LED screen. Moreover, they are more graspable to me. Perhaps Millennials and GenZs feel differently, but if I want to wallow in the past, a hold-in-hands album is the way to do it. It recalls not just what is in it, but what is left out. Unless someone throws the albums out they even will survive long after the passwords to my digital files are forgotten. I don’t fret about that though. All things are temporary, very much including memories. 

Ringo Starr – Photograph

Monday, May 22, 2017

After Midnight

Brick and mortar stores continue their decline as online shopping sites outcompete them in price and convenience, but there are real-space businesses that are likely to hang on. 24-hour convenience stores and diners are particularly hard to replace. Perhaps 24-hour pizza delivery by drone will cut into the sales of these places in time, but that time is not yet here. Where permitted by law – and even where not – late night food and alcohol providers have serviced workers for as long as factories have operated night shifts. Late-night and round-the-clock establishments proliferated rapidly after the Second World War. 7-Eleven convenience stores opened shop in 1946. The name came from the original business hours (7 a.m. to 11 p.m.), but these were extended as it became obvious that demand didn’t end at 11 but persisted 24 hours. Unsurprisingly, the first 24-hour 7-Eleven was in Las Vegas, but even smallish communities soon proved to have enough hungry night owls to support the model.

I rarely make use of 24-hour convenience stores. When I do it almost invariably is at the behest of some companion who finds unbearable the notion of surviving the next few hours before daybreak without a sandwich, Fritos, chocolate bars, Snapple, or (big one) cigarettes. In fact, I’m trying to think of a single exception when it was my idea to go into one of these places between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. There might be one, but none comes to mind. There are occasions, however, when I make self-motivated use of a 24-hour diner. There is a handy one (across from a 7-Eleven as it happens) in nearby Morristown. I pass it on the way back from NYC, which makes it a convenient place to stop after a show or concert or some other activity. It’s also close enough to my home for a stand-alone visit. One of the advantages to single life is that if I do get the urge for dessert (or breakfast) at 3 a.m., I simply go out the door with no explanations needed. This doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

The habitués of all-night diners are a distinctive mix in the small morning hours. Some are just workers and/or students with peculiar hours, so this is a normal time for them to have a burger. As one might expect, there are ample numbers of stoners with the munchies. After the bars close (2 a.m in Morristown; 4 a.m. in NYC) there is a wave of hungry inebriates and partied-out revelers. The atmosphere is strangely mellow usually – and a bit surreal. Lack of sleep offers a certain buzz of its own, so even the sober patrons have a slightly glazed appearance to their eyes. As neither a drinker nor a smoker of herb nor a night shift worker nor even (usually) sleep deprived, I suppose I’m typically the oddball. The diner food is better than I make for myself at home and the environment is weirdly beguiling, which gives the lie to the old admonition, “Nothing good comes after midnight.”

Yet, while that saying is wrong on the face of it, like many generalizations it contains a kernel of truth. Many good things finish after midnight, but not so many start up then. That’s when crack and heroin dealers (and their customers of course) come out to play. It’s when the seedy after-hours clubs open. It’s when drunks and overly-sleepy folk take to the roads. It when buzzes start to fade and hangovers begin. It’s when we make really bad romantic choices. It’s when we send ill-considered texts and emails – even a perfectly legitimate business email sent at that time raises suspicions among the recipients if there is any typo or error in it. It’s best not to post anything on social media. In one his routines, Chris Rock notes that anyone withdrawing $400 from an ATM at 3 a.m. isn’t likely to do anything good with it. Some of us know what he means. So, if you began before 12, you’re probably fine seeing it through even if it takes until dawn. Your carriage won’t turn into a pumpkin. But if it’s already after midnight, maybe you should let it go until daylight… unless it’s a bite at the diner.

DOROTHY - After Midnight

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Recap: May 20 Derby Bout

Last night the Jerzey Derby Brigade (JDB) on their home track in Morristown NJ hosted the Wonder Brawlers visiting from the Central New York Roller Derby based in Chester, NY.

The early jams gave no indication of how the match would go. An early lead by the JDB was lost when a power jam by #003 Sinful Pleasures put the Brawlers ahead 8-17. Before long, however, the JDB strong bench of jammers and well-structured blocking began to tell. #00 Mental Block took back the lead for JDB and #235 A-Bomb, with her ability to exploit holes in the pack, added to it with a 28 point jam. Pressured by JDB jammers, “hit it and quit it” jams by #13 Hot Cakes and #18 Summer of Sam were not enough to prevent the point spread from widening through the first half. #3884 CaliforniKate took the JDB over the 100-point mark, and the first half ended with JDB ahead 116 – 28.

In the second half the Brawlers came back determined to put points on the board and up the aggressiveness of their blocking. Given current formation tactics in blocking, defense has become more of a coordinated group effort, but #26 J8ded Sk8ter for the Brawlers and #221 Det. Sure-Block Holmes are notable for well-timed hard hits. The Brawlers succeeded in racking up points. #4 White Lie had multipass success in power jams despite firm JDB walls as did #003 Sinful Pleasures. However, JDB continued to score as well including in jams by #8 Lil MO Peep and (in star passes) #64 Madeleine Alfight. #13 Hot Cakes took the Brawlers over the 100 mark, putting the score at 167-110 with minutes remaining in the game. Despite a last chance push – including the Brawlers stopping the clock at 13 seconds in order to squeeze in one last jam – the bout ended with a Final Score of 176 – 120 in favor of JDB.

For Wonder Brawlers – #26 J8ded Sk8ter as blocker, #4 White Lie as jammer

For Jerzey Derby Brigade – #33 Doom Hilda as blocker, 8 Lil MO Peep as jammer

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Gone Fishin’

Four mini-reviews of page, screen, and speaker:

** **

Blue Light Yokohama by Nicolás Obregón

If you’re looking for something a little different in detective fiction (but only a little different), Blue Light Yokohama might be for you. Nicolás Obregón, a dual citizen of Spain and the UK, has lived both in the US and in Japan on magazine assignments. He loved his time in Japan. Though the reviewer for the Japan Times notes a lot of local customs and quirks Obregón simply has wrong, on balance his multicultural perspective helps more than it hurts.

Newly appointed police Inspector Iwata, a troubled man with a barely controlled drinking problem, is assigned to investigate serial killings involving an apocalyptic cult that uses a black sun as a symbol. Iwata has a rocky professional relationship with Sakai, his female partner. He soon suspects a connection to the supposed suicide of his predecessor and also begins to believe he deliberately has been set up to fail. Most of the usual detective fiction tropes are in play here, but Obregón handles them well enough. Playing them out in a Japanese setting prevents them from seeming stale. Thumbs Up – not way up but up.

** **

Dr. Strange (2016)

Yet another Ditko/Lee collaboration, Dr. Strange first appeared in Marvel comics in 1963. Though this was high tide of my childhood comic book enthusiasm, this character failed to appeal to me back then. Despite the passage of so many years, I still was inclined to be suspicious of the movie when I gave it a chance last week, but it turned out to be a great deal of fun. For those put off by mystical elements in film, rest assured that there is a quasi-scientific justification for the goings-on that is not a lot more silly than what we are asked to swallow in most science fiction.

Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant surgeon whose hands are damaged in a car accident. Medical science cannot restore their former dexterity. He hears of an accident victim who shouldn’t walk but does, and seeks him out. The fellow directs him to seek his answers and a possible cure in (where else?) Katmandu. There he joins a monastic order of sorts where he learns about other dimensions, mirror realities, mystical (in effect) forces, and, of course, a threat to earth. There is always that disgruntled former acolyte ready and able to wreak destruction, isn’t there?

The fx are marvelous and make more sense in context than the trailers make them seem. Above all, the script is witty enough to have saved even a less well-produced movie. Against my own expectations, Thumbs Up.

** **

How the Hell Did This Happen? by PJ O’Rourke

In a fiercely tribalistic era when books with remotely political content are apt to be either shameless panegyrics or livid polemical rants (more often the latter), the former National Lampoon editor delivers an exasperated analysis of the 2016 election with mordant humor that is refreshingly 360 degrees. His endorsement of Hillary Clinton last fall was lukewarm to put it mildly: “She is the second-worst thing that could happen to America.” Accordingly, his perspective is not willfully blind to foolishness, malfeasance, and (yes) sagacity on all sides. If you want a book full of bluster and rage that decries opponents as not just wrong but evil and that finds humor only in the hypocrisies of others, this is not it. But if you’re one of the many nonplussed folks out there who have been asking the titular question not just since the election but for well over a year, this offers some answers while sharing bewilderment at the rest: Thumbs Up.

[Having received a few “if you’re not with us you’re against us”-style communications recently, I think this is as good a place as any for an aside: Those who know me personally are aware of my political philosophy. While those views inevitably seep into blogs about walks, novels, movies, sports, coffee, and so on – how can they not? – it is not my intent to bludgeon readers of this blog squarely on the head with them. Memes written by professional propagandists of every flavor are easy enough to find elsewhere. For those who find satisfaction writing and sharing those, by all means go at it. But in a kind of Gresham’s Law of discourse, circulating that stuff tends to crowd out all other coins. There are so many intelligent, thoughtful, and entertaining writers/conversationalists who hold philosophies with which I radically disagree that I dislike missing out on what they have to say beyond tired political arguments that never reach resolution but only run out of time. At bottom, differing ideologies, to the extent they are coherent, trace back to differing first principles about the nature of (to steal from e.e. cummings) man-unkind, which is why they always will be irreconcilable at any other level. Yet, they rarely are discussed at that level. Propagandists instead focus on swaying nonideological voters emotionally rather than philosophically on topical events; as long as more than one side does this, it is an unending task. Richard’s Pretension is one hill where I choose not to be Sisyphus. Sorry Albert, but I don’t think he’s happy.]

 ** **

Samantha Fish – Chills and Fever (2017)

If you’re a regular visitor to Amazon, the site’s AI is likely to generate a “recommended for you” list that is pretty helpful, especially if you take the time to tweak the AI’s assumptions about you by telling it to ignore anomalous views and purchases. Its errors in my case are as likely to be omission as commission. It did notice, however, that basic blues-based rock-and-roll is the core (not the whole, but the core) of my music purchases, and it thereby recommended the 2017 Chills and Fever album by Samantha Fish.

I’ve been aware of Kansas City’s Samantha Fish since hearing and liking the Lay It Down track from the Black Wind Howlin’ album a few years ago. She is a capable guitarist with an appealing voice, but I didn’t buy that cd or anything else by her at that time. The new recommendation prompted me whimsically to check her tour schedule, however, and this Wednesday she appears in a surprisingly cozy venue in Teaneck NJ. I bought tickets and gave Chills and Fever a listen. The title song has more of an Amy Winehouse vibe than is typical for Samantha, though that is not a bad thing. Overall the album fits the pattern of her earlier work and includes solid covers of such blues numbers as “Either Way I Lose” and “Hello Stranger.” It’s not absolutely my favorite album of the past 12 months (that’s Rock is Dead by Dorothy) but it’s a good one. Amazon made a sale. Thumbs Up.

Samantha Fish – Chills & Fever

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fire in the Sky

A few weeks ago a friend of mine (hi, Ken) suggested we attend a ceremony for the 80th anniversary of the crash of the zeppelin Hindenburg on May 6 in Lakehurst, which is about 1.5 hours by car from my house. That sounded like an odd enough event to be worth a look. At least two weeks advance notice of our intent to attend was necessary. Since Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (formerly Lakehurst Naval Air Station) is an active military base, we required security clearance. For some strange reason, we both were deemed acceptable and were allowed on base.

The Hindenburg was far from the worst aerial disaster. Amazingly, the majority of the 97 passengers and crew survived: 13 passengers and 22 crew were killed along with one civilian crewman on the ground. It wasn’t even the worst airship disaster – it ranks 5th. The highest toll was from the crash at sea in 1933 of the US Navy airship Akron; 73 out of the crew of 76 lost their lives, yet this event is little remembered. What makes all the difference to public consciousness, of course, is that the Hindenburg disaster was a media event. Film crews were on hand, and Herb Morrison’s live narration of the events still haunts.

Completed in March of 1936, the Hindenburg was the final iteration of zeppelin design. It was the fastest and most luxurious way for civilian passengers to cross the Atlantic. At 245 meters (803 feet) the craft was huge. It could accommodate up to 70 passengers. In 1936 it completed 17 transatlantic round-trip flights both to North and South America. The trip from Friedrichshafen to Lakehurst (which had the facilities to handle airships) usually took 2.5 days though the fastest transatlantic run was 43 hours. The Hindenburg originally was designed for helium, but helium was scarce. The USA was the only significant supplier, and Congress had declared it a strategic material that could not be sold overseas. So, the ship instead used hydrogen for lift. Besides, decades of successful employment of hydrogen, including in World War 1, had convinced the Zeppelin company that the gas could be handled safely. On May 6 1937 this proved to be fatal overconfidence.
1936 arrival at Lakehurst
with USCG escort

Exactly what happened is still unclear. Conspiracy theorists long have suspected sabotage, but neither the American nor the German investigations of the accident turned up any evidence of it. “Static charge” was offered as a possible ignition source in 1937, but this was then and still is disputed by many with expertise in the field. One of the speakers at the ceremony last Saturday was Dr. Horst Shirmer, son of the lead aeronautical engineer for the Hindenburg. Dr. Shirmer as a boy also was a passenger on the airship, though not on the fatal flight. His suspicion is that a glowing ember of soot from the diesel engine exhaust was a likely culprit; the ship had outgassed hydrogen unusually late in the landing process that day as part of an unorthodox approach due to weather conditions. This made ignition from such an ember more possible. He readily admits, though, that there is no way to be sure.

May 6 2017 at crash site. Photo by
Ken Kaplan
Part of my reason for attending was to see what sort of crowd such a ceremony would draw. There was not an obvious pattern. Aside from two childhood passengers of the airship (not on the disastrous flight), few of the hundreds present had any real connection to the Hindenburg or to anyone who had been on the ship’s last flight. They spanned ages and backgrounds. Why attend this memorial activity? There is, of course, the eerie sense of connection to history that one can have in certain places and in the presence of certain objects. We often seek out that sensation. Beyond that, though, I think there is something about events such as this that reminds us in a special way of the randomness of the universe. Sometimes things just happen that are beyond our control. They may be in the control of other people or in the control of no one at all. Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice." Some of us survive, at least for the moment. Some of us don’t. For those of us still here, what is there to do but tell stories of those who have gone, lay a wreath, and move on? Our May 6 will come – but not today.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

By Land and Sea

Brief reviews of two recently viewed flicks in which the destination is the journey:

** **

A Walk in the Woods (2015)

I frequently walk the walk. No I’m not talking about politics with that much overused phrase. I mean actual walks. Typically not far, though. Oh, I’ve hiked a bit in a few National Parks and pounded miles of sidewalks in various cities for sightseeing purposes, but I don’t pretend to be ambitious with my footsteps on any regular basis. When I’m feeling particularly lazy, which is most days of the year, I’ll keep the “walks for walks’ sake” (rather than for the sake of business or errands) on my own property. At present I live on 5 acres. That’s a smidgeon more than 2 hectares by the reckoning of 95% of the world’s people. [Congress made the metric measurement system official in the US with the Metric Act of 1866, but after 151 years has yet to persuade a majority of Americans to use it for anything but illegal drugs.] Four of the acres are wooded, and I have a serpentine footpath that is long enough to clear the mind but short enough that my instinct for sloth doesn’t overwhelm my impulse to use it.

One walk I never seriously considered taking is the entire 2200 mile (3500 km) Appalachian Trail – a dedicated footpath from Maine to Georgia. One needs a certain freedom of money and time (including someone back home to pay bills and feed the cat) to spend 6 months hiking in the mountains. Yet, about 2700 people per year try it; most don’t finish. About 2,000,000 hike at least a portion of it each year.

The reader might notice that I have yet to say anything about the movie. That is because there is not much to say. Septuagenarians Bill Bryson (Robert Redford) and Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte) walk the whole Appalachian Trail and talk like grumpy old men along the way. That’s about it. Redford and Nolte’s chemistry is OK, but their act gets repetitive. The little side plots are contrived and add nothing valuable. The scenery is nice. The non-fiction book on which the movie is based, like almost everything written by the real Bill Bryson, is clever, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable. Read the book instead.

The movie is not actually painful, but nonetheless Thumbs mildly Down.

** **

Moana (2016)

Set entirely in a Polynesian mythological universe, Disney’s tale is as surreal as an acid trip. Nonetheless it is coherent in its own terms and is friendly both to kids and adults.

The ocean delivers a stone to the child Moana, whose name means “ocean.” Years later, 16-year-old Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) learns from her grandmother that her people, currently bound to a single island, were once voyagers and explorers. She also learns that life in the world is slowly dying because the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) had stolen a pounamu stone, which was the heart of the island goddess Te Fiti and the source of the power to give life; in a battle with Te Ka, a lava monster, Maui then lost the stone in the ocean. It is, of course, the stone the ocean gave to Moana. Defying her father and her village, Moana sets out alone across the ocean to find Maui, return the stone to Te Fiti, save her people, and remind them of their heritage as voyagers. Along the way she must face the natural elements, pirates, a very egocentric Maui (who is annoyed that he gets no respect from people), and Te Ka.

It’s a rousing well-produced tale with a well-crafted heroine and signature Disney artwork and music. Thumbs Up.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Recap April 29 Derby – Not a Shore Thing

Yesterday in Morristown was a double header. A junior division bout preceded the adult match.

First up was the home NJRD Small Stars vs. the visiting Jersey Jr. Roller Derby. Junior division bouts often are surprisingly hard-fought and competitive, and that proved to be the case last night. The Jersey Jrs jumped to an early lead with a very fast #5 Julia Goulia putting 18 on the board in the first jam, a prelude to similar performances by her throughout the game. Other Jr jammers, including #222 Susie Sparkles and #20 Dirty Dan, assisted by good blocking tactics by their teammates also proved adept. The Small Stars kept in the game, however, as blocking stiffened and points were gained by their own jammers including #15 Fast n Furious and #10 Mia Slam. At halftime the score was a very competitive 95 - 133 in favor of the Jrs. The second half began with an exceptional multipass jam by Jr skater #9 Wild One. Both teams skated hard, but the Jrs built on their lead. The Jersey Jrs took the match with a final score of 215 – 330.

For Small Stars – #377 Crush n Skulls as blocker, #10 Mia Slam as jammer
For Jersey Jrs – #666 Psycho Si as blocker, #5 Julia Ghoulia as jammer 
** **
In the adult bout the home New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) hosted the Jersey Shore Roller Girls. The Jersey Shore repeatedly has skated against both Morristown derby leagues over the past several years with mixed results, so there was no safe way to predict the outcome of this match.
The NJRD got off to a portentous start with #11 Tuff Crust Pizza scoring 25 points in the first jam. Assisted by good tactical blocking #100 Tkatch Money and #1793 Queen Guillotine for NJRD also made repeated multi-passes through the pack throughout the match. The NJRD has built up a depth of effective jammers in the past few seasons and the results are showing. Jersey Shore remained in the game, more than once overcoming stiff blocking with star passes to #1732 BlackEye Betty and making the most of power jams, including a strong one by #42 Veruca S. Salt. #570 Slammabelle Lee was able to force her way through opposition walls. On this occasion though, it wasn’t enough. Final score was 251 – 86 in favor of NJRD.
For Jersey Shore – #33 Stoli as blocker, #570 Slammabelle Lee as jammer
For NJRD – #100 Tkatch Money as blocker, #11 Tuff Crust Pizza as jammer

Friday, April 28, 2017

Long in the Tooth

Anniversaries are nostalgic at 10, worrisome at 20 and bonechilling at 50. I remember my dad’s response to the various anniversaries of D-Day (he was there in ’44) as the number crept upward. The 50th made him just shake his head in disbelief. I find myself shaking my own head these days, though none of my anniversaries are as noteworthy as that one. I was reminded of one today when a bit of clumsiness dislodged my one and only blue ribbon from a horse show. I see that it has been 50 (!) years. It was won in a hackney category on a 15 hand (1 hand = 4 inches) white and tan paint gelding named Goblin. I don’t have any pics of that show, but I do have one of me on Goblin a year earlier; he is the fourth horse from the left. I suppose my philosophy (though it wasn’t conscious) was “quit while you’re ahead.” That was the last formal show I ever entered, though I’ve continued to ride informally ever since, some years more than others.
On Goblin (4th horse) 1966

Horses never have been central to my life. I don’t live for them the way so many equestrians do – not just professionals but a great many pleasure horse owners also. I do not own any.  There have been entire years when I have not gotten on a horse at all. Yet, they often were in the background and more than once tipped the balance in key life decisions. Late in the summer of 1964 (again: !) when I was 11 years old my mom gave me the options of prep school or public school for the upcoming September. I picked prep (St. Bernard’s, nowadays called Gill/St. Bernard’s) for no other reason than that horseback riding was offered as part of the sports program. (My sister picked public school for no other reason than boys – most private schools weren’t coed back then.) That decision had lasting consequences in ways large and small. [See Horse Sense for the tale of my most dramatic spill off a horse in ’66.] They have been a factor in romance as well. At least half the dates in my life involved horses – including the one that led to my brief ill-fated marriage, which in turn had major financial consequences. Right up through the 2000s, “Let’s go horseback riding” was a surprisingly effective pick-up line.
On the trails with friends 1997

I know NJ does not have a reputation as horse country, but much of it is. The US Equestrian Team is HQ’d here and there are lots of stables, facilities, and trails. There are also lots of horse shows, but since ’67 I’ve never been of a mind to compete in any of them – nor am I really well schooled enough to do so if I were. For me, the appeal is mental relaxation. There is something about a horse on a wooded trail that eases the mind better than Xanax ever can. Deserts too. My most pleasant ride, for which I needed a compass to get back, was in the desert near Fallon NV out of sight of anything but scrub, hills, and sand. (I’m sure the horse had a name, but I didn’t know what it was.) I decided it was time to turn back toward the direction of Fallon when I came upon a sign seemingly in the middle of nowhere that said, “US Naval Bombing Range.”

America – A Horse with No Name