Friday, June 28, 2013

Oceans Are Where You Look for Them

Earlier today, I mentioned having finished Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane to a friend. “I only read non-fiction,” was his response. So he does. I had forgotten. It was a perfectly legitimate response on the surface. We like what we like. However, I couldn’t help hearing a certain condescension in the tone – something indicating that reading fiction is for frivolous people. Perhaps it is. Perhaps the biographies of starlets and the (cough) nonfiction memoirs of politicians are the weightier tomes, but I’m not entirely convinced. A novelist can explore motives and the inner mind in a way that a responsible historian cannot. (I have a BA in history, for the record.) Sometimes these are what matter most. If those motives involve actions in a galaxy far far away, so much the better in my estimation. If you want to understand a time or culture, you can’t ignore its fiction, including its science fiction.

Gaiman is the last author I should recommend to my “just-the-facts” friend. The settings of Gaiman’s novels, stories, and comics, typically interface with our own world, but branch out beyond it in fantastical but oddly comprehensible ways. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane he uses these branches to elucidate the nature of childhood, the impact of one’s first real comprehension of mortality, and the difference of a child’s perspective from the perspective of an adult. The first person narrator (his name never is mentioned), unsettled by a funeral, drives to the country lane in Sussex where he lived as boy. At the end of the lane once lived a girl by a pond: both girl and pond were more than they seemed to be. If you don’t mind taking a left-turn into some very strange places, the book is worth a read.

Perhaps one reason for my unvoiced (but written) grumpiness about genres is that I’m currently retyping my first and only novel, a post-apocalyptic adventure tale titled Slog. I’ve written dozens of short stories (see and a couple novellas, but just this one full-length novel. (I’m not as ambitious, never mind as talented, as Neil.) Currently, it exists only in dead tree format (available on Amazon – or from me through Facebook). Slog, originally a short story, didn’t see initial publication until the 90s, but it came out of my typewriter much earlier – yes, I said “typewriter,” which gives a hint of how much earlier. In fact, Slog is one of my earliest stabs at fiction and, I think, both benefits and suffers for it: youthful exuberance balances the lack of polish. With all its faults, it has at least some redeeming qualities, and I’m fond of it.

Why revisit it now? When recently looking through my files (otherwise known as boxes), I discovered that my most up-to-date existing digital copy was in Word97 on a floppy. My oldest computer still reads floppies – but it couldn’t read this one. The disc had degraded. So, I’m retyping the whole of it into Word2013. In the process, I’m encountering my younger self, which is not an altogether comfortable experience; the two of us don’t share quite the same values, perspectives, or sense of humor.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction comprise a surprisingly large and popular genre of its own. In fact, I plan to catch the next showing tonight of the movie This Is the End, a comedy about the end of the world, at a nearby theater. What are fictional apocalypses but metaphors for the certainty of personal mortality? Death is not a subject we generally like to discuss in a purely factual nuts-and-bolts way. We prefer it stylized as nostalgia, adventure, or comedy. Arguably, facing the end playfully in this manner is a brave way to do it. It’s certainly a human way.

I’m an advocate of non-fiction, too, of course. It is part of a balanced literary diet, but I don’t have much by my own pen to offer my single-food-group friend. (A few entries on my “short story” site are undisguisedly autobiographical, but only a few.) I’d have to dig out my old academic papers for anything lengthy. How about The Impact of a Vulnerable Grain Supply on the Imperialism of Fifth Century Athens? (Yes, that’s really the title of one.) There’s page-turner for him.

There even is a genre of apocalyptic tunes

Friday, June 21, 2013

Standing Still for the Solstice and Summer Break

My drive to my office in the morning, a less than grueling 4 miles, takes me past the elementary school in Mendham Borough. Today, in addition to the usual parade of soccer vans turning into the driveway, an unusual number of parents were walking with their kids to the school. “It must be the last day of school,” I thought. I glanced at the date on my Jeep’s “information center." Aha! June 21. Summer is officially here. It had crept up on me.

Today is the solstice, which derives from sol stet, Latin for “the sun stands still,” since it seems to pause in the sky before reversing direction and drifting back toward the equator: Alban Heflin, Feast of Epona, Alben Heruin, Feill-Sheathain, Vestalia, Gathering Day, Johannistag, Litha, Sonnwend, Thing-Tide, and so on and so forth. The ancient Chinese celebrated Li, the goddess of light. Slavs and Celts leapt through bonfires. Modern-day Druids still celebrate the wedding of heaven and earth. The ancient Druids used to have more fun with it though, by burning human sacrifices inside wicker men – at least if we can believe the Romans. Julius Caesar first noted the Druid practice in his Commentaries:

“Others have figures of vast size with limbs formed of wicker branches; they fill them with living men, which, when set on fire, envelop and kill the men in the flames.” (For those whose Latin isn’t rusty: Aliī immānī māgnitūdine simulācra habent, quōrum contexta vīminibus membra vīvīs hominibus complent; quibus succēnsīs circumventī flammā exanimantur hominēs.)

Nowadays, while I enjoy warm weather as much as anyone, I don’t celebrate the specific day particularly, but I do remember celebrating the last day of school – like those Mendham kids today. The final day of the school year always was on or within a few days of the solstice – and it was no sacrifice.

School systems around the world have summer breaks, but the American one is unusually long. There is a common notion that it is a holdover from the days when most people lived on farms and kids were expected to do their share of the labor. This isn’t true. For one thing, summer is the wrong time of the year for that. The big need for farm labor is in the spring and the fall, and these are precisely the times when rural schools in the first half of the 19th century had their breaks. CUNY historian Kenneth Gold in his book School's In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools explains that summer vacation is an urban invention. Not only did urbanites (at least those able to afford to do so) flee the hot cities for the countryside in summer, but influential 19th century educational reformists such as Horace Mann and Amariah Brigham argued strongly for the long summer vacation’s adoption. Brigham (a psychiatrist) wrote that the 11-month school year then common was a factor in “a growing tide of insanity” among young people.

Well, we can’t have that. Better to send the kids home to drive the parents insane, which has been standard practice since the 1890s. In the benighted days when I was in elementary school, parents had a somewhat easier time of it. “Be back in time for dinner,” was the instruction I got when going out the door in the morning to play and meet up with friends. Today this would be considered parental neglect, but then it was entirely normal. Now parents structure more of their kids’ time, which, of course, places huge demands on their own. We regularly hear calls these days to drop the “outmoded” long vacation, and re-extend the school year to 11 months, though only a few school districts have done it. I suspect the biggest advocates are harried parents who want some respite of their own.

Summer vacation remains enormously popular among kids, of course. I’m not so sure it does them any harm, and I know I enjoyed it. (I even read more – albeit mostly scifi – in the summer than during the school year.) It’s not just young kids who like their summer breaks. College-level vacations are longer yet – most of those students have been out of class for a month already. The 50-year-old sappy "start of summer" love songs that play on the radio every May already (thankfully) are gone from the airwaves. Try taking the summer break away from college students and they might just burn the would-be re-schedulers inside wicker men.

See You in September

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Corporal Punishers vs Hellrazors: Hellrazors Sharpen Their Edge

Prelude: In the first two decades following WW2, American television stations scratched for programming to fill airtime. Only the networks could afford to produce their own shows of more than the simplest kind, and only enough of these to fill evening primetime. Fortunately, they quickly found an easily exploitable resource. In those days long before home video tapes or DVDs, the movie studios had vaults full of old movies that they regarded as virtually worthless. Only the rare gem among them ever could draw theatergoers if re-released. All the others, in the executives’ opinion, merely took up space. The studios therefore sold the rights to air these films to the TV stations for a song; they continued to sell the rights to films (even those just a couple years out of theaters) cheaply right into the 1960s. The independent TV stations in consequence aired old movies from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s at any time of the day or night, and even the networks aired them in their late-night time slots. Accordingly, when I was in grammar school in the early 1960s, I watched far more of what now are considered “classic movies” than kids of the same age would tolerate today – they were what was on.

What on earth has all this got to do with last night’s roller derby bout? Well, one film I watched and enjoyed as a kid was the 1950 sports flick The Fireball about (you guessed it) roller derby. (I haven’t seen it in its entirety since I was 10, so I can’t vouch for it being any good to an adult eye, but clips from it are posted below.) It was how I became conscious of the sport, and I’ve been a fan ever since. As mentioned in the last racap, I like the current incarnation of derby – homegrown all-women’s teams – better than the older one. Though the skaters skate for their own enjoyment – that is, in fact, the appeal – here nonetheless is a word of thanks to the Corporal Punishers, the Hellrazors, and all the other grassroots teams for bringing the sport back to life.

In their bouts last year against the New Jersey Hellrazors (Kendall Park), the two teams of the Jerzey Derby Brigade (the Major Pains and the Corporal Punishers, both of Morristown) fought see-saw battles down to the wire, with the Hellrazors squeaking out victories in the last seconds with tie-breaking final jams. A very different sort of match unfolded last night on the Corporal Punishers’ home rink in Morristown.

Both teams have developed an aggressive blocking strategy, which made for an exceptionally bruising bout, even by the rough standards of derby. This was as expected. The Hellrazors’ edge this year came from an uptick in the effectiveness of their jammers. In the first jam Jen-O-Go-Go picked up 4 points for the Hellrazors. It was an omen. In the third jam, jammers traded places in the penalty box 4 times, showing how rough-and-tumble the skating was. Jammers for both teams most often had to ram their way through opposing blockers, when they got through at all, and none escaped knock-downs. Still, Maggy Kyllanfall for the Punishers showed her usual skill at finding or making a way through the pack and then employing her speed in the open. Voldeloxx and Farmageddon also exploited or created opportunities. Jen-o-Go-Go, Mental Block, and Thiza Glory did the same for the Hellrazors; then the petite but powerful A-Bomb solidified the Hellrazor lead with a spectacular 7 pass series of Grand Slams (5 points per pass). 20 minutes into the bout the Hellrazors led 98-24. The Corporal Punishers redoubled their efforts, and by the half-time whistle had closed the gap to 24 points, with a score of 119-97, thereby returning the bout to competitive territory.

In the second half, the blocking, if anything, toughened, with special mention to Old Skool, Ozzie Clobberpot, and Swiss Mischief for the Hellrazors, and Doom Hilda and Raven Rage for the Punishers. The Hellrazors re-expanded their lead, again making good use of power jams (when the opposing jammer is in the penalty box). Doom Hilda and Voldeloxx skated spirited jams in the last minutes of the bout, but Hellrazor lead by that point was commanding. The final score was Hellrazors 245/Corporal Punishers 142. MVPs were Maggy Kyllanfall for the Punishers and Ozzie Clobberpot for the Hellrazors.

As always, it was an entertaining bout, and I’m looking forward to the rematch, as, I’m sure, are the Punishers.

…and if you’re looking for a more recent film to play the role of The Fireball to a present-day 10-year-old, try Drew Barrymore’s Whip It (2009). It’s recent enough for modern kids to tolerate, and (I have seen this with an adult’s eye) you’ll probably like it too.

Even Marilyn Monroe was a derby fan. Clips with Marilyn from The Fireball (1950):

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Elements of the Parodic Table

Sole surviving member of my immediate family, I’m also happily single and childless. But, by a one-thing-leads-to-another sequence of the ilk that determines so much of life, I acquired a sort of quasi-niece several years ago. (Long story.) The other day she asked if she could use my dining room for a tea party for a few of her Millennial friends. My dining room has a cherry hutch containing a variety of china cups that I never use – I inherited them (plus the hutch and the table for that matter) from my mom, who did use them. It was an odd request for her set, but I had no objection.

While the event was in progress, I was out for part of the evening; when I returned, I opted to stay out of the way and read Stephen King’s recent novel Joyland in the den. (I’ll leave comments on that for another blog.) Still, I couldn’t help being sufficiently aware of the goings-on to notice that the whole exercise – the elegant clothes, the good china, the good tableware, the good tablecloth, etc. – from their perspective was a comical parody. They even burlesqued an upper-crust accent that no longer exists, but which still can be heard in movies of the 1930s and 1940s – one that sounds as though it belongs midway between London and Philadelphia. (This accent was pretty much gone by the 1960s.) From the laughter, they seemed to be having fun with it. As a soundtrack, they were playing some of my vinyl from the 1950s and early 60s. My music collection is not especially big, but is a hodgepodge ranging from the 1930s through the 2010s in a mix of vinyl, tapes, and CDs. (No, I’m not as old as much as the music.) The 50s/60s fare they were spinning no doubt seemed sufficiently ancient for their purposes, but I made my one intervention by suggesting that that it wasn’t. I recommended instead what already was loaded in the cassette player: an all-1940s mixed tape (remember mixed tapes?) of Glenn Miller, Kay Kyser, Andrews Sisters, Benny Goodman, and so on. It was a hit. They even danced to it.

Although I then withdrew from the party, the music filtered through. The difference in tone between the 50s music and the 40s that replaced it was stark, and distracted me (in a good way) from Stephen. I don’t refer to the stylistic difference between big bands and early rock. I mean … what? … attitude, I think. (Naturally, I’ve noticed this before, but hearing a packet of one followed immediately by a packet of the other brought it into sharp relief.) The 40s are sophisticated: youthful, but adult. There is more than a little humor, but the love songs sound adult and real. The 50s rock is all innocent earnestness – very much a teen way of looking at romance and breakups, even when sung by non-teens. (The 50s were the first decade when folks started doubting the value of growing up.) Both are utterly different from what airs in the 21st century, which is so often deliberately dark (e.g. Kanye West), vengeful (even in light pop such as Adele’s Rumor Has It), or just plain cynical (e.g. Theory of a Deadman). It would be hard for a modern artist to reprise 40s or 50s fare except as parody.

William Straus and Neil Howe, authors of Generations: The History of America’s Future 1584 to 2069, argue that generational types repeat in a predictable 4-beat pattern. Millennials, they say, should have a lot in common with the GI Generation. Maybe, but you can’t prove it by the music. Or by tea parties.

Maybe the rising cynicism of our times is a good thing. (Yes, our times: rising cynicism is not confined to one generation; it’s just a bit more concentrated there.) If you expect the worst, after all, you aren’t going to be much disappointed. Sometimes, though, it is refreshing to listen to the songs of more hopeful eras.

Love is Hell, a love song for our times

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Derby Double

Regular readers of this blog just might have noticed by now my keenness for roller derby. It is longstanding. I’m old enough to have seen the old professional teams in action. They skated at the Coliseum in Washington, DC when I attended college there. Yet, in truth, I like the new incarnation better. The new teams consist of local ordinary people doing what they absolutely love to do – not as a job, but literally for the sport of it. (I follow only the women’s teams because one can watch men beat on each other anywhere.) The homegrown leagues and the skaters in them are real in a way a profit-making professional league never quite can be, even though professional skaters may be more polished. Skaters for the local teams range from check-out assistants to bartenders to attorneys, and span an age-range more than 30 years wide. The audience wears a mix of suits, jeans, and shorts. There are men in pony tails, crew-cuts, and Mohawks. There are more tattoos on the women in the audience (including on mothers chasing after toddlers) than one generally sees elsewhere, but they are not universal. The parking lot has pick-up trucks, Harley-Davidsons, and Mercedes coupes. It’s as satisfying a crowd (on and off the track) as one can find outside of a roadside diner or a bowling alley – as American as pizza, chimichanga, and fortune cookies.

So, it should be no surprise that I attended the double-header derby bout in Morristown last night. First up was the men’s bout between the Dow Jones Average (New York) and the Southern Gentlemen (a mish-mash of skaters from the Southeast US). Once again, I don’t follow men’s’ bouts, but I caught a portion of this one. In brief, Dow completely dominated throughout the bulk of the game. The Gentlemen were operating under the disadvantage any ad hoc team: little time to practice together. Nonetheless, in the last minutes they closed much of the point gap in a spirited push. The final score was Dow 210/Gentlemen 176.

The women’s bout followed: the Morristown based New Jersey Roller Derby (NJRD) vs New York’s Suburbia Backyard Bullies.

NJRD was operating without two of its usual big-hitting jammers (Maulin Rouge and Miss USAHole), but Pixie Bust filled in as one of the team’s jammers for the first time since her knee injury last year. Slam Hathaway and Shannanigunz, both strong jammers, also were in the NJRD line-up. The Bullies fielded the impressive jammers Leggy Fleming, Sass Transit, Molly Throttle, and Windy 500. Aya Yai was equally good as blocker and jammer. Bullies’ blocking was fierce and effective. NJRD blocking also was aggressive, with special mention to Yoshi and Nessa. The two teams were very evenly matched, and the score tilted first one way and then the other, with the halftime score at NJRD 64/Bullies 66.

The bout was an especially high penalty one on both sides. In the second half, Nessa and Shannanigunz were pulled from the game, weakening the NJRD. The Bullies crept ahead, but a 20 point power jam by Slam Hathaway reclosed the spread to 4 points. Pixie Bust then returned the lead to NJRD with a 10 point pick-up. These spurts of point gains, however, couldn’t permanently overcome the Bullies’ power advantage in the second half. Though the spurts recurred, including a three pass power jam by Pixie, the Bullies pulled ahead and then expanded the lead. Windy 500 appropriately finished the final jam as lead jammer. The final score was Bullies 179/NJRD 138.

MVPs were Leggy Fleming for Bullies and Pixie Bust for NJRD.

As usual, it was an exciting match and an enjoyable event all around. So was the after-party at the Iron Bar.

Jim Croce - Roller Derby Queen (1973)