Monday, February 26, 2007

knocking down the walls

Imagine a man who has lived his entire life in a building with a stairwell whose railing he has depended on for guidance as he goes up and down the stairs. When he is hungry, he goes down to the kitchen; when he is tired, he goes up to his bedroom; when he has work to do, he goes to his study; and so on. Every room is a floor to itself, and every time he moves, he relies on that railing for support, for guidance, and even for direction.

Then one day he realizes that the railing is loose, and that with a little effort, he can pull the railing out of the wall, or maybe push it in farther. Perhaps he's known this all along and has avoided admitting it to himself and seeing what would happen if he moved the railing, because the railing has been his main means of support as he moves between floors. Perhaps it came to him suddenly, in a flash, because his own study and use of the rail has shown him design flaws he never noticed before; or because a visitor pointed out the flaws to him. Perhaps it didn't come to him suddenly at all, but as time has gone on, awareness has come to him like dawn breaking over the horizon. Or perhaps the revelation of the stairwell has come to him in some combination of those three.

How he came to this realization ultimately is less important than the realization itself. What matters is that one day, even though he didn't know if the railing would hold or give way, or even bring the entire wall down with it, he decided the time had come to stop using the railing out of habit, and he through everything he had into seeing what the rail could take.

That, I suppose, is roughly where I've been in terms of my understanding of Scripture for a while. I tugged, there was a loud crash, and everything shook. The dust is settling, and I'm trying now to tell whether this length of metal in my hand actually had a better use before someone turned it into a railing. To be honest, I'm not even sure if the wall is still there. For all I know, by pulling the railing out of the wall, I've allowed myself to enter a much larger, much more wonderful world than I ever knew existed before.

Enough metaphor. Here it is in a nutshell: I was taught back when I was a Pentecostal, back when I considered myself part of the evangelical crowd, that the Bible is the word of God, no exceptions, and that it was a dangerous (if not heretical) thing to view it as anything less than absolutely authoritative. I heard an Assemblies of God pastor say not once but several times that although it is not a science text, and although it is not a history text, when the Bible speaks on those matters, its word is authoritative.

That means you have to believe that God created the world in exactly six days, in exactly the manner that Genesis 1 describes. You have to believe that a flood once covered the entire earth after it rained for nearly six weeks. You have to believe that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were flesh-and-blood people; that Job lost everything he had because Satan bet God that he could break his spirit; and that a man named Jonah once was swallowed by a giant fish that spat him out three days later.

You have to believe all this, because once you say "The story of Jonah is a parable," you have no basis for saying that the Resurrection of Jesus is an historical event, and without that, Christianity collapses like a house of cards. Since, as the Apostle Paul wrote, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, we are to be pitied above all men," anything that casts aspersions on the Resurrection undermines the very basis of the faith, so to the doctrines of Scriptural infallibility and Scriptural inerrancy, add Scriptural literalism.

Bullocks. As Gordon Atkinson once noted, once people start using the slippery slope argument, it seems as though they don't know when to stop.

There's a tendency today to deride biblical literalists as ignorant hicks, particularly when it comes to the biblical account of creation and the events of the Deluge. That is a mistake. Creationists, whatever their biases, are not ignorant. Being a creationist in the 21st century means looking at evolutionary theory far more closely than the high school biology classes that many of their fiercest critics stopped with.

Being a creationist means you need to understand not only the theory itself and the data that evolutionary biologists have interpreted to support it, you also need to discover the preconceptions those biologists brought to their analysis and then reinterpret the raw data to fit your own preconceptions.

That's going to require an understanding of radioactive dating and its weaknesses, such as the wildly disparate readings a single sample can provide; explaining the fossil record, such as noting that paleontologists have never found a case where the geological column came anywhere near to matching what has been theorized; wading into the deep waters of molecular biology, getting into issues of irreducible complexity not just at the surface level but at the genetic one; gaining a passing familiarity with the comparative Flood mythologies of world cultures, from the Aborigines of Australia to the Mayans of Central America, and seeing how they compare to the Hebrew tale of Noah; and having at least a layman's grasp of hydrogeology, since creationists generally believe that the hydrogeological forces of the Deluge are responsible not only for the fossil record but for stalactites and stalagmites, metamorphic rock, layers of sedimentation, and the erosion that sculpted natural marvels like the Grand Canyon.

Being a creationist also means cataloging the anomalies that don't fit the accepted evolutionary model, such as the lack of significant development in crocodilians since the age of the dinosaurs; tracking the many evolutionary theories, since contrary to what you may believe, there is not a single, monolithic explanation of macroevolution; remembering oddments like the human skeletons and jewelry miners have found in the coal layer, even though it supposedly was formed in the millions of years before humanity arrived on the earth; and noticing other little things like the stalactites that form under bridges and stalagmites that form on cement walkways in caves, all so you can ask how many millions of years old these bridges and cement walkways are.

And then, when all this is done, you have to integrate it with the biblical record, which runs for about twelve chapters. Sometimes it's easy to do. About twenty years ago, scientists discovered that mitochondrial DNA, passed unchanged from mother to child, is virtually identical in people around the world. That fits neatly with the biblical account in Genesis, which traces us all back to Eve.

Other times, it's more challenging, such as the thousand-year lifespans the Bible credits to men like Adam, Seth, Methuselah and Noah. And then there's the disturbing lack of dinosaurs in the Bible. It's easy to suggest that Noah took young dinosaurs or eggs onto the Ark with him, but if something the size of a tyrannosaur or a diplodocus survived the Antediluvian period, it would seem likely that they would be mentioned somewhere.

If you haven't come through the ranks of evangelicaldom, I'm not sure I can convey just how much pressure there is to subscribe to this particular point of view. The unstated message, which of course, everyone would deny if it were put so baldly, is that viewing the Bible this way is part and parcel of being a Christian. If you don't subscribe to it, you're not really "saved."

No one puts it that way, of course; but in an offhanded way, at least among many evangelicals I knew, there was a nod and a wink attitude toward those who didn't take this view. At best they were spiritually immature Christians, but more typically they weren't "really" Christians. They were Christians in name only, or, most insultingly, Christians only by culture.


We all know what oxymorons are. They're concepts or statements (usually from up above) that are plainly self-contradictory. In an age as cynical as ours, it's almost a sport to find oxymorons in everyday usage, such as
"three easy steps." Never mind the obvious ones like "jumbo shrimp"; just for the fun of it, I've compiled here a list of some of the most common honest-to-goodness oxymorons seen in everyday life:
  • train schedule
  • intelligence agencies
  • holy war
  • civil war
  • Microsoft Works
  • journalistic integrity
  • congressional ethics
  • common sense
  • funny pages
  • user-friendly
  • childproof
  • compassionate conservative
  • humble opinion
  • business ethics
  • postal service
  • tech support

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

lord of the cornfield

I had a realization last night about the Twilight Zone episode that featured Billy Mumy as a boy who terrorized the people of his community and send them to the "cornfield" whenever they displeased him: It's about God.

The boy, whose name eludes me, has absolute power and can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without any consequence to himself. The people live in terror of him, but constantly praise him and say what a good boy he is so they can avoid his displeasure, even when he does something as horrible as turning his father into a giant jack-in-the-box.
I don't know who wrote that particular episode, but Rod Serling was a Unitarian Universalist, and the episode does seem to take issue with the apparent cruelty of God, whom the Bible describes as drowning the entire planet, save eight people and a boatful of animals; killing the firstborn son of every family in Egypt; and threatening repeatedly through his prophets to bring one disaster after another onto Israel. And of course the New Testament declares that those who reject Christ will be cast into hell for all eternity -- similar, I suppose, to being sent to the cornfield. And like the townfolk who can't say enough things about the holy terror in their midst, believers never stop singing the praises of the God they believe did all these things.
Maybe I'm mistaken, but I think a lot of evangelicals get upset by that sort of story, which they see as an affront to the dignity of God and the gospel that Jesus preached. I know that I did, back in my evangelical days. (Although I must admit that evangelicals seem to get even more incensed about negative portrayals of the church and Christians than of God.)
To an extent, I suppose a negative reaction is understandable, because the writer of this episode is misportraying (and misunderstanding) the nature and personality of God, and no one likes to see their beliefs misunderstood or misrepresented. But I think the strong visceral reaction that we Christians often have to disagreement isn't fair to the people or viewpoints we disagree with, and it does a poor job of representing Christ.
Isn't everyone better served by asking where the critics are coming from, and seeing if they have a point? Because if God really were as sunshiney-day-in-the-park as Christians market him as, I doubt anyone would write stories depicting God as a capricious monster. Biblical stories such as the Deluge, the plagues on Egypt and the conquest of Canaan are troubling, or they should be. We try to sanitize them into pleasant little Sunday school lessons about how evil will perish and God will provide for his people, but if the thought of men, women and children scrambling for a foothold and looking for dry land in a world where torrential rain just doesn't stop coming, doesn't bother you; if the thought of a nation full of parents, suddenly bereft of their eldest children, some infants, some toddlers, and some adolescents, doesn't give you pause; if none of the stories from the Tanakh make you stop and think about how God can be the author of such things and still be called "good," then you're not reading your Bible as an adult.
The people who write and tell stories like the "Twilight Zone" episode about the cornfield have legitimate perspectives on the gospel, the Bible, and God as the church has presented them. As people who have received Christ, we believe we have a sacred Truth to share with the rest of the world. But that doesn't mean, nor should it, that they don't have important truths to share with us as well.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

a magic moment

Today in the car on the way to pick up her sister from school, I was surprised to hear Rachel singing from the back seat:
How many roads must a man walk down, before we call him a man?
How many seas must the white dove sail, before she nests in the sand?
How many times must the cannonballs fly, before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind.
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
The lyrics weren't exact, and the tune was a little off, but she was definitely singing "Blowin' in the Wind." Rachel is only 4, but she already knows Dylan. How wild is that?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

don't patronize me

If I claimed that blacks were irrelevant , you'd call me racist.
If I said women were unimportant, you'd call me sexist.
Prejudice goes both ways. So don't discount the role men have in the lives of their children. When I suggest including fathers in the programs you market to children and their parents, don't say my concern is frivolous and brush me off as one-of-a-kind because I spend time with my daughters. If dads are welcome too, then invite them. If they're not, then there's something wrong with your attitude, and you need to fix it.
Who are you to say that fathers are unimportant to their children? Who are you to assign us a minimal role in the lives of our children? Who are you to push the endless stereotype that restricts fathers to a supporting role in parenting, one where we are limited to the periphery of our children's lives, with barely a passing interest in their education, their friends and their hobbies? You would never say these things out loud, but your attitude screams it loud and clear every time you laugh at my claim that saying "moms" is not enough.
Who are you to deride my efforts to be the father my children need and say that I'm playing at being "Mr. Mom"? I am not the mother of my daughter, and I have no wish to be. I am her father, and I am proud of the job I do. I wake my daughter in the morning, I take her to school and visit her there, I help with her homework when it is hard, I arrange her playdates and take her to the doctor, I kiss her knee when she scrapes it, and when the problems she carries become too heavy to bear, I help her to unload them. Who are you to see me do these things and say that this is the province of her mother alone?
We fathers were there when our children were conceived, many of us are there when they are born, and those foolish enough to miss their children's childhoods always regret it bitterly. My friends see me with my children, and they burn with jealousy. It is your casual and repeated lie that children are a secondary concern to their fathers that has robbed my friends of the belief that they can enjoy the rapport with their children that I have with mine, and it is your easy acquiescence to fatherly absenteeism that makes it the rule of the land.
My children are not an afterthought to me, and I will not allow you to tell them they are. I am their father.


Note to self for future reference: If you're going to get together with friends every couple weeks to play Dungeons & Dragons, make sure it's a simple enough campaign to keep track of things from session to session, especially if you can get together to game only one every three or four weeks. A 12-part epic is probably not "simple enough."
I've been playing D&D with a group of friends in Branchburg for about two years now. It started out with just the DM and three of us players, but as time has gone on, we've added two more players, and what appeared to be a fairly straightforward campaign has become far more complex than I had imagined. Credit for that surely goes to the two players who have traded off DM duties from time to time. It's the first time I've played D&D since I was in high school, meaning it has far more advanced rules, and it's a much more involved game than the sort of random encounters Chris Adomshick and I used to settle for when we played.
My character is a spymaster named Parker Gaiman, more or less based on the classic Lee-Ditko Spider-man, with a dash of the recent innovations by J. Michael Straczynski, and a twist of Peter Parqaugh from Neil Gaiman's "1602," from which I got some of the particulars. Parker is a from a fairly small kingdom called Wendyg, where he worked for the crown in matters of intelligence. When his mentor failed to avert an assassination attempt on the queen, he and his proteges fell from favor with her successor.
In Parker's case, that meant a form of exile similar to what Garak experienced on "Deep Space 9." Although he is no longer officially on the payroll of the crown, he remains in service to the king and reports things that he has learned the past two years while he has been in the premiere city-state on the continent. It's a win-win for everyone -- Parker is hoping to earn his restoration to royal favor by his continued loyalty, while the crown not only benefits from the information he provides, it also enjoys plausible deniablity if he is caught.
When I wrote Parker's backstory, I decided on a lark to incorporate some of the banter we'd been having about the world we would be operating in. The city was a big one, like New York. It was an important cultural center, like New York. It was probably one of the most significant cities in the continent, if not the world, again, like New York. So I decided to refer to the big city where Parker was laboring in exile as a carpenter, as "Nuyork."
The name stuck, and in time, we revealed that Nuyork had five boroughs. We only identified a few of them, but we still crack up whenever we cite their names: Quins, Brucklinne and Haarlam.
The game started one night in Nuyork when Parker met up with the other two PCs, a human named Galin and an extraplanar fellow named Inquill. Magic in this world has been suppressed and disbelieved in for hundreds of years, owing to cataclysmic "Magic Wars" that happened centuries earlier, but each of us was drawn to Nuyork because of something unearthly that was happening there to raise the city's profile steadily higher at the expense of its lowerclass and of neighboring cities, counties and nation-states.
Eventually we learned that the author of the evil was a fellow named Vorden, a councilor to the king. Parker, although he had learned a great deal about the city under his cover as a carpenter, had been unable to find any secret ways into the castle, and no one was allowed through the front door anymore. Part of Vorden's ways involved turning the lower-borns into stew and using the black magic from their murder to drug the remaining population.
Our ally at getting in was a fellow named Fromm, part of a resistance to Vorden and his ilk. Fromm knew of a secret entrance through a chapel behind the castle. We made it in, nearly got killed by hordes of undead creatures, and finally located a magical key deep in the chambers under the chapel, with the help of another PC called Rowena. Rowena, like Inquill, was extraplanar; she also had a serious fixation on the undead.
As I say, our characters finally got the key and escaped the dungeon, but not all of us. Rowena literally was torn in two by an undead giant, and we took the treasure we found, along with her remains, to Fromm and used it to hire a cleric who could resurrect Rowena.
That was the first arc of the campaign story. One of the highlights of the campaign was when Inquill, a lawful evil ur-priest, in response to what he considered our untrustworthy behavior, insisted we all sign a contract that spelled out our obligations to share information, treasure, discoveries and such things. This is no joke, by the way -- Anthony, the player behind Inquill, actually drafted a contract that we bickered over for the better part of half an hour, defining such things as the death of a party member and our legal obligations to that person's remains and soul, and so on.
A point of lesser interest but greater relevance was the discovery of Parker's gift, one of true sight. Periodically, for reasons he can't explain as yet, he will see things exactly as they are. Magical illusions are cast aside, magical natures are revealed, and so on.
At that point in the story, the entire party experienced a disconnect in our memories, and we found ourselves with Rowena, and two other fellows, without Inquill in sight, at the Inn of Glad Tidings in the midst of a party in our honor. We never did figure out what we were being honored for, though, as werewolves attacked, killed one of the local dignitaries and ran amok all over the grounds.
The werewolves were only the start of our problems, though. We soon realized our memories had been tampered with in more ways than we realized. Galin and Parker had no idea who S'Blackstunn and Lorinarth were, and although they recognized Rowena, she had no idea who they were. Neither did S'Blackstunn and Lorinarth. And then it turned out that Lorinarth is an impulsive pyromaniac with some fire elemental ancestry. Once we were outside, someone complained that it was too dark, and he promptly lit a tree on fire, during the dry season, starting an out-of-control fire that devastated the countryside.
Oh, and Galin was bit by a werewolf, on whose person he found a note that seemed to described Parker as the chosen one of prophecy, before whom gods would fall.
Most of our next few sessions was spent running around a hive of caves, trying to figure out where we were, what was going on, and being attacked by werewolves. This last item in particular led to the most memorable moment I've ever had in role-playing games. In these tunnels, which were barely five feet high, meaning our characters had to crouch the entire time they moved through them, Rowena used her clerical spells to summon a Celestial Lion to help with the fight.
This proved to be impractical for a few reasons, the biggest of which is that a Celestial Lion, when it stands erect, is far more than five feet high. The poor beast was able to take out the werewolf in front of it, but then it was unable to move, or to turn around when another group of werewolves attacked it from behind. Rowena returned it to its plane of origin, but not before it was savaged from the rear. Somewhere out there in the multiverse is a Celestial Lion with a severe grudge.
The group dynamics at this point became increasingly interesting. Parker and Galin still worked together, owing to their history together; and S'Blackstunn and Lorinarth also worked together, for the same reason; but Rowena was the only person in the party whom everyone would trust to work with them. By the time we returned to the Inn of Glad Tidings to keep an appointment with a Count Drusillus, we were viewing each other with paranoia and suspicion, following and spying on one another, and generally not getting along or willingly sharing information with the whole party. At one point, Parker even split off from the rest of the group and went his own way.
It turned out that we actually were not far from Parker's home country of Wendyg. The next step of our journey led us to County Drusillus, which borders Wendyg. There we discovered that the count's daughter, whose name I can't recall right now, recently had converted from whatever the prevailing local cult was to a newly revived cult of a wolf deity named Fenron. Parker, although he was from the area, had never heard of this cult, but he did recognize that Fenron was likely a corruption of the name Fenrok, a wolf deity who had been worshiped in the area hundreds of years earlier, but whose cult had died out.
The count's mission for us at this point was to rescue his daughter, who he was concerned had been seduced and led astray by Tarron, the charismatic founder of this cult, and who had broken off her betrothal to the son of a prominent nobleman, whose marriage would have helped boost the county's standing.
It was at this point, incidentally, that we discovered that in our missing period, Inquill had taken over Nuyork and now was ruling as its sovereign. There was also a war afoot, with pretty much everyone else fighting Nuyork and things now at a stalemate.
Anyway, more stuff happened. Exploring the shrine of Fenron, we discovered Abyssal creatures in the sewer, as someone had seen in a dream; eventually we found the count's daughter, and we once again split the party as three of us went through a portal into another plane and Lorinarth and Parker stayed behind. They eventually went through as well, after getting some of the count's best soldiers to come with us.
The portal led to the Beast Plains, where Tarron had set up his armies and was pretending to Fenrok's place. We also discovered that Galin had contracted lycanthropy, and Fenrok was now using him to thwart Tarron's ambitions, which he did, at least for the time being. Tarron it turned out was a lich; through a clever manuver, his corporeal form was destroyed. Parker freed a woman bound to Tarron's service through a stone of dark magic -- necromantic, actually -- and was given the chance of tremendous necromantic ability if he would only sacrifice one of his companions. (He refused.)
This stage of their journey complete, our characters walked through another portal and emerged in the Astral Plane of all places, where far below they saw the titanic body of a dead god, chained in the Abyss. This is important, since two of the characters had dreams connected to a god who had died and now was returning to life, to the great dismay of his former worshipers.
And then Anubis appeared in the Astral Plane, sent everyone to Sigil -- a ring city built around the World Tree -- and there we recalled the events from the missing period of our journey, which we are roleplaying now.
I don't expect anyone to care about this, really. I'm just writing it down so I have it committed to memory in some format. (My favorite memory from this leg actually is a joke I had made about rescuing a princess from the werewolf king. It was a joke I made before discovering that we were essentially going to be called upon to do just that, except that Tarron is not really a king or a werewolf, just the leader of a cult of them.)
On this new (old) leg of our journey, Galin, Parker and Inquill arrivied at Sigil, where Inquill dumped his companions for perceived breach of contract and  they discovered someone who appears in all ways to be Rowena, except that she has no recollection of them and instead of the undead is obsessed with aberrations as the ultimate evil. Also joining us for the first time were S'Blackstunn and Lorinarth. For kicks and for contrast, since Parker and S'Blackstunn hadn't got along at all in our post-amnesia stage -- they had been the most mutually suspicious of the entire groip -- I decided that they should hit it off right from the start, and in fact Parker has been more than willing to follow S'Blackstunn's lead many times.
Parker's been having a bit of a hard time getting used to the idea that he has left his native plane of existence, that he is now in a city built in the shape of a giant doughnut around an ash tree that provides structural support for the entire multiverse, and that tree is somehow being threatened. In short, he's a little out of his league.
To make it more complicated, he's started seeing bizarre things with his True Sight, and something appears to be moving him around at key moments without his consent. This happened once in a fight with monsters, so that he was able to kill a fairly nasty beast from behind; and it happened another time in his quest to find a portal that would take him back home. I suspect he's going to experience a total collapse of his paradigm, at which point he's going to need to find a way to incorporate all these new experiences he's been having.
Also problematic is Rowena. She's clearly the person he and Galin just paid to have resurrected, and yet she also claims to have no memory of him. Something weird is going on there, and it's definitely diminished the amount of trust he has in her.
And since we've been on Sigil, we've actually been through two portals. One took us to the Abyss -- making it the third time the campaign has connected with the Abyss -- and another took us to a damp subterranean chamber in Parker's native dimension, although we ended up going straight back to Sigil right afterward through another portal, and the way back home appears to be blocked once more.
Interesting stuff going on, at least to have played it. I doubt this is of much interest to anyone in its present format, but I'm hoping it will be of use to me as the campaign continues.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


After having a Penguin Classics edition of "The Nibelungenlied" for about ten years, I'm finally reading it.
For those not in the know, "The Nibelungenlied" is one of those classic works by dead white European males that is considered a classic piece of literature, even though no one ever reads it. You can find "The Odyssey" and "The Iliad" at the corner bookstore, but if you want "The Nibelungenlied," you probably will have to special order it. It is, after all, one of those classic pieces of literature, the sort that you read either because a teacher has assigned it and Cliff's Notes are not available, you feel you ought to read it because it is a "classic" work, or because you just really enjoy old stories by dead people, and you like tracing their twisting paths of literary antecedents.
I more or less fall into the last category. I read the unabridged "Brothers Karamazov" and "Les Misérables" for kicks, I enjoy watching Shakespeare, and I read Alfred, Lord Tennyson's "Idylls of the King" to my girls for a bedtime story. And when I find a story I really like, I'm inclined to follow its literary roots as far back as I can without losing the recognizable story.
I once did that with Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, back in college. As Arthurian retellings go, they're about average, but they were enough to pique my interest. I knew Lawhead was drawing on the Welsh poems of "The Mabinogion," so I snagged a copy of that, before eventually searching out other, more modern renditions by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Sir Thomas Mallory, T.H. White, Tennyson, and John Steinbeck, among others.
Written down by an anonymous poet, "The Nibelungenlied" is a Medieval German poem that is connected to some widely enjoyed works of the last century, not least of which is Richard Wagner's opera of the same title. The opera in turn in some ways shaped J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and of course was the inspiration for the Chuck Jones piece de resistance, "What's Opera, Doc?", in which Elmer Fudd uses his spear and magic helmet to "kill da wabbit."
The plot is fairly straightforward: The hero Siegfried, having set his heart on marrying the beautiful Kriemhild, travels to Burgundy to win the consent of her brother Gunther to give her to him in marriage. Gunther for his part has decided to woo the lovely Brunhild. (All together now: "Oh, Brunhilda, you're so lovely!" / "Yes I know it, I can't help it.") The downside is that, as with the Greek beauty Atalanta, Brunhild has executed every one of her suitors so far, as they have failed to best her in three contests of strength. So Siegfried proposes a deal: By means of trickery, he will best Brunhild at these feats, but make it appear that Gunther has done it. In turn, when they return to Burgundy, Siegfried gets to marry Kriemhild.
To pull this off, Siegfried, Gunther and Co. find it necessary to tell Brunhild that Siegfried is Gunther's vassal. Gunther also ends up needing Siegfried's help consummating the marriage; when he tries to do it himself on his wedding night -- the poet notes that his bride had no interest in being party to it, and he therefore tried to force himself on her -- Brunhild overpowers him, ties him up in her girdle, and leaves him hanging from the doornail. Quite amusing, really. I laughed out loud at that part. The next night, Siegfried -- who, like Brunhild, possesses superhuman strength -- disguises himself as Gunther, trades places with him, and wrestles Brunhild into submission so that Gunther can have sex with her, which in turn ends her superhuman strength.
An important plot point here is that when Siegfried wrestled Brunhild into submission for Gunther's pleasure, he took from her both her girdle and her ring, as trophies. This is probably representative of an earlier version of the story in which Siegfried raped her, although in this version of the story, he gives them to Kriemhild.
Ten years later, Brunhild -- still believing that Siegfried is Gunther's vassal -- convinces her husband to send for his sister and brother-in-law for a visit. Brunhild accuses Kriemhild of overstepping her bounds by trying to enter church at the same time as her, as though their husbands were equals, and Kriemhild, incensed by the claim that Siegfried is a vassal and that she was debased to marry him, pulls out the girdle and the ring and shows them as evidence that Brunhild was not a virgin when she married Gunther, and in fact had been Siegfried's paramour.
That causes a major and rather public row, and one of Gunther's advisers or vassals, a stalwart fellow named Hagen, decides that he must avenge the insult to Brunhild's honor by killing Siegfried. This he does, through trickery, and then he conspires to take from Kriemhild the treasure of the Niebelungs, which Siegfried had gained by conquest and gave to her as a dowry.
In the part I'm just starting to read, Kriemhild marries King Etzel, known elsewhere as Atilla the Hun, and gets the weregild she is owed for her husband's murder by systematically killing every male protagonist in the book. By the time "The Nibelungenlied" is finished, the abattoir in "Hamlet" is supposed to look like a pleasant day in the park feeding pigeons and eating ice cream.
It's been a little difficult to get into the book, mostly because of the distance between me and the poet's original audience. Reading one superlative description after another gets old to the modern eye, although I'm aware it was the practice of the day to describe the fantastic rainment of kings, the superhuman ability and bravery of the heroes, and the beauty of the women, which surpasses the sunrise over the lake. And of course everyone is a "noble king," a "gay knight" and so on. If it weren't for heartwarming thoughts of Elmer Fudd crying, "I'll kill the wabbit!" to avenge his own humiliation, I don't know if I would have made it to the part where it started to pick up, with the confrontation outside the church, nearly halfway through.
I will say I really dislike the treatment of women in the poem, which isn't surprising, considering that this is a Medieval poem, and women at that time either were valued as objects of beauty or as bearers of strapping male heirs. It angered me to read about how casually Gunther and his men make free with Brunhild's treasure, the deceit that went into winning her hand in marriage (and then in consummating it, although I definitely think Gunther got his when Brunhild hung him up for the night), and I got really pissed off when Kriemhild says something about how Siegfried beat her for humiliating Brunhild in front of the church, and how she deserved it. Ugh. I shudder just thinking about that line.
On the other hand, now that the plot is moving toward its tragic conclusion, I can see why the story has endured. Just about every significant male character so far has been a grade-A scumbag in how they treated the two main female characters, and from what I know, every single one of them is going to snuff it pretty miserably. "The Nibelungenlied" is a story of betrayal, murder, and revenge ... especially revenge, and that can't help but appeal to anyone who knows what it is like to be wronged.
At some point, I hope to follow the thread of "The Nibelungenlied" into other areas of Nordic and Icelandic literature. A similar tale is told in "The Elder Edda," one of the few legitimate remaining sources we have of Norse mythology, and as noted, it has decedents in modern literature as well. Wagner's "Nibelungenlied" cycle of operas has the hero forging a ring from the gold of the Nibelungs which makes him supreme in power but costs him the love of women, and it ends with the destruction of the gods and the emergence of a new, grander world ruled by men. Tolkien has a similar theme in his own Ring story, but when that Ring is destroyed, the elves leave the world and a new, grimmer world of less beauty emerges, one ruled by men. And of course there's always Elmer. (And, as my children know, his "spear and magic helmet.")
The literature buff in me enjoys not just these obvious paths of descent and influence, but I also get a kick out of the odd parallels and recurring motifs that show up in these ancient works. The Greek hero Achilles, protagonist of "The Iliad," was dipped in the River Styx when he was an infant; as a result, he is impervious to harm, except for one spot: his heel, where his mother held him as she dipped him into the river. It is throught this point that the Trojan Paris shoots him with an arrow and kills him. So I was greatly interested to learn that Siegfried, after he killed a dragon, bathed in its blood and made himself invincible. Except there was one spot on his back, between his shoulders, where a leaf fell on him so that the blood never touched him there. And that is of course how Hagen kills him.
I expect to finish with the book in another week or so, depending on whether I can maintain my current pace, which in turn depends upon how frequently my computer crashes, since I read while it reboots. Once I finish it, I have other books to turn to, also classics in the dead white male sense of the word, such as "Egil's Saga," an Icelandic tale that I bought for reasons beyond my recall; and "Parzival," a German version of the quest for the Holy Grail, or sangraal, as its author calls it, coming some time after the French poet Cretien de Troyes started the whole mess with his poem "Perceval, or the Story of the Grail." There's also Dante's "Paradisio," which remains the only part of "The Divine Comedy" I never finished. (Why is it that writers always make hell sound exciting, but put you to sleep when they journey through heaven? Milton had the same problem -- I never knew the war in heaven could be so appallingly dull, until I read "Paradise Lost." And now that I think about it, I probably should re-read that, since I never managed to get to the end.) Most likely, though, my next read is going to be a seminary text or two that I've borrowed from a friend, by N.T. Wright.
The conclusion? If you want a nice, easy read, stick with Spider-man and don't follow my habits. I wouldn't know John Grisham if I tripped over him.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

'ware the grammarian

At the otolaryngolist's office yesterday, I noticed a sign addressed to existing patients, informing them which insurance providers were no longer accepted at the office.
I admit, I was surprised. How many imaginary patients do you think a practice of any size can have before it folds?

what i throw out

  • broken things
  • packaging

what i recycle

  • junk mail
  • finished mail
  • magazines past their usefulness
  • retired office paper
  • flat cardboard
  • corrugated cardboard
  • plastic bottles
  • plastic cartons
  • glass jars
  • newspaper

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

valentine's day

Three 4x6 photos: 98 cents
Two sheets of magnetic backing: $2
One sheet of art paper: $1
Bottle of Elmer's glue: 9 cents
Flatbrush: 47 cents
Bits of construction paper scrap: Free
Three homemade Valentine's Day presents for the love of my life: priceless
For all the junk we don't need to buy and throw out in record volumes, there's MasterCard. For everything else, there's time, personal effort and love.

word of the day

With the yearly dire prognostications in effect that we're all going to perish beneath fifty feet of snow and glaciers six miles long, Natasha has coined a phrase for drivers who won't get behind the wheel of the car: snow chickens. This is an overdue phrase in Nova Bastille, where people won't get behind the wheel if a single drop of rain falls from the sky.
Your assistance is appreciated in getting this term into the dictionary.

the artist: out of her time

Today on the way to the pharmacy, I was amused to hear Evangeline singing, without prompting:
All day, all night, Cary Grant.
That's all I hear from my wife: Cary Grant.
What can he do that I can't?
Big star, big deal, Cary Grant.

I know a man named Mr. Lang,
And he has a neon sign.
And Mr. Lang is very old,
So we call it "Old Lang's Sign."
These are some of the lyrics to Allan Sherman's "Schticks of One, a Half-Dozen of the Other," a medley of mangled folk songs. Sherman was a variety singer who did send-ups of popular and well-known songs, such as Petula Clark's "Downtown." He also did the voice of the Cat in the Hat in the CBS TV special, but he is most famous for his "Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda" song, in which an unwilling camper pleads for the chance to come home.

In any event, as someone who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, he made his splash when my parents were my age. I have (somewhere) a CD of "My Son, the Greatest: The Best of Allan Sherman," which is fairly unusual for someone my age. That Evangeline enjoys his music is nothing short of astonishing.

In other words, congratulations, Mr. Sherman. You've achieved a form of immortality that most artists only dream of.

Monday, February 12, 2007

otolaryngology folo

And the verdict is, not only does Evangeline need tubes surgery, but proteinacious is a really cool-sounding word.
We had a visit with a different otolaryngologist today, and it was far more pleasing than the last two visits had been, even put together. Unlike Dr. Sable, the otolaryngologist we had today took the time to find out from us what Evangeline's history had been, explained in plain English why she thought tubes were necessary, and even answered questions. It was incredible. In five minutes I had got more information from Dr. Troaquin and had greater confidence in her diagnosis than I had from Sable at all.
Essentially, Evangeline has a lot of fluid buildup behind her ears. The fluid is dark because over time the liquid in the fluid may drain out or be reabsorbed, leaving behind an increasingly viscous muck. The muck grows darker because it is more proteinacious as the liquid disappears.
I love that word. Proteinacious. As soon as the doctor said it, my face lit up and I repeated it. It sounds like exactly what it is. I love words that fall off the tongue like that. Proteinacious.
Anyway, the tubes operation -- I had loads of these as a kid -- will provide an outlet for the gunk to escape. Her hearing should improve almost immediately. She'll miss a day of school for the operation, which is ironic, since the actual surgery takes only fifteen minutes. Routine stuff.
Now I just have to get Evangeline excited about the procedure. She seemed a little nervous today.

snow business

Today in the waiting room at the doctor's office, I proved once and for all that I have no shame, nor any dignity.
I had gone to the doctor's, owing to some congestion in my ears that isn't going away, in hopes that he could give me something to clear it up. I booked appointment for 1:30, figuring that would give me enough time after it was over to go to Evangeline's school and pick her up. Unfortunately, I hadn't reckoned on sitting in the waiting room for half an hour, and had nothing to read to Rachel.
So before long, we started pretending that it had snowed in the doctor's office, and we got to work. We not only shoveled a path through the waiting room, we started building snowwomen -- snowpeople, Rachel preferred to say, choosing gender-inclusiveness over gender-specificity. I thought things reached their peak when we made snowballs and I suggested we throw them through the window into the receptionist's office, but Rachel was determined to have every bit of fun she could with her snow.
So it was that if you had walked into the Family Practice Center just before two o'clock, you would have seen a grown man and his 4-year-old, stretched out on the floor, in a room with four other adults, waving their arms and legs about on the floor, and laughing as they had a grand time together. You probably would have thought we were nuts.
But I think we made the best snow angels I've ever seen.

the facts of life (more or less)

A few weeks ago, Evangeline asked again for a baby brother.
I guess I can understand that request. She used to have a little brother, one of the foster sort, and she's missed him with an ache twenty thousand leagues deep since the state returned him to his birth parents. She got her little sister only weeks after he left, and she knows that we've talked about having more children at some point.
In the past when this has come up, I've got a laugh out of her by asking her if she knows where Isaac is, then pointing out that if she already had one little brother and couldn't keep track of him, then it's not very reasonable to expect us to give her another one. This time she wouldn't be put off so easily. She wants a little brother.
What was I to do? She has to understand that little brothers don't grow on trees, that we can't just give have a baby at the drop of a hat, that there is a multitude of considerations in having a third child when finances are already tight.
So I told her, very delicately, where babies come from. I explained that people bud, like yeast; that is, a mature adult will start growing a baby on her shoulder or leg, and that eventually it will reach the size that it breaks off and begins life independently. When a woman does this, the baby is a girl; when a man does this, the baby is a boy. And, as I explained, daddy is incapable of budding.
She gave me the same sort of look that we used to always give our father when he would tell us a whopper. It's the sort of look that says, "That doesn't match anything you've told me before about this subject, but you're saying it with such a straight face that I really don't know how seriously to take you."
A few things have happened as a result of this discussion. First is that Evangeline has not pressed us for a while for a baby brother. Second is that she has come fully to appreciate the wisdom behind the expression, "Don't believe anything your father says when his lips are moving." And third, I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do in another few years.


Back when my thyroid was removed in December 2005, my taste buds stopped working. It was an awful experience, really. A friend of mine started to joke that it was funny, but then he realized mid-laugh that it wasn't. It didn't matter if I ate a candy bar, a piece of fruit so rich that juice would dribble down my chin, or a meal I had stoked with seasonings, I might as well have been dining in England for all the sabor my food had. It all tasted blank.
The last three weeks, owing to a head cold I contracted at the end of a visit to Arizona, I've been losing my hearing. I've waited for my head to clear itself out, and sometimes it almost does -- during a hot shower, when I have a jaw-cracking yawn, or during other unpredictable moments -- but my ears always fill back up, and I'm left to cupping my hands over my ears to pick out sounds, to asking people what they said, and to deciphering speech from context. The only sounds I hear easily are the pulsing in my ear the cotton makes when it shifts, and the noise of the breath in my throat.
What an awful way to live. I can't even imagine what it would be like to be like this for the rest of my life: never to hear my daughters say they love me, never to hear my wife say my name, never to hear the sizzle of rain on the street, or the delicate crunch of snow on the lawn.
I saw the doctor today; he prescribed a hefty decongestant and a plan of action that should clear my ears out. After feeling the silence closing in, especially the last two days, this will be a welcome return to Paradise.

what if there's no audience?

A friend of mine preached a sermon yesterday on experiencing the presence of God. I don't recall exactly what he said, but it put me in mind of an image I've had lately of a choir singing to an empty auditorium, as a type of the American church. That started me thinking further, and I recalled this passage from the minor prophets:
I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
— Amos 5:21-24
What if God has left the bulding? Would we even know? The news Amos brought must have seemed like a shock to the Israelites when they received it. The feasts they were celebrating were the ones that God had commanded they celebrate for all generations, the music was good, and if that was their style, I'm sure the Israelites "felt the presence of God" when they worshiped. If God isn't listening to our worship, and doesn't want our offerings, how would we even know?
It's not just a rhetorical question. Music is a great way for us to cover up our emptiness and feel spiritual. Younger churches in particular like their worship like they're having a rock concert. The music is loud, and the pounding pulse of the music beat induces an adrenaline rush that we all-too-easily accept as a sign that God is really moving in our midst, especially once the church reaches the tipping point and everyone's properly excited. Older-style charismatic churches play this game too: leaders launch into praise choruses with fast tempos and then at midway switch into slower, more worshipful songs. The pace and tone of the service is so well sculpted and so structured that if you go to the same service long enough, you realize what's happening and you can't help but ask whether these weekly moves of the Spirit -- which too often have tears right on cue -- are really nothing more than clever artifice. Nor are older churches, with their familiar songs played on the familiar sound of the organ, exempt. Sentiment for a familiar hymn, the safety of structure, and sculpted regimen are just as good for filling in the void as adrenaline and masterful manipulation.
What if God has left the building? Would we know?
One of the comforts of fundamentalism is that it provides surety. God is this way. To understand the Bible, you have to use this approach. Anyone who commits these sins is going to burn in hell forever. Among themselves at least, evangelicals aren't quite that severe -- at least many aren't -- but there's still a tendency to reduce God to clever sayings, tidy cliches, comforting Scripture verses and attitudes pertaining to divine sovereignty, grace, Christ's essential friendliness, and the coming judgment on the ungodly, non-Christian world. What if we're structuring our churches, our doctrines, our Bible studies, and our lives just so we can hide from ourselves the fact that God is sick of the insincere flattery we shit out of our mouths every week about how much we love him ("If you love me, you will obey my commands"), want to see his kingdom come on earth as in heaven ("Do not be hearers of the word only, do what it says"), and how we love everyone (except gays, liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, Arabs, Jews, Muslims, environmentalists, George Bush, Bill Clinton, James Dobson and Benny Hinn)?
Sometimes I wonder if God has told us fuck off, and we were so busy listening to ourselves being spiritual that we never heard him over the din.
If so, we'll probably be the last ones to notice. A friend of mine who is a Buddhist by philosophy told me a few weeks ago that he actually had been an evangelical Christian for a few years, back when he was a teen. He finally left the fold because he was sick of all the junk in the church. Another friend of mine has said a few times that the attitude of other Christians toward her because she is gay has driven her away from any sort of church-based corporate worship. Yet another friend, raised Catholic, can't say a good thing about Christianity, although like the other two, remains intrigued by Jesus and by his message.
Usually when I read stuff like this online, there's some piece at the end that wraps it all up and points to a sign that the church still has it together, or that somebody else over yonder is showing us how to get back on track. Some really daring people will give three or four easy steps to put things right.
I suck at giving comfort. Deal with it. What if God has left the auditorium? What if he doesn't want our money, our religious holidays, or even our worship? How would we even know?
Matthew 23

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Saturday, February 10, 2007


Today I walked Evangeline down to the train station and sent her off to the City with her two best friends and their mother.
She's staying the night at their house, the first sleepover she's ever had at someone else's house. I won't even see her until tomorrow, around lunchtime, when we pick her up. Rachel moped around a bit because she missed her sister, but she's been OK, and even went to sleep easily tonight for the first time in ages. As for me, I've felt odd all day.
When did my little girl start growing up?


Message to kids everywhere: If you're going to tease my daughter for being different, at least get it right, will you?
Evangeline is a girl who likes Spider-man. I know that's difficult to comprehend for young minds who have been conditioned to think that superheroes are for boys, and girls like only frilly things like Princesses and dresses, but it's true nonetheless. Evangeline likes to wear pretty dresses, but she also knows the classic Spider-man theme song, dressed up as Superman last Halloween, and carries a Spider-man backpack to school in the morning.
That's a difficult concept to get, I realize, which is probably why you felt the need to tease her Friday during lunch. For the record, the proper words to the tease are not:
Evangeline and Spider-man, sitting in a tree,
K-I-S-N-Y and Z.
First comes Evangeline, then comes Mary,
Then comes Evangeline with a baby carriage.
This particular taunt is ancient. I learned it in grade school, and my parents learned it when they were children. Little twerps have probably used some variant of it on some of the greatest minds of American and English history, including Abraham Lincoln, William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and the anonymous poet of Beowulf. If you're going to invoke cruel magic, at least learn to recite the incantation properly.
Evangeline cracked up once I explained how badly you had mangled that particular taunt. I haven't laughed that hard at a would-be bully in years.
(And by the way, you'll probably find her better inured to your attacks the next time you try them. I warned her that in my experience that "just ignoring bullies so they'll go away" doesn't work, and that fighting back is just as bad, since it would lower her to your level. I suggested that she laugh instead, not at you, but at the silliness of the taunt. Maybe you can help arrange the wedding.) 

Thursday, February 08, 2007

existentialism for today's child

A few weeks ago, my family went to Arizona to visit a sick relative. On our last day there, while we were in the back yard, Evangeline and I started drawing pictures in the sand. As I often do when I don't know what to draw, I drew a smiley face: two eyes, a nose, a mouth. Then because I had the eyes, I added details: lids, brows, irises, pupils.
"Once upon a time," I told Evangeline, "there was a face that didn't know it was actually a city."
"You mean people lived in a city that looked like a face?"
"Yes," I said. "But they didn't know that the city actually was a face. And the face didn't know that it was actually a city."
"That's crazy!" she said. "How can it actually be two things at once?"
"But you're more than one thing yourself, right now," I said. "You're my daughter, you're Rachel's sister, and you're also Ernestine's best friend."
"Every now and then, disaster would happen, when someone in the city would wander into the eye, and it would blink." I erased the eye, and redrew it, closed. "Whole buildings would be destroyed almost immediately, and people would run away, terrified of what had happened."
"Were they living on someone's eye?"
"No, they were living in a city built on the ground, made out of steel and concrete. But the city was also part of a face." I paused, wondering if she was following this bizarre story. "And then, once they had adjusted to the new shape of their city, the eye would open again." I erased and redrew the eye again, this time wide open as before. "And although this change also terrfied them, everyone was haunted by a feeling that the city was watching them, all the time."
"Because their city was an eye?"
"Exactly." I paused, impressed. She really was getting this, though I couldn't help but think she was probably too young for me to get her a copy of Kierkegaard to read. Do they even publish a children's version of his philosophy?
"But one day," I said, "a greater disaster than any other overtook the entire city. Someone --" I paused for effect. "-- someone went too far inside the nose, and the face sneezed. The sneeze destroyed millions of dollars of homes, tore up trees, leveled tall buildings, and left the entire side of the face's mouth covered in snot."
Evangeline laughed, and I laughed, although I did draw the stream of mucus coming out of the nose and over the chin of the mouth. I think at that point we had a massive rebuilding project begin that restored the mouth, fixed the nose, and eventually added hair, ears, a chin and cheekbones. And then we lost interest entirely and found something else to do.

dream journal

Some time last night I started dreaming about superheroes.
I don't mean that in an unconventional way, like "Abraham Lincoln is my superhero," and I don't mean that I started dreaming of an conventional but nameless superhero forged in my own imagination, like Doctor Eyeball or Captain Asparagus, the sort of thing you might find in City of Heroes. No, I had a dream about Spider-man and Batman, two of the most recognizable superheroes in the world.
It was probably about 5 or 6 a.m. when the dream started. Rachel had climbed into bed with us, as she sometimes will; kicked me  in her sleep, as she often does; and pulled the covers off me, as is always the case; and I started to dream about the two superheroes -- or more exactly, about their alter egos.
Inexplicably, they were co-workers at the Daily Bugle, where Bruce Wayne was a reporter and Peter Parker was once again a photographer. That's about all I can remember, except that they knew each other's secret identities* and kept dropping veiled hints about it in the presence of one another and their co-workers, like Bruce suggesting that Peter should treat his subject like a fly trapped in the middle of a giant web, and view himself as the spider as he goes in for the shot, and Peter saying that Bruce had gone batty.
And although I wasn't a participant in the dream, I realized once again that I was dreaming, since my unconscious mind noted that the two of them were from separate comic book universes and had met only in a DC-Marvel crossover called something imaginative, like "Batman and Spider-man."
Stupid dream, really. You'd think I'd be dreaming about Siegfried and the Burgundians since I've been reading the Nibelungenlied lately, or that my unconscious mind would be turning over the JEDP authors and their anonymous redactor, since I've been reading Michael Grant's "The History of Ancient Israel," but instead I'm dreaming about grown men who run around in their pajamas.
* I guess my dream came before Marvel's "Civil War" blockbuster summer event, since Spider-man still had a secret identity in my dream. No surprise there, since I haven't read anything Civil War-related.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

toward zero waste

Evangeline's school, where I am on the board of trustees, is working toward becoming a green facility as part of the next phase of our building plan: solar power, a green roof, worm composting, the whole thing.
Worm composting?
One of the teachers and I were talking recently about moving beyond recycling paper, plastic and metal, and getting the children to practice the rest of the recycling process, the one that involves breaking down organic waste and producing compost to beautify the school flower beds and lawn. Essentially, we would begin in the upper grades and trickle down, setting up a worm composting bin in each classroom where kids can toss unwanted vegetables or fruit from snacktime. Worms in the bins -- red wrigglers -- would eat the food and in the process turn it into gardening gold, which our school badly needs. (The soil is so bad that the grass is not growing along its rhizomes, as it would in healthy soil.)
Vermicomposting is completely natural, produces valuable nutrients, and as long as no one tosses in meat, cheese or a carton of milk, it won't attract mice or create a bad smell.
Composting only makes sense for schools, homes and businesses. A third of the garbage Americans put into the waste stream is yard waste -- fully compostable things like grass and leaves. Once it enters the waste stream, we burn fuel transporting it, we waste land burying it, and we lose out on the resources that we could (and should) be reclaiming from the materials. Instead, they fester inside a landfill, out of reach.
So I like the idea of putting composters in the classrooms. It'd be hands-on education for the kids, who will get to see "their" worms and connect food, waste and the lifecycle; and it will reduce the school's waste output, particularly if we can expand the program with an outdoor composter that can handle dairy and meet as well. Those are available, and without the worry of attracting rodents, but they go for $160 and come only by the dozen. Ideally, we should be getting our waste output as close as we can to the point that we're tossing out nothing but plastics that can't be recycled.
I like the idea of composting, period. It's the fourth leg of recycling, and it's high time more of us started doing it.

things i put in my compost pile

  • leaves from my yard
  • leaves from other yards
  • other people's grass clippings
  • bad fruit
  • weeds
  • egg shells
  • apple cores
  • carrot and potato peels
  • dryer lint
  • hair from my hairbrush
  • toenail and fingernail clippings
  • newspaper too wet to recycle
  • vegetable waste
  • contents of the vacuum bag
  • banana peels
  • orange and lemon rinds
  • old jack-o'lanterns
  • kiwifruit skins

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

x-3 (spoilers)

I finally saw "X-3" last night, and I can honestly say it was worth the wait. I had enough time to lower my expectations to the point where I could be amused at how awful it was.

The movie revisits the story of Dark Phoenix, starting out twenty years ago where Erich and Charles visit the home of a young Jean Grey. In the first two movies, we learned that Jean was telekinetic and that her power was growing. Here we find out that as a young girl her power was virtually unlimited. (We later discover that Charles erected psychic barriers in Jean's mind, telepathically creating a repressed personality called the Phoenix.)

The next flashback is of Warren W. Worthington III, the Marvel character with the worst case of alliteration, more commonly known as Angel. Ten years ago he found wings growing out of his shoulder blades and tried to cut them off in the bathroom.

Fast forward to the present. The X-men are playing a "Days of Future Past" scenario in the Danger Room, Professor X is having an ethics discussion with some of his students, and Scott and Logan are both trying to deal with Jean's death at the end of the last movie. It's harder for Scott, though, because it turns out that Jean is still alive and speaking to him telephatically from the bottom of the lake where she is alive, inside a cocoon of telekinetic energy.

Scott goes to Jean, finds her alive, they have that Phoenix moment from the comics where she telekinetically contains his optic blasts, and then something happens. When the Storm and Logan go later, they find a bunch of things floating around in mid-air, including Scott's glasses. It eventually turns out that Phoenix destroyed Scott.

In the midst of all this, it turns out that Worthington Labs has discovered a "cure" for the mutant gene that will turn mutants into regular, nonpowered humans. This cure is derived from a careful study of a mutant similar to the 1980s comics character Leech, who had the ability to suppress the powers of other mutants. Warren's father tries to use the cure on his son, but Angel flies away.

Kelsey Grammar shows up as Hank McCoy, the U.S. Secretary of Mutant Affairs. He's bright blue and painful to look at. His main function in the movie appears to be to act as an intermediary between the X-men and the U.S. government so each group knows what the other has discovered.

The Morlocks show up, expressing mutant pride and their refusal to be "cured," and join Magneto. They free Mystique, who had been captured by the government, along with Juggernaut and Jamie Maddox. A guard fires the cure at Magneto, but Mystique gets in the way and is turned into a regular human. He leaves her there because, as she is no longer a mutant, he no longer has any interest in her.

Logan discovers that Charles placed the psychic barriers in Jean's mind, and they both discover that the barriers are down. Increasingly it is Phoenix who is in control, not Jean and in what I thought was an interesting departure from the comics, they revisit the love triangle and reveal that Phoenix, the repressed side of Jean, was the one who loves Logan. Amazingly, this actually becomes relevant.

Magneto and Professor X, with their attendants, both try to get Jean to join them. She actually telekinetically flays the professor alive and blasts him into dust before leaving with Magneto, who is massing an army of mutants to destroy Worthington Labs and the cure for the mutant gene. After that, pretty much all she does is stand around and try to look imposing. (Personally, I thought she looked more like Natalie Portman did throughout "Attack of the Clones"; i.e., she had a look that screamed, "Why did I sign a three-movie contract?")

Things finally come to a head when Magneto steals the Golden Gate Bridge to get his army-size Brotherhood of Mutants to Worthington Labs, which is under military protection in anticipation of the attack. The troops there are all armed with plastic weapons that will fire doses of the cure in plastic containers.

The X-men -- Logan, Storm, Iceman, Kitty Pryde, Colossus and the Beast -- arrive and the fight begins. There's a nice scene that shows how everyone uses their powers to get down to the ground alive, there's a clever bit where Kitty out-thinks Juggernaut, and there's a totally pathetic scene where Angel shows up and saves his father from being dropped to his death.

When it becomes evident that there's no other way to survive, the X-men actually use the cure to stop Magneto. I was surprised by that. And then, with Phoenix killing everyone around them and whipping up a maelstrom of debris, water, earth and bits of disintegrated people, Logan closes in on her. She keeps flaying him alive, but of course he heals -- even his pants heal! -- and gets close enough to explain that he's not there because he'd die for the others, but because he'd die for her. And then he kills her.

Despite some potentially great scenes like that one, this movie really sucked. The first X-men movie was character driven. Audiences cared what happened to Logan and to Rogue, and audiences were intrigued by the interactions among the main characters.

This movie had a glut of (ahem) new mutants who had virtually no bearing on the plot, such as Colossus, Leech and Angel. Others, such as Beast, could have been replaced with a conventional relationship between the X-men and the government.

It was also loaded with subplots that had virtually no bearing on the movie. Rogue and Iceman have been an item for the past two movies; here they added a flirtation between him and Kitty Pryde that added nothing consequential to the story, except that it triggered another subplot where Rogue wanted to be cured -- only we never really saw much evidence of a struggle beyond the obvious surface stuff, and it only got a total two minutes screen time, tops.

Angel's presence in the movie was utterly pointless, since a cure could have been developed for any reason and had the same effect on the story, and even Leech was useless as a character.

The closest thing the movie had to a theme was power -- Jean is power incarnate, humans feel so powerless, Mystique loses her power, Rogue wants to lose her power, Storm finds it an insult that their power is seen as needing a cure, Magneto is only interested in mutants with power -- but aside from a couple good quotes, there's no message here, either.

My wife and I were talking this morning about how it could have been a better movie, and we generally concluded that the director and screenwriters should have eliminated the mutants who existed only as plot functions, like Angel, Leech, the Beast, and probably the Morlocks as well; have the cure come from somewhere else, like perhaps Forge, who is himself a mutant; and surprise everybody by having a nonpowered Mystique be the one who ends up neutralizing Magneto with an injection of the cure.

It's a shame, really. "X-men" wasn't a great movie, but it was at least decent. This one was easily the worst of the three, and it wouldn't have been that hard to make it better.

Monday, February 05, 2007

biting cold

When I took Evangeline to school today, it was about 10 degrees outside.
I have fifteen cracks on ten fingers, my hands are chapped, and I feel like I'll never be warm again.
That stinking groundhog said we were going to have an early spring this year. He is such a liar.

the light side of funerals

Children have a knack for finding a way to bring joy into the most somber occasions. Case in point: funerals.
The last Saturday in January, we attended the funeral of William John Olson, who died a scant three hours after he was born. There were somewhere between twenty and thirty of us who turned out that morning: William's grandparents, uncles and aunts, and other relatives; and people like us, close friends of his grieving parents.
As children their age are wont to do, Evangeline and Rachel joined William's older brothers before the service and began gathering fallen pine cones for no other reason than to gather them. And as children will do, when they had all the pine cones they could carry, they started handing them out to make sure everybody else had one.
As I bent down to take mine, I commended Evangeline for her thoughtfulness in collecting the pine cones and asked if her she knew why that was so appropriate. As I explained, pine cones contain the seed of new life in them, and when you plant these seeds they begin to grow not just into trees, but into evergreen trees, a symbol of eternal life because they remain alive and green all year around, even when the other trees metaphorically die for the winter. And that of course is the hope we have: that although William had died, he had been born into eternal life through Christ.
Audra, William's mother, was amused by my spur-of-the-moment object lesson -- "You can do this with anything, can't you, Dave?" she asked -- but the best was yet to come. As everyone walked past William's grave and set a flower there, Evangeline cracked Audra up by placing not just her flower but a half-dozen or more pine cones on his grave.
Lesson learned.
As a footnote, as we were walking back to the car, Evangeline asked me if this had been the first funeral she had attended. Thinking she might have some questions about the nature or finality of death, or the injustice of an infant's death, I nodded and said quietly, "They're not much fun, are they?"
Said Evangeline, with the distaste only a child could muster: "It's better than being stuck inside a church for a wedding."
It was two minutes before I could stop laughing. Natasha has never been so ashamed of me in her life.

unnatural perversions

What kind of sicko ...
... puts nuts in chocolate chip cookies?
... ruins perfectly good salad by putting oil and vinegar on it?
... adds little marshmallows to the packet of hot chocolate?
... includes bits of nuts, pretzels and marshmallows in chocolate ice cream and calls it "Rocky Road?"
It's because of abominations like these that judgment is coming.