Archive for December, 2012

Resolution

Monday, December 31st, 2012

Years are complicated things, with funny shapes and odd bits that stick out here and there. The only thing you can be sure of about a year is that it won’t turn out the way you thought.

I’ve come to realize that I do not measure my years by accomplishments or grand events, but rather by the state of my friendships — my connections with the people I care about. I have been reminded this past year that such matters are wildly out of my control. Wonderful friendships have entered my life seemingly out of nowhere, whilst others have sunk beneath the waves, never to be seen again.

This whole business of letting ourselves become close to others while bracing for the consequences of our inherent separateness — for the possibility of loss — is something I may never fully get used to. How do you love people properly, knowing they may be gone from your life a year hence?

If I have only one resolution for the new year, it is this: To accept this odd coming and going of human souls, both into and out of my life, as simply the way of the universe.

You can love others — even with all of your heart — but the hard truth of it is, you cannot be responsible for any soul but your own.

One foot in front of the other

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

For the last week or two I’ve been working on a software project that I am very happy about. It’s an ambitious undertaking, arguably too ambitious to be tackled by one person, but the challenge is part of the fun.

I’ve been observing how I’ve been wrapping my life around this project and vice versa. Whether or not I go into work, hang out with friends, see a movie, each day I make sure to put in several hours of work on the project. It’s astonishing how much you can get done over the course of time if you devote several hours each day to something.

Of course not all hours are the same. Sometimes I feel tired and distracted, at other times full of energy and focus. So I’ve come up with strategies. When I’m at my best and most clear headed, I tackle the harder parts. But at other times I have a list of “clean up jobs”. These are tasks that really just require putting one foot in front of the other — nothing spectacular, but necessary for getting the job done. In this way there’s always something useful I can do, no matter what my mental state.

And if all else fails, I go to NetFlix and watch a few episodes of some stupid TV show or other. This strategy is always successful in the long run, because sooner or later I realize that I’d really rather be programming. :-)

Third wave supernaturalism

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

In feminist theory there is a clear distinction between first wave feminism — the original movement that led to women’s suffrage and other rights, and second wave feminism — the more recent movement from the 1960s through 1980s that focused more on rejection of pornography and other cultural manifestations of pervasive domination of women by the patriarchy.

We are now in the era of third wave feminism — a backlash against the reductionism of the second wave. The third wave acknowledges the great diversity among women in ethnicity, in culture, and in religious norms, and seeks equality within this more nuanced and expanded context.

I just started watching the TV series “Lost Girl”, in which the heroine is a succubus, and I realize that our culture is in a third wave of what might be called “supernaturalism”.

The first wave was exemplified by the supernatural as monster, exemplified by Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, the Thing and Frankenstein’s creation. These beings could be sympathetic, but they were always, in essence, the Other — our fears and nightmares manifested as a creature from beyond.

Beginning more or less in the 1960s, our society began to embrace what might be called a second wave of supernaturalism: The recognition that the supernatural creature might have its own normative existence — that from its perspective, it was “self”, and we were “other”. And so we saw such pop culture creations as Bewitched, the Addams Family, the Munsters.

The second wave acknowledged that supernatural beings, like any beings, would see themselves as real, even ordinary, not merely as a creation of our own projections. Seen in this light, Tolkien’s Hobbits were an early pioneer of second wave supernaturalism.

But now, in the era of Buffy, Harry Potter, Twilight, True Blood, Lost Girl and other pop culture creations, we have moved beyond even the duality of human / non-human. We are in the age of third wave supernaturalism, where there it may no longer suffice to label fictional beings in such reductive terms.

Newer fictional universes have moved far beyond mere battles of good versus evil (except as a strawman) toward a more humanist view, in which characters may simply manifest aspects of what could be called “supernatural spectrum disorder”.

Our understanding of the supernatural as metaphor for the human condition has become so sophisticated, so integral to our ongoing cultural narrative, that we now invoke it simply as a useful way to illuminate our own infinite complexity.

Our shadows taller than our souls

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend sent me a link to a video excerpt of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors — in particular to the 22 minute long tribute to Led Zeppelin, who were among this year’s winners.

In attendance were Barack and Michelle Obama and a roster of contributors to our nation’s diverse culture, such as Yo Yo Ma, David Letterman (another winner this year), Tina Fey, Bonnie Raitt and Alec Baldwin.

Watching this video, I was struck by how timeless and universal are such events. Sitting in their box seats, President and Mrs. Obama essentially functioned as the Royal Presence, lending gravitas to the affair. Caroline Kennedy, as the evening’s host, effectively tied the event to an even earlier regal lineage.

Of course the U.S. does not have a monarchy. But the rhetorical framing is effectively the same as in days of old. The State, in the person of its highest representative, presides over and blesses the awarding of high cultural honors.

Watching how tremendously the Obamas were enjoying the tribute to Led Zeppelin, I realized that our President and First Lady represent a generation that grew up in the shadow of this music, a generation whose very soul was shaped by rock and roll.

And I wondered, how different would the scene have been had it been Mitt and Ann Romney in that box? Would everyone have felt the same air of ecstatic celebration when Ann Wilson sang “Stairway to Heaven” so beautifully that Robert Plant wept?

Or would the cultural clash between the Romneys and these children of the ’60s simply have been too strange, too weird?

I guess we’ll never know.

Late December haiku

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

An unplanned evening
With mathemusician friends.
God, I love New York!

Why Hobbits look like Hobbits

Wednesday, December 26th, 2012

Yesterday, like many millions of people, I went to see “The Hobbit”. Visually it was a sumptuous feast. Nearly every shot looked like a finely executed painting. I didn’t like the storytelling as much. Peter Jackson seems to have become, to the principle of “Stretch this scene out as long as possible,” as Quentin Tarantino has become to “Ha ha, made you mad, didn’t I?” and Christopher Nolan to “Worship no other Gods before me!”

OK, that last was a slight exaggeration. No real god would be nearly as self-important as a Christopher Nolan film.

The whole time I was watching the stunning visuals of “The Hobbit” — the chiaroscuro lighting, detailed prosthetic makeup, camera angles, interiors, costumes — it all seemed incredibly familiar. And not because of the recent film trilogy, but because of something earlier.

And then I had it! Some scenes from the current Hobbit film are precise visual echoes of the illustrations from the late nineteen seventies by the brothers Hildebrandt. For example, here, from their 1977 Tolkien calendar, is “The Unexpected Party”:

The lighting and composition form a perfect match to the corresponding scene in the just released movie. If you look at this close-up of the above illustration, you can practically see the actors jump off the page and into the film:

You can also see the Hildebrandts’ style at work in this illustration for “The Sword of Shannara”, also from 1977:

Again, here is a close-up — practically a lesson in what a “Peter Jackson dwarf” should look like:

After scouring the Web for info, I can’t seem to find any official connection between the brothers Hildebrandt and the film. But of course Peter Jackson would have grown up with their illustrations in his head.

Now, you might protest: “But isn’t this just what Tolken’s world looks like?” And the answer is no. Until these illustrations came out, the Shire and its environs looked like many things (in illustrations by many artists, including Tolkien himself), but they did not look like this.

As far as I can tell, these two guys, Greg and Tim Hildebrandt, invented what we now think of as “what the inhabitants of Middle Earth look like”. And they did it so successfully that people seem to have forgotten that this was indeed an invention — one that did not exist until forty years after “The Hobbit” was first published in 1937.

†Jackson’s earlier trilogy borrows more heavily from the style of the illustrator John Howe, and the landscapes and cityscapes in all of the films are heavily influenced by the beautiful imagery of Alan Lee.

A matter of gravity

Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

It’s funny how a big enough piece of news can obscure other news that one would think noteworthy. Imagine, for example, how the devoted followers of Mother Teresa must have felt after she passed away, when all anybody seemed to care about was the death that same week of some young ex-princess from England.

And so today. All around the world people are celebrating, but nobody is celebrating the birth of Sir Isaac Newton (born on December 25, 1642). If the great man had been born on nearly any other day of the year, today would be filled with special commemorations, rituals and ceremonies, in honor of the most influential scientist in the history of the Western world.

But because he was born on this day, nobody thinks of December 25 as “Sir Isaac Newton Day”. Yet imagine if everybody did! Children nestled, all tucked in their beds, would be hoping that Sir Isaac had left a refracting telescope or optical prism in their stocking.

Rosy cheeked carolers would be standing on street corners, singing merrily under a full moon of the universal laws of gravitation. Families would look forward to the traditional yearly meal, where they can discuss infinitesimal calculus and the generalize binomial theorem.

Of course we are a diverse society, and some might argue that a focus on Newtonism could unfairly exclude people with differing cultural orientations. So I’m sure nobody would object, in the name of diversity, if some families chose instead to celebrate December 25 as the birth of Humphrey Bogart or Cab Calloway, Annie Lennox or Quentin Crisp. Or maybe Jesus.

Weaving through time

Monday, December 24th, 2012

It could be argued that Hollywood stars ascend to the firmament because the culture needs an embodiment of a particular archetype — and the movies are all about embodiment of archetypes.

I’ve written on this topic before: Top Hollywood actors are often the cultural reincarnation of some iconic actor from an earlier era. Which makes sense, for these people are the vessels by which our society expresses timeless psychological themes that weave through the culture.

But yesterday in particular, a friend was telling me that she had just rewatched the great 1933 James Whale film “The Invisible Man”. We discussed Claude Rains’ masterful performance in a difficult role — for almost the entire length of the movie you can hear his voice, but you cannot see his face.

Which works out well, since although Rains is a pleasant enough looking fellow, his speaking voice is one of the great wonders of the cinema. You can probably still hear in your head Rains’ perfect reading, as Captain Louis Renault in “Casablanca”, of the classic line “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”

And I suddenly got a twinge of recognition. What current Hollywood actor is not all that much to look at, possesses a magnificent voice and diction, generally plays highly self-assured characters on the side of the devil (always with a mordant sense of humor), has a tendency to be cast in roles where you can hear his voice but not see his face, never gets the girl (you don’t even think he wants the girl), and is easily able to steal scenes away from major stars when he feels like it?

Why, Hugo Weaving of course.

Quintessence

Sunday, December 23rd, 2012

“Palindrome” is not a palindrome, which is very sad indeed,
Because then we’d have “Emordnilap”, but that is not a word.

Acronyms can resonate, offer namesakes, yet mislead.
Could there an acronym for that?   (there is, I’ve heard)

And what could be the basis of hypocatastasis?
You may find it to be nothing more than “Cart before the horse.”

But try to lead that horse to water! My friend, it’s no oasis.
You realize I’m speaking metaphorically, of course.

Why is “onomatopeia” not onomatopoetic?
(I’ve pondered this since early adolescence)

Yet one word in the ether matches meaning and aesthetic:
“Quintessence” — it’s the quintessence of quintessence!

Famous Blue Raincoat

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Still floating in the lingering contrails of last night’s Leonard Cohen performance, I went to YouTube to listen once again to “Famous Blue Raincoat”. And I ended up playing it over and over, just for the shifts in Cohen’s voice, in his guitar, and in the way he uses these subtle changes to convey the most exquisite shades of emotion.

It’s a beautiful recording, sort of infinite in its way, with layers upon layers of meaning drifting below the surface.

This song might be the purest distillation of a view of things that could be called “Leonard Cohen Zen”. It’s the idea that our life is precious not merely because it contains moments of beauty, but because we know that these moments will not be ours forever.

He reminds us that we need to pay homage to sadness and loss along with ecstasy, because these remind us that our connection to each other is never easy, and never free. The pain that inevitably shadows our happiness is, in fact, the measure by which we can know the value of what we cherish in each other.