Friday, February 27, 2015

First Pour (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

I was in my late twenties when I saw my first pour of gold. Oh, I had seen films of iron ore cascading, throwing bright-hot sparks as it was poured from kettles the size of dump-trucks. I had participated in pours of molten aluminum and other inexpensive metals while playing with lost-wax casting, where the retorts we used were barely larger than a cream pitcher.

I knew gold ore would be smelted in a vessel somewhere between those two in size. I wasn't, however, prepared for the heat. It poured from every surface of the reservoir, and leaked in almost-visible streams from the heavy brick dam, behind which crushed ore was being heated.

Also totally unexpected was the redoubling of heat as the dam was pulled away to allow the molten gold to escape the vessel. Despite the intense heat, all the observers moved closer to catch the initial glimpse of the hot gold. 

First out of the opening at the bottom of the reservoir was a crusty brown slag. Next, a wash of ash-grey foam rolled down the stepped channel. None of this was gold; it was composed of lighter contaminants and flux material that had floated to the top of the liquid metal. 

Then came the moment we were there to see. The intense lime-green flash of superheated gold appeared in the opening, rapidly cooling as it ran down the channel, shifting in color to hot yellow and then bright gold as it cooled. The "pour"more of a "release"was complete when the ingot mold at the lower end of the channel slope was filled to the top.

We watched them skim the last of the ashy slag off the top of the ingot before it could cool completely, then tip the gold out into a dish-water warm "cooling bath" for further chilling. None of the "waste" would be thrown away. It would be cooled, ground, and added back to the next batch of ore to recover any remnant gold that might remain in the slag.

A stream of molten gold is what I envision when "rivers" are evoked in my memory. So when the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge channeled Norman MacLean's nature-based novel A River Runs Through It, that golden memory refused to allow any other topic:

February 25, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a river and a person (or people). Think about MacLean’s famous line that “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” Give it your own meaning. It can be a rivulet of water cutting across a city sidewalk, a farm ditch or a famous world river. Who is experiencing the water? What observations are profound? How can a river and a character merge with meaning?


First Pour

Heat rises in waves from the dry bed, pouring like syrup from the base of the reservoir. The front of the dam radiates energy. Sweat runs in rivers from the faces of those gathered for the historic event.

The foreman hooks the top of the dam, nudging its bricks out of the way. All lean closer, heedless of the heat. There is a concerted gasp of awe as they see that first flash of green.

Suddenly, a bright river of molten gold runs down the stepped channel. Flashbulbs! Champagne!

The new mine's first smelt of ore has officially commenced. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Compassion Business ( #1000Speaks )

I read the new hand-lettered sign with a cynical eye: "HOMEless", it says. "JOBless. Please HELp." The young man sitting next to the sign has it propped against his knee as he studies the smart phone cradled in his hands. He is sitting on his old sign to protect the seat of his new distressed-style jeans from the moist grass. Under his backside "VETeran, Need heLP. God BLEss YOU." sends its appeal to the worms.

Diagonally across the road at the busy shopping center is the woman with her toy dog on a leash. Her sign says, "We're both HUNgry. AnythinG HELps. Please GivE." Her dog plays at her feet, tossing a rawhide toy around. Last week her sign had asked for help to feed her two children. I've never seen children, just the little dog.

I see them there every morning, taking positions on their respective corners after the school moms and off-to-work drivers have passed, but well before the early shoppers begin to fill the parking lot. They take regular breaks, paying for their coffees at my kiosk with rumpled dollar bills and fists of quarters. They go to lunch after the lunch rush finishes. He likes Big Macs, she always wants pancakes from the Dennys. They go to lunch together, and leave the dog's leash tied to the picnic bench at my kiosk.

They get money from only one passing car in ten when the weather is fine. When it is a gray day or chilly, it is maybe one car in twenty. It's a busy street. After the late afternoon surge of cars, they will usually sit together at the table by my kiosk, drinking coffee and counting their combined takings, splitting them evenly. At four p.m., they climb into a van with six other roadside mendicants, headed for a free dinner at St. Vincent's or the Sally Ann's. 

I stay at the kiosk for the few customers who buy coffee to drink going home from work, then close it after a 12-hour day on my feet in the tiny space, and go wait at the bus stop to head home to my tiny apartment. I think I have the makings of a cheese sandwich in my fridge.

Tomorrow is payday. I will make a small payment on my student loan, pay the rent and utility bills, and buy some groceries. There will not be enough left over to purchase a latte at my kiosk, but I will still be there every weekday morning at six. The coffee business doesn't pay much. 

Not like the compassion business. My two neighbors tomorrow will split between themeven if the weather turns out to be grey and chillyenough cash to match my paycheck for the next two weeks.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Jefferson's Mid-East Hostage Crisis

From the halls of Montezuma,
To the shores of Tripoli,
We will fight our country's battles
On the land and on the sea...

  —U.S. Marine Corps Hymn

Richard Zach's thrilling novel, The Pirate Coast, provides insight into the reason for the second line of this chorus, "to the shores of Tripoli." 

In 1785, the Moslem regent of Tripoly, Yussef Karamanli, declared war on an infant nation, the United States of America, sending out Barbary pirate vessels to harass, sink or capture American shipping. 

The goal was to have tribute paid by the U.S., in exactly the way the Barbary regents had been bribed for centuries by France, Britain, Denmark, and so on. President Thomas Jefferson's famous response to one such demand (in public, anyway) was Millions for Defense, but Not One Penny in Tribute!

By 1804, the war had escalated, with six U.S. fleet ships in the Mediterannean. Then Bey Yussef siezed the officers and crew of the U.S.S. Philadelphia, and held them as slaves while he waited for ransom and tribute to be paid. Jefferson responded by sending William Eaton, a former consul to the region who had already proved himself no friend to piracy or slavery, with a commission to find and support Bey Yussef's brother Hamet in a coup atttempt to create a U.S.-friendly state on the Barbary Coast.

Once Eaton had departed, however, Jefferson began to reconsider the commission. In the age of sailing ships, information from the other side of the world might be years out of date, and Eaton, no diplomat, had ruffled more than a few feathers while a consul in the Middle East.
A former army captain, Eaton had recently been court-martialed and convicted. He was impetuous, hardheaded, argumentative. His loud voice cut through conversations; his ramrod-straight stance inspired respect; his Dartmouth education added polysyllables to his vocabulary. Diplomacy, he had very little; he was blunt-spoken, exceedingly direct. He once wrote of the feeble efforts of the U.S. Navy that "a fleet of Quaker meeting houses would have done just as well."

The US. government, with a huge debt from the Revolutionary War, found it cheaper to pay off Tunis—and keep the pirates away—than to fight against them, Jefferson's anti-tribute bluster to the contrary. Eaton, however, was appalled by the aspect of slavery close-up.

"For my part, it grates me mortally when I see a lazy Turk [a Moslem] reclining at his ease upon an embroidered sofa, with one Christian slave to fan away the flies, another to hand him his coffee and a third to hold his pipe... It is still more grating to perceive that the Turk believes he has a right to demand this contribution and that we, like Italians, have not the fortitude to resist it."

Within two years, this disgraced diplomat would lead a band of eight Marines (then a service chiefly known for supplying military bands to Washington ceremonies) and several hundred foreign mercenaries, "the dregs of Alexandria, on a mad hopeless mission to march across the hell of the Libyan desert." Eaton, cut off from the promised funds for his mission, used every wit and wile available to him to round up the missing Hamet, corral the nomadic tribes who had allied against Bey Yussef, and keep them all marching in the same direction. 

Eventually this rag-tag group would mount a surprise-attack on Tripoli's second-largest city, Derne, and they would achieve a near miraculous victory—followed by a disastrous retreat in the face of that victory, as commanded by the jealous U.S. Naval commander, John Rodgers, and the pompous (and disastrously compliant) Ambassador to Tripoly, Tobias Lear. (Six years after his suspiciously lenient treaty with Bey Yussef, Tobias Lear, then United States consul general to Algiers, would accept two female Italian slaves to work as housekeepers in the consulate. Their $75-a-year upkeep was part of his reimbursed expense accounts, making the U.S. government complicit in their slavery.) 

Their retreat would abandon the allied tribes to the vengeance of their enemies, most of whom had fled when the U.S. fleet showed up in the harbor of Derne, assuming the fleet was there to support Hamet's allies. Despite the slaughter that followed the U.S. retreat, the United States Marines acquired a new reputation for courage. Eaton's single Marine officer, Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon (a fiddle-player in the Marine band), raised the U.S. flag over the harbor of Derne. This was the first time the flag would fly over conquered foreign territory; it flew side-by-side with the banner of Hamet, would-be Pasha of Tripoly.

Returning to the U.S from the Barbary Coast, Eaton found himself lauded and fêted by a 15-state nation that had thrilled to his victories. In Washington, however, Eaton was faced with another campaign far more dangerous than his recent trudge across the Libyan deserts: he set out to recoup his financial losses from multiple Mediterranean campaigns, and to bring Lear, Rodgers, and Jefferson himself under censure for commanding his retreat from Derne. None of the principals are simon-pure; Zachs spares no one, not even Eaton himself.

Thrilling, enraging, and delighting by turns, The Pirate Coast reveals that many things we applaud or decry in current events actually have a long, if secret, tradition in the United States. This is a wonderful story—and so well written, I have already ordered Zach's history of Caribbean pirate Captain Kidd, The Pirate Hunter.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Compassion Disjunction (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

#1000Speak: 1000 voices blogging for compassion on February 20.
I have been occasionally appalled when someone on social media responds to a post about death or suffering with misplaced humor, and yet I myself was tempted to make such a remark just yesterday. 

I won't tell you what it was; suffice to say that it was an off-color and completely inappropriate comment on an obituary. I didn't post the comment, but that it occurred to me and I caught myself snickering over the idea was disturbing.

I was wondering why, so I was pleased when Charli Mill's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge provided a good opportunity to think about it more deeply. In the context of a call for 1000 bloggers to post about compassion on February 20th, Rough Writers Norah Colvin and Anne Goodwin introduced two concepts that extend from compassion. Weltschmertz is “world pain”, the grief we feel at how the world keeps falling short of our expectations. Meliorism is having the belief that the world can be improved by the actions of humans.

Compassion—literally feeling with someone else's painrequires a sense that one can do something about the situation. We all suffer an overload of stories of pain which we are helpless to amend as we read the paper or surf the net. I believe this contributes to a lessening or a lack of compassion.

So here is the challenge from Carrot Ranch (and the encouragement to post again on February 20th):

February 11, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that demonstrates compassion. You can explore weltschmerz (enabling us to care enough about what’s wrong) and meliorism (driving us to try to do something about it) if you want to explore those specific terms. Consider posting on February 20, too.

My response to the challenge has more to do with the inappropriate response that diminishes Weltschmertz because of our inability to invoke meliorism—and how this can overwhelm us due to the very human urge to give in to compassion anyway.

Compassion Disjunction

"Attacks Against Schoolgirls on the Rise" he reads, and sips his coffee. Next page of the paper, he sees "University Shooting Victim Left Paralyzed". He brushes bagel crumbs from his shirt; they land on the page over "Racial Slurs Written on Stabbed Woman's Body". He shakes the paper, flips to the international section. "Jordanian Pilot Burned Alive in Shocking Video" provokes a "tsk" as he takes another sip of coffee. He scans onward.

With his last sip of morning coffee, his throat closes, and tears spring to his eyes, as he reads "35 Cats Dead in Weekend House Fire."

Surviving as a Round Peg in a Cubical World

Some people have all the luck. Imagine working for a giant corporation, complete with daily meetings, cubicals, marketing geeks (Dilbert, anyone?)—and having carte blanche to do whatever trips your trigger. Gordon MacKenzie has detailed his experience as "Creative Paradox" at Hallmark in Orbiting the Giant Hairball, a book that defies description. 

It is pseudo-biographical: In addition to MacKenzie's own personal hegira, it covers the growth of the greeting card industry and the founding of Hallmark by Nebraskan Joyce Claude Hall. (That's "Joyce" like "Joyce Kilmer" by the way.) 

It is semi-comical: Every page is covered, marginalized or illustrated with doodles. That's right, as in bored-out-of-my-skull-in-this-meeting sketches. According to MacKenzie, his doodles literally set him free to be creative during the mandatory morning meetings. 

It contains bad poetry, transcriptions of Garfield cartoons that promote his philosophy, actual cartoons that promote nothing much at all, personal ads and squibs of important information given a page of their own: Orville Wright had no pilot's license. 

Nevertheless, the book succeeds—perhaps because it is deliberately, unendingly iconoclastic—in communicating how to free creativity in a business environment. I can recommend it to anyone who wants to go out on their own, who wants to stay sane while keeping a day job, or who wants to employ either of the former. 

If you go to your grave
  without painting
  your masterpiece,
    it will not
    get painted.
    No one else
    can paint it.

        Only you.
           —Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

This book is not available on Kindle, but is one of the few items in my library I wouldn't want to read on the digital screen. It isn't really text, but a semi-graphical glimpse into a creative brain.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Crazy Doesn't Begin to Describe It

I've watched it twice through, and skipped around in it, and I still can't quite put together a mental narration that matches The Homesman

Perhaps if I had read the multi-award winning novel by Glendon Swartout first, I might have a clue about the back-story and the drama of this tale, but I saw "Film by Tommy Lee Jones, starring Tommy Lee Jones", and decided to rent it on my Comcast Pay-Per-View. 

To the movie's credit, the performances by Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones are outstanding, reminding me, frankly, of the characters from the Oscar-winning 1969 film True Grit and their depictions by Kim Darby and John Wayne. But True Grit didn't hide anything from the viewer; you didn't need to have read the novel by Charles Portis to fathom the motivations and philosophies of the main characters.

Still... Two days and multiple viewings later, I cannot answer three simple questions about the film.

Warning: the following contains spoilers. Don't read onward if you have neither seen the film nor read the book.

What is a "homesman"? Search the term online, and all you'll find is a series of references to the movie or the novel. The description of the novel at Amazon provides the only clue I've found: "...women whose hearts and minds were broken by a life of bitter hardship. A “homesman” must be found to escort a handful of them back East to a sanitarium."

Was this such a frequent need for pioneers that a name was created for the task? The Encyclopedia of the Great Plains includes an article by Nancy B. Johnson that tells us this conception of the American pioneer woman as mentally fragile is a fiction:
... the image of mad pioneer women has been handed down from generation to generation, perpetuating the notion that a large segment of women failed to endure the hardships of the Great Plains settlement experience and were driven insane. ... In Nebraska the 1880 population was 452,402, and 450 of them were recorded as insane. One half of those were women. 
What happened to these three women that was so harrowing, they could not encompass it and keep their sanity? Part of the baffling nature of the movie is process, and part is content. For one thing, we don't see the back-story for the three "crazy" women as a sequence, or in chronological order. Instead, they've chosen to dole out little flash-backs of horror throughout the film.

So we see one woman drop her living child into the outhouse after we learn that she was unhinged by the death of three previous children from diptheria. We meet another as a teeth-snapping vicious harridan after we see her "loving" husband cart her dead mother out into the snow, and then later singing with that same mother, as she burns her palm in a candle flame. (Obviously, her mental issues predated the mother's death.) I never did figure out the third woman's problem; it seemed to have something to do with dead horses.

Why, after having taken her unusual path in life, and succeeded at it, does Mary Bee Cuddy snap? The first time I watched the film, I was thinking, here is a sturdy pioneer woman of sound mind and firm purpose, who doesn't even need a man to help her stay sane (though she claims to need "real music" for it). She seems to want to be married, but not to require it.

I was, therefore, shocked when she turned about-face, proposing first marriage, and then sex, to the foul-mouthed drifter Frank Briggs. When she snapped after that, it was almost a relief. Ah! That's why she did the one-eighty, she was already going insane. I just don't know why.

And maybe that's the point of the story: people snap because they do, because sometimes killing yourself, physically or mentally, is more tolerable than going on.

Finally, does Frank Briggs not know any other song? Why does he sing this one when he does? This was less of a question than an observation. I thought this was the one crowning touch to a realistic portrayal of the drifting through life Tommy Lee Jones character. Frank Briggs, except for a few moments near the end of the movie, is a wholly integrated person. He is exactly what he is, no more, and certainly no less. This is the kind of man who would move into a vacant homestead, slaughter the sheep and eat them in his long johns, yet patiently cart an atonic woman into the brush to pee.

I guess I'll go watch it again while I still have some viewing time left on my dime. Maybe the penny will drop for me now that I've got all this off my chest.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

How to Out-Tolkien Tolkien in a 10-Novel Series

Orcs, dwarves and goblins, elves and their evil cousins, magic swords and ensorceled jewelry, charismatic soldiers who turn out to be lost kings, dragons, evil and good wizards... You might think I'm talking about J.R.R. Tolkien's epic series set in "Middle Earth", but I'm not. 

Elizabeth Moon once started thinking about how an RPG paladin would behave in "real life". (The paladin in a role-playing game is "a holy knight, crusading in the name of good and order, and is a divine spellcaster." )

The result of her musings was a series of novels that began with the trilogy The Deed of Paksenarrion: Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold. The final novel, Crown of Renewal, caps a 10-novel series of rich and layered complexity.

Throughout the trilogy, readers of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings novels will recognize beings and attitudes that populated Middle Earth. Soldiers and travelers mostly get where they are going by walking. Occasionally, nobility and the wealthier merchants and guild members will ride, but only the wounded ride in a cart. Roads leave carts mired in mud and soldiers splashed to the hips whenever it rains. Freezing and wolf-attacks threaten travelers in snowy climes. 

Magic-making and religion are closely tied:  Wizards and paladins call on their holy heros ("Gird" and "Falk", for example) to access their powers, evil mages evoke direr beings (the spidery webspinner Achrya, for example, or Liart Master of Torments) to call their magics into play. Of course, the higher gods (the Lady of Peace, the High Lord, Adyan the Namer, Sertig the Maker, and so on) behave for the most part as such beings usually do, staying aloof and omniscient from the mortal world once the initial creation is finished.

By the way, you're even more likely to recognize elements of Paksenarrion's world if you are familiar with role-playing a la Dungeons & Dragons. After all, the novels grew out of Moon's rejection of the priggish way most players interpreted the Paladin role. So while Gird's and Falk's paladins have powers that come straight from the defined D&D role, their sense of "good" and "right" is appropriate to Moon's fictional world. 

Two "pre-quel" novels, Surrender None and Liar's Oath, are bundled into the omnibus volume Legacy of Gird to spin the back-story of Gird and the history of the world of Paksenarrion. Even though these precede The Deed of Paksenarrion chronologically, I don't recommend reading them first—they will have something of a spoiler effect! 

Events subsequent to The Deed of Paksenarrion occupy the final five novels, collectively Paksenarrion's World Chronicles or Paladin's Legacy. It is not until the penultimate or the final novel that dragons return to the world, leaving me wondering if Paks' time is before or after the time of Tolkien's hobbits.

The following contains spoilers for those who have not read the early novels in this series!

Paksenarrion Dorthansdotter is the daughter of sheep-farmer Dorthan Kanasson. Unwilling to marry a local pig-farmer, she runs away to join a mercenary troop. As her recruit cohort marches south to fight in a neighboring country, Paksenarrion (Paks, as her fellow soldiers call her) is unaware of the larger battles that await her.

The lands through which the mercenaries march are troubled: orcs menace them, dark elves threaten them, traitors and evil wizards lay plots that will overturn their planned strategies. Paks must walk the narrow path between the necessary violence of her career as a soldier, and the excesses of cruelty and vengeance that claim some of her fellowsand threaten to overwhelm her commander, Duke Phelan.

Sheepfarmer's Daughter provides plenty of foreshadowing for Paks' development of the qualities of character that will culminate in becoming a paladin of Gird. (Gird is a historical hero/paladin, not worshipped so much as used as a shining example and an intercessor with the higher gods.)

Divided Allegiance continues Paks' growth as a soldier, as she leaves the Duke's command to take training as a knight in the order of Gird. The growth of her character, though, is interrupted by several horrendous experiences that leave her scarred and cringing from every danger. This is a much darker novel than Sheepfarmer's Daughter: humiliation, torture, and even rape are some of the disasters overtake Paks as a "free blade" and failed paladin-candidate. 

The final novel of the initial trilogy, Oath of Gold, expands the action from Paks' homeland and the areas of conflict in the south, to the half-eleven kingdom of Lyonya, which is missing a prince. Paks is fully a paladin now, though she was never knighted. Her powers appear to come "directly from the High Lord and the Lady of Peace", among others. Her experiences in the previous novel give her a better understanding of the misery endured by those who do not have the ability to fight for themselves. 

At last, her gods "call" her to restore the lost prince to his kingdom, but first Paks must surrender herself to torture by the forces of evil in order to allow the princeher old commander, Duke Phelanto gain his throne. The story is thrilling to the end.

All ten novels are now available for Kindle (the early three only in the omnibus volume). Reading them in the wider sense, using the Kindle's ability to look up the names of the beasts and peoples peculiar to Paks' world, reveals the wealth of allusion that Moon has brought to her richly imaged universe. 

Or you can do as I did originally, years ago, and read The Deed of Paksenarrion and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in short sequence. Now, you can also realize upon finishing it that you have more than two-thirds of the series ahead of you!

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Tia Marañón (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Cashew nuts (seeds, really) hanging below the apple or marañón.
Sometimes, as this week, the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge comes out of the blue, and I need to go hunting inspiration. 

February 4, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a nutty aunt. What makes her nutty? Is it the situation she’s in or a quirky habit? She can be anybody’s aunt. Maybe she’s really somebody’s uncle but wants to be an aunt. Maybe it’s the name of a cowpoke’s horse, a hockey team or a village pub. Follow where the prompt leads.

So I sat at my computer, with a little dish of mixed nuts for support, and started trolling. Nutty aunts, aunts, nuts... Ooh! Brazil nuts, and perhaps a little reference to Jonathan Pryce. Nope. The crazy woman there was his mum. (I make a note to watch Brazil again, though, brilliant movie!)

And then between the Brazil nut, a Spanish peanut, and a cashew, it dawned on me. I really did have a dotty old lady neighbor for a few years when I was just starting school, and was always intimidated by her constant presence on the porch when I passed. So just a little extra flavor and, voila!

My flash:

Tia Marañón

When I was a kid, this old lady lived next door. She was tiny, wrinkled, and very fragile—and crazy loco! Her name was really Manzana, but we all called her "Tia Marañón", because she was a nutty apple.

When the sun was warm, she would sit all day on the little front porch and eat cashew nuts. If it was cold, she was inside with the balcony window open, tossing peanut shells into the front yard.

When we passed on our way to school, she would throw them, nuts or shells, and try to hit us. Crazy old apple...

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Fictional Technology: Slow Glass

The science-fictional device "beyond our science" may be of alien origin, or from some distant future. The real artists of the craft, though, defined a technology just one step beyond what we use today, and then asked how it would change our lives, our culture or our humanity.

Bob Shaw’s singular contribution to science fiction came in small packages. Shaw wrote many short stories (one, "Light of Other Days", is included in last year's Science Fiction 101, in print and Kindle), and a novel, Other Days, Other Eyes (alas, unavailable for Kindle), using this speculative technology. But these stories were no more about slow glass than Albert Camus’ The Plague (La Peste) is about Yersinia pestis.

The Technovelgy entry for slow glass gives a brief description of the “Bose-Einstein condensate” that forms slow glass, and its critical property:

Bose-Einstein condensates are created when atoms are cooled to absolute zero; the atoms collapse into the lowest quantum state, producing a superfluid…  
Bose-Einstein condensates have optical densities such that the speed of light passing through the mass is extremely low—walking speed as opposed to its usual 186,000 miles per second.

From that concept, Shaw built a amazing sub-genre of “what-if” speculation. One story has a murder "witnessed" by slow glass; some years later it will divulge the shocking truth. When it does, will the murderer be the same person he once was, or will his long contemplation of the inevitable revelation have changed him? 

Another tale dwells briefly on the contented married life of a man in the country, as seen by passers-by and brief visitors. But inside the cottage, a very different state of life is hidden by the outward display supplied by the slow glass. Superficially this is simply poignant, but underneath lies an allegory of the occult nature of every marriage.

The light that passed through Shaw’s slow glass illuminated (eventually) many facets of the human condition. What more ought we to ask of fiction, science or otherwise?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Godhood in a Nutshell

My first encounter with Theodore Sturgeon was this tale of loneliness, rejection, despair and revenge, The Dreaming Jewels, now available for Kindle.

It was a good book to begin with, and not just because it was Sturgeon’s first novel. Here was a classier self-delusion than the common fantasy of the secret adoption, a world in which a child might discover that he was something much better than the hidden heir to royalty.

Horton Bluett is a somewhat tragic child. Tormented by other children at the schoolyard for the disgusting act of eating ants, abused and maimed by his cold, uncaring parents, Horty runs away to join the circus. He takes with him the only thing in the world he loves, a broken Jack-in-the-box with glistening eyes named Junky. 

At the circus, he masquerades as a “dwarf” girl named Hortense—"Kiddo” to all outside the circle of friendly circus folk.

Gradually, we learn that the circus’ owner, Pierre Monetre (“Maneater” to Horty’s friends Zena, Bunny, Havana and Solum), is an obsessed man who has an ominous hold over the other performers in the freak show. As the three fingers chopped off by Horty’s father Armand begin to grow back, as Horty discovers that he can reshape his body freely, the Maneater searches far and wide for a treasure he calls “dreaming jewels.”

The themes are far from juvenile. Some events and dialogue are downright smutty. Yet I read this book, enrapt, when I was ten years old, and was untouched by the darker shadows. I was too engrossed in the triumph of Horty’s vengeance. Where else but in fiction could one find such complete and satisfactory tying off of loose ends?

The final confrontation with Maneater, in which Horty discovers his own heritage, and the mystery of the god-like dreaming jewels is solved, is as thrilling to me as an adult reader as it was when I was young. When Horty encompasses the destruction of his “father,” the rescue of his childhood friend Kay, and the redemption of Bunny and the others in the freak show, the child in me still cheers.

This book is periodically re-released: in hard-cover by Aeonian Press in 1978, Amereon in 1984, Buccaneer Books in 1993, and in a 1999 paperback edition by Vintage Press. Now you can download the Kindle version. If you want the physical book, you can often find well-loved copies in used-book stores. 

However you choose to encounter it, it’s definitely worth the read!

Monday, February 2, 2015

When the French Resisted Evil

Last night, I noticed that an outstanding movie was now available on BluRay: The Train

This story of blocking the retreating Nazis' theft of French art became a favorite after the first time I watched it. Though if you're thinking this is an early version of The Monuments Men, I'm happy to show you where you're wrong.

The first difference about this powerful black-and-white war flick is the sound—the Michel Jarre score is used sparingly, counter-point with the rumble and screech of steam locomotives. The result is a somber tone that gives John Frankenheimer’s Train a brooding reality. 

The second difference is that the main characters are all either German or French. No American parachutists, no plucky British spies—just French resisting the retreating Germans.

The third is that the characters played by Burt Lancaster, Jeanne Moreau, and Paul Scofield are sometimes upstaged by a fourth major player: the trains themselves. WWII-age locomotives were brought from all over the world to film this epic, and that realism gives a great deal of power to the role played by the trains. Frankenheimer has said of Train, “I wanted all the realism possible. There are no tricks in this film. When trains crash together, they are real trains. There is no substitute for that kind of reality.”

The story is simple and gripping, with an elite-vs-everyman quality. Scofield’s Colonel von Waldheim obviously loves French art, truly appreciating its worth on all levels. Yet he “sells” taking a train full of art plunder out of Paris in advance of its liberation to his superiors in a coldly pragmatic way; art is a weapon because of its value. “Would you leave 50 million francs in Paris?” Scofield asks. He gets his train, and we see crates labeled 2 DEGAS, 5 MATISSE, 2 BRAQUE, 3 RENOIR and so on, being loaded with art.

Burt Lancaster’s French everyman, Paul Labiche, at first seems to be cooperating with the Germans. Through subtle clues, we see that Labiche is a covert resistance artist, ready to balk the Germans whenever his beloved trains are not at risk. His position as railroad operating manager gives him plenty of opportunity, especially now that the Germans are preparing to leave. To Labiche, the trainload of art is just another commodity the Germans want. Von Waldheim makes this clear in a speech near the end of the film, in which the German ubermensch philosophy takes a sneering turn into artistic elitism:
Labiche! Here’s your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. You won by sheer luck: you stopped me without knowing what you were doing, or why. You are nothing, Labiche—a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be; beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it!
From the air raid on the train yard to the final machine-gunning beside the derailed train, the film is punctuated by reminders that there is a larger war going on. It needs that reminder, because the focus of the film tightens to the conflict between von Waldheim and Labiche. On von Waldheim’s side are the full powers of the German occupation forces, those that can be diverted to the theft of French art. Labiche can call on the wily efforts of his fellow railroaders all along the line to Berlin. He finds that even apparent collaborators, like Moreau’s hotelier character Christine (even Labiche himself) are also capable of rising to the resistance.

The movie was inspired by a non-fiction book by Rose Valland, The Art Front: Defence of the French Collections, 1939-1945. Valland was the wartime curator of the Musée du Jeu de Paume, whose character (called “Mademoiselle Villand”) appears in the opening shots of the film, played by Suzanne Flon. (And her biography by Patrick Bunker, Monuments Men: Rose Villand, was the inspiration for the film The Monuments Men.)

Train’s action, however, comes from the interaction of Lancaster and Frankenheimer. The original director, Arthur Penn, was working with a script that had the train still in the station after 90 pages. Lancaster was concerned that a second slow-moving intellectual film might be the same kind of box-office dud as The Leopard, another historical epic starring Lancaster, and asked Frankenheimer to take over from Penn.

Frankenheimer’s decision to use materiel that was going to be scrapped anyway, along with his addition of lots of action to Lancaster’s role, gives the movie a thrillingly real quality. The initial railyard air raid was filmed at Gargenville yard, outside Paris—more than 50 people needed six weeks to plant and wire all the charges, which were blown up in less than a minute. A train crash was staged in the town of Acquigny. Only one take was possible, and seven cameras were used. The filmmakers hired a train to carry their equipment from one location to another, and this is the train we see as the art train in the film.

Lancaster performed his own stunts throughout the film, and even acted as stunt man for another character, without injury. Then he took a day off during shooting to play golf when the shooting was about half completed, stepped in a hole on the links, and aggravated an old knee injury. Frankenheimer had to change the script to have Labiche shot in the leg, to explain Lancaster’s limp in the last half of the film.
Didont: With luck, no one will be hurt.
Labiche: No one’s ever hurt. Just dead.
Didont: Paul, uh, have you ever seen any of those paintings on that train?
Labiche: (shakes his head no.) I haven’t. You know, when it’s over, I think maybe we should take a look, hmm?
This is a movie that also deserves a look. If you haven’t seen it, don’t expect the stereotypical jaw-gritting, over-the-top Lancaster. This is an allegory in steam, from a time when the French resisted evil.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

February Made Me Shiver (The February Project 1)

We woke today with thoughts of Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday wafting through our heads. Escaped princesses, not deflated footballs, were the topic of discussion. And who was the newsman she beguiled out of filing a $5,000 story? (Hint: he also played Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird.)

Sunday, and plans to watch the Kitten Bowl and Roman Holiday, were so overwhelming that I almost missed the date. A new month, with a new project to commit.

Indigo will have to wait. February is the time to put together two presentations. One is for an epic bicycle tour, "Over Two Ridges". This trip took place in 2012, 15 days from Santa Rosa, CA to east of Denver, CO, over the Sierras and the Rockies by (mostly) bicycle.

The other is the final 3D Printing and Design for STEM Students, aimed at middle-school students participating in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math program. 

The tour presentation will involve editing and compiling several GoPro videos with single-shot photos of maps, signs and eclipse camera obscura shots into a Google Slides presentation to be shown at a local bike club meeting. Eventually, I expect it will be posted in the cyclist's You Tube channel.

The 3D Printing show, on the other hand, will probably be more off-the-cuff. After all, the goal for that presentation is to get the students involved in thinking about 3D design. I'll be sharing goalposts for each presentation as we reach them this month! 

I hope we reach them this month...