Saturday, December 31, 2011

Kahlil Gibran Part One

I have been reading quite a bit of the works of one of my favorite authors lately, Kahlil Gibran. Most people in the United States, if they are familiar with him at all, know him as the author of his most well known work, “The Prophet”. Most people that I talk to are not familiar even with this work, and it is to their detriment. “The Prophet” was the first ever book that I read of Gibran's, and I will admit to hesitating, because I believed it was a religious work. It likely can be considered more “spiritual than religious”. I don't want to use cliches here, but in this case, I think that can safely be said to apply, because Gibran was spiritual in a non-denominational” manner, never advocating one particular religion over another.
He has been more influential, even far more influential, than most people give him credit for. In fact, for someone who remains largely anonymous, this is a man who's influence reached surprisingly far.
Don't believe me? Well, check out some of John Lennon's lyrics, specifically in the White Album. In Julia, he uses the words “half of what I say is meaningless”. That was borrowed from Gibran. He is also referenced in songs by Jason Mraz, Van Morrison and David Bowie, and the famous eighties hit, “Broken Wings” was influneced in large part by Gibran's “Broken Wings”, a work written more than half a century before. He is also quoted or referenced in shows such as in “Criminal Minds”, “The Wonder Years”, “South Central”, “Bones”, and “Wingman”. “The Prophet” is featured in a Johnny Cash movie. Jodi Picoult quotes him in one of her books.
Nor was his influence restricted to merely pop culture icons of the present day. Decades before Kennedy and his campaign of a “New Frontier” would be elected, Gibran published a work entitled “The New Frontier”, which Kennedy borrowed from in his very famous words from the Inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” More iconic words from any American politician in the last half century can hardly be conjured up. Yet, Gibran remains mostly anonymous, and receives little to no credit for much of what hew managed to influence. Here is the original quote below.
"Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert."
Can you see the resemblance to Kennedy's speech, which was obviously far more glittering and glorified?
So yes, he is fairly well known, and was quite influential, and remains so even to this day, because his work still is highly relevant in the present age. There is a timeless quality to his words and to his thoughts that lend them some measure of an eternal, immortal quality to them. If you allow them to, they will speak to you.
Yet, it is important to understand that the power of Gibran's work cannot be traced by those he influenced, as much as by picking up one of his books and reading it. “The Prophet”, his most widely known and most easily accessible book in English can be read in one sitting. If you have a couple of hours, and are willing to put the book down every now and then to contemplate the meanings of the words, then it is well worth it!

The Eiffel Tower

It is hard to imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Yet, when it was first being built, it came with widespread opposition, and was only supposed to be a temporary structure for the Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) of 1889, to mark the centennial of the French Revolution. It was supposed to be taken down fairly shortly thereafter.
            It was controversial, and many people absolutely hated the idea of it, at least initially. It looked like a monstrosity to them, like a skeletal building that would mar the skyline of Paris, being visible from all over the city. Situated on the beautiful and historic Champ de Mars, a lot of people figured it would ruin the area, and stick out as an all too obvious, unavoidable eyesore.
            Yet, Gustave Eiffel, the architect behind the tower, and the man for whom it would be named, was very persuasive, not to mention, very knowledgeable and talented. He knew not only how to make it, but how to make it withstand the test of time, making it very wind resistant, as well as with a beautiful style. It also was designed in such a way that the weight of it put minimal pressure on the ground below, which is predominately clay, and quite near the banks of the River Seine.
There are parallels to the history of France and the celebration of the Revolution at this time, a celebration that was predictably snubbed by royal families all over the world, because it honored an event that had brought an end, albeit temporary, to the monarchical system in France. The French Revolution remains controversial today, having only been recently replaced as the most written about subject in history by World War II and the Holocaust. Many people still view it in heroic terms, while others view it negatively, with it's bloodshed and attacks on the monarchical system, as well as on religion in general. Being credited on some level with initiating democracy, communism, and even fascism, the Revolution is credited with both positive and negative trends and, among many respected historians, this epic event is seen as the event that ushered in the modern era. There was the world as it was before the Revolution, and then there is the world since. Nary a revolution occurred between then and the Iranian Revolution in the 1970's that was not influenced in some way by the French Revolution.
Yet, many still only saw the Revolution as a blight on human history. It removed the shackles of a very oppressive feudal system of absolute monarchy, a system that likely could not have lasted long, and was itself a source of shame and injustice. Still, the Revolution was often dismissed as needlessly bloody and violent, and many still resented the attack against religion (some of the Jacobin leaders even tried to introduce a new calendar that scrapped the traditional, religiously based calendar always in use up until then, and which remains in use to the present day).
So not only was the celebration of the 100th anniversary controversial on those grounds, but the celebration was an attempt by the Republic to promote democracy and faith in science and technological progress. The Eiffel Tower in particular was supposed to represent the capabilities of science. It was to be the tallest manmade structure in the world, and the only one, other than the Washington Monument that had formerly held that lofty title, that was not religious in theme. All of the other truly tall structures of the time, from the Great Pyramid to the great cathedrals of Europe, including the cathedral in Cologne as well as the one in Rouen, and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, were testaments to religion.  
The Eiffel Tower was not only to surpass these by far, but it was to promote the power of science to help humankind progress. To this end, Gustave Eiffel himself made sure that the tower would be very useful for science, opening it up to all manner of scientific experiments and uses, in hopes of it becoming indispensible to the city. He did not want to see his tower torn down, after all. He wanted it to stand permanently, as a testament to science.
It was built in two years, two months, and two days, and was erected without a single fatality. It was also completed without our modern tools, and it was built in style. Despite it being made of metal, there are gentle curves and arches, and the skeletal structure, far from being a monstrosity that destroys the Parisian landscape, actually greatly enhances it, serves to make it more beautiful. Many of the same people that were opposed to it initially became converts, including one musician, Charles Gounod, who later had a concert up in the tower, and called it  the "Concert in the Clouds". .
Today, the tower is repainted once every seven years, with the three levels being painted slightly different colors, the bottom being the darkest, the top being the lightest – although the shift is very subtle. It was initially 300 meters (986 feet) high, but with the new antenna that has since been put up, it presently is 324 meters (1,063 feet) tall, barely overtaking the Chrysler Building that had initially overtaken it for the title of world's tallest manmade structure.
I personally used to have a fascination with skyscrapers and tall, manmade structures. I still have somewhat of a fascination for them, although nowadays, it is more towards those that actually have style and an element of beauty to them. The Eiffel Tower would certainly qualify, as would the Chrysler Building, and the Empire State Building. There may be others beyond that, but there seems to have been a focus on simply being able to boast the tallest manmade structure in the world, for the sake of boasting. That seems to be the case when Dubai erected it's tower of well over 2,000 feet (which stands mostly empty), and the ones being designed in China presently, as well as some other areas in the world. Here in the United States, which used to be the leader of skyscrapers that ranked among the tallest in the world, enthusiasm cooled considerably, and understandably, following the attacks on September 11th.
It should be noted here, that the Eiffel Tower actually was targeted by terrorists years before September 11th, and France warned the United States that it would likely itself be targeted in such a manner. Just another unusual chapter in the history of a structure that is rich in history, and stood tall throughout, even when Hitler was visiting, triumphant in his victory over France. There was talk even of relocating it once, for Montreal's World Fair, Expo '67 (where the late baseball team derived it's name "Montreal Expos" from), but that obviously did not happen. What did happen, however, was that a replica of it was built in Las Vegas, on the exact model and specifications of the original designs of the original tower. Yet, this is not nearly as high as the original, nor as beautiful in my humble opinion, since it is more crowded with building all around it. Part of the beauty of the Eiffel Tower in Paris would be the open spaces around it, from which you can get many different angles of the tower. Also, since the cirty is not dominated with skyscrapers, like many North American cities are, you can pretty well see the tower from much of the city and the surrounding area. When in New York City, there may be points where you are a block away or so from the Empire State Building, and still can't see it and would never know it's there.
So, it is a fascinating history that this tower has. It no longer is anywhere near the tallest manmade structure in the world, and indeed, it is not even the tallest manmade structure in France any longer. Yet, it has a rich history and beauty that few other structures can even come close to, let alone parallel. It is a history that would be too long to get into here, in a brief piece on the tower, but there are some numerous fascinating elements to it's history.
Mostly, though, it is a beautiful structure to be admired and appreciated.

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Model for Christmas

So, one of the more special Christmas gifts I got came rather unexpectedly. I had gotten a model of the Eiffel Tower more than ten years ago on a trip to Paris, in some department store. The model that they had on display was very nice and elaborate. I have more than one model of it, including one that dates back to my first remembered visit to it, way back in 1982, when only a child of seven years old – only a year older than my son is now! For that matter, I still have that model, although it got dented somewhere along the line during my childhood, so it does not stand up straight, but is a bit crooked and warped. But none of the models had quite the detail, or height, for that matter, of this model.
The problem? I never really had ever successfully made a model in my life before. Oh, I tried one time, when I was a kid. It was an aircraft carrier, and I looked at the small pieces, then at the bigger pieces, and decided to take the lazy way out, basically putting the bigger pieces together to make the hulk of a ship. But it was hollow and incomplete, and so looked rather crappy. I did not paint it, only applied the runway that was included, which was more or less a sticker, if memory serves correctly. So, it came out incomplete, and reminded me not of any success, but of failure revolving around my own impatience.
So, I approached this model with trepidation. On the one hand, the store model had been beautifully complete and was irresistible enough to decide me. I would take a chance that my capabilities as an adult had grown, that I would be up to the task, and build something that looked like that model on display!
Unfortunately, more than ten years later, it was still in the box, with the shrink wrap around it, to boot! I brought it in, just out of curiosity, one day, to my weekend job. There was a coworker there who spent his free time (and there is a lot of free time normally for all of us on that job), and I wanted to get his thoughts on just how difficult the task before me would be, what I might need to know or expect, and all of the basics. It was, after all, only the second known attempt I would make on such a model (there may have been others when I was really young that I simply cannot remember), and the first since I was a kid.
Imagine my surprise when he examined it, and then asked if he could bring it home with him. He wanted to soak it in water, and he would study the Eiffel Tower in the meantime, to get an idea about it (he believed it was a copper color that would work best, but it was a mustard yellow that proved to be the right color, as it turns out). When he makes models (mostly of World War II era battleships, he really goes to town, studies everything about it, knows all the details, and gets all the pictures that he possibly can, to help get the feel and make everything more realistic. I like to say about my writing that I want to "breathe life" into it, and that is as apt a description about what this guy, James, does for models. He goes all out, tries to make them come alive.
I could tell that he was thinking about doing it as a Christmas present to me, and he even told me that outright the very next day. So, I was excited.
He showed me pictures, but the pictures seemed distant and lacking detail. He model had come in a relatively close color to the actual tower, but he had painted it a flat gray, which is apparently, more or less a standard thing to do with models, in order to get the details down pat. So, I saw the pictures, and thought it looked cool, but did not think much more on it.
That was, not until I saw it in person, when I was actually quite taken by it! It had come out beautifully, and the color was just about perfect! It was taller than I remembered, and very well detailed. He had mentioned that, in painting it, that the color really made the details stand out, and that it really looked like the real thing. I had to concur, marveling at it. Unlike most standard models, this had both the inside and the outside. It was not just an empty shell, which all of my models prior essentially were, including the beloved one from 1982, which itself has an interesting story or two attached to it.
This one had the inside. If you pick it up and look under it, it looks pretty much exactly the way the actual tower does when you are standing underneath it, even including the hole on the first and second levels that allow you to look straight up. The antenna, just about everything, looks exactly the way it does in person, and seeing it side by side with pictures confirmed all of this further.
What made this extra special was that it was such a nice gesture from James. I always knew him to be a good guy, and a solid worker. I found his model building hobby very interesting. Most of the guys at my job use their free time watching movies, sometimes one after the other, from the beginning of their shift to the end. Sometimes, that means twelve, even perhaps sixteen, hours in a row like that! I do something a bit different, although I certainly watch movies at times, as well. But I read and write often times, which makes me almost the only one who does those things, especially writing (unless it is some research paper, which some of the others attending school do during that down time). So, seeing James there, weekend after weekend, working on his models, telling me about the history of whatever ship he was building at the moment (and there were quite a few of them!), elaborating on them, and showing me the details, and what he hoped to do to make it more realistic or impressive, I could not help but feel some measure of kinship. Not that I build models, although I certainly admired that he never watched movies or anything like that the way everyone else did, but just spent the entire time working on them, or reading the companion books, reading about the history of these ships, examining the details of the pictures, and sharing with me the stories that had captured him.
He took the same exact approach with the Eiffel Tower, taking care to study it, to share with me what facts he had learned, and to take exquisite pleasure in how well detailed it was, how nicely it was coming out, and how beautiful it was when completed, and ready for me to take home. He enjoyed making it, saying it was a change of pace from his usual ships, and that he had really actually appreciated the opportunity. He also told me that, despite never having been opened, many of the pieces had gotten warped, due perhaps to the heat during summer, or some such thing. It would have been very difficult for me, as an amateur. It had been surprisingly difficult for him, and he was an experienced model builder!
So, it was a nice Christmas gift, and came as a surprise! It also rekindled my fascination with the Eiffel Tower, which was one of my favorite landmarks since earliest childhood, as far as I can remember. That said, expect another blog soon, with more detail on the actual tower itself, and a bit of the history behind it.
I surely could not have asked for a better Christmas gift, and thank James once again for work well done! Hope you had a Merry Christmas on your end!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

As 2011 yields to 2012...

It's that time of the year again! Time to reconcile with hauntings of the past, and to make resolutions for a better future. Unfortunately, in most cases, it seems these resolutions do not normally even make it halfway to the end of January, for far too many of us.
Now, 2011 was not my best year, personally. There were a number of disappointments, some relatively big, and some fairly small and insignificant. Yet, I can feel blessed that no real tragedies touched my life during this year, and for that, I am certainly thankful.
It was not all bad, and there were certainly some good memories that I will also try to remember this year for.
However, I will admit to not being particularly sad to see this year go. Sure, there were ups, but it seemed to me that the downs were what were most prevalent. I hope to see, and help create, a better year in 2012 than I experienced personally in 2011.
As 2011 yields to 2012, I am trying to keep a healthy perspective on things, and to remain thankful for all that I have been blessed with in life. There are a lot of things to be thankful for, and the list would be too exhausting and cumbersome for anyone else but me to read and appreciate, although making such a list would probably not harm anyone, either.
So, I will sum up my thoughts simply by saying I am thankful for those things that I have been blessed with in life. I am thankful for my beautiful son, who remains my moral compass and my great hope for the future! I am also thankful for being in relatively decent health (at least, to my knowledge as of my writing this), as well as to having some wonderful people around me who have helped to add meaning and happiness and enrichment to this venture. I am thankful for my keen intellect and curiosity, which allows me to se value in things that most people do not, or at least largely ignore. Not least of all, I am thankful for the ability to recognize all of these things that I am now thankful for, as well.
So, I bid the year 2011 adieu. I had high expectations coming in, and now find myself just mostly trying to recover from the disappointment of not seeing those lofty expectations satisfied coming out. Limping to the finish line, if you will. Yet, it has taught me to keep a more open, though somewhat guarded mind, for the upcoming year, as well as in the future. 2011 was nothing if not an opportunity to learn more lessons in life, and I am getting to be a better student as I grow older. I look forward to the excitement of seeing in the new year of 2012, and of opportunities that I will hope to be wise enough to take advantage of.
Here is wishing the very best and happiest of New Year's wishes to anyone and everyone reading this, as well as those who never will!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Review - The Dead Sea Scrolls Exhibit

For the mostly desert Holy Land, Jerusalem is actually a bit mild in terms of weather and heat. But if you travel eastwards, the fertile area in and around Jerusalem quickly becomes desert land, and the high altitude of this, the most famous and important of all of the nation's' cities, at 760 meters (just about half a mile) above sea level, suddenly drops off very quickly to the place with the lowest altitude on Earth, at 423 meters (1,388ft) below sea level. This is the Dead Sea. The drop off comes dramatically with steep cliffs, and it is within just a few of the thousands of caves situated on this cliff at the site of Qumran, a mostly forgotten town with an ancient bit of history, that was about to make this site world famous.
As seems to happen often in history, it happened mostly by accident. It was getting to be late on that January afternoon in 1947, and darkness was going to fall quickly. A local beduin began to scale some of the cliffs, going after some of his goats that had strayed a little too far and a little too high. He happened onto the mouth of one of the many cliffs, and threw a rock into it. He was surprised to hear the sound of pottery breaking, and he told the two other men that he was with about it. It was getting too late to really investigate that afternoon, so the men agreed to inspect it further first thing in the morning.
They, like all of us, had their imagination, and this had led to hopes that a treasure of gold and precious metals would soon be theirs, by chance. So imagine their disappointment when they found written documents instead. This was not exactly what any of the men had in mind. Little did they know, however, that these particular documents were unlike anything that had ever been discovered before, and would prove far more valuable than any gold coins or other precious metals. They had unwittingly stumbled, almost literally, into what would shortly be described as "the greatest archaelogical discovery" of the 20th century at least, if not perhaps even throughout history. Such are the ironies of history.
Nor do such ironies revolving around these sacred scrolls end there. It is interesting to note that this discovery came at the time that the state of Israel was coming into being, and the government wanted these scrolls, and in a relatively secret mission, they sent an agent of their, a Professor Harry Orlinsky, posing as a "Mr. Green" in order to conceal the involvement and interest of the emerging Jewish state of Israel, which bought the documents for the sum of $250,000. He also contributed towards verifying the authenticity of the scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls soon were so validated, and on the very same day, as it happens, that the United Nations granted that Israel should become the controversial Jewish state that we know it to be now. It is not hard to imagine that this (irony?) was taken as a sign by some. Perhaps the most important discovery in history, and most assuredly in Biblical history, just happens to be proven on the very day when the Jews got back the ancient country that had once been theirs, Israel.
Now, all of this wheeling and dealing and secrecy, as well as the painstaking process of trying to verify the authenticity of the documents, makes it all sound very complex and intriguing. It is arachaelogy, and surely, that means that it would have to be more serious than popular notions of the field, such as the depictions of the famed fictional archaelogist, Indiana Jones, right?
Well, maybe. But then again, in the process of putting these ancient scrolls together, the handlers proved less than professional, to say the least. They handled these documents all too often with cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and even pieced the pieces together with that highly complex modern invention known as – you guessed it – scotch tape. That's right. A priceless find of thousands of years was mishandled with nary a thought about the possible damages.
Some of the Dead Sea scrolls are Biblical, which is to say, they instantly became the oldest known copies of at least parts of the Bible. Yet, quite a few of the scrolls were not in the Bible. Some of them are rules and psalms. Still some are more specific to certain groups, some of whom we had no knowledge of prior to the discovery of the scrolls. Quite a few of them dealt with the future, an apocalyptic vision of the final battle and the ultimate triumph of good, or God, versus evil.
The documents themselves are tiny – far tinier than I imagined. Most of them could fit in a modern day wallet, and the writing is very, very tiny. You can examine them quite closely, and still not really clearly see them. Yet, it is a thrill when you can make out some of the symbols, or even when you can make out an entire word, such as "God" (they give you the symbols to look for).
It certainly was a fascinating display, and a privilege indeed to see such ancient and historical documents. To boot, since I personally saw them just a couple of days after Christmas, seeing the significance of such historically significant documents to the Christian and Jewish religions, made it a little extra special, although I am admittedly far from being the most religious person around. It is history, and the documents are only on display for a few weeks, although they will not go far in the immediate future, going on display in Philadelphia, before returning home – apparently possibly to stay, since it apparently has been determined that having them travel was doing no good, and perhaps even they were sustaining some considerable damage.
So, unless you are planning to take a trip to the Mideast in the immediate future, you might want to hurry up and see the scrolls, if such things interest you and you are willing. They won't be here too long!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Review: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This book was recommended to me by an ex-girlfriend. I had never really heard of this author before, but after reading this book, I sure wish I had earlier!
He juggles many different things in this book all at once, and does so very capably, I might add! There are wonderful and believable characters with realistic psychology that draws you in and makes you feel like you actually know them personally. There is romance, as well as intellectual dialogue. There are many references to punk music and to trying to protest the simple and stagnant "go with the flow" and "don't rock the boat" mentality that too often dominates our society, and all of it is packaged in a believable manner.
Walter and Patty are happily married with two children, a boy and a girl. They live in a comfortable home in a quiet, suburban setting, and life appears good on so many levels. Things are not always as they seem to be, however, and we begin to learn the background between them, where we meet Richard, an aspiring punk rocker who respects Walter more than anything and anyone. The feeling is mutual, but what Walter does not know is that Patty is greatly attracted to Richard. It is an attraction that does not simply fade away over time, either, as we learn, and will become a source of friction for all three of them, albeit it in very different ways for each.
Walter has always been overtly active politically, and Richard finds this inspiring, but yet somehow inaccessible in practical application. Patty, in the meantime, is nowhere near as political, and in many respects, is a very typical American girl, wanting to raise a family. Yes, even this proves to a source of tension, because Walter is hugely into the issue of addressing the problem of overpopulation, and his own role in starting a family runs in the face of his philosophical convictions.
In the meantime, Joey and Jessica, the son and daughter of Walter and Patty, grow up. Jessica becomes daddy's girl, so to speak, while Joey is the apple of mommy's eye. At least until he essentially separates himself from the family and move out to the next door neighbors, who happen to be rednecks, more or less. Joey takes a much different path, eventually becoming far more financially successful than anyone else in the family circle. But he remains the odd man out, always, and works to exorcise his own demons, struggling to forge a new and ideal identity while trying to escape the limitations of the person he has always been.
There are conflicts and a lot of hurt feelings, but it is ultimately about growing up and growing wiser, learning to accommodate and forgive. It is a book that is relevant on both a political and personal level, and can be both enjoyable and instructive on both capacities.
This book is richly endowed with a little something for everybody, although it also is a book that I strongly suspect that most people probably would not "get", at least not fully. Franzen addresses many issues of our age with characters that take these issues to varying degrees of seriousness. Yet, he does so in a pretty believable, and certainly entertaining, manner. This is a very good read by an author who seems to be increasingly appreciated and in the public eye. It is a long read, and not always an easy read, but well worth it, in the end. Highly recommended!

Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I went to see this movie not knowing what to expect. I admittedly never read the book, but had found it intriguing that there seemed so many people around who had, and recommended it. Although it is usually preferable to read the book before seeing the movie (at least in my humble opinion). But a friend wanted to go see it, and I just shrugged and thought, "Ah, what the hell?"
This is a really good movie! Dramatic and intense. Sexy, at times, even Рalthough in an unexpected and unconventional manner. It is a suspense movie, but does not seem overly clich̩ or overdone. In fact, it is a movie that intrigued me enough that I now definitely want to read the book, which seems like a good thing!
This story takes place in Sweden. Mikael Blomkvist (say that three times fast!) is a disgraced reporter with an uncertain future, but he gets a strange job offer that proves to be stronger than his initial resistance, and it concerns solving a murder that happened forty years earlier! The woman who helped to discredit his story, Salander (the girl with the dragon tattoo), has her own problems, to say the least. She is nonetheless eventually recruited by Blomkvist to help solve the murder. They impress one another with their abilities to see things that others simply would not, and the suspense builds as they start to find more clues and connect the dots.
An excellent film that keeps you intrigued and, at some points, even on the edge of your seat. If you like action and intrigue, you could certainly do worse than this one! Recommended!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Some valuable instruction from an old English teacher...

So, I had this one English teacher in my sophomore year in high school who gave the class advice that, in many respects, rather changed my life. I should first mention that I was a horrible, horrible student in grade school. Had to go to summer school after 8th grade (my parents were really thrilled about that one), and I barely passed each year by the proverbial skin of my teeth, even not being sure I was graduating until graduation day (I swear!). I was bright enough to have done better, but was going through some personal issues, and my focus, not to mention my maturity on many levels, was not where it should have been. I made a point of dumbing my image down, because I was afraid of standing out, of being "different". Being French already did not help matters, so I tried my best to blend in. It seems I did a good job, too, because I felt mostly invisible throughout the supposed glory days of high school. there were a few people who managed to see through that facade, including a couple of teachers. This English teacher was one of them...sort of. He gave me a backhanded compliment one time, saying that there were times when I came in, and he thought I was the most brilliant student that he had met, and then there were times when I did or said something, and he felt I was just about the dumbest kid he ever met. Not exactly a ringing endorsement yet, is it? 

Well, he was a poetic kind of a guy. One time, he gave his definition of eternity, and it was so beautiful, that it stuck with me. What he pictured is a mountain, and he told us to imagine a bird picking up a single grain of sand from that mountain once every 5,000 miles, and to place it at a new location. Every 5,000 years, another bird would pick up a grain of sand, and drop it at the new location. Once that old mountain is no longer standing, and a new one has risen in it's place, he said that was his definition of eternity. I liked that.

There was one other thing that he said, and this one, in some respects, changed my life. It must have been after some kid (hopefully not me) yawned, or claimed to be bored, or some such insipid sentiment. He told the class that you should never get bored, because that means you are boring. He cited the example of hanging out with a friend, and thinking that if, at some point, you are hanging out with that friend, and you say, "This is boring.", then that means that friend is boring, right? Well, he then went on to say that you keep your own company, and it applies just the same with yourself, as well. If you find yourself getting bored all of the time, that means you are boring. The one person that you always keep company with is yourself, and if you could not even keep yourself interested, how could you ever expect anyone else to not find you boring? He suggested that it was a mindset, and that you should never allow yourself to be bored, essentially. I think I was the only one that was really affected by it, because most of the other kids looked....well, bored. Just another day in the classroom, right? But what he said gave me pause for thought, and I actually did change the way I viewed myself and my "own company", if you will. It helped me to foster my own mind, to try and be creative during those "slow moments", if you will, and probably even helped me become who I am today, in some measure.

Review: Frankenstein

Frankenstein Review – I love Halloween, and often have tried to get in the right mood for it by reading some books with monsters or other scary themes. Among these, always, are Frankenstein and Dracula.
Well, this year, I actually remembered to do it, and started reading both on Halloween night. I had already read Frankenstein years ago, as a college requirement, and loved it back then. Understanding that you can get entirely different readings depending on the time of life that you read it, because things can be entirely different, and thus so can what you pick up in the reading, I decided to go ahead and reread it.
Now, Dracula is another matter. I had tried a couple of times before, and always seem to lose momentum after maybe one hundred pages. Those first hundred are really quite captivating, but then it seems to slow down, and I lose track, admittedly.
Frankenstein, however, never really seems to slow me down. Despite it's age, Frankenstein is a book filled with imagination and contemplation of large issues with huge ramifications. In many respects, it is as relevant now as then, when it was first written. It is far, far more than a book merely about some mindless monster wondering around aimlessly and looking to do people harm. I hope that it hardly needs mentioning that Frankenstein is the name of the mad scientist who creates the creature, and not of the creature itself.
In truth, Frankenstein has so many relevant issues to our modern world. From the potential pitfalls of taking too many liberties with experimenting with nature and life the way that we have always known it, to human blindness to one's own irrationality, then to a lack of ownership towards the situation that people may create, to a world of overpopulation and the increasing scarcity of open space, to simple human warmth and acceptance, of kindness that we all too often show is rather selective to those closest to us, and our unwillingness, collective and individual, to accept, let alone embrace, something or someone entirely different.
My first reading of this book was quite different then this most recent one. First of all, I was in an entirely different place in my life at the time then I am now. I was younger, obviously, and still a college student. I read it during the heat of summer, a very hot and humid summer, way back in 1999. This time, I read it as a full-grown man in his thirties, a father, and during the season when the days are shortening and both the leaves and the temperatures are dropping quickly. Plus, experiences inform you at different times of life, and so the thirty something  year old version read the book entirely differently, and I will even take the liberty of assuming that I picked up on certain elements of the book that I had not been capable of yet while in my twenties. That was well over a decade ago, remember!
Back then, I was amazed at how relevant it seemed, and at a time when I was only beginning to understand the issues concerning overpopulation in the world and how it was transforming modern life, this book seemed to be laden with references to it, with varying degrees of subtlety. Ironically, I am more aware now than ever of the issues regarding overpopulation, and yet, this did not seem to be as prominent in the book as I had remembered it. At least not directly, like the last time I read it (although that may be because of the professor that I had at the time).
Mostly, I was struck this time by the constant examples of blind arrogance by the narrator and main character, Frankenstein himself. He initially thinks up the plan of creating life from nonliving matter, but never asks the one question that should have been foremost on his mind: is that even a good idea? He at one point claims that he collected the best, most beautiful material, and yet, almost immediately after giving his creature life, he is not so much amazed by his own success, as horrified at the horror and ugliness of his creation. So horrified is he, in fact, that he literally runs away, and then mostly stays away until the creature has gone. A classic example of "out of sight, out of mind". What he created will be someone else's problem, but not his.
Later, once the creature has rather impressively fostered his own intelligence and intellectual abilities, he returns to confront his creator/master. But Frankenstein is still too horrified, and only views his own creation as an evil, largely. He never takes full ownership until it is much too late. When the creature specifically threatens that he will be with Frankenstein on his wedding night, even after mentioning that he would never be able to kill Frankenstein himself, still Frankenstein's arrogance and blindness shine through. He breaks into tears at the thought of his poor wife having to go through life alone without him, never recognizing that perhaps it is her that the creature will be targeting, until it is obviously much too late.
This is a story of human arrogance and blindness, and of the unintended consequences that we choose not to see or recognize until it is much too late. Perhaps Mary Shelley herself would be horrified at how her work would later take on a life of it's own, completely separate and hardly bearing any resemblance to her original work, thus proving her own point, ironically. Certainly, in this world the way it is now, Frankenstein seems applicable and relevant as ever, and we could do worse than revisit a classic story that is all too often itself misunderstood.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Review: The Muppets

So, I took my son to see the Muppets movie last evening. Yes, I will admit that a part of me actually wanted to see the movie, although my son seemed quite enthusiastic about it, as well. I grew up on the Muppets, and remember Kermit and Miss Piggy and all of the rest of them from my younger days. So on many levels, it was nice to see them once again, and to be subtly reminded of some of the characters and traits that had long fallen to the deepest recesses of my mind.
The movie itself was actually pretty decent, designed to be entertaining for kids and adults alike. The lyrics were often quite humorous, with a Flight of the Conchords quality about them (and the stalker character from that show made an appearance in this move as a yoga instructor).
A good movie to go see, especially with a young and excited child, even if he spends much of the time fidgeting and hardly seeming to pay attention to the actual movie. One of the better kid's movies that I have seen in a while, and definitely fun to watch!

Review: Stephen King's "11/22/63"

Stephen King's “11/22/63” This book was long, and took me longer to read than most of his long books, even. It came out on the 8th, and I had initially wanted to finish it on time for the actual anniversary (hard to believe that it has been 48 years since the assassination of JFK, which took place slightly less than 11 years before I was born!). Yet, the devil fools with the best laid plans, right? I actually misplaced this book for an entire week, only to finally find it at my weekend job, tucked away in a desk drawer. I immediately got back to work on it, although my hopes of finishing it by the 22nd were obviously gone by then.
Having long been anticipating this one, because it sounded intriguing, I was counting down the days until it was finally released like few books that have come before it. The idea is this: a man gets the opportunity to go back in time, and he has a very specific mission: to save John F. Kennedy from the assassin's bullet on that fateful November day in Dallas. Only, of course, he is a human being, and so he gets wrapped up in very human concerns. Understandable. He meets a girl, falls in love. He makes mistakes, and then has to cope with these, even pays quite a price for them. Still, he feels himself to be on a mission. But then he is torn between his commitment to saving JFK (and thus altering world history for what he assumes to be for the better), and his desire to be with her throughout his preparations for this epic event.
I have never read a bad Stephen King book, and this one was not disappointing, either. He, like Erik Larson, is able to make the past come alive, and he was convincing this time, as well. The fifties and sixties felt real, and the most convincing aspects of this are in the details. He pays attention, and being such a seasoned author, he makes this look easy. Of course, the premise of time travel may sound absurd and unrealistic, yet he makes it seem, and feel, very realistic and close. He puts you in the shoes of the main character.
There are questions left, of course. The main question seems to be one that applies in our present day lives, ironically. Can we, as human beings, possibly understand the full ramifications of our actions? Even if we mean well, there are some things, some realities, that we cannot change. In creating a character and situation where the past can be changed, a well intentioned man is forced to ask himself if having the power to change the past necessarily means that he should, even if he initially thinks that by so doing, the world would be a better place. It shows us, ultimately, that although perhaps we see that our efforts will be with a design to eliminate evil or create a better world, we ultimately cannot know the full ramifications of our actions. It is a story about acceptance, ultimately. Of coming to terms with our own smallness, our inability to alter the past, or indeed even the present, and make it exactly what we would want it to be, ideally. Ours in not an ideal world, and we just have to cope with it the best that we can. Things can be worse, even when we perhaps lose sight of this fact.
This book was a departure for Stephen King, because it has a lot to do with an actual historical event, and has virtually nothing to do with much of his other works. Yet, he has one interesting diversion, when the main character visits the world of Derry in 1958, and meets a couple of the characters from an earlier work of his, “IT”. That was quite entertaining and enjoyable, and showed cleverness on King's part. Yet, the book remains unique among his works. Of course, I personally have always felt that he was too quickly labeled as writer of “horror”, when some of his most memorable works, such as “Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile”, in fact have nothing to do wit horror. Much like those, this is an enjoyable read that brings the past to life, so that you almost feel like you yourself were in Dallas on that fateful day that changed the world, nd serves also as a reminder that we cannot change the past and make it what we wanted it to be. We simply have to adapt and go on with our lives. 

Review: Erik Larson's “In the Garden of Beasts"

Erik Larson's “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin” I had read his most famous work, “The Devil in the White City”, a couple of years ago, at the recommendation of a friend, and was quite taken by the vivid descriptions of old Chicago and the preparations of the World's Fair, as well as of Dr. H.H. Holmes, who was probably America's first serial killer, shortly after the time of Jack the Ripper in London. I even got a chance to visit some of the few sites remaining in Chicago from that era – well, really only one building exists from that World Fair, and the other site is a replica of the Statue of the Republic.
So, when I was in the store on November 8th, the day that Stephen King's new novel “11/22/63” came out, I happened to see a book with a cover that reminded me of “The Devil in the White City”, and did a double take. It was not the same picture, of course. This one was of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, and had numerous Nazi flags surrounding it. One thing that was the same, however, was the name of the author – Erik Larson. So, although I had not been expecting to get any other book, I instinctively decided to pick it up.
I was glad I did. As a fan of history, it seems that Erik Larson's books really vividly breathe life into past events that might otherwise seem remote or distant, and thus surreal. This book was no exception. The thing is, the events of that era, of World War II in general and the monumental events of such epic proportions that maps would never be the same afterwards, and of Nazi Germany in particular and the Holocaust as a whole, seem sometimes so far removed from our world presently, from our reality, that they seem almost prescripted. An unusual period in history, but one that seems somehow isolated and remote. I would watch the footage of soldiers goose-stepping in lock step, marching past Hitler, or of wildly enthusiastic throngs of people in some mass gathering in Nuremberg, all straight arm saluting their Fuhrer, and of a world where the Nazi banner with the swastika in the middle draped over anything and everything that would not run away, and it seemed an entirely different reality. Almost, it feels like such things could never happen and, even if they did, that it was such an isolated event in history, that it could never happen again, that there was something about the people involved that set them apart, and that such a chapter in history was unexplainable and would forever retain a mysterious element about it. That, in short, it could never fully be understood so that average people who did not actually live through these events, people such as myself, would never be able to understand or appreciate that these events did occur, and that there were reasons for it.
Yet, once again, Erik Larson was able to do such a phenomenal job in writing this wonderful work, and allows history to come alive. As a reader, I felt almost like I was visiting Berlin, but not modern day Berlin, but rather Berlin as it would have been way back in 1933 and 1934, in what was then still the early days of Hitler's rule, when it was not at all certain that he was solidly in control of Germany, let alone destined to rule it with an infamously iron fist, and who would soon lead his country to war and conquest of most of Europe and much of North Africa, only to eventually have everything collapse, and leave it to rubble. Hitler boasted that he was building an empire that would last, his infamous “Thousand Year Reich”. Obviously, that did not happen, yet the extent that his skewed vision took a hold over an entire country seems somehow unbelievable upon reflection. Again, the images of police holding back Germans thrilled to see their Fuhrer in person, and reciting the Hitler Oath, just seems exclusively the domain of the past – and of a past that is not particularly related to the present as we know it anymore.
Erik Larson humanizes history, and he is successful in this work, as well. His accounts are of Berlin on a day to day basis, and almost passingly describes the changes that would become the defining images of Nazi Germany: the rising tide of official anti-Semitism that would drown the country in hatred, the not so slow build up of arms, the real life political concerns and rivalries and coups and mass executions that would allow eventually Hitler to rise to ultimate power, the signs of a people's loyalty, forced or otherwise, such as the Hitler Salute. He vividly describes the changes so that you can recognize them, knowing just how pervasive they would become, and how completely they would take over Germany. He reminds us that Hitler's rise, although infamous now in hindsight, was certainly not inevitable as it may seem to us now.
The American family that he focuses on are the Dodds, the new American diplomats at the behest of Franklin D. Roosevelt. William Dodd is a man who receives this distinction, nut who is actually looking elsewhere, occupied by other pursuits of greatness. The situation in Berlin, however, forces him to wake up and open his eyes, and he begins to see reality more clearly, becoming one of the very few to warn about the real threat that this new Germany poses to the world. Not taken seriously, and himself plagued by the realities of modern politics and power games, Dodd nonetheless remained a steady voice sounding the alarm of Hitler's real threat to world peace, at a time when others scoffed at him, or assumed that he was either exaggerating, or did not understand. History, however, proves that he understood only all too well.
Larson also focuses on Martha Dodd, the new ambassador's daughter, who seems initially rather taken by this “new Germany” and gets involved in affairs with all sorts of high ranking Nazis and other men of power and prestige at the time.
This is not a work of fiction, and indeed, we know the end result of most of the events that Larson describes in this book. Yet, he allows us to catch a glimpse of the world as it was then, when these huge events that we have known about all of our lives had not yet happened, and thus shows that these events were anything but predestined. Larson describes the slow and torturous turn towards these events that allowed the war and the Holocaust to eventually become the reality. He once again brings history to life, albeit a dark chapter of history, to be sure. I would recommend this to anyone who wants to better understand these events that would in time play a huge role in shaping not only the fate of Europe at the time, but indeed, would shape and inform our modern world presently. Much like with “The Devil in the White City”, Larson's most recent work shows a world much like our own, with many of the same concerns and situations that we feel so wrapped up in. The world back then is remarkably similar to the one that exists now, although it is easy to lose sight of that sometimes, and see it, as I admittedly saw it for too long, as somehow isolated and just “different”. It is this very real nature of things as they were, and as they are, that makes this a haunting work, because the situations and mindsets that he describes are only all too real, and many of the decisions and maneuvers are not only understandable to the reader, but in fact remind the reader that the world has indeed not changed nearly as much as perhaps we are led to believe. Like the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.
A very enjoyable read. Larson is one of the few authors that I can honestly say, I have not yet read a bad book of his. After reading this, in fact, I am not even entirely sure that he would be capable of writing a bad book! Highly recommended!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Some hobbies....

My mind tends to roam quite a bit. I think, if there is one thing from youth that I am really happy to have retained, it is that childish sense of wonder about the world. I still ask questions, still want to learn about other cultures and ways of thinking and living. Still try and find things out, for no better reason than curiosity, rather than functionality. Still not only ask questions about things that pique my curiosity, but then tend to take it a step farther than most people around me, because I then explore to find out more, see if I can find out the answers a little bit better for myself. These days, with the internet, that is easier to do than ever!
So, I guess this curiosity of mine is kind of a hobby that I foster. Otherwise, I have several sort of hobbies. The oldest one is stamp collecting, which is one of a few things that I got from my late grandfather, who got me into at least four things rather intensely, and more or less became the model that I tried to follow for myself later in life. He had a large and mysterious library with strange books that seemed rather inaccessibly to me at the time. I looked at his books, and knew that he worked in a college (community college, as an assistant professor), and that it was an intellectual pursuit. That appealed to me, and the older I got, the more actually understood better, and appreciated better, the actually very wide range and depth of his library - everything from scientific books to history and philosophy, and even to Vonnegut, who I would become a huge fan of, and was not even aware of his own Vonnegut books until much later in my life, and well after he passed. Otherwise, he also got me into chess, which I still love, although I am only really moderately talented at (and which he was, unfortunately, infamously terrible at), and (American) football. I used to love football much more than I do nowadays, but I still retain an ability to remember certain things, like statistics or scores. Without effort, and usually as fast as a computer, I can tell you every Super Bowl score, as well as the main plays and other pertinent facts about each game. Many people that encounter this, or other moments of my memory's glory, are initially impressed. The shininess starts to flake away, however, the first time I put my keys down somewhere literally seconds before, and then cannot remember where in the hell I put them. Or, perhaps, someone will tell me something, I will nod, maybe even ask a question about it, and then have no recollection of it minutes later (yes, I swear, this is unfortunately true - LOL). Have you ever read Bill Bryson? He is a very funny writer, and he mentioned one thing that had me tearing up with laughter. In any case, he recounts how sometimes, he goes to the grocery store to pick up some items, and then, once there, he draws a complete blank. So he calls and asks his wife "I'm at the supermarket. Why am I here?", and she, who is used to it, does not hesitate a second, rattling off the list of things and sending him on his way.  I would assume most people thought he was exaggerating when reading that, but I am pretty sure he is not, because I could easily do the same thing! Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating. : (

These are a few of my favorite things....

Under the right circumstances, I can like almost any and all weather, within moderation. I do not like hot, humid, muggy days, where a film of sweat develops instantaneously upon stepping out, and the heat is oppressive. Nor do I like brutally cold, windy, punishing winter nights, when whatever skin is exposed to the cold feels like it is getting slapped, and turns bright red. The extremities can be a bit much. I also certainly do not like hail and ice storms, especially if I have to drive in them, and the snow can be annoying for the same reason, as well as shoveling. But I like to watch the snow fall, and love seeing the snow hug the trees and bushes, making for a winter wonderland - especially when it is a bit off season, and there is a bit of foliage, either fall or early spring. I was working during the October snowstorm, when we got 19 inches in my area, and I could have kicked myself for not bringing a camera (another hobby is taking pictures, by the way, but one too long dormant now). I enjoy long, summer days, as well, especially when it is not suffocatingly hot. Love swimming and instantly cooling down, and love that first breeze after the sun sets and paints the distant horizon all shades of pastel colors. I do not mind the rain, like many other people seem to, and find a mysterious sort of romance in how quiet and lonely it can feel, including in the fog. And, of course, I love the moderation and colorfulness of the most moderate of seasons, spring and fall. The bright green of new life in spring, as newly emerging warmth melts Old Man Winter's icy grips or that burned away orange and red and yellow of autumn, when crisp autumn days and cool autumn nights chill out summer's excessive heat. (See? Now you brought the poet out of me! LOL)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Starting over again...

Okay, so, yeah, it's been a long time since I last even managed to check in to this site. Someone I like and respect asked about it recently, and I figured it was about that time to start this up again. So, after a rough twenty or so minutes, going back and forth, trying to gain access (I had long ago forgotten the password), I finally managed it, and here I am.

Not much time to write at the moment, and this is mostly just a test entry. When I see the results, I will know how to come back and add to it regular. For now, this must remain short.

So....I am starting over again - and on many levels. With the repetitions of what life sometimes throws at you feeling sometimes reminiscent of the ebb and flow of the waves of the ocean, you can easily get distracted, right? However, the one thing I do not want on this blog, or pretty much any other writing of mine, is direct reference to anything that goes on in my personal life, otherwise, it becomes either an autobiographical piece, or a complaining session, maybe like Dear Abby. Perhaps someday, something will happen in my life that I will feel a need to write about directly, but right now, I will try and maintain a strict separation. I am not opposed to autobiographical pieces, per se, but hardly think my life is interesting enough to hold any reader's interest, and that would likely include my own.

So, here I am....starting again. What should I say? It is writing, and writing is not always easy. Anyone who thinks so should try it. There are times when it is difficult. At times, you feel the words flowing freely. At other times, it is like pushing a boulder up a mountain, or flying to close to the sun with wax wings bound to melt. You can feel it is not working, but it can be tough to swallow. Much like life itself, right? But inspiration can be found, if you search for it. And today, a day after the 31st anniversary of the shooting of John Lennon, i could hardly go wrong with trying to honor the late Beatle and the beauty and heart of his works. So I am quoting from a powerful song, one of the last songs for the Beatles as a group, and hope that my own work may perhaps someday flow nearly as beautifully as the words of Lennon, so many years ago. Here are the lyrics that I found inspiring enough to write this post, in hopes for a better future for it than the neglected past for this blog. These words are the opening lyrics to "Across the Universe" :
"Words are flowing out like
Endless rain into a papercup
They slither wildly as they slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
Are drifting through my opened mind
Possessing and caressing me"