Monday, December 31, 2012

Movie Monday: "Shakespeare High"

Some nights, if I can't find anything I want to watch on TV, but I don't want to do something else, I'll go searching on OnDemand for a movie I haven't seen before. Sometimes this works out and sometimes it doesn't.

Last night it worked out really well.

There was a documentary called Shakespeare High (2011) listed on Showstime's OnDemand service. The description sounded interesting, and so I decieded to give it a try.

Shakespeare High is not about one specific high school, but about several groups of students at several high schools around Southern California as they prepare for and participate in the 90th annual Drama Teachers Association of Southern California Shakespeare Festival. They are a wide variety of students from a wide variety of private, charter. and public high schools, with a wide variety of reasons for participating in the festival. The school to beat, as it turns out, is Hesperia High, located in the small-working class town of Hesperia, in California's Mojave desert. Some of the other schools participating include an all-girls Catholic high school, the more upscale Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and Chatsworth High School, located in the far northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley.

Chatsworth High has a history with the festival, and a history in the entertainment industry, and is famous for one of its graduating classes in the 1970s that included several soon-to-be-famous actors: Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer, and Mare Winningham. All three participated in Shakespeare Festival when they were students and Chatsworth, and all three appear in the film. Spacey, in fact, is one of the executive producers of the documentary, and also makes one of the most important points in the film, right at the end, when he argues that participating in festival is more important for students who do not end up going into the arts than it is for those who aspire to careers in acting, writing, or music. Festival, he says, is a way to learn self-esteem and how to present oneself to the world, and that is important to matter what those students end up doing in their lives. But he also draws a direct line, for himself, from his participation in Festival to the awards he has won for his work as an actor.

It is interesting to hear the comments from famous alumni of the Southern California Festival - besides the trio from Chatsworth, we also hear from Richard Dreyfuss, who participated in Festival when he was a student at Beverly Hills High School - but the heart of the film is how the viewer gets to know some of the current student participants as they rehearse for festival, tell their stories, and then actually participate in the one-day Festival, held that year at Reseda High School, in the San Fernando Valley. There is triumph and there is heartbreak, not only in the competition, but in the lives of the students. There are some fascinating personal stories here, and a lot of determination to succeed, not only at Festival but in life.

There is also a lot of creativity and inventiveness here. The rules of the Festival allow no props or costumes of any kind, although students can use four chairs. Otherwise it is just them and their talent. Additionally, they can either cut down a play to the maximum time limit per entry of eight minutes, or they can do a single scene, and they can alter the play or the scene in any way they wish as long as they don't change Shakespeare's meaning. Each year, the Association chooses three of Shakespeare's plays for competition. In the year covered by the film, the chosen plays are "Othello", "A Midsummer Night's Dream", and "Macbeth".

There is also controversy. Some of the drama teachers celebrate the rules that allow changes and updates to Shakespeare's scenes, but others worry about the contemporary influences that inject what they see is too much modernism and too much violence into the scenes. One of the scenes from "Othello", especially, is very violent. There is also the expected grousing from some of the drama coaches and some of the students about the judging at Festival, but this normal and to be expected.

What one of the drama teachers said, near the end of the film, about the influence of participating in Shakespeare Festival, especially struck a chord with me. He said, "You will always remember the festival, and what you did, and who you did it with." From experience, I can testify that this is true.

You see, I participated in junior high Shakespeare Festival in Southern California when I was in 9th grade (my school district ran a 7-9 junior high and 10-12 high school). I would be surprised if that festival wasn't part of the same system, based on the film's portrayal of how the event was run and other evidence in the film. And I do remember. It was one of the formative experiences of that part of my life.

So, perhaps part of my reaction to Shakespeare High has to do with that recognition of a shared expereience. Another part of it might be that this is the region where I grew up, and I got to see some familiar landscape. Still, and aside from that, this is a good film, and one that is an antidote to the present widespread pessimistic feeling that high school students today have no initiative and no ambition. There is plenty of initiative and ambition here, and plenty of potential.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Music Sunday: The "Nearly-New-Year Birthdays" Edition

I'm still stuck in the middle of the doldrums of the final week of 2012 and trying to get rid of the last of this stupid cold. So, I fell back on my usual strategy when I'm not inspired and checked to see who in the music world has a birthday today. Some Sundays that doesn't work. This week, however, there happen to be several musical birthdays.

As it turns out, in fact, it is a double Monkees birthday today. I think I might have even known this fact, way back in the day, when I was a pre-teen and cared about such things as celebrity birthdays. Michael Nesmith turns 70 (if I've got my math right) and Davy Jones would have turned 67. So, I started looking for Monkees clips and found this instead: Nesmith in what was apparently his first television appearance as a singer, going by the name Michael Blessing, on the Lloyde Thaxton Show in 1965 and singing "Until It's Time For You to Go":

As an historical note, "The Lloyd Thaxton Show" began as a local music/dance show on KCOP, channel 13, in 1961 and then went into syndication nationally in late 1964. It was one of the shows I watched as a young music fan growing up.

That video led me to this clip of Davy Jones, auditioning for "The Monkees":

And also, to this clip from "The Ed Sullivan Show", with Jones playing the Artful Dodger in a scene from the Broadway musical "Oliver". As a historical note, this was the same episode of the Sullivan show, in February, 1964, that The Beatles made their debut:

Another Monkee, Micky Dolenz, is not having a birthday today, but I found this clip from "Circus Boy", a series he was on when he was very young. His stage name at the time was Mickey Braddock. "Circus Boy" aired from 1956 through 1958:

But I digress, since there are other birthdays today. Those include Patty Smith. I don't know that much about Smith's work, to be honest. However, I do know the song she wrote with Bruce Springsteen - "Because the Night" - and am of the opinion that her performance of the song is superior to his performance of it:

Also having a birthday today is Jeff Lynne of ELO. I found this live performance of the band's "Mr. Blue Sky":

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What I read this year...

I read some books in 2012.

Not as many as I had planned to, but more than I read in 2011 (2 more, actually). I passed the 10,000 page threshold, which was my page goal for the year. I read both fiction and non-fiction, which is always my hope and my goal. Despite the fact that I ended up reading a few stinkers, I also found some really good books during the year.

To protect the guilty, and because good and bad is, to an extent a subjective judgement regarding fiction, I won't belabor the subject of which novels I read and did not like. Well, with one exception.

In May, I pickied up a book at the library called Natural Selection. It had an interesting premise: the evolution of a new species that leaves the sea, adapts to life on land, and then wreaks havoc. However, Dave Freedman, who wrote the novel, clearly has no real grasp on how evolution works, does not seem to be able to write a sympathetic character to save his life, and completely contradicts something he wrote earlier in the novel near the end in a way that destroys any credibility as a storyteller he had built in the earlier telling of the story. Not that he had built up much credibility at all.

Maybe I should be easier on Freedman. As I recall, it was his first novel. But Natural Selection was just such a bad book that I can't manage to work up much sympathy for him. Somehow, he managed to keep me turning the pages, but looking back I can't imagine how, except that I had a perverse curiosity to see if it could get any worse. And it did. I remember finishing the book and wondering how he managed to sell it to a publisher.

On the non-fiction side, I have to say that the least satisfying book I read this year was Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice, by Alisa Statman with Brie Tate, which I read in April. I've read a lot of books about Charles Manson, the cult he built up, and the horrible things they did. This book was by far the least helpful in understanding that whole situation. I think part of the trouble was that it was co-written by Sharon Tate's niece and a family friend based on writings left behind by one of Sharon's late sisters. As a picture of a family that disintegrated in the wake of the murder of a member of the family it probably has some merit, but the problem is that the family seems never to have found any peace and just passes down its desire for revenge to each succeeding generation. I can see how that could happen in such a situtation, especially when the crime that took their loved one's life attracted so much media attention, but the book really provides no insight. It left me feeling like I hadn't learned anything, but instead just made me feel like I had peeked in on family dynamics that would have been better left private.

On the other hand, I also read my favorite non-fiction in April. That was Life, by Keith Richards, with James Fox. Life is an amazing book. I won't go on about it here, except to say that if you have any interest at all in music, in The Rolling Stones, in the culture of the sixties and this book. Even if you don't have any interest in any of those things, read the book anyway.

While you're at it, read Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with The Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It), by Bill German. I'm not really sure how two books about The Stones turned out to be some of my favorite reading all year. I've never really been that big a Stones fan. But both of these books are really good.

I read a lot of good fiction this year, but by far my favorites are two books in a series that combines fantasy, historical fiction, and a genre I don't read very much, romance. Those are A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night, both by Deborah Harkness. I picked up the first volume while browsing the shelves at my local library. It sounded least, the vampires didn't sparkle...and so I checked it out and read it. I might not have done if I had realized that it was the first volume in the series and that the second volume hadn't even been published yet, especially when I finished it desperate to know what happened next. Fortunately, publication of the second volume was just a few months away. In that book, the action moves from Oxford in the present day to London during the reign of Elizabeth I. Like I said, it's a fantasy. Now I'm just waiting for the third volume to be published.

Well, if I reviewed everything on the list, this post would be way too long, so I'm just going to leave my full reading list for the year here with you. Each book is marked either F (fiction) or NF (non-fiction), and the ones I liked the best or felt were of special worth are marked with a double asterisk. Please note, though, that, especially with the fiction, these evaluations are very subjective and based on a lot of criteria, so your mileage may vary. For example, I liked Barbara Hambly's Ishmael very, very much. However, it is a genre novel based on two very old television series, Star Trek and Here Come The Brides, that I was a fan of when I was very young. A lot of the reason I liked the book was because Hambly managed to take two series that were very, very different and capture the spirit of both of them with an accuracy that I would not have believed possible. She also created a story that would have fit into an episode of either series. So, while it is a well-written book, I loved it for very personal reasons that you might not share.

**(1) Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910 - 1969, by William J. Mann (422 pages) NF
(2) Gun Games, by Faye Kellerman (375 pages) F
(3) Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell (498 pages) F
(4) Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins, by Donald C. Johanson and Kate Wong (309 pages) NF
(5) Hotel Translyvania, by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (252 pages) F
**(6) Ishmael, by Barbara Hambly (255 pages) F
(7) Hangman, by Faye Kellerman (422 pages) F
(8) Blood and Ice, by Robert Masello (675 pages) F
(9) Victims, by Jonathan Kellerman (338 pages) F
**(10) A Discovery of Witches, by Deborah Harkness (579 pages) F
(11) Restless Souls: The Sharon Tate Family’s Account of Stardom, the Manson Murders, and a Crusade for Justice, by Alisa Statman with Brie Tate (381 pages)
**(12) Role Models, by John Waters (304 pages) NF
**(13) Life, by Keith Richards, with James Fox (564 pages) NF
(14) Natural Selection, by Dave Freedman (414 pages) F
(15) Dead Time, by Stephen White (400 pages) F
(16) Latter-Day Secrets, by Natalie R. Collins (377 pages) F
**(17) The Calling: A Year in the Life of an Order of Nuns, by Catherine Whitney (250 pages) NF
(18) The Blackbird Papers, by Ian Smith (326 pages) F
(19) Virgin, by F. Paul Wilson (309 pages) F
(20) The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To, by DC Pierson (226 pages) F
**(21) Corn Flakes With John Lennon and Other Tales from a Rock’N’Roll Life, by Robert Hilburn (280 pages) NF
**(22) Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness (584 pages) F
(23) World Prehistory: A Brief Introduction, 3d edition, by Brian M. Fagan (299 pages) NF
**(24) How to Think Like a Neandertal, by Thomas Wynn and Frederick L. Coolidge (210 pages) NF
(25) Summer of the Dragon, by Elizabeth Peters (277 pages) F
(26) LZ-75: The Lost Chronicles of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 American Tour, by Stephen Davis (217 pages) NF
(27) Bones Are Forever, by Kathy Reichs (288 pages) F
(28) A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters (307 pages) F
**(29) Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with The Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It), by Bill German (354 pages) NF
(30) The Bone Bed, by Patricial Cornwell (463 pages) F
**(31) The Prism and the Rainbow: A Christian Explains Why Evolution Is Not a Threat, by Joel W. Martin (170 pages) NF
(32) The Overlook, by Michael Connelly (262 pages) F
**(33) Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross (401 pages) NF

Cumulative page total: 11,788 pages.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Waving goodbye to 2012...

Out of all the year, this is the week I hate the most.

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day has always seemed to me to be a huge waste of time. It's like the world is holding its breath waiting for the new year to begin. Nothing gets accomplished, really. Human nature being what it is, with two holidays (well, four, since Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve have taken on the status of holidays as well) just a week apart, a lot of people spend the week talking about how their Christmas was and looking forward to whatever big New Year's Eve party they are attending.

It has seemed to be even worse than usual this year, so far at least. I imagine part of that has to do with the fact that I've been sick since before Christmas. I started noticing the first symptoms of the Cold from Hell a couple of days before Christmas, and I'm still sick, although today is the first day that I haven't felt absolutely wretched.

Another factor contributing to my feeling about the week is fallout from being sick: I've spent a lot of time in front of the TV because I haven't felt like doing anything else. It seems like that year-in-review thing that they do in the media in the last couple of days of the year has been going on all week long. At least on MSNBC, which is my cable talking heads channel of choice, that's nearly all they've been doing. Today, of course, they've been forced to report some news, with the drama over whether Congress is going to act in time to avoid the economy going all to hell again, but that has barely slowed down the endless procession of year-end commentary. Although, I have to say that I'm watching "The Last Word" right now, and they've been managing to keep things interesting. Too bad the rest haven't been able to keep up.

Now, this isn't to say that I don't think there are things that went on during the year that bear further discussion. It was an election year after all, with all that entails. I especially think the recent statement from one of Mitt Romney's sons that Mitt really didn't want to run for president at all bears further examination and comment. The war on women was no fluke born of election hyperbole; I don't think it has slowed down at all, and we will need to talk more about that. Partly associated with that, the Tea Party is still with us despite the outcome of the election in November, and they aren't going to go without a fight. We'll be talking about that whole phenomenon further, I'm sure. And then there's gun control. It was the subject no one wanted to talk about during the election campaigns, but because of recent events in Connecticut and in upstate New York most notably among other events, it has become clear that we, as a nation, are going to have to tackle that issue, and soon.

But, my big year-in-review to come before the new year will be my review of the books I read this year. Since Sunday is Music Sunday and Monday is Movie Monday and Tuesday is 2013, I suspect that I'll do that tomorrow unless something happens between now and then that needs attention.

Now, if somebody would do a big show with notable people talking about the best books they're read this year, the best movies they've seen, and the best music they've listened to...I would definintely watch that.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Stuck at home with a cold...

I'll be honest here. I've spent most of the past couple of days staring at the television. I've got a cold, and that's what I do when I'm too sick to want to do anything else. This has been true since I was very young. In fact, when I was in elementary school, I used to look forward to having a sick day, so I could watch the game shows, back when TV game shows were interesting. Shows like the original "Jeopardy", like "Concentration, like "Password". You had to have a least a little bit of a brain to be able to win these games. This is still true of "Jeopardy", but otherwise I can't think of any game shows that require much brain power.

At least my sick-day television watching is easier in these days of the remote control. I guess I'm giving away my age here, but when I was in elementary school, you had to get up off the couch and switch channels manually. I suppose there were primistive remotes around on some high-end TVs in those days, but I didn't know anyone who had one. Now, all I need to do is aim the remote and click.

So, I've been spending a lot of time aiming and clicking. Not so much on Christmas Day. There was a Doctor Who marathon on, leading up to the new Christmas Special, so that had my attention most of the day. There was also a Who marathon yesterday, but they were all episodes that I've seen recently, so I ventured on to other things, in between trying to cough up a lung.

I tried to catch up on the news yesterday, but most of the programming on MSNBC, which is my punditry of choice these days, was mostly showing "year-in-review" programming. I don't like "year-in-review" shows. The other cable news stations were busy purusing their agendas, which I also wasn't much interested in, and so I moved on to other things. There was a "Castle" marathon on, and I watched a couple of those episodes.

Along the way, the past couple of days, I also watched three episodes of some cable show about conspiracy theories hosted by Jesse Ventura. I like conspiracy theories, even though I don't generally believe in them, and the shows were diverting but ultimately silly. I looked for movies to watch but didn't find much interesting. I thought about catching up on "Dexter" episodes, but decided that I'd have to pay more attention than I was willing or able to summon up, so I didn't do that.

The aforementioned Doctor Who Christmas Special, "The Snowmen", was very good, but again, needed more attention than I was able to give to it, so I'm going to have to watch it again. Same with last night's new episode of "The Hour" - it was good, but I'm going to have to watch again when it comes up on On Demand.

The best thing I saw, though, in the past few days (yes, even better than my illness-addled viewing of "The Snowmen") was last night's broadcast of The Kennedy Center Honors. I usually watch those broadcasts very selectively; the shows can be very good, but the can also be very boring. Last night's was the best one I've ever seen, I think. First of all, Led Zeppelin was honored, which I think is just entirely too cool for words. While I'm not sure that, as Jack Black said when he was introducing the segment honoring the band, Zep is the "best band ever", but if not, they're certainly close. And the other honorees, Dustin Hoffman, David Letterman, blues guitarist Buddy Guy, and ballet dancer Natalia Makarova were also more than deserving of their accolades.

I especially liked the tribute to Letterman, which was perfect for his slightly off-center persona. Tina Fey's introduction to the tribute was one of the funniest things I've heard in a long time. The ballet in tribute to Makarova was beautiful. I didn't get to see most of the tribute to Hoffman - I was having an extended coughing fit. What I did see was very nice.

The highlights of the night, though were the musical tributes to Zeppelin and to Buddy Guy. Both were brilliant. I especially liked that Jason Bonham, Zepplin drummer John Bohnam, was part of the festivities, and that Ann and Nancy Wilson tackled, and pretty muchy owned "Stairway to Heaven".

But the best thing? The very best thing? That was a quick glimpse of US President Barack Obama singing along to "Whole Lotta Love". Yes, I know. There are many things that are much more important things for a president to know. But somehow, it was just a beautiful thing to see.

Maybe it was just my cold-addled mind, but I really liked that.

Oh, and just a note: I'm feeling better today, but still not well enough to proofread this. So, if you find any typos or other errors, you get two Internet points. But if you do find errors, I don't want to know about them.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On having a Christmas birthday...

Christmas is kind of a weird day.

No, really. It is the day much of the Christian world celebrates the birth of Jesus, who was almost certainly not born on December 25, despite the insistence of some. The preponderance of scholarship puts the birth sometime in the Spring, based on evidence in the Bible.

But, what about those who were born on December 25? How difficult is it to compete with Christmas Day and celebrate their special day on what a lot of people consider to be the special day of the year?

Some of those with Christmas Day birthdays have found a solution by celebrating their birthday on another day. My cousin Merilee, for example. She was born on Christmas Day, but when she was still living at home, her family always threw a birthday party for her on the Fourth of July. Another holiday here in the United States, to be sure, but with not nearly the same expectations and assumptions that Christmas Day carries. Oh, she got a birthday cake and presents on December 25, but there was a cake and gifts in July as well.

Not a bad deal.

Even a birthday close to Christmas can be a problem. My mother's birthday was on Christmas Eve. We always tried to make a big deal of her birthday so that she wouldn't feel shortchanged. We would get up early and go out to breakfast and give her her birthday presents in the restaurant, in order to put the celebration as far away from Christmas as possible. She always seemed content with that, but I wish we could have done more to make her special day really special and apart from the celebration of Christmas.

There are actually a lot of notable people who were born on Christmas. When I looked the day up on Wikipedia, it seemed like the list of birthdays of the famous and infamous was longer than usual, although that might just be my perception. It is an interesting and diverse list that includes Isaac Newton, in 1642, whose work in physics, mathematics, and astronomy was foundational, as well as Clara Barton, in 1821, the teacher and nurse who founded the American Red Cross.

In the entertainment world, Humphrey Bogart was born on December 25, 1899. Writer Rod Serling, who created The Twilight Zone, one of the most remarkable TV series in history, was born on December 25, 1924 (making him just one day younger than my mother). Singer Annie Lennox was born on Christmas day in 1954. And, for Doctor Who fans, Georgia Moffett who played Jenny, the Doctor's daughter in the New Who Series Four episode of the same name (and who is, in real life, the daughter of Peter Davison, who portrayed the Fifth Doctor, making her the Doctor's daughter twice over), was born on December 25, 1984.

The list of Christmas birthdays is much longer than that, but for the sake of brevity, I'll refrain from repeating more of it here. Instead, I'll just leave you with one of my favorite scenes from Casablanca, the movie Humphrey Bogart is probably best known for:

Consider it my Christmas present to you.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Movie Monday: The "I didn't watch the Wizard" Edition

The Wizard of Oz was on TV Saturday night.

I did not watch it.

Well, that's not exactly true. I watched it until Dorothy sings "Over the Rainbow", and then I bailed. And then, I looked back in a little later on, but didn't stay.

I think I might be Wizarded out.

This is not to say that it isn't a good film, or that I don't like it. It is, I think, and I do. But after seeing it more times than I can count, I just can't do it anymore.

The Wizard of Oz was a fixture of my childhood that very well might have started with its first airing on television, on November 3, 1956, but I couldn't tell you for sure; I was just about two and a half months old at that time. Certainly, I can remember watching it from a very young age. I remember that the Flying Monkeys frightened me, to the point that I often wandered off around the time they appeared on-screen when my family would watch the film, which was pretty much every time it was on.

I did not figure out, however, that the Flying Monkeys are what bothers me about the film until I was well into adulthood, when I was watching it one night and realized that when the monkeys came on the scene, I was suddenly hiding my head under a blanket. It made me feel stupid, but at least it solved the mystery of why I've seen the beginning and the end of the movie so many times, but the middle not so many times.

The Wizard of Oz continues to fascinate me as a movie, though, even if I don't necessarily love watching it any more. I find it interesting that it turned out to be watchable at all. AFter all, although Victor Fleming is credited as the director of the film, five others had some directorial input. The original director, Richard Thorpe, worked on it for about three weeks before being fired. Apparently none of the footage he shot survived except in someone's home movies, with this footage showing that if he had remained, the film would have looked very different from what we know as the film today. As just one example, Dorothy was blonde.

In addition to all the directors, there is a huge list of writers who worked on the script, although only three, Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf, ended up with credit for it. With that many writers and that many directors, the film could have devolved into a mess.

My favorite piece of movie trivia surrounding The Wizard of Oz is that its main director, Victor Fleming, also directed another classic film that came out the same year: Gone With the Wind. In fact, Fleming left The Wizard of Oz early to begin work on GWTW. I find it interesting that two of the most famous American movies of all time, movies that still get regular showings these 73 years after their release, were directed, one after the other, by the same man.

My question to you is, are there any classic or holiday movies that you just don't care to watch any more, or any you've never been a fan of? Is there, for example, anyone else out there who just can't abide It's a Wonderful Life?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Music Sunday: The Pre-Christmas Potluck Edition

I was watching a movie yesterday, something called "Layer Cake", a gangster movie, basically, and at one point I noticed that the song "Ordinary World", by Duran Duran, was playing in the background. It seemed very appropriate given the things the main character was going through in the film. After the film was over, I wandered over to YouTube to watch the video of the song because I hadn't heard it in a long while and I do really like the song.

What? We all have our musical guilty pleasures.

Anyway, the video is visually stunning. I also thought, as I watched the video, that some things in it looked quite familiar. I did a little research and discovered that the bulk of the video was filmed at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California. No wonder. I used to live maybe fifteen miles from Huntington, and for a period of time in my late teens I visited the gardens, and the library and art gallery there, fairly often. So, I thought I'd start out this Music Sunday by sharing the song, and video:

Another video that I find just as amazing, visually speaking, even though the images could not be more different than those in the video for "Ordinary World", is this video for R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts", another song that I like very much:

Another video that I find visually interesting, again for completely different reasons from the two above is this one, for "Take On Me", by A-Ha. Not a brilliant song, in my opinion, but I like the way the video mixes live action and animation:

Because today's post is a little bit of a potluck and all over the place, and because a little Annie Lennox is always a good thing, I thought I'd also share The Eurythmics' "Would I Lie to You?":

Finally, I'm leaving this here for you because it is nearly Christmas. I'm not a fan of Christmas music, and especially not of religious Christmas music. However, I found this while I was looking around, possibily the oddest reading of a religious Chrismas song that I've ever heard or see, this is Annie Lennox, again, with an original take on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen":

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Oh, good grief.

Reuters is reporting that the Iowa Supreme Court has ruled that firing someone because they are "too attractive" is legal.

In the case that generated the ruling, a dentist fired a female dental assistant at his wife's insistence because the assistant was a "big threat" to their marriage. During the trial, the dentist testified that he had warned his assistant several times about wearing clothes that were too tight and revealing, and then fired her after his wife complained that the dentist's relationship with the assistant was threatening their marriage.

And what was their "relationship"? Had the assistant made advances toward or flirted with the dentist. Not according to the assistant, who sued on the grounds that she would not have been fired if she had been a male and that she hadn't done anything wrong. In fact, according to the story, the dentist was the one who started sending text messages to the assistant. Most of the messages were apparently innocent communications regarding office matters. However, some of the messages, according to testimony in the original case, were suggestive, including one the assistant never answered in which the dentist asked her how often she has orgasms.

In other words, from testimony in the trial, the dentist was the bad actor, not the assistant. Yet the Court ruled that it isn't discrimination and isn't against the law for an employer to fire an employee if the employer considers the employee to be "an irresistable attraction".

Needless to say, all the justices who ruled on the case are males.

Really? An employer can't control himself (or herself) but the innocent employee who has done nothing wrong can be fired just for what he (or she) looks like? Or just because the spouse of the employer feels threatened by how the employee looks? How is that just?

This is just another application of the other golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules. As far as I can see, the dentist's testimony about his warning his assitant about her clothing is beside the point because the argument he used during the trial was that he had fired her because of "the way their relationship had developed and the threat it posed to his marriage". It seems to me he was the reason that the relationship developed the way it did. Even if the assistant did wear clothes the dentist thought were "too tight", he didn't have to respond by harassing her.

What the dentist was really arguing was that it was the assistant's fault that he could not control himself and refrain from sending suggestive and harassing text messages. And isn't that the same argument men have made since time immemorial - that everything is always the woman's fault?

When, oh, when, are men going to start taking responsibility for their own behavior and quit making the argument that they just can't help themselves. Because, you know, there are enough men in the world who can and do control themselves despite their attraction to particular women to make the notion that men are helpless before their passions insupportable.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Friday Extra: Armed guards are not the answer...

First of all, I would like to congratulate Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice-President of the National Rifle Association, for proving today that he is even more tone-deaf, both politically and socially speaking, than former Republican presidential candadite Mitt Romney, who I thought was the most tone-deaf individual in the world. I'm not sure what century Mr. LaPierre is living in, but it isn't the 21st century.

I'm not going to address everything in his speech today. That would take more space than I have here and more time than I'm willing to give him. However, I have a couple of things to say about his proposal that every school in the US be staffed with armed guards in the wake of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School a week ago today.

First of all, I cannot believe that he managed to take a horrible event like the Sandy Hook shootings and turn them into an opportunity to lobby for US firearms manufacturers. That is, effectively, what he did in his speech, since I'm fairly sure he did not intend that his organization donate all the firearms that would be necessary to carry out his plan, nor that the manufacturers donate them. More armed guards would mean more firearms purchases.

I'm not sure what Mr. LaPierre thinks having an armed officer on premises on all campuses would do to prevent gun violence. I say this having had some experience regarding the issue.

In my senior year of high school, the school I attended had an armed officer on campus at all times. He was mainly a drug officer (who was not-so-affectionately known as "The Narc" on campus), but he did carry every day. Wore his gun on his belt, so everyone knew he was armed.

Did this prevent bad things from happening on campus? Absolutely not.

It did not prevent an individual running from being caught after commiting a robbery from coming onto the school grounds one morning while my gym class was out on the field where he entered the premises. Fortunately, he was not armed, and just as fortunately, the police who were following him did not feel the need to pull out their weapons and shoot at him. Fortunate, because my class would have been right in the line of fire.

Among other events, having an armed officer on campus also did not prevent a full-scale riot one afternoon, complete with Sheriff's deputies swarming the campus and the Sherrif's Department helicopter circling overhead. It also didn't stop a deputy from getting shot in the knee by an armed student. It was pure luck that there were no other serious injuries.

So, don't tell me that armed guards on campuses are the answer to school shootings. Not unless they plan to ring every school with them.

But I shouldn't say that, I guess. It'll just give the NRA...and Mr. LaPierre...ideas.

Honestly, turning school campuses into armed camps would only mean that the bad guys have won.

I was reading while the internet was down...

In yesterday's post, I mentioned that my cable service was out for a couple of days. During that time, it occurred to me more than once how dependent we have - I have - become on being able to access umpteen channels on television and on being able to run to the computer and hop on the Internet to look something up or play a game whenever I want to or need to. While I'm not addicted to it (I don't think), I am a writer who does a lot of research and I really miss the Internet when I don't have access to it and don't have just the right book at hand to look up something that I'm researching or something that has caught my interest.

There were advantages, though, to not having the Internet at the ready to distract me. One of those advantages was that I had the time to more quickly finish reading a particularly good book that I had been taking a long time to get through. Although it is a good book, it is dense, difficult reading, and the subject matter was such that I had to take a break from time to time so that I wouldn't throw the thing and break something or put a hole in the wall.

The book is Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2005; 401 pages), by Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross. I picked it up at the library as part of research for a couple of projects I'm working on, and I didn't really expect to read it all the way through, but I found it fascinating as well as frustrating and, sometimes, infuriating.

I have to preface what I have to say about the book by saying that I was raised to see no contradiction between believing in deity and accepting the fact that evolution happens. Or, more accurately, it was just not a question that came up. The existence of God just was not seen as an impediment to evolution occurring, and evolution was not seen as ruling out the possible existence of God. It never occurred to me that anyone might think differently until I was in the fifth or sixth grade and a girl in my class flipped out when we saw an educational film that talked about evolution. She was incensed that any idea other than a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis was advanced for the creation of species. Never mind that there are two pretty much mutually exclusive accounts of creation just in the first few pages of that book, a reality that wasn't on my radar at the time.

In the years that followed, however, especially when I got interested in anthropology and started reading widely in that and other subjects, I learned just how opposed some people are to the idea of evolution, and of it being taught in public school science classrooms. I was especially interested in the way they progressed from calling their stand creationism, to calling it "scientific creationism", to calling it "intelligent design", changing what they called their ideas as the US courts, and especially the United States Supreme Court, ruled over and over that creationism, then creation science, and then intelligent design, were really religious ideas, not science, and were not to be taught in public school science classrooms.

What this book does is look specifically at the proponents of intelligent design and how they insist, at least in public, that their ideas are not creationism and are not religion. The authors spend a great deal of time and use more than sufficient documentation to show that, on the contrary, there really isn't much difference between creationism and intelligent design. For example, they show that while ID proponents claim that they don't believe in a literal interpretation of Genesis, particularly in the short period of time allowed for the age of the Earth by that text, that there are a number of Young-Earth believers (those who believe that the Earth is only between 6 thousand and 10 thousand years old) among ID proponents.

The authors also spend a great deal of time refuting the claim of ID proponents that while the propose that the universe, the Earth, and life were designed by an intelligent entity, they do not necessarily identify that Designer with God. Forrest and Gross produce plenty of evidence of what these same people say to religous audiences and write for religious audiences that show they really are theists who have as one of their main objectives bringing religion into the schools by first introducing ID into public school classrooms.

Especially disturbing to me is their evidence showing the ties of the ID movement to Christian Reconstructionism. If you read here regularly, you know that I've written about the Reconstructionists here before and that I do not approve of them and their aims, the main goal being turning the United States into a theocracy.

All of the information the authors present is exhaustively documented in 64 pages of endnotes, many of them to web pages of the organizations that advocate ID and support the proponets with their money. They list the organizations, the name names of those pushing the ID agenda. Within the text, they quote these individuals and organizations at length. These quotations are part of what make the book difficult reading, considering that some of the folks who publish in favor of ID really aren't very good writers. These passages also show exactly how far ID proponents are willing to go to tailor their message to their audience, insisting to school boards that ID is not religious but talking in almost exclusively religious terms when addressing religious audiences.

Despite its fairly academic tone (the authors are a philosopher and a physiologist), I think this is a valuable book. It isn't a quick, easy read, but the information it contains is important, and I think the time spent reading is time well spent for those interested in the subject matter and for anyone concerned about what young people are being taught, especially when you consider that ID proponents have as part of their specific program "recruiting" students to their ideology and encouraging them to "challenge" their teachers over the creationsim/evolution issue.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Life and stuff...

It's late in the day for a post, but I wanted to at least check in to say that I think I'm back online. Cable is fixed, and a good friend is letting me borrow a laptop because mine is still being cranky.

It's been a long day, with a visit to the airport, the library, and grocery shopping...all even though I'm supposed to be staying off the knee I did something nasty to late yesterday afternoon. But, with the grocery shopping done, now I really can stay in and rest the stupid knee for a few days.

By the time I got home from all that, the water was off. It was a planned outage; the city has been working on the water lines for a few weeks, and this was the fourth or fifth time the water has been off. The good news was that it came back on about half an hour before it was scheduled to do so.

The other good news was the cable guy showed up about five minutes after the beginning of the two-hour window they had given me for the appointment when I talked to them yesterday. It didn't take him long to get things working again. The bad news was that he said it looked like the cables out by the outside cable box had been vandalized.

And then, this evening, my friend Juanita came by and brought the computer to me so I can use it. I am so grateful to her for letting me use it. I spent the afternoon feeling guilty that I wasn't able to blog yesterday or, until now, today. I guess the theory that it takes about a month to establish a new habit is true. After blogging every day for the past month and a half, not writing a post sometime during the day just feels...wrong.

So, I feel much better now that I've been able to get this written. I just hope I spelled everything correctly, because I haven't found the spell-check on this machine yet, and I'm not sure I'm awake enough to proofread adequately at the moment.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Experiencing technical difficulties...

Sorry, folks. My internet went out, along with the rest of my cable stuff (TV and phone), so I may not be posting for a day or two, depending on when it gets fixed. I happened on a computer to use briefly, so I thought I'd let you all know that I haven't jumped ship.

Have a good couple of days. Back when I can be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

In which I geek out over a new study...

I've written here before about religion, and I will do so again, I'm sure. That shouldn't be surprising. I studied the anthropology of religion at university, and I'm very interested in what people believe and why they believe what they do. Today, I found a report on NBC News online about a new report from the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life* that talks about how many people claim affiliation with which religions around the world.

I recently read about a report from the same group that showed a new high of 19.6 percent of individuals in the United States claimed to be unaffiliated with any religion as of this year. This new study shows that 16.3 percent of the world's population claims not to be affiliated with any religion. The study points out that religious non-affiliation does not necessarily mean that those claiming not to be a member of any religion do not believe in a higher power. While the category includes atheists and agnostics, it also includes people who do believe in a deity or higher power but do not report membership in or association with any religion.

The study also found that a majority of the population in six nations reported that they are not affiliated with any religion. The largest number came from the Czech Republic, where 76 percent of the population reported no religious affiliation, followed by North Korea, with 71 percent; Estonia, with 60 percent; Japan, with 57 percent; Hong Kong, with 56 percent, and China, with 52 percent of the population claiming no affiliation with any religion.

Parsing the numbers in another way, the Pew report also shows that 76 percent of the religiously unaffiliated live in Asia and the Pacific region, while 12 percent of those not claiming any religions affiliation live in Europe, 5 percent live in North America, 4 percent life in Latin American and the Caribbean, 2 percent live in Sub-saharan Africa, and less than 1 percent live in the Middle East and North Africa.

The numbers of the non-affiliated put them in third place for total adherents (or non-adherents) to religion. The Pew study shows that 32 percent, or 2.2 billion people around the world, claim Christianity as their religion. Of those, half say that they are Catholic, 37 percent claim to be Protestant, and 12 percent are Greek or Russian Orthodox. Islam is the only other religion to claim more members than the unaffiliated, with 23 percent of the world's population. After the 16.3 percent who claim no affiliation, the next largest group are Hindus, who make up 15 percent of the global population, while 7.1 percent are Buddhists, and 0.2 percent, or around 15 million, claim Judaism as their religious affiliation.

One statistic that interested me is that 405 million people, or about 5.9 percent of the world's population, claim to follow folk or traditional religions, with 70 percent of those 405 million people living in China.

Another interesting breakdown of the statistics in the Pew study showed that only 3 percent of Hindus live where they are in the minority, while 13 percent of Christians and 27 percent of Muslims live in areas where they are not in the majority. On the other hand, 72 percent of Buddhists live where they are in the minority, over 99 percent of those practicing folk or traditional religions are in the minority where they live, and virtually all of those claiming "other" as their religion, 0.8 percent of the world's population, live where they are in the minority.

The numbers in the Pew report were generated through study of national census numbers and surveys from around the world.

What does all this mean? I'm sure I don't know, aside from the fact that there are a lot of religious people in the world but that the numbers of those who don't claim to belong to any particular religion seem to be growing. It would be difficult to know why those who don't claim any religion take that stance without going out and talking to them. It would also be interesting, particularly, to talk to those who don't claim a religion but who nevertheless do believe in a god, many gods, or some other form of higher power. I would also be interested in knowing how many, out of those who do claim a religion, participate actively in exercises related to their religion, either alone or in community with others. Another interesting study would be how religious adherents' experience of their religions differ depending on whether they live where their religion is in the majority or is a minority of the local population.

I'm sure there are people working on many of these issues, or have already done studies and I just haven't stumbled on their reports yet. Sadly, my local libraries, both public and university, are either lacking in materials related to religion or are difficult for me to get to on a regular basis. The Internet is also a good resource, but it is sometimes more difficult to evaluate the authoritativeness of things published online. Other times, I imagine, I just don't come up with the correct search terms.

Anyway, if you've read this far, congratulations. I know that statistics can be dry, boring, and sometimes confusing. This is important information, though, I think, and I thought I would share.


* I could not get a link to the study itself to work, but there is a working link to it in the NBC story that I linked to.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Music Sunday/Monday: The Comfort Music Edition

Yeah. In some quarters, Journey is the band you love to mock. It's always been that way, I suppose. Arena rock. Power ballads. All that. Not Serious Music, I've heard people say, seriously. Liking Journey's music is supposed to be some sort of guilty pleasure.

News flash. I like Journey's music, although I would probably have to say that I'm more a Steve Perry fan than a Journey fan. And so, today, because I need some comfort music, this is the Journey edition of Music Sunday/Monday.

I'll start out with the big hit from the last album Journey made with Steve Perry, "Trial By Fire". The song is "When You Love A Woman", and I love it in all its overproduced glory:

From much earlier in the band's history is this performance from a European television appearance, is "Wheel in the Sky", which first appeared on "Infinity", released in 1978:

This is another of my favorite Journey songs, "Faithfully", from the 1983 album "Frontiers":

Of Steve Perry's solo work, "Oh Sherrie" is probably my favorite, and I really like this video of it as well. It makes fun of big, overblown concept videos in a very clever way:

I think I'll close with what might be Journey's best-known power ballad, "Open Arms", here in a live performance:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Religious punditry rears its ugly head...

I'm not feeling the music today, and so Music Sunday is being rescheduled so that I can say one more thing about what happened Friday in Connecticut. Or, more precisely, about what some people are saying about it.

What I am feeling is a lot of anger.

It has come to my attention that there are people out there saying that the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened because "God isn't allowed" in public schools in the United States. Some of them are even saying that God allowed the shootings to happen. Unfortunately, some of those people have access to microphones and the television and radio airwaves, and equally unfortunately others are reposting their hateful remarks all over the Internet.

To be perfectly blunt, I think the people who are saying these things, and those who are reposting them, should be ashamed of themselves and need to shut up.

When you hear or read about them saying these things, you need to be aware that they have an agenda - a political agenda - for saying them. They don't care that they are being deliberately hurtful to the victims at Sandy Hook and their surviving families and friends, to the survivors of the shooting, to the community there, and to the nation as a whole. They only want to impose their own view of God onto the vast majority of people who do not agree with them.

Really. It's nearly Christmas. Whatever happened to "Peace on Earth and goodwill towards men"? Whatever happened to "Jesus loves the little children, all little children of the world"? Whatever happened to Jesus as the "Prince of Peace"? Whatever happened to "the meek shall inherit the earth"?

When did hate and vindictiveness replace love as a family value for the people who are saying these things? I won't call them Christians, because I don't believe they are that at all, although they very vocally claim to be.

Like I said. I'm angry. So, I'll shut up now.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Guns aren't all we need to talk about...

I've been thinking a lot about what happened in Connecticut yesterday, and about the other instances of firearm violence that we've seen in the past few years, not only in schools, but in malls and workplaces and theaters all over the United States. And yes, these things happen in other areas of the world, but they seem to happen much more frequently, and with much worse outcomes, here in the United States than they do elsewhere. Also, I think it is probably true that they often happen for different reasons here than they do other places

Just in the past month or two there have been at least two instances of multiple homicide by firearm in my local region. One of them happened less than three miles from where I sit right now. So, as I wrote yesterday, I believe strongly that we need to reexamine our culture's attitudes toward firearms.

This does not mean that there aren't other things we have to examine within our culture, as well.

One of the things I think we need to look at is the availability of mental health care.

We don't know, as far as I can tell from news reports, why the individual who shot all those people in Connecticut yesterday did what he did. There are, of course, the usual comments about how he was "remote", apparently the current phrasing for the fact that he was apparently a "loner". I think it is safe to assume, however, that people who go on shooting sprees have some sort of mental or emotional issues they are dealing with. Well-adjusted people just don't do things like that. So, I think it would be a big help if care for mental and emotional issues were a) more easily available to everyone who needs it and b) not stigmatized the way it currently is.

I'm not talking about screening everyone for "right-thinking", so that everyone is a cookie-cutter image of everyone else. And I'm not saying that "well-adjusted" means going along to get along. Goodness knows, I wouldn't do well in a system like that. I'm not necessarily the most social person in the world, as anyone who knows me would tell you. What I am talking about is noticing when someone we know doesn't seem to be coping well and having help available to them independent from their ability to pay for that help.

Another thing we need to do, as a society, is to quit acting like bullying is a normal activity and that those who are bullied need to "suck it up" or start acting like everyone else so that they won't stick out as a target for bullying. I don't just mean in the schools, among young people, either. Bullying takes place every day in workplaces all across America, on the streets, and over the Internet. This needs to stop.

How is this relevant? I have no clue if the shooter yesterday was bullied at any time in his life, but there are often reports that people who have shot up their school or workplace having been bullied, either actively around the time they do something or earlier, when they were in school. This is a common enough component of such cases that it bears looking at as a risk factor in setting people on a path that ends up with them in a situation where they have convinced themselves that their only option is to kill.

We also need to look at our culture's tendency to see violence, whether lethal or not, as a viable method of problem solving. The media is part of the problem here, I think. I'm not going to advocate for banning violence from film, television, and other forms of entertainment. Some stories that are worth telling have a component of violence to them. What I am going to do is go out on a limb and say that the brutality of the violence depicted in films and other media has probably gone far beyond what audiences need to see to get the idea of the stories being told, and that maybe filmmakers and other artists should try telling their stories less graphically. If nothing else, the current level of brutality in the media desensitizes us all to violence and brutality, and I don't see how that can possibly be a good thing. And, while I don't see that as driving people who would not otherwise do violent things to go out and shoot people, I do think (and this is, of course, a completely non-professional assessment) that it could make someone already predisposed to violence for whatever reason more willing to do more brutal things than they otherwise might.

These, of course, are only my opinions. And, of course, I've probably not even considered some other important things that could be done to make American culture less prone to the sorts of things happening as what occurred yesterday in Connecticut. And, as I said, we don't really know any of the reasons why that happened, and we might never know. These are just the things that yesterday's horrible events have made me think about.

I'd be interested in knowing what you all think are viable solutions to these kinds of tragedies.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Again? Why aren't we talking about gun violence?

I had another post ready to go today, but this is much more important.

A shooting at an elementary school in Connecticut this morning has taken a number of lives. NBC News online is reporting as of 10:56 a.m. California time that 26 are dead, including 18 children. Meanwhile, CBS news is reporting that 27 are dead. The shooter, who is reported to be among the dead, is said to have "ties" to the school, but the reports are unclear as to exactly what those ties are. A second person is reported to have been detained while the police try to determine whether that individual was also involved in the shooting.

I just have one thing to say about all this: This crap has got to stop. We have got to start talking about gun violence in this country, and we have got to get over the idea that many people have that the Second Amendment confers the right to individuals to have as many firearms as they want of any kind that they want.

I am sick and tired of the old argument that "Guns don't kill; people kill". That is just a huge rationalization from people who want to be able to build up arsenals that they have no need for, and I find it offensive. Firearms allow people who have some sort of grudge to go out and kill huge numbers of people before they can be easily stopped. It is senseless and it is stupid, and I'm tired of the National Rifle Association trying to justify virtually unlimited firearm ownership as a "right".

I'm NOT saying that no one should be able to own a firearm, ever. I AM saying that how many and what kinds of firearms individuals can own should be much more tightly controlled, as should the kinds and amounts of ammunition they can acquire. I am also saying that it is disturbing that during the recent presidential campaign, none of the candidates were willing to even address the issues of firearm availability and mass shootings like this.

This is an issue that can no longer be ignored. That it has been ignored for this long does not say anything good about our society. Not that the US is the only place where this sort of thing goes on. But it certainly seems like it happens much more often here than it does in other parts of the world.

Clearly, there are many details that we don't know yet and developing information will change as time goes on, so I won't say anything more now. But, just as clearly, this is a discussion that needs to start now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not after all the victims of today's shooting are buried.

We need to talk about this now, and we need to keep talking about it until the issue is resolved.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Movie Monday...only it's Thursday and I'm talking television...

Now that it's Thursday, I figured it would be a good time to make up the Movie Monday that I completely forgot about on, oh, Monday. It's been a busy week around here, but better late than never, I suppose.

Only today's post is about television rather than movies for the big screen, and is spurred by the announcement of the nominations for the Golden Globe Awards, given by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. To be honest, I didn't find that much remarkable in the list of nominees, especially in the film categories. Some of the nominations in those categories are a big quirky, something the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is known for.

However, among the categories for television, one of the nominees for Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television jumped out at me because it is a show I'm a big fan of: The Hour.

The Hour is a British production. with its second six-episode series now running on BBCAmerica. It is a period piece, with the first series taking place in the Autumn of 1956 and the current second series beginning a few months after the end of the action in the first.

I love this show. The first season started out following the launch of a new BBC news magazine, "The Hour". It first comes to air as the Suez Crisis is unfolding. But, alongside that world crisis, a smaller drama is unfolding within the staff of the new news show. One of the journalists involved in the show is a young, brash, and brilliant writer, Freddie Lyon (played by Ben Whishaw), who is passed over to be the main presenter on the show for the older, supposedly more photogenic Hector Madden (portrayed by Dominic West). Freddie is not happy about that; he's sure the job should have gone to him. But Freddie has other problems as well: a female friend of his has died in mysterious circumstances, and the producer of the show, Bel Rowley (played by Romola Garai), who is also a longtime friend as well as a woman whom he is interested in romantically, has begun an affair with the very married Hector.

Freddie soon realizes that the death of his friend is tied up with the mysterious Thomas Kish (played by Burn Gorman), who is constantly around the offices of "The Hour" for no good reason, seeming to watch and listen very closely to what everyone there is doing and saying. It turns out that Kish is a government agent, investigating whether or not there is a Communist among the staffers on the show.

In a way, the show is very much a Cold War soap opera. But this is also drama at its finest, and I cannot recommend the show highly enough. The writing is wonderful, and so is the acting. Everything about the show is first-rate. In the series now airing, Freddie is back, taking on organized crime this time. I won't say much more, except that you really should watch, from the beginning of the first series if you can.

As a sort of taste of what the show is about, here is a clip from BBCAmerica introducing Freddie, who I see as the central character of the show:

Really. Go seek out The Hour and watch. It is exceptional.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

More US voters say, "I don't go to church, and I vote"

NBC News online published an interesting piece today regarding voting and religion, in which they report that a growing number of US voters are calling themselves religiously unaffiliated. According to the report, 12 percent of the electorate this year (and in 2008) said they are not affiliated with any religious group, while 17 percent of voters in 2012 said they never attend church.

What is really interesting about these statistics is that 44 percent more of these religiously unaffiliated voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama than voted for Mitt Romney in the November presidential election. This is true even though 20 percent of these voters call themselves political conservatives and 40 percent self-identify as moderate. However, 66 percent of these voters say they believe that religious organizations are too involved in politics and 70 percent of them think churches are "too concerned with money and power".

So, maybe the high proportion of religiously unaffiliated voters who cast their ballots for Mr. Obama makes sense, especially considering that many of these voters are socially liberal despite half of them reporting that they think the federal government should be smaller and provide fewer public services. They don't, it seems, want the religious conservatives that the Republican Party courts to be in a position to set public social policies.

Maybe the Republicans should sit up and take note of these findings. Does the Republican leadership really think they are going to attract non-religious voters as long as they continue to cater to the religious right? Since the election, there has been much, and very public, discussion about how the Republican Party can attract more African-American voters and Hispanic voters, both very large and important voting blocs, because they know that they cannot expect to win elections if they ignore or alienate those constituencies. Why would they continue to think they can ignore or alienate a constituency, religiously unaffiliated voters, that has grown to roughly the same numbers as either of those groups?

Yet, I suspect that the Republican leadership will continue to ignore these non-religious voters in favor of their religiously conservative base. It will be interesting to see where that gets them in the next presidential election.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

So, what's the weather like where you are?

So, it was foggy here this morning.

This is not unusual in the San Joaquin Valley, but if you were to see the news reports the local television news organizations organize when it's going to be foggy, you might think it was a once-in-a-blue-moon event. For example, last night, once it became clear (see what I did there?) that the fog was beginning to roll in and that it could be a very foggy morning commute, at least one local station decided to lead with "team coverage" of the incipient fog event.

Now, I'm not saying that driving in the fog is a picnic. But since it has been being foggy here as long as anyone can remember, one would assume that people would be used to driving in it by now. As far as that goes, one would think that any reasonable human being would figure out very quickly that when driving in the fog, one should slow down, turn on their headlights (but not on bright), and that one should not drive in heavy fog at all unless it is absolutely necessary.

In other words, the media should not have to remind drivers how to drive in the fog every freaking time it gets foggy. That appears not to be the case, in a couple of ways. First of all, the media does give these warnings every time it is foggy, even if it was foggy the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that....And, goodness knows it can do that around here. Although it hasn't done so in a long time, in the first years I lived in this area, you could go for weeks in the winter and never see the sun. The fog wouldn't remain low all that time, but I can recall times when the fog remained in at least it's high form, for as long as three weeks. It also appears that people do need to be reminded that they need to slow down or not go out at all when the fog is particularly bad, since every single time it is foggy, people go out and drive like maniacs and cause accidents in the fog. I know, I've been driving in fairly low fog and had cars pass me doing sixty miles per hour or more, which is just stupid.

Going back to what I was saying here yesterday, some people don't seem to possess any common sense whatsoever. Which is why we have to listen to these news reports every single time it gets foggy.

It is also true that the fog here in the San Joaquin Valley is sort of a special case. We get what is called Tule fog. Tule fog is a radiational fog that comes up from the ground rather than, say, drifting in from over a body of water. This happens when the humidity is high and the ground is damp from recent rains. It remains close to the ground, never getting any higher than about 1,000 feet above ground level. I've seen it where the top of the fog is much lower than that. There are times when you can go into a multistory building in downtown Fresno in fog so thick you can barely see a few feet in front of you, and by the time you're on the fifth or sixth floor, it is clear and sunny, with a blanket of gray fog below.

And, literally, you can sometimes only see a few feet when Tule fog is especially thick. Some of us here classify the fog by how many broken white lines you can see ahead on the road when you're driving. I have driving in one-line fog, where I could only see one line. I've also seen it so thick that when sitting in the driver's seat of the car, I could not see the end front end of the hood of the car. I was not driving in that voluntarily, believe me. But this sort of fog can be patchy, where you go from reasonable visibility to zero visibility in the space of a few hundred feet.

This valley is one of the few places in the world that gets this kind of fog on a regular basis. It has to do with being in a huge basin where cold, damp air gets stuck under inversion layers and so the fog doesn't get a chance to mix out and clear out until it warms up or a storm comes through to get the air moving. In the winter, that means persistent fog if there has been any precipitation at all. In the summer, it means days and days in a row of over 100 degree F temperatures. You kind of can't win for losing with the weather around here.

Here were I am, the sun came out at around 11:30 a.m., but some of the local TV stations were still showing updated foggy day school bus schedules at that time, so it's a good bet that the outlying areas haven't cleared out and probably won't unless a predicted storm moves into the area tonight. And then, after the new rain, in a couple of days, we will likely have another round of fog. And the TV local reporters will be doing their team reports all over again.

I guess we're lucky here, though. We don't get hurricanes. We don't get (very many) tornadoes, and if we do, they're fairly insiginficant things. We don't get snow very often, at least here in the flatlands. So, I guess I shouldn't complain.

On the other hand, three weeks of fog or three or four weeks of above 100-degree temperatures can wear on the nerves after a while.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What is it with people?

I'm having one of those "I don't understand the world" days.

The two disc jockeys in Australia who thought it would be a good idea to call the hospital where Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for severe morning sickness a few days ago and pretend to be Queen Elizabeth to try to get someone to talk about the Duchess' condition, are now saying that they are "shattered, gutted, heartbroken" that the nurse who took their call and forwarded it to another staff member is dead in mysterious circumstances.

Yes, I know that the prank call is a staple of radio entertainment. I just wish someone would explain to me why this sort of thing is considered so funny. Granted, such pranks do not usually end in a death, but merely in embarrassment for the person or persons pranked. I'm not sure I understand how embarrassing someone became considered funny. Maybe I'm just a wet blanket.

The two DJs claim that they expected to be hung up on, that they figured that "100 people" would have already tried to place similar calls to the hospital, and that their goal was "to be hung up on." They say that they didn't think they would actually get to talk to anyone.

But still...

I think I've got a fairly good sense of humor, and sometimes I laugh at things that are probably inappropriate. We all do, just as we all have different ideas about what is actually inappropriate. But I honestly don't know why anyone would think it appropriate to do what those two DJs did. I assume that Australia has some sort of concept of patient confidentiality, even when that patient is as famous as Catherine is. And I assume that most reasonable people would realize that someone's illness, even a famous person's, is not any of their business and not a good way to get a laugh, even if they "didn't think" they would be told any of that information.

My take is that no one did any thinking before pulling this prank. Full stop.

The chief executive of the company that owns the station the call was made from has said that the outcome of the call, the death of someone over it, could not have been "reasonably foreseen". Maybe so, but I'm not sure that makes any difference. The company has also said that it doesn't think any "relevant law, regulation, or code" was broken by the call. That's the usual song and dance when someone is trying to avoid culpability for something someone working for their company did that was just stupid. "We didn't break the law. Don't blame us."

How about common sense? I don't think there is any of that to be seen in the whole episode.

Then again, I'm not sure that there's much common sense in the world at all these days.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Music Sunday: The "60s Music Infomercial" Edition

I have a confession to make.

I don't think it is a particularly shocking confession, but for someone who hates, loathes, and detests infomercials, it is a difficult one to make. it is: I will sit and watch those half-hour Time-Life music collection infomercials all the way through, every time I find one. I won't watch all of them, but the ones with lots of sixties and seventies music are impossible for me to turn away from.

Oh, I'll never buy any of those collections, but only because I can't afford them. But their main selling point is correct: the music included in them includes songs that bring back memories of when I was first listening to music up through my high school years. Many of those songs make me smile, plain and simple. Additionally, I really enjoy watching the old clips they show of the artists from the time the songs were originally recorded.

All this comes up because I found one the other night. I was already in bed, and about to fall asleep, but I took one last surf through the channels and came in on the very beginning of the ad for a collection called "60s Music Revolution". And, despite the fact that I had really been fighting to stay awake (it was after midnight), I watched the whole freaking ad.

Since then, I've been searching around on the Internet to find some clips of the songs advertised in the ad I watched. I've come up with some songs that, even if they aren't the best music ever made, are songs that I have liked and listened to for years, and that bring back all kinds of memories.

There is this, for example, Mason Williams with "Classical Gas", which I think I first heard on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a show which presented music that most other television shows ignored:

And then there is this silly song, for which I found an even sillier clip. But, no matter how silly, I've always loved this song, "Happy Together", by The Turtles:

One of the best (I think) of the psychedelic songs from the mid-1960s, "Incense and Peppermints", by The Strawberry Alarm Clock, also finds its way into collections like this, but they don't use this clip, from the 1968 film, "Psych-Out". If you look carefully, you'll see a young Jack Nicholson on stage with the band:

A song that frequently appears in collections like these is The Mamas and the Papas 1965 song, "California Dreaming". There's a good reason for that. It's a great song:

I'm surprised that "In The Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)", released by Zager and Evans in 1969, ever made any of these collections. It is an odd, pessimistic song, but one I've always liked, perhaps because if its science fiction feel. But it does, indeed, turn up on the "60s Music Revolution" collection:

The Byrds' cover of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man", released in 1965, also often makes the cut in these sorts of collections:


Saturday, December 08, 2012

Hard to believe it's been 32 years...

While I realize that Music Sunday isn't until tomorrow, I need to note that today is the 32nd anniversary of the murder of John Lennon.

I'm not going to say much here, except that Lennon's death was stupid and unnecessary, and that I wonder what he would have to say about how our world and our culture has evolved since he died. Because he would have had something to say. I'm very sure of that. I also wonder where he would have gone with his music and his art.

Otherwise, I'll just leave you with this:

And this:

And this:

Friday, December 07, 2012

Book review: "The Overlook", by Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly is a good writer. No, make that a great writer. I haven't found a book of his yet that doesn't keep me turning the pages, often late into the night.

The Overlook (Vision, 2008; 262 pages) is not an exception. This is true even though I've read it before, although not in exactly this version. Written originally as a serial for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, I read it first in its reworked hardcover version. The version I read this time has an extra chapter added to the end of the book. This extra chapter, a sort of epilogue, was originally written as an "extra" for Connelly's mailing list, but was included in the paperback edition of the novel.

In The Overlook, LAPD homicide detective Harry Bosch is called out in the middle of one night to the scene of a murder at an overlook along Mulholland Drive. Very quickly, the murder starts looking like part of a plot by terrorists to gain access to some radioactive material; the victim was a physicist who transported such material to hospitals for use in treatments for cancer patients. Because of the suspicions of terrorist involvement in the crime, it isn't long before the LAPD's Office of Homeland Security and the FBI both become involved in the case. Both try to freeze Bosch and his partner out of the investigation.

It isn't long, however, until Bosch begins to suspect that there is something very wrong with how the case is being viewed. What follows is an exercise in showing that even law enforcement, on all levels, sometimes sees what it wants to see, or what it thinks it could be to its advantage to see, rather than what is really there. I won't reveal any more of the plot, except to say that there are twists in the plot that you might not see coming.

An interesting part of the novel's construction, or at least it is interesting to me, is that the whole story takes place within a span of approximately twelve hours. I've read novels of the same length that take place over months or years. What Connelly does so well here is to manage the detail in which the story is told so that it doesn't become boring or repetitive.

As a writer, I'm interested in the ways in which writers choose to tell their stories and in studying what works for them and what doesn't work. This novel works very well, combining suspense, action, and what I took to be social and political comment (which might be just me; I don't know what Connelly had in mind when he was writing the story) in a way that is never dull.

The Overlook is a quick read. That suited me very well, as I've been engaged in some pretty heavy reading recently, as research for some writing I'm doing (some of which could conceivably appear here sooner rather than later), and reading this was a refreshing change from all of that. It was nice to sit down and be able to finish the book in a couple of days even though those days have been busier than usual.

Now that I think about it, reading The Overlook has put me in the mood to go back and read (or re-read) all of Connelly's Harry Bosch novels, in order. That might be a good project for next year's reading.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Some days are more difficult than others...

I miss my mother.

Today is the fourth anniversary of her death.

We had a rocky relationship in many ways, my mother and I. I was always closer to my father, and I'm not sure how Mom felt about that. But she was my mother. I loved her, and I miss her a lot. I still have times when I'll see or hear something that I want to tell her about. And then I will realize that I can't.

My mother was born in 1924, in Oklahoma, then lived for a few years in Arkansas until her family came to California when she was about nine years old. I always kidded her that she should write a book. She could have written about living in a log house, about going to school in a two-room schoolhouse, about going down to the river with her mother to wash clothes. She had great stories about her childhood.

She could also have written about being part of the high school class that spent pretty much their entire time in high school during wartime (she graduated in 1945), in World War II. It's an interesting generation. I went with her to the last high school reunion she attended. I wish I had thought to take a recorder to get down the stories she and her classmates told about that time. I wish that I had just recorded her stories; I could have written a book from those.

I don't think I ever really knew my mother very well, apart from the stories she told about her childhood and adolescence. She was not a talkative person, and didn't share much of herself. If she was around people she didn't know, she wouldn't talk at all sometimes. In that, I think she was a lot like her mother. I didn't know my Nina very well; she died before I was two years old, and I only have two specific memories of her. But I understand that she, too, was a very quiet woman who kept herself to herself. My mother kept herself to herself, as well.

I think part of my mother's reticence was that she came from a family that was spectacularly dysfunctional. I'd go so far as to say it was amazing that my mother turned out to be as normally functional as she was, considering how much of a mess some members of her family were. That's all I'll say about that, but suffice it to say that a psychologist or psychiatrist would have had a field day with some of my maternal relatives.

Then again, my mother always described herself as the odd one out in her family. And she was contrary. Her grandfather, her father's father, was a Southern Baptist preacher, and he and my great-grandmother expected the whole family to be in church twice on Sunday and on Wednesday nights. They also expected the women in the family to always, always wear dresses. Trousers just weren't acceptable dress. As a result, my mother was no fan of organized religion, and she always told stories about making sure she wore trousers every time she knew she would be going to her grandparents' house for a visit. I never knew her to wear a dress unless she absolutely had to.

Mother always spoke with pride, though, of the time that her father told her that she was the only one of his children with any common sense. Which was the truth and might have been enough to make her the odd one out all by itself.

That difference from others did not end with her differences from her family, however. Even though my mother had me at the relatively (for the time) late age of 31, she was the only mother on the block who would come out and play when I was a child. It always amazed the other kids in the neighborhood that she would play hopscotch with us, and jump rope. Sometimes, she'd even sit down on the sidewalk with us and play jacks. And she always spoke if not disparagingly, at least disapprovingly, of the parents on the block who never did anything with their children.

It wasn't all sweetness and light with my mother, however. She had an issue with emotions. If she got angry or upset, she would just sort of retreat into herself and go very, very quiet. If I got angry or upset or sad...anything but happy, really...well, she had problems with that. I was supposed to be happy all the time, and since I wasn't (what kid is?), there was a certain amount of conflict between us about that.

I have been known to joke that I was her Alien Child, and she really didn't understand where I came from or what to do with me. Although I kidded her about this, it was true in many ways. I'm not really much like her. I am interested in things she didn't care about. I am a reader; she wasn't. I like to be by myself; she never liked being alone.

But, she had a wicked sense of humor that was one of the last things she held on to as the dementia took over in her old age. An example: For years, we lived in a mobile home park where most of the residents were senior citizens. One of the rules of the park was that no one could come in trick-or-treating on Halloween. Every year, for years, she would say, sometime during the day on Halloween, that we should get dressed up and go knock on doors and see how many people reported us to the manager of the park.

She never would have actually done that, of course. But the very fact that she thought about doing it speaks well of her, I think. Most people get more conservative as they age. Not my mother. She got considerably more liberal as she got older. She also finally got to the point where she wouldn't let people walk all over her. That tendency to let people push her around was, I think, another result of the family she grew up in. I like to think that I had at least something to do with her learning to say no, especially to her family, to the extent that she was finally able to do that.

One of the best things about my mother? She loved Disneyland, and was always up for a trip to the Happiest Place on Earth. After we moved away from southern California, we sometimes made the five hour drive to Anaheim on a whim for a visit. Other times, we would buy five-day passes and make a whole vacation of it. Even up to the end of her life, when she couldn't remember much of anything else and sometimes didn't even recognize me, she would always ask if we could go to Disneyland.

Mother would probably be telling me to shut up, already, right about now. She wasn't one to wax sentimental about the past. But, I'm glad I took this time to remember her, and pay a tribute to her. She wasn't always the easiest person in the world, but she did her best and overcame a lot to be the mother she was to me.

Love you, Mom, and I miss you.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

I answer some questions...

As I wrote yesterday, I was nominated for a Liebster Award.

One of the obligations attached to the award is to answer a list of questions posed by the person who nominated me (that would, of course, be Isobel DeBrujah, at Center Pull Photography)

1. What are you most passionate about?

Writing. But Anthropology (especially physical anthropology, and very especially fossils and human evolution) and Doctor Who probably come a close, mutual second.

2. Why do you blog?

Because I love to write, I have to write, I have opinions, and this is a good way to express those opinions without making my IRL friends want to strangle me.

3. What is your favorite meal?

Oooh. That's difficult. Lately, it's been chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes, corn, and country gravy. But again, there has to be a second place, and that would go to either prime rib and baked potato or lasagna. Now, if you're talking breakfast, that would have to be scrambled eggs and hashbrowns with bacon and toast.

4. What book or books do you think everyone should read?

I think everyone should read my favorite book in the world, The Longest Cave, by Roger Brucker and Richard Watson. It is about the efforts, which both men took part in, to find an underground connection between the Crystal Cave System in Kentucky with Mammoth Cave, which lie under karst ridges close by one another, efforts which were finally successful in the early 1970s, after at least a couple of decades of concentrated effort. It is a good book just as adventure reporting, but the reason I love it so much is that it shows how a group of people can have a good time, and an interesting time, working together to reach a goal, just for the satisfaction of having done the thing, and not because it's going to make them rich or famous. It's an important lesson for our times, I think.

I also think everyone should read Kage Baker's novels and short stories of The Company, starting with In The Garden of Iden, which somehow manages to successfully combine science fiction and romance in Mary Tudor's England. My favorite is Mendoza In Hollywood, which takes place before Hollywood was Hollywood, and in which there is a very large and vociferous pet California Condor, and in which they bring in movies from the future for a continuing film festival. Did I mention, there is time travel as well as immortality in these books? They are good science fiction and good fun, but with some wickedly on-point social commentary for our times.

5. If money were no object, how would you occupy the rest of your life?

Writing and traveling.

6. If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates?

I'd like to hear God say, "Welcome, and don't worry. None of those people who thought they'd be here are here [as he glances meaningfully down toward the Other Place]. But all of your friends who came before you are here, and they're all waiting just inside to see you."

7. What is one thing you've never been able to/had time to/had funds to do that you still want to do?

Take a no-time-limit driving tour of the United States. I have been on one driving trip across country, that was confined mostly to the South, when I was still a teenager (in fact the trip ended on my last day as a teenager), but there was a time limit on that of just over three weeks. I could probably make the trip last close to a year.

8. What is your favorite television show and why?

Doctor Who (and the other shows set in the Whoniverse, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures). I love the Whoniverse because, as Craig Ferguson has said, it represents the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism. I'm kind of a cynic myself, but I wish I wasn't, or at least not as much of one as I am. Also, it is the only fictional world that I can imagine wanting to live in.

9. What is your least enjoyable chore?

Vacuuming. I'd rather clean the bathroom, and I hate cleaning the bathroom.

10. What one thing about you is cool?

That I'm known among my friends as "The Human Spell-Check". Which, of course, indicates how cool I'm really, really not.

11. Do you have pets?

Not currently, although my roommate is talking about getting a cat. As I told her, now that's something I'd be willing to vacuum every day for. That means I want a cat a lot.

Actually, I've only ever had two pets. There was Prince, the German Shepard my parents had before they had me, and then starting in about fourth grade I had an orange and white cat called Tiger.

As I also wrote yesterday, more nominations will be forthcoming as I can get the computer time to put the rest of the list together.