Monthly Archives: March 2016

The Dark Came Down on All Hallow’s Eve…

From A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth volume in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series:

The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down in absolute stillness. There is no more perfect stillness than the solitude in the heart of a snow storm.


This is the thing time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mysterry. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.


I took one of Bree’s matches from its box and lit it, thrilling to the tiny leap of instant flame, and bent to put it to the kindling. Snow was falling, and winter had come; the season of fire. Candles and hearth fire, that lovely, leaping paradox, that destruction contained but never tamed, held at a safe distance to warm and enchant, but always, still, with that small sense of danger.


The smell of roasting pumpkins was thick and sweet in the air. Having ruled the night with fire, the jack-o’-lanterns went now to a more peaceful fate as pies and compost, to join the gentle rest of the earth before renewal. I had turned the earth in my garden the day before, planting the winter seeds to sleep and swell, to dream their buried birth.


Now is the time when we reenter the womb of the world, dreaming the dreams of snow and silence. Waking to the shock of frozen lakes under waning moonlight and the cold sun burning low and blue in the branches of the ice-cased trees, returning from our brief and necessary labors to food and story, to the warmth of firelight in the dark.


Around a fire, in the dark, all truths can be told, and heard, in safety.


I pulled on my woolen stockings, thick petticoats, my warmest shawl, and went down to poke up the kitchen fire. I stood watching wisps of steam rise from the fragrant cauldron, and felt myself turn inward. The world could go away, and we would heal.


No point here, nothing much to say, just a piece of writing that I found especially lovely and evocative. And enviable…


Moving Forward with Tiny, Stumbling Steps

Today, an American president is visiting Cuba for the first time in nearly a century and calling for an end to the last vestige of a Cold War that supposedly ended 25 years ago, an ineffective embargo that accomplished nothing of practical value but certainly generated a lot of human misery.

Meanwhile, in Belgium, barbarous fanatics murdered a bunch of innocent people. One step forward, two steps back, round and round she goes.

On days like this, it’s easy to give in to despair, to allow yourself to think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and nothing we do matters because the problems we face are intractable. One step forward, two steps back. But one paragraph of President Obama’s speech to the people of Cuba this morning stood out for me:

But just stop and consider this fact about the American campaign that’s taking place right now. You had two Cuban Americans in the Republican Party, running against the legacy of a black man who is President, while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a Democratic Socialist. Who would have believed that back in 1959?  That’s a measure of our progress as a democracy.

I participated tonight for the first time in a Democratic caucus in my home state of Utah. I’d heard stories of caucuses in years past where only a dozen people showed up, but today, tonight, the lines were stretched around the block. I had a pretty quick and easy experience myself, but I saw accounts on Facebook of people waiting hours to cast their ballots. In Utah, the reddest of the red states, where membership in the Republican party is all but assumed. Were all of these people Democrats? Can there possibly be so many Democrats in this entire state? Probably not. But if that many independents and, yes, probably some Republicans too, were moved to get involved tonight, something big is swirling around out there. And my gut feeling is that it’s pretty positive.

I grieve for the people of Brussels, just as I did for the people of Ankara and Paris before them. And I am genuinely worried about the possible outcome of the general election this fall. But no matter what happens in November, I firmly believe the forces of civilization are moving forward step by fumbling step. And the barbarians and fanatics of all descriptions — including our homegrown ones — can’t stop it. Not in the long run, anyhow.

As Andrew Sullivan used to frequently say on his departed and much-missed Daily Dish blog, know hope.


Happy 85th, Bill

william-shatner-2016Today we continue my silly annual tradition of wishing a happy birthday to William Shatner, a Canadian actor of some note who played my first childhood hero in an obscure old television series with which the readers of this blog may or may not be familiar.

At the age of 85, Shatner is — or at least presents himself as — more active and engaged with life than I am at slightly more than half that many years old. I envy him that. And yet…

It’s dangerous to make assumptions about the emotional state of a person you don’t know, especially one who pretends to be other people for a living. But I have to say that Bill Shatner seems really sad to me these days. (As in, he feels sad, not that he is sad, you smart-alecks.) He strikes me as a lonely man coming into the final stretch of his life with the dawning realization that he’s missed out on something deeply important. While the rest of his Star Trek costars have appeared to enjoy a lively camaraderie with one another over the years and have taken genuine pleasure in being part of such a cultural landmark, Shatner, for whatever reason, has held himself aloof from all of it until very recently, and even now his convention appearances tend to be… awkward. (Full disclosure: I’ve met him twice in convention settings and found him far more cordial than his reputation would suggest, but he’s still not at all comfortable interacting with fans, a tremendous contrast to all the other Trek alumni I’ve encountered.) By his own admission, his only real friend among the Trek cast was Leonard Nimoy. And now Leonard is gone… and in his recent book about his friend, Shatner reveals they weren’t even speaking at the time of Nimoy’s death. That little tidbit really breaks my heart.

I keep thinking of a line delivered by his alter ego in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier — easily the worst of the original-cast Trek features, but one that nevertheless has its moments. In one of those moments, following yet another narrow escape, Captain Kirk tells Spock and Bones that he wasn’t afraid because the two of them, his closest friends, were with him. “I’ve always known that I would die alone,” he says. The boundary between the character and the actor often seems pretty thin anyhow, but now that Leonard and Deforest Kelly, who played Bones, and Jimmy Doohan, who was Scotty, are gone… with Nichelle Nichols diminished from a stroke and Walter Koenig not looking very well at all when I met him last fall… well, I wonder if Bill ever thinks about that line and gets a cold sensation in the pit of his stomach, and regrets the choices he made when he was younger.

I’m just speculating, and maybe I’m even projecting some subconscious fear of my own onto a man I only feel like I know. I’ve got no grounds and no right to have any of these ideas on behalf of another person who wouldn’t know me from Adam. Besides, George Takei will probably outlive all of us.

And yet… these are the impressions I get whenever I see The Shat these days. I hope I’m wrong.

In closing, I’ll just repeat what I wrote for this occasion last year:

If I could, I’d buy him a drink. And I would be honored to raise a glass with him…

To absent friends.

To life going on.

May you have many more happy returns, Bill.


Friday Evening Videos: “Call to the Heart”

Isn’t it funny how things occasionally bubble up out of the collective unconscious? I haven’t thought about the band Giuffria or its lone top-20 hit in years, but quite inexplicably, I’ve run across three references to both in the past week. So now, naturally, I have the song running on an infinite loop in my head, and I thought I’d do my part to boost the signal.

I don’t have any specific memories of “Call to the Heart,” aside from the fact that I always liked it. Curiously, I tend to associate the song and its corresponding video with my freshman year of college, 1987-88, when I spent much of my free time between classes in the student union watching MTV on the giant rear-projection television screen that used to dominate the dining area. However, a quick check of wikipedia reveals that the song was released several years earlier, in 1984, and that the band had in fact broken up by the time I would’ve been hanging around the union. So why then does my mind insist on placing it three years later in the timestream? No idea. Perhaps the video was back in the MTV rotation at that point, or maybe it just reminds me of similar-sounding pop-metal ballads that were on the charts around that time. Or it could be that I’m just getting old and all my memories are compressing into each other as the hard drive fills up. I prefer to think it’s one of the former options, but I have a good hunch of which one it really is.

As I mentioned, Giuffria — named for its founder and keyboard player, Gregg Giuffria — had a brief lifespan comprising a mere four years during which they produced two albums. Their self-titled first album did fairly well and spawned “Call to the Heart,” which peaked at number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. The band’s second album, however, crashed and burned, and the group broke up not long after. In 2015, three of the original members got back together to play a few live shows, but Gregg himself wasn’t with them, which frankly baffles me. How the hell can a band named for a specific person go on without the person for whom the band is named? That’s a real paradox there.

I’ll concede this video isn’t anything remarkable. If nothing else, these weekly rambles down memory lane have taught me that most music videos were pretty lame, once the initial burst of creativity that accompanied the break-out of MTV had passed. But as John Scalzi pointed out in his usual tongue-in-cheek fashion, the video for “Call to the Heart” is an excellent time capsule of a particular moment in time, preserving forever the hair and clothes that defined the middle 1980s. Some of that stuff still looks pretty good to me — I tend to dress a lot like the lead singer’s first outfit, the white trainers, snug jeans, and leather jacket — but some of it… well, some of it does not. (Zebra and leopard prints, and spandex. Oy.)

Regardless of the look, though, I still like the sound. That moody opening and closing synth riff evokes neon-soaked alleyways on muggy summer nights, and the kind of angst that you couldn’t wait to outgrow but which nevertheless made you feel completely alive…


“Don’t Get Discouraged, Start Again”

Anne Rice, the author of Interview with the Vampire among many other things, has developed a remarkable relationship with her fans via her Facebook page. She posts regularly and frequently — and it really is her posting, not a staffer pretending to be her — on a wide variety of subjects ranging from archaeology to politics to which old movies she enjoys watching at night. She reveals a great deal of herself — I find it kind of adorable that a woman her age evidently has a tremendous crush on Jon Bon Jovi — and she engages with her fans who frequent the page to a highly unusual degree. I’ve had a couple of direct exchanges with her myself (we’ve shared our experiences as diabetics).

And of course, like many other writers who are active on social media or blogs, she offers a lot of practical advice and encouragement to those who would follow in her footsteps. Now, I don’t usually care what successful writers have to say about the craft or business, because I’ve read enough of their comments to know they all followed different paths to get where they are, and that one has to pretty much find your own way. And for me, all that advice is an abstraction anyhow, because I haven’t been writing in recent years, not fiction and not even as much here on the blog. In fact, lately I’ve been wondering if I even deserve to call myself a writer anymore, or if that’s something I ought to just try to let go of.

And that is probably why Anne Rice’s latest thoughts on writing, posted today, struck such a chord in me:

First and foremost: write. What makes an author is writing. Write no matter what. If you stop writing, start writing. Keep writing. If you go through a long period without writing, don’t get discouraged, start again. I don’t think it’s true that a “real writer” writes every day. I don’t write everyday and I think most people consider me a real writer. Just write in your own way. Protect your ideas and protect your material. Guard against criticism. If you hear something critical that helps you, take it, seize on it and use it. But if you hear a lot of bad things, don’t pay any attention. Just keep going. It’s very easy to criticize someone else’s writing. If you want an insight into how easy it is, just think of the classics you may not like personally, or how easy it is to make fun of them, or criticize them. It’s very easy for people to attack you and discourage you. Ignore them; be polite to them, but ignore them, and just keep going. Keep protecting your ideas and your work and stick with the feeling you have when you’re writing. If you enjoy what you’re writing, someone else is going to enjoy reading it someday. So just stick with that feeling; be faithful to that. Go where the pain is when you write; go where the pleasure is. Create the book that you would like to read, the book that you want to live in as a writer. Just keep going. Your first obligation, as Ernest Hemingway said, is to survive. To survive as a writer you have to have nerve, you have to be almost stubborn. There are many people who’ve told me I have no talent, and that my writing was no good. I simply ignored them. You have to do that if you want to succeed as a writer. The arts have always been rough. Nobody is really owned anything in the arts; nobody’s entitled to be published or to succeed. You do it by doing it. You do it by believing in yourself, and that faith in yourself is the most important thing you have.

“If you go through a long period without writing, don’t get discouraged, start again.” Those words give me hope that the flame hasn’t guttered out for good. Now, if I can just figure out how to actually, you know, do it


Friday Evening Videos: “Lucky Man”

The Moody Blues notwithstanding, I’ve never especially liked so-called “prog rock.” The self-conscious effort to make rock-and-roll more “artistic” has always struck me as misguided and inspired by a weird snobbish shame about the genre’s humble roots, and the music itself is, to my ear, pretentious, the songs overly long and frequently just plain weird. Pink Floyd, Yes, early Genesis before Phil Collins dragged that band in a more popular direction, much of Jethro Tull and The Alan Parsons Project… that stuff just leaves me cold. Or bored. To me, none of it has that swing, to borrow from another genre entirely. It doesn’t, well, rock.

Even so, most of those bands produced an occasional single that managed to get through to me. And in the case of Emerson, Lake and Palmer — more familiarly known as ELP and widely recognized as one of the pioneers of progressive rock — that song is “Lucky Man.”

The elegiac tale of a warrior-king who falls in battle, the song appealed to my college-age romanticism and budding senses of fatalism and tragedy. It was written by Greg Lake (the “Lake” in “Emerson, Lake and Palmer,” if you didn’t make the connection) when he was only 12 years old and made it onto the band’s self-titled debut album basically because they needed one more song to fill out the track list and didn’t have anything else. Released as a single in 1970, “Lucky Man” reached number 48 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, and a bit higher in Canada and Europe. It was re-released in 1973, performing slightly worse in the US (51 on the Hot 100) and considerably worse on the Canadian charts, but it’s since become a staple of classic-rock radio programming. It’s now acknowledged as one of the first rock songs to feature a solo played on a synthesizer, and is even credited by some with being the song that popularized the instrument’s use in that genre. Ironically for such a landmark bit of playing, Keith Emerson, who performed the solo, was apparently embarrassed by it. He thought he’d just been “jamming around” on his new toy, and didn’t think the take would be used on the finished recording.

Emerson died today at the age of 71. Some sources are reporting that the cause was a gunshot wound to the head, and that his death is being investigated as a suicide. If true, it’s an unspeakably sad ending for such a talented and successful man. I hope he’s found peace.

And now, by way of tribute, my favorite ELP tune, a song that’s perfect for the late hour and the only one of theirs I particularly like… “Lucky Man.”

A quick note on this video: obviously it’s an unofficial piece created by a fan. “Lucky Man” was recorded long before the music video became a common form, and the live recordings I found were all just Greg Lake performing the song alone on an acoustic guitar. I wanted the album version that featured Emerson’s playing, and this was the best version of that I could find. I have no idea who created it, but I thought it was pretty well done…


Review: Razor’s Edge

Razor's Edge
Razor’s Edge by Martha Wells

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Razor’s Edge is the second of the two books in the aborted Empire and Rebellion trilogy that made it to press before Disney’s acquisition of all things Star Wars and subsequent termination of the existing “Expanded Universe” of tie-in materials. (Well, technically, Razor’s Edge was the first of that trilogy, but I read it second; there isn’t a unified story arc connecting the two, so it doesn’t matter what order you read them in.) Remember, the idea behind Empire and Rebellion was to give each of “the big three” characters — Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo — a book focusing on them during the little-covered period between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth, i.e., between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Razor’s Edge is Leia’s entry… and I’m sorry to say that it was pretty disappointing after the rollicking good time I had with the Han Solo book Honor Among Thieves. Also, I’m at a bit of a loss to explain exactly why.

The plot isn’t bad. It begins with Leia and Han on a secret mission to meet with merchants who can provide supplies for the construction of the new rebel base on Hoth, but their ship is attacked by Imperials shortly after arriving at the rendezvous point, suggesting they’ve got a leak somewhere in the Alliance. Fleeing their attacker, they come upon a pirate vessel attacking a freighter… and to Leia’s shock, the pirate is a former Alderaanian ship that survived the destruction of their homeworld and turned rogue to survive. One thing leads to another, and Han, Leia, and the Alderaanians find themselves at a pirate armada’s “clearinghouse,” surrounded by cutthroats, trying to figure out how to save a group of innocent captives as well as themselves, and uncover the identity of the spy in their midst, as before the Empire catches up to them.

That all sounds good, and I liked the primary setting — an abandoned asteroid mine filled with broken-down machines and senile droids, now taken over by the pirates — but I found I just didn’t engage with the story in any significant way. The secondary characters were largely indistinguishable from each other, the Imperial pursuit never seemed all that threatening, and I wanted something… more from Leia. Her lingering feelings of guilt and trauma over what happened to Alderaan are mentioned, and supposedly play a big role in why she’s so interested in these hometown pirates, but the feelings don’t have any palpable presence, and I kept thinking they ought to. Not that I wanted the book to become too dark and heavy — remember, that’s my complaint with so much of current popular culture and a place I definitely don’t want Star Wars to go — but a little more exploration of the princess’ mindscape would’ve been appropriate in this story.

On the positive side, Leia is convincingly portrayed as capable of independent action, Han gets in one of his trademark insanely reckless rescue stunts, and some of the banter between them is nice.

In the final analysis, I’d give Razor’s Edge a lukewarm recommendation. It’s mediocre and disposable, but it’s an adequate diversion, and it is better than some of the Star Wars tie-ins I’ve read. But I wanted it to be so much better than it was…

View all my reviews


My, How Times Change…

elvis_follow-that-dreamThat beautiful weekend I was looking forward to Friday evening turned into a gray and rainy Sunday afternoon… the perfect time to watch an Elvis movie on television, just like when I was a kid!

Now, now, don’t be mean! While it’s true that Elvis Presley’s cinematic oeuvre is not exactly, shall we say, challenging fare, his movies, especially the earlier ones made before Elvis himself got bored with them, are reliably harmless entertainment that really is perfect for leaving on in the background while you do other things. In recent years, I’ve become rather fond of them and the cheerful escapism they offer. Sometimes, though, the world they depict seems so very far away from our own that it may as well be some alien planet in a science-fiction flick.

Consider the set-up of today’s selection, Follow That Dream from 1962. Elvis plays a member of a vagabond family that decides to homestead a patch of Florida land where their car just happens to run out of gas. It’s stated early on that Elvis’ character receives a disability check from the Army on account of a bad back, which he shrugs off as he lifts the car over an obstacle in the road(!). Later, as he’s explaining his relationship to the other family members, he mentions that a pair of twin boys aren’t really his brothers, they’re distant cousins that he and his father took in after their parents died, in part because they came with benefit checks of their own. So, to reiterate, Elvis’ character is a welfare cheat and a homeless squatter who uses children to increase the monthly take! And all this is played for laughs, presented to the audience as if it’s cute and quirky, and maybe even heroic, i.e., if the government is dumb enough to keep mailing those checks, why shouldn’t the family be cashing them?

Remember, this movie was made in 1962.

I just kept thinking that today, a half-century later, a whole lot of people would be calling for this family of cheating bums to be tossed over Trump’s Wall into Mexico, or worse… because if there’s one thing that our society no longer tolerates, let alone smiles about, it’s people on welfare, especially if there’s any hint that they’re gaming the system. Which is funny, because we have no problem with the robber barons in the financial sector gaming that system at everybody else’s expense. I don’t think this movie could even be made today, to be honest, or, if it was, it would have a very different spin on the scenario…


Friday Evening Videos: “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”

The Moody Blues are a genuine rarity in popular music, a band that enjoyed two distinct periods of success twenty years apart.

They first came to prominence in 1967 with their second album, Days of Future Passed, which mingled classical music with rock and roll, and produced the iconic single “Nights in White Satin.” They had a pretty good run through the early ’70s, took a few years off in the middle of that decade while individual members pursued solo projects, then began recording together again in ’77. But even though the Moodies scored a number of hits after reforming, their big comeback — if it’s fair to call it that, since they never exactly went away — wasn’t until they released their 1986 album The Other Side of Life.

I’d been aware of them for some time by that point — “Nights in White Satin” was a favorite, along with “The Voice” from 1982 — but it was The Other Side of Life that made me a genuine fan, largely on the strength of that album’s big hit, “Your Wildest Dreams.” “Dreams” was the Moodies’ highest charting single since “White Satin” two decades earlier, and I just adored it, strange as that sounds considering the song’s protagonist is a middle-aged man thinking about a long-lost love, and I was all of seventeen at the time. I’ve always had an old soul, I guess. I just got it. And I liked the song’s catchy pop hook. And I admired the writing in the lyrics too, especially the memorable image of “skies mirrored in your eyes.”

The follow-up album, Sur la Mer was released in 1988, when I was in college. It wasn’t as successful as its predecessor, charting at only 38 in the U.S. (as opposed to The Other Side, which reached number 9), but it did produce a hit single called “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere,” which is a great little song on its own but becomes really fascinating when you realize it’s a direct sequel to the story told in “Your Wildest Dreams.” The protagonist of the earlier song basically decides he’s wasted enough time mooning about that lost love of his and sets out to find her.

The video was also a sequel, featuring the same love interest (played by actress Janet Spencer-Turner) that we’d seen in “Your Wildest Dreams.” Together, the two videos form a warm and fuzzy little diptych that celebrates the mod Sixties the Boomers were pining for by the ’80s, as well as the universal experience of wondering “whatever happened to… ”

All of this has been on my mind because of a brief interview I read earlier this week with Justin Hayward, the lead singer of the Moody Blues. Hayward says he doubts the band will record any more studio albums, that they’re mostly a nostalgic touring act now, and that interestingly enough, their audience these days includes as many Gen X fans who fell for them in the ’80s as Boomers who’ve followed them since Days of Future Passed.

However, the thing I’ve really been mulling over is this observation from Hayward: “People think the ’60s were our best time… but to be honest, the most fun was that time in the ’80s – to have that opportunity to be on TV and have all the times of having hit singles in your early forties.”

Early forties. So… the middle-aged protagonist of these songs about mid-life crisis that I loved when I was seventeen was in fact… younger than I am now. That kind of hurts.

But I still like the songs, and as it happens, I associate them with springtime, so here’s the second half of that diptych to carry us into what promises to be a beautiful weekend here in Utah. From 1988, “I Know You’re Out There Somewhere”:


Following Up on the Previous

I’d like to note for the record that the previous entry kind of went off on an unintended tangent, as they so often do, and I’m rather unhappy about that.

The post was meant to be about that recent conversation I mentioned and my own bemusement at someone thinking something of me that I don’t think of myself, namely that I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars. (If anything, I would’ve guessed that people would assume the opposite!) My intention was to talk about the disconnect between how we perceive ourselves and how others see us, as well as my own specific feelings on this particular subject. Instead, I brought up the silly fan-rivalry thing — which some people dispute even exists, or may in fact be an invention of the media and its tendency to look for competition in every possible venue — and my actual original purpose got completely submerged.

Not that it matters. The original idea was about as mediocre as the finished post turned out to be. (I think it’s mediocre anyhow, even though I’ve received some nice feedback from folks. Thanks anyhow, guys!) But I am frustrated that what ended up on the page — er, screen — was not what I had in my head. That’s a sensation every writer, photographer, painter, sculptor, and musician is familiar with. But lately it’s been a little too familiar, you know?