Archive for June, 2011


Spring 1991 – 6/21/2011 Summer Solstice


September, 1991


December, 2002


March, 2011


Stalwart, Steadfast, Heart of Oak Companion


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Good Night, Sweet Prince


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Saturday night the ScyFy channel featured a film called 2010:  Moby Dick.  The channel guide said it starred Patrick Stewart, but this turned out to be an error:   Stewart did indeed make a film version of Moby Dick, but this wasn’t it.   And if Stewart’s portrayal of Captain Ahab or the script of his version borrowed anything at all from Herman Melville’s novel, the ScyFy film borrowed very little of either, except some character names, the name of Ahab’s ship, and of course the notion that a large white whale might harbor malevolent intentions.

Did I say large?   The whale in this film is HUMONGOUS.  Like six times the size of any ordinary whale.  This Moby can bite a submarine into two pieces.   He eats regular whales for snacks.   He jumps out of the water to swallow a helicopter (a CGI requirement for ScyFy fare, it seems).  And he can Walk on Water.  Well, sort of.

If any doubt remains that the raison d’etre of this film was to rip off other, better, works the poster should leave no doubts whatever:

Alas, what Spielburg hath wrought.

As the poster announces, this Moby Dick features two real actors.  Renee O’Connor is a relatively harmless actress who has been around the teevee block a bit–she was Xena’s sidekick in that series, for example.  Here she is too-cutely named “Michelle Melville.”   Not sure why the writers made this choice, because she is the only character left standing (swimming) at the end.  In the novel of course, this role is given to Ishmael–the loner, who finds himself adrift on Queequeg’s coffin after the ship sinks–saved posthumously by his only friend, in a sense.

Barry Bostwick has been around forever (see his bio on IMDB) and he has the chops to handle Ahab.  That is, had the character of Ahab been better written.   I should think actors would salivate at the chance to play the mad captain–that is, if the screenwriters give him some of Ahab’s scenes and lines from the novel.   Watch Gregory Peck in the ‘fifties version, for example, repeatedly trying to stab the whale with a harpoon while tied to its side by ropes from his sinking ship and shouting:  “From the heart of hell I stab thee.”   Or the scene in that version where Peck nails the gold piece to the mast, swears an oath to whatever demon might be listening, and toasts the man who is the first to sight  Moby Dick.  Or the scene in which Orson Welles, playing a preacher, warns the whalers about the sin of hubris and the inevitability of death.  This is all out of the novel, and it rocks.

But none of those subtleties appear in the 2010 version.  About the only homage paid to the original appears in character’s names:   the crew of the Pequod (it’s a submarine!) includes Starbuck and Queequeg (played by a young Asian-American guy!).  Instead of homage, we get a whale the size of an aircraft carrier, who is smart enough to mislead torpedoes.  Once the remnants of Ahab’s crew are stranded on an island, old Moby somehow crawls up the other side and flops right over onto them, crushing them.  (Yes, this scene is as morbidly funny as it sounds). This portrayal of a thinking, malevolent whale utterly trashes one theme of Melville’s novel, which explored Ahab’s misguided reading of an natural beastie as a thing sent to haunt him personally.  Ie, the novel condemns antropomorphism with a vengeance.

Most of the reviewers I read on the net actually liked this movie.  A couple admitted they were forced to read Moby Dick in high school, and they hated it.  Of course they did.   Melville wrote his masterpiece for adults, who can appreciate his meditations on the inevitability of death, the presumption of humans that they can master the ineffable, etc. etc.  I love Moby Dick, but it’s probably because I didn’t read it until I was in college, with a good teacher.   And one of my best friends ever was a Melville scholar who reread the novel once a year.   Reading with him, I learned a good deal about its subtleties, and its greatness.

So here I am again, playing the old fart with no sense of humor.   Hell, even Melville had a sense of humor–there are several very funny scenes in the novel, not the least of which appears when one of the Pequod‘s crew dresses up in a whale’s foreskin, hence affording Melville an opportunity to make a series of outrageous puns.  But 2010:  Moby Dick has no sense of humor, no theme, little plot, and some really clunky CGI effects.

So, call me humorless.

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Keith Is Back!

Al Gore hired Keith Olbermann two days after Keith was fired from MSNBC.  The first ep of the new version of “Countdown” aired tonight against Keith’s replacement on MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell.  O’Donnell is a good reporter and analyst, but his  show is  often a crashing bore.  In fact,  nobody else does news and commentary like Keith.  He led off tonight with a piece about Libya;   he and Michael Moore discussed the “executive presidency” and compared Obama’s use of the War Powers act to that of Bush (unfavorably of course).  Although Obama did not come off well in this conversation.

Then Keith quoted from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s essay on Abraham Lincoln.  Sorry I couldn’t find the text online, and I don’t happen to have Stowe’s collected works handy.  But the meat of the quote had to do with the degree of animosity ordinarily raised by working class activism among elites. Keith used Stowe’s words as a sort of description of his own aims with this new program.

Then John Dean came on to talk about today’s Supreme court decision deciding against the class action suit brought by women working at Wal-mart  (the Court threw it out, of course, by a 5-4 decision) as well as Clarence Thomas’ shady funding by a Texas rich guy.

Keith finished up with Markos Moulitsas, opining about the bankrupcy of Republican politics.

Where else can such conversations be heard on American teevee?   In fact, conversations of this quality occur only in European media (The Guardian, for example) and on Al-Jazeera (I’m taking the word of others for this, because of course this channel is not available in my part of the world).

Of course the fun parts of Keith’s show are still there–worst persons, for example.

All in all “Countdown” is a beacon of smart in a sea of deadly sameness.  Keep it up, Keith!   And thanks to Al Gore for having the courage to give Keith his head.

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One of the pillars at Gobekli-Tepe, courtesy National Geographic.

I know you read NatGeo, Trep, so you probably know all about this archeological site being excavated in Turkey.  It’s similar to Stonehenge, in that it consists of pillars set in a circle.

But the pillars are graven with images of animals, most of them dangerous–like lions and scorpions.  And it’s much much older, having been constructed some 11,600 years ago.   That’s right:  during the Neolithic.   This dating confounds the archeologists who are studying  the site, because the people who built it were nomads who did not practice agriculture.    The received wisdom until now was that peoples who roamed about in search of food did not stop to build monuments.  Nonetheless, there stands Gobekli-Tepe, now unearthed for all to see (and dramatically lit for another photo printed in NatGeo).

This might cause one to jump to the conclusion that religious belief, the origin of which was heretofore associated with sedentary peoples (on the ground that you really ought to have a city and hence available labor who can be fed and watered in order to build a temple or a cathedral), antedates the invention/use of agriculture.

To make this leap seems suspicious to me.  First of all, this temple proves that neolithic wanderers had the wherewithal to plan and construct monumental architecture. Which may suggest nothing more than that some leader, somewhere, realized that his (probably “his”) hold on power would be consolidated and entrenched if some manifestation of it were made physical.  Better yet if it took a lot of time, labor, and hassle to build.

Some time ago I read a fine fun tome called Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer.  While Boyer relies a bit too heavily on evolutionary psychology for my taste, his work poses a useful counter to the nuttiness that usually surrounds discussions of the origins of religion.  Boyer begins by debunking all the standard explanations, carefully showing how each presumes that religion is something more than it is–supernatural, special, somehow different in quality from other human creations.  He concludes his opening chapter by arguing that some concepts connect with inference systems in the human brain that make communication and recall easy;  they also trigger emotions in satisfactory ways:  and they interact usefully with social concepts already in place as well.  Religious concepts that do all of this survive, while others are discarded because they are not useful.

My second problem with the “religion preceded agriculture” claim is this:  people who have to build or find shelter every night and during storms might appreciate the power of–let’s call it “nature”–rather more than those who can hide in their huts through the night and bad weather.   And it seems to me that the invention of religion depends upon the recognition of power in the universe–that is, the realization that there are forces that can push one around, cause one pain, defy one’s will.

I’m not sure where I got this idea, but I like it a lot, because it suggests that religion was invented in order to institutionalize power.  That is, its point it to legitimize some members of the group as powerful (as in kings) or as funneling power (priests).  The leader who had Gobekli-Tepe built sure had some mojo (and most likely whips and chains as well) and even though his reputation, his name, and the people he led have disappeared from human memory, his temple is by god still there.

Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818

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Fifty Years On

I graduated from high school fifty years ago this month.  I still have my class ring–a blue stone set in silver (all fake of course) with “1961” prominently displayed.  The jeweler told us that we were the first class since 1881 whose rings showed the right date from the point of both the wearer and the onlooker.

Little did any of us know that the ‘sixties were about to happen.

I don’t remember much from high school.  When I see old photos (I still have a copy of the yearbook) they sometimes jog my memory of this or that event.  But frankly, my high school experience was pretty dreary–mostly catty girls and back-seat wrestling matches with the local basketball star.  I didn’t know how much I hated all of this, exactly, until I grew up some and realized that there were far better ways to live than those carried on in small Nebraska towns.  After a couple of years at the University, at any rate, the last thing I wanted to do was go home on weekends or breaks where the same old games were being played by high school classmates.   I spent most of those times talking with my dad, whose company I far preferred.

The reason I bring all this up is that my former high school classmates seem to be really, really anxious to find me.   The group I graduated with is holding a fiftieth reunion (not in the town we all live in, but in a larger city down the road apiece–what does that tell you about the quality of life in the old homestead?) and I’ve had repeated e-mails from several of them giving all the exciting details and asking me to join the party.  So far I’ve staved them off with the excuse of high air fare.  I cannot for the life of me guess what we’d find to talk about–me and these other old folks who, unlike me, have spent most of their lives in Nebraska.  One can only jaw about the Cornhuskers for so long.  And I simply do not want to journey down memory lane with them, as in “remember the time we . . . .”?   Yeah, I remember that you were an asshole then, and I sure as hell don’t want to find out that you are still an asshole.

Last week I got an e-mail from a woman with whom I was off-and-on best friends in grade school and junior high, before my parents moved to the town where I went to high school.   She wanted to know all about my life, and reported on the fiftieth reunion of that graduating class.   So I wrote to her, answering her questions about how I’d spent my life.  She sent me a polite response that subtly said “Well, I guess we don’t have much in common any more.”   No indeed, dear.  No indeed.

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Men at Gossip

The myth is that women do all the gossiping.  In fact, when I googled for this cartoon, Google really really wanted to give me “women gossiping.”   But the myth, like all such myths, just ain’t so.

On ESPN much of the programming consists of former players or coaches of this or that sport gossiping about current players.   Right now it’s all about Terrell Pryor, the Ohio State quarterback who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  Two weeks ago, it was all about Pryor’s coach, who had to resign because he apparently knew his players were selling off OSU memorabilia left and right, but did not report same to the proper authorities.  All last year it was the Auburn quarterback, whose father may have offered his son to the highest-bidding college.  Now all of these actions are offenses against NCAA rules, and of course ESPN should report them.

But ESPN dwells on them.

I justify calling ESPN’s approach to such issues as “gossip” because their commentators don’t restrict themselves to talking about NCAA rules or players’ ability.  Oh no.  This morning I tuned in to hear them all lachrymose because LeBron James “seems disappointed” in his performance in the NBA playoffs.  As far I can see, they have absolutely zip evidence of that, aside from the fact that James’ team is down 3-2 in the series, and that James didn’t score as many baskets last night as they all apparently hoped he would.

And these guys don’t limit themselves just to sports.  When Brett Favre allegedly texted a picture of his penis to a reporter, they literally salivated, opining about the state of Favre’s marriage and the response of said reporter.  (And what is with guys texting pix of their dicks to women anyhow?)  And when a coach gets fired because he obviously doesn’t win enough games, that isn’t sufficient for the gossips at ESPN.  No, sirree!  Got to call on former players to testify that there was trouble on campus from the minute that coach set foot on the playing field.  No evidence, no details.  Just the charge.

If you like gossip, ESPN is better than The View, even.

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