Saturday, March 27, 2010

Divers and Sundry Words on The Podcast

Among other chores, I am redeeming this afternoon's unexpected solitude (Laurie has been called away to a baby shower) by choosing the material for my next podcast. In doing so, a few items have sprung to mind for me to address on this blog.

The first is that I haven't really explained the concept behind the podcast in detail. The podcast is simply me reading classic literature aloud for the amelioration of the general public. It is entirely plausible and not outside the realm of what has been discussed under my roof that in the future I may have another podcast of original material, much like an audio version of this blog. But as for now, I am reading aloud classic literature for people to listen to and enjoy.

Here's where you come in (don't worry. I'm not about to ask you for money.) Outside of the cost of the adapter, I haven't had to spend cent one on this podcast and therefore have no losses to recoup. Likewise, I am making no money off of it. Now, my understanding of copyright laws is VERY loose and full of hearsay, so I may be wrong in this.  As I understand it, a work of art becomes public domain somewhere around 95 years after publication or death of the artist or something like that. A quick spin around Google and Wikipedia pretty much tells me "playing it safe" means works before 1923 (which, if I also understand it, mainly boils down to long and high paid legal battles to keep day-cares from being able to paint Mickey Mouse on their walls.)

Since I'm not making any money off of the podcast, I'm not exactly sure how that works except I think it's safe to assume I can't legally read aloud a current NY Times Bestseller and offer it for free. To make a long story short, and since I'm announcing here and now that my interest in the subject of the longevity of copyright laws will pretty much cease when I click the publish button on this blog post, that means that I will only be reading works from works published before 1923. Unfortunately, people who I would love to read like George Bernard Shaw have such a confusing mix of UK and US copyrights at present that I think I would be safer and calmer if I just resolve to read only works published before 1923 (and, as years go by, bumping the date forward as we go I suppose.)  I think that's basically safe.  Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that means, in Shaw's case, we're fine to read from Back to Methuselah (published in 1921) but we dare not read from Saint Joan (published in 1923.  Which is unfortunate as it is a wonderful piece.)

And then there is the weird world of translations!  But don't let's further muddy the waters at the moment.  We'll worry about that as need arises.  And, as I'm sure you've all figured out by now, by "we" I mean "me."

Fortunately for our purposes, this leaves us with still a VAST pool of great literature to work with. In fact, if we choose to be optimists, we could make a fine argument that this means we will only delve into time-tested classics.  Let's pretend that's the case!

And, contrary to what I said two paragraphs ago, here is actually where you come in.  I will take requests although I will also retain veto power. 

Oh, by the way, that's Alexander Woollcott up in the picture there.  I doubt the photograph is public domain, so let's keep this whole conversation under our hats, eh what?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- The Podcast! "#1 Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti"

So, I was generously given a Mac for free with huge amounts of memory for the purpose of making a podcast.  I gathered all of the appropriate tools.  My idea for a podcast was, naturally, to read classic works of literature aloud.  Life happened, months passed, the Mac sat ready to go.  Finally, about two weeks ago, I got myself together to make my first podcast.

A few notes before we get started.  I have the distinct impression that I went about this in a much more difficult way than I maybe needed to out of utter ignorance over podcasting.  I downloaded the Audacity software, signed up for an account and an account.  I recorded the piece and then fumbled with type of files, sites and all kinds of nonsense.  The end result is the podcast which you can listen to here or download on the link.  The sound quality turned out far below my expectations and I think you really need headphones to hear it very well.  Also, unfortunately, I may have been a bit too close to the microphone.  I apologize for how crisply my "Ps" pop in your ears.  Also, in retrospect, I'm not sure I wound up using the best cut. 

So, it's a very rough, sort of Ed Wood first version of my podcast.  Please do bear that in mind going into this.  But, on the good side, long time, long distance readers can finally hear what I sound like.

And, needless to say, if someone out there actually knows what they're doing in podcasting and wants to give suggestions, I'm all ears.

The piece I chose to start with is Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti.  It's a remarkable poem, very different from anything else by Rossetti.  She was a devoutly Anglican girl (who actually turned down two suitors for not being suitably Anglican enough for her.)  Her last name may ring a bell with our art fans in connection to Dante Gabriel Rossetti and you would be correct in that association.  That was her brother who, in fact, used Christina Rossetti as his model for the Virgin Mary in his painting of The Annunciation.

Here is my reading of the piece:

And here is the link where you can download it.  

I hope this works.  I'm sure this experiment will improve as I continue.  Until then, thank you for listening.

Reading Group Reminder- Jane Eyre

This week our Reading the Classics with Paul book group begins Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  I think you will all love it.  I'm well into it and already do.

This week we will be reading through Chapter 7 which, in my edition, takes us up to page 74 (it may be different in yours.)  I know that seems like more than normal but 1) it isn't really and 2) I'm finding it reads fairly quickly and 3) it's a long one. 

So, I encourage all of you to go get yourself a copy of Jane Eyre and start reading.  Next Thursday we shall all meet back here and cuss and discuss.

Jane Eyre, to my surprise, was the hardest work in this series yet for me to find a song or video I wanted to post in reference to this work.  As you well remember, in these reminder posts I like to post a little something fun associated with the work we're about to read.  There was a musical a few years ago with Youtube videos which I don't think I made it through listening to a single song.  There are classical pieces based on the work so obscure that they are completely unfindable online.  There are many film adaptations, all of which seem to put me in a trance in about 45 seconds.  So, finally, I found something appropriate to tone, theme and character to our book.  Here's a bittersweet, longing, love song sung by Mr. Rochester and The Sportsmen Quartet.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Contribution to the Ubiquitous Unsolicited Advice to Those Expecting a Blessed Event

Not being a parent, or not even being a decent human being, doesn't seem to stop people from feeling they are qualified to give parental advice.  And I am no exception.

Earlier today I read a blog entry (a word of preparation for the sake of the variety of reality tunnels that read this blog, I do feel compelled to warn the more sensitive readers that the entry perhaps might undermine the parenting advice for you by indulging in at least one vulgarism) by a man with a toddler who, like most modern toddlers, has the tendency to watch favorite films with an astronomical capacity for repetition.  Unfortunately, much like a parent can train a child's eating habits and palette in the early years, so one can prepare a child for a lifetime of filling their brains with bubblegum and offal by allowing low quality entertainment to enter those impressionable eyes and ears.  To wit, he brings up the barrel-bottom scrapings of Alvin and the Chipmunk motion pictures, the sanctimonious television cartoon Arthur, and any number of horrid entertainments hoisted on the petard of children before they attain even the barest minimum of discernment in quality (I remember when my eldest niece reached that age and grew more and more frustrated at the tommyrot her younger sisters were willing to subject themselves to.)  He then points out there are many great films that contain nothing inappropriate to most small children and would be far preferable to parent and child alike.  He brought up the fine example of O Brother, Where Art Thou? which, given the choice, I would much rather have that on our television daily instead of something called Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed.  The child not only gained the experience of loving a fine film, they also had the opportunity to enjoy something with their parent!

All of which is my characteristically long-winded way to get to talk about two items available in the world of books which it is my intention to argue are must-owns for any home where child rearing is happening.  I had someone ask me recently if I had any recommendations for books for children and I compiled a long list.  But I have been wanting to do this entry ever since as I've been thinking about two items in particular which for some reason I forgot and didn't put on the list.  And both of which I think would probably be right at the top of the list in my mind.

This is a collection compiled by Harold Bloom titled Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages.  It is a wonderful volume of wonderful literature which I agree is of value to people of any age although specifically for children to lay a foundation for great literature in their lives.  As usual, I am of mixed feelings about Harold Bloom.  His thesis is stated in his introduction:
"`Children's Literature'-is a mask for the dumbing-down that is destroying our literary culture. Most of what is now commercially offered as children's literature would be inadequate fare for any reader of any age at any time."
A sentiment I both agree with and, at the same time, bristle a little bit at the canonizing authority that Bloom bestows upon himself.  And in moments of bristling at Bloom's pomposity, I do well to remember that I do exactly the same thing all the time.  In fact, I'm doing it right now!

But don't let all of that fool you into thinking this is top shelf, esoteric, heavy, scholarly, nerd fodder.  I probably should have sold the material before giving critiques of the premise.  The material itself is marvelous and anything but daunting (I don't think one need be extremely intelligent to read the material, merely aspiring to be.)  Mainly, like all anthologies, it offers convenience and portability (in stark contrast to my second recommendation below.)  Most of the works included in this volume are well known, time tested classics that one could probably easily compile for one's child at any local thrift store: Shakespeare, Aesop, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll and so forth.  Mixed with some that one might not have thought of for children (see the film argument above) or possibly hadn't even heard of before: Christina Rossetti, Keats, Lafcadio Hearn, Blake, even one entry from Turgenev.  The pieces are arranged in a theme of seasons.  Far from academic, the anthology has the soul and passion of a poet.  I would say that this is a must own for any parent.

Also a must own for any parent, The Harvard Classics library is also known as the Five Foot Library because it is precisely five feet worth of books (which, in my experience, rather annoyingly takes up about two and a half shelves of space, leaving one to figure out what 12 other books should also go in that bookcase which would otherwise look very striking in uniformity. Ah, but again I seem to be undermining my own sales pitch by starting with the weak points.)  Dr. Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard around the turn of the 20th century, would often say that a great education could be gained by reading for 15 minutes a day from books that would only comprise five feet of space (or words to that effect.)  Collier Publishing House saw opportunity and challenged Dr. Eliot to produce said five feet.  It is said that if one reads the whole five feet, one will have as good an education as if one had graduated from Harvard.

Of course, there are many who try it and generally the reported results are glowing.  A friend of mine in High School did it and profited tremendously from it.  And although it did not save her, her parents, and the State from the price of her college tuition, I think she would agree that having that material alive within her when she entered college greatly aided her experience and prevented her from squandering her time in college (like some of us did.)

This is an excellent set to have in any house for raising an autodidact.

If you're a modern soul, you can get the whole set for free to, if I understand correctly, put on your little electric book reading device (not to put too fine a point on it, but I do want to emphasize, a Harvard level education is there for the taking for anyone in the world for free.)  But if I had a child, this entire set would be a must own in my home.  You might be surprised to know that neither of these are things that I actually do own, but both the Bloom book and the complete Harvard Classics Library are in our local library and, much to my chagrin, almost never checked out by anyone but me.

As a side note, I am considering using the Harvard Classics Library as the next group of classics once our reading group exhausts the Penguin 10 Essential Classics List.  Or, rather, I should say it's an idea I'm kicking around in my head enough to at least mention it in passing here.

The first book you can buy used online for very little money.  Even if purchased new, it won't break the bank.  The Harvard Classics, for a complete set, you're probably looking at a few hundred dollars (up to many hundreds of dollars if you want a nice one.  You might be able to assemble a set by thrift store hopping for much less, but I would imagine that would be a tough row to hoe.  Also the aesthetically pleasing uniformity of size and color from a publication year might be something you would have to sacrifice) but if I were a parent, I this would be at the top of the registry and an essential in my home.

Our Weekend

I thought I'd make a post to share a few really lovely pictures I took over the weekend in a fit of effusive delight over Spring.  I know it's Tuesday, but Laurie had a three day weekend and, as you all know, my weekend is open ended.  On Saturday we went for a hike in Upper Park.

You can see the difference between Lower Park from my recent Nature Walk entry and Upper Park.  Lower Park is a walk, Upper Park is a hike.  It's very green and the flowers are blooming.  It's a really beautiful time to be in Chico.
On Sunday, the tulips in the garden at our church were at their peak of perfection.

We watched two films this weekend, both borrowed from our local library, both literary in nature although vastly different in theme and scope.  The first was a Hallmark adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens starring Sir Peter Ustinov in the role of the gambling grandfather. It was a remarkably good production and we sat on our couch weeping openly as the pets looked on with mild concern.  I think we both enjoyed this one a lot more than the second film, which was the recent Hollywood adaptation of the novel The Hours by Michael Cunningham.  I wasn't sure I would like The Hours although I'm very fond of Virginia Woolf's work (perhaps because I am very fond of Virginia Woolf's work.)  I thought the Virginia Woolf sections were excellent.  I wasn't sure about the rest of the film until the connection was made around the start of the third act, after which I loved it. 

I am working on getting my first podcast recorded and posted (finally.)  I think all of you will enjoy it.  I need to get another piece of cheap but essential hardware before I can record it, but it's coming soon. 

On Monday, we drove to Sacramento to pick Gina up from the airport.  She was returning from her trip to Mexico City.  Laurie and I kept wanting to take pictures of everything as all of Northern California was beautiful, but we were on a time schedule and drive by photography is always disappointing.  Here are the Sutter Buttes at 70 mph.  Gina brought us a turtle made from obsidian.

I took a walk with Schubert and listened to an AMAZING episode of This American Life which you can listen to here.  I did some light gardening.  Our mint, tulip tree, banana tree, grapevine, geraniums and basil are all coming back.  Laurie made amazing vegetable soup.

So, we had a nice and really quite beautiful weekend. 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul - The Odyssey Part 5

At last, we reach the end of The Odyssey. I don't know about you, but I'm going to miss it. As much as I liked Of Mice and Men, I think I can say that this has been my favorite book in our series so far.

The domestic drama takes a few odd turns in this final portion of the text. I think I'm probably not alone in noticing how different the first third of the book is from the last two thirds. Gone is the adventure stories with fantastical beasts, gods and the afterlife (mostly.  More accurately, gone are the fantastical beasts anyway and sparse are the gods and afterlife.)  The conclusion of the story is about Odysseus sneaking back into his life to drive out the suitors. I won't be so unkind as to call it uneven. But I did miss the Cyclops, Hydra, witches, bags of wind and sirens. Now we have omens of birds of prey carrying doves, deceit, some awkward fumbling returns to family, and lots of violence. In spite of this, however, a lot did happen this week. I know. I say that every week and it's not always true.

We start with Odysseus being a bit of an ass again. Odysseus and Penelope are reunited in person, but Odysseus is still pretending to not be Odysseus. The servant girl notices his boar hunting scar when washing his feet (I wonder if this was an Adonis allusion.) Penelope had a dream with a talking bird who kills all the geese which, of course, means that Odysseus is returning to drive out the suitors (Last night I dreamed about the angel statues from the Blink episode of Doctor Who.  What does this portend?  Sometimes a talking eagle is just a talking eagle.)  Penelope decides to hold a contest for the suitor who will marry her. Then there's a long passage about how the various characters have a rough night's sleep.

Although, as peculiar as I find Odysseus' behavior (maybe it's cultural. My point is, if I were in his position, I would say "Hey, everyone, I'm back!" and then call the cops on the suitors for trespassing. Maybe it didn't work like that in ancient Ithaca), I have to say that the suitors throughout have been really terrible. Now they're throwing cows hooves!  I can kind of see why it's going down like it's going down.

Oh, and guess who wins the contest. And while Odysseus still has the bow and arrow and all of the suitors assembled, we get the action movie ending. They kill everyone, bring out the disloyal servants, make them clean up the carnage, then Telemachus hangs them. Somehow, Penelope sleeps through all of this. I guess because she had such a hard time getting to sleep the night before and this is way before coffee.

Like so many great men in history, Odysseus wanted for foresight in killing the sons of prominent families in the area. The singer goes and stands in the doorway and sings cheery songs so the people passing by will not suspect that it's the Ithaca Chainsaw Massacre inside. So, the Greeks had dark humor too, I guess.

There's the weird thing about the bed being made out of part of a tree. We get a flash into the suitors arriving in Hades (which I thought was a nice touch) and Agamemnon kind of does a little rap star style bragging "You think Penelope was bad?!!? That's nothing. You should have seen Clytemnestra!"

Odysseus has a touching reunion with his father. Much as Odysseus suspected, the families of the suitors decide to raise an army and hunt down Odysseus but, again, Athena intervenes (disguised as Mentor again. And not until after one guy gets a spear in the throat.) In a clear reflection of the public's short term memory (with skills like that, Athena could have her own talk show on a 24 hour news network), the families forget about the dead suitors and decide to make Odysseus king again instead. Everyone's happy and justice is served (mostly.) Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight.

Thanks to all who read along. I hope you enjoyed this book as much as I have or more if possible.

Next up is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I highly recommend everyone join in on this book. I've already started it and it's wonderful. I also recommend you get a copy and start reading ASAP. It's a long one. I think we're going to read it in approximately 75 page chunks. As usual, we will have a week for everyone to secure a copy before we officially start reading. Next Thursday I will post a reading reminder and announce the official start of reading (our first post on the reading will be the following Thursday.) But I would encourage all of you to get a copy and start reading as soon as you can. I think you'll love it, but it's over 500 pages and miles to go before nightfall.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Our Nature Walk

We've had a strange and wonderful experience in Chico this past week. Not only has it suddenly and decidedly become Spring, but it became Spring suddenly on the exact day we had Daylight Savings Time. Spring fell on Chico like a sack of hammers. Our sinuses are stuffed, the sun is bright, the plants that survived the frost are blooming, and yesterday Laurie and I had one of the most tremendous nature walks we've ever had together.

You are going to have to click all of these pictures to make them bigger. At least on the ones I took in the park in order for you to see what I'm talking about.

Our tulip tree is blooming by the way. It survived the winter, so its future is looking hopeful.
I just noticed on enlarging this picture that you can kind of see Ginger watching me in chiaroscuro in the window.

If you enlarge the picture, note the spot of red near the peak of this broken tree limb, you can spot the woodpecker.

Deer. And they were this close to us.


It was a far shot, but if you enlarge the picture and look under the arch of the fallen tree, pretty much in the middle of the photo, you can see the fox.

And this was one of the cooler and slightly unnerving ones. If you enlarge the picture and look slightly to the right of the center of the image, you can see the coyote. The coyote was eating some small animal and looking back at Laurie and I every time we moved or spoke. The slightly unnerving part is that where I took this picture, in broad daylight, is less than a ten minute walk to a residential area.

This one is kind of an eye-test, but around the middle of the picture is a monochromatic finch style bird who had a magnificent chirp. I wonder if anyone can identify it. It's not a bird I've seen around Chico before.

Oh, and for those following the saga of Agnes, our rescued former feral cat, she is in great health and lately has been crawling right up on our lap. She's still a little skittish, especially when she's eating, but she's pretty much turned into a domestic cat. She is pretty much at peace in her new life.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pi Day

People who know me know that I love holidays. I think they help to mark the year, help one to create memories, and serve to keep one aware of what one is doing with their life and focusing on. They work for me as simple awareness exercises. I'm not ashamed to admit that I remember my wedding anniversary because it's on Bloomsday (the day in which James Joyce's Ulysses takes place.) I try to keep on top of simple awareness exercises like taking a walk and noticing everything I see that is red on one day's walk or a triangle on another day and so forth, or going a day without turning this infernal machine on, or switching from coffee to black tea for a week or, indeed, changing my diet dramatically or walking in a direction I've never walked before. Or, right after reading a Victorian novel, I'll pick up a post-modern piece of meta-fiction. Little adjustments help me to keep things fresh, keeps my patterns from getting too embedded, keeps my mind from turning mechanical, keep my synapses sparkling.

Not that I'm against consistency, mind you. Laurie will tell you that I am very much a creature of habit, which I also think is a valuable life tool. I think cultivating reliability is a good thing, but I strive for a middle path by tweaking my patterns slightly. Holidays aid me in this pursuit.

And especially the nerdy ones (although, personally, I find the "talk like a pirate" one annoying.) For those out of the geek loop, much as the church calendar as well as the secular one are sprinkled throughout with holidays in their idioms, so is the geek calendar. There's Bilbo Baggins' birthday, Darwin Day, Towel Day for those who like the works of Douglas Adams, Mole Day, Pretend to Be a Time Traveller Day, and March 4 is Sentence Day (because "march forth" is a complete sentence.)

By far, one of my favorites is Pi Day, which is tomorrow. Pi, as you well know, is a mathematical constant. From Merriam-Webster's Dictionary (since the OED online makes you subscribe):
a: the symbol π denoting the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter b : the ratio itself : a transcendental number having a value rounded to eight decimal places of 3.14159265
Note the number at the end. In 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium, some PR genius came up with the annual Pi Day celebration on March 14th starting at 1:59 pm (that's 3/14 1:59. Which, really, is about as much of pi as a lay-person is ever going to use.) March 14th also happens to be Albert Einstein's birthday. Einstein really didn't have a lot to do with pi, but it adds to it being a day celebrating mathematics.

I'm not a mathematician by any means, although in college I had a calculus professor who was excellent and who inspired a great interest in mathematics in me. I was never any good at math until he explained how mathematics is really the study of everything, the study of reality and all that that could possibly mean. In all honesty, I remain extremely amateur in my enthusiasm (in the interest of full disclosure, anything I read on mathematics is going to be written for popular consumption. For example, Godel, Escher, Bach is about my limit), but fascinated none the less.

Also, needless to say, the day is usually celebrated with pie, which adds a nice incentive. I will be getting us a pie. I think we all like Razzleberry. I know it sounds silly, but what better day to be irrational! And eat a really transcendent pie.

By the way, my birthday occurs in pi beginning at the 701st position after the decimal point.

If you'd like to take a few moments to think about mathematics (and really, how often do you do that in your everyday life) I would highly recommend this excellent episode of Radiolab:
This cute little Science Friday video:
Or cruise on over to the Mensa website and click on The Mensa Workout link to keep you brain limber:
Here's a fun Pi Song for all ages:

Happy Pi Day, everyone!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul - The Odyssey Part 4

The man of twists and turns deals mainly with beggars and servants this week, sometimes lying to them (although he also feeds Eumaeus well), sometimes helping them, sometimes beating the tar out of them, sometimes, in sort of proto-slapstick, escalating an insult fight and ducking a chair that is thrown at him so that it hits a servant instead. Although as class conscious as I try to be, I didn't think it was very funny if that was the author's intent. The poor wine steward was just doing his job and there's no compensation for injured workers. There's probably not even time off.

But mainly Odysseus spends this week talking to beggars and servants for a very very long time. This is, as Sedge foresaw, kind of a dry spell in the text in my humble opinion (and, not to pat myself on the back, but I think it was wise to take the back 1/3rd of the book in two big gulps.)

We've passed through most of the magical bit into the domestic part of the story. Although the gods are still hanging around, particularly Athena who is still watching over Telemachus. Also there are weird omens like the passage with the eagle carrying the goose and the following Book's hawk with a dove parallel passage, means Odysseus is going to return and clean out the suitors. Laurie and I just tried to talk Gina out of reading omens a few hours ago. I don't think it's a helpful practice or an accurate way to view reality, but I'm willing to suspend my objections for the sake of the story. Because we can be fairly certain that the omen will prove true in this case as they do only in works of fiction.

So, the lesson of this week's reading would be something along the lines of "Don't let your kids grow up to be servants anywhere near Odysseus" but he lies about his identity so often that it's kind of hard to even draw that lesson.

I will say again this week though, I love love love the Robert Fagles translation and if I had it to do over I would have insisted on everyone getting that version. I am a Fagles convert.

It might be a little unfair to characterize this week's reading as one of those passages where nothing happens. Certainly a lot happens. In fact, I'm finding myself shifting yet again on what this epic poem is all about. I came into it expecting an epic poem, found it highly comedic and more than a little romantic as well as, as I mentioned last week, sort of a "whopper story" which I still think comprises the first half of the text. But I think the overarching theme is completely different than anything I'd ever imagined or hear about The Odyssey before. I submit to you my hypothesis that the book is actually a coming of age, rite of passage, bildungsroman of Telemachus. In fact, I caught myself remembering Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue and thinking "wouldn't it be awesome if this poem was really a labor of love from some ancient father who went away to war as a fantastical explanation to his son as to why their life went the way it went?" You know, something like "Dad, I'm almost grown, about to start growing facial hair! Where were you all of my childhood? Where were you when all of those men were courting Mom and eating all of our food?" And Odysseus busts out this epic poem.
Which is probably a fine indicator of an overactive imagination, but I say all of this to point out the sophistication of the piece. There are so many possibilities to The Odyssey and truly it could be any or all of these things and more. We like to think ourselves so advanced and sophisticated, but I don't know of many contemporary works that are this leveled.

Odysseus and Telemachus are reunited and I would argue that this is the point where we enter the third act of the story.

In spite of the slower bits, I've enjoyed this book tremendously. I hope you have as well. If you thought this week was a little slow at parts, just be glad it wasn't Beowulf. So, next week we'll finish The Odyssey.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Exciting annoucement

I am very happy to announce that Laurie and I have started a blog together. It is a blog where Laurie and I interact on a given topic. I think you will enjoy it. It can be found here:

I believe the idea was Laurie's, based partly on how we communicate, what we talk about on walks, and from having recently watched My Dinner With Andre. Our goal is to post on a topic about once a week. Please do check it out and I hope that if you enjoy this blog or Laurie's blog, you will also enjoy our new blog.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Saint Joan- Thoughts on One of The Greatest Plays of All Time

Providence recently brought to my hands a previously lent out (and completely forgotten by me) copy of George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan just as I most needed to reread it.

Shaw, in sort of an extremity of his usual style, starts the text with a preface chock full of exciting ideas and thoughts, which in this case is almost a full book length by itself. He wrote the play in the 1920s sort of in a state of enthusiastic excitement over the Catholic church canonizing Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake by the Church about 500 years prior. Shaw saw great significance on a number of levels and great lessons for his time.

I am very fond of the work of George Bernard Shaw. I think the reason he's not as widely performed as Shakespeare or Wilde is that his plays are difficult to stage, very long, and full of ideas. In fact, I would almost accuse him of using plays as an excuse to write ideas for public consumption in a venue where they might actually listen to them. I don't wonder if he wasn't perfectly aware of this. His scripts read almost like a novel. His stage direction and character descriptions are very vivid and detailed. Having said that, if the sack of money ever fell on me and I found myself finally able to fulfill my dream of starting a classical theater company, Saint Joan would definitely be one of my first plays, if not my first.

Part of what's so fascinating to me about Shaw is that I fully agree with him on some of his major worldviews: pacifism, socialism, vegetarianism, a love for the music of Richard Wagner. Other of his worldviews I reject completely: his agnosticism (which he rather emotionally manipulatively called "Freethinking"), his apparent support for eugenics, his teetotaling. But regardless of what he's on about, he is engaging, lucid, and very well spoken in his arguments. In many ways he was far ahead of his time (I think his view of women was almost a century ahead of his time.) In some ways, he was a direct product of his time and it is my argument that this play is often an example of that. Having said that, I think it has vast lessons for today. And by today, I also mean to say today as in my life right at this moment, but more on that a little later.

Shaw wrote Joan as a young woman who visualized her intellect to the point of actual visions of saints, being the tunnel through which she viewed reality. Miracles are redefined fairly early on in the play as events which strengthen faith, regardless of their factual accuracy. Shaw is operating in a world still warm from the glow of Einstein's annus mirabilis but not yet scorched by nuclear fission, when Freud and Jung still walked the Earth (and this was before Wilhelm Reich hit the scene), with the very cynical hindsight of the "war to end all wars" in recent memory and, really, it was a time straddling the fence between the world of Joan and our modern world. Shaw had no way of knowing so many facets of the modern to come over the next century which may very well have painted a different picture of Joan in retrospect. Now we have psychoactive drugs, and the most humane and forward thinking of treatments for psychosis in Shaw's day look barbaric to modern behavioral health. In Shaw's day, Aliester Crowley scandalized Western civilization. Now, we have creative visualization classes and Eastern spiritual practices taught at the local gym. While Shaw was blissfully ignorant of String Theory and Quantum Mechanics, we now sit waiting for the Large Hadron Collider to fire up like a cthonic god. Shaw had no hive-mind of the internet.

Shaw's world was just beginning to peek out from behind the skirts of Victoria, which were forged in the fires of the Enlightenment, which was a reaction to the Puritans who grew from Reformers who reacted to the church of Joan. The breadcrumbs backward in history were fairly easy to follow. Today we live as if this world sprang forth as-is full-grown like Minerva from the cranium of Jove. We forget history even from our own lifetime as though it were irrelevant. We cover our eyes in kitsch and techno-babble to hide our connection to the past and the ways in which we're still soaking in it.

Even the church in Shaw's day had no Emergence, no Jesus Movement, no New Perspectives, no Quest for the Historical Jesus; Karl Barth hadn't even really shown up to the party yet. The Catholic Church itself was pre-Vatican II by almost 40 years, so needless to say it was very much still in like mind to the days of Joan. I must admit it tempts me to revisit Joan of Arc as Shaw did, as Paul Mathers in the year 2010 and what her story means now.

I do have tremendous gratitude for how Shaw handles the historicity of the piece. I think he very rightly places Joan as a Proto-Protestant, belonging with Savonarola, Hus and Wycliff. This makes the Catholic Church eventually sainting her all the more remarkable, what ought to be a very unifying act except that the fractured Protestants (of which I am one) are too dunderheaded to know what to do with a story like Joan's. I also strongly appreciate that Shaw makes clear that there are no villains in the piece, no diabolus ex machina. The men who burned Joan are men, doing their jobs, working within a system, trying to live their lives while a young woman from an obscure farm is barking orders "from God" at kings and generals.

What struck me to the core is the section where he addresses the (then) current state of the theater and likens it to the modern church. Those who attend without passion out of a sense of duty comprise the bulk of the audience and therefore, through their economic vote, decide the length of the plays or sermons as well as, largely, their content. Along with that, and as in the days of Joan, the popular FAR outweighs the righteous and rather drowns the latter out of any meaningful public discourse. It takes someone speaking loud enough or a long slog of swaying public opinion to effect change in either venue, both places where the exact opposite should be the case; the people who attend should be at the mercy of the institution on its own terms in order to get what they really need from it, rather than what they are most comfortable with. And, of course, in my own way I am drawing parallels to some of the battles I'm experiencing first-hand with a period where people had no qualms about burning young women at the stake if the authorities thought they deserved it.

I would recommend Shaw to anyone and everyone. He is a delight to read, a sharp mind and wit, iron that will sharpen your own iron regardless of what you think of his iron. Furthermore, I would recommend Saint Joan as the starting point for anyone. It is a wonderful play. Certainly one of the great plays in the history of Western Civilization.
But do yourself a favor if you do take my advice, don't skip the Preface.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul - The Odyssey Part 3

Again, I apologize to all in the reading group for how the reading group has taken a back seat in my life over the past few weeks. We are strongly seeking to re-establish some semblance of normalcy in our life. So, here's what I came up with from this week's reading.

This is the week where I hit the tipping point where I no longer think of this as an adventure story so much as a "whopper story." I'm convinced that Odysseus is the ancient Greek equivalent of the father from Big Fish. The moment came when the crew opened the wind bag. I thought "Yeah, speaking of wind bags..."

Mind you, this is not a criticism. I'm enjoying it tremendously. But, I think Aeolus showed great wisdom in saying "You know what, the gods don't seem to like you very much so please don't stand so close to me."

Circe turns the men into literal pigs and, when Hermes shows up, the text actually contains this line in reference to the herb: "and the gods call it moly." I don't know about you, but I just about fell out of my chair when I read that line. Needless to say, while Penelope is being faithful in the face of many suitors back in Ithaca, Odysseus isn't exactly faithful to Penelope over the next year he spends with Circe. Also, when Odysseus tells Circe that they want to leave and go back to Ithaca, Circe tells him to go to Hell.

We're given a rather graphic lesson on why you don't ever want to talk to the dead. There are a lot of them, they want you to do things for them and, not surprisingly, they are kind of a bummer. We learn that Odysseus is going to have to make up to Poseidon who, it turns out, is pretty mad about the whole blinding the cyclops episode. We also see Agamemnon who may well have revealed a plot point.

We encounter the Sirens, but Odysseus minds his own... beeswax (are you really sure you want to be reading the classics with me?)

There's the six headed beast that eats more of the red toga-ed sailors from Engineering. There's the sun cow part that was referenced in the first paragraph of Book 1. Suddenly Odysseus and his men are like the Blues Brothers. They've got the sun and the sea mad at them and chasing them.
Back in real time, they get back to Ithaca by the skin of their teeth.

In spite of how a tremendous amount happened in this week's reading, I think we're still shooting to finish this in two more weeks. So, this next week, we will read through Book 18. The following week we will finish.