30 May 2005

Ministry retreat

Friday afternoon I drove over to Urbana for a retreat, the third-annual Midwest Discordian Ministry Assembly. The attendees were mostly people I knew who in some way "minister" spiritually to people, though I use that term a little loosely. The faith traditions represented there were relatively diverse and not at all restricted to Christianity.

In particular, it included a number of disaffected Christians and some who were actively anti-Christian; the main reasons, for all of them, had to do with the churches being seen as bigoted, hypocritical, exclusionary, and chiefly interested in power. This is a difficult perception to counteract, because in the case of a lot of the Christians in power and that get the most press, it's pretty much entirely true. I don't know how we can solve this problem, but until we do, we'll only see an acceleration of the current trend where the good, smart, examined-life people leave, which of course just makes the problem worse.

A major theme of the weekend, as indeed of Discordianism as a whole, is the idea that seeming or even actual contradiction is not necessarily the end of the world. Especially when dealing with ephemeral, spiritual matters, as soon as you try to express a truth, you've made a simplification that makes the expression not quite right. If you make a different simplification, you have a different approximation that seems to contradict the first, and yet, both are expressions of a larger truth. The summary of this by "Saint Syadasti" is:

All things are in some sense true,
in some sense false,
in some sense meaningless,
in some sense true and false,
in some sense true and meaningless,
in some sense false and meaningless,
and in some sense true and false and meaningless.
To which the good Discordian should mentally append the doxology "including this", which really sums up the whole thing in a nice two-word nutshell. And although this sort of thing infuriates a lot of Protestants, it's quite compatible with a Catholic understanding of truth; our theology is riddled with seeming inconsistencies and contradictions, but each half of the contradiction can separately impart wisdom, and so the whole is useful, even if it is in some ways false and/or meaningless. Jesus himself said "it is all presented in parables, so that they will look intently and not see, listen carefully and not understand, lest perhaps they repent and be forgiven." (Mk 4:11-12)

Another theme was the constant questioning of authority. How much do you believe just because someone said so? Why should you give anyone that much power over your beliefs? And again, this is entirely consonant with a Catholic understanding of spirituality and belief. We don't regard the Bible as the sole source of truth and literally correct in every detail. It goes hand in hand with our centuries of tradition to interpret it. And even when the RCC has an official line on something, it is still contingent on a personal formation of conscience: the RCC says all sorts of things, but, at least officially and doctrinally, all of it is tagged with an implicit "but don't take our word for it"; you must form your own conscience through thought and prayer, and it is this conscience you must follow, even if it is in discord with the (thus presumably incorrect) Catholic doctrine.

So, it was a really interesting and productive weekend. And now I've spent enough time writing and really need to get back to grading and other school-related things....

"I know you're usually more prone to reading things like the History of the Romanian Basketweavers Revolution and shit like that, but Potter's on par with LOTR and much less longwinded. It's kind of a "Chronicles of Narnia" for pagans. It's a must-read, if you want to keep up with the state of the mythological arts." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 6:10pm | Comments (7)

20 May 2005

Outrageous

A Catholic school named Saint Jude Educational Institute, in Montgomery, AL, is yet another example of the complete misogyny of a lot of people who bill themselves as "compassionate" and/or "pro-life". They banned a student from graduation because she was pregnant.

Indeed, they had told her back in March that she was no longer allowed to even attend the school. The school claimed that it was for "safety", though it's not clear what kind of safety risk a pregnant 18-year-old would cause. And their refusal to even list her in the graduation program belies their real intentions: to pretend she didn't even exist.

They can't even claim that it was for any sort of moral reason; the father was allowed to continue going to school and to participate in graduation. It's just misogyny, pure and simple.

Worse, it's an extremely anti-life policy. By telling girls that visible pregnancy is grounds for dismissal (aka the "you-show-you-go" policy), the school is practically pushing them into the abortion clinic. It is FUCKING OUTRAGEOUS that a Catholic institution has policies so actively encouraging of abortion. (The misogyny is something we've come to expect from the Catholic Church, although this is more egregious than usual.)

"The fact that Cuba is poor may have something to do with the US blockade and with the state-controlled economy; the fact that everyone appears to eat all right and to have clothes and full, free medical care, however, does have to do with the social and economic priorities of the Cuban government." --Anis Memon

Posted by blahedo at 11:48am | Comments (5)

18 May 2005

Movie recommendations

Yesterday Ben Schafer from UNI gave a talk here on the subject of "recommender systems". Based on the abstract, it sounded a little... fluffy, but I was very pleasantly surprised. He was using some well-grounded AI techniques to process the various preferences of a lot of people and collate them into a single recommendation for you (based on what the system knows you like).

All of which is just an intro to say, go check out this site: MovieLens has you rate 15 movies you've seen, and then gives you recommendations on others. It seems pretty prescient so far.

"Woe unto those who reject love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness because of what was written in a long-passed time, place and language. We know they do not know the Living God because they must submit themselves to a dead thing and give it the name of Jesus Christ." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 5:28pm | Comments (3)

15 May 2005

It's here!

My copy of For you only, the new CD by Rachel Ries, arrived today. It's just as awesome as I expected. Apparently she's not doing an official release until late June, but if you happen to be going through the north side of Chicago, you can get one at the coffee shop where she works (details in the "News" section of her website).

"After all, deleting e-mail all day builds up an appetite. And what better way to fill that craving than with a protein-rich square of salty, pink pork." --Wired

Posted by blahedo at 3:15am | Comments (1)

Saturday night at the Orpheum

Over Spring break this year, the Knox College Choir, the Sandburg College Choir, and the Galesburg Community Choir went on tour to perform at Carnegie Hall. Tonight they reprised that performance at the Orpheum. When I got there the first floor was relatively full, but after I found a seat I noticed people up in the balcony, so I went up there. The seats themselves are much better, the sound is better, and the view is much better.

The pieces being performed were Francis Poulenc's Gloria and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem. Aside from some bobbles when they first started, the orchestra sounded great, and the 130-voice combined choir sounded fantastic, except when they were interrupted by the soloist's yawling.

I suppose that's a slightly unfair characterisation. Within the genre of operatic soprano, she was fine, I guess; Laura Lane certainly seemed happy with her performance after the show. And when she was singing fairly quietly, she sounded okay, if not fantastic. But when her volume was anywhere north of mezzo-piano, the quality of her voice was such that it seemed as if she were trying very hard to swallow her own tongue. It's not a pretty sound, and it does nothing for the enunciation, either. Why do people actually like this sound? I feel a little bad panning her performance so badly, because it's clear she's worked very hard to achieve that style, and she's really succeeded. But, egh.

But the choir itself (and, for that matter, the baritone soloist) sounded great. The Gloria had two sections that sounded like they were pulled right out of a Broadway musical, but other than that they were your basic big choral works. The chorus sang them as if they were easy, well-blended and not fighting the orchestra for attention. I wonder how much more I would have liked it if they had just had a woman with a normal voice singing the solo....

"The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you're hungry again." --George Miller

Posted by blahedo at 2:45am | Comments (2)

14 May 2005

D'oh! A deer!

So I ran over a deer last night.

I was on my way back from a pastoral musician's meeting in Peoria, cruising along I-74 at about 70mph. It was a few minutes past ten, so there were a few cars, but not many; for a while there had been just one car visible ahead of me a half mile or so. I noticed the taillights not receding, and it was soon clear that it had pulled over; I switched to the left lane to give them room. All of a sudden, just before I was about to pass them, the pool of light ahead of me illuminated a hulking mound about eight feet high, right in the middle of the lane. Well, maybe only about a foot and a half.

THMP-THM-THP-THP

Holy CRAP I just ran over a deer. If it wasn't dead before, it is now. In the split second before I hit it I knew I wouldn't be able to steer around it, so I figured I'd best try and get the car centred over it---in retrospect this was probably wise, because if one wheel had hit it I could've flipped the car or broken an axle or something similarly dire. As it was, I immediately went to the shoulder and stopped, so distracted I stalled the car because I forgot to put in the clutch. I sat there for a minute. What the hell do I do now?

Well, I had that old emergency kit that had sat in my old car unused before being switched to this one, where it sat unused. I plugged it in and looked under the car. There was a piece of plastic hanging down and touching the ground. There were a lot of unsavoury deer bits. But all the metal car parts appeared intact. Not having any tape or any other way to reattach the plastic (which was just there to protect the undercarriage), I broke it the rest of the way off.

At this point, I was thinking about how to make sure the people in the car behind---clearly it had hit the deer too---were ok and had a phone and such. Could I just walk up? That'd be kind of sketchy... but about this time two people were walking up to my car. They were making sure I was ok and had a phone and such. :) They mentioned going to Knox---oh yeah, they did look sort of familiar---and they'd recognised me, or at least my car. And as it happens, my downstairs neighbour Margaret was the one driving the car! Talk about random.

Talking to them, I was able to reconstruct what happened: she was driving along in the right lane, and a deer ran out ahead of her. Although she hit the brakes, she still clipped it with her front left headlight, which it crunched. The impact knocked it into the left lane, which is where I hit it. I haven't checked with her since, but based on what I saw it looked like she'd just need to replace the headlight and maybe the front quarterpanel. All the people involved were totally fine.

I should probably get a mechanic to look at it just in case, but I'm pretty sure there's nothing wrong with my car, amazingly enough. Aside from the deer fur and bits everywhere. Ugh.

"For two millennia, despite the primary message of the Spirit being one of salvation, the Dark Lord's PR teams have been busy spinning it into a message of human degredation, making us feel dirty and unworthy of what Christ freely gave, until the very name of Christ has become synonymous with a view of humans as fundamentally fallen rather than fundamentally redeemed." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 10:45pm | Comments (4)

13 May 2005

Do: you think?

I'm working my way through Lynne Truss's Eats, shoots & leaves, agreeing with her on nearly everything. Indeed, there are a few rules she's set out that I didn't know or wouldn't have thought of.

She and I had our first little quarrel just now over the use of the colon. In addition to its venerable uses at introducing specific things ("three things: bread, milk, and cheese") and sometimes tightly, causally related clauses ("we went to the midnight show: we'd been itching to see it for weeks"---though even this usage seems a bit iffy to me), Truss claims that there are other valid uses:

  • "when there is probably more to the initial statement than has met the eye", e.g. "You can do it: and you will do it." (Ugh.)
  • "as a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or oppositional statements", e.g. "Man proposes: God disposes." (Double ugh.)
I don't even think this one can be chalked up to the oceanic divide; even among British writers, I can't recall running across either of these in any significant number. I'd think I would, too, as they are so jarring.

However, having argued on page 119, we made up again on page 120. In demonstrating another use of the colon, she made one of the finest literary references ever:

Gandhi II: The Mahatma Strikes Back
Recognise it? It's from UHF; Lynne Truss is a Weird Al fan!

"The 'A' is for content, the 'minus' is for not typing it. Don't ever do this to my eyes again." --Professor Ronald Brady, Philosophy, Ramapo State College

Posted by blahedo at 8:48am | Comments (4)

12 May 2005

At least I don't send you chain mail

For your viewing pleasure: a really well-constructed flash animation on a certain topic of relevance.

Again, Rehnquist, et al. see, in microscopic fine print at the end of the fourth and fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, the following phrase: "except in the case of enforcement of controlled substance laws." I don't know why this is, but it is. --Michael Kimmitt

Posted by blahedo at 11:00pm | Comments (0)

11 May 2005

Ghastly

And now, lest I jeopardise my position as a net provider of slack, a video with no redeeming qualities whatsoever: Apache. Remember, I warned you! Link shamelessly stolen from HeaneyLand!.

"I'll make it real simple. I'm a 36-C. In the game, she's a double-D. In the movie, she's a D. We split the difference." --Angelina Jolie, on her role as Lara Croft

Posted by blahedo at 12:38am | Comments (0)

10 May 2005

On work (and slack)

Monsignor Swetlund spoke today at Knox on the topic of work and social justice from a (Catholic) theological perspective. It was an interesting take on the issues, and I hope to work these ideas more into my own rhetoric. It really is a shame that liberals have as a group become so disdainful of religion---there is quite the natural alliance there.

He started off with an analysis of Genesis. Although people frequently say that work is part of the curse of the Fall, he pointed out that Man was created to work; it's just that work became toilsome after the Fall. Right from the start, though, God sets Adam to naming the animals, and grants dominion over them. This stewardship is not something to be taken lightly, and definitely counts as work. When Genesis says that man was created "in His image", the word that is used (S-L-M) is the same as for the statues of themselves that kings of the ancient era would place in their provincial capitals to remind people who was boss; the king's viceroys would be appointed to rule in his name, always reminded of the authority of the king. We are God's viceroys; over our own little slice of God's creation we hold dominion, and we are called to the responsible stewardship thereof. Part of that responsible stewardship is doing the work we are called to do---Catholics say we must follow our vocation.

And remember the third/fourth Commandment: "Six days you shall work." (There's also something about resting on the seventh in there.)

It's an interesting contrast to a creed held dear by a number of other people I know (not Christians): that the highest calling of Man is to slack. I'm pretty sure the idea was originally proposed in jest, but Church of the Subgenius and related traditions thought about it and realised that it's not so silly as it may at first sound. We work to pay the bills, but why let work steal our soul? Our humanity is found in the times when we are at leisure.

However, I'm not sure the two ideas are so much in opposition. I've heard a fair amount about slack from a friend of mine (he goes by "Reverend Jack" when he's ministering), and it strikes me that the chief characteristic of work that makes it not slack is the fact that the worker doesn't want to be doing it. If it's something you'd do anyway, then it doesn't seem to particularly count as "work" on the work-slack continuum. It can, however, count as work on the work-sloth continuum. So it really does strike me that the two systems are moderately compatible; meaning that the pinnacle of metaphysical place-finding would be to land a job that lets you do slackful work (or, alternatively, to have buckets of money and do slackful work, but that's harder to arrange). Which is just another way of saying "find a job doing what you love", which isn't very novel or surprising to anyone, I suppose.

But anyway.

After a fascinating rundown of the Catholic work ethic, the monsignor moved on to address the question of how this fits in to the larger issue of social justice. He framed it in linguistic terms, though I'm not sure he thought of it that way: work is a transitive action; it has both a subject and an object. The objective side of things is what we've already covered, regarding creativity and the (co-)creation of things both tangible and intangible. It's important that most members of a society produce more than they consume; that's what makes a society prosper. (He referred to himself as a notorious exception, since priests don't "produce" much, but I would disagree---it's just that his production is almost entirely in intangibles.)

As soon as you consider the subjective side, though, the social justice issues naturally fall out. Sure, this factory is producing lots of good things, but what about all the employees that are getting injured? Sure, this company improved its bottom line, but what about all the workers without health care? Sure, we're meeting our production quotas, but what about people that are working 50, 60, 70-hour weeks? Any complete discussion of the rights and duties of work must necessarily include these subjective components as well.

The bishops (and I wasn't clear on whether this was an American bishop thing or more widespread, but it's certainly consistent with the larger RCC position) laid out a three-point plan for reviewing any work decision, whether at the company level or at the public policy level:

  1. What will it do to people?
  2. What will it do for people?
  3. How will it affect the least well-off in society?
If you can't come up with a satisfactory answer to all three, you should be rethinking your decision.

The Genesis theology that justified the duty to work also justifies a right to work; Man was made to work, the reasoning goes, and we should make it our business to help enable that. What is it, exactly, that people have against "make-work" programs? The very term is loaded with negative connotations, yet few declaim the many achievements of New Deal programs that had the government paying people to build parks and roads and bridges and monuments. Many of them still exist in reasonably good shape today. While certainly not appropriate for everyone on welfare (and it would be a disaster if this sort of work were required of everyone on welfare), it might make a lot of people more fulfilled if they could actually do work they could take pride in. I mean, it might be hard to feel fulfilled if the fruits of their labour did not contribute to corporate profits, but I'm sure they'd find a way.

Msgr Swetlund closed with two (unfortunately-)controversial points:

  • We have a duty not just to see that all people work, but that they be paid a just, living wage. That means paying them enough money to keep a small family above the poverty line; despite all the corporate barons that cry whenever people demand a raise in the minimum wage, it still is quite a bit less than any reasonable living wage. In Champaign County, in order to support a family of four at just the poverty line, working 40 hours a week, a worker needs to make $9.25 an hour, and that's if health care is included on top of that. It would easily break $10 in a big city like Chicago, and yet the national minimum wage is still just $5.15. (Happily, the state has raised our minimum wage to $6.50---that's progress, but it's still not enough.)

    And of course the barons cry: right now, all the growth and prosperity goes straight into their pockets. In 1980, the average CEO made 42 times what an average worker made. Now they make more than 500 times what the average worker makes.** Think about that every time they say companies can't afford to pay their workers....

  • Americans work way too much. Even when you exclude the French with their famously short weeks and long vacations, we work a lot more than other first world nations. In 1973, we worked about 40.6 hours a week on average. Now it's more than 50.*** On average. And while in 1977, dual-income couples worked a collective 70 hours a week, they now work 82; and if they have kids, the numbers go up rather than down: the average dual-income couple with children now works 91 hours a week. We've gotta fix that.

"Leisure," said Msgr Swetlund, "is the basis of culture. Not work." Sounds like slack to me.

Thing I need to investigate further: There is a economic philosophy called "Economy of communion" that has apparently been used to great effect in some third world countries. The idea is, you convert a held company to a co-op, and profits get split in thirds, with one third each going back to the company (as capital improvement), to the workers, and to the community. Because this is a philosophy and not a legal definition, co-op leaders are able to use judgement and discretion, as when a Brazilian co-op used part of the "workers" money to hire an on-site doctor, vastly improving the local health care situation, or when the same co-op took one day a week for its workers to build houses, Habitat-for-Humanity-style, to replace the shantytowns that people were living in until then. Healthy, happy workers are vastly more productive, so this sort of model really is viable.

Other thing I need to investigate: evidently, Pope John Paul II wrote a number of plays in his younger days. One, titled "My God's Brother", is a rather subversive (for postwar Poland) dialogue between a Marxist, who wanted to help the poor by overthrowing the government, and a Christian, who wanted to help the poor by, y'know, helping the poor. The icing on the cake is that the Marxist turns out to be Satan in disguise. This is about how I feel about the anti-choice activists that spend all their time, talent, and treasure on making it illegal, as opposed to those few* that actually work at providing good, free prenatal care and other support services for the unexpectedly pregnant.

* By "few" here, I'm referring to those who are anti-choice and work to support the unexpectedly pregnant. I know lots of people who provide material support towards prenatal services, but strangely enough, most of them don't want abortion to be illegal. By their fruits ye shall know them, eh? In many parts of the country, Planned Parenthood is still the only place women can go for cheap or free prenatal care.

** Said he; I'm getting between 300 and 419, 300, and 458, depending on who you check and exactly when they were calculating, but the point stands regardless, eh?

*** Not sure where he got these numbers, and don't have time to chase them down. So, grain of salt and all that.

"It strikes me that Bauer's guess was pretty lucky--I have two axes in my garage but have yet to inscribe either with the word "axe." But hey, when the high priest tells me, "Inscribe the word 'axe' on this axe, chop-chop," I'm not about to wait around for him to axe me politely." --bibliophage

Posted by blahedo at 11:57pm | Comments (6)

9 May 2005

Elections

No, not the recent down-a-peg-taking of Labour. I seem to have gotten myself elected Secretary of the Faculty Senate. Matt thinks that this blog is at fault---I seem to have demonstrated a lack of reluctance to take notes and write things down. Though, to be honest, if I can pay my dues with nothing harder than sitting and typing up notes during every faculty meeting, I guess I've gotten off easy. I'll miss being able to knit during them, though.

"I'm sure people did question whether Italian printers were quite the right people to legislate on the meaning of everything; but on the other hand, resistance was obviously useless against a family that could invent italics." --Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Posted by blahedo at 6:15pm | Comments (0)

6 May 2005

More Skriking

I went to see The Skriker again tonight. A lot of the problems I noted in my previous post were resolved in a second viewing. The opening monologue? Despite being primed by the memorable phrase "Rumpelstiltskinesque plot" that I had seen when I glanced at the program before the show, the first time through I totally missed the fact that the first two or three minutes are essentially a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Comparatively clear this time around. And I got more out of the rest of that too, although there were still wide swaths that I couldn't comprehend.

There was a technical thing I observed during the monologue that had been commented on after the last show, though I didn't notice it then, but it's like the reel-change dots in movies: once pointed out, you can't miss it, and it's quite annoying. Therefore, if you are planning to see this show tomorrow, again or for the first time, don't highlight the next paragraph:

The drippy sound! Gaaah! Turn it off! "Chinese water torture", indeed.

There were other things I noticed for the first time tonight, some good, some bad:

  • The men-in-black stage crew set the brakes on the hospital bed. It definitely seemed to move a lot less than it did on Wednesday. Did I have something to do with that?
  • The left side of the theatre definitely has better sight lines. That's where I sat last time, and it seemed like I saw a lot more sides of faces and backs of heads tonight. Also, when you're sitting on the right, you can see the light of the rear-projector shining through the cyc (thanks Helen!), where on the left it's blocked by the tall structure at the back of the painted stage.
  • Out of all the surreality and unreality in the show, I think I found a continuity error, if that's possible. Although Josie was supposed to have killed her baby to protect her from the Skriker, and this infanticide is what put her in the mental hospital, she makes it sound like she first met the Skriker in the mental hospital. Maybe I just misunderstood some part of that.
  • Eight. The Skriker has eight subcharacters besides the native one, and a total of ten costumes. There were at least three distinct dialects in there, possibly five.
  • When I was talking to Liz last time, she mentioned the "bar scene", and I thought, "oh, a bar, is that what that was." This time, even with that explanation, I still thought it looked more like a waiting room. Ah well.
  • Nice line I missed before: "You people are killing me, you know that?" More generally, it seems like the Skriker had a line like this every time she was "discovered" or otherwise slipped out of a subcharacter and back into her native persona.
  • But the cutest line in the whole show, perfectly delivered, which I noticed last time too but forgot to write about, was when Lily is trying to convince Josie that no time has passed, look at yourself, look at me, and Josie says: "...yes. How'd you do that?" Comic relief is way funnier in a really serious show where you aren't expecting it, you know?
  • A volcano is not a meteorological phenomenon. Neither is an earthquake.
  • I have no idea what Lily really said, but I heard it the same way both times, and it sure sounded like she wished Josie were (was) "a bag".
  • Being distracted by Black Annis made me miss one of the most important speeches in the show, I think, when Skriker (as Man) gets all apocalyptic. Oops.
  • Man, did I ever miss the shadow play where Josie shot up. Clear as day if you happen to be looking that way, but it totally passed me by before. Partially explains the subsequent scene, though I'm still not totally satisfied.

After that apocalypse speech, I'm even more unsure what to make of the Skriker. She loves babies and needs vicarious life in order to survive, but she revels in death and destruction. Is she fundamentally a predator or a parasite? She's thrilled that "this'll be the big one," but isn't she being damaged by the ongoing destruction of the environment? And I still am not sure whether her desperation and fragility are an act she throws off once she's ensnared someone, or a real condition that actually is cured when she "gets" a new victim.

I was sitting a few seats from Rachel Foresta, and her comment at intermission, and after the show, was, "I love it!" Which was a little surprising given how negative I was feeling at that point on Wednesday. Her secret? She got "so swept up in it"---in all honesty, probably the right way to really appreciate this sort of nonrealistic work, if you're not putting as much work into it as I have.

Having put in all that work, I have a revised verdict. Although I think I continue to disagree with the playwright, in the same vague, nebulous ways I mentioned last time, I have now decided that I like this show quite a lot. It succeeds both as two hours' feeling entertainment and on a more long-term intellectual level; its only failure is as two hours' thinking entertainment, which is of course something it never set out to do. (Come to think of it, it might be interesting to find out audience approval ratings broken down along the Myers-Briggs T-F axis.) In the end, it probably comes out as the best show of the schoolyear.

"When the turn of the millennium came and went without eschatological immanentization, I decided I should probably enroll in Dramatic Criticism, so that I could graduate." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 11:58pm | Comments (0)

5 May 2005

The Skriker

An email went out about 5pm tonight from Liz Carlin-Metz, a theatre prof and director of this term's mainstage show, reminding us that said show in fact opens tonight and runs through the weekend and we should go see it. I'd planned to see it Friday, but what the heck, I wasn't doing anything tonight. So I went to see The Skriker, by Caryl Churchill.

I have to give two separate reviews for it. The reasons for this will hopefully come clear at the end. Taken together (or, for that matter, separately), these reviews conspired to make my 700th blog entry a loooong one, so I've placed them below the fold:

Review 1

It is the rare perfect confluence of playwright, actors, director, and conditions that let a play bring a viewer immediately into its world. There's usually some stage setting to be done, and for the first few minutes you are watching the play, before you get to experience the play.

So it wasn't really too surprising that I wasn't immediately taken with the opening monologue. But usually I can get the hang of the play within the first few minutes. This play, not so much. It begins with an almost completely unintelligible string of words uttered by the Skriker herself, as she capers about the stage in a twisty, unearthly dance. The babble is very stream-of-consciousness, and pivots on one word after another from phrase to phrase: "gone with the -wind-ow cleaner", "trousers to -wear- have you gone?" There is just enough comprehensibility to convey the fact that some meaning is intended, but you're certainly not going to get it on first hearing, and probably not at all without reading it. (Subtitles would have helped. Where are those augmented-reality geeks when you need them?) And it was long---five pages, I'm told, and it seemed to stretch on forever, though I suppose it was in reality only four or five minutes. It certainly did not make me hopeful for the rest of the show.

"Experimental" is the best word I can come up with for the early part of the show. Loud feedback-y noise and flashing strobes at the scene changes; this gibberish monologue; the music visualiser video projected onto the back wall*; the ever-changing ensemble of mythical characters wandering around in the sidestages. The stage itself had three three-foot-diameter pentagonal holes and one flush-mounted door down into the trap space, but was otherwise fairly conventional, and the lighting and sound (other than during scene changes) was likewise pretty straightforward.

Actually, the holes were a major source of tension in the first act. Back when I was doing a lot of ballroom competitions, a few of us came up with a rule that a dance costume, however good-looking, was a bad one if it was suspenseful: if I am worried that you'll fall out of it, trip on it, or hit somebody with it, I'm distracted from your dancing. And this is what I was reminded of with these holes. In the second scene, there is a hospital bed on wheels perhaps a foot away from the hole, with two characters hopping on and off, and every time they do so it moves, teetering ever closer. I had a hard time paying attention to anything they said, it was so distracting. This suspense continued to a lesser extent as various cast members wandered right past their edge, and occasionally casually backing up towards them. Even in the second act, by which point I was mostly at peace with them, I still occasionally snapped out of the show to wonder whether someone was going to fall in. Very unfortunate. (Not sure how to fix it, though, really. The hospital bed could be moved out slightly, I guess, but the rest is sort of inherent in the design, which I otherwise quite like. :P)

The ensemble dressed as assorted mythological characters (in some most excellent costumes) were their own set of distractions, though that was a little more in-game, as it were. It really makes me wonder what goes through their head, when their job for two hours is to slowly wander around the stage and just move in character. Seems very hard, actually.

As the first act dragged on, there was less dragging, less staring off into the rafters, and I finally started being able to follow the thread of the thing, sort of. In one scene we saw a lead (Lily) talking to a businesswoman who I immediately recognised as Eden Newmark, the infuriating sister I liked so much in Proof.** But who was she supposed to be? I thought there were only three characters. Was she supposed to be the Skriker? What about the other person who was playing the Skriker? Of course, it soon became clear that the Skriker was Newmark all the way down; it's just that the change of costume, accent, and demeanour was so complete that she was unrecognisable at first. In fact, though she kept returning to the rag-clad, spider-walking, Scots-accented*** base Skriker persona, she must've gone through a dozen other characters over the course of the show, making for some really fast costume changes and not a few accent and carriage changes as well. Whatever I might think about the play, she certainly did a good job carrying it.

Which is not at all to diminish the contributions of the other two leads, either. Sylvie Davidson (Lily) was great as usual, and Saras Gil (Josie) looks like a promising addition to the local theatre crowd. They had a good chemistry (ooh, that sounds so cliché) and did a good job portraying, respectively, the naïve and fearful, and the perceptive and despairing, reactions to the evil Skriker; neither one quite able to resist the seductive temptation of easily granted wishes.

So like I said, I finally started following the narrative thread, such as it was, and just as I was warming to the thing... a blaring scene change, and suddenly we're in, what, the underworld? Things go all bizarro again and I don't know what the hell is going on.

Intermission. The lights come up and I immediately dive into the dramaturgical analysis in the program, which at least explains a bit of what's going on. (But what kind of show is it, if you need to consult the Cliff's Notes even to get a basic idea about it?) After describing how the play departs from tradition (boy howdy), it frames the play as an examination of the vulnerability of Woman, responses to the feminist backlash of the 80s, and the symbiosis of humans and their environment. (The name "Gaia" shows up at this point.) Ok, that's something, I guess.

The program also describes all the mythological characters with the cool costumes: the Satyr Priest, who is walking on stilts shaped like goat feet; the Southern Belle, wearing a gorgeous big red ballgown and a gas mask; the Unicorn, wearing an Equus-style wire frame horse head with a big horn mounted on top; and several others, including my personal favourite, Black Annis (played by Helen Drysdale). The costume for that was a mask mounted on the back of the head and a dress with fake boobs stuffed in the back; at one point she was in the down-in-front hole in the floor and moving like all the other mythological characters, but of course she was moving backwards, sort of. Squinting slightly and watching this totally distracted me from whatever the Skriker was saying at that point, because it looked so creepy and cool.

Act 2 begins by situating the end of Act 1; now I get how it fits into the rest of the story. And armed with the descriptions of the program, I can kind of follow the plot (such as it is). Even so, there are things that make no sense. Why does the Skriker need to do this? Is the Skriker's apparent desperation real, or just an act to induce pity? What the heck is Josie doing down there---is she trying to fool the Skriker, and if so, what is that supposed to accomplish? Does Lily actually want this to happen, or is she just blinded by the temptations?

Finally, suddenly, at the end, we get hit over the head with The Moral Of The Story, which seems to involve something about stewardship of society and the environment, which has little to do with anything that came before; it really hits like a non-sequitur. (Nice biohazard suits, though.)

Verdict: I didn't really like this show.

* When I was in high school, we called this curtain forming the back wall something that is easy to pronounce, but I have no idea how to spell it. "Sike"? "Psych"? "Cyc"? I have no idea what it's short for, and therefore no educated guesses on its spelling, and my dictionary isn't giving me any leads. Why couldn't they pick something easy to spell, like "proscenium"?

** Strictly speaking, I recognised her as the infuriating sister from Proof---the name I looked up later. :)

*** I suppose it was North English, because Liz Metz knows way more about British dialects than I do, but it sounded Scottish to me. In any case, excellent dialect work all around, with just a very few noticeable clunks.

Interlude: after the show

I happened to be sitting with Brian Tibbets and Megan Scott, who were chatting with Craig Choma (all three Knox alums, overlapping by a year or two), and he offered to show them the slide and traps, so I latched onto that group. Two observations: that slide is really damn steep; and we here at Knox have got to have about the best stage area in the world.

Review 2

After checking out the stage, I stood out in the lobby reading the dramaturgy boards---a regular feature of mainstage shows whereby various local theatre folks pull together notes about œuvre of the playwright, the genre of the play, the milieu of both the play and the playwright, and literate reviews of the play**** from other theatre academics. All this stuff is tacked up on some boards for interested theatregoers to read.

After a few minutes of that, I had some conversations about the show with various members of cast and crew, and later with the director. I walked out to my car with her, and she was able to fill me in on some of the context and background; it softened me up quite a bit to the show.

The main thing was really sort of a meta-thing. During the show and immediately afterwards, it irritated me that I had to read the program and notes just to figure out what was going on. However, some literature and a lot of textbooks and academic papers take time and effort, and frequently outside information, to digest and understand. Why must theatre be different? There certainly are many shows that are self-contained; there are also pulp fiction novels and pop science articles, but those don't define their respective media, either. Furthermore, as Liz pointed out, the question should not be, "If I can't understand it without outside help, what's the point?". The question should be, "If I set it aside after seeing it and never think about it again, then what's the point?". Just so.

Looking backwards through the show, I can now clearly see that the ending wasn't as much of a non sequitur as it at first seemed (nor indeed was it so clear-moral-riffic as I indicated above). I can see several places in the show that allude to a tension between modern humans and their society and environment. In music theory, we've been learning how dissonances (sevenths, suspensions) are usually prepared in advance: the chord just before a dissonant one will contain the dissonant note, but that note is still consonant at that point. That's just what happens in this play. In scenes throughout the show, there are brief allusions to the loneliness of modern life, its divergence from community, from the earth, and from the mythical-spiritual world. At the time, you think nothing of them; but looking back from the other side of the discordant tones struck in the final scene, they can be reanalysed as preparations therefor.

The business about feminism and Woman makes a bit more sense after further contemplation, too. If Lily and Josie are seen as two instances of archetypal Woman, we can spin out the events of the play into an allegory where the Skriker, as Tradition, does everything she can to turn them into breeding machines, whose chief purpose in existence is procreative, making babies and giving their lifeblood to sustain the Skriker (Tradition). Killing a baby (is this an abortion reference?) doesn't rescue you from the pull of tradition, nor does anything else. Giving in may let you in the end continue your life as before, or on the other hand it may consume the remainder of your life.

Or, perhaps the struggle is more about the Skriker's invitation to partake of her wish-granting---stay with me, she says, and I will grant you whatever you want---set against the women's (Woman's) desire to make their own way, even as they (as Liz put it) "come apart at the seams". But what does the final scene of devastation represent in this model? The results of women making their own way? Is this end seen as inevitable, or preventable?

Possibly we can read it on a level closer to the surface, echoing a theme seen in a lot of fantasy novels including the venerable Lord of the Rings: the age of faeries is coming to an end, to be replaced with an age of Man; the denizens of Faerie can feel the change, their power ebbing, and they try to fight it. If the reading is along these lines, the text certainly comes down strongly on one side: the world will be a far worse place if we lose our connection to our mythological spirit world, and to Gaia, the very embodiment of the living planet that sustains us.

These interpretations are not remotely exhaustive, obviously. But all the readings I can come up with right now have something or other that I'd take issue with. On the other hand, I feel ill-equipped to debate against them, because it feels too much like I've set up a straw man to knock down. Aside from being a generally shady rhetorical technique, once you're called on your use of a straw man, the entire argument becomes suspect. The problem is, I have nothing but straw men to argue against here: can I disagree with something if it was never clearly stated in the first place? Such, I guess, is the nature of engaging this sort of text. (And engaging it must be, to inspire me to write 2600 words about it... jeez, I should get course credit for this.)

So where does that leave me? A lot of the questions I asked in the first review are still unanswered in my mind, but they no longer contribute to a great chaos as they did before. I'm still dissatisfied with where it went, and the ending still seems a bit glib. Now that I see where it was going, I suppose the unintelligible initial monologue makes a bit more sense (though I still wish it weren't so long). A lot of it seems clearer in hindsight.

Verdict: I didn't really like this show, and I didn't like it so much that I think I have to go see it again.

**** Sorry, ran out of cool French words. ;)

UPDATE: See next post for review number three.

"Next year, we're hoping that the Headline Club defines the category differently, narrowly and in a way that plays better to our strengths--- perhaps asking the judges to 'look for offhand observations, snark and the coolest links to places on the Web where you can fritter away the precious hours of the one and only life you will ever have.'" --Eric Zorn

Posted by blahedo at 2:58am | Comments (2)

3 May 2005

OW!

So there I am, getting coffee at the Gizmo as I so frequently do. They serve the coffee in the kind of big thermos where you push a button or lever on top to dispense the actual coffee, and I had nearly filled my cup. All of a sudden, the last of it sputters out---and not into the cup, onto my hand. It's still quite hot, but after an initial jerk of the hand that spills a little coffee (some onto my hand), I at least had the presence of mind to set down the cup before waving my hand wildly through the air to cool it off.

And just as I'm coming to my senses and processing what happened, I look at the still-mostly-full coffee cup and see that the foam dripcatcher it's sitting on is not perfectly level, and as I look at it, in incredibly slow motion (but still faster than me) it ever so gently tips itself over and bounces on the rack, sending coffee everywhere. And of course there are witnesses, so it's not even like I can quietly say "there's a mess" to the people behind the counter and sidle off. Besides which, I still need to wait for my food. So there I stand, as person after person comes through the line and says, "whoa, what happened here?" And I get to explain again what a klutz I was. (Maybe the worst part is, it really wasn't my fault, or anyone's fault, but it still feels like it was....)

"As for developers who are still using QuickDraw, well, they've had four years. They probably have another two at least before QuickDraw disappears completely, but honestly, at some point it's time to blit or get off the pot." --John Siracusa

Posted by blahedo at 11:39am | Comments (0)

A book

In all my driving this weekend, I finally finished listening to a book titled Absolute Friends, by John Le Carré. I liked it, but I can't decide whether to recommend it.

Characterwise, we have two aging former spies, and for much of the novel we hear about their various exploits earlier in life, including before they were spies, when they were resident in an anarchist squat in West Berlin. Plotwise, well, most of the story is told in flashback, and though it may not be clear at the time, all this flashback is essentially character development to set up the final third or so of the book.

And that final third? Well, there are wingnut conspiracy theorists out there that will claim that that sort of thing actually happens. Others will claim that it couldn't possibly. I think the former position is unlikely and the latter naïve. The ending of the book is something that is scarily possible, and we should all hope that it doesn't happen, and this sort of thing is why I so strongly disapprove of weakening accountability and freedom just because there's a war on.

And that's about as much of a recommendation as I'll make.

"There is, after all, nothing in the definition of `tree' that specifies which sense of `plant' is the appropriate superordinate. That specification is omitted on the assumption that the reader is not an idiot, a Martian, or a computer." --George A. Miller

Posted by blahedo at 12:55am | Comments (0)

A concert

Last Friday night, I went to a concert of the Knox Chamber Singers. Highlights of the evening were when a student, Kira Horel, conducted two songs (and usual director Laura Lane was seen to be singing in the choir, amusingly), and when, after an intermission, they performed P.D.Q. Bach's The Seasonings.

It was neat to see someone conduct what I assume was her first concert ever. Although her beat was precise, you could tell she wasn't really used to giving multiple cues with her other hand; she kind of managed, but mostly just kept the baton beating while looking at the people she needed to cue. (She also probably should have picked a better dress to wear---sleeveless and with a slit down the leg doesn't work very well with a constantly moving arm and a slightly bent knee.) But overall she, ah, conducted herself well up there; I would think she'd be a bundle of nerves, but you could never tell.

The second song she conducted was "Mangwani M'pulele", billed as being in "traditional Sotho", by which I guess they mean Sesotho, unless there's another African language of that name running around. My main observation on that song was that all this music theory I'm taking must be sinking in, because all I could think was, "that's a I-vi-V-I progression!"

The featured piece of the evening was "The Seasonings", reconfirming my belief that PDQ Bach is one of the most brilliant composers of the 20th century. It probably seems like it would be easy to write for kazoo and slide whistle, but it strikes me that it would be even harder to write something that could be performed on them and still sound musical. And it did---the whole piece is very humorous, but this is because the composer knew what he was doing and how to spoof the form. And coming up with an instrument like the "tromboon"---a trombone with a reed mouthpiece that presumably came from a bassoon---that's a good bit of thinking outside the box, and you'd be surprised how well it blends with a pair of slide whistles and a pair of kazoos. And a tuba.

"I think the understanding of the word 'belief' that puts it in tension with reason is born of luddites and politicians attempting to thump their Bibles to support an unreasonable agenda on the one hand, and three centuries of academically authoritative atheist reactionaries willing to neglect all religion on the other. Neither are contributing much to the improvement of religious practice in this world." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 12:40am | Comments (0)

And a show

Ages ago (which is to say about a week and a half), I went to see a show here called Through the eyes of a raven, based on Poe's poem, by Doug Porter. Looking back at it, it feels like a surreal dream.

I've sort of been putting off writing about it*****, because I'm not sure what to say. I definitely felt like I would've appreciated it more had I ever read Poe's "The Raven", although I suppose I've seen enough cultural references and Simpsons Halloween specials* to get the basic gist. Reading the original, though, would at least give me a better idea of what parts were Doug's additions. It seemed quite clear that portions were direct quotations, and equally clear that others weren't; I just didn't know where the line was.

Eric Feltes as the Raven was a scene stealer throughout. From the time he leapt sidewise onto the stage, clad in a black cloak that he occasionally flapped for effect, to the time he perched right on the edge of the desk, he quite effectively portrayed a completely inhuman character. (Excellent costume and makeup work, on him and the others too.) I think in the final tally he had a sound majority of the lines; generally I was happy with their delivery, although every time he quoted "Nevermore", something about how he said it set off my "acting too hard" alarms. I'm not even sure why, because going into this show I wouldn't have expected a single word to be able to do that.

The interaction between Lenore and the protagonist was bizarrely interesting. After a brief prologue that sets the stage of their relationship, she returns in a scrappy, ragged shadow of her former self, both there and not there. The protagonist stages his conversation with the raven, but also with her ghost; he is speaking right to her, and yet does not see her. For her part, she is speaking the words that he (and we) hear from the raven, but cannot make him feel her as the source, or even her presence at all. Nick Perry and Beth Golemo pulled off the whole there/not there thing really well, I thought.

The whole show certainly left me with a feeling of despair and disturbance, but what was it about? I'm not even sure, really.** At the surface layer, that's the easy one, protagonist loses his fiancée to an early death (of tuberculosis or some similar 19th century disease), and he misses her terribly. Down a level: he remembers her on a pedestal and holds an unhealthy obsession with how she was, and fears that love---once held, now lost---would be forever again denied him. My understanding of the original indicates that both these were present there too, in some measure.

This presentation seemed to furnish another layer beneath that, though, and that's where I get a little lost. Lenore was definitely speaking most (not all) of the words that were heard to come from the Raven, and she was definitely presented as being a ghost or the like. But what did she want? At the time, I got the impression that she wanted him to let go a little so he could move on with his life, though I'm not now sure why I thought that. The clearest indication was that she wanted him to be able to see her. As a ghost? Or just see that it was her saying these things, not the raven? And how to interpret the fact that some of the raven's raving was not lip-synched by her---stuff the raven came up with on his own?

In retrospect, as I think about this, the raven was really acting pretty sadistic, especially with the "nevermore"s. Death and loneliness are yours forever, protagonist! Cheers!

To close on a slightly brighter note, I wanted to say I got a kick out of the set. Using just a chair rail and crown moulding between bookcases to simulate an entire wall---and convincingly, at that---that's pretty clever.

*Which, I suppose, is a cultural reference too.

**Here again, reading the poem might help---one of these days, I will....

***Eh, don't believe it, I enjoy every minute of it. Who needs fifteen minutes of fame when you can have fifteen regular readers of your blog?

****Don't you agree?

*****Indeed, writing this was really frustrating, because I keep feeling like maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention that night. While writing it I considered scrapping it, but I'd already promised several of you that it was on its way---it seems I've become a victim of my own hobby. :P***

"We should not only happily sign over what we owe the IRS, knowing our money goes to even greater good than the coins Jesus exhorted those around him to turn over, but we should look for ways to be even more charitable to those around us. If everything---including our wealth---is a gift from God, we have no right to begrudge any portion of it to the disadvantaged. We didn't earn it through superior virtue." --Chris Tessone

Posted by blahedo at 12:19am | Comments (2)