Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Of Cuivienen near a Blue Moon

Note: I am a J.R.R. Tolkien fan. This post refers to a lot of Tolkien that I make little attempt to explain. As such, at times it can be like a baseball fan reading the details of a cricket match. Sorry about that if it makes the post more difficult for you. There are plenty of links to get lost in if you want to explore any of it.

Last Saturday, just after sunset on what turned out to be a bright open sky adorned with small tears of clouds in a reflected orange hue, I lit another camp fire in our newly designated fire pit behind our house. It burned warm and strong as the stars came out and what was close to a Blue Moon rose behind us. Vega and Deneb appeared in the darkening blue near the zenith. Jupiter had been shining for awhile.

Jennifer and I sat by the fire. We talked and drank and watched the vista of fall color trees on the ridge to our west fading against a twilight glow. I had a beer. She had a Gentleman Jack. The fire peaked and died down after it got dark. I wanted to keep it small. The rise of the almost Blue Moon was pronounced in the silver-blue radiance it cast upon the ground. Our shadows were obvious in spite of the licking flames from the modest fire.

I placed a large log in the heart of the fire and things simmered. Wood crackled and cinders touched the star dotted sky. Some fire sparkles drifting briefly upward could have been shooting stars.

I had to take my daughter to a late-starting spend-the-night gathering at a friend’s house. The fire became a dying glow by the time we left, still warm against the rising night chill; a small trail of smoke columned into the darkness, reaching toward the bright disk of moon. But, when I returned about 20 minutes later there rose from the pit a raging thing with livid flicks of fire roaring in defiant anger at the night. Jennifer was throwing on more wood, drinking more Gentleman Jack. Our dog Charlie was watching her conjure the flames. She had music blasting from her iPhone nested in a portable speaker system.

She hugged me, laughing, and attempted to sing Dancing in the Moonlight, although she could only manage to chant the title over and over without any other lyric from the song. She was her own private party, dancing and howling at the moon with the fire matching her karmic intensity. The transformation was something to behold.

But, before all that happened, before I left to take my daughter, as Jennifer and I sat in the complimenting glow of the fire and the moon, I thought of Tolkien, as I often do in bright moonlight and other times. The special luminosity inspires within me a recollection of a lake called Cuivienen from The Silmarillion. There is something about the shadows cast by the subtle silvery radiance in the comparative stillness of the moonlit night that often makes me think of the Coming of the Elves to Middle Earth.

In truth the moonlight is inappropriate for Cuivienen, the Water of Awakening. For Middle Earth in this distant time before even the First Age began was under none but starlight. Still, nature’s light in the night sky connects me to the surprise and marvel of the Valar themselves when they first beheld the Elves created by Iluvatar himself.

The Valar had done much to perpetuate the creation of Middle Earth, fashioning a pristine natural world for the benefit of the Elves. Some of the world was already marred, however. The Valar had been at war with the most powerful of their kind, Melkor (a.k.a. Morgoth - Tolkien has many names for everything, being a philologist by trade he invented many languages for his fictional world), for eons of unmeasured time. Morgoth had wrought destruction of the great Lamps of Light in Almaren, the original dwelling place of the Valar, servant powers Iluvatar had made in the Great Music. But, the Valar knew the time was nigh for the coming of Iluvatar’s most personal creation besides the Valar themselves – the Elves. One of the Valar made a final touch-up on Middle Earth.

“Then she began a great labour, the greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda. She took the silver dews from the vats of Telperion, and therewith she made new stars and brighter against the coming of the Firstborn; wherefore she whose name out of the deeps of time and the labours of Ea was Tintalle, the Kindler, was called after by the Elves Elentari, Queen of the Stars.” (page 48)

Just in time, as it turns out. For...

“By the starlit mere of Cuivienen, Water of Awakening, they rose from their sleep of Iluvatar; and while they dwelt yet silent by Cuivienen their eyes beheld first the stars of heaven. Therefore they have ever loved the starlight, and have revered Varda Elentrai above all the Valar.” (page 48)

Reading Tolkien’s masterwork, The Silmarillion, is like reading the Old Testament. It is often difficult to slog through the dense, somewhat archaic, and highly detailed prose. Though a lifelong fan of Tolkien’s world, I have only read The Silmarillion all the way through once (by contrast, I have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings eight times). I have, however, read certain chapters of it several times and refer back to the work frequently during periods of heightened interest in Tolkien.

Its greatest chapter, which I have read on numerous occasions, is the story of Beren and Luthien. To me, this is the greatest tale in all of Tolkien’s work and it is rightly woven into the rich background fabric of the more famous Rings trilogy. Tolkien first wrote of Beren and Luthien in a long, unfinished poem which I have in my library and have read once several years ago. It is probably the longest poem I have ever read, running some 4200 lines, though never completed. Tolkien toiled over it for six years before (as he did with some much of his work) discarding it.

Then he summarized the story of the poem in captivating detail, completing the plot as a chapter in The Silmarillion. It was Beren, too, as it happens, that first beheld the lovely Luthien in a moonlit clearing of an enchanted forest. It was there he fell in love with her. Later, she came to love him too, though theirs was a classic, forbidden romance, Beren being human and Luthien being of Elven-Maiar descent.

"It is told in the Lay of Leithian that Beren came stumbling into Doriath grey and bowed as with many years of woe, so great had been the torment of the road. But wandering in the summer in the woods of Neldoreth he came upon Luthien, daughter of Thingol and Melian, at the time of the evening under moonrise, as she danced upon the unfading grass in the glades beside Esgalduin. Then all memory of his pain departed from him, and he fell into an enchantment; for Luthien was the most beautiful of all the Children of Iluvatar." (page 165)

After a heroic story of epic proportions easily rivaling the action and events of the more popular tale of the Rings of Power, Beren and Luthien are wed and their off-spring, half-human, half-Elven (even part Maiar, but that gets a bit too deep – as is common with Tolkien – for this post) are manifest in the character of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings.

Moonlight and starlight play a noteworthy role in Tolkien’s world. For the Elves, it all started under the perpetual stars, before the sun was even made, at a lake called Cuivienen. So, my mind assembled all this reading in an instant last Saturday night by the camp fire. It evoked certain tranquility and beauty tinged with sadness in the depth of Time within me as only Tolkien can conjure.

The moon cast vivid shadows, even as Jennifer summoned a larger fire from the pit and music played and we were bathed in a resplendent shine of silver-blue, as when Beren first beheld Luthien long ago, ere Morgoth was subdued, two full ages before the Rings were ever wrought.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Catching Jupiter Live


Jupiter and some of its moons, roughly as viewable through my telescope at higher magnification (9mm) last night. This pic is part of a screenshot from my Starry Night software.


Labels for the moons as given in Starry Night. Thebe was too faint for us to make out last night through my telescope.

I have a 150mm Newtonian telescope made by Celestron that I haul out rather infrequently to check out various astronomical delights first hand. Last night I set it up for Jennifer's parents, my daughter and her boyfriend. It was the first time most of them had seen Jupiter and several of its moons live. My daughter and her boyfriend thought it was, just perhaps, cool. Jennifer and her parents showed a bit more interest.

I have wandered through the night skies often since my teens. The thrill of seeing far away objects in our universe is something special to me (especially spotting them for the first time). I recall, for example, the first time I ever saw Jupiter's moons, many years ago, in the cheap Meade refractor scope I owned at the time. I saw Andromeda for this first time with that scope. It was only a faint "puff" of light in the small refractor but it was mind-blowing none the same.

After admiring the wonder of the planet last night, I trained the scope over to our Moon to check our the craters and such. The moon is still in its first phase, not quite half-full yet. It is often a better view when its dark side is more evident and you can catch a bit of shadow along the lighted edge giving everything the impression of greater depth.

For initial viewing with my Celestron I usually make use of my 40mm eyepiece. Then I switch over to a stronger magnification, 9mm or 7mm, for a closer look. Last night we were able to detect a mountain range whose peaks shown in the sunlight but were actually a bit beyond the boundary of the dark side, extended into the darkness. Just a small sliver of detectable light separated perhaps 100 miles or so from the light side of the moon, yet still tall enough to reach up a grab the sun before the curvature of the moon pulled all peaks beyond the reach of light.

Of Jupiter we were only able to see one of the dark bands on its surface last night. It was not as clear as the pics I have posted above which, of course, are not from my telescope but from my Starry Night program. The pics are, however, fairly representative of the size of Jupiter as seen through my 9mm eyepiece at precisely the time I was outside watching the planet.

One reason I don't get my telescope out very often is the ease and convenience of seeing everything through Starry Night. I know that sounds fairly lazy and I suppose I am a bit of a lazy astronomy geek. There is really no substitute for seeing the real thing live.

But Starry Night allows me the check out any part of the sky at any time regardless of cloud cover or wind conditions or temperature. One of my favorite uses of the software is to view the sky maybe a couple of hours ahead in time, spot various satellites that will pass overhead, then go out later at the appointed time with my binoculars or just my naked eye and watch for these human-made objects as they pass my way while circling the earth. I don't that rather often, actually, in winter.

Starry Night informed me last night that Jupiter was about 4.34 AU distance from us. An Astronomical Unit (AU) is the basic unit of measurement for near-objects like the planets. Jupiter was roughly 403,000,000 miles away from us as we saw its bright, distinctly round surface last night. An amazing distance when you consider how clearly it could be seen, even if its own brightness washed out much of the detail of its gigantic, stormy surface bands. At that distance, the light from Jupiter takes over 30 minutes to reach the Earth. So, we were seeing at our Solar System's largest planet not in the Now, technically, but only as it was a half hour ago.

If I had been more enterprising I could have used some of my filters to manipulate the visible light so that we could have seen another band or two on the surface but, like I said, I'm a rather lazy astronomer. I could see it clear enough in Starry Night for my satisfaction. And my fellow stargazers last night were impressed enough with what they were able to see. Most of them were chilled and ready to go back inside after about 15-20 minutes.

I like my Celestron telescope, but I made a mistake in trading for it. I bought my first reflector scope back in 1994, my first winter on my property. It was a standard Meade 10-inch cardboard tubed reflector. (This telescope is no longer made. It has since been replaced by a very attractive looking alternative that uses light-weight rods instead of a cardboard tube.) It was great fun star-hopping with that Meade. I could see details within star clusters and nebula that the 6-inch aperture of the Celestron simply doesn't pull in. It is the physics of optics. But, the Celestron is much easier on my back in terms of setting it up and its optics are technically better than the Meade's. The problem, though, is the aperture. Size does matter regardless of the quality of the mirrors, the precise adjustment controls, the fine craftsmanship.

That Meade scope and I connected with the live sky a lot back then. I have rather sophisticated deep-sky charts and 10-inches brings in considerable light if the sky is, ironically, dark enough. No city background light. I traversed many of the of what Messier catalogued. Seeing these distant space objects, light -years away, whose light I was seeing as it was before I was born, was and remains and sense of wonder to me.

But, it was fun last night standing in the chilled early evening watching Jupiter through my Celestron and counting what moons we could see. It was a true explorer moment. The inspiration that is inherently astronomy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Return of Memento and the Toys

Last weekend was a bit of a movie weekend at our home. My daughter watches a lot of movies with her friends through Netflex on the PS3. But, late Saturday afternoon she and her boyfriend found themselves acutely afflicted with boredomitus, boredom being the national epidemic of this country, apparently. I was telling them that I had just purchased Toy Story 3 on Blu-Ray, but Jennifer was off playing in a near-by tennis tournament so we were saving that one for a Sunday evening family viewing.

I buy everything on Blu-Ray these days, as long as there is a “digital copy” packaged with the film. My PC doesn’t play Blu-Rays yet so I need a DVD copy for those repeat viewings that often drive my wife and child mad. Anyway, the conversation drifted toward the last pure DVD I bought – The Dark Knight.

As long-time readers know, Christopher Nolan is my favorite contemporary film director. I was truly impressed with his last film, Inception, which I saw in IMAX this past summer. Anyway, the boyfriend and I were discussing how much he enjoyed The Dark Knight, having watched it two dozen times or more. So, I ventured to mention some of Nolan’s other works.

The conversation drifted to Nolan’s first true feature-length film, Memento, which I still hold to be a brilliant effort. I told the boyfriend and my daughter about the basic premise. The film is (primarily) told backwards. You see the end at the beginning and the beginning at the end. It is about a man who has short-term memory loss who is seeking vengeance for the murder of his wife.

The neat thing about Nolan’s non-linear (or in this case reverse linear) story-telling is that it fits perfectly with the protagonist’s condition. The audience sees the character in action and knows the ultimate motivation for what he is doing but has no immediate understanding of his present motivations at any given moment. In other words, a scene begins without reference to the immediate “past.” We only know how things turn out in the “future.” We experience what short-term memory loss actually is, within the presentation of the film.

As one character says in the film: “It’s all backwards. I mean, you know where you're going but you don’t remember where you’ve been.” And the film puts the viewer precisely into this perspective by the way it is told. (Although, in fairness, the film’s time scheme is even more complicated than that. There is a black and white element to the film that is being told forward in time while the color portion of the film is backwards.)

Another favorite line in the film is when Leonard, the protagonist, narrates words to the memory of his dead wife about his quest for vengeance: "I can't remember to forget you."

Well, my daughter and the boyfriend found the idea interesting. Surprisingly so. So, I took the next step and – at the risk of conveying how geeky I can be about such things – I presented them with my “limited edition” packaging of the film. It is presented as a psychiatric patient’s file with all sorts of notes and forms and references to bits and pieces of the movie.

This enticed them further. So, I asked if they’d like to watch the beginning (or the end in this case) just to see if they could get in to it. The next thing I knew it was an hour later and we had to pause the film to go for dinner, a fund-raising bean supper a local church was having. I told them we didn’t have to see the rest of the film because I knew they were planning to go to a friend’s house for a bonfire (which seems to be all the rage among kids around here these days) after we ate.

Oh no. They were hooked. It was fun to see. So, after the side trek to the bean-supper (they both had hot dog plates), we sat down to finish off the last 45 minutes or so of the film. Nolan constructs the film masterfully. The tension builds in spite of the fact you know what happens in the end because you have no idea what happens in the beginning. The puzzle is being pieced together until slowly the viewer knows more about what is happening that the main character does. Because he can’t remember the beginning. And as the beginning comes into the sharper view, as the puzzle pieces fall together, what is revealed is shocking, even if ambiguous.

Guy Pearce, Carrie-Ann Moss, and Joe Pantoliano are all great in this film. Nolan shot it on a shoe string budget in about 28 days, so having these big named actors with their relatively big salaries required an efficient shoot. Nolan pulled it all off within a (very low) budget, which impressed some important people in large studios. His career took off.

My daughter and the boyfriend were impressed with the film even though it has no cool special effects, no car chases, no sex, no explosions, no action. Just the slow, masterful build-up of the tension inherent in the marvelous mystery Memento is about. Just an exceptional film and particularly enjoyable for me this last Saturday because it was the first time I had watched it in many years and the first time I had gotten to share it with my daughter.

By the way, the soundtrack to Memento is excellent and worth owning. I listened to it much of the rest of the weekend and even into tonight.

Sunday evening it was time to check out Toy Story 3, which none of us had seen in the theater last summer. I am a huge Pixar fan and own most of their films on DVD. The more recent ones like Cars and Ratatouille (both of which I saw in theaters) are not part of my collection. But, I watched the original two Toy Story films repeatedly back in the day when my daughter was a child and really enjoyed the brightly comical animation in her child-like awareness. (Sure beat the hell out of Barney.) Part of the reason I enjoy these films is that it allows me to touch her former child-like awareness in my mind, even though I can retain only the vaguest notions of my own such experiences as a child.

Toy Story 3 is hilarious, escapist, fun. The animation is, of course, state of the art. There are a lot of references to things that happened in the first two films so I’m not sure how many people who have not been exposed to Toy Story before would connect with some of that. At any rate, the story picks up ten years or so after Toy Story 2 with Andy getting ready to go off to college.

The toys (Woody, Buzz, etc.) are all in an existential quandary. Andy doesn’t play with them anymore. The film begins with a funny attempt by the toys to draw attention to themselves in hopes that Andy with take notice and play with them for awhile. The toys are feeling sad and unfulfilled because they are “meant” to be played with and have this need in their toy Being. An interesting perspective from the toy’s point-of-view.

Andy fully intends to take Woody with him to college but the other toys are boxed up and destined for the attic, something they all fear. An attempt to avoid the attic ends up with all the toys, including Woody, accidentally tossed into a garbage truck and the real adventure of the story begins. This one ends up with a bittersweet ending after several enjoyably comical twists and turns in the adventure. I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I don’t think it was quite up to the standards of the first two films.

It was also enjoyable seeing it in Blu-Ray, of course. The vivid colors and sharp imagery jumps right out at you. The ability to experience new films this way, coupled with other interests and the workings of my personal schedule, is a big reason I often decide to not see films in theaters anymore. The in-theater experience is great for certain truly visual masterpieces like Avatar, for example. But, showing a little patience after the initial release of a feature film allows me to watch the film fresh and more inexpensively than would otherwise be the case.

There are exceptions. I always see Christopher Nolan’s films in theater. But, seeing Memento again after so long has inspired me to revisit some other favorite DVDs in my movie collection. Winter is an excellent time to attempt such things. So, I may be posting more about my in-home cinematic impressions in the future.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Is the Tea Pot Empty?

In an historic turn of events, the Republicans surged in the 2010 mid-term elections as no party has since 1938. Primary factors are attributable to general voter anger at the focus of the Obama Administration on expanding social welfare to a degree not seen since 1964 (a.k.a. Obamacare) while the country continues to feel the fearful effects of the Great Recession, particularly in the area of unemployment. (As a point of qualification, Bush's Medicare Part D entitlement costs have been (so far) larger than even Obamacare. To the tune of many trillions of dollars of public debt already committed into the foreseeable future. The fact is the Republicans are no less to blame for the entitlement binge than the Democrats.)

The “
audacity of Hope” seems to have had its chance as far as the voters are concerned. The politics of Fear seems to have decisively won the day. With the Democrats losing control of the House while maintaining only a slim margin in the Senate it is unlikely anything of real substance will now be accomplished domestically over the course of the next two years. (See 2010 political map here.)

As I have mentioned before, economics usually trumps every form of wisdom. If you don’t have a job, if your job is uncertain or pays less, then fear inevitably triumphs over every hope in most cases. This is a clear, if uninspiring, human truth within the functional reality of consumer culture.

I voted for President Obama but, like many others, find myself
disenchanted with him. He spent so much effort on healthcare reform that he ended up burning far too many bridges and cashing in virtually all his political chips on something that – though it perhaps would have been a nice perk – essentially rendered his administration ineffective against the “real issues” as most Americans saw them.

The result is that in two short years the overwhelming wave of enthusiasm for “change” in Washington ended up appearing to be more of the same,
with many of the same interests still empowered, and far too few results on “main street America.” Whether actually disconnected or not, Obama has ineptly come off that way and the resulting backlash has given us the Tea Party movement.

It will be interesting to see how the next two years play out. Nothing of substance will be accomplished.
Gridlock is inevitable. So, the message for the 2012 election cycle now begins to take shape. Who will most effectively position themselves to take advantage of the gridlock? Will the Republicans be able to capitalize on their momentum with the message that the voters need to give them more power? Will the Democrats and Obama be able to blame the gridlock on the Tea Party by attempting to push through more “popular” initiatives that they know will not be supported by the neocons? It will be interesting to watch.

One thing is for sure. The urgent needs of the moment, primarily
the skyrocketing national debt, will not be addressed by either party. The Tea Party will likely be as ineffective in the next two years as Obama is perceived to have been in the last two. And this country will be far worse off in 2012 than it is today.

A clarion voice of sanity in this sea of political polarization and confusion naturally comes from someone not directly involved with the political undercurrents of power.
David Stockman, former OMB director for President Reagan, saw the deficit mess for what it is way back in 1984. But few heeded his cry of “wolf!” That may still be the case. But, Stockman’s opinion remains fiscally pragmatic and unchanged. We have prospered on an illusion of wealth and we must now cut social programs (Social Security and Medicare – just the opposite of what Obamacare is doing) as well as scale back defense spending or face the consequences of national bankruptcy.

Today, Stockman's opinion of our future prospects in the face of Tuesday's election results
is featured in this great op-ed piece. Read it.

This, at first, sounds rather Tea Party-ish. But, like most things with the Tea Party, this is a fantasy. It is unlikely that any neocon is going to be able to rein-in such a vastly popular program as Social Security. It is unlikely that the Tea Party momentum consists of any elements to significantly reduce America’s military spending. So, the main culprits of the “white elephant” issue of national fiscal responsibility will go unaddressed. And, in spite of the recent Colbert-Stewart rally for toning down political rhetoric in an angry America, we are likely to be just getting started in terms of everybody shouting, no one really listening, and
our debt continuing to rise, somewhat exponentially.

It should be noted that
the GOP has reason to be a tad uneasy with the Tea Party philosophy so prevalent in its midst. There are indications that Tea Party momentum might attempt to not only take out Democrats but more traditional Republicans as well. That could be its undoing, however, as this will only lead to in-fighting within the GOP and a fragmentation of what appears to be a unified effort. Under the surface, however, this unity is not stitched together very well. Should the GOP fail to hold together under the pressure of what feels like a Tea Party “mandate” then the biggest winner in 2010 might ironically turn out to be President Obama, whose base will now likely solidify in the face of what many perceive as Republican right-wing extremism.

Rand Paul, the rather idealistic son of
Ron Paul – a libertarian republican I have voiced respect for in the past, is one of the big Tea Party winners. He is seen as a significant political phenomenon in his own right, though certainly not to the extent Obama was in 2008. Rand’s association with the Tea Party movement and the Tea Party’s vague but enthusiastic anti-Washington message seems to give the neocon faction a certain legitimacy.

By association, Ron Paul is now classified as a Tea Party figurehead. A recent, fascinating, article in the left-leaning periodical The Atlantic names the elder Paul as “The Tea Party’s Brain.” That is somewhat disingenuous though certainly Ron Paul has much in common with the Tea Party in terms of the role of government and economic policy. The fact is, Ron Paul has never courted the Tea Party and this movement has cropped up rather coincidentally close to Paul’s own economic beliefs, without any assistance from Paul himself. His son, Rand, was the real beneficiary of this in 2010.

But, back to the article in The Atlantic. What is well articulated in it is that Ron Paul’s own economic philosophy is based on the theories of the great Austrian economist
Ludwig von Mises, a name to which I have only recently become familiar. I agree with much of what I’ve been able to find about von Mises and, consequently, it has strengthened my own underpinnings for Ron Paul’s economic perspective of ending the Federal Reserve, opening up the free-market system, and specifically addressing the fundamental weakness and problem of fiat currency.

All of these issues lie central to our problems as a nation. President Obama is unlikely to do anything about the very real change that is needed in this country. Alas, in spite of Ron Paul’s hopefulness for the recent Tea Party successes and
his son’s rather pronounced idealism, I’m afraid little will come of these efforts as well.

But, I am becoming less pragmatic as
the situation of public debt worsens in this country. It is much easier for me to adopt positions sympathetic with the Tea Party with respect to domestic economic policy. Drastic change is needed, as non-Tea Party authorities like David Stockman have pointed out. Defense spending should be cut. Social Security and Medicare should not be broadened and should, in fact, be more tightly controlled. Unfortunately, too many voters benefit from these Welfare State policies. The action that is most needed is the action that will get you voted out of office. That is the fundamental truth of our situation. Nevertheless, I am certain that within the complex competitiveness of human ideas and truths, the position of Ron Paul must be advanced by every means available, even at the cost of harmonizing with the Tea Party movement itself.

The central problem with the article in The Atlantic is that it presents a highly one-sided analysis of Ron Paul. Certainly, he is a follower of von Mises and, consequently, has much in common in terms of fiscal policy with the Tea Party. But, it is equally true that Ron Paul is a genuine libertarian. He supports individual liberty in the social sphere. That means he advocates such positions as
the right of gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana and internet gambling. I’m rather certain that most Tea Party neocons would renege on any connection with Paul if these facts were considered, which the The Atlantic article chooses not even to mention.

So, to call the man who
works so diligently with congressman Barney Frank on so many issues “the Tea Party's brain” is grotesquely over-stating the case. (I might point out, however, that such cooperation between a republican and democrat, a liberal and a conservative, is rather unprecedented today, but exactly what this country needs.) But, this is to return to an earlier point. The Tea Party is, in truth, a loosely organized confederation of candidates. When push comes to shove they will have to try to work together and I believe their inherent diversity is far greater than anyone has hitherto reported upon in the press.

More likely than not, the Republicans will soon discover that
they are like the dog that chased the car and actually caught it. The nature of the problem is greater than most any political philosophy and its resolution is beyond the strength of the American voter to support. It is not just about reducing government. It is about reducing government in a way that takes entitlements away from many common voters. Few have the willpower to advance this truth and, for that reason alone, genuine change is unlikely to occur. Just as President Obama failed to live up to his mandate, the Tea Party will probably end up as nothing more than a huge chuck of the news cycle.

Very Late Note: On Nov. 10 President Obama's bipartisan Fiscal Deficit Commission recommended (in a preliminary report) sweeping cuts in federal spending including social security and defense spending. This is precisely what must happen if this country is to avoid going broke. The commission's report was met with immediate, intense criticism from a number of special interest groups and op ed journalists. In fact, it seems no one likes the truth of the matter. We are weak whiners and we will undoubtedly bankrupt ourselves.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The way we were for Halloween


We were there. Kinda.

Jennifer and I drove into Atlanta for Diane and Brian’s Halloween Party. For various reasons they have not been able to throw their big party the last couple of years. This year the annual event was rebooted and had a nice vibe. Traditionally, their Halloween Party has been fun affair. They invite a ton of people. Very eclectic. Mostly non-‘Dillos, though the ‘Dillos were well represented.

We’re talking kids from maybe age 6 or 7 on up to adults, almost everyone in costume or in some sort of special adornment. Brian is in a slow process of doing some major renovation to his house. This year he had ripped out the wall of his former sitting room and made it one big space the fireplace in the den and the entire kitchen in between. It really opens up some space with the new, vaulted ceiling design. It didn’t feel that crowded. He had plentiful, tasty Sweetwater beer in a standard size keg. There were probably around 60 people there by the time things started kicking in about 10 p.m. Brain wore an authentic Arabian keffiyeh and dressed in black. He bought the headdress while on business in Dubai.

Diane, dressed this year as Julia Child. She lived the part. There were literally over two dozen food choices, wines, soft drinks, candies, pumpkin pies, etc. The fancier stuff was all her preparation and, just as importantly (being Julia after all), her presentation. Diane must own over 100 Halloween decorations, most of them big. She adores Halloween and it shows because she presents it in a fun and entertaining way.

There were lots of cool, sophisticated, urbane people there. Many of them bring their children. I had a great discussion with a guy dressed in a clown suit with a blue, moppy afro about how satisfying the Braves season was. He thought Bobby Cox should get manager of the year. He told me how great it was that Brain McCann got the National League the home field advantage in this year’s World Series. How he was rooting for the Giants to beat the Rangers because he wanted Bobby Cox to have been beaten by the 2010 World Champions. It makes a better story. It was as if for 20 minutes I was talking to myself. I totally agreed with this clown.

Clint was a refrigerator magnet. He told me more about how wonderful Ken Wilbur’s writings (many of which I have read so it is a source of mutual interest) are when the body of work is taken as a whole. How Buddhism totally satiates him and how satisfied he is with his spirituality.

Mark and Eileen were the Letters Q and U, respectively, from the game Scrabble. The “costumes” consisted of dressing in all black with matching mock turtlenecks and a square box with places cut out for your head and arms that bore the authentically hand-painted Letters complete with their associated point values, just like the game pieces. Mark was wearing the Q. The conversation went like this. “So Mark, you wanted to be the piece worth more points.” “No the Q is worthless without the U.” Eileen smiled. Everyone awwwed, briefly, over the romantic nature of that.

Lots of jokes, stories, political opinions, discussion of news and the arts. Just a great party with a lot of bright, entertaining people.

I dislike the dress-up aspect of Halloween. I enjoy watching others do it. But, I hate actually thinking about it and doing it myself. I am personally low-key about Halloween. Always have been except for when I was a preteen. But, Jennifer had this idea for the two of us. We would go as rally participants just back in Atlanta from Washington for the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.

I was a Steve Colbert supporter. Jennifer was a Jon Stewart supporter. She was looking for political sanity while I wanted to Keep Fear Alive, how appropriate for Halloween. Everybody at the party “got it” and our modest iron-on t-shirts generated a lot of interesting conversation. (As an aside, both Colbert and Stewart have been dipping heavily into politics recently. Colbert appeared "in character" before a congressional committee just a couple of months ago. Last week Stewart managed to host President Obama on his show.)

The rally itself was something I had watched portions of live online earlier that day. I missed much of it because I was busy mowing the entirety of my yard for what I anticipate will be the last time until late-winter. The parts of the rally I caught were funny and entertaining. Some nice music. Some other music I didn’t care for. Stewart, who Jennifer and I think is a brilliant comedic satirist, and Colbert played off each other well.

I was hoping for the success of the rally as compared to the Glenn Beck rally/Al Sharpton march earlier this year. I was hoping for crowd size of equal or better numbers compared with Beck. Just to show the tea party Americans, and the deadlocked politicians, and the cable news analysts that they are all a bad joke.

By most accounts, Stewart/Colbert crushed the Beck/Sharpton event. Over 200,000 probably attended. I am uncertain that that really means anything, other than possibly people are more fed-up with the way politics is expressed in general in this country than with the anger behind any particular political expression.

The original idea for the Stewart-Colbert rally was inspired by the earlier Beck rally from earlier this summer. Stewart was, although politically polar opposite to, Beck as the rally holder and Colbert played the role, although politically polar opposite to, Sharpton as the march holder. It was classic political satire on a grand scale, on the National Mall itself. Comedians holding a surprisingly vaguely defined political rally talking to America before the mid-term elections.

They combined the names of their movements at the last minute to become the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. That in itself is funny. Colbert intentionally and comically never bothered to get a permit for his march so Stewart took him in under his permit. It was planned from the beginning and a wonderful political joke of the highest intellect.

The highlight of what I actually saw was Father Guido Sarducci giving what Jon Stewart called a “benediction” (uh, that should have been an “invocation” Jon – he’s really clueless about religious protocol) to start the rally. Jon Stewart had a funny welcome that summarized what the rally was all about: “Color and size.” Meaning numbers and demographics legitimizes the gathering in our culture. Very funny. Another highlight was Colbert, dressed as some superhero mostly in white trimmed in blue-banded stars with a red cape trying to make the crowd flee with threats of swarming bees. The two had a funny debate about reason versus fear.

At the end Jon Stewart had a few minutes to get serious and tell everyone why he and Colbert wanted to hold the rally. At one point he said:
“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing."

That’s a nice summary of our political gridlock. Although the day was funny, the reason for the day was not funny at all. I doubt that it will change much though. Our gridlock is the symptom of our political process. Of how voters vote and why they vote that way. The effect of media on everything political and the more money your spend the more your point of view is heard.

Maybe that’s a bit too serious for Halloween. Which is classically ironic. Our t-shirts looked authentic enough at the party for a few of the more-than-slightly inebriated guests to ask if we actually attended and then flew back into Atlanta for the party. It was an absurd possibility given when the rally ended and when the party started. But, that’s OK. They were sincere and the point of the party was hardly to be practically minded.

Jennifer and I both told everybody that we attened to the rally. She posted a “just arrived back” photo of us in our t-shirts just before we left for the party on her Facebook page. Facebook people thought we might have actually attended as well.

Our participation in the rally was a self-contrived mini-myth. Which means we went there in our minds and shared the experience with others who could connect with the nature of the rally in their imagination. Which, after horror itself, is kind of what Halloween is about – the playful imaginary.