“I Am Principled…

You are stubborn. He is a pigheaded fool.”

I first ran across this in the textbook for a logic course my dad was taking at UT-Nashville when I was in sixth grade. He took me with him on one or two evenings, and I went ahead and read the textbooks at home.

Years later, in a course on contemporary rhetoric during my Ph.D. years, I learned about Kenneth Burke’s concept of the terministic screen, and Richard M. Weaver’s “god terms” and “devil terms.” From Wiki:

“God terms” are words particular to a certain age and are vague, but have “inherent potency” in their meanings.[69] Such words include progress and freedom – words that seem impenetrable and automatically give a phrase positive meaning. In contrast, “devil terms” are the mirror image, and include words such as Communist and Un-American.[70] Rhetoric, Weaver argued, must employ such terminology only with care. Employing ethical rhetoric is the first step towards rejecting vague terminology with propagandistic value.[71] Upon hearing a “god” or “devil” term, Weaver suggested that a listener should “hold a dialectic with himself” to consider the intention behind such persuasive words.[72]

Meanwhile, somewhere in between Dad’s class and my own, I read L. Sprague de Camp’s bio of H.P. Lovecraft, where he offered a bit of criticism of HPL’s use of adjectives. Although I’m not quoting from memory, de Camp basically suggested that while adjectives like red or large tell the reader about qualities of the thing in question, adjectives like hideous and repulsive tell the reader not about the thing, but about the observer’s reaction to the thing. It’s an important distinction.

Without going full Sapir-Whorf here, I think we can make a strong case for the idea that we love us some preconceived notions (which vary from person to person), and that those notions form our terministic screens. I would further contend that our political culture is now operating on the level of the Rorschach test. People see what they want to see, through the filters of their terministic screens (and if you forgot your teministic screen, teeth will be provided). We see these social inkblots as moments out of context, we react, and often we employ the adjectives that describe our reactions as though we are describing the thing itself. Our emotional reactions become our facts.

What do we see? Fear or Rage?

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What do we see? 

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Photo: Eddie Adams

What do we see?

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And what do you see in you?

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Sunday Night Potpourri: Shallows and Spiders Edition

We’re moving into night two of a three-day weekend, and I haven’t posted in a few days, so here we go…

***

Yesterday the Spawn and I went down to Real City for lunch at her favorite restaurant (her treat) and a movie (my treat.) The movie in question has been out for a while, so we didn’t figure the crowds would be too terrible; all the same, we decided to go ahead and swing by the box office to select our seats before lunch. Good thing we did — the theater was already booked nearly solid. We were only about three or four rows from the front, although we at least got our positions in the middle of the row.

From there it was back to the mall with the restaurant. I usually order for both the Spawn and myself on these expeditions, so as we were walking in, I asked her if she wanted an extra hamburger patty, as is typically the case.

“No,” she said. “I don’t have two-patty kinds of money.” Subtle, kid. Real subtle. So I went for the single patty on my burger as well. I alerted the server that we had a movie to get to, and she was wonderfully quick and efficient.  The Spawn gave me her debit card to pay for the meal at the tableside computer terminal. As I was going through the process, the Spawn commented on what a good job the server had done. Conveniently enough, she said this just as the machine asked how much of a tip we wanted to leave. I showed her what a 20% tip amounted to. “That’s a lot,” the Spawn said.

“It’s actually pretty standard,” I said. “And you said she did a really good job.”

“Okay,” the Spawn said with a sigh. “But I thought the normal was fifteen percent.” Welcome to adulthood, kid. At least I didn’t have to break out the stories about my mom waiting tables at a Nashville cocktail lounge beer joint, or about Mrs. M’s tenure at a place about a step and a half above a fast-food joint. So score one for the Spawn’s sense of politesse.

Even so, she came out ahead by the time I paid for our movie tickets, popcorn, and drinks. (Yes, we got popcorn — it’s one of the few snack foods the Spawn can eat without worrying about her allergies, so it’s de rigeur, even if we did have lunch not much before.) We got settled in as the place filled up.

The movie was Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and both the Spawn and I had a blast. On Friday, I had spoken to a couple of colleagues about the movie, and both had been pleased. I see why. The movie is visually striking, combining the sort of computerized animation we’ve grown used to in recent years with an aesthetic that is much more “comic-book” than the usual crop of superhero movies. Indeed, the frequent use of elements like Kirby dots and narration boxes appealed to the long-time comic reader in me, as did the background of halftone dots and Zip-A-Tones.  That last took a little getting used to — at first, I wondered if there were focus issues or if we were watching a 3-D print by accident. There were other nods to fans of my generation: In one scene, Miles Morales (who becomes the Spider-Man of the film’s primary universe) moves along a streetscape with a restaurant called Romita‘s Ramen in the background, and the name of Steve Ditko also scrolls past on a character’s cell phone directory. There is the obligatory Stan Lee cameo as well — it’s a pity to think we’re running out of those.

But the thing I think really makes the movie special is its sense of fun, which I think is what drew so many of us into comics to begin with. Yes, there’s drama and the villains are genuinely menacing (and bonus points for using Tombstone as one of the Kingpin’s henchgoons), but there’s a lot of knowing laughter here as well. We live in an irony-poisoned time, but the self-referential aspects of this movie avoid much of that because they’re delivered with what appears to be genuine affection for the material, rather than with the condescension that comes with too many post-modern/”deconstructive” takes on pop culture.

Part of the film’s appeal, of course, is the arrival of various Spider-folk from the assorted parallel universes posited by the plot. Along with Miles and a Peter B. Parker Spidey (essentially the one I grew up with), we encounter Spider-Gwen, a chibi robotic Spider-kid (a little girl named Peni Parker), and Spider-Ham (a funny-animal version of the franchise character). However, my favorite is a Spider-Man Noir from a monochromatic universe where it’s 1933 and “Wherever I go, the wind follows. And the wind… smells like rain.” Likewise, he loves “egg creams and beating Nazis,” and “ Sometimes I let matches burn down to my fingertips just to feel something, anything.” But again, while it’s parodic in some ways, it’s affectionate parody. And that makes a world of difference.

After the inter- and post-credit sequences, again calculated to win the affection of late Boomers and early Gen-Xers like me, it was time to head back home. But it made for a very fine afternoon, and it’s the most fun I’ve had at a comic movie since Scott Pilgrim. Recommended.

***

It was actually a nice week for media, as earlier in the week Matt Goldman was kind enough to hook me up with an advance copy of The Shallows, the third in his Minneapolis-based adventures of P.I. Nils Shapiro. In this one, a high powered attorney is found dead in one of those 10,000 lakes we’re always hearing about, with a fishing stringer rammed though his lower jaw and connecting him to a dock. He happens to have an attractive wife who had planned to divorce him, and we meet her, her boyfriend (an artist), and a client of the victim’s firm who just happens to be a right-wing populist who has snagged the GOP nomination for Congress. Meanwhile, Shapiro is trying to move on with his personal life, including trying to figure out where things stand with his ex-wife and continuing bedmate.

shallows

In that regard, it’s a pretty classical take on the P.I. character these days. The plot is sufficiently complicated to keep us happily turning pages, but the real strength of the novel (and for my money, the key element of the best examples of the genre) is the first-person narrative voice. Writing about the late Robert B. Parker, Lawrence Block noted that Spenser (as ventriloquized by RBP) is just such an ingratiating character that seeing the mystery solved is secondary to the simple joy of spending time with him. And of course, we can see this in such important characters as the Continental Op, Marlowe, Travis McGee, and Block’s own Matt Scudder (and I would contend his Bernie Rhodenbarr, the burglar who finds himself forced into detection, is a perversely spun  specimen of the type.) Anyway, Nils Shapiro is another of the charming knights in dented armor, and he’s welcome in the club.

Because of the book’s present-day setting and political subplot, I can’t help but wonder a little bit how well it will date — it may be a bit too topical in that regard, but that’s for readers to worry about down the road. Right now, I found The Shallows to be a really good read, and I think you might, too.

***

Well, since I only get one more day to sleep in, I think I’ll carpe that old noctem. But before I do, why not a little music? The Great Scots were a Haligonian band who came to the USA in 1965, getting caught up in a colonial version of the British Invasion hype.

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… and teen girls across America wondered just how traditional the gear was…

They cut three fine garage rock singles, and discovered the hard way that having permanent US visas might have helped them get gigs, but it also made them draft-eligible. Bassist Dave Isnor got snapped up for the Vietnam War, and that put an end to that, although Allmusic reports that the guys all live near one another now and reunite every Labor Day. Which ain’t bad. From 1966, here’s a tough little proto-psych number, “The Light Hurts My Eyes.”

See you soon!

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“Or As I Call It, Wednesday.”

As I was teaching my 8:00 section of freshpeeps, a chattering crowd of young folks wandered down my hallway. I figured it was likely a tour group of prospective students and went on with my lecture. About a minute after they moved on, one of our security guys stuck his head in. (I’m on good terms with the security folks – they’re good people, used to seeing me around at odd hours and weekends, and cheerful about things like band practices in the college’s TV studio.)

“Don’t worry, Dr. Moore,” the guard said. “A motor burned out on one of the HVAC units up on the third floor, but there’s not a fire or anything – just smoke.”

“I didn’t hear an alarm.”

“No, nobody pulled one.”

“Do we need to clear out?”

“No – you’re okay down here.” So I finished my lecture, assigned a journal entry, and cut the kids loose before getting the board ready to repeat my lecture for the 9:00 section. I walked into the hallway and saw a few of my colleagues standing around. They said they had received an e-mail from the Academic Dean that our building was closed and that no one was to until the all clear had been sounded. Of course, I was already here, and as I said, the security folks said there was nothing to worry about.

We were trying to figure out what to do when the Dean of Students showed up and told us that while the building was technically closed, and that our 9 a.m. classes were cancelled, there was nothing to worry about, and when I said, “So it’s okay to hang out in my office?”

“Sure.”

“Okay. I needed something to blog about anyway.” And here we are.

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The Rising Frequency of Goodbyes

A friend of mine from my first grad school days (and the wife of one of my closest friends from undergrad) died this morning, a few months after having been diagnosed with cancer. She leaves my abovementioned friend and their two children. Other friends of mine from Kentucky, where they live, have given me updates over the burgeoning of winter, and while this was the foreseeable outcome, that of course makes it no easier.

I was chatting online with one of those friends a night or two ago, sometime since the beginning of this final crisis. I mentioned that my generation is reaching that stage of life where most of us have had some experience with death — grandparents, parents, the occasional victim of accident and the like — but we know the pace will increase. Goldengrove is always unleaving, after all. And that acceleration of loss is disorienting; perhaps it’s even more strange for people of my age (the early 50s) and class (middle and up) in our era of medical miracles and greater safety. Our lives and culture have tried to keep death off the screen, both practically and in its numinous inevitability. But it is inevitable, and the world refuses to let us continue to ignore that fact. And as I said later to that same friend, we won’t learn to like it, but we’ll be required to keep enduring it around us until one day whoever’s left behind endures our departures.

But once again, as Johnson noted, philosophers may reason as angels, but they must live as men. And I’m no philosopher to begin with — I’m just an odd sort of person who occasionally converts life into words and phrases and stories and such. So it is as a man — a contemporary, a conversationalist, a friend — that I find myself thinking of what disappeared early this morning in Lexington.

Amy was whipsmart, funny, acerbic, and creative, and I think a beautiful example of who she was may be found in a short-lived business she opened with a friend a long time back. It was a bakery called “Four and Twenty Blackbirds,” and it deserved better than it got on the strength of its name alone. She was direct, passionate, and concerned about the worlds –both natural and human — around her. It showed in her conversation, her presence on social media, and the family Christmas cards she illustrated for years.

She and James married late during my time at Kentucky, and I think that they were nearly perfectly aligned, both in their common points and somehow even in their divergences. They were — are? — were? — a seeming example of what a marriage means. We could speak of James, and we could speak of Ellie (a nickname from Amy’s undergrad years), but it was always more natural to speak of James and Ellie. And it now feels forced and foreign not to do so.

They waited for their children, longer than they wanted to, but when their daughter and son arrived, they gave them as close to an idyllic childhood as I can imagine, living in “the 40-acre wood” in the exurbs of Lexington, where James grew up. The last picture I saw of the four of them was from over the holiday, at a fondue meal at home.  Around that same time, the Mad Dog had some tickets for a Kentucky basketball game that he couldn’t use, and I arranged to offer them to James and Ellie in case they wanted an afternoon out. They declined, as they were having a Christmas cookie party. I’m glad that they got to do that.

In any case, the world became a little less kind, a little less funny, and a place with fewer opportunities for beauty this morning. The world has become a colder place, but a place less cool as well. If you are of a prayerful persuasion, you might want to spend a few for James and the children. Amy, of course, no longer requires them of us. She doesn’t have to hurt anymore, and she’s safe now from the world’s ugliness.

Dammit.

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Time Machines

Brian Morton of Sarah Lawrence College had a fine article in yesterday’s NYT about a topic I’ve addressed in the past. As a medievalist — as a teacher of literature — part of my job is to walk my kids through the ideas and perspectives that are expressed in literature from across the centuries. Of course, that includes ideas and perspectives that are both alien to our own and recognizable as elements of our cultural past. Things like the anti-Semitism in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale (or in the original edition of Brighton Rock) are blazingly repugnant in a post-Holocaust world.

Closer to home, I’ve had readers tell me that they wouldn’t finish Broken Glass Waltzes because of Kenny Rockford’s less-than-feminist attitudes. (Oddly, I’ve had other readers tell me that they loved the strength of Jean Cassidy’s character in the same book. As ever, YMMV.) Similarly, I acknowledged some difficulty on my part recently when I read John D. MacDonald’s The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything, because it makes some assumptions that I don’t share. But I’m willing to acknowledge that the works are in some ways artifacts of a world in which we no longer live, and that although my attitudes may differ from those of the books’ milieux, those attitudes say more about me than they do about the works, and certainly more than they do about the authors.

And that brings us to a wonderful point Morton makes, about a sort of intellectual blind spot we forget to notice:

It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around.

[…] When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.

… and that brings us after a bit to his punchline, which I suspect I’ll use frequently in the years ahead:

If we arm ourselves with a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of curiosity (those essential tools of the time-traveler), we’ll be able to see the writers of the past more clearly when we visit them, and see ourselves more clearly when we get back. We’ll be able to appreciate that in their limited ways, sometimes seeing beyond the prejudices of their age, sometimes unable to do so, they — the ones worth reading — were trying to make the world more human, just as we, in our own limited ways, are also trying to do.

Read the whole thing, as the kids say. I’m glad I did.

 

 

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Gathering Stones Together

One of my late Christmas presents came early yesterday.

Maybe I’d better explain. One of the top items on my Christmas list was A Time to Scatter Stones, Lawrence Block’s latest (and likely final) installment in Matt Scudder’s multi-volume, fictive autobiography. However, the book isn’t due for release until 31 January, so Santa had to place an advance order. And that’s fine — appetite makes a wonderful sauce after all, and the small taste Mr. B allowed us at Bouchercon’s Noir at the Bar a few months back let me know that this was a repast worth waiting for.

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However, I was pleasantly surprised to find an e-mail from LB after lunch, with an advance/review e-copy of ATtSS attached. After making a quick transfer to my trusty Kindle (already charged up, as it happens), I parked myself in my favorite chair and got rolling.

Like most of us, but unlike many of his peers in the crime fiction business, Mr. Scudder ages in real time, and since he’s essentially a contemporary of Mr. Block, that puts him somewhere around age 80. He is enjoying retirement with his wife Elaine, who has in turn retired from careers as a shop owner and call girl. They enjoy dinners, walk around Manhattan, visit old friends (like Mick Ballou and his new wife), and go to meetings.

Yes, Matt still goes to his AA meetings:

Whenever anyone expresses surprise over my continuing attendance at AA meetings, I think of the shampoo commercial:

“You use Head & Shoulders? But you don’t have dandruff.”

“Riiight.”

And Elaine has recently begun attending meetings of her own — a group called the Tarts, made up of women who have left (or are trying to leave) the prostitution business. At one such meeting, she meets a young woman who is trying to get out of the life, but who has a client who won’t take no for an answer. It falls to Matt to employ his particular skill set and dissuade the client.

But as we’ve noted, Matt is older, and the world around him has changed. Many of the sources and people on whom he used to rely have retired, died, or in the case of Matt’s sidekick/adopted son TJ (now around 40 himself), have moved on to other lives. Still, he has his native talents and considerable resourcefulness, even if his knee troubles him from time to time. Watching him bring them to bear once again is a pleasure.

But honestly, the detection in this story is secondary to the satisfaction of hearing once again from characters who have become friends and neighbors, despite living both in imagination and in another city (well, a city other than Mondoville, anyway.) Block retains his gift for dialogue and narrative voice, and while there’s an inevitable amount of ou sont les neiges to the story, it also has considerable humor and, yes, sexiness too. (Although I’m considerably younger than Matthew Scudder, I find cause for optimism in that aspect of the story.)

So if this is our final visit with the Scudders (as one must suspect, and as Mr. Block has implied), we can leave them with satisfaction, knowing that they are content and thinking we must be as well. It may be a final story, but unlike the mythical Travis McGee finale, no black border is required.

As for me, although I remain excited about my late Christmas gift, it was a pleasure to open it early. You may order your own copy here.

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Weekend Potpourri: Wedding Bell(e)s Edition

The winter break is coming to a close; classes resume on Wednesday, and tomorrow I have to help score placement exams for some of our incoming students. But it has been a pleasant enough break, and I think I’m ready to face the new term — or I will be, once I try to find a place for a few more things in my office. In the meantime…

***

I had the pleasure of seeing several of my former students yesterday, as Clan Mondo made the trek to Real City for the marriage of my former student Sarah to her long-time Intended, Kiki. Coincidentally enough, the nuptials took place at a church of my own denomination, near where I typically shop for used media and Skyline chili.

The church’s architecture is quite contemporary — the pews are arranged in a fan shape around the chancel, with the organ and choir at the back of what we might think of as an apse. While I’m used to the more traditional “two deep files of pews and a central aisle” design, I think that the shallower ranks of pews might actually make for a more intimate congregational experience. The only stained glass is at the front, but the clear glass windows along the perimeter gave the room a very airy feel — in part because yesterday was the first really sunny day in what has seemed like weeks of clouds and rain.

But before that, we signed the guest register as I received the big razzoo from a former student whose own wedding I had missed last year. Historically, I haven’t gone to student weddings — it would be far too easy to be booked every weekend, but the combination of winter break and geographic convenience made this one irresistible. All the same, it was great to see several of the kids I’ve taught, who are making their ways through life as teachers, grad students, and in one case, as the editor of my community newspaper. As the Who said, the kids are alright (although I would have preferred them to say that the kids are all right.).

The Mondos got settled in just before the prelude began, with selections including two hymns I’ve heard at my family’s funerals. While I noticed that, of course, I thought it was nice to hear them in a joyous setting again. The wedding party entered to the familiar strains of Pachelbel — the women attendants on Kiki’s side, and the men on Sarah’s. Sarah entered next, followed by Kiki. Both brides wore white and were accompanied by their fathers.

The church’s minister served as officiant, and during her homily mentioned that the wedding was taking place on her own fifteenth anniversary. She also noted that Sarah and Kiki took particular joy in their marriage, because they had spent much of their relationship wondering if they would ever have that opportunity. I often wish that people get what they want, and that they still want it when they get it. I don’t often get to see that fulfilled, but I did yesterday afternoon, and it was lovely. The scripture readings were from the Song of Solomon and the Book of Ruth.

Both brides were nervous, and as Milton might say, “some natural tears were shed.” (Later, as I hugged the newlyweds in the receiving line, I told them that I had done the same at my wedding.) The entire experience was so sweet that I could have used an insulin shot on the way to the reception in the fellowship hall.

One of the features of the reception was popcorn, which tided the guests through the post-ceremony photography. Bags of popcorn were also distributed as souvenirs:

popcorn

Bringing home a bit of cheer.

Eventually, the bridal party made their way in, and the celebration began to the strains of the Mamma Mia soundtrack. After a bit longer, we bid our adieux, and after a stop at the Spawn’s favorite restaurant, we headed back to Mondoville — a lovely ending to a lovely day. Good luck, ladies — and thanks for including us. And since this is 2019 and all things must be hashtagged, may you live #HappilyEverAmador.

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The first dance for Sarah (left) and Nicholette “Kiki” Amador.

***

In other news this week, I read Paul Myers’s bio of one of my favorite comedy troupes, The Kids in the Hall. Myers (whose brother Mike has made a bit of noise in the comemdy biz himself) does a nice job tracing the history not only of the troupe, but of the individual members’ backstories. It’s an authorized bio, so it may not be as gritty as some might like, but it does openly consider the interplay of personalities and egos that make the group what it is.

One part that I found of interest was the deep interconnection that KITH has with instro band Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Like most folks, I was introduced to the band through its work on the Kids’ TV show’s main theme and interstitial music. But it turns out that Kid Bruce McCulloch and two of the Shadowy Men have been friends since their youths in Calgary.

Indeed, the story of the Kids is rather like the story of a band (a point Myers makes several times along the way.) A good band may go through changes and conflict, and may even go on hiatus from time to time. But there’s still a synergy that happens when they come together — a comfort and understanding that makes the unit stronger than the sum of its parts. The book is worth a read.

***

And so what better way to wrap this entry up than with those abovementioned Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, and with their best known song? Even though I didn’t have an average weekend, there’s something to be said for them.

See you soon!

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