Monday, October 26, 2009

Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland @ NUI Maynooth

Maynooth, still the premier Irish seminary, if now largely a campus of its national university, hosts an "Alternative Spiritualities, the New Age, and New Religious Movements in Ireland" conference Oct. 30-31. I will be there, deo volente, giving a paper on the invention of "Celtic Buddhism." An Irish News feature on the NUIM conference, by Bimpe Archer in the 24 Oct. 2009 issue, A-16, cannot be obtained without a log-in. A journalist from this Belfast paper kindly sent me a pdf.file.

I'm therefore indirectly alluded to therein as a speaker on "Celtic Buddhism in America," although I will be spending 99% of the talk on its Irish manifestations in fancy and fact. However, I am one of the "more than 50 presenters from three continents and 15 academic specialties." All the same, I think that makes me the only American along with one Australian, to be fair. Still, it's a global conference in reach and substance.

The setting of Maynooth, founded as the outpost of papal orthodoxy that often allied itself against the native cries for emancipation and rallied against liberation early in its two centuries of being established back then in tumultuous times as a bulwark against dangerous French ideas of liberty, represents a fitting place for this conference. Who would have thought such a revolution in belief would transpire twenty, let alone two hundred, years ago? Even Catholicism, as Archer's article in its headline claims, now's one of many "new religious movements" and alternatives open to an Irish people utterly changed.

To summarize, then, for you non-Irish News subscribers, you can go to "NUIM Conference Site" for more information, a timetable of speakers, and a guide to getting there if you're so inclined. If only I did not have to travel so far to get there. Jet lag doubtless never effected Maynooth's earlier residents, with whose ghosts I may share my dormitory on Samhain.

Even if it may have taken them-- seminarians and not ghosts-- the long day and rough night and bleary dawn that'll elapse before I get to nearby Dublin. My pilgrimage timed for All Hallows' Eve's eve'll be from not a couple of hundred miles by horse-drawn coach but six thousand miles away by another form of coach transport likely as bumpy and cramped. Some things never change; the road to the venue on the notoriously muddy campus, the site warns, is via a building site and boots and stout shoes recommended.

Presumably not a building site, not muddy yet: "Maynooth Courtyard"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Oíche amach i Naomh Crios

Chuir cuairt mé ar chairde agam ar deireadh tseachtaine seo caite. Tá siad i gcónaí ar tuaisceart na Stat Órga seo. Tá teach air go halainn ina gnoc ghlas thuas an gcathair dáthiul Naomh Crios.

Is bréa liomsa a feacháint Bob agus Crios ansin. Chónaic Lena agus mé an ceolchoirm leosan féin le déanaí. Chuaigh muid ag dul síos Naomh Crios Dé Sathairn.

D'ith muid ar bhialann Iódalachaí. Tá ainm "Lillian" air. Rinne mé bia leis pasta go blásta.

Ina dhiadh, d'imigh muidsa ag trasna an tstraide Soquel go picturlann. Tá "Rio" ann. Chuala muid ar sheinntoirí "Yo La Tengo" ansin.

D'eisteacht muid go sonas. Cheannaigh muid margadh go maith an oíche sin. Fuair mé níos mí ná mar a bhí súil agam leis.

A night out in Santa Cruz.

I paid a visit to friends of mine this past weekend. They are living to the north in this Golden State. They have a lovely house in the green hills northwards of the handsome city of Santa Cruz.

I love to see Bob and Chris. Layne and I saw with them a concert recently. We went down to Santa Cruz Saturday.

We ate at an Italian restaurant. The name's "Lillian's" there. I made a meal with tasty pasta.

Later, we left across Soquel street [avenue, technically] to the movie-house. It's the "Rio" there. We heard musicians: "Yo La Tengo."

We listened happily. We bought a good bargain that night. I found more than met my eye with (this) (="I got a good deal").

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Religion: Evolving or Unnameable?

Did religion evolve along with our more childlike looks, our thinner skulls, our success in mating? Are we moving towards a less-assertive, more-moral theology, or one that admits we cannot define the Divine in human terms? Jack Miles, author of "God: A Brief History" and the inevitable follow-up on His Son, reviews Robert Wright's "The Evolution of Religion" & Karen Armstrong's "The Case for God." Wright argues that religion tamed us; Armstrong promotes "apophatic" or "not-speaking" notions of accepting we cannot talk truly about God. They provide opposing views on how we've grown to accept more nuanced, less primitive notions of the Creator.

I excerpt with my comments parts of the L. A. Times review "Faith and Belief". (The same issue has a review of R. Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis.) Miles, a former Jesuit seminarian, before getting to a rather truncated critique of Wright (negative on his positive view) and Armstrong (positive on her negative view), diverges intriguingly into our own prehistory and biology.

Explaining "DNA-aided recovery" from human fossils, he cites Nicholas Wade on "gracilization" i.e., "a worldwide thinning of the human skull." Around 40,000 years ago, long before agriculture, our bones kept getting lighter and our skulls smaller. We followed what happened as wolves became dogs-- "pedomorphism." It became more appealing for us to find partners and engender offspring less threatening, more docile.

A fifty-thousand year old process still happening-- as in my own current bedside book, Helen Fisher's "Why We Love" about brain chemistry and mating patterns. She claims how New Guineans would pick out as would we as beautiful the same symmetrical faces. Jutting cheekbones and firm jawlines for males show lots of testosterone; a 70% ratio of female waist to hip also signals good genes from strong childbearers. We have encoded in us, it seems by now, these instinctual preferences for attraction.

Miles goes on to glance at Gilgamesh, who bedded many women in the city while wild man Enkidu had to make do with one prostitute in the fields, as a provocative lesson from our oldest recorded tale of how myths encode too our own social and cultural mores. He wonders:
Perhaps the "Epic of Gilgamesh" crystallized memories of the long human self-domestication that Wade writes of, but of equal interest is the possibility that rather than merely recalling the change, this and kindred myths may have contributed to it. If such a literary work were recited repeatedly, honored as supreme truth, taught to the young and this over centuries of time -- if, in short, it were turned into sacred scripture, then could it not create social pressure, then behavioral changes and, finally, over a sufficiently lengthy period, even genetic modification?

Miles places then Wright's "The Evolution of God," within this same general thesis, for later West Asian and Middle Eastern scriptures. I'd heard of this book last summer, but I put off reading it when I found lukewarm reviews. Miles, too, finds that Wright makes a weaker case than he should have for his notion of how, for the three major Western faiths, "despite the frequent violence of this three-stranded history, Wright discerns a vector tending distinctly toward unity and away from division. Globalization, for him, is the culmination of this process."

Wright, however, strays away from this path into connecting natural selection with cultural evolution, without apparently going beyond what theologians call "the argument from design," that God as in Thomistic and scholastic terms "First Efficient Cause" or "Prime Mover" set up the whole intricate machinery that finally produced us. Wright streamlines the process to show how complex societies manufactured moral progression; Miles asserts that Wright fails to show how scriptures served this goal.

Apparently Wright claims that "God" became a term akin to "electron" for scientists: the handy term invented to describe what Miles finds really not an evolving God but "rather a constant, the C-factor without which human evolution does not compute." But, because it falls back on the argument from design, Miles remains unconvinced.

The reviewer in this October 11, 2009 article then moves on to the former nun Armstrong, no stranger to popularizing theology within history; I reviewed on my blog and Amazon US her Penguin Lives entry on the Buddha. She favors in her new book a God apart from evidence we can summon, whether from biology, morality, or history.

Rather than Wright's God emerging from social and moral progress, Armstrong advances "an ancient way of talking about 'God, Brahman, Dao, or Nirvana.' For her, these are conceptually different names for the reality that exceeds human comprehension and escapes human language, including all human predication of existence or nonexistence." She recovers what in the West the ancient Christians suggested and the medieval Church explored. As Miles sums it up-- for he fails really to cite either author under review hardly at all in a review that takes half its time to get to either book under review:
Apophatic theology -- the theology of the original, Greek-speaking Christian church -- was "naysaying" theology, a kind of religious language whose difficult task it was to acknowledge in human language the very inadequacy of human language. Whatever it said, apophatic theology immediately took back, and then it took back the taking back. Ordinary language -- the language of evidence and inference, of instance and generalization -- was fine for ordinary matters. But to confess the universal human experience of a final failure in this language is to take back the confession. It is to lose the game before it begins.

I use then his concluding paragraph, for Miles sums up Armstrong as well as I could without having read a book I now will mean to read:
Armstrong writes the history of how apophatic theology was forgotten in the late Middle Ages; how rational and then quasi-scientific Newtonian theology rose to replace it in early modernity; how, when others were recognizing this as a mistake, fundamentalists tightened their embrace of it; and how, in the wake of the passing of modernity and the failure of both its theism and its atheism, postmodern theology may point toward the recovery of what was lost. A god whose existence you can prove is a god to whom you cannot pray, postmodern theology argues, and prayer -- not proof -- is where religion rises or falls. Armstrong's very considerable service is to show how this novel idea is a very old idea newly recovered.

Why did I bold-face that phrase above? I perused this in my chair as my wife readied dinner last night. By the way, I had set the table already and have clean-up duties. My usual tasks. She's the skilled labor. I'm the unskilled bus-boy and pearl diver.

Well, I was stunned by Miles' summation of apophatic theology. I read this out loud to her. I averred that this was my kind of belief. If you'd like to find a blog that in far fewer words than mine presents this style of faith, turn to my friend Bob's blog here, a long-standing fixture under my suggested links: "The Cloud of Unknowing".

Image: Hard to get an illustration for negative belief. I borrowed my own. Googling "apophatic" images my blog's #4. And this cloud's the same one on Bob's page, in turn on another blog with the URL "cloudofunknowing"-- Bob's had to take a Greek term for its domain. As I can say as "Fionnchú," it's amazing what gets snapped up-- I was unable to use my "net" moniker on AOL & Yahoo where it'd been already taken. But as for "apophatic," still an unknown commodity: rubricized by the master red squiggler here.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Ag siúl ag imeall

Chuaigh mé ag imeall an áit páircéala inniu. Bhí an moch ar maidín ann. Ní raibh gréine ag éirigh fós.

Is maith liom ag siúl. Ach, ní mhaith liom ag dul anseo is ansin suas an téas. Mar sin, siúlaim istigh nó nuair ní mbíonn solas go leor os cionn.

Cé raibh mé ag feiceáil ar feadh mo shiúl? Bhuel, chónaic mé bonn chúig pingine agus fáiscín páipéar ar thalamh. Chuir mé dhá rudaí seo suas ansin i mo phoca.

Ar scor ar bith, ní chuir mé dhá rudaí eile ansúid. Ní raibh uaim ag cur beirt brístín dubh suas ann. Ní raibh dith ormsa féin coiscín athláimhe ach an oiread ann.

Thósaigh gréine ag dreap os cionn go mullach níos fáide. Smaoin mé faoi na éiléain ag imeacht amach ag trasna go rúidbhealach is tapaidh. Bím ag obair i ngár an aerfort Tra Fada.

Bhreatnaigh mé an éitléan ag imeacht aníos. Cheap mé faoi ag ullmhú mo thuras go luath. Iarraim ag imeacht go Éirinn an tseachtain seo chugainn ar feadh an seachtaine.

Walking around the edge

I went around the edge of the parking lot today. It was early in the morning. There was no sun rising yet.

It pleases me walking. But, it does not please me going here and there under the heat. Therefore, I walk inside or when there's not a lot of light above.

What was there for me to see during my walk? Well, I saw a five-penny coin and a paper clip on the ground. I got those two things up from there into my pocket.

However, I did not take up two other things over there. There was no wish for me to take a pair of black knickers up. There was no need for me for a second-hand condom either.

The sun started to climb above a mountain-ridge far off. I mused about the airplanes going across from out the runway most rapidly away. I'm working near the Long Beach airport.

I watched the airplanes go away from below. I thought about preparing for my journey. I seek to go off to Ireland next week for a week.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Matchmaker, Broken Match

At the start of July, "Rex" sat in the front row week one of my Speech class. Beside him sat "Regina," whom he never met. They met. They fell in love.

I did not know this. I taught them both, they both did well. "Rex" acted more confident, an ex-Army man who served in Korea his full stint and then, feeling he had not done enough for his country, signed up when the Army would not take him on again with the Marines. He volunteered to go to Iraq. There he fought for another tour of duty. He came home with a love of the Korean language and culture, and its food. He enrolled in college a year ago.

"Regina" stayed quiet. Her first speech, as the one in which a classmate after having interviewed a classmate then the next week tells the rest of us about him or her, may have indeed been on "Rex" and vice versa. I recall both learning of his decision to re-enlist and his knack for Korea, and of her reformation from being a self-described "party girl" with a sudden and irrevocable decision to accept Jesus on the spot one Sunday morning and the complete turnaround that had kept her without a moment's doubt ever since-- for I asked her about this conversion in Q&A-- on the straight and narrow.

The two students, a couple for themselves, but two classmates to me even as I stood a few feet in front of them unable to tell the difference that apparently that first week set them in quick pursuit and embrace of each other as fellow Christians seeking a direction together as well as on their own, did well in my course. "Rex" had no real problems at all; as with many veterans-- and that class of a dozen had three veterans of the current war-- he had learned how to control himself and project himself and motivate himself. "Regina" I could tell suffered from shyness and reticence but in Public Speaking: Speech 275 there's really no choice but to get up and try out your skills. She did fine too, considering her more retiring nature.

I saw "Rex" the next session, for every two months the whole cycle starts incessantly, one reason for my hair rapidly turning grey and my nights often ending up half-sleepless as I teach late nights and early mornings now. He sat across the street from the entrance, talking on his cellphone happily. I passed and waved. He paused to announce he'd been chatting with "Regina," and that they were a close pair now who'd found each other when the introductions had been made that first session. I congratulated him, and them. I'd meant to post a short entry about this on my blog when I'd found out a bit more about the match that I had unwittingly made, my first.

A few weeks ago, I had to pull up for an unrelated matter that course's archived Speech electronic discussions that make my courses able to be compressed, for we must teach in the classroom and on-line to accelerate them. I noticed, as both "R's" had the same first letter of their surnames before, that after they did too. But "Regina" now bore the same surname as the name above hers in the electronic system. I guessed that they had already been married, and I admit I was surprised. It seemed a bit fast even by the standards for good Christian couples, but as the book I'd been reading the other day tells me, "Why We Love," about brain chemistry and romantic triggers (I'd been advancing in cynical if Socratic fashion with my literature class as we studied "Othello" about how nature traps us into procreating only so we can pass on our genetic material and then die off before using up too many precious resources: I figured I'd better read up on my pet theories or lack of), a substantial minority, nearly a third, of couples do believe in love at first sight.

Well, this evening, rushing off to teach, I passed "Rex." He was at the deserted front counter of the office, and I asked if he needed help. I sought such from a back room, and meanwhile congratulated him effusively as I verified that he's gotten hitched. He thanked me, but I soon regretted my enthusiasm. Instantly, in fact.

As we waited at the counter, I listened to ten minutes of sadness. "Rex" had come to the front counter to arrange, this being finals week, some paperwork. He had to take a final exam scheduled Monday late, and this then created a logjam in his grade getting entered and he needed some red tape severed. The reason this delay had prevented him from coming to school Monday? "Regina" had a meltdown and moved out last weekend. She was bipolar and near-schizophrenic. She had been taking medication. For four years, she had not been in any relationship. She'd lived with her father and stepmom after her turn to religion had brought her back home; they immediately had taken her in when she renounced her profligate ways and they never had asked her for any other explanation nor had they shown any surprise.

That point in a follow-up to a speech she had given on a personal experience had moved "Rex" deeply. Perhaps that's when he might have been attracted to her. That class she took was the only one she had last summer, as she neared the end of her B.S. in computing. Before that, she had lived with a father, stepmother and that woman's three adult children. Now, with marriage and a child on the way, she had taken steps, giant ones, towards a college degree, independence with a young husband, and being a mother.

She suddenly fought with "Rex." On waking up a few days ago, she began violently accusing him of cheating on him. (I thought I saw the shadow of a black eye on him.) She demanded spare keys that he kept to her stepmother's place. Concerned, "Rex" took her to a psychiatrist. He asked her to talk with him privately, and then "Rex"s was called in. Asked if she had anything to say to him, all she wanted was to leave and move out. No reason. Also, another reason why "Rex" took her to see him: she was already pregnant. They had married in Vegas on Sept. 7th-- he proudly recalled how they'd driven there in his Corvette-- and "Regina."

A few nights ago, she moved out. Her stepmother had already placed her things from her old place in their garage and had changed the keys so "Regina" could not move back in to her family's home. A brother had already taken over her old room. "Regina's" family wanted her to leave school before she finished. They insisted that she work as a nurse. They resented her recent independence. They feared her sudden decision to marry, and they'd now again all turned somehow on her.

Her stepmother called "Rex's" mom to tell him that "Regina" had left a change of address with the post office. He cannot reach her directly. She now tells them all she'd spent Monday night at a hospital and had a miscarriage. "Rex" suspects this may be an advance cover story for an abortion she will carry out, but as one Christian talking of another for whom her beliefs drew them together so quickly, he told me near tears that he cannot believe that she would do the wrong thing. Concerned for his child as well as hers, he also fears a condition that the unborn may inherit from his mother. Recall that "Rex" met "Regina" about three-and-a-half months ago.

He concluded by referring to the lesson of the patience of Job. I apologized again for my ebullience before I had heard his story, for of course it was as unexpected and tragic and unfathomable as that of that biblical sufferer. What I thought would be a ten-second, polite, if warm exchange of greetings turned a ten-minute litany of woe. I remembered my own despair and utter horror when I lost one whom I had trusted, long now thankfully ago. I understood more than I spoke.

Theological distinctions, when someone speaks of their trust in God at times when the abyss opens beneath, matter not. Today, earlier, I received news of two deaths, a nun who taught me (badly in my case given my performance) high school chemistry and her colleague, a priest who taught me religion and English. I commented via the agora of today, FaceBook, that I'd keep them both in my prayers. This is simple respect, like returning a Merry Christmas to a passing, cheerful adherent, when it's no time to speculate on the veracity of the Incarnation. Likewise, I do accept that I will indeed keep these two teachers of mine, and now others who linger behind in a grieving world, deep in my mind, or soul.

The patience of Job, that's what "Rex" told me he'd have to have now. "Rex" simply asked me in conclusion: "pray for me." I promised him I will. Perhaps you will too. And, I may add, "Regina." He never spoke against her the whole time. He still is paying off the rings that she returned to him a few days ago.

Image: "patience & Job"=Steve Jobs books, or "patience" in photos personified. "Book job patience" finds little improvement. #3 is "Getting a Clerical Job" and cats and Little Leaguers loom large. I figured I'd end up with this by default or fall back from the Tate. William Blake (1757-1827) "Job, his Wife and his Friends: The Complaint of Job." circa 1785.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Yo La Tengo @ The Rio, 10-17-09, Santa Cruz

I go to concerts about, well, as often as YLT releases CDs. I hardly go to any at all. But, I realized that three gigs and three mes makes a record, so to speak, for me since about 1988. An ex- loved "X," the local L.A. punk-folkabilly troupers, and as I did too (until breaking up with her ruined them for me to ever hear again), that was the one band I'd seen a lot-- even once at Magic Mountain theme park.

With my non-ex, I risk the danger, if she ever becomes my next ex-, of not being able to hear again with pleasure not only Her All-Time Favorite Singer-Songwriter (and to her, he's cute) Paul Westerberg (solo even, even when execrable, as well as with his punk-poppers The Replacements), but a band I liked long before I met her, Yo La Tengo. Hoboken N.J.'s finest may have started with other bands only I have heard of like The Individuals, The Schramms, or The Bongos way back in the early '80s, but only YLT has outlasted not only esteemed peers such as neighbors The Feelies, but every other band from that time who I admire(d), including R.E.M.

While R.E.M. has paralleled YLT's career most nearly in duration and timeframe, the Georgians unfortunately with "Reveal" & "Around the Sun" made duds that made the hit-and-miss, if wonderfully titled, last two platters from the Jersey trio, "I'm Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass" and the just-as-archly named "Popular Songs" at least somewhat better CDs. I actually buy, even in straitened circumstances of late, each new YLT CD right away. I stopped doing this for R.E.M. a decade ago. (Although I have 'em all except the crappy concert one; YLT oddly lacks the expected double-live release.) I have yet to queue up "Accelerate" from my stack; still, it'd be hard to do worse than R.E.M.'s pair of studio plastic jokers.

Also, speaking of Hudson River artsy 80's-starting contenders, YLT and Sonic Youth represent two of the other longest lasting critically acclaimed indie rockers who came out of the alternative "college rock" American post-punk scene. Yet, I'd argue, even against SY's louder legions, that YLT more than SY has produced a stronger set of albums consistently improving since '84. SY had some clunkers post-"Daydream Nation." Even their second wind this decade, while respectable, fails to move me much deep down. Still, I admire with both bands their commitment to quality. All the same, as they walked from the audience with whom they were indistinguishable, up on the stage of The Rio, YLT try less hard to be cool, too.

Chris noted the crowd was the most sober he'd witnessed lately. As he's a denizen of many Bay Area shows, take that as you will. Certainly, YLT comes off as genuinely nice, from their website, the fact that they bring along as a cook on tour the guy who handles otherwise their mail-order, and their playing legendary charity shows the eight nights of each Chanukah back at the club that made their name way back in Hoboken, tiny Maxwell's. You can tell they all ardently love listening to music as much as they play it. They've spent their time at swap meets and with cassette decks rather than in art school or carefully louche bars. They often pair up with great line-ups; their recent Scottish concerts found them with Euros Childs, one of my favorite singer-songwriters, whose albums I have praised here, (He's from the excellent Welsh lysergic folk-pop experimentalists Gorky's Zygotic Mynci.)

As their encore with Roy Loney of The Flaming Groovies showed, YLT knows its rock history, and even if I cannot join the acclaim for such an brave artifact as trotted out, I acknowledge their curatorial care for the legacy of our own Popular, and less such, deserving Songs and those who sing them in small halls and ride away on tour buses and for a quarter- of half-century continue, off the charts not out of fame but because of love, to make music and are lucky enough to make a living at it at my age and well beyond.

Unlike Husker Du or the Minutemen, Big Black or Black Flag, YLT early on as now appeals more to a more educated, less rude crowd of less edgy, more romantic, if equally rock geek youths. Audiences full of not only collegiate types like yours truly, but those who'd become, or spawn, hipsters and their ilk today. While they did all stand up in front of me and never sat down, I figured, given the lack of visual appeal of YLT (sort of like picking three middle-aged customers out of an indie record store's vintage section and putting them up under bright lights without sunglasses) it mattered little. Such profiles filled The Rio: downmarket casual college kids alongside those who could be or were their parents, now my peers. I wondered if any UCSC students had their moms or dads along for the evening.

With fellow fans Bob & Chris, we ate at Lillian's Italian Kitchen across Soquel Ave. our pasta and wandered over to the venue. (Being a native Angeleno, I feared losing our parking space in a place a hundredth the size of my city. But logic told me the ratio of spots to drivers would be the same.) Endless Boogie, a very well-named band once again, opened. Chris found the singer a Prince Valiant-meets-Frankenstein fellow, lurching about incoherently. He later sent me a photo of the band and close-up I can attest that the lead axeman-vocalist proves even scarier in b/w than afar on stage at this film theater turned venue. B & C soon went up to "dance" after being audibly pummelled by the opening act.

EB only played three long songs. I compared them to Humble Pie; Bob to trance of a sort, the kind you made yourself enter. Layne fled to play with her BlackBerry, although many people did just that in their seats. I probably endured them the best of we four punters, as I like psychedelic rock in small doses and convinced a chagrined Chris to buy "Space Ritual" by Hawkwind-- as you can see on the side of this blog one of my top 20 LPs alongside YLT's "May I Sing With Me." Trouble is, Chris can play music, and so can Bob, so they hear it better than can I. Unaided even by secondhand smoke, I guess I can get more in-- as a non-combatant who cannot tell a semitone from a quaver-- to distorted stoner rock music to a degree if (a big if) the voice proves tolerable.

And this being Santa Cruz, full of students and those who never left after college, where most of us four signed in line to get in a petition to legalize it that will be on next year's ballot perhaps-- but I wonder which politician will dare to support it; I'm waiting for a fiscal conservative to lead the way for tax incentives-- the air inside The Rio filled with redolent haze. I think that would have enhanced any listener to Endless Boogie. It sure did its staggering singer.

YLT came on and played well. Probably their best of their three shows. The best band in the country, at a place about a few hundred full in a coastal trendy city a hundred miles south of San Francisco, where they always sold out the Fillmore. They came on, James McNew with a sweet voice and big body on bass; Georgia Hubley on drums and even with mallets for one pounding song; her husband Ira Kaplan doing the Lou Reed-meets-bedroom mirror spaz air guitar with his real Fenders in a row.

They began with the feedback of "From a Motel 6" and ended with "Blue Line Swinger." That's a long jam which starts off very annoying with a thudding, almost jazz-like percussion, but speeds up into satisfying freakout in YLT all-nighter swagger and sway-- my favorite of their many moods. On the last couple records they've laterally shifted, for understandable variety from their guitar-pop and distorted epic overload, into shorter tunes full of an earlier 60's ambiance: hepcat, Motown, twee-funk, bossa nova. These downtown poses from affectionate fans as they themselves surely are of modern music I understand intellectually (as with jazz) but they fail (as with jazz) to move me inside. Now, being very white, as my wife says via a musician friend that my own rock-geek collection shows that I listen "from the waist up."

The trio walked on stage with an odd backdrop of their new album cover, "Popular Songs," which had displayed enlarged motifs of vintage buttons, plain not political. As my wife has a box full of these labelled atop the upstairs cable box with a post-it: "Buttons," I figured she'd like the artwork. I thought it was dorky, although it fit the band's non-aesthetic and their thrift-store calculated retro-ish acquisitive but humble tastes. They are about as old as we are.

The buttons did look better when strobed; I assume again (despite Chris's observation?) that chemicals may have heightened for not a few the fun of this Saturday night in this town. In closing, as a footnote, I must note a certain couple ahead of us who will go down in our personal history as evocative of my continued fear of ruining this band, or this CD at least, for my listening pleasure in perpetuity; even by local standards they defied at least my jaded expectations. Rent-boy Garth [not balding Brooks but as in "Wayne's World"] in a blonde-dyed job and a t-shirt that I stared at three seats back all night: "I'm Techno and You're Not" and Mariachi geezer in silver-studded leather belt polyester shiny blue pants.

My wife has a pet theory. Couples that make music together reveal a tension and release different than other players. John Doe & Exene Cervenka once they split never made music as good as when they headed "X" together. Sonic Youth with Thurston & Kim boasts its own steady pair; ever since Kim looked like Hillary Rodham circa Radcliffe '68. I always wondered if Husker Du broke up since they had two talented, songwriting, contentious, angry gay guys out of three, whereas that straight third man wore (akin to the one surnamed "Beard" in ZZ Top lacking such) a Mario Bros. meets barbershop quartet meets Castro St elegantly waxed moustache. (He later became a cook. YLT should have hired him.)

Tellingly, my wife's favorite song of YLT: "Stockholm Syndrome." Georgia & Ira, I once read, find when one leaves the house that the other has left the amps tuned all awry when the partner returns. I wonder how their music changes when they play alone? Intriguingly, only when the regular bassist joined a few LPs into YLT's career did the band truly find its cohesion; McNew plays with himself in the curiously titled solo project as "Dump" and his tunes match YLT's in a sweet & sour blend of tart indie guitar pop-garage-rock.

We all need somebody to love, if only for a night out. I must envision whirled peas and practice tolerance, as a bumper sticker doubtless would have chided me in the parking lot alongside Bob's Prius (of course) of this very earnest, but unfailingly pleasant, city that I have always enjoyed visiting since I was ten. Funny that outré sexuality and Santa Cruz linked early, if erratically, in my formation. (That leads to my "Sambo's, Sex & Me" -- this got far more comments last year than my usual egghead blather here.)

I happily walked out, sitting halfway back from the stage-- where Chris said the sound was worse-- with my fragile hearing (a lifelong reason I tend to avoid concerts, that and my dislike of fellow man) miraculously intact. The shredded, frayed, frilly waves of YLT wafted over us all, and we all got our $20 worth on our own memorable night on the town, part of our own certain couples. (Photo from a tour three years ago, but neither they nor we change much in rumpled looks, or so we pretend.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pontiak's "Sun on Sun": Music Review

Three brothers holed up in rural Virginia recall the Black Angels, Black Mountain, Mogwai, and Neil Young in their four best songs on this seven-song debut. If you can hear what those artists have in common, you will like this album. Like those musicians, Pontiak brings ideas into their crafting of meandering, punchy, exploratory tunes that roam the crossroads of muddy rather than anthemic Southern rock, early-70s folk-rock, experimental indie rock, and classic late-60s AOR.

The vocals are straightforward, the bass and drums solid, and the guitar textures shifting. The album moves about, and this intrigues. The first song howls and thuds; the second diverges into electronics as found sound-- not that exciting, but calmer. Song three starts to delve into sections that segue into different moods, continued on the next two songs, the strongest core of the CD. The last two, however, let me down. They will please fans of what might be called Jim Morrison unplugged, but as I lack the enthusiasm for most of The Doors that many of my peers esteem, I may be biased.

This short record holds promise. If the band (the samples I've previewed of their recent follow-up "Maker" seems to progress into an Om-stoner metal-art rock epic guitar dissonance) continues to reconstruct classic sounds into intelligent and unexpected structures, they should gain as wide a following as some of the influences I mentioned here. They deserve wider attention. (Posted to Amazon US 9-20-09)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound's "Ekranoplan": Music Review

San Franciscans blend the Dead to Hawkwind: "Hall of the Mountain Grill" meets Mountain Girl? The first couple of songs take on the British band's assault, textured and processed in a muddy early-70s sludge. The Dead's more pastoral style infused the next two, and the fifth and sixth tracks mix the styles. Song seven builds up to the best one, but songs eight and nine then fall back into lassitude and dissipate the energy of the middle section of the record.

This all shows intentional arrangement of these songs to flow, but they do seem uneven on each end ebbing around the peaks midway. The band lacks distinctive vocals or standout instrumentalists, but this mushy production, as on their appropriately titled 2009 follow-up "When Sweet Sleep Returned" (also reviewed by me) does reveal consistency in hearkening back to a psychedelia that evokes the aftermath of the Sixties rather than its frenzied heyday.

I like Hawkwind '72-'75 more than the Grateful Dead, so my reaction may not match yours. This band on both CDs also recalls coastal neighbors Comets on Fire in its admiration for an overlay of synthesized, vintage distortion over guitar rock that looks backward to a mishmash of terse prog, freaky folk, and placid interludes that swirl around a dirty, muddy sound. While only track seven, "D. Brown," for me works totally, there's promise on both records that will keep me listening to this band's efforts. (Posted to Amazon US 10-19-09)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

PowerPoint, a Freudian slip, fairy fears

"R.E.M. Succumbs": so they titled their first videos; for me, I succumbed to my first home-made Power Point presentation yesterday. I gave at an Irish Studies conference up in Northern California a talk on the invention of the concept of "Celtic Buddhism." Needing to make this extremely esoteric topic understandable, I had to sadly jettison Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, and Banville and my lit-crit baggage.

Lightened, I decided to focus the projector on what could be seen by my audience: the visual counterparts to the words and concepts I selected. I edited down first my 15,000-word article from my ongoing research, finished earlier this year. (If I hope soon to expand rather than to contract. Any takers?) 9,000 words for a CD-Rom for the forthcoming proceedings of the "Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland" conference at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, two weeks hence were sent off-- last week-- to meet their limits.

Then, I revised my 2,800-word, twenty-minute talk, paring off sentences and adding more, trying to keep the sprawling talk within its own boundaries. Shadows lengthened the afternoon after our arrival up North. Days before my paper, I recited to myself over and over, the last time after we descended-- a week after "Fern River" and "Quail Hollow" as I wrote about last week on this blog-- again upon our patient hosts four hundred miles away (this time it took four hours each way with a flight rather than seven by car) in the hills above Santa Cruz.

I talked to the forest and the wind. I felt like a Franciscan; Poverello of Assisi's statue sat silently next to me, steadily peering out of his cowl over neat rocks and patient flowers towards a koi pond. I paced about near him, if out of sight of hosts and spouse, cat and dogs, tv and house, behind a redwood circular wall under a canopy of the same trees on a slope full of welcome shade. I practiced in a delightfully appropriate setting of a hot tub strewn with pine branches and needles across its cover by a recent storm, where their tutelary statue of Buddha had to be moved from its niche to safer ground after the gusts. I kept it in my eye as I walked about the enclosure as if an Irish ringfort or Celtic rath, a bard declaiming to bird and tree my own utterances of ancient wisdom as Samhain neared.

This is demanding work. It's difficult when you must hack out thousands of words sweated over during months of labor. Then, you must re-think the talk as given to people who haven't the slightest idea (unlike Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, or Banville) of whom you're talking about. I find my research often delves into the fringes, off the deep end, from conventional scholarly pursuits. As an outlier myself, I sympathize with past self-taught scholars, misled autodidacts, ignored profs from obscure colleges. What they may have in their own time assembled might, as yesterday proved, inspire good-natured ribbing from later scholars, but it also provides a salutory lesson in humility.

I found that on the first page of my talk, the second slide, I made an impromptu shout-out to an audience I was not sure knew what in blazes I was getting at. Maybe more scholars should do this. Or, perhaps they don't, as their expertise honed at far more conferences and weekly seminars than I can attend on a limited expense budget and a year-round teaching load compares to my own, to my detriment.

Well, do you know what a "lingam" is, off-hand, without looking it up now on Wikipedia in a pop-up tabbed search box on your browser? I figured not everyone might have, but I blurted out that it meant "vagina," rather than "phallus," as many in the spirited audience corrected me instantly. A bit nervous as I was but three minutes into my presentation, not sure if the Power Point remote would work, in a bright room where the slides could not be seen easily, testing my voice against my height and a microphone that refused to let me do other than bend like a giraffe and talk down at it while craning my gaunt neck to keep scanning the crowd for essential eye contact. I mixed up "lingam" with "yoni," as the fact that the passage from the 1894 antiquarian author of "Old Druids and Old Irish Religions" had been discussing immediately after "secret recesses." Freudian slip?

I recovered instantly, shrugging in exaggerated fashion: "Well, they're all connected anyhow." I guess it got a second laugh, or else the first laugh had turned into chortles of derision at my lack of cred, me being after all the outlier barely above "independent scholar," which I do label myself-- if as one "who happens to teach," such is the cognitive dissonance between my academic investigations and the way I earn my daily keep in the classroom. (At least, as my wife noted, I kept my eyes off the Bangladeshi in a sari who sat immediately beneath the podium, every time I enunciated "Hindu" or "India" or "Orientalist." I was too tall to really see her in my line of skewed sight unless I peered down at her, an owl from a perch.)

It's always awkward to face a new crowd and size them up as to what you know vs. what they know. Conferences can be deadly dull, even more than classrooms, when the speaker fails to convert their paper into a true talk. Making the leap for me from text alone to images works this time, but I predict as most of my research relies far less on the actual eye rather than the mind's eye, that my PP'll be deployed sparingly. No endless bullet points, no word-for-word articulation of what every stunned audience member must stare at for the next 58 slides, 12 charts, 10-point font, fourteen-hued pie chart thinly sliced. There's a small grace to reside in the humanities, however poorly treated we are by the number-crunchers for whom I labor.

I read a Jesuit's autobiography long ago. He founded the Legion of Decency against smut in 1930s American movies. This crackdown of the Church against Hollywood's gin molls and original gangstas led to or paralleled the Hays Code 1933-68. This was a book I found neglected, understandably, in high school. We had "spiritual reading" regularly and I was curious about what made a man so rigorous. As you know if you visit this blog, I roam widely and always have in my book choices. Anyway, early on in his scholasticate training, Fr. Daniel Lord suggested, or demanded him being S.J. old school, that if you taught, you should never sit down. I never do when speaking to students. I move around and feel on the days they present (PowerPoint's almost a given for them) the lack of movement in my spine and on the plastic chair.

There, in flourescent rooms amidst the canned-course lesson slides that accompany now most of my classes if not yet all (wait 'til next year), I must use PP for certain lessons for certain courses now and then, but I still feel like I am tethered to them whereas I like to roam and prowl a classroom with marker in hand, podium more as a center to stalk about rather than an anchor to weigh me down. Our classes lack the remote for the PP, so one must be often, as many profs remain to their detriment whether tied to a podium or lashed to a stool, caught behind a console, tapping the keyboard forward.

Me, I like to wander, intellectually and professionally. My magpie's nest, my flotsam and jetsom paper, on the other hand, benefited I trust from the input of my wife and Dr. Bob our host and friend, who kindly accompanied me to the conference session and sat through the other papers: I was the middle speaker. Kara Donnelly from NYU delivered a complementary discussion on Roddy Doyle's story from "The Deportees"-- a Gothic Gaelic tale "The Pram." A Polish nanny, a new fixture in a modern South Dublin far changed from Doyle's native Northside two decades ago, enters an upscale home, fearsomely helmed by a yuppiefied hard-charging mother, to exact the Old Country's slow justice on an Irish woman too caught up in her own power-trip to listen to her family or nurture their love.

This clash foreshadowed my own look at how hyphenated identities in Ireland reveal globalized and localized unease, and encouraged healing by answering venerable longings. Romantics and Victorians may have invented the concept without historical proof; today, people invent the concept and deny they need "historical verification" for their belief system to be constructed in a Foucauldian realm. Mary Wack from Western Washington U. followed with a talk about how a vengeful fairy (in the wake of not the cute Disneyfied wee folk but as we Irish truly know-- my ancestral farm harboring a "fairy fort" I would never dare enter; see Eddie Lenihan's "Meeting the Other Side" and my review on Amazon US if you doubt my caution, for cautionary tales) haunted a Limavady farmer all the way to America to wreak spectral terror.

I pondered with my colleagues briefly afterwards how all three of our talks had delved into Irish culture's fear of, and love of telling each other about, the attraction to the spirits of the Otherworld. Roddy Doyle, Celtic Buddhists real or imagined, and an Ordnance Survey's 1830 recounting of a cottier's report all witness to the Irish fascination with that we cannot hold down, but which we determine to be as real as the space we fill with these words such as I type to you today. We love conjuring up tall tales, mandala fusions, and family spook-stories that speak to very real emotions that reveal even in our material world of today, how much we listen to the voices we cannot see, past, present, and, perhaps tonight for you in your bedroom, the future.

(Photo taken by me on our earlier visit up North, with Buddha in his niche, August '09.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quail Hollow Ranch

Quail Hollow preserves an 1866 homestead, a ranch bought by the Lane family of "Sunset: The Magazine of Western Living" fame. Any Californian of a certain age, at least a native, should recognize it. Full of trimmed horticultured beauty. Food, excursions, and an elegant, yet outdoor lifestyle of patios, barbeques, arboretum, and garden party. For the postwar generation that flooded into the Golden State, ah, this was the life.

I admire Santa Cruz County for restoring the ranch house, the willow-fronted pond, and the chaparral trails surrounding this park north of Felton. The pond, by the way given my last entry and the admiration for Thomas Merton Bob and I share, reminded me of the Oregon Trappist abbey I'd literally stumbled upon when driving two years ago outside of Portland. There briefly three Octobers earlier almost to the day, I circumambulated a greater but similarly situated lake on its own peaceful grounds. I'd taken Merton with me to read on this new trip thanks to Bob's reminder.

Excerpt I'd read the next day on the long ride down the 5 home:
"You need not hear the momentary rumors of the road/ Where cities pass and vanish in a single car/ Filling the cut beside the mill/ With roar and radio,/ Hurling the air into the wayside branches/ Leaving the leaves alive with panic." ("The Trappist Cemetery--Gethsemani" ca. 1946.)

I looked out alone over the willow pond before the ceremony. I saw a bench with (more or less) a small plaque: "Janet Gaye Smith, 1954-2006. Do not weep for me. Do not feel sad. I am in a thousand winds that blow." She must have sat at her favorite vista point. The breeze did hint a bit, and managed to overcome the road's steady traffic. I sought a few minutes of quiet there. I thought of love and loss and those I loved. I wished her spirit the peace I felt she had left behind for me and for them.

Many times I have written here of my longing for this area in the Santa Cruz Mountains. This post follows yesterday's about one more nook in this neck of the woods, "Fern River Resort" where we stayed this trip north. But this is the first time we'd been up the road north of town to loop around down up the gravel road into the park, and then down Zayante Road that took us nearly straight past our familiar haunt, Bob and Chris' own "hollow" on Mount Hermon. My family drove up here to celebrate amidst about sixty people invited to commemorate Bob and Chris, after their first year together as a married couple.

Although a longtime pair, they got hitched quickly, in the state window legally allowed before the passage of Prop. 8 denied same-sex couples the rights I enjoy alongside most of those gathered to affirm Bob and Chris in their partnership. This disparity's telling. It gained righteous attention during my own partner's speech.

My wife, who was their witness at their quick legalizing ceremony last year, now regaled the crowd out under the ranch house arbor with her own tales of the couple. She was preceded by The Scholar, who combined Lakota with Jewish traditions in his recounting of the eclectic interests that so many of us shared as representatives of a "certain type" of Californian. Followed by Tsering, The Singer-- who gave my older son when a baby his one and only real Tibetan kiss-- calling out to us all in her native language a chant of blessing and one of lovers united.

After my wife-- designated by Bob who must apparently categorize diversity into unity as The Witness-- did so both for "scary Bob" of a past I never knew much of as it was largely before I knew him or her, and of the Bob now who acts like his upright half of the old married couple, we heard Sally The Poet tell of how Chris washed clothes with a dog rug mixed in with the fastidious Bob's attire. Then, Bob's brother John-- with whom along with his wife Frances and his family I enjoyed a stay five summers ago in Oughterard-- and Chris' sister and mother spoke of their love for the couple, who then exchanged their own vows again. Bob was more taciturn than usual, his preacher-father's Free Methodist no necktie background telling; Chris strung together a farrago of lyrics from not only the Dead and Wilco and Neil Young (all givens) but some hip-hop my sons (all givens) recognized attentively. Better that than the Desiderata.

Our family tried to play badminton. We puzzled over bocce as another family played it apparently well enough. We made small talk, Niall with a real sportswriter and Leo and I with our back-home near-neighbor. My wife ( see her own entry, "More More"), at ease, had real conversations with old friends that from her non-verbal expressions well transcended small talk.

I drank local red wine and ate vegetarian ricotta. Inside the ranch house, I stood staring up at the stuffed owl in the blotchy flash photo taken by Leo of me above. (I apologize, but the camera was on the fritz all weekend; no scenic ones at all. By the time we got it to work, it was night.) We saw a black horse get hosed down. A white one caparisoned across a field in splendor. Our neighbor up the hill, who lives about a half-mile from us, chatted about the new homes being built on another outpost, less able to protect itself against houses if not horses.

We all press around the terrain we enjoy. Over the range, Lawrence Lane must have driven down into the valley where he founded "Sunset" in Menlo Park around the time he bought the ranch in 1937. Sixty years later, Google was founded in Menlo Park, attracting another surge of settlers into the Santa Clara valley were once orchards and fields blossomed. Renamed after Silicon, no longer after "Heart's Delight." The personal gets replaced, at first glance, by the technological, but we all "google" now as a verb, and we still make friends and find information to keep connected, as you and I may have met through this blog.

Still, even if I suppose my wife checked her BlackBerry during the reception, it's comforting to have such retreats. Bob runs an enormous adult ed program in Salinas, a massive center of agribusiness celebrated and chastised by its native son John Steinbeck, where Dr. Bob educates farmworkers, their children, and us about the land and our ties to it in the food we eat and the air we breathe, along with a lot of ESL, not to mention classes in sustainable living off this fertile yet threatened soil. Chris works for the County, preserving its watershed and ensuring its health. Both labor to keep this land and its people thriving within a precious terrain that we all cherish. They chose quite an appropriate place to commemorate their marriage. Even if as Layne joked (and she helped pick the naturally organic vegan etc. Santa Cruz caterer from as you'd imagine many competitors), they probably paid at least as much attention to the music they played on the mix tape as the sustainable, locally grown, and abundant cuisine. We all ate well, and Niall and I colluded for extra berry cobbler plates as twilight fell, chill came on, and we all prepared to part.

We return to our innate need for open space and pristine sights in our state. There we enter to find ourselves rooted in the common grace that calls us to find each other. We can cling and chant to affirm our fragile nature's determination to stand together, in California's gentle outdoors under autumn's evening breezes. There in a thousand whispers we hear the same soft wind.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Fern River Resort

On Highway 9, five miles north of Santa Cruz, by a bend in the San Lorenzo River, nestles this venerable motor court. About a dozen cabins stand, painted rust-barn red, under a canopy of redwoods. Willows, elms, and sycamores grow along the bank. A third of a mile up the road, a few minutes' walk brings you to Henry Cowell State Park with its mighty stand of tall trees by the Roaring Camp steam-powered railroad. Its whistles fill the woods as you stroll past the Frémont Tree where the explorer camped, or legend says.

The proprietors of this lodging on the plastic sign legally required on each door of each cabin wish you first of all, in a green font, "Contentment and Joy." They then list a long litany of complaints that the ecologically enforcing County of Santa Cruz requires of them, and they of you, according to more laws. These laws are not to protect the habitat and wildlife and watershed, in their interpretation. They are an intrusion by bureaucrats. Without them, one senses, the forests could be cleared and paved and those towing large trailers would not face a sign that they cannot use the ample driveways and circular turnabouts for ingress and egress of looming behometh and octaned leviathan. The trucks parked in front of some cabins were half the size of the dwellings.

Draconian restrictions on separating recyclables, fulminations against checking out late or coming in past 6 p.m. to arrive, and dire warnings that any "guest" visiting you over three hours will incur an additional charge for the havoc presumably wrought by his or her need due to his or her indoor plumbing to the owners' septic tank. A hot tub (adjacent to a tiny but neatly mowed green) enticingly is promised, but as with the charges for ping-pong paddles, volleyball (a net sits lonely on grass), and trail maps ($1), the added and itemized, ever increasing, actual expense and potential threat of intrusion dissuades even our two teenaged boys from woodcraft or even outdoor adventure.

On arrival (at #5 "Snowbelle") after unpacking, I hear the highway. I am surprised where all the traffic goes up and down from Santa Cruz into Felton, a mile away, or up to Boulder Creek, or over to Scotts Valley, but these slopes, despite their sylvan history as a getaway, grew into a bedroom string of communities for upscale dot.commers, recalcitrant hippies determined to live off the land growing, well, you know, and college grads who never want to go home. This borders the Silicon Valley. As expensive as town-gown lefty utopia greater Santa Cruz may be, it's less so than over the Mountain into the southern stretch of what even in my youth on a county map still promised "The Valley of Heart's Delight": proverbial stereotypes of fruits, nuts, and berries for California's millions, though fewer than today's forty. Tellingly, big-box ubiquitous chain OSH started there as "Orchard Supply Hardware."

The traffic hums and whirs. Caught in the nook between river and hill, the noise dopplers up and down. I walk down to the river, actually a creek about a tenth of the riverbed now. I try to sit, but neither bench nor flat rock allows me but to crouch. I attempt to compose my thoughts after eight hours on highways less tranquil than CA-9. I look out and see three types of trees as listed above. I realize that's about half the trees I can identify in nature. Despite my distaste of the city where I was born and bred, I remain a hopeless urbanite.

I do find that if I am very near the water, I cannot hear the road. Of course, as guilty as any Californian, that same asphalt sped our way here and will allow us not to tramp in mud as we visit Cowell, as we pop up for dinner at the Cowboy Bar & Grill 9/10 of a mile up in downtown Felton, The town drunk, or one of them, has a haircut like Georges Perec, whose "Life, a User's Manual" I am desultorily reading myself to sleep with at home. He leans into various women at the bar as the Phillies beat the Twins, or is it the Yankees the Red Sox? Can't tell from my chair.

Later, we walk next door to the Rite-Aid. Coddled if non-hypochondriac me rarely enters a drugstore, and my kids were already in the food aisle allowed, it being "vacation," $5 each for snacks. The Resort lacks a mini-bar, which is doubtless wise. I notice their tea selection, or similar lack, in case I am ever in need of it in the middle of a strange city on an odd night. I also point out the discrepancy in size between 11 ozs. of Raisinets (30% daily supply of anti-oxidents, the label encourages me) and 5.5 ozs. of Cranberry Raisinets, a misnomer, for I say aloud it should read "Craisinets." My family thinks it's the ale talking, but not only is the label wrong, you get half the amount for cranberries rather than raisins for the same maker, same $2.99. My culinary-skilled helpmeet patiently explains, as if to a doting elder or recalcitrant child, how cranberries are more expensive.

Doubtlessly a secret relief to my family, who drive away, I walk off. I need my daily constitutional, and we've been on the road all day. I digest tilapia, cornbread, and mashed potatoes (and a few carrots corrugated) along with ale. I enjoy my own return under a few bright and even colorful stars, so rarely seen by me, above the very high arches of trees above the highway. I leap aside into the mulchy leaves and pine needles in the gutter as I see headlights approach. There is often no light except what houses or highbeams give at some stretches.

We unveil on the bed what my wife warned we'd find, from her diligent research on Trip Advisor. (Compare her own take on events, unseen by me as of this writing my own: "More, More"). See pictured our spray-painted poly-plastic blanket, thin as what airlines used to loan you, and one small pillow each to match in texture, firmness, and density. No blankets despite for we Angelenos the cooler clime. Nothing in the room but a tiny remote the size of a computer mouse bolted into the wall. Our kids took over the double bed to watch basic cable. Mr. T. oohs and ahs over a halogen see-through cooker in an endless informercial before an audience that oohs and ahs and marvels on cue. Skanks roll around on their own rented beds at the Madonna Inn, which we passed up the 101 through San Luis Obispo. I reminded our elder scion how he micturated there onto a copper urinal, a waterwheel turning above him. It's that kind of place. Our kind of place? Kids watched t.v., dulled by the lack of their usual array of hundreds of channels into seeing How the Other Half Lives. Spouse tapped away on her laptop when the on-off connection permitted. It went off constantly. It then went on again. And off again.

Meanwhile, still getting around as with Perec to books I started in grad school, I skimmed Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae" which perhaps appropriately or ironically after a bang-up starting chapter that left me in awe managed to by the Renaissance to peter out into the usual publish-or-perish morass. She chortled how every man leaves a woman after coition less than he entered her. Maybe the narrative thrust here follows suit.

Still, sympathetic by shared training if not daily avocation, I skimmed long chunks of our professor, in the mode of her mentor Harold Bloom, expound endlessly but not that interestingly on dozens of works I had little interest in-- a sadistic tale penned by Balzac-- even if I had knowledge of them-- Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights." I began to scan the tome for the good bits, few and far between. This book made her reputation, twenty years ago. I wondered how many readers, as with another Bloom, Allan, made it past the first few chapters. Still, I admired her spunk. I'm not leather-jacketed, bisexual, or rock-belting, but I am what she was, an outlier from the usual ivory tower niches; she managed to both get the gig that made her reputation while enlivening, a little, the usual lit-crit jargon. A feminist, but perhaps a likable one. Rare in academia. Although she gave in to the lure to sound like everyone else much more than I'd have anticipated, Paglia still resisted the monotonous call of the tenured siren, somewhat. She managed a joke and/or a smirk now and then. For this small comfort I allowed her much patience and great leeway.

In moments free of angst borne up from the six-hundred pages I held, I listened to the lack of what to listen to, if the blaring t.v. could be (as I had to learn early on in my childhood household) silenced internally so I could get back to reading and/or brooding. Many Trip comments berated said surly and/or ESL-challenged staff and woeful amenities. However, the price as you'd expect was not as rock-bottom as I'd wished. I suppose to pay for cable if not blankets. Or hot showers. Yet, it was more right than that arranged, say, by our friends who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express toppling over CA-19's on-ramp in hideous strip-mall Scotts Valley.

I made friends with a grey tabby, no collar, the next morning, and gave him milk from a box we carried. He sauntered in and took charge of our meager fare. The next and last morning I wanted him to come back for the dish of milk I'd saved-- we were afraid to leave it on the back porch for fear of the Management. I sat on the porch on another plastic item, a chair next to a grimy ashtray, and pondered the stands of the three trees I knew above a small slice of white-capped nudge that showed the water over a few pebbles in the creek that was named a river.

In my hands, I held my thick volume number two, the Collected Poems of Thomas Merton, if sadly left unedited-- they needed an editor-- as Bob, whose one-year wedding to Chris (who works to protect the County's watershed) we had come up to celebrate, had reminded me in a response to Jack Kerouac's "Some of the Dharma" sprawling mess of Merton's similarities. In my lap, I waited for the cat who never came back, holding the worn but never yet-opened New Directions paperback I'd bought half-off at UCLA student store perhaps twenty-five years ago. Remaindered sticker, $8.50, still stuck over a front cover of that smiling Trappist monk, pen in hand. He knew about nature, hermitages, cities-- perhaps even about cats.

So, more about the destination of the wedding reception at tomorrow's entry, "Quail Hollow Ranch." For now, I take home a sliver of calm, for we must wrest it from our daily hubbub, unless we are monks. Even Merton railed against the Cheesemakers, the Loggers, the Looky-Loos at the monastery he found not so fortified against the petty outside world we all crowd within. We all want a resort, and we all demand a retreat in the nature that we come to witness and to demolish so we can get closer to it. For now, in the uneasy trade we all make on this earth, we bargained for a bit of calm and made the better deal.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Assemble Head in Sunburst Sound's "When Sweet Sleep Returned": Music Review

A San Francisco band with a mouthful for themselves and their newest CD title. They turn from the freakier Hawkwind-prog blend of their debut, "Ekranoplan," into what's been called more "Notorious Byrd Brothers" late-60s psych-folk. As that LP's on my top 20, I checked this group out after a friend played it and my ears perked up. It sounded in the background very early-70ish, and fans of the Dead (I'm not one, but I've tried) may admire some tracks, as well as those favoring a more muddy, dense, acidic (not alkaline) sound from this period.

The production makes this feel like it's coming from a garage down the street. Boxy, echoed, and processed, but it does not always stand up under closer than background listening. This is the group's limitation. Whether out of a lack of budget or a lo-fi aesthetic, the eight songs except for the rippling "Kolob Canyon" (the most Dead-like tune in a good way) and a pastoral "End Under Down" don't rise from the murk. This may be the Hawkwind influence, or AHISS's earlier musical legacy sticking to the record despite a move towards more quieter moods. (I also like early Hawkwind by the way, another reason I sought this record out; for the reviewer who wondered if AHISS resembled another band from The City, Wooden Shjips-- all of whose records I have reviewed-- they do, sort of, but AHISS seem less drony and more rambling, even if their songs, as with WS, tend often to be surprisingly short; this is only a forty-minute record.)

The best songs are the snappy "Two Birds" and the unfolding textures at a louder resolution on my favorite, the rapid yet hesitant patterns of "Drunken Leaves." The others don't leap out as much, but repeated listenings remind me of the later, less frantic, efforts from near-neighbors Comets on Fire. With a member credited on theremin & moog, this is a band that delights in updating a wonderful time for Bay Area and California coastal rock music, but they do need a stronger producer to bring out their potential. The woozy quality speaks of the forest, shadows, and mulch. But, some sunlight to pierce the dampness in these grooves could do wonders.(Posted to Amazon US 9-14-09)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cleasaithe vs. Creagachaí: cluiche corr

Chaill siad aríst areir. Scríobhim an aiste seo ina dhiadh díomua eile. Bhris siad an séú cluiche ar líne.

D'imir siad ar aghaidh Na Creagachaí na gColorado. Caith Na Cleasaithe ag buaileadh an foireann sin. Gheobaidh an chraobh a bhaint in a roinnt iarthar ansin.

D'imigh ár theaglach agus chairde ó Niall go brón orainn. Rinne muid bronntanas air. Bhí an ceathrú lá breithe aigesan féin ar seachtaine seo caite.

Ní imríonn Na Cleasaithe go maith faoi deireanach. Ar scor ar bith, imríonn Na Creagachaí níos fearr. Bhí cluiche go dona go hiondúil le déanaí.

Is docha go mbeidh ag cailleadh Na Cleasaithe go luath ar feadh a athimirt. Mar sin féin, is deacair orm a feiceáil an foireann ag tipeamh go rialta anois. Tá an bua a bhfuil súil liomsa. Níl deireadh dúile bainte de agam-- freisin.

(Nóta eile: Faoi dheireadh, bhuaile Na Cleasaithe an lá dar gcionn. Bhain siad bua ina cluiche cáilithe ar aghaide Na Cairdinéil leis trí cluichí go díreach ansin. Mar sin, bím níos sonas ormsa féin anois.)

Dodgers vs. Rockies: baseball.

They lost again 4-3 last night. I write this entry after another defeat. They failed a sixth game in a row.

They played against the Colorado Rockies. The Dodgers must beat that team. They will get the victory (="they will grab the branch") in their western division then.

Our family and friends of Niall went away with sadness upon us. We had made a present for him. It was his own fourteenth birthday this past week.

The Dodgers have not been playing well recently. However, the Rockies have played much better. The game was bad as usual lately.

It's likely that the Dodgers will lose soon during the playoffs. Nevertheless, it is difficult for me to see the team failing regularly now. It is a hoped-for win. I have not given up hope-- yet.

(Another note: Finally, the Dodgers won the next day. They put away then a playoff win against the Cardinals with three games straight. Therefore, there's (habitually) more happiness for me now.)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Great Lake Swimmers' "Lost Channels": Music Review

Recorded along the Thousand Islands bordering Canada and the US, this sounds like a riparian pastoral suite. Tony Dekker leads this hushed band, amping up to current Wilco or mid-period REM volume on the first three and the fifth songs. These don't display the power of Dekker's soft quaver as much as their standard repertoire of quieter, slower, melancholy tunes.

Dekker and band understandably wanted to shake up their sound on this fourth record. The songs that are louder, however, seem nondescript next to ones such as "Concrete Heart" which despite the lyric sheet that makes the words look nearly indecipherable in size and color, still stick with you in simple poetry. The album sinks in as it progresses, and the later songs return to the earlier albums such as "Ongiara" and "Bodies and Minds" with a chamber-folk setting that adds depth subtly. GLS has progressed as the band coalesced to flesh out the low-fi, skeletal, haunting sound of the self-titled debut, and despite the added fullness here on #4, I still prefer the more burrowed, hibernating feel of the softer songs that wrap you under layers.

This is not a record to blast. It's suited for introspection, rain, and waking up or settling down. We all need such music however raucous other CDs on our shelves speak to other moods. It took me a while to get used to Dekker's resolutely steady pace of singing and playing, but this will comfort those in the mood for music that makes you turn inward. How he and his band manage to do this without seeming pitiful or self-absorbed is a difficult quality to explain, but I think more often than not, this record succeeds in separating the fine line on the right side, between twee and depth, pose and insight. (Posted to Amazon US 10-8-09)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Stuart Neville's "Ghosts of Belfast": Book Review

Neville surveys the peace process and its discontents with a grim eye. Belfast’s younger generation buys overpriced coffee, crowds streets with cars, and reliably casts its votes as the world’s most cynical electorate. The old patterns persist of sectarianism, although political opportunism replaces Marxist posturing for paramilitaries gone if not straight, then into sex trafficking, drug deals, and smuggling. “The North had become the poor relation, the bastard child no one had the heart to send away.” (84) The newly rich angle to manipulate the media and the Establishment lest they let the dogs of war loose again; this proves more profitable than Semtex in egging on panic and then quelling it by stage-managed riots. This turns the goal of three dozen years of hatred, idealism, and violence.

Gerry Fegen begins his spree determined to literally and figuratively erase the demons of the twelve he killed for the Cause. By taking out those who remain who caused more bloodshed, Fegen reasons he will expiate his own crimes and silence those who haunt him from his dozen victims. This conceit features intriguingly in the narrative, and enlivens, if that’s the term, the predictably bloody action and spirited back-stabbing.

As he tracks down today’s guilty men, Fegen must relive his own killings, one by one. He turns a one-man avenger to take out all those who cling to power over the province by their ill-gotten terror and murder. The ghosts of the twelve victims, in a rare respite from the escalating bloodshed Fegen enters and exacerbates, often emerge poignantly, drawn from across the sectarian, uniformed, and civilian ranks of the innocents and the armed, both sides and all factions tangled then as now.

Characters drawn broadly, and recognizably despite their pseudonyms, from the spectrum of Ulster figures enrich this first novel by an Armagh resident. The plot’s as intricate and breakneck—- truly-— as you’d expect, although so quick it often rushes by the subtler characterizations that might have deepened empathy. It may be written with an eye towards the big screen; it’s labeled “the first in a series.” I admit my own jaundiced eye when it comes to the real-life inspirations for many of the villains within, but for fiction, this does drag the tone of this very dark, humorless story down very low. As the story thunders on, I felt a loss inside of nobody to care for that I’d miss when it ended. This may be intentional for this genre, but it did dishearten me. There’s a paucity of people here you can sympathize with. Nearly all seem to have made deals with rogues and devils. It’s a wasteland, no matter the infusion of Jaguars, mansions, and mobiles.

The sharp patter of the Northern Irish does not gain as much of a presence on the page as it might have; the book’s crafted for a wider audience less familiar perhaps with those it skewers. For instance, Gerry Fegen thinks indirectly via the omniscient narrator, of his time in the British-run local prison known to those of his background as “Long Kesh,” but he first recalls it as the “Maze,” a term more widely used in the media and by the majority population in the statelet, but a shibboleth not employed by Republicans. Explanations may be a bit didactic out of necessity for readers abroad, yet this allows those outside the inner circle of Irish intrigue to step into dark shadows of Belfast noir.

The beleaguered, bombed city may have outwardly changed into a glossy port awash in grant moneys, but inside, it harbors its own long memories of other peoples’ sins. “The same lowlifes still fed off the misery they created, deepening the divisions whenever they could. The same hatreds still bubbled under the surface. But the city had grown fat, learning to mask its scars when necessary and show them when advantageous.” (91) (Posted to Amazon US 10-6-09; British title; "The Twelve.")

Monday, October 5, 2009

Glen David Gold's "Sunnyside": Book Review

Chaplin, Rin Tin Tin, and the Allied incursion vs. Bolsheviks combine, if off-kilter and open endedly, in this ambitious novel. Gold enjoys telling a vibrant story. He keeps the characters and plot churning. It adds up perhaps to less than the sum of its three often disparate parts, but it's rewarding for recreating the WWI era.

Scenes of Los Angeles when you could smell and see orange groves everywhere, of a ruined winery on the French-German front line, a Cowboy-Indian battle enacted before the Kaiser, of puppies and war-bond drives and conniving con-artists and San Francisco streets all come alive. Gold can summon up a tangible sense of participating in such vignettes. He puts his energy into this effort, and it pays off for inspired stretches. The novel, however, jolts and races, tossing you about.

The first half moved skillfully. I was never quite sure what happened in the opening scenes off the California coast, but this sort of ambiguity keeps you page turning. Not all the strands will be neatly woven into a tightly knit ending. It does feel more like three novellas interspersed, for nearly all of the action. While this may upset some readers, it appeared truer to the messy life that its protagonists endure.

Later, as the war overtakes two of its three main characters, the novel slowed noticeably. It never bogs down into a rut, but the ignition propelling it on appears to have been quenched. This downshifting may be intentional, or it may show a weariness on the author's part in keeping his sprawling project driving forward. For instance, the dogs that Lee Duncan adopts gain poignant description, but even as a dog lover myself, the detail given their adoption did not interest me much. A minor character placed early on to be of some motivating, if sinister, force fails in the end, for me, to be explained satisfactorily. I'm not sure the novel regains its earlier verve, but the spirited tone does darken as the themes of futility repeat and widen with imperialist war as sad backdrop.

Halfway through, there's much less, actually, of the war than I expected. This surprised me. Yet, Captain Edmund Ironside offers a more nuanced insight into what happens outside the clichés of the usual historical epic one might have anticipated earlier in the novel. He's pondering how history repeats: "You were never at the beginning or middle of anything. You were always at the middle, in a mist, and it was always up to someone else to announce later what your time on earth had meant." (352) The omniscient narrator will tell us about the fate of one protagonist in advance; this type of editorializing shakes us up and draws us in to the frailty of one's own struggle, shared by all in this story, "to learn a lesson."

This character will find himself contemplating the fate of a dead soldier, frozen upside down in the ice, his trousers and boots stolen from his corpse. The living witness "realized the war was never going to end. Everyone would die and be replaced by people who needed the clothes you died in. This was the future." The character thinks "this was the future, too. He almost wanted to die, except for knowing that men like these will survive him, and take the things from his pockets." (401)

Such existential truth permeates this novel. We learn too well: "A comedy ends with a marriage. A tragedy begins with one." (549) Chaplin listens to a preacher: "Was life basically random, and were our agile human brains, trained in analogy and connecting dots, always making constellations out of chaos? Or was there a deeper meaning, and was it when we were in touch with the divine that we allowed ourselves to see it?" (551)

Faith and its lack in a mysterious world spurs its characters to act and fumble. This choice of what to make yourself believe in elevates the novel's tone, if subtly. Chaplin-- who remains rather enigmatic and distant throughout-- witnesses a similar destruction of verities as man wreaks havoc in the pursuit of dreams. People outside Hollywood watch a film and see "where they could live in tune with what they had always wanted to be. It was obvious, upon seeing the beaches and hills and palms, that your current self was just a stand-in for someone not yet arrived. If only you could live in such a beautiful place, the rest would change. People at their weakest, most trusting, and childlike moments believed there was out there a place for them somewhere in Sunnyside. Which meant the place was eventually one hundred two-bedroom bungalows. The mystery not yet solved was how to love a place when your mere presence destroyed it." (490)

I type this review where I live, a mile from where Chaplin and early stars once hunted quail on a weekend retreat with their mistresses, a half-hour's drive from his studio. These words certainly spoke to me, a native Angeleno. Gold takes as he admits slight liberties in telling his tale: no red-car trolley could get from Hollywood to San Pedro's port in half-an-hour and seagulls don't fly inland as far as downtown L.A. in the opposite direction, Yet, he does capture well the eradication of the wild beauty that films captured, even as they lured so many to this city to bulldoze and pave over the canyons, groves, and shores. After filming a scene from "Sunnyside," Chaplin indirectly reflects: "When they have left the screen, there is a full second of the landscape, a perfect day preserved, a place still beautiful without them." (492) (Posted to Amazon US 10-5-09)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Leis Naomh Proinsias i gCalifoirnea?

Shiúl mé ag imeall na cnoic inniu. Go rialta, siúlaim ar an muileann coise ag bhaile. Ar scor ar bith, imím go áiteannái eile anois agus ansin.

Stád mé ar mo bhealach ina séipéail Naomh Proinsias a gúim thar ceann mo mhaithair breithe. Tá go dona faoi deireanach. D'imigh ag cur cuairt a teaghlach go mBaile Átha Cliath agus ar ais le déanaí.

Rinne sí a bhealach siar. Fhill sí ar an aerlínéar go gcathair Naomh Prionsias. Tá sí i gcónaí ansiúd.

Bhuel, rug sí tinn go fíochmhar ar feadh an eitilt go tapaidh. Chuaigh sí ag h-ospidéal go gearr. D'fhoghlaim mé leis an fear céile ach anois go raibh ag teacht ar ais a baile anocht.

Troid muid ar aghaidh an cumhacht nádúrtha. Níl cumhactachtaí go cinnte. Mar sin féin, caith a foghlaim a smacht muidsa féin ar chaoi ag fáschaint ár síocháin istigh.

Scríobhim an aiste bheag seo an trathnóna roimh an féile Naomh Proinsias. Amárach, mbeidh naomh féile pátrún agam. B'fheídir, an bhfuil sé ag breathnú os cionn ar beirt i gCalifoirnea?

With St. Francis in California?

I walked around the hills today. Regularly, I walk on the treadmill at home. However, I go out to other places now and then.

I stopped on my way in the church of St. Francis to pray on behalf of my birth-mother. She has been ill recently. She went off to visit her family to Dublin and back recently.

She made her way westwards. She returned on the airliner to the city of San Francisco. It's where she lives up there.

Well, she caught a fierce illness during the flight suddenly. She went to the hospital quickly. I learned from her husband only now that she was coming back to their home tonight.

We battle against the powers of nature. We are not magicians, surely. All the same, we must learn to tame ourselves by means of growing in our peace inside.

I am writing this little essay on the evening before the feast of St. Francis. Tomorrow, it will be my patron saint's day. Perhaps, is he watching over us both in California?

Léiriú leis léitheoireacht: "Naomh Proinsias agus mac tire Ghubbio: 'Cuireadh síocháin a dhéanamh,'" le Didacus R. Wilson T.O.R.// Illustration from reading: "St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio: 'An Invitation to Peacemaking,'" by Didacus T. Wilson, T.O.R. Is maith liom an áit ar an ghréasán seo/ This website pleases me: "Na Prionsiaschaí/ The Franciscans".

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Na rialachaí na cluiche": an scannán

Bhreathnaigh mé an scannán cáiliúl le Jean Renoir le déanaí. Ní fhaca mé riamh sé. Chonaic mé an scannán leis mo mhac is sine ar an seachtaine seo caite.

Bhí scannán go brea, cinnte. Is cothromchéimeneach é. Ach, bhí maith liom é mar sin go raibh ag curtha le cheile leis an scéal cuanna go deisbhéalach ann.

Thosaíonn an greanntraigéide i 1939 im bPáras. Leanaionn lucht airgid go grámhar agus go suirí. Imíonn duine éagsulaí ar feadh leathanta saoire faoin tuatha.

Imríonn na saibhre dhá cluiche ag an Teach Mor ann. Ar ndóigh, téann siad ag sealgaire. Seilgeann fír agus mna creach leis an conairt. Fiachaionn coininí agus piasúin go leor.

Chuaigh siad ar lorg pléisiúr freisin. Gheobhaidh leannáin leapa contúirt ansin. Leanfidh a cheile ag lorg bealach éalaithe, mar sin féin.

"The Rules of the Game": a film.

I watched a famous film by Jean Renoir recently. I never saw it before. I saw the film with my elder son last week.

It was a fine film, certainly. It's evenly paced. But, it pleased me because it was fitting together with the elegantly witty (="nice path" in Irish) story there.

The tragicomedy begins in 1939 in Paris. It follows a group of the amoral amorous wealthy. Various people go away on holidays in the countryside.

The wealthy play two games at the Big House there. Of course, they go hunting. Men and women hunt down prey with a pack of hounds. They track down rabbits and pheasants galore.

They went looking for pleasure too. The paramours (="lovers of a bed") will find danger there. The different sweethearts (="darlings of lying down") will follow each other nonetheless to seek a way of escape.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Wells Tower's "Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned": Book Review

If Raymond Carver were funnier and George Saunders lived in the seedy South, they might have collaborated on this collection. Tower blends Carver's steady pace with Saunders' deadpan tone. For a début, this brings a writer worth watching.

The NYRB and LA Times raved about these tales, all previously published. I'd be less gushing, but I recommend this book if with reservations. I'd read "Leopard" originally in "The New Yorker," and as a note indicates of these nine "a number have been extensively revised." "Leopard," for example, has more added to the exposition that better grounds it in the boy's relationship with his stepfather. Tower takes his time to let scenes unfold; as with an indie arthouse film, you eavesdrop on low-lifes and oddballs left adrift, yet scrutinized and directed by someone with better education and class status who arranges his scruffy characters to convey social satire and psychological critiques. As with such an angular perspective, what one viewer finds smug another may find snugly fitting. These stories may entertain, but as with Carver and Saunders, they also discomfort you.

The closing title story comes closest to Saunders, as it places maurading Vikings on the Scottish coast speaking in the casual, slangy, swear-ridden diction of ordinary American folks who "get it done." One comes to so much historical fiction with high-flown phrasing, and the jarring yet familiar rephrasing of mercenaries a thousand years ago speaking as if you and me casually on the job fits the scenario by humanizing it. "No one looking in on us would have known we were the reason this girl was missing an arm, and also the reason, probably, that nobody asked where Bruce's wife had gone." (234)

As with Carver and other noted stylists, there's brief grace within the mundane reports from Tower's downtrodden protagonists. "The Brown Coast" with its decaying Florida setting naturally encourages even put-upon people to occasionally rise to poetry. "The sun looked orange and slick, like a canned peach." (16) The water's "as thick and warm as baby oil." However, a sea slug signals threat: "it looked like the turd of someone who'd been eating rubies." (23)

"Retreat" follows with another suburbanite's encounter outdoors, in Maine. In his cabin, thanks to the imposition of lace fripperies by a well-meaning neighbor: "My house was starting to resemble something you'd buy your mistress to wear for a weekend in a cheap motel." (37) Later, a moose is shot, and as it falls and tries to rise, its "effect was of a very old person trying to pitch a heavy tent." (56) These two stories remained my favorites, pitting irascible men against resisting nature.

"Door in Your Eye" turns more tender, and reminded me of Carver's "Cathedral" in its pattern and mood. "Wild America" tries for more complication in showing teenaged angst and sexual rivalry, but for me in its introduction of a stereotypical Southern good ol' boy it fails to rise to, say, Flannery O'Connor in its attempt to convince me of this particular grotesque on his rock with his radio in the middle of the stream. It shows its MFA-type of structure too obviously, and the imagery of the pigeon and cat seems a bit too clumsy for a writer who elsewhere shows restraint.

"Executors of Important Energies" turns into a case study of a misfit chess player; "Down Through the Valley" takes the old set-up of an estranged father coming to meet his child in the company of his wife's new paramour and with such phrases as "mule-eyed cowrie man" succeeds in pinning down a man in a phrase. These stories do however seem very much out of an academically trained writer's sensibility; Carver, Saunders, and O'Connor may have shared this background, but they also learned to shake off the schematics that still gird too clearly many of these stories in the middle sections. They move along but as with the indie film, you can feel the strain and the slow spots at times. With more time and applied skill, which Tower has, I predict he will learn to cover up the joints and stitches more smoothly.

This can be seen in "On the Show." It roams through a carnival's workforce, and shows Tower's ability to move from one character to another as if a filmmaker with an ensemble cast: "he has a face like a paper bag smoothed flat by a dirty palm." (195) While we do strain to get into the minds of those often left half-ciphers on the page, the attempt does show Tower's refusal to fill in all the blanks for us. This may please some audiences and rankle others. He leaves you off-balance and as with seven of the eight other stories, does not end his narrative when and where you expect. (Posted to Amazon US 9/12/09)