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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Skip the Boring Parts

The Overwhelming Tome: The Lord of the Rings
   I'm a bit discouraged by a post I recently read at Goodreads, in which a reader was advised to skip the boring parts of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. You know what I'm talking about, all those stupid poems, and all that nonsense about Tom Bombadil, and anything that has to do with a historical backdrop. Then there's all those long, descriptive passages of topography, and the scenery. Just chuck that crap, who needs it?
   At first, I thought these people were just illiterates who perhaps find reading to be so difficult they really need to skip the long words. But that isn't it. Of course not. What they really meant was that they just can't concentrate on anything that doesn't have running and stabbing and peril. Actually, I get the feeling that battle scenes like that might just bore them as well. I mean, after all, such things do take up your time. And that's the crux of the problem. I don't think people feel they have the time any more to read. They just want to get it over with.
Lengthy books are far easier to handle on a Kindle.
   We've been raised by our televisions, where we get the whole story in two hours or less, with plenty of commercials in the middle to give us a chance to stretch and graze in the kitchen, or go check Facebook. What we do not want to do is sit down and really take the time to read. One reason I love my Kindle so much is the little per cent bar at the bottom, which tracks my progress. I've always loved to play math games with any book I was reading, calculating how much of it I had read or how much was left. I even will make the effort to time how long it takes to read a page or two, then do the math to see how long it will take to finish. I have no idea why I do this. I usually hate to finish a book I read. But the point is, I know how long it takes me to read a book. If I were to read non-stop, some longer books can take around 20 hours to read. Broken up over so many days, that can be really tough for people to do. Shorter, more common genre books take 7 to ten hours to read. This is still difficult for many people in our busy world. But is it?
   Two football games on Sunday last almost seven hours. Many people watch two or three hours of TV every night. The fact is, we have lots of time to read. People just don't do it. But what of self-professed book lovers who do read? Why would someone like that wish to read The Lord of the Rings by skipping the boring parts? What point is there in reading a book that you find to be full of parts you don't like? That's where pride steps in, I believe. Perhaps people, whether on Goodreads, Shelfari, or other social book-lover sites, are so keen on impressing their fellow book-lovers that they want to add books to their list that will look impressive. Maybe they want to be able to tell people at a party that they've read the The Lord of the Rings but just can't bring themselves to outright lie about it. I don't know. What I do know is that if you find the great majority of a book boring, don't skip those parts. Put down the book. Find a book you do like. There are so many out there, it is not like you should feel obligated to force your way through any book.
Spend a month on Tolstoy?  Or just a few days with James Bond?
   When I went looking for a copy of Les Miserables to read, I read the notes on the abridged version, one that left out Hugo's extensive descriptions of the Paris sewers, among other things. Why? Can't readers take the time to learn a little something? Does everything have to be candy?  I fear the biggest need for these abridged versions is the fact that our society is sliding into ignorance.  That most people just can't handle reading anymore.  It is a terrifying thought.
   At this point, I calculate that only about ten per cent of the people who started reading this post are still with me. Possibly you're reading this part because you skimmed most of what was written before. I'm guilty of doing this in magazine articles; this generally happens when I'm just searching for specific information. But I've never thought to skim sections of a novel. I just never thought an author put parts in there that he did not really intend for people to read. I figure it is all a part of the story. And I've read many long works: Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamozov, Les Miserables, Last of the Mohicans, and the list goes on. I've also abandoned books. But I can't remember skipping parts of a book.
Have books outlasted their shelf-life in our busy society?
   One book by James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers, has been a real sticky wicket for me. I love Cooper's writing, and love the Natty Bumppo character. Three times I've tried to read The Pioneers, three times I've put it down. I can't really say why. But I do know I've never considered just skimming it, or skipping over large chunks of it. What would be the point? It is now like an old familiar defect in my house that I will one day correct. I'll finish that book eventually. I really will.  If I only get the time.
   Or, if it looks like my time on earth is going to be cut short, I might just skim the darned thing and mark it down on my Goodreads list as read.  After all, as Julia Childs liked to say: who's to know?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

My Quick View of a Great Sound (Parov Stelar's "The Princess")

Taking a break from pontification to share a little music.  This post features one of the best musicians to come along in a very long time.  Producing music under the name Parov Stelar, Marcus Fureder, of Austria  is known as the founder of Electronic Swing.  His compositions utilizing old swing recordings have brought back the fun, foot-tapping sound of the 1920s.  But as with many great musicians, his music has evolved over time.  His latest album is The Princess.  While cuts like All Night and Silent Shuffle jazz along to his early electro-swing sound, he manages to display some deeper, rather obscure influences, including the Roberta Flack-tinged Nobody's Fool and This Game's driving piano which I would swear is channeling Bill Conti.  Lilja Bloom returns to add her haunting vocals to several cuts, recreating more of her magic from Parov Stelar's 2007 album Shine.   All of it includes an atmospheric, moody backdrop that is perfect for cranking up the stereo and turning down the lights.  Kerry Livgren, the genius behind the epic band Kansas, said in his autobiography Seeds of Change that as a young music-lover, he built a box with mirrors and lights and speakers into which he would stick his head for an enhanced music experience.  If there were ever an album worth Livgren's headbox, it would be The Princess.
Two cuts from the album can be heard here.  If you are tired of the same old music coming out of the United States, be sure to snap up this truly amazing album.  (It is a double album, with extra cuts on the second CD including live recordings.  You can listen to it free on Spotify.)
To download the album, or buy the CD, just use this link:

Two cuts from the album can be heard right here:
The Beach, from Parov Stelar's The Princess (2012)

Nobody's Fool, featuring Cleo Pantherfrom Parov Stelar's The Princess (2012)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Whatever Happened to the NFL?

Howie Long, stalking the line.
Time flies so fast it seems just like yesterday that I used to watch this fun little sport called American Football.  I try to tell my kids about it, but to be honest, I think they believe I'm making it all up.  But I'm not.  And many of you out there know what I'm talking about.
  I suppose what sticks out foremost in my mind are the images of men, I mean real tough hombres who used to line up against each other, stare each other down through a two-bar face mask, wait with the patience of statues (none of this false-start-every-other-play crap), then, at the snap of the ball, they would proceed to try very, very hard to rip each other's heads off.  At the same time, assassins trolled the deep waters of the secondary, scaring the snot out of wide receivers.  This was a time when linebackers had never considered trying to strip the ball from your hands because they were too excited about the chance to make you cough up a kidney.
  Another antique vestige of this former game was something called a quarterback.  These guys were nuts.  They would stand in this small target space called a pocket, and if those hairy apes I mentioned in the above paragraph didn't break them in half, they'd either throw the ball, or tuck it deep in their gut and try to keep that kidney from popping out.  If they saw an escape route and bolted for it, their only hope for survival was to pray that they might make it to the sidelines, otherwise, sliding wasn't going to do them a bit of good.  Those assassins were going to find them, and punish them for entering their domain.
Two power players, Riggins and White collide.
Headaches on the house!
  But for those of you who remember this funny little game, you'll probably want me to point out that throwing the ball was not the first option.  Primarily, the ball was handed off to some tough little bulls known as running backs, who more than likely would run just a bit off tackle, where, instead of being buried immediately, they would actually hit the pile and moved it two or three yards each time.  These not-so-little guys knew how to use their bodies like battering rams, and they weren't afraid to keep at it.
  The funny thing about this is, that the owners of these teams used this spectacle to build up one of the biggest, most popular (and lucrative) sports of all time.  Sadly, some time in the nineties, this sport was deconstructed and no longer exists.  It has been replaced by a game that consists of the far less glamorous Touch-Football-League, where grown men slide to avoid being hit, they can't keep still long enough for the ball to be hiked, they flail their arms at the ball carriers as if they're doing wind-mill exercises (and this is called tackling) and they even have made an art of rushing the punter so as not to ever accidentally bump into him.
  Oh yeah, and did I mention that in the old days, these guys knew how to block on kick-offs and punts without drawing  a flag on every run back?  Or did I mention that place-kickers routinely made 45-yard field goals without much celebration?  In this new football league, we sigh with relief when a twenty-five-yarder squeaks through.
The Steel Curtain abusing the Vikings
  And I don't remember all this discussion of records being set.  First of all, quarterbacks weren't protected to the point that they could stand in the pocket and ring up passing yards like an old lady at a slot machine constantly yanking on its shiny silver handle.  These players were just another one of the guys, toughing out each game with fear and trembling.  And they couldn't pick up a first down any time they wanted to by throwing a bomb at a covered receiver with the assurance of nicking a pass interference call.  Forget that!  Corners and safeties had as much right to fight for the ball as anybody.  Remember, these were men who didn't spend all of their time between plays crying to the refs and begging for flags.
  And they played this crazy game outside, in the cold, in the heat, in the rain, and in the ice and fog.  The fields were actual fields, with potholes, mud holes, grass and sod that stuck in every crevice of their uniforms and exposed body parts.
Vince Lombardi-- a man you did not mess with.
  What my kids really can't understand is that these teams of men were led by some rather strange, scary beings that were known as coaches.  Think of your dad, when you were about four years old, and he looked about four times bigger than he does now, his voice, when angry, made you wish you were still wearing diapers, and his word came from about the same elevation as Mount Sinai.  (It's no coincidence for me that my father was a dead ringer for Chuck Connors, a scary guy who didn't even need that totally crazy-awesome rifle he loved to fire off from his hip.  My dad didn't need that rifle either.  Us kids knew you simply did not mess with The Rifle Man and you did not mess with Dad!)  Sorry, I'll get back to football.  Anyway, these coaches ruled with an iron law that has not been known since the days of Ivan the Terrible.  They weren't evil.  They were just the local deities who required absolute obedience and sacrifice.  I do not remember anyone ever arguing with Tom Landry on the sidelines, except maybe Danny White, who did one time, and I don't think they ever found Danny's body, despite the very well organized efforts of a search party led by Texas Rangers.
  So anyway, it's all just a long lost memory now.  At least we can still access old game film on YouTube, and I do, if only to prove to my kids that this strange league actually did exist.  For now, we're stuck watching the clean, fast, artificial touch football that passes for the NFL today.  After all, what else are we going to watch for entertainment, basketball?  Don't get me started.
  Hold on one minute!  I forgot to mention one other thing.  Fans back then were a lot tougher too.  They stood by their teams, regardless of their standings, because they had no one else to cheer for.  They didn't play this selfish Fantasy Football garbage, where everyone is cheering for guys they have no business cheering for.  And you could invest some emotion in a player that you knew was going to be on your team forever.  Reggie White ended all of that, though, didn't he?  Now, the guy you draft today will be your rival's best player in three years.
Dick Butkus holds the line.
  Last point, honestly.  The old NFL had referees who actually knew their jobs.  There were no huddles for consultation and coin-flipping decisions.  And certainly no instant-replay.  What my father once predicted when instant replay first came into effect has finally come true.  Questioning the referee has led to the inevitable situation where the referees question their own judgement, are hesitant to even make a call now, and since coaches can challenge a call, every player out there thinks he can too.  Major League Baseball understands this.  (At least for now.)  You do not allow anyone to argue balls and strikes.  Period.  The NFL should have realized this a long time ago.  It's too late, however, to go back now.
  Right now I'm wishing I could sit down and watch Jim Plunkett take the Raiders into the frozen realm of Soldier Field or Three Rivers Stadium with the happy knowledge that I would have a front row view of a good-old-fashioned battle.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My View of Dickens on the Strand

Every year, the town of Galveston Texas turns into a Texan-styled Victorian England.  At Dickens on the Strand, you'll find the old downtown barricaded off to modern traffic and the streets full of Lords and Ladies and Pirates and street urchins.  The world of Charles Dickens and his fellow writers comes to life for a few exciting days.
The Ghost of Christmas Future leads Scrooge
on a tour of Dickens on the Strand
  If you are a historian who feels that accuracy is the key to the success of such a venture, stay far, far away. Period consultants need not apply.  But if you enjoy a little dress up, play-acting, and general fairgrounds atmosphere, then this is place for you.  You'll be able to grab a leg of turkey to gnaw on, have a cup of Glogg (hot, mulled wine) and my favorite, a hot steaming cup of Wassail.  (As in--Here we go a'wassailing.  Wassail is a traditional drink made of eggs, cider, apples, orange juice, pineapple juice, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, all of which forms a very tart and spicy drink.)
  Along with the expected characters you'll see, such as Jacob Marley's ghost, Scrooge, the Spirits of Christmas, and Father Christmas himself, you'll also find many that Dickens did not envision.  Pirates fill the streets, which certainly did exist in this time period, as well as Texas/Confederate soldiers, who also co-existed with Dickens.  The Queeen Victoria shows up, and honors the soldiers with a review.  The latest group to join in the fun are the wildly creative Steampunk characters.  These actually have some literary heritage, found mostly in the writings of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.  This is a genre that has evolved into something more modern, with all sorts of gadgets that Wells and Verne never dreamed of, but Hollywood has certainly helped to form.
  Now in its 38th year, Dickens on the Strand is considered one of the top ten destinations to visit for Christmas fun.  There are many singing and juggling acts, street performers, and parades.  It is family friendly during the day, though it gets a little rowdy at night.  All in all, it's a wonderfully fun day for everyone.
A clever Steampunker who thinks
he can fly.

These little beggars were
cluttering up the street.

A very distinguished couple. 

Father Christmas is always sure to be on hand.

Queen Victoria reviews the Confederate Troops.

Sherlock Holmes attempts to unravel the mystery
of why he is in Texas.