Sunday, November 29, 2009

Cats vs. Dogs

There has been a lot of debate on the matter of which are smarter: cats or dogs. And although I have no, er, horse in this race - seeing that I love both cats and dogs - I must admit that I think I've spotted a point in favor of cats. For, when you put cats and dogs together, isn't it the cats who teach new tricks to the dogs?

For example, my cats taught my parents' dog the trick of jumping up onto the window seat to look out the window, bask in the sun, etc. Prior to their visit, a few years ago during a cross-country trip I took with my cats, Martin the miniature schnauzer didn't realize that he could penetrate the barrier of vertical blinds that separated the window seat from the rest of the room. Nothing, however, could keep my two cats - then Lionel and Tyrone - from checking out the best seats in the house for sunning and keeping up on neighborhood gossip. After he saw them do it, Martin began to do the same. Now the woodwork of the windowseat is well-scratched by his canine claws. If my parents ever sell the place, they'll have to have that area resurfaced.

Martin's an old dog - older than my cats, by a few years. But two enterprising cats taught him a new trick which has, since then, become one of the joys of his doggy life. Now I'm sure some would argue that this shows the dog's ability to learn, while there is no evidence that my cats took anything useful away from their encounter. So, one could argue, dogs have a higher IQ than cats. On the other hand, it was the cats' superior problem-solving skills that enabled them to do, as a matter of routine, something Martin had never imagined attempting till then. Split decision, maybe, but in my opinion the match goes to the cats.

POSTSCRIPT: My stepmom says Martin sometimes finds his way onto the window seat even when the blinds are closed. The only way to know he is there is to spot him poking his head through the blinds, which, she says, makes him look like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Heeeeere's Marty!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Foolhardy Tackiness

The Thanksgiving message from the neighborhood church of the lighted sign:

COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS!
RECOUNTS ARE OKAY.

The lovely thing about tacky church slogans is the way they bring forth appropriate Scriptures from the mind. For example, the message above triggered my memory of Luke 12:16 ff.:
Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: "The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, 'What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?' So he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, "Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry."' But God said to him, 'Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
From this, Jesus went on to teach his disciples not to worry about food or clothing, since God provides even for the birds and the flowers, and we are more valuable than they; and since God knows what we need. Jesus concludes in verses 31-34:
"But seek the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
In other words, don't count and recount your material blessings. Use them in the service of others, and don't worry whether you will get them back again. For your true treasure is in Christ.... unless, perhaps, you go to the church of the lighted sign...

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Dialogue Snippets

During long drives, which are now a daily occurrence in my life, I often find myself writing scenes in my head - snippets, perhaps, from a novel struggling to be born. Sometimes I don't know anything about the characters or their situation except what their brief exchange reveals. Here are some of these snippets, just for archival purposes....

SON: Mother, I would like you to meet my fiancee.

MOTHER: Really? What a surprise. Isn't it customary to wait until after the wedding before you introduce the bride to her mother-in-law?

SON: Now, mother, I...

MOTHER: What is its name? Can it talk?

GIRL: My name's Harlow.

MOTHER: Enchanted, my dear. I trust you spell it in the French fashion, with a silent t at the end?

SON: Mother!

GIRL: Au contraire, madame. It's spelled just like the film star of your generation.

SON [gasps in shock]

MOTHER: Oooh...I like this one!

***

[Scene: An airport. At an appointed place, an arriving child meets a parental unit, who is impatiently pacing. The boy's clothes are soiled from a mishap that happened in flight.]

BOY: Been waiting long?

MAN: Only since half past the fall of the Hittite empire. What happened to your clothes?

BOY: It's a long story.

MAN: Well, you're not getting into my car like that. Have you got something to change into?

BOY: What, here?

MAN: Bathroom.

[Later. In the car.]

BOY: Why did you...?

MAN: Did it do any harm?

BOY [confused]: No, but...

MAN: Then let it go, all right?

BOY: I was just...

MAN: I'm not going to argue about this.

BOY: I know, but...

MAN: And I have no interest in listening to you argue by yourself. So I suggest that you drop it.

***

BOY: I'd like to kiss you.

GIRL: I'd like to see you wear a necklace of your own teeth... but we can't have everything we want.

[Later. The girl desperately needs a favor from the boy.]

BOY: Anything?

GIRL: Whatever you want.

BOY: How about that kiss?

GIRL: Don't press your luck.

BOY: You said anything.

GIRL: All right, but if...

BOY: No ifs, ands, or buts. These are my terms.

GIRL: O brother... I shouldn't have asked.

BOY: Five seconds. Open mouths. My hand on the back of your head.

GIRL: [Sigh.] Go on.

BOY: And no biting!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Reading Records

I seem to be setting a record, within my own experience. It's been over a month since I've written a book review. In fact, I've only finished two books within the past month: Norman Lebrecht's The Life and Death of Classical Music and Dudley Pope's Ramage, reviews of which will come when I have finished reading a couple more books, and as time permits.

Meanwhile, I have bookmarks in more books than ever before. I am making very slow progress through each of them, given the smaller amount of reading time in my current schedule. Part of the reason my concentration is so finely diced is an amazing influx of Advance Reading Copies and hot-off-the-press books that have been sent to me by the authors themselves. So consider this a preview of coming attractions...

D. M. Cornish had his publishers send me Lamplighter, the second book of his "Monster Blood Tattoo" trilogy; they took it on themselves to send me five other books that they thought I might like - and their judgment isn't bad.

Robert "Diesel" Kroese, late of the hilarious blog Mattress Police, is self-publishing his novel Mercury Falls and I was one of the winners of a free copy. I hope to have my review done soon enough to help him sell more - ideally, in time to buy a few copies as holiday gifts.

Steve Augarde has been kind enough to agree to an interview, but I've been delaying in sending him my questions until I have a chance to finish his new book X Isle, a UK copy of which I am thrilled to hold in my hands since it hasn't been published in the US yet.

Out of sheer perversity, I have also been trying to read Ted Bell's Nick of Time, Alison Croggon's The Riddle, and F. Paul Wilson's The Tomb (book one of the "Repairman Jack" series, recommended to me by a friend). And I am keeping a weather eye out for the long-awaited arrival of Diana Duane's A Wizard of Mars, the latest "Young Wizards" novel, which the author has generously offered to send me. AND, P. W. Catanese is sending me an ARC of Dragon Games, the second installment in "The Books of Umber."

So yes, I am doing frightfully well in the free-books department. I have never had so many opportunities to take an early look at books I was already planning to read. I hope I can pull a few pieces of my personal life together soon enough to make it worth the authors' trouble.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rental Stupidity

I'm driving a rental car this week. Why? Because I finally got around to having the damage repaired from that little vandalism incident back in September. I so look forward to not having to lean across the passenger side of my car to unlock the driver's-side door!

The rental is a nice little Kia. I have had more exciting rides. Then again, I have had some stupid ones. On one business trip, I enjoyed the luxury and high-tech entertainment system of a Pontiac Aztek... but I wouldn't be caught dead owning one, it was so ugly. During another stretch of car repairs, I got saddled with an American-made vehicle whose name I won't spill (coughchryslercough), and whose windshield was raked at such an extreme angle that the top of it came up to about the bridge of my nose. And so, because the seat didn't move back any farther than it absolutely had to, and couldn't be lowered at all, I had to drive hunched over the wheel with my neck at an excruciating angle. Fun times.

For my stupidest car rental story, however, I have to return to one of the oldest themes on this blog... my own stupidity. I'll never forget it. I was driving west on U.S. Highway 30, passing through Columbia City, Indiana, in a pristine rental car. I had stopped to buy a 20-ounce plastic bottle of soda pop on my way into town. When I broke the seal on the bottle, the beverage exploded. I don't just mean that it foamed over the top of the bottle. I mean that it shot out in all directions, coating the windshield, the dashboard, the upholstery, and myself with a generous coat of sticky brown syrup. I used some strong words at that point - words almost but not quite strong enough to remove stains from upholstery.

Monday, November 23, 2009

TNG Season 1

Further to my reviews of Star Trek: The Original Series, seasons one, two, and three, I decided recently to invest in some nicely priced DVDs of the historic seven-year spinoff, Star Trek: The Next Generation. As weird as it may feel to say it, TNG is becoming as much a piece of history as TOS was at the time The Next Generation first aired. It has been over twenty years since the new Enterprise sailed onto TV screens.

As a fan of the original series, I anticipated the rollout of TNG with bated breath, and watched pretty much every episode when it first aired. Its Season One coincided with my freshman year of high school, 1987-1988, so one might say it came at the perfect time for me. Its youthful, hopeful outlook on the universe was a perfect fit for my hungry young intellect. And its 1980s stylings can now be viewed with an appreciation for dated campiness, just as the original Trek looked to 1980s eyes. Alas, where have the years gone...?

Well, let's not waste any more of them building up to my reviews of the first year of TNG!

First there was a two-hour premiere/pilot episode titled "Encounter at Farpoint." It set the scene for a new generation of Trek adventure, as a latter-day Starship Enterprise cruises the cosmos some 80 years after the one helmed by Kirk and Spock. This one is captained by a bald-pated, middle-aged Frenchman, seconded by an enormously tall all-American hero, and thirded by an android with pearlescent skin, golden eyes, childish innocence, and a Pinocchio-like wish to be a real boy. There is also a real boy on the ship, modeled on series creator Gene Roddenberry himself; his mother is the ship's surgeon, a sensuous redhead named Beverly. The rest of the crew is about what you would expect - a glowering Klingon warrior, a touchy-feely empathic shrink from the planet Betazed, a blind guy who gets around with the aid of a sensor device that looks suspiciously like a banana clip... and, as head of security, a gorgeous blond chick who can disarm you with her smile, then pick you up and break you in half across her leg.

So that's the crew. In the movie-length pilot, ever after broadcast as a two-part episode, they share their first adventure together on board a souped-up Enterprise that can break into two sections (for greater defensive manueverability). The adventure itself is really two adventures rolled into one: the story of a mysterious starbase that magically can give you your heart's desire, and whose walls emanate feelings of despair and loneliness; and the story of a rakish, all-powerful alien named Q, memorably (and recurringly) played by John deLancie. In their first outing, they of the Enterprise are put to their first test by Q, proving their worthiness to be allowed to explore the distant reaches of the galaxy. To save themselves from a horrible fate, they only have to solve the mystery of Farpoint Station before an unknown alien ship destoys the world on which it was built. And so the seven-year journey begins!

"The Naked Now" was the new show's first regular, one-hour episode. Similar to the case of "The Naked Time," early in TOS's first season, it uses the plot device of a mysterious plague that loosens inhibitions - sort of like being drunk, but without the physical impairment - to reveal the innermost secrets of its characters. Meanwhile, it makes history as the first time Wesley Crusher saves the ship, a habit that became annoying to many fans of the show until Wil Wheaton left the role in the middle of Season 4. I don't know if I ever complained about it, but if I did, I would regret it now. Looking back, I can't help but think Wes was a lovely boy, and Wil an admirable young actor, and they both deserved all the glory they could get.

Next was "Code of Honor," an episode that now seems really weird when you place it against the overall tone of the series. But for a show still finding its way, it did pretty well in this story exploring the Enterprise's clash with a very different culture. Tasha Yar, the aforementioned kung-fu babe, becomes first a hostage, then a bride, then a contestant in a fight to the death, all as part of one man's shrewd plan to turn his planet's code of honor to his own advantage. If you look past the fact that all the guest characters are black - a fact that may lead some critics to smell racism in the offing - you may recognize this as a strikingly original tale of sociological science fiction.

Armin Shimerman, whose Ferengi character Quark was later a main character on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, played one of the first four Ferengi ever to appear on screen in the next aired episode, "The Last Outpost." To be sure, the Ferengi in this episode sport costumes, weapons, and character traits never seen again. Looking back, it seems like a wonderful wheeze. After building up a sense of dread about the Ferengi, through ominous references in the preceding episodes, they are revealed to be such weaselly little things. To me, however, the most disappointing thing about this episode is its final act, in which the force that brought the humans and Ferengi face to face for the first time is revealed to be a sort of tall Yoda. The long-sleeping "Portal" of the extinct Tkon Empire proves, after a momentous buildup, to be an even bigger let-down than the Ferengi.

Next came "Where No One Has Gone Before," an episode whose title (like that of TOS's second pilot) is taken from the captain's opening voiceover/monologue. The arrogant engineer who comes aboard to fiddle with the Enterprise's engines was played by the same Stanley Kamel who, until his untimely death a couple years ago, played the kindly shrink on the detective series Monk. The real brains in the act, however, belong to his weird alien assistant, identified only as the Traveler, who develops a touching bond with Wesley Crusher. So it is the traveler who first alerts Picard that Wesley, having been conceived by the midi-chlorians, is destined to be the kwisatz haderach... or something like that. Whatever. The special effects are pretty cool, considering that they had to do it all with real film cameras and whatnot. If you can get through the new age mumbo-jumbo without hurling, you might recognize it as an important establishing episode for the fledgling series.

Then it gets a little weird. There's just no way to forget "Lonely Among Us." I can even remember where I was, and what I was doing, the first time it came on the air. The episode's off-kilter quality works on one's memory like a burr under a horse's saddle - it leaves a mark. It owes much of its oddness to the exquisitely daft performances of Patrick Stewart and Gates McFadden, the latter aided by a surgical visor that, for obvious reasons, was never seen again. Also contributing an idiosyncratic touch were two feuding groups of aliens, played by actors under suffocating layers of latex prosthetics. The rivalry between the doglike Anticans and the reptilian Selay reaches a pitch of sheer grisliness, just in time to serve as the episode's final punchline. It's thaaat weeeeeird!

People of a religious persuasion may be excused from noticing the next episode, titled "Justice." For this is the one where a planet's "God" turns out to be a vessel that somehow exists in more than one dimension at the same time, and the beings who live on it. From a Trinitarian perspective, it's kind of an interesting touch. Data, who through a direct link with this "God" obtains a unique insight into its inner economy, refers to it as "they." Picard, who has no time for theological niceties, persists in calling them "it." And when they/it speak for themselves/itself, the pronoun of choice is "I." This "God" has struck fear of itself into the innocent, pretty young things who live on the planet: the Edo, who enjoy unfettered sexual pleasure and zero crime, thanks to laws handed down from above. One such law demands that Wesley Crusher be excecuted, merely because he ignored a "keep off the grass" sign in a randomly-selected enforcement zone. This creates a dilemma for Picard, who must choose between the Federation's "Prime Directive" and the rights and welfare of his crew. As a thought-provoking episode, "Justice" takes a big reeking dump on organized religion... a sign that the minds behind TNG felt no need to cloak their agenda in subtlety.

The next episode makes up for it, though. "The Battle" is a thrilling, fulfilling, well-produced, just plan awesome episode. In their second appearance, the Ferengi make more of an impression as potentially formidable foes. The device the Ferengi "Daimon" Bok uses to control Picard's mind is a sci-fi concept of diabolical genius. And the way an incident from Picard's past catches up with him deepens him as a character, while his self-doubts and increasingly severe headache make him more believably human. My gut impression is that this episode marks the point where TNG "clicked," where the series found its true tone, where the writers, actors, and film crew suddenly came into tune and began to make music together.

Their tuning slipped a bit in "Hide and Q," however. As Q's second appearance in less than a year, it promised to build on the relationship established between Picard's crew and that omnipotant scamp. It promised to be a merry romp full of cultured jokes, sight gags, disappearances and reappearances, transformations, transportations, and (on Q's part) flamboyant costume changes. And it was all those things... but no more. As far as story is concerned, this episode is a big fat nothing. Or perhaps, recalling a guideline that served the TOS writing staff, it only seems to be nothing because it tries to be too many things. After a skirmish with bipedal pig-creatures wearing the uniform of Napoleon's army, Q's game turns into a test of whether Riker can resist an offer to become powerful like Q. The climactic scene plays like the denouement of a fairy tale, and the final message, if it goes at all beyond the old saw that "absolute power corrupts absolutely," seems to be that God (or the gods) should be scared of mankind evolving beyond Him (or them). Yah, yah, grow up, you snot-nosed atheist bullies! If you're not going to believe in God, then at least do Him the favor of leaving Him alone...

If "Haven" seems at all out of place, at this point in broadcast sequence, it may be because it was only the fourth regular episode to be filmed. For some reason, it then got pushed down to ninth place in the order aired. So it is that, in this episode, you really do hear Deanna Troi address Riker as "Bill," an endearment that had otherwise gone by the board since "The Naked Now." She had reason to be confused, though, as she suddenly finds herself the bride in a wedding that her parents arranged for her when she as a child. The groom is a fine young fellow, but Deanna just isn't the girl he's been dreaming about. Before their naked nuptials can take place (wouldn't you like to be invited to a Betazoid wedding!) the real dream girl turns up on a ship manned by the last eight survivors of a plague that has wiped out entire planets. An interplanetary incident seems likely to follow, but it can't possibly be as interesting as the feud between Deanna's mother (played by Roddenberry's wife, the late Majel Barrett) and the groom's parents. Every moment of the rehearsal dinner scene is a moment of exquisitely timed comedy, culminating in Mr. Data's gleeful request: "Please continue the petty bickering. I find it most intriguing!"

This was immediately followed by another top-drawer episode, "The Big Goodbye." This is the one where Picard takes a recreational trip on the holodeck back to 1941 San Francisco, where he enters the role of private detective Dixon Hill. While he and a handful of officers are enjoying a mish-mash of The Maltese Falcon and other pulp novels, an alien probe fries the holodeck's circuitry, and they become trapped in a fantasy that has become real enough to kill. From today's perspective, it may seem odd to see Picard and his friends ogling the richness and realism of the holodeck's special effects - after all, anyone who followed TNG and its spinoffs saw many holodeck adventures after this one. But it was a history-making episode because it was the first; it deserved its self-indulgent moments where the characters say, "Wow! This is amazing!" because it really was an amazing concept, and well executed too; and it very directly takes on the main point on which all holodeck-related storylines must be based, namely: "What if the line between reality and illusion got rubbed out?" This has troubling implications for a classic TV show; it could almost be criticizing the phenomenon of television itself.

TNG's first-season streak of excellent episodes reached Number 3 with "Datalore," a Trek take on the "evil twin" plot device that has become such a significant part of modern folklore. After exploring Data's origins on a scientific and farming colony that was found lifeless, except for one not-yet-activated android, the episode introduces an identical android named Lore. Distinguished by a facial twitch, an easier grasp of human slang, and a streak of fiendish sadism, Lore steals his brother's identity and tries to give the Enterprise up to a giant crystal snowflake that cruises deep space at warp speed and sucks the lifeforce out of any living thing it encounters. Both Lore and the crystalline entity went on to make repeat appearances, always in episodes critical to the development of Data as a character. But in this episode we get an exciting twofer, with a bonus helping of "Wesley saves the ship!"

I'm not sure whether "Angel One" breaks the great-episode streak or not. At the time, it was notable for a guest appearance by Patricia McPherson. Today, you're going, "Who?" She was that chick on Knight Rider, dude! Sic transit gloria mundi, what? 20-plus years down the road, the episode must stand or fall on its merits rather than TV-personality recognition. And it does have merits. It's a reasonably interesting story about a planet where tall, strong women rule and small, pretty men wear revealing outfits and keep their beds warm. So it craftily brings out the malignant nature of sexism, and culminates in a sermon about societal evolution vs. revolution and the futility of using government power to suppress dissent. Yet, for your entertainment dollar, you'll get more out of Riker's hot-and-heavy flitration with the planet's leader, and the massive outbreak of the flu that sweeps through the Enterprise crew. Also, Worf begins to show potential as a comic-relief character.
WORF: I think I'm going to sneeze.
GEORDI: A Klingon sneeze?
WORF: That's the only kind I know.
Whether or not "Angel One" continues the great-episode streak, "11001001" tops the whole season, as I believe has been widely recognized. It has spectacular visuals, such as the Enterprise docking at a gigantic orbiting space station. It has the drama and tension of the entire Enterprise being evacuated, then hijacked by weird aliens, then put on a five-minute self-destruct countdown. It has joined pairs of androgynous critters who chatter to each other in a binary-based language that earned this episode an Emmy for sound editing. It has Carolyn McCormick, better known as a recurring pscyhiatric expert witness on Law and Order, playing the holographic love of Will Riker's life. It has Riker playing trombone with a jazz trio from 1958 New Orleans -- only to have the piano player coolly tell him, "Don't quit your day-job." It's a marvelous, funny, romantic, visually impressive episode in which the Enterprise seems, more than ever, like a character unto itself.

And then we enter the first season's most notable streak of suckitude. It begins with "Too Short a Season," which isn't so much a bad episode as one that simply isn't very good. Clayton Rohner, at first under heavy prosthetics, plays an 80-something admiral suffering from a degenerative disease. Nevertheless, the admiral comes out of retirement to negotiate a hostage situation on a world he aided 45 years before. In order to prepare himself for duty, the admiral overdoses on a highly dubious youth-restoring drug, causing him to age backward at an alarming and eventually fatal rate. Rohner, meanwhile, turns out to be not a hideous old wreck but a good-looking youngster, whose acting technique depends heavily on the effectiveness of flaring nostrils. I don't know which was worse: the 30-year-old Rohner dying in the arms of the 70-year-old Marsha Hunt (playing his wife), telling her she will always be his "Annie with the golden hair"; or TOS veteran Michael Pataki, here playing the bad guy, soliloquizing after his lifelong enemy's death: "Your long night... and mine... is over." Ack! One more cliche and I'll break out in hives!

Then came "When the Bough Breaks," which isn't a terrible episode... just a bad one. Featuring Deep Throat from The X Files (real name: Jerry Hardin), it focuses on the children who live aboard the Enterprise... which any student of history (i.e., TOS) could spot as a bad idea right away. I don't know if the difficulty was imagining what families and children would be like in a Roddenberryesque future, or if it was simply that none of the writers had ever met an actual, live child, but this whole episode is dragged down by its inability to portray children believably. Whoever wrote the last scene between young Henry and his father should be caned, or at least spanked. The aliens who kidnap the Enterprise children because they can't have any of their own are yet another example of the sort of "stupid, self-defeating behavior" that marked some of the most flamboyantly phony villains of TOS. And in that respect, this first-season TNG episode showed that Star Trek still hadn't grown up.

Third in this lousy-episode streak is "Home Soil," which isn't so much bad as.... oh, the heck with it! It's stupendously awful! It's almost as bad as they get! Walter Gotell, late General Gogol of the James Bond films, delivers such a revolting performance that, on first seeing it, I thought he was suffering from a stroke. Yet Elizabeth Lindsey goes to heroic lengths to outdo him as the episode's worst guest player - a performance redeemed only by a convincing crying scene. The plot plays out as a murder mystery in which all the surviving guest stars look guilty, but it turns out that a tiny nugget of photoelectric crystal done it. Yes, this is the episode where the Enterprise discovers an intelligent, inorganic life form just in time to hear it call us humans "ugly giant bags of mostly water." Actually, that's an interesting phrase. Which just goes to show, it's an ill wind that blows no good.

Almost as bad as they get - that's what I said. How bad is as bad as they get? The answer is "Coming of Age," the very epitome of an episode trying to be about so many things that it ends up being about nothing. The first ominous sign is when, in the opening scene, Wesley Crusher runs up to some guy you've never seen before and says something like, "I couldn't leave without saying goodbye... and I'm sorry..." I wonder what the writers would have done if they had realized how many slash scenes would be based on this moment. (Actually, I don't know either.) But seriously, why do we care about this person who isn't a character on the show? Even after he nearly blows himself up and ends up owing his life (to say nothing of his 1980s pop-star hairdo) to Captain Picard, do we care? No. Do we even care about Wesley's never-seen-before friends competing with him in a Starfleet Academy entrance exam? OK, a little - but not much. Do we care about the strange admiral and his obnoxious lackey grilling everyone on the Enterprise, as if looking for some grounds, any grounds, to court-martial Picard? Well, yes, we do - but it still manages to be boring, somehow. Other than planting the ominous seed that would bud and blossom in the season's penultimate episode, all this episode has going for it is the chemistry between Wesley and the Benzite cadet-wannabe - you know, the guy with the funny breathing apparatus. It's especially unwatchable now that no one remembers guest-star Robert Ito's credentials as Quincy, M.E.'s lab tech. Again, sic transit etc. Without the aura of familiarity that glowed around him when the episode first aired, Ito contributes nothing to redeem this episode from the yawning pit of... er, yawning.

But a bad streak, too, must end.... one way or another. In this case, it was ended by a terrific episode, "Heart of Glory." Now, you could say this episode tries to be about two things - Geordi's visor and Worf's Klingon heritage - but the visor bit was just a sort of extended teaser, a subplot giving us some insight into the world as Lt. LaForge sees it. As for Worf's worldview, we learn much more from watching him fight an enemy within himself. That lifelong battle is stirred up by the arrival of two renegade Klingons, one of them played with charismatic zest by the same Vaughan Armstrong who later played a recurring Admiral Forrest on Star Trek: Enterprise, as well as ten other characters, belonging to eight different species, in four Trek series. The way his death scene was filmed, together Worf's ritualistic death howl in his honor, is one of the most effective dramatic moments in the entire season. And, for better or worse, this episode was the inspiration for an ongoing arc of Klingon-related episodes throughout this series. It made history as the starting-point of the Klingon race's journey to become the best-developed alien culture in the Star Trek universe. And it was also the beginning of Worf's development into the single most enduring Star Trek character, at least in terms of the number of episodes he starred in: eleven seasons' worth, counting his stint on Deep Space Nine.

In another Trek take on contemporary issues, "The Arsenal of Freedom" depicts the extinction of a global arms race - or rather, a race of weapons dealers whose latest product demo wipes out their entire planet. The late Vincent Schiavelli, well-known to 1970s and 1980s movie fans for his sad-eyed presence in such films as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Ghost, is here cast as the holographic projection of an extinct arms dealer. The weapon that strafes Tasha and Riker was made, believe it or not, of two plastic eggs and a shampoo bottle, spliced together and painted. Not a bad special effect for a cost of $4! It's a fairly cool episode, with lots of action, some development of Beverly Crusher's background and her relationship with Picard, and a test of Geordi's ability to command, furnished in part by the most obnoxious character to go through the revolving door of Enterprise Chief Engineers this season. And for only the second time in the series, we get to see the Enterprise separate into its saucer and battle sections.

The issue of the week in "Symbiosis" was drug addiction, and the parasitic nature of the trade that exploits it. The episode depicts two planets living in a seemingly symbiotic relationship: the one that has developed space flight provides for all the needs of the other, which in return supplies to its more advanced neighbor a medicine to treat a plague that has afflicted their world for 200 years. When Dr. Crusher figures out that the medicine is actually a narcotic, and that instead of a plague the Ornarans suffer from addiction, she pressures Picard to do something about it. The question then becomes what he can and cannot do, in view of the Prime Directive. From a casting standpoint, this is an important episode. One of the guest stars is Judson Scott, who amazingly went uncredited for his important role as Khan's son in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Opposite him appears the same Merritt Butrick who starred as Captain Kirk's son in both Star Trek II and III; tragically, the 29-year-old actor died of AIDS less than a year after this episode was aired. As I watched him in this episode, the realization hit me like a punch in the gut: this dude has been gone for over 20 years! Then there's familiar face Richard Lineback, who in addition to his numerous guest appearances on various Trek series has had a respectable career in the movies. And finally, if you look over the shoulders of Picard and Beverly as they walk out of the cargo bay at the end of the episode, you may spot Tasha Yar raising her hand to wave goodbye. Due to the vicissitudes of shooting schedules, and in spite of the episode that follows, this was the last shot Denise Crosby recorded as a regular member of the TNG cast.

It really was a mistake to let her go. Ultimately, it was what she wanted -- but what a waste! And though her holographic testimony at the end of the episode "Skin of Evil" puts a tear-jerking finishing touch on her character's journey, it was both a premature finish and a senseless one. The creature that kills her is an oil slick (actually a puddle of metamucil mixed with printer's ink), an incredibly evil oil slick named Armus. He can move around, change shapes, envelope people, manipulate them like puppets, kill them like insects. But basically, he's a depressed guy with deep abandonment issues, which he takes out on Deanna Troi (by holding her prisoner inside a crashed shuttlecraft) and everyone who tries to rescue her. Other than a couple of visually interesting bits, like an Armus-coated Riker being puked onto the sand, it's a pretty dull episode. This residue of alien badness repeatedly tries to amuse himself by inflicting horrors on the folks from the Enterprise, only to admit that he doesn't find their pain as fulfilling as he hoped. Eventually, the good guys figure out that if they make Armus mad enough, his power will weaken and they can escape. Yawn. Let's get on with the funeral, all right?

If "Skin of Evil" stunk in a slimy, boring, psychologically tormented way. "We'll Always Have Paris" was at least equally bad, but with a more delicate scent. In an apparent bid to draw more female viewers to the show, it crams every possible romantic cliche into a single one-hour episode. Even the title bears up my contention that it is basically "Star Trek Does Casablanca," only without Nazis or Claude Rains. Instead of a tortured, heartbroken Bogie, you get a sheepishly guilty Picard stealing into the holodeck to wallow in self-indulgent regret about his own masculine weakness, which explains why he left Ingrid Bergman at the train station. Or rather, Michelle Phillips (yes, dear old Mama Michelle), then still in the full flush of her glamorous Knots Landing career, which my stepmom and her friends followed as religiously as I followed TNG. Instead of Paul Henreid, you get Rod Loomis, best known for playing Sigmund Freud in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and, if you can remember back that far, King Zed in the 1982 cult film The Beastmaster. Soft on story, dry as brick dust, completely devoid of romantic chemistry, and only slightly redeemed by the gosh-wow special effects near the end when a time distortion momentarily splits Data into three Datas, it's one of those episodes that makes me as a Trekkie wish I had never heard the awful words "Hannah Louise Shearer." Sorry, if you're no longer with me, I'm referring to the Executive Script Supervisor and co-writer of this episode. Shearer played a role in writing several of my least favorite Season 1 and 2 episodes; in my opinion, this series was not the best fit for her talent. This episode is a case in point.

Star Trek does the nihilistic horror genre, once and only once, in the first season's penultimate outing, "Conspiracy." Even today it's almost unbelievable that such an episode got past the executives. Not that I'm complaining. There's a certain gruesome fun in the one episode that begins in paranoia, ends in unresolved anxiety, and showcases every exploitation-flick device from someone sneaking up to grab Dr. Crusher from behind to all the compromised admirals gloatingly eating live grubs in front of a visibly revolted Picard. Ward Costello (who recently passed away at age 89) turns "Vitamins do wonders for the body!" into a chilling quip before kicking Riker's butt. The sinister-looking Michael Berryman, late of the original 1977 version of The Hills Have Eyes, cameos as one of the few Starfleet captains who hasn't been taken over by the alien parasites, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan gets his head literally blown off after saying "We seek peaceful coexistence" in the scariest way imaginable. OK, it wasn't really his head - but the illusion of his body's disintegration is, without exception, the grisliest effect ever portrayed on Trek. I'm not sure it's really faithful to the spirit of Trek. In fact, I'm pretty sure it isn't. But it is such a flamboyant departure from the series formula that, one might argue, it actually helps to define the overall tone of TNG. Sort of like the exception that proves the rule...

And finally, TNG Season One goes out, as T. S. Eliot said - not with a bang, but a whimper. If the words "extremely mediocre" weren't an oxymoron, they would describe this episode perfectly. Again, the blame rests with the writers, who tried to achieve too many things with this episode and thereby achieved nothing. The Romulans make their first post-TOS appearance, to be sure; but after building up to it through the entire episode, the Enterprise's confrontation with the Romulans proves to be essentially pointless, an excuse for Marc Alaimo (in the first of his many Trek appearances) to say the words, "We're back!" Alaimo was a history-maker for Star Trek in more ways than one; in TNG Season 4 he played the first Cardassian ever, and in Deep Space Nine he played the very important recurring role of Dukat. Unfortunately, most of the episode has to do with three 20th-century Earth people who were cryogenically frozen at death and shot into outer space. Data finds them, Beverly thaws them, Deanna tries to help them adjust to the 24th century, and although their plight annoys Picard and provokes him to explain more of Roddenberry's vision for mankind's future (imagine no possessions, etc.), they are basically boring. We've tuned in to see the future; why does this episode focus so heavily on the present? Leon Rippy is cute as a country singer who gets a second chance to destroy his liver. Dynasty alum Peter Mark Richman bullies his way onto the bridge and uses his capitalist instincts to guess that the Romulans are as puzzled as the Federation about the disappearance of starbases along both sides of the Neutral Zone. What's actually causing those Starbases to disappear doesn't become apparent until a later season. All you know when this episode ends is that you would have expected more from it.

Overall, Season 1 of TNG was as successful as could be expected. More so. The cast gelled wonderfully - albeit with the senseless and unfortunate loss of Denise Crosby. Many of the series' recurring themes were set in motion: Data's quest to become more human ("Datalore"), Worf's quest to become more Klingon ("Heart of Glory"), Lwaxana Troi's quest to make her daughter more Betazoid ("Haven"), the holodeck's quest to rub out the line between reality and illusion ("The Big Goodbye"). We meet the Ferengi ("The Last Outpost," "The Battle"). We get a tantalizing taste of the new and improved Romulans ("The Neutral Zone").

We laughed ("Haven"), we cried ("Skin of Evil"), we blushed ("Justice," "Angel One"). We explored strange cultures ("Code of Honor") and discovered really far-out forms of life ("Home Soil"). We consumed some serious eye candy ("11001001"), had the socks scared off us ("Conspiracy"), and at one point were almost sure Captain Picard was going to accept a promotion to Admiral and head of Starfleet Academy ("Coming of Age"). The juvenile ideologues on the writing staff took their obligatory dump on religion ("Justice"), the family ("When the Bough Breaks"), and capitalism ("The Neutral Zone"). But then, perhaps more usefully, they took on contemporary political issues such as the arms race ("The Arsenal of Freedom"), drug trafficking ("Symbiosis"), and political repression ("Angel One"). They proved that, even with a new cast and 80s-styled sets, they could ignite the warp engines of the imagination just as effectively as the original crew of the 1960s.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why Liturgy?

I perceive the potential for a powerful analogy here. As I re-read my previous post, I spotted an apparent contradition, a paradox. While atonal, serialist music sought to retrain the hearer to listen to music without reference to canons of harmony and voice leading, the very same music was grounded in a very strict school whose founder, Arnold Schoenberg, laid down very specific rules. So it wasn't really a flight from rule-bound tradition to anarchic liberty, but from one set of rules to another.

You see the same kind of flight in Christian churches that reject the historic liturgy. In practice, it works out to a switch from one form of liturgy to another. Anyone who seriously tries to abandon all semblance of ritual is chasing a pipe dream. For it is impossible for any creative individual or group to keep up a constant flow of originality for very long. Eventually, to save themselves from burnout, they will resort to some sort of template, a common structure, even a form of words being repeated week after week, year after year. The same crowd that shrinks back in horror from any vestige of ritual, inevitably ends up explaining that some ritual - such as the church year cycle of Bible texts, for example - is not just "liturgically correct" but also "Christ-centered." (A column in the September 2009 issue of Worship Leader magazine does exactly that.) What they've realized is that they can't escape from the need for some type of external ceremony, the very sort of thing they used to condemn as legalistic - and now they need a new set of princples to make sure that whatever they are repeating is of God and not just of man.

There is no escape. You're holding out on going to church because you don't like "religion," in the sense of slavish adherence to tradition and ritual. But at some point, you're going to need the objectivity of ritual, the reliability of tradition, to reassure you that your sense of being personally saved isn't just a case of the vapors. And let's face it, its repetitiveness is precisely its strength. The liturgy, properly employed, is the most powerful aid to memory the church has at its disposal. Kids need the liturgy to teach them the faith, because chances are they aren't going to absorb much in the classroom setting. Old folks need the liturgy to refresh their memory at a stage in life where the mind tends to leak like a sieve; as one of my spiritual mentors liked to say, "The first thing in is the last thing out."

And the generations in between need the liturgy to keep them from going "every one to his own way," from being drawn away by vain conceits and alluring deceits. They need its horizon to give their faith a sort of spacial orientation. They need its rhythm to mark time while they wait for the next new thing to happen. They need its light to show them the way home when they stumble and stray. They need its Law and Gospel utterances, to call them to repent and assure them of forgiveness in season and out of season. They need its encouraging exhortations to comfort the brokenhearted, to sustain the afflicted, to strengthen the tempted, to give confidence to those who risk all for the kingdom, and to send the dying onward to possess their crown. They need its unvarying solidity to bring disparate cultures and generations together on common ground, and to keep the guy up front in the cheap suit from making it all about him and his pet ideas.

In short, even non-liturgical Christians need a liturgy, the same way that Schoenberg realized that even atonalism needed a book of music theory. They can't avoid having one. If they won't accept a liturgical heritage passed down from earlier generations, they will make one up for themselves. The question then becomes, what is their liturgy teaching them? Where does it come from? What does it point to? Where does it get its power from? Who is saying what, who is doing what, and to whom? What seed is it planting in the soil of their hearts? Could the word of God dwell in them any more richly than it does through the historic liturgy? Whatever the answer to these other questions may be, the answer to that last one, I think, is "No."

Why Tonality?

Around the middle of the last century, the musical vocabulary of western art music broadened, or loosened - some might even say decayed - to the point where the listener lost the sense of a home key (tonality), or even of a special relationship between any two chords (functional harmony). All twelve notes of the chromatic scale were given equal weight. Harmonies were extended to include notes traditionally thought of as dissonant, without necessarily bringing any resolution of the tension. Listeners were to be re-educated to stop expecting a note or chord to resolve in a certain direction, to cease being surprised when they did not, and finally to accept whatever they heard without conscious reference to a system of rules.

Musical structures were related to a twelve-tone series (tone row), ordered in a sequence of intervals whose distinctiveness allowed it to be transposed into other keys, flipped backwards and/or upside down, combined in chords, distributed across an enesemble of instruments, plugged into rhythmic patterns, etc., while retaining its identity. "Serialism" was born, and some of its disciples vied with each other to achieve a transcendant state of atonality. Such composers brainstormed ways of ordering a tone-row so that none of its permutations (inversions, retrogrades, etc.) or six-note segments (hexachords), or four-note ditto (tetrachords), could be combined in a manner that even remotely suggested tonal harmony. Their quest for atonal rigor resulted in unreadably dense music theory texts, mined with such words as semicombinatoriality.

Listening to some serialist music can require a degree of mental discipline akin to doing Zen meditation on a commuter train during rush hour. I once borrowed the complete works of Anton Webern from the library - they fit on a set of 3 CDs - and poured over the scores while listening to them on a boom-box during an evening on lobby duty when I was a dorm monitor in college. The music had a noticeable effect on traffic passing through the lobby. One student finally came forward and asked: "Why are you punishing us like this?" I couldn't wholly disagree with his opinion of Webern's music. I was trying to understand it. But it required a lot of work on my part, and it gave scant rewards in return.

Admittedly, serialist music wasn't helped by the sketchy performances captured on recording, especially in the early years of the movement. One gathers that it didn't sound the way the composers intended, at least until a new generation of musicians developed the performance techniques demanded by the music. Besides, there are many approaches to serialism. Some of them aren't as strict in their mathematical precision, erring on the side of expressiveness and textural transparency. Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, and other notable serialists wrote music that was, above all, musical, music that has moved audiences emotionally and that I have personally enjoyed.

But I think their doctrinaire devotion to atonality got in their own way. I'm sure many musicians and composers felt likewise. Only thus can you explain the story one of my college profs (also a professional composer) once told me. He said he was driving along I-10 in the Los Angeles area when he heard a radio personality interviewing a disciple of Schoenberg who declared that serialism was dead. On hearing this, my prof-to-be pulled his car onto the shoulder, stepped out and gave the horizon a round of applause. For too long, serialism had been a force of musical orthodoxy, apart from which no modern composer could be taken seriously. Many composers were delighted to see it fall.

Happily, I have lived in times when tonal music is making somewhat of a comeback. I think there are good reasons to encourage the return of tonality and functional harmony to the world of fine-art music. And those reasons aren't simply a reactionary retreat to the past. Without necessarily offering an original thought, let me try to put the main reasons out there for musical laymen to consider.

First, there's the matter of how music enters the human mind, how our mental apparatus receives it and perceives it. I am with those who think that a system of twelve equal tones, without an intrinsic hierarchy, is incompatible with the human brain.

Second, with a hierarchical system of tonality comes, inevitably, a system of functional harmony. This chord leads, by a natural progression, to that chord. Depending on which direction the chord-progression moves, one can get a sense of the music either pulling uphill or relaxing downhill, turning unexpected corners, glimpsing distant vistas, or settling down at home. Unexpected notes (dissonances) and delays in resolving them generate tension. Chords whose notes could be arranged as a stack of thirds (triads, and to a lesser extent their extended forms such as seventh and ninth chords) offer the largest and most diverse range of harmonic choices of any harmonic system, a remarkable variety of possible sonorities that included twelve different major triads, twelve minor triads, twelve diminished, and (if you must know) four augmented triads, each susceptible of up to two "inversions" (i.e., you can make them sound like a different chord just by putting a different member of the triad at the bottom). Extended triads and their inversions allowed even more color and variety. The functional progressions between all these chords gave music a sense of direction that could be modulated in a huge number of ways.

Compare this system of functional triads to, say, the late-late-tonal harmony of Scriabin. Scriabin leaned heavily on certain sophisticated chords, sophisticated compared to the humble triad. But such a chord used up so many of the available notes that it was basically the same no matter how you turned it, and it could only be transposed into one or two keys before the transpositions started repeating themselves. You could fill an entire symphony with such advanced chords, and have as a result much less harmonic variety, and a much weaker sense of the physics of chords pushing and pulling this way and that. A Scriabin symphony could therefore have very sophisticated chords in it, yet be (from a harmonic standpoint) relatively static and even monotonous, compared to the way triadic harmony was used to increasingly vibrant effect between the heyday of Haydn and the time of, let's say, Brahms. I think, after that point, tonal harmony continued to be used effectively but, as its vocabulary became broader and more inclusive, the grammar of functionality broke down.

Three is a holy number, so I'll stop at three main reasons why I think tonality and functional harmony are essential to make new music as powerful as it can be. But it's a view that, I anticipate, will provoke a lot of dissent and debate. After all, even the argument that hierarchy is essential to musical perception (Reason #1) remains a hot topic for debate, and I'm sure the directionality/variety argument (#2) is a pill some will have a hard time swallowing. But this one really takes the cake. Let me know what you think about it in the Comments, but don't expect me to change my opinion. I think - here it comes - that tonal music better reflects a confession of faith in an all-creating God, who has ordered the cosmos according to a rich design; and that He has given His creation a perceptible structure in which everything has its rightful place, both obeying laws built into its design and continually revealing new facets (mysteries). And I think atonal serialism, at bottom, suggests a random universe where anything can happen, given enough time - a world in which meaning is imposed by the mind of the observer, by analogy to itself and by means of the perceptive filters that selectively interpret or ignore the sensory data that flood into it. In short, I would choose tonality, even if it went against the intellectual orthodoxy du jour, as a confession of my faith and an extension of my worldview.

Lying to the Church

How do you know if your church leaders, or those campaigning for office in the church, are lying to you? Here are some doozies that should raise red flags...

"The administrative organs of the church are strictly advisory" - Ah, the myth of servant leadership! For once they're in power, they suddenly begin describing themselves as "ecclesiastical supervisors," suing breakaway congregations for control of church property, and placing anyone who dissents from their policies under the ban.

"Our leadership will be transparent and accountable" - except when it isn't. Don't expect full disclosure of the church body's financial position. More and more decisions will be made in executive session, behind closed doors and blanketed by a gag rule. Surprise!

"We have a heart for missions" - as evidenced by the withdrawal of so many career missionaries from the field, and the prohibition against word-and-sacrament ministry that hamstrings many who remain. But in the sense of self-funded, short-term, mission-themed tourists providing health services, caregiving, and ESL, we have more "missionaries" than ever!

"Everyone is a minister" - the old "priesthood of all believers" scam. Yet the churches whose "policy-based governance" we are holding up as a model for the future concentrate more power in the hands of the staff or a board of directors, reducing the bulk of church members to customers or audience members; and with the praise team leading services, the audience's role in worship grows increasingly passive.

"Worship forms are adiaphora" - i.e. a matter of free choice. And yet, once you accept this and let the contemporary, "pop music" brand of worship get its foot in the door, the story changes. From then on the party line is that if you love Jesus and want to save souls, this style of worship is what you have to do.

"As long as we keep our theology straight, we can use any methodology that gets the job done" - as if the doctrines we believe don't imply a certain approach to worship, outreach, etc. Or, conversely, as if our methodology doesn't imply a particular theology...

"We're going to grow the church" - but in what respect? Spiritually? Numerically? Financially? In every respect, this has proven to be an empty promise. Before the church began basing its policies on "church growth," it was actually growing. Now it isn't. Maybe it's a coincidence. But the question remains: How long are we going to keep believing this promise, in spite of evidence to the contrary?

"It's not your grandfather's church anymore" - What? You think any of this is new? This same junk has been going on since Adam and Eve! And the same lying snake is behind it, too!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Software Woes

In the course of my work, I have become fairly proficient in many, many, many computer programs. For example, on any given day I will most certainly use Microsoft Word and Outlook, Adobe Acrobat, Photoshop, and InDesign, Mozilla Firefox, Libronix, BibleWorks, AskSam, Dymo Label Maker, a client program for a color-proof RIP server, and the native interface of a top-level scanner. At least a few times a month I may also have Nero Burning ROM, Parsons Screenshot, Neato MediaFace, Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint, MyOffice, and Adobe Bridge open on my desktop. In recent weeks I have used Irfanview, Opera, Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player, and a font management program whose name I forget. And that's besides the apps I use at home.

As a result, I often have many different things open on my desktop at once. And some of those things conflict with each other. For instance, certain keyboard shortcuts don't work properly in InDesign while a BibleWorks session is floating nearby. Fonts that I can't live without for a quarter of an hour, any time of day, due to my constant work in Outlook and AskSam, conflict with fonts I need to use in (sigh--again) InDesign. I don't want to think about how much time I spend each week setting up my custom toolbar in Acrobat, only to have it revert to default for reasons as yet undiscovered.

Twice today, Word refused to allow me to save changes to my template, forcing me to do a lot of extra steps. And font troubles have been plaguing me all week, so that I have to deal with "pinked out" text in InDesign, gibberish when I print emails from Outlook, pagination glitches when I convert Firefox webpages into Adobe PDFs, bizarre and arbitrary format changes in AskSam, and a display font that I have to blow up to 400% magnification to read accurately in Word.

But it's hard to complain when you're using many of these programs way beyond the level at which most people experience them. One of our IT guys shocked me, a few years ago, with this answer to a question about Microsoft Word: "You tell me. You're doing stuff with this program that no one else does, that I know of. In fact, I'm thinking about referring some of my other clients to you when they have questions about Word." It's true that I push Word to the limits of its word-processing powers - which are actually far more extensive than most people realize.

I have formatted printer-ready books in Word (though the final step was converting to an Adobe PDF). I have printed in booklet format, with multiple columns of text, sometimes overlapping watermark images and at other times wrappng around pictures. I have used a wide range of special characters, generated a numerous "customized keyboard" commands and a vast number of Autotext entries, and moved macros and autotexts (which is to say, document templates) from one computer to another. I have used Word to create music, outlines, footnotes, indices, tables of contents, tables, hyperlinks (some of them leading to offline documents in Word and other applications), 3"x5" cards, labels, filing tabs, and fully addressed envelopes. I make constant use of headers, footers, autotexts, style & format macros, multiple print drivers, and various methods of sending a document as an email. So I expect a lot from Word, and I ought to.

Which is why the last couple of months has been so frustrating. Good old MS Word is just not what it used to be. It's not that we upgraded. My office declined to switch to Vista and Word 2007 because the (then) new version of Word wasn't able to do some things that we constantly used it to do. But now even the previous generation isn't cutting the mustard. When did Word start applying all (or rather, most - with random exceptions) local format changes to a document globally? Because it does this, nearly every time I try to put something in Italics, bold, underlining, a numbered or bulleted list, an indented paragraph, a different font style or size, etc., I then immediately have to hit "ctrl-z" to undo Word's global interpretation of what I intended as a local edit. Due to the nature of my work, this has made some tasks hellishly frustrating and way more time- and labor-intensive than they should be.

A related problem comes up whenever I use that "ctrl-z" command to back out of a global edit, when (as is nearly always the case) my document has a header. The moment I hit UNDO, Word donates another paragraph return at the end of the header, thus pushing the text a little farther down the page. After a few of these back-and-forth edits, I have to open the header and delete a bunch of blank paragraphs in order to pull the body text back up to the top half of each page. Why would Word do this? How can I persuade it to stop?

Having to halfway undo every style/format change is like pounding my head against a digital wall. It's an unpleasant passtime, but you can work it into your routine. But then, imagine that each time you pound your head, your cyber-pants slip down an inch or so. After twelve or eighteen pounds, your clean white drawers are showing and you have to stop headbanging to pull your jeans up again.

I could complain about other things Word has just recently decided to do. It's as if Microsoft sent out a patch that "fixed" a working application so that it doesn't work as well. If this is their sales pitch for upgrading to a later version of Word, I'm not tempted.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

All we like sheep...

Tonight I listened to the choruses from Handel's Messiah, as performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the chorus of the University of California at Berkeley, and the very same Nicholas McGegan who is going to conduct yours truly (and other members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus) in Messiah next month.

I had to buy the recording because I had recently read Norman Lebrecht's Life and Death of Classical Music, an insider's history of the 20th century classical recording industry, which numbers McGegan's Messiah among the 100 most important classical recordings todate. So I ordered a used copy on the cheap, via Amazon Marketplace, and spent my first free evening filling my ears with it.

I have to hand it to those Berkeley choristers - they're not bad for college kids. At least they rose to the challenge of all the coloratura. On the other hand, and forgive me if I tend to blame the school of "authentic performance practice" for this, I was a little underwhelmed by the dramatic side of the piece. To be sure, I was skipping the solo numbers, which carry a lot of the juice. But I had an uncomfortable sense of having too little asked of my attention. And so I had time to make unhappy observations. For example, I observed that some of the choruses we're cutting from our performance next month - most notably "Their sound is gone out" - are a little light in the way of inspiration. One of the "alternate version" numbers provided with the set, "Break forth into joy," is seriously lacking. The fact that Handel's librettist was disappointed with some of the music doesn't seem so shocking now. I was a little disappointed myself.

On the other hand, there were surprises of the other kind. I thought the Hallelujah chorus on McGegan's recording was exceptional. It broke every cliche about the piece, making it sound fresh and exciting. The end of the Amen also struck me as having been made new, somehow. But there was one movement that I must now add to my list of "things that made me cry." To be precise, it made me feel choked up. My eyes didn't exactly leak. But it was so close. And that moment was the end of "All we like sheep have gone astray," where the playful gambolling of the wayward lambs is suddenly brought to a stand with the awful realization that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all."

For a couple of minutes, being lost in sin sounded like a lot of fun. And then, without even a screech of rubber on the road, there is a breathless stillness before the cross. The same sheep that have been aimlessly turning round and round, and merrily baaing and skipping in their lostness, suddenly find themselves faced with the shame and horror of Calvary. It's no wonder they (we) freeze. What can they do but stare in awe as the cost of their amusement is paid by Another?

Irreformable Spelling

A while ago, I posted a whimsical set of spelling reform "edicts." Clearly, I wasn't in earnest about them. But I admit that I've always been the type of guy who can't help thinking about the possibility of reforming English spelling. Many people have brought proposals forward. None of them have turned out to be practical. And I have decided to resign my hopes as well.

Theoretically, there are a lot of ways you could approach the reform of English spelling. In practice, however, each way has problems.

First, you could assign a different letter to each phoneme, which would mean introducing letters that don't currently exist in our alphabet. (This would give us an excuse to ransack other writing systems, such as Cyrillic, for handy characters not found in the Roman system). Then each consonant and vowel sound in English would be represented by exactly one letter, which would represent no other sound. Second, you could develop a consistent system of multiple-letter combinations, such as ch, dh, sh, th, zh, etc. to represent certain sounds, so that we could get by with even fewer letters than we now use. Or, theoretically (as my facetious edicts demonstrated), you could simply repurpose the letters of the existing alphabet to serve our needs more efficiently. And finally, short of inventing an entirely new writing system - and surprisingly few people in history have really had the genius for such a feat - you could throw some diacritical marks over and under the existing letters to clarify which of their multiple pronunciations is in use at a given point - especially when it comes to vowels.

The main problem with all of these options, a problem I am by no means first to point out, is that each regional variation in pronouncing a given word would result in a different spelling of that word. If one goal of spelling reform is to standardize spelling throughout the anglophone world, this one-to-one, phonetic approach would be self-defeating. Worse, it would probably result in more variant spellings than just British vs. American; or, if a standard spelling was somehow enforced, in simply another case where, for most speakers, words were pronounced otherwise than as spelled.

Besides, I have come to appreciate the charm of the differences between British and American spelling. You can spot which part of the anglophone world a writer comes from, often simply by observing which way he spells such words as color/colour, fiber/fibre, draft/draught, jail/gaol, etc. The most fun discoveries, for fans of regional spelling quirks, are the inarticulate grunts and sound effects that people casually sprinkle into their speech, such as uh/er, duh/der, nyah/nyer, ew/eurgh, and aah/aargh. It's enough to make an American pause and reconsider the letter R.

Then there are the homonyms, homophones, homographs, all those "homo" words, that make English such a risky and exciting linguistic track to race on. If the soundalike words were all spelled the same, how would we tell them apart? For literate people, isn't the difference in spelling one of the ways we mentally distinguish between homophones? Plays on words won't be so clever - nor so readily appeciated - when they've stopped being separate words and become different definitions of the same word. And fine distinctions like "effect" vs. "affect," troublesome though they may be, won't be as easy to make.

Another problem began growing on my mind after I posted my Spelling Edicts spoof. When you read Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in my "reformed" spelling, it really doesn't look like itself. Too much of the essential character of the language is tied up in its spelling. The history of its development is in there, too. Related words may appear more similar to each other in writing than they sound to the ear. Knowledge of that kinship between them is part of the context in which they are used, often in a clever way that cannot be appreciated if their spellings are forced to conform to strict, phonetic rules. Even forms of the same word lose contact with each other across the chasm of phonetic spelling, whereas their archaic, somewhat arbitrary, traditional spelling preserves a remnant of that relationship.

There's a genius in that, too, like the way German uses the umlaut to keep the same vowel letter in a verb stem even when (due to a sound shift that happened centuries ago) each tense is pronounced with a different vowel sound. I use the example from a sister tongue because it may be easier for us to perceive its aptness than if I tried to demonstrate it through English examples. By the same token, then, who would expect /froilain/ to be a diminutive form of /frau/? Yet two little dots enable Frau and Fräulein to stand side by side, their etymological relationship unmistakable.

There are many similar instances in English, groups of words that would appear wholly unrelated if we spelled them phonetically, but whose interrelatedness becomes apparent when you see them spelled. Words such as who and what, closely related pronouns that in a phonetic system might not have a single letter in common. Here and there, for another example, are a matched pair of adverbs that, in "Spelling Edictese," would be rendered hir and yer. And words like the, which (at least the way I was brought up to use it) is pronounced with one vowel-sound when followed by a consonant and another when followed by a vowel - entirely left up to the discretion of the speaker, of course - would appear in print as two different words whose morphology might be difficult to explain. I know people whose dual pronunciation of the word the runs exactly opposite to mine; it irritates me just a bit when I hear them, but I think it would irritate me even more if I had to fuss over how to spell our language's most frequently-used and inconsequential word, every single time it came up, and above all to have to take into account each individual speaker's proclivities.

Bottom line, I like English spelling. Warts and all. It has so many fine details of cultural background fossilized in it. We have borrowed many French terms, few of which we pronounce as the French do, but whose Frenchness is kept evergreen by the English language's easy-come, easy-go canons of spelling. A francophone struggling to read a page from an American newspaper might feel encouraged, now and then, by the random appearance of a word he knows and loves. Meanwhile, an American is hard put to decipher words the Japanese language has appropriated from English, even after they have been transliterated into Roman letters. A perfectly systematic written language, like Romaji, cannot tolerate the existence of foreign words. It must obliterate their foreignness. It casts a magic spell on them - the spell of spelling - and their outlandish origins disappear.

I am aware that some people, such as the composer Percy Grainger, hold that English speakers should use only words derived from Anglo-Saxon roots. Thus, instead of coining a new word by sticking a Greek prefix in front of a Latin stem, we ought to jam two Anglo-Saxon stems together and make a new word out of them. The German language does this a lot: Handschuh (glove), for example, is such a hippogriff word, made by suturing "hand" and "shoe" together. Maybe that works for German folks. But English language has a cosmopolitan streak. How could we say that our language had a certain je ne sais quoi without dipping into the treasury of another language? And if we insisted on spelling that term zhernersehkwah, what would we have? Nothing but a piece of random gibberish, anointed with a given meaning (I don't know what). Imagine that word dropped into a transcript of a cultured conversations. The perplexed speaker, reviewing the transcript, would swear he had said something in French - but not even a native French-speaker would be able to find it if he looked for it!

No, folks. English spelling is best left alone. It's not as if ours is the only language that hazes anyone who attempts to learn it as a second tongue. Pity any one coming to Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Amharic as an adult - there are too many characters to learn. If you want to be able to read a newspaper in such a language, you need to start young and study hard. Or take Vietnamese and Gaelic: two languages that use Roman letters, but in such a complex and idosyncratic way that the adult learner must live each day on the edge of despair. Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic have extremely learnable writing systems; I would love to have an opportunity to master Thai, Hindi, or similar scripts. Sooner that than figure out how to predict the spelling of a Gaelic sentence from its pronunciation, or vice versa.

And some languages clearly have the wrong alphabet; some have even changed alphabets, by law, within living memory. Some southern Slavic languages, for example, switched from Cyrillic to Roman writing systems during the last century. How I pity the folks who speak those languages - especially those whose lives cross cultural and linguistic borders into an area where a closely related spoken language is written in a vastly different alphabet. I think there are similar cases in and around the Subcontinent, where Sanskrit-based scripts have been exchanged for Arabic-based ones, or vice versa. Urdu, they say, is a language virtually identical to Hindi, yet their vocabularies and writing systems are mutually unintelligible. Maybe that doesn't seem like such a tragedy if you live in or around Pakistan, but it does give you pause when you hear that some bright-eyed know-all wants all English speakers to replace the Roman alphabet with some custom-designed hybrid of Sumerian and Hittite. Folks in Papua New Guinea, whose pidgin is based substantially on English, would need their own Rosetta stone to be able to decipher Australian missionaries' tracts. I can't imagine a worse tragedy.