Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In the Midnight Hour: Roxy Music, New Year's Eve, 1979

Thought I'd close out the old year and welcome a new one by passing along one of my New Year's traditions: watching and listening to the cool, sleek groove of Bryan Ferry and Co. covering a Wilson Pickett classic.


See you next year!

New Year, Old Thoughts.

When I was a kid, I was often struck by the idea that at any given moment, someone somewhere on Earth was celebrating their birthday. Given the number of people on the planet, it just stood to reason. As I got older, the idea evolved; I came to see that every moment was, for someone out there, the worst or best moment of their lives. Every moment, the Earth witnesses scenes of hellish violence and idyllic peace. Somewhere, someone is awakening on a long-awaited day, while elsewhere someone is lying down after a grueling ordeal. Someone is pausing in a teeming crowd, someone is sitting alone. One person gazes at noonday Sun, another sits and contemplates the stars.

It was, and is, an overwhelming thought, this rush of simultaneity, this multitude of experiences all happening at once.

When I was a bit older, a teen, I imagined that if I listened hard enough on a quiet night, I could hear the low rushing sea-sound of billions of voices, the vast blanket of human thought and interaction stretching out and around me. There was a sense of being interconnected, in the sense that we are all human and can relate to each other at a basic level, at least. It was a comforting thought, really, this notion of a galaxy of humans swirling about on their respective paths. Yet, as I've said before, it brings with it a certain sadness, as I am reminded that I will never know beyond even a tiny, infinitesimally small number of all those people; vast numbers of potential staunch friends and great loves, all to remain strangers due to sheer logistics.

The internet helped cement these thoughts for me, long after the awe I felt when I was young had dissipated. The great net that is now cast across the Earth has helped rejuvenate that awe for me, to reveal that, indeed, the multitudes live out their daily lives, advancing the human experience one person at a time, but all together, and all at the same time.

Not long from now, as I write this, 2014 will begin its advance around the globe. The changing of years is, for me as it is for many, a time to contemplate both the past and the future. The passing year has not been the greatest for me (though really, I have no reason to complain), but maybe it was for you. I hope the coming year will be good for all of us.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A leisurely South Seas cruise...to Skull Island.


You know as well as I do, probably better, that none of us live in a vacuum. Our lives are a string of moments that teach us something, whether we choose to learn from them or not. Most of those moments aren't labeled as lessons in big, bold letters, so too often we ignore them and move along, searching and waiting to find the "real" lessons we are sure will rise into view over the horizon with luminous sails. But that's never how it is, is it?

Sometimes it's seemingly inconsequential things that have stuck with me throughout my life, causing me to reflect back on them to suss out their meaning countless times. So many moments, preserved in memory like flash-lit photos, barely noticed while happening, yet treasured for decades. A lingering glance across a frozen parking lot, a hushed conversation in a kitchen lit by the light of an old stove, a laugh shared with strangers in a crowded check-out line, a childhood argument bitterly fought on an Autumn playground, a passage from a book read at random in a cramped library, a missed phone call presaging years of silence...they all add up to a greater meaning, if only we take the time to figure out just what that meaning is.

When I write these blog posts, I hope that it's clear that most of the ostensible subjects are really MacGuffins. That is, while they are interesting in and of themselves, for me they are vectors to talk about and ponder larger issues. They are outward manifestations of an inner life. I try to approach what I'm talking about with concrete examples, and even if those examples are not the cup of tea of any given potential reader, I would also hope that the underlying intent is of some interest.

I've been a dinosaur fan since I was a kid. Even more fascinating to me are prehistoric mammals. Now, don't get me wrong, I find modern animals fascinating, too, but there is something haunting about the vast array of creatures that roamed the planet before the advent of humans. The Earth spun silently on in its solar revolutions for eons, while life spread and throve and died and returned in different forms. What we see today is a snapshot, a moment caught and examined in detail by those with the ability to really see the larger mural of existence on this planet. It's almost heartbreaking to think of all the animals that are long lost, both the ones we know about via fossils or historical record, and the ones we will never know existed. Much of what we know has to be inferred from what evidence was left behind, leading to a lot of speculation, and, by extension, fiction. So tales of dinosaurs and other prehistoric critters enthrall me, as they make me consider what they may really have been like.

It is inevitable, then, that King Kong would have piqued my interest. Back in the days before home video and cable TV, I had to wait until Thanksgiving to see what was, for me, the ne plus ultra of dinosaur movies. A local UHF station played it Thanksgiving night for years. I was easily frustrated by all the non-Kong stuff going on in the movie; I knew what people were like, for crying out loud! I needed to see what the dinosaurs and giant apes were like. It was a window into another world, and I didn't want it blocked by silly romances and huckster schemes. Kong and the dinosaurs of Skull Island were clearly the stars of the movie, even if RKO didn't seem to get that.

Time marched on, as it does, and King Kong, while retaining its mystique for me, had become time-worn and known inside-out. So, too, was its sequel, Son of Kong, which had revealed an even more varied ecosystem for Skull Island than was evident in its predecessor. There were plenty of dinosaur flicks and TV shows that came later, especially with the rise of computer-generated effects, but none held the same potential to evoke wonder as King Kong. Peter Jackson would do a remake of it in 2005, which, while drubbed critically, still managed to recover some of the magic of the original - this Skull Island was a worthy successor. Riotous with life, dangerous as a green Hell, and a glimpse into a world that might have been, but never quite was.

Some years back, I snagged what I still feel is the coolest movie tie-in book I've ever seen: The World of Kong: A Natural History of Skull Island. The book was by the Weta Workshop, the special effects folk responsible for both the Lord of the Rings movies, and the 2005 King Kong, all of which are Peter Jackson movies. Say what you will about Jackson's Kong, but the amount of work and detail put into the creation of Skull Island is astounding. I wrote a review of the book a long while ago, but I thought I'd post it here, too.

Books like this are the kind that can stick in one's memory for years. Sure, it's a fictional place, but it takes reality and tweaks it a bit into a tantalizing glimpse of what-might-have-been on some alternate timeline. I put it alongside the atlases and encyclopedias on my bookshelves, as well as other "never-were" books like After Man. To me, it adds a touch of wonder for both young and old alike to compare, contrast, and dream about far-flung places both imaginary and existing, to contemplate the borders between the real and unreal and where they shade into each other.

Introduction

The discovery and subsequent expeditions to Skull Island until it disappeared beneath the waves are revealed. The gradual shrinking of the island as it sinks into the sea is discussed, and the reader learns it is due to volcanic activity. Also discussed are the huge ruins that seem to have covered a large part of the island at one time, the builders of which are unknown.

I. The Crumbling Coast and Village

While some of the coastal creatures – such as large crustaceans and various water-loving animals like reptiles and amphibians, as well as birds and other flying creatures – are detailed, the human village is of even more interest.

The humans here are a dwindling, desperate lot, pushed to the limits of existence as they are forced into more and more inhospitable living conditions due to the encroaching sea. They are of a racial stock unlike any that are indigenous to the region, and could be the descendants of the builders of the ruins. If so, they have lost any memory of their history. The ritual sacrifices to the mighty Kong are also discussed.

II. The Shrinking Lowlands

The primary domain of the true heavy-hitters of Skull Island’s dinosaur set, such as the brontosaurus (yes, brontosaurus, not apatosaurus) and the V. Rex (V standing for vastatosaurus), a big, meat-eating tyrannosaur descendant.

The implication of this chapter is that as Skull Island sinks, the competition for territory and food forces the animals here to live a life of constant danger and violence. With so many large, dangerous animals squeezed into an area getting smaller everyday, the place becomes almost cartoonishly violent.
A study of how Skull Island is sinking.

III. The Winding Swamps and Waterways

Called the “Blood of the Island,” these wet areas ensure the sustainability of life on Skull Island.

IV. The Steaming Jungle

Perhaps the most familiar part of Skull Island, the jungles contain probably the greatest variety of life. Life forms range from graceful ceratopsians to proto-monkey creatures. There are flying lizards (“flizards,” not quite pterosaurs), a wide array of nasty-looking insects, “flying rats,” strange sorta-bats, and “burglar monkeys” (the aforementioned proto-monkeys) inhabiting the forest canopy. Below, giant flightless birds, huge centipedes, and lots of large, nasty lizards prowl the jungle floor.

V. The Abyssal Chasms

This is the deep, dark, dank, and perhaps most alien region of Skull Island. Deep fissures cleave the island, and are kept moist by the tropical climate, and very warm due to volcanic activity. Spiders, giant worms with big, nasty teeth, and weird, pterosaur-like “vultursaurs” lurk in these areas. Think of what you find under a rotting log, mix it with a lot of fungus, and make it all really big and hostile, and that’s what you have here.

VI. The Barren Uplands

While inhabited by a variety of creatures, such as the bifurcatops, an agile ceratopsian that fills a mountain-goat-like niche, this region is most notable for the giant apes that claim it. How and why a species of huge, gorilla-like primates came to exist on Skull Island is discussed, but a lot is left to speculation.

An interesting idea that is presented is the notion that these creatures were brought to the island by the mysterious ruin-builders, and bred into their giant size from gigantopithecus stock. The species’ gradual decline, until only the mighty Kong remained, is discussed, as is the demise of Kong himself, and provides a melancholy end to this book.

Size Comparison Chart

A fold-out section at the end of the book shows the various creatures of Skull Island standing placidly in profile on a New York City street. We get to see just how large all the dinosaurs and other animals are in relation to each other, as well as in relation to humans (such as Ann Darrow/Naomi Watts), biplanes, and New York’s elevated trains.

The Good

This book conjures up Skull Island as a fully-realized, living, breathing place. It’s such an interesting place, that it makes me wish there really was such an island in the world. The book never “breaks character” and dispels the illusion, treating its subject with respect and perhaps a bit of awe. This includes a rather neat vintage-looking map on the inside covers and end-papers of the book, as well as several maps showing the climatic/ecological regions of the Island. It really seems like a place I’d like to…well, not visit, really, since it’s so dangerous. OK, maybe I would like to visit it; it's too tempting. But I’d definitely love to see a National Geographic special on it.

Another neat thing about the book is that the creatures on Skull Island are not simply frozen-in-time hold-overs from the Cretaceous era. They are descendants of the animals from that time, and have evolved various specializations over the eons.

The Bad

Honestly, I can’t find a legitimately bad thing to say about this book. I only wish it was longer and contained more artwork.

The Ugly

The carnictis sordicus is a species of intestinal parasites that somehow evolved into giant worm-like creatures, and which live deep within the chasms of Skull Island. Described as “animated stomachs” with a “sphincter-maw of teeth,” these critters made a pretty spectacular and, yes, as the book says, repulsive appearance in the recent King Kong movie. Very creepy, shudder-inducing fellas.

Why You Will Like It

Perhaps first and foremost, this book is gorgeously illustrated. The images are clear, vivid, and fire the imagination. The detail put into the ecosystem, while pushed to the limits of credibility and beyond, still shows a lot of thought and effort. This makes the book a fun read as it straight-facedly presents Skull Island as a real place.

Why You Won’t Like It

If depictions of unrealistic, pulp-magazine style jungle-clad islands inhabited by dinosaurs and giant apes don’t appeal to you, then you probably won’t like this book.

Where’s the Fun?

The fun is in the sheer chaos of the island’s ecosystem. It’s bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. Really dangerous bright, colorful, over-the-top adventuring fun. There is a cliffhanger (often literally) every few yards, with the fauna (and maybe even some flora) out to eat the unwary. Realistic? No. Fun? Hell yeah.
Giant Apes + Dinosaur Fights=Fun

Final Assessment

I love this book. It’s the best movie tie-in I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading and looking at. It can be read as a study of a place that never was.

One of the things I didn't emphasize enough, regardless of the pictures I posted, is just how beautifully illustrated this book is. There are no stills from the film; the art consists of concept paintings and drawings from the Weta Workshop, which did the special effects for the film. This is an important point, I feel, as the book establishes its own identity separate from the film. One could comfortably read and enjoy the book without ever having seen the film. 

But what does all this have to do with anything? For me, it points up the wonder and fragility of life. It shows the importance of imagination, and the firing of that imagination. It represents the manifestation of a memory, and childhood flights of fancy that can still thrill an adult. Most importantly, though, I wanted to write about Skull Island. I hope others like reading about it, and both "get" why something like this is important to me (and why other things are important to them), and actually get the book if it seems like the kind of place they'd like to visit, if only in the theater of the mind.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Back in my ears again.

Somehow it got by me that the Mavericks, one of my very favorite bands, released an album earlier this year. Yeah, I don't know how that happened, either. I guess it was because I'd given up on seeing a new slate of songs from them years ago. I'm not gonna wear a hair shirt over it, seeing as how it went a good decade since their last one. Then I chanced across this song:


It's a thing of beauty. Chugging along with that bouncy Tex-Mex rhythm, it really embodies a type of song I love: sad lyrics with a happy melody. I could have written this song; still could, if it hadn't already been done so well here. It put me in mind of my own life, and what I've learned, and what I still need to work out.

Love, lost love, love gone wrong...it's all endlessly fascinating. We fall in love, riding the waves, and, often enough, sinking to the depths. You know it as well as I do. It's a constant. Some luck out and manage to navigate through the depths of life without running aground or hitting the bottom, but the rest of us have to wreck against the rocks at least a few times.

Sometimes we can drag ourselves from the wreckage and try again quickly; other times it takes a lot longer. I'm one of the latter cases. It took me years to even think about putting to sea again in the relationship ocean. We all move at our own pace, of course. Life continued to flow, and other matters required attention, and one day I noticed the skies, felt the wind, and decided to set sail again. Storms always pass, waters become calm again...for a time, and a sad song can make you happy just from the knowledge that you made it through the Clashing Rocks like the Argonauts, and can look back and be glad that you survived. Because you will, because I did.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Overpass Love, or the Loneliness of Highway Declarations

I find it oddly comforting that people still pledge their love this way:


Don't ask why; I can't explain it. I see these scrawled declarations of devotion, and I feel a strange wistfulness, a sense of the universality of love making us all do strange things, regardless of age. This is out in an area where city gives way to country, where graffiti is scarce and becoming even less so. It stands out, and seems at once both bold and lonely to me. Some might see a defaced public work; others might see a sloppy tag; I see an attempt to grasp at immortalizing an emotion.

Many, many years ago, decades really, when I was a little kid and the world seemed huge and mysterious, I remember a similar tag on a railroad trestle. The trestle was black, and on it, in fat, puffy white letters, someone had painted CALIFORNIA BOUND. I would see it on occasion as my parents drove the stretch of minor state route the trestle spanned. It was near a convergence of major and minor highways, where traffic was chaotic at times, but farm country was also near. It always struck me as a sad, lonely place, a place that seemed as far from where anyone would want to be as you could get. But there, in bold, crude letters, was a declaration of intent, two words that held a hovering potential of something greater, a quest for a dream. Back then, of course, I couldn't articulate all this; I was a kid in the early 1970s, and CALIFORNIA BOUND was like some arcane invocation that meant everything, everything in the vaguest sense of what was good and exciting. As I grew older, the scrawl remained, until I was an adult.

As I became a teen and then an adult, I often passed under this trestle. I would wonder if the person who'd painted it had made it to California, and whether they would even remember painting this rally cry for a trip to a far-off land of wonder. It both inspired and saddened me. It inspired me because it became a small mental goad, urging me to follow my own path to California, a place that had come to haunt my dreams, and which I would, eventually, reach. It saddened me because it was part of a larger story I would never know anything else about. It hung there over that highway, tantalizing in its mystery. I hoped the person who'd painted it all those many years ago was happy, whether or not they'd reached the Golden State, but I feared that, like so many, that dream was dashed somewhere along the way, forgotten, the only evidence of it being painted across that desolate stretch of road.

Until, one day, unnoticed, it was painted over.

For so long, decades, it had been a landmark to me, both geographically and mentally. Why it loomed so large in my mind I can never explain, but it made me think about many things: mortality, dreams, the way we connect, how even the least of our actions can have unintended effects years and years after we do them. Now, tonight, after taking and looking at the picture above of a new bit of graffiti on a different overpass, it makes me think once again, about how all these blogs we write, here and elsewhere, are similar attempts to say something, to declare our existence, to state what we love. I can only hope that something I write, even the least bit of doggerel, has the kind of impact on someone out there that CALIFORNIA BOUND had upon me.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Thor: The Dark World - my not-a-review

I like to relate most things I talk about here on Dark Dimension to my life or my philosophy of life, such as it is. "Philosophy of life" seems really pretentious, I know, but it's the best term I can come up with for the various ruminations and epiphanies I've managed to glean from being alive as long as I have been. I suppose you could call it "a bunch of things I've managed to learn by falling back-asswards into them," but it doesn't hold the same cachet, does it? Whatever you want to call it, let's get to the subject: Thor: The Dark World.


First, let me get the particulars out of the way: I liked the movie. It was fun. Big, loud, chaotic, bombastic, and with more than a dollop of lunacy. I don't go to the movies much these days, and when I do, I look for spectacle. Thor: The Dark World certainly has its share of that.The plot is properly comic-book-ish, with huge battles and daring escapes and interdimensional travel. It was a stronger film than the first one, and is a solid entry in Marvel's continuing effort to construct an interconnected film franchise the likes of which has never been seen before. Oh, and Loki stole the show. Seriously.

Loki is not that far off from the source material, to boot.
Now for what it all means to me. Because that's why you're here, right?*

Oddly enough, I was a fan of Thor, so to speak, before I became familiar with his comic book avatar. I remember being fascinated by tales from Norse mythology when I was very young. That Thor didn't seem very approachable, really, but somehow my impression of him was positive. Something about those tales, with Thor and the Asgardians fighting giants and causing general mayhem seemed to contain a kernel of...something positive. At the least, the Asgardians were a little less capricious than the Greek gods, at least it seemed to me. That's not saying much, I know, but for me, back then, it was enough.

I love when Thor does stuff like this.
As a kid, I was troubled by the source material of most of the mythological figures who were imbedded in our culture. I had a hard time reconciling comic characters like Thor or (especially) Hercules with their mythical forebears. Those myths and legends often showed those characters as being nothing short of psychotic killers, while their comic counterparts were noble, brave, and true. It was, and is, hard to see how those character got from there to here.

Cultural drift accounts for the changes, of course, as each successive generation takes what they already have in their cultural lexicon, and morphs and adds to it all to suit their own sensibilities. But that doesn't explain why we choose to keep and alter certain characters. Why Thor (or Hercules)? What about such a character keeps him relevant, or has such appeal that a culture retains or adds him to their mythology? I don't know, exactly, except to point to their basic humanity; those characters, though gods, were flawed, yet still somehow relatable. Somewhere along the way, their rough edges were sanded down smooth to make them even more palatable. Those "rough edges" were egregious atrocities in the cases of some characters, like Hercules, or Jason of Argonauts fame (and Jason was a doozy when it came to rehabilitating his image for modern sensibilities, but that's a whole 'nother story).

Interestingly enough, while blunting the sharp edges on a character like Thor to make him a virtuous, friendly hero, our culture also likes to create anti-heroes, rough edges and all. I think, though, that in our hearts, as a culture, we long even more for the shining knight to save the day. Sure, the cynical among us may eschew those paragons in favor of the character with bigger flaws and more shadowed soul, but I still believe that in most of us, maybe buried deep, is the hope that someone we can truly root for will come along. We certainly seem to, with the adoration given to superheroes in pop culture, and the adulation given first responders and military personnel. We long for a true superhero to come along, but maybe it's the certain knowledge that we are all on our own, that no titan-strengthed hero will appear to make things right, that makes some shun or react against the very idea of heroism...or which makes some dig down deep to try to save the day.

So, yeah...I haven't said a lot about Thor for a while, have I? I think what has drawn me to Thor in recent years is much the same reason that I've always been a Superman fan - both are imbued with godlike powers that render them effectively immortal, yet they are, in essence, decent, responsible people. Maybe they came about that decency and responsible nature in different ways - Superman by way of a solid, caring upbringing, Thor by way of hard experience and self-scrutiny engendering humility - but they both manifest those qualities in similar ways. Characters like Thor and Superman (especially) are notoriously difficult to write, because their physical invulnerabilities means that the only recourse is to explore their vulnerabilities - those basic, innate qualities of decency and responsibility that make them admirable to us. Thor: The Dark World does, indeed, explore those vulnerabilities; all the flash and thunder aside, all the pitched battles and spectacular set pieces notwithstanding, the real conflict is Thor's sense of duty to those who could use his help...humanity. A kernel of that quality can be found in the source material, which may be what drew me to the character and his latter-day incarnations.

Plus, he has a flying hammer. How cool is that?






* Psst: that's sarcasm.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Submarine movies and the art of avoiding what you can't see.

One of my favorite things - say, up there in the top 100, assuming all of us have thousands of favorite things cutting across the spectrum of things to rank - is watching submarine movies. The cramped space and the threat of annihilation at any moment while churning ahead blindly makes for a tense and eminently watchable scenario.

Best of all, to me, is the inevitable scene where everyone goes silent while nervously gazing upward as they await the depth charges that will almost certainly come. I can't help stifling a laugh when that scene finally makes it onscreen. Not because it's funny in itself, but because it's almost always done the same way in every movie, and I admit that I love the familiarity of it. Just as an example, here it is in U-571:
Gotta love it.

Another favorite scene for me is the somewhat less common, but still pretty recurrent, maneuvering blind scene. In this one, the crew has to trust their charts and instruments, and, often enough, the instincts of their skipper, to avoid crashing into something - a submarine net, a submerged mountain, the ocean floor. You get the idea. My absolute favorite of these scenes comes from one of my very favorite movies, The Hunt for Red October:
Add a whole bunch of points for them being chased by a torpedo, to boot.

So what does any of this have to do with anything, besides me bloviating here on my blog about random stuff? Only this: in many ways, it seems to me that submarine movies are a lot like the way we maneuver through our lives. The analogy that often leaps to mind is that we live life while facing backwards down the path, only able to see and analyze everything in retrospect. But I'm starting to think it's more like piloting a submarine. We may not be able to directly see what is in store for us, but we can use all of our senses, all of our past experiences, all of the knowledge we've managed to glean from others, and our own instinctual sonar to get a pretty decent idea of what surrounds us. We're never perfect, of course, and we may blunder and scrape bottom or be caught flat-footed by depth-charges we didn't expect and can't predict, but we do have some idea of how to keep moving ahead, carefully navigating the treacherous canyons and peaks that loom in the murky dark around us.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Vistas


Galaxy M64, image courtesy NASA
           "We are a way for the cosmos to know itself." - Carl Sagan
Images of galaxies fascinate me. I can look at them for hours. Go out and look at the night sky sometime; consider the sheer immensity of the starry vista you see above you. What you see, as huge as it might seem to you, as filled with stars as it is, it is only a tiny patch, one pixel in a large picture, of the entirety of our galaxy, the Milky Way. Then consider that some of those stars and bright spots may well be galaxies as well, containing hundreds of billions of stars themselves. Consider even further that what you're looking at when you view one of these galaxies is roughly the same size as the Milky Way, our own galaxy. Consider: something the size of the Milky Way, itself so vast that, at best, we can catch sight of it as a pale arch spanning the sky, is a bright, fragile mote to your eye.

Think about that: all the stellar history, stars winking into being and exploding into spectacular death, or collapsing into a crushing senility, all in that mote. Much of all that history occurred before the Earth - or the Sun! - had formed. The empty gulfs of space and time and burning glory stretching into a near-eternity, eons before our own star had begun to form, maybe even while the stars whose deaths would have to occur to provide the raw material for the Sun to come into being were still pulsing along in the midst of their own lives.

Then think of all the countless billions of galaxies known to be out there, and all the untold multitudes we will never even suspect existed. Each galaxy whirls silently in the night-bound sky, a multitude of stars coalesced into a titanic pinwheel. It's a thought that can make you feel small, inconsequential.

We aren't inconsequential, though. We fill a very important role, all of us, as we grasp at understanding, each one of us adding his or her own knowledge and wisdom into the great collective consciousness of humanity. To us, as individuals, with our mayfly-lives sparking into being and almost as quickly fading from view, it may seem we have struggled for eons as a species to reach some greater understanding. The tapestry of human history stretches off behind us into what looks like a dim past. In cosmic terms, of course, we have hardly arrived yet, fresh on the scene, impatient to begin. We strive and delve and compete and contemplate and explore, our pace dizzying when compared to the slow, stately procession of events that turn the universe. That pace seems to have accelerated even more, to a breakneck speed, within the last century or so. The knowledge we gain seems to grow exponentially with each revolution around the Sun. And we do all this together, pouring our experiences and thoughts into the vessel of our potential, filling that void rapidly.

We are all important, because we carry the potential of us as a species within each of us as individuals. What we do with that potential is up to us. As tiny as we might feel at times, as lost as we might seem in the teeming multitudes here on our planet, itself infinitesimally small in the great sea of stars that stretches into infinity, we each can contemplate our surroundings and attempt a greater understanding of ourselves, and thus, the universe as a whole. We are made of "star-stuff," as Sagan said; we are an extension of the universe itself that has gained sentience, and is now attempting to know itself. We each have the potential to increase that knowledge. How much more important can we be?

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Old Man

 He was loud, blustering, bullying, set in his ways, and quick to anger. He'd sooner whip you as look at you. He lived life his way and didn't care what you thought about that. He literally died in my arms late on an October night. He was my dad. The Old Man. He wouldn't have cared if anyone wished him a happy Veterans Day or thanked him for his service, so just to spite him, let this picture do both.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

An astrological tour-de-force: "Through All Your Houses Wandering" by Ted Reynolds

My interests in the paranormal and science fiction seem to have sprang into being at roughly the same time. The two go hand-in-hand, really, since both speculate on reality as it might be. The two actually merge fairly often, but almost as often I find myself shunning such hybrids; keep your paranormal chocolate out of my scifi peanut butter, please. On rare occasions, though, a story comes along that is arresting in the way it melds these subjects. In the March, 1981 issue of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, astrology and science fiction meet in a tale that has stuck with me across the decades.

"Through All Your Houses Wandering"...it's a lovely, evocative title, almost Dunsanian in its lyricism.

A project trying to develop psychic powers results in one member of the group finding himself within the mind and body of an alien being. At different intervals of time, his mind returns to his own body, where he tries to make sense of what is happening. Eventually, he comes to realize that he is advancing through the zodiac wheel, with each successive alien he temporarily resides with mentally embodying the essence of a different sign of the classic Western zodiac.

It's a fascinating conceit, one I'd never seen done quite the same way, before or since. It also predates Quantum Leap by several years, and though the way the protagonists of both this story and that TV show "leap" from life to life is rather similar on the surface, it's different enough that it's clear that there is no connection between them.

The aliens are all engaging and radically different: from the sentient, mobile, tree-like avatars of Aries, moving ever-forward and staying just ahead of disaster, to the cocooned, spidery embodiments of Pisces broadcasting love throughout the galaxy, each alien has a lesson and a gift to give. The traveller, his mind nearly blank at the beginning of his cosmic quest, slowly gathers these offerings, gradually blending them into a greater understanding of existence.

I remember being thunderstruck upon reading this story. I was a teen then, 14 or 15, and the concepts within it were made clear by the narrative structure. It didn't hurt that it was illustrated by a young Wayne Barlowe, a couple of years after his seminal Guide to Extraterrestrials. But it was the main idea, the quick but elegant way of explaining the progression of a soul through the zodiac, that remained with me. As time pulled us all along, my copy of the magazine fell by the wayside, lost on the way as are most things...except that title, and the memory of the idea. Each passing year saw the memory fade a little more, like a photo hung in sunlight.

Then, one day, not so long ago, that title came to me again, unbidden: through all your houses wandering. I searched online, the great, collective, technological memory bank of humanity, and quickly found the magazine in which it was contained. A reread later, and the memory was again fresh; in some instances it was not as lustrous as I remembered, in others, it was more profound.

Pulling apart the zodiac in the way Reynolds does for this story, it lays out a core concept of astrology: the soul progresses through each sign, or possesses the elements of each, growing as the lessons of each become assimilated. It is shown to not just be a collection of discrete mythological creatures, but rather a prism-split examination of the human soul. Set aside the paranormal aspect of it, and it would still reveal a symbolic method of self-examination that could help one grapple with one's own limitations and strengths.

Reynolds presents each sign in a way that is vivid, but also, by necessity, rather facile. The short story format allows for bright, vivid, but broad brushstrokes. Still, it's a good primer, opening up the entire concept of astrology in a surprisingly nuanced way for a more mainstream (as much as a scifi venue can be mainstream) audience.

Besides the title, other things remained with me from the story throughout the decades. The strongest memories I had were of Scorpio and Pisces.

Scorpio was the dark, shadowy region of the zodiac. Enigmatic and powerful, the aliens embodying Scorpio were mysterious and calculating. In fact, Scorpio quickly followed the protagonist's psychic "trail" back to Earth, wresting control of his body and having him observe as the conquest of humanity hung on his wife recognizing he was not in control of his actions. Yet even recognizing the stranger within her husband, the sheer magnetism of Scorpio was a powerful temptation, enough to give man and wife pause as they considered the implications.

Pisces, though, was the most powerful image from the story for me. The writing becomes almost ethereal as Reynolds has his protagonist travel to meet the final sign of the zodiac, and the one that has the ultimate lesson to teach:
He merges with God, hovering in the immensities, containing the universe. God moves over just enough to let him in. Welcome, lost one, welcome home
Simmons melts into the oneness, the sharing, and joins in the chorus, the chanting of the message, to all beings, all life, everywhere and anywhere.
Come, come, come join us in the whole. God is truth, God is beauty, God is love. God waits for you. Come join us, come.
It's an appealing ending, with the traveler coming home at last, both spiritually and physically. Then and now it caused me to feel a twinge of recognition at the need for belonging, of being home even if only in spirit. No bombastic ending, no twist, no triumphant speeches...just a return home to a safe space of complete acceptance.  It's an ending so stirring as to imprint itself on the boy I was, so that the man I became could finally begin to really understand it decades later. And that, my friends, is what a good story should do.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The stage is always filled with Titans.

"The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expending realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form - all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void." - Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces 
An image, a thought, a dream, really, that fascinates me is that of finding an opening, a hole, in one's bedroom, or living room, or whatever room you find the most safe and secure. This opening is found accidentally, though it's obvious it must have been there all along, and it's clear at the moment you find it that Fate and Destiny have caused you to find it now, of all times. Down it leads to a vast subterranean world, one that is vast beyond belief, occupying space in a seemingly impossible way, somehow almost intersecting but always just avoiding doing so with basements and other excavations you know in your neighborhood. 
It is a deep and dark place until you gaze at it long enough, when it becomes clear that you can see without real problem, as long as you concentrate on doing so. So down you go; perhaps you don't brave the opening physically, but allow your gaze to travel down, down, down into the depths, until your eyes ache and urge you to finally move and head downward into the dark. Or maybe you're the spelunking type, and you kick stones and a plug of mud out of your way and stumble-slide down, craving to explore.
What do you see? I see everything important to me - friends, family, memories, dreams, wishes. This subterranean realm is, of course, your own soul, as deep as you wish it to be, your own personal emotional memory palace that you may never have known you constructed. But you have: every scraped knee; every screaming argument; every hug you wished would never end; every first day at school and last day together; every thundering storm and rayon vert; every warm summer evening with lightning bugs; every empty mailbox you opened hoping to find a certain message; every smile and locked gaze and holiday crowd and smell of diesel and side-aching laugh and broken heart...all of these and more are here, accumulating and building on their own a vast and baroque palace, where you may wander from time to time in dream or memory, your heart soaring here and eyes tearing there.
At times we need to delve into that great manse, searching for the shades that haunt us so as to cast them out and let the light in. We, all of us, have our own pack of Cerberuses, our own J├Ârmungandr, that roam about the place, ready to set upon us until we face and conquer them. Those struggles are usually painful and often life-long, but sometimes, sometimes, we finally steel ourselves and head into our underworld and wrestle with these monsters, bringing them to ground and sending them off into oblivion...or, perhaps, into their own corner of the memory palace as decoration, now-harmless reminders of past terrors.
At times, I'm sure, many of us have looked back to the past and found heroes there we feel we cannot emulate. The grand stage of history is filled with colorful and powerful figures, each of whom filled a role that seems larger than life in many instances. Like Titans, they strode about the world stage, their wills seemingly irresistible. Yet they all were simply like us, each with their own underworld to tame and bring light into. We are here and now to take our place upon that vast stage, to fulfill our own destinies and bring light into the darkness. There is no need to look for Titans to come and save us; we are the Titans now. The stage is always filled with Titans.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

This is Halloween: Running the Dogs


Given that I love Halloween, I want to contribute a bit of spookiness of my own to the mix. Digging deep in the voluminous files of Stately Black Manor, I have blown the dust off an oldie of my own, a little vignette of a couple of raccoon hunters and their hounds. Enjoy.

 

Running the Dogs



The elk was a silent shadow under the moon, staring at us with a cold malice I would never have thought possible in an animal.  Its eyes were pits of darkness that sucked in the thin silver moonlight, looking in and beyond us, freezing us more thoroughly than the sharp late November air.  The huge bull stood as still as the stars, his evil flowing through the tall fence that bound him, an evil that cowed our dogs and jellied our knees. 
      “He can’t get through that fence,” Frank shivered backward, his old Mossberg twelve-gauge his only comfort, “he can’t get through that fence.” 
      The dogs wrapped around our legs, too frightened to whine.  All except Rounder, the wise blue-tick stalking closer to the elk, hate-filled and stiff-legged, tense as a spring-trap, his growl a distant thunder.  He was a climber, and the fence wouldn’t stop him.  The elk shifted his black gaze to the hound, both animals continuing a war old before man walked the Earth.  The moon stopped; the air grew breathless.
      Somewhere there was a distant shout, a yell like no other, a deep wordless bellow that seemed to speak of dead secrets and frustrated revenge.  Rounder jerked back as if kicked; Frank stumbled back a step with a strangled yelp; the elk turned and melted back into the woods from which he came.  I dropped to one knee, dazed and sick, my Remington dropped beside me, forgotten. 
      We grabbed the dogs, Rounder moaning and fussing, and headed for the truck.  Silence stood between Frank and me, neither of us willing to speak for fear of making what had happened become real.  I glanced back continuously as we drew away from the fence, terror slowly building as I expected at any moment to see pieces of the darkness that was the tree-line pull away and glide across the moonlit field towards us.  We were almost in a full run when we got to the truck, the dogs having torn away from us and already huddled near the tailgate. 
      Frank floored the pick-up away from the field, bouncing crazily down the gravel road, the dogs in their boxes, us in the cab.  Frank struggled to light a cigarette, the rutted road defeating him as I switched on the radio, the classic-rock thump a welcome relief to us both.  We banged along in the truck for what seemed like half the night before either of us spoke.
      “God-damn that was a big elk,” Frank hugged the steering wheel, his cigarette nervous in his fingers.
      “Big ain’t the word for it.”  I looked out the door window of the truck at the dark farmhouses sliding by, the moon keeping pace with us.
      “I mean, I seen them elk out there before, but God-damn...”
      “Who keeps elk anyway?  It’s gotta be expensive to bring ‘em in from out west.”
      “Raises ‘em for meat; elk’s pretty expensive, I hear.  Makes a lotta money, man.”  He shook his head like somebody might when they wake up with a headache.  “It was so big...”
      “It wasn’t that it was all that big...it just looked...I don’t know...”
      “Hateful.  That was just one hateful-assed elk.” 
      A small town was passing us, one of those tiny Ohio towns down around Amish country that seem to loom off the backroads, tired and forlorn since the farmers left so long ago.  The town seemed oddly familiar, looking like the small town near the elk-farm we had just left, yet hastily rearranged and placed along the road to intercept us once again.  A worn out gas station - not one of those all-purpose gas station/grocery store/lottery dealer places, but an honest-to-God gas station, with analog readout pumps, rusted 7-Up sign, and sagging garage - was all that seemed to be open.  Frank pulled in, balled up his empty cigarette pack, and hopped out.
      I looked around us.  “Where are we?”
      Frank shrugged.  “I dunno.  I lost track back around Wellington.  Down on three-oh-one, maybe, south of Homerville?” 
      I shook my head.  “No.  This looks like the place we left back there.”   I jerked my head back down the road towards that place, dreading to look. 
      “You’re crazy.  We been drivin’ twenty minutes.”  He turned and went into the station, snorting.  I walked out towards the road away from the lights, looking out at the moon-blued soybean fields across the way.  The sound of laughter came in on the chill breeze, the strange hysterical laughter of children fighting off sleep, but with a harsh tone to it, an almost angry sound.  There was movement in the soybean field, dark shapes twisting and gyrating, seeming to beckon to me.  I hopped the ditch along the road and headed out to the shadows under the moon.
      I could not tell how many there were.  They seemed to slip and whirl around a still form on the ground, a form that bleated in pain, not animal, not human.  With each yelp the shadows laughed and drew closer to the form, beating it noiselessly with arms or clubs-I couldn’t tell.
      “Hey you kids...” I began to call, the words strongly begun but catching in my throat.  The shadows stopped their brutal dance, twisting to face me, featureless in the dark.  I moved forward, the first step the bravest I’ve ever taken.  With a noise like wind in the treetops the shadow kids raced past me, giggling.  I walked to the form on the ground.
      The form lurched up, leaning drunkenly towards me.  A hand that could not be lit by the moon reached out, grabbing my coat.  A face I could not see drew near mine, cold, cold breath washing over me, words without meaning scraping my ears.  I pulled away, twisting from the rubbery grasp, tripping backwards only to recover just as the form gripped me again.  I pushed at its face, my hand slipping across a burning cold surface.  It gobbled meaningful gibberish in my ear as I punched it, once, twice, again.  It moved away, like smoke on a strong breeze, recovered, moved to me again.  Then I ran.
      The gas station was impossibly far away, glaring across the field like a beaten face.  The truck gleamed by the pumps, the only piece of sanity left in this dark town.  The laughing children swirled around me, a flock of crows after roadkill.  The form behind me was fast, too fast, staggering insanely at my elbow.  I jumped the ditch, pain shooting from my left ankle, a moment on the road, a rush and a roar as I saw the semi hurtling at me, a desperate spurt, the wind of the semi’s passing pulling me after and then down, somewhere in the tempest Rounder baying from his box.  I scrambled up and spun, ready to make a stand.
      There was nothing in the road except the flattened corpse of a rabbit, weeks old.  Beyond was the empty soybean field, the stars twinkling madly.  Suddenly I could feel how ragged my breathing was, how much my ankle hurt, how soaked with sweat I was.  I walked to the truck, fighting to get my trembling under control.  The truck was running, doors flung wide.  The lights of the gas station reached out to it, and to me, luminous fingers groping into the dark.  Frank was nowhere in sight. 
      I walked into the station, looking for an attendant that wasn’t there.  Ancient Valvoline cans and stacks of antique Firestone tires patiently waited within the garage bays.  A greasy, worn Chilton’s manual lay open on a shelf, schematics of a ‘51 Chevy transmission seeming to form some arcane formula in the fluorescent light.  A faint hum of static came from a roughly-handled radio sitting on a work bench. It all seemed fake somehow, like a mock-up of a gas station made by an intelligence familiar with the main items but clueless on the details: woodcarving tools stored in socket set boxes; cans of yeast mixed with cans of motor oil; a pneumatic wrench too strangely shaped to have ever been used.  The place felt alive, a thrumming coming from below that was felt through one’s bones rather than heard.
      “Help you?” I jumped at the sound.  He was an old, old man, his eyes hidden by wrinkles, his bent frame belied by the impression of a hidden tautness, like a dog ready to jump on someone coming through the door.
      “The guy I was with.”  I braced myself, as though waiting for a punch to be thrown.  He slowly turned, thumbing towards the truck.
      “I expect that’s him there.”  The faintest trace of hatred was a ghost in his graveled voice.  “Reckon you boys oughta be off home now.”  He turned back to me, and I saw the glitter of black eyes peer out through the wrinkled brow.  I tried to defy those old eyes, but I could not.  I could only hold them for a moment before I had to look down, down at his twisted and mottled hands that wrung a shop rag with barely hidden violence.
      I walked from the garage, my tongue thick with fear as I passed the old man.  He smelled of rot and freshly turned earth.  Something deep and instinctual urged me to hit him, to force him back to the ground from which he sprang, and then to run; but I resisted, the truck my only focus, the dogs rattling in their boxes, Rounder moaning a primal warning.
      I got into the truck.  Frank was there, his face unreadable as he pulled us back onto the road.  I dreaded to speak, to voice the insanity of the night, for fear even Frank had become part of it.  The more I looked at him the more he became a figure from beyond madness, a hunched insect creature affecting the shape of man, almost hugging the steering wheel to his chest.  He did not look at me, staring at the humming road that rose to meet us in the night.  His cigarette burned evilly, a smoldering anger in its ember.  There was no comfort in the radio, the whispering hiss of static hiding some monologue of cosmic malignity.  We hurtled along the nightroads, the towns of man lost to us now, passing farm buildings that were grotesque humps on the back of the land.  I fought an urge to hit Frank, or what he had become, and jump from the truck. The urge became stronger, unbearable, and I felt like I was confined in a moving prison cell. Then a howl came from somewhere, everywhere, a pure, clean sound of redemption.
      The dogs.  Their calls were a chorus of primal good, led by the strong booming bay of Rounder.  The darkness seemed to lift a bit, the stars melting and reforming, the road blurring and becoming solid again.  The truck snarled and swayed, Frank convulsing in agony.  I shoved next to him, grabbing the wheel, locking the brakes.  He grabbed at me, punching and gouging.   I lit from the truck, with him just behind.  He doubled over, falling to his hands and knees.  I pulled down the tailgate, opening the dog boxes one by one.  The dogs spun and yowled in joy, like they did during the first snowfall.  Only Rounder was subdued, standing dignified and holy over Frank, guarding for and against. 
      I had no doubts now about Frank.  I lifted him from the road, clapping him on the back to assure both of us he was real and whole again.
      “Those cigarettes are gonna kill you.”
      A raspy sigh was his only reply.  We sat on the tailgate, letting the dogs sniff the ditches and fields around us, the star-filled bowl of the night bright above us.  The moon was low and feeble, obscured by a distant stand of trees.  The eyes of the dogs flashed in the starlight.  Frank finally stood, stamping his feet against the cold.  He softly called in the dogs, bundling them into their boxes. 
      “I reckon we ought not to run the dogs out here anymore.”  He clicked the tailgate shut quietly and carefully.  I straightened my hat and stuffed my hands in my coat pockets.  The horn of a diesel locomotive sounded somewhere far off.
      “No. I reckon not.”