"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Yuletide Excursion to 'Jurassic Park'

Jurassic Park (Jurassic Park, #1)Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This year, I needed a good read for the Christmas holiday—something entertaining, accessible, and not requiring much effort; something I could read with lots of distractions occurring around me. Jurassic Park proved to be a great book to digest while simultaneously participating in a bustling extended-family Christmas.

As a bonus to Jurassic Park’s considerable entertainment value—what’s not entertaining about a big island where dinosaurs stalk an ensemble of stock characters you either love or love to hate?—it also proves a thoughtful read. Indeed, thanks to preaching author Michael Crichton does at the outset, and copious preaching he does later through the prophetic mathematician Ian Malcolm, this book is vigorously thoughtful. It strikes a cautionary note on the risks inherent in scientific research and development. And in convincing fashion, Crichton shows how the underbelly of science is all the more troublesome thanks to capitalism and profit seeking. Plus there is no end to the big scary dinosaurs chasing people around.

If the owners of Jurassic Park were as effective at wrangling dinosaurs as Crichton is at overseeing character and theme development, this would be one boring novel. I was especially impressed with Crichton’s ability to call back motifs established earlier in the story. For example, he explores the notion that the young, human or other, have keener senses than adults. The effect is that children are catalytic elements in culture. They get things moving, they incite trends, and their behavior provides mandates for adults otherwise preoccupied with maintaining the status quo. Crichton employs this notion early on with the human children, and later comes back to it in a surprisingly touching way with the dinosaurs.

I said Crichton uses stock characters, which is not to say his characters are static. Of particular note, it is interesting to watch the degeneration of park mastermind John Hammond, specifically in his obsessive attitude toward children. A similar metamorphosis of attitude occurs as the dinosaurs become increasingly threatening. The humans begin to see the animals as ugly. Initial wonder degrades into bitterness and hatred. Crichton provides engrossing nuance like this without slowing down the story. Only in Ian Malcolm’s increasingly charismatic speechifying about chaos theory does Crichton’s storytelling begin to feel heavy-handed.

It has been many years since I visited the techno-thriller genre. Jurassic Park was a fantastic journey back into the realms of science gone awry and technology gone bad. As I said at the outset, it was a great read during the always frenzied holidays. Much of my reading was done with nieces and nephews scurrying past or during sporadic breaks from family activities. Crichton’s well-woven yarn was easy to jump in and out of without becoming superficial. Highly recommended!

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Working for Christmas

Christmas in Kentucky, 2012

Doubtless nostalgia has garnished my memories with tinsel. Still, I recall childhood Christmases being uniformly wondrous and magical. Christmas was more than a holiday. It was almost a place, a separate realm behind a magical veil. Think Narnia, Hogwarts, or Oz. Physically, yes, I was in my house or grandparents' homes. But the world was outside and separate. Concerns and troubles were elsewhere. Then I grew up.

Three days before Christmas of 1994, I transferred into Windham Maine as a 19-year-old Mormon missionary. I'd been away from home only four months and was still what fellow missionaries called "green." My mission companion, whom I'd just met the night before, was also new to the area. No one knew us. And we knew no one...including each other. Passing through the doorway of our little apartment for the first time, we immediately realized why the mission leadership had transferred us both into the area three days before Christmas.

We were replacing a pair of less-than-dutiful missionaries. They had left the apartment in disastrous condition. The bathtub contained some sort of sludge, about an inch thick. Never did figure out what it was. The other highlight was a wall into which the previous missionaries had fired scores of BBs. The icing on the cake...they left us no teaching pool of contacts. We would be starting almost from scratch. The stress mounted so fast I vomited. My companion called home that night and bawled to his family about how trapped he felt. We spent much of the two remaining days before Christmas cleaning the apartment.

Of course, we weren't alone for long. Fellow missionaries made a special trip out from nearby Portland to see how we were, providing some needed brotherly encouragement. Without having to ask around we soon had dinner invites for Christmas Eve and Day. And on our first attempt at door-to-door work, an elderly woman invited us in. Before we could make our theological pitch, she said, "I'm not interested in joining your church, but I thought you would enjoy seeing this."

She gestured into her living room toward an elaborate nativity display covering an entire table. Nostalgia bids me remember it as a miniature replica of all Bethlehem. It was probably less than that, but certainly a beautiful rendering of the tale of Jesus's birth. By Christmas Eve we were in much better spirits and the holiday began to feel as it had for me in childhood.

In the almost two decades since, I have spent multiple Christmases working and living on my own. In fact, I spent my first three Christmases as an adult this way. In 1996, working as the weekend garbage man at McKay Dee Hospital in Ogden, Utah, I had to cover both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Being a new employee, I was not even given the option to take the holiday off. I and other college-age employees were automatically scheduled to cover shifts while the full-timers enjoyed the holiday. But after two Christmases as a Mormon missionary, I had learned life does not end that first holiday when you have to work instead of celebrate.

That's not to say it is easy or fun to work on Christmas, or to spend the holiday alone. The merry aspect of Christmas is not a given. If the holiday truly was as wonderful as I remember it being in childhood, it was so because of the efforts of my parents and family. More recently, Christmases spent working have proven worthwhile when I make the most of them and, critically, when I don't try to make them all about me.

This Christmas, I am with family. We are eating and making merry in ample amounts. We are fortunate. But others are working and/or alone. Since I know at least a couple of them, that's where my thoughts have turned. Whatever your circumstances from year to year, have the merriest Christmases you can muster. And as much as possible, share the merriness you make.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Sextet of Reactions to 'Cloud Atlas'

Cloud Atlas (Movie Tie-in Edition)Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1. In Cloud Atlas, the character Robert Frobisher refers to an incomplete book he is reading as a half-finished love affair. This notion is one in a flood of fantastic insights in the novel. However, my love-affair began with the recent film adaptation. To fall in love with Cloud Atlas is to fall in love with a half-dozen storylines separated by decades and centuries. It is to find kinship among an ensemble of characters living in distinct cultures and places. As Frobisher says in the film: “My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.”

2. Unlike some, I did not find Cloud Atlas inaccessible, either on film or in print. What is cryptic about a sextet of storylines exploring the same themes: love, loss, captivity, and the quest for liberation from tyrants? As one storyline examines, what were the personal costs for past societies deeming slavery not only acceptable, but divinely sanctioned? How might analogous struggles play out today, or centuries from now? Author David Mitchell establishes explicit links between these stories, but avoids the trap of conveniently spelling everything out. It is a needy audience that requires everything to be tied off and explained. The rewards of Cloud Atlas come from realizing the tales’ unifying themes.

3. As the novel progresses, the independent storylines harmonize. A 19th century slave and a futuristic clone servant face similar perils and outright abuse, recognizing they are pawns of the rich and powerful. Other characters face analogous quandaries in their love lives and professions. Yielding sometimes happiness, sometimes tragedy, they harness philosophy and mythology while making desperate forays into intimacy. Time and again, our oh-so-human struggles are repeated and validated in bittersweet fashion. By halfway through the novel, the effect is choral.

4. We industrialized folk are not so different than those who came before. Style and slang evolve dramatically; however, the themes of humanity change little. Even as the impatient, 21st century reader in me craved stunning plot twists and clearly-defined action, my deeper self found inspiration by meandering through the appropriately convoluted chain of events. Within the multigenerational turmoil, the longings of various characters braided together and revealed their sublime universality.

5. Any of us could be characters in Cloud Atlas. For example, I may not be literally enslaved. But I live in a society where billions of dollars are wielded by a few to dictate the course of our entire culture. Any given casino owner, not especially more intelligent or ethical than me, has a far stronger say in the course of society. I declare the myth to be any belief that he sails at the top, and I float in the ignominious middle, because of some divine decree. The disparity of our stations ought naught be reduced to a single in-vogue ideology. As great storytellers know, the truth is murkier.

6. Reading the book helped me settle on a favorite character: troubled composer Robert Frobisher—a quintessential struggling artist driven on by golden opportunity, dubious choices, and prevailing circumstances. Of course, there were at least five other characters who could just as easily have become my favorite. Their stories are every bit as relevant. As Cloud Atlas depicts, there is a kinship among humans that persists across time and throughout generations. One can get lost in the nuts and bolts of this grand idea. And the novel or movie that does it justice is necessarily complex. Still, as Frobisher comes to realize in plotting his course to fulfillment: “If one will just be still, shut up, and listen—lo, behold, the world’ll sift through one’s ideas for one…”

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Earth Lights via NASA and NOAA

For all the grandeur of flying on a clear day, flying on a clear night can be mesmerizing. Thanks to space-based observation and composite imaging, the view keeps getting better and better. Far from being mere eye candy, such views help humanity save life and protect property. Our knowledge of weather, including anticipating events like Hurricane Sandy, is dependent on satellite observation.

Don't sell yourself short. Go see this image in its full-size version.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

Other images, including video and a slide show, are available here. These come via a partnership between NASA and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). They jointly operate a new satellite that makes highly sensitive nighttime observations of our planet's surface and atmosphere. The mission is called the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). The goal is learning more about long-term climate change as well as short-term weather phenomena.

Monday, December 3, 2012

'The Widening Gyre' of Batman Lore

Batman: The Widening GyreBatman: The Widening Gyre by Kevin Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With Batman: The Widening Gyre, Kevin Smith makes up for the ordinariness of his first Dark Knight work: Cacophony . This six-parter has a richness of character and theme that you often don't get from comic books, or from Kevin Smith for that matter. As an avid fan of his film work (most of it), I find Smith’s storytelling strongest when it stems from his personal experience (Clerks, Dogma, and Chasing Amy). In The Widening Gyre, I found this narrative strength emanating from some great scenes with Dick Grayson, formerly Robin and currently Nightwing.

Through slow boil plot construction, and evocative artwork, The Widening Gyre explores a mature, but past the pinnacle, superhero who is struggling to balance life in and out of the costume. There is plenty of action. The threat of violence, with its inevitable suspense value, kept me engaged. Only the love story between Bruce and Silver St. Cloud seemed distractingly clunky at times. Though thanks to Walt Flanagan and the art team, it’s easy to see why Bruce finds her so irresistible.

Still, where the story really grabs me is in the thoughtful look at Batman’s often turbulent collaborations with his various Robins. For me, the most absurd part of the Batman universe has always been Robin—specifically the notion of dressing a teenage boy in bright skimpy clothing and asking him to dodge bullets. By having a world-wise Nightwing take jibes at his former mentor’s behavior, Smith deftly explores the questionable nature of Batman’s use of pubescent sidekicks. With the possible exception of A Death in the Family , this may be the most I’ve ever enjoyed the inclusion of a Robin-focused subplot.

I won’t try to suggest this is a Batman classic. Still, I found it a deeply satisfying addition to caped crusader lore. Be aware that, a la Smith fashion, there is a deliberate crudeness present in the storytelling. The Widening Gyre is violent and sexual in a direct and often wanton way. I don’t mention that as a criticism, just as a heads up.

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