Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies (1988)

Should I ever become rich and famous (insert laughter here), this is one of the many posts some readers might wish to use against me for the purposes of blackmail. Not that I’d ever want to become famous. Rich? Sure. Famous? No. My delusions of grandeur, pretentions, confessions, and other miscellaneous mischief are here for your exploitation. I sue for your discretion, since I evidently have none. The content heretofore and following hereinafter is grist for your personal mill.

My avocation, as you might’ve guessed, is writing. It doesn’t pay the rent, but it keeps me sane. Fiction, excessively lengthy philosophical correspondence with flaky friends, grocery and To Do lists, this blog, angry letters to manufacturers of faulty merchandise, ransom notes – I enjoy it all. 

My vocation, on the other hand, the job I do to keep the lights on, without getting specific, involves traveling a good deal. Initially, I did this in silence. Well, apart from the roar of the tires against the highway or the purr of the air conditioning. Eventually, though, I decided to dust off the three CD cases I’d stored in my closet twenty years ago and select a handful of plastic disks for the daily needful.

I’m not ashamed to note my stellar tastes in music. They’re both impressive and diverse, and, yes, I do say so myself. My interests began shortly before I was caught slapping Lincoln Logs on my mother’s dining room chairs at the ripe ole age of 12. I’m told I conducted imaginary symphonies from the privacy of my parent’s den around the same time. I was only 15 when I joined a professional rock band of 20 something year-olds. So I’m not just a fan of the medium, I’ve participated in the profession – playing drums, guitar, writing songs, and performing for audiences. I never made enough to pay the rent, of course, but I went so far as to study music in college with the naïve notion that I could make a living at it. I’m by no means a connoisseur, but a certain independence from peer pressure, pop culture, and bad taste allows me to hold my chin high while the tone deaf blare hip hop from their low riders.  

Still, like any other fashion, looking back at yesterday’s tastes are, or should be, a source of embarrassment for anyone making strides to better oneself. I bear no indignity admitting my love for much of the Baroque, classical, and romantic European music of the seventeenth and eighteenth century I possess and genuinely enjoy. The operas, symphonies, and concertos of the masters deserve repeated listens, and I’m here to oblige, despite the nasty looks I get from society. I get goosebumps and sometimes even shed a tear throughout some musical passages. But never mind that. I’m a manly man. Can’t stress that enough.

After cycling through everything in my CD collection from Bach to Verdi, not to mention the great body of work from the classical guitar masters Fernando Sor, Carcassi, Giuliani, and others, I sampled from my old jazz purchases, too, stuff I’d bought before the days of Pandora and Spotify. Old, poorly remastered Louis Armstrong and The Hot Fives, delightful Pat Metheny and Jim Hall, thrilling Wes Montgomery (still one of my favs), and a few more obscure jazz artists of a bygone era.

Sure. Like anyone else, I’ve got those Guilty Pleasure collections that serve as a sort of tell-all about a given guitar player’s influences: Kansas, Kate Bush, The Police, Sting, U2, Sheryl Crow, King Crimson, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Eric Johnson, much of which, admittedly, I’ve outgrown. Then there’s the collection I refer to as What-Was-I-Thinking? Crash Test Dummies, Yellow Flag, The Art of Noise, Alanis Morissette, and Third Eye Blind. Okay, so I’m susceptible to peer pressure after all.

Within the course of a few weeks on my job driving, I went through most of the 120 musical CDs I own. Many of these, as mentioned, I could’ve done without having heard again, much like I can do without looking at old photos of myself wearing what I’d never be caught dead in today. In short, my musical interests have changed. Part of this is due to the advent of electronic delivery. Thanks to services like Youtube and Pandora, for example, I’ve been exposed to a musical menagerie I wouldn’t have otherwise heard. This is a good thing, especially since I love to experience new things, preferably without the benefit of a crowd.

Thirty years ago, I used to check out vinyl records from my public library. That’s how I got exposed to Mozart’s brilliant collection of concertos, among other musical delights. The public library’s CD collection isn’t enormous, but as collections free to public access go, it’s more than ample. It was only after I’d selected a handful of CDs – Beatles for Sale (the band’s fourth studio album), Bing Crosby’s It’s Easy to Remember, and Big Band Era Vol. 1 with Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and others – that I learned patrons can check out 15 CDs at a time.

While there, I returned an overdue volume entitled The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies. This is book three of the Cornish Trilogy. It so happens my friend Brad introduced me to Davies over 20 years ago with book two of this trilogy, What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), see blog. I was instantly impressed with Davies’ masterful style and would later read The Salterton Trilogy: Tempest-Tost (1951), Leaven of Malice (1954), A Mixture of Frailties (1958). Davies is a rare breed. His stories entertain while providing real depth of vision and memorable characters. He always has something to say, but this never gets in the way of the story. The result is a satisfying, engrossing read that manages to touch both your heart and your mind. He’s one of my favorites – up there with Nabokov, Salinger, Twain, Dickens, and Wodehouse. Five out of five stars. PG-13

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, by Robert Barron (2011)

I stumbled on Bishop Robert Barron on Youtube nearly five years ago, back when he was still a Father. As a writer, I was impressed with his knowledge and insight about story and its function. I was also encouraged by his educated commentary and articulate style. I subsequently watched several more videos in which he talked about the Bible, Christianity, and Catholicism. Thanks to his clarifications, I soon discovered that much of what I’d been told about Catholicism as a practicing protestant was either misleading or untrue.

Several months later I attended my first Catholic service here in town. I enjoyed the service, despite my ignorance of its rituals, and came away sobered by its grandeur and somber tone. The entire experience humbled me. And this, oddly enough, is what appealed to me most.

As a protestant teen attending an Assembly of God church (which, incidentally, has its roots in the Pentecostal tradition of the early 20th century), emphasis was placed on baptism of the Holy Spirit. This is a separate thing from traditional Baptism, and it made for some overly sensationalized interpretations of Christianity. Services were more free form than structural, involving dancing in the aisles, jumping up and down, and the shaking of tambourines. This high strung, emotional aspect – abrupt outbursts by church members speaking in tongues and others providing subsequent interpretations or announcements of what those tongues meant – struck me as disorienting and bizarre. It was my parents’ church, my mother’s in particular, and I never really felt at home.

To make matters worse, in the vein of what some today term the Prosperity Gospel, popularized by such famous millionaires as Joel Olsteen, our preacher portrayed God as a kind of Father Christmas, granting favors and blessings to the pious. Evidently, one’s arrangement with God was characterized as a sort of quid pro quo. The more devout the believer, the greater the odds of financial success. Taken to its extreme, this tends to reduce the purpose of following Christ to a material rewards system. Even as an ignorant teen, this struck me as a perversion of Christianity. Christ’s apostles suffered hardship, trials. Somehow, despite my upbringing, I regarded Christianity as an expression of sacrifice. Through ordeals, I reasoned, one grows, presumably, not only more reliant on God but more devoted and attuned to His desires, not our own.

I acknowledge this isn’t a particularly attractive interpretation. Nor am I suggesting I lived it. But I regarded the idea as beneficial because it urged the believer to, if anything, better himself. The idea that God seeks our obedience for its own sake, our love because He loves us, our devotion because He wants what’s best for us – this is a hard sell, but it rang true for me.

At this Assembly of God church my family attended, however, I still recall several occasions in which the more modest and contrite elements of Christ’s message were supplanted by those verses that suggested we Christians are children of the King of Kings and therefore inheritors of the Kingdom of God, and that since Heaven is paved with streets of gold, we had but to ask our heavenly Father for stuff and He would oblige. This struck me as self-serving and even satirical.  

To expect God to grant our requests like a genie grants wishes caused me, over time, to question my church’s doctrine. That God is beholden to our prayers as if He were legally bound to a contract loses sight of what Christianity is all about. Yet that’s precisely what many at this church believed and taught at subsequent Bible study groups, insisting that if God doesn’t oblige, just insist. I could only imagine such a prayer. “Look here, God. This is Your Word. Luke, chapter eleven, verse nine: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’ To refuse me is to disavow Your promise. Grant my request!”

As I say, even as a teen, I found this approach presumptuous. Throwing specific lines from the Bible in God’s face was a form of arrogance I couldn’t abide. In fact, I remember wondering whatever happened to the contrite, penitent Hebrew of the Old Testament, rending his clothes, ripping out his hair by the roots, prostrating himself before God, and sprinkling ashes on his head. Where did his contrition fit into this privileged, arrogant attitude this church had adopted? This turned me off and played a part in my religious doubt and eventual atheism, which, by the way, after over a decade of practicing and reading gobs of philosophy, from Anselm to Sartre, I ultimately abandoned. After embracing Christianity again, however, I was still leery of organized religion.

While attending this Catholic service, though, I knew I needed to treat this faith more seriously. Unlike my experience in the Assembly of God church, this Catholic service, to my mind, was a far cry from the more convenient, opportunistic tone I witnessed growing up.

Another reason Catholicism appeals to me is that in my youth my family frequented a number of protestant churches, not only the Assembly of God one above, in an effort to find which one best suited them. As a result, I was dragged to services held in what sometimes were little more than rented office spaces with folding metal chairs, artificial potted plants, and makeshift podiums.

The Catholic sanctuary I entered, in contrast, gave one the impression the structure sat firmly on hallowed ground. The statue of Mother Mary, the priests in their ceremonial garb, the paintings, the sacred symbols, stained glass windows – it was as if the artisans themselves were giving glory to God through their work, the beauty and majesty of the interior staggered me. The place itself appeared to reverence God.

Examining this rich, lavish interior, where members assumed a dress and demeanor in keeping with modesty rather than those at my former churches where attendants sported pearls, cleavage, and skinny jeans, I was reminded of a line from Robertson Davies’ wonderful novel What’s Bred in the Bone.
"Catholicism has begotten much great art; Protestantism none at all."
Any faith that recognizes the Kingdom of God via humanity’s efforts to visibly represent His glory, to commend our longing in this way, is a faith worth observing. It was during this service that I knew I needed to become a Catholic. But I wanted to first educate myself about the history and creeds of the faith more fully.

I got a hefty tome called The Catechism of the Catholic Church and began to read it. I’m still reading it. It’s quite a thick volume. But I love having a guide at my disposal that thoroughly articulates the creeds of a faith, referencing the applicable scriptures and authorship to support it. A few weeks ago, I bought this little treasure, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith. After completing it, I realized I’d finally come home.

You see, I’ve always loved art. As a musician, writer, and avid reader, I was intrigued by how Bishop Barron used art, philosophy, and literature in both his Youtube videos and this book to help illustrate the Christian faith. C.S. Lewis did the same, which is one of the reasons I so love C.S. Lewis. Some of my most spiritual experiences (as well as a few religious awakenings) stem from my exposure to great works of art, music, and literature. When Bishop Barron referenced Dante, Michelangelo, Aquinas, Tolkien, just to name a few, I thought, “I’ve seen, read, and enjoyed these masters’ works, and this nod to them, this celebration of their contribution to society and, more importantly, to the glory of God, resonates with me.”  

One of the things Catholicism does that Protestantism fails to do involves taking what are essentially abstract concepts – virtue, vice, the Trinity, grace, salvation, redemption – and attaching visual representations, corresponding, tangible objects and images to them that make physical these otherwise, sometimes obscure or oblique ideas. In paintings, literary epics, sculpture, and music, we’re given a sensory glimpse of the transcendent, the divine, or to quote from my own work, beauty beyond the mortality of those who revere it. 

I neither know nor care whether the average Catholic versus the average Protestant is more well read or attuned to the wondrous nature of art and literature and how these things redound upon God’s majesty. That’s not my point. My point, rather, is that any faith celebrating the way in which artists use their talents to illuminate the faith holds a special place in my heart precisely because I identify with this effort much like, say, a cellist can appreciate the complexity of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, as much wisdom one can gain from reading the Bible, I’ve gotten just as much spiritual nourishment from the writings of the philosopher (and Catholic) Peter Kreeft, novelist (and Catholic) Graham Greene, as well as C.S. Lewis and his apologetics, to name only a few.

Another element is my love for and fascination with the saints. A few years ago, I read The Song of Bernadette, a stirring, well-written novel based on historical accounts of Bernadette of Lourdes (see blog post). From Bishop Barron’s book, I read about Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Edith Stein, and Mother Teresa. I’m not too proud to confess that in spots throughout these brief bios I was moved to tears.

We talk about great athletes, those whose performance epitomizes the human body’s grace and form. We admire great authors whose expertise with words stirs our intellects and our hearts. We admire heroes, those who show courage in the face of danger, who risk their lives for either an individual or their country. Likewise, we revere (or should) the saints, those whose self-sacrifice, self-denial, devotion to God at the cost of everything else, who minister to the needy, the hungry, the disenfranchised, whose vows demand they renounce things few of us are willing to abandon, and whose lives ultimately demonstrate the pinnacle of human goodness, charity, and love.  

I wouldn’t dare besmirch the good that protestants have accomplished over the centuries. Yet I can’t help but view Protestantism as a lesser faith, in some cases a watered-down version of Christianity, in others a distortion, providing many of the truths Catholicism recognizes, granted, but a facsimile nonetheless. On the one hand, you have a faith founded on a doctrine and a tradition of principles the priests of the Old Testament, Christ and his disciples, and Paul practiced and taught, not to mention the rich history, rituals, and beauty. On the other you have Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg door in 1517, which has resulted in over thirty-thousand denominations today, many of which are absolutely bonkers and all lacking an ultimate authority as to the veracity or legitimacy of their particular or peculiar interpretations.

Of course, I can speak only for myself. I intend to continue my autodidactic journey until I’m ready to approach a priest and declare my intentions – conversion. By then, if necessary, I’ll quote Saint Edith Stein, “Prufen-sie mich!” (“Test me!”). Highly recommended for anyone curious about reading an inspiring examination of Catholicism. Five out of five stars. 

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Third Edition, by Christopher Vogler

As a bachelor, I consider myself particularly fortunate. Blessed, even. I love women. Don’t get me wrong. But I’ve grown accustomed to a maverick’s lifestyle. Approaching 52, I’m too old for the dating scene, and I wouldn’t want to participate anyway. Why? Because I’m a fanatical writer. This means spending gobs of time alone. In solitude. I relish this. Seriously. Time to myself affords me time to write. So while isolation might be a bad word for some, for me it’s a joy. In fact, ironically, my meager vocabulary fails me when describing the elation that accompanies this lifestyle. Bliss is the only word that comes close.

How devoted am I to writing? Apart from the job I do to keep the lights on, pay my bills, save for a motorcycle, writing is my everything. I’ve gotten into trouble for turning off my phone on weekends to prevent interruption. When not expecting company, I’ve refused to go to the door when someone knocks. This alone-time affords me the meditation I require. Sorting and testing ideas, articulating my thoughts and feelings, piercing the haze of confusion, and, hopefully, through this celebration of the written word, creating something fresh, original, and inspired.

But even the best writers (which I’m not among by a long shot) require fuel for their drive. Sometimes the passion peters out and we writers need an energy boost, a word of encouragement or a motivational declaration. I find this in writing books. Books that summarize what to do and what not to do as a writer, how to achieve this or that result, when to apply this technique, and so on, is vital.

Before I began writing so many years ago, I was a musician, and I can’t help but notice a correlation. Whether it be chord encyclopedias, books outlining scale fingerings, music theory, arpeggios, and so on, I benefitted from knowledge that can’t be gained from merely listening to music or playing along to a CD. Instructional books which painstakingly teach the mechanics and techniques applied to the instrument might strike some as dry and pedantic, but if you want to build a transmission, no amount of driving will help. You’ve got to allow the mechanic to teach you how to assemble and reassemble the parts.

Understanding how various musical instruments complement one another, how rhythm, melody, and harmony creates moods, moves the listener, and affects a certain attitude, is tantamount to composing your own works. Storytelling is strikingly similar. Characters, plot, scenes, your protagonist’s motivation, drive, strengths and weaknesses, urges, desires – all of this must work together, blend to create a well-themed story that moves the reader emotionally.

When applying these tricks of the trade, adopting a certain mentality is necessary. A sincere humility to recognize and acknowledge you don’t know even half of everything will serve you well as you explore what professionals have to teach. A passion for the printed word helps too. Reading your buns off every chance you get is invaluable as well. So when my dear writer friend recommended The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, I went straight to Amazon and ordered a copy. I’m glad I did.

Early in Christopher Vogler’s career as a story analyst, before and around the time he worked in various story-making laboratories around the world, as a story consultant for Disney, 20th Century Fox, and other Hollywood studios, Vogler stumbled on The Hero of a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell and the writings of Carl Jung. Campbell, for those who might not know, evaluated popular stories and myths from around the world and discovered that they all shared a common thread, that all heroic tales and myths followed a specific formula, a way in which a hero set out on a journey, faced challenges, overcame adversity, and how those stories tended to move their audiences.

Vogler essentially capitalized on this formula, decoded its metaphors, outlined its patterns, and wrote a one-page summary for screenwriters to keep in mind when writing stories for the big screen. This one-page summary got passed from one office to the next until Hollywood execs began inquiring as to the author of this short composition and were demanding more of same.

Over time, Vogler developed this one-page summary into a book. This is the third edition of that book. And what a book it is. Christopher Vogler’s accrued knowledge and insight into storytelling is truly inspiring. In clear, enthusiastic prose, he conveys the essentials of story and its value to the audience. In fact, Vogler’s enthusiasm is contagious. He’s what you might call evangelical about conveying how these patterns affect an audience. 

Storytelling is perhaps the greatest medium for reaching the heart, moving the reader, and revealing truth. Vogler knows this. In this book, he isolates powerful themes, archetypes, and ideas so that we writers can harness this value, this power, this life force, as he calls it, of storytelling and, hopefully, move our readers. I believe this book is truly life-changing. Highly recommended. For the writer, anyway. Five out of five stars.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Beautiful People, A candid examination of a cultural phenomenon – the marriage of fashion and society in the 60’s, by Marylin Bender (1968)

The excesses of any fashion, no matter how flattering in their initial concept, bring it to ridicule and eventual disgrace. - Marylin Bender. 

This gem lay buried in the nickel bargain bin of my local used bookstore. Unlike the subtitle above, the paperback edition I read sported a different, slightly misleading subtitle: Who they are and what they really do behind the golden doors of their scandal-ridden world. Based on this less accurate description, I expected an exposé of that era’s famous celebrities, a catalogue of classic movie stars, the Jet Set and their dirty laundry, in paparazzi-like fashion. Some of that appears, but only in passing. Yes, we visit, albeit briefly, Andy Warhol, Barbra Streisand, Pierre Cardin, Truman Capote, Twiggy, Jacqueline Kennedy, et al. We’re introduced to John Weitz, Baby Jane Holzer, Eleanor Lambert, and a Vanderbilt or two, but their mention relates mostly to movements, trends, and indulgences. More attention is devoted to the history of fashion in both Europe and America during the mid-twentieth century, particularly as this history influenced American society and its identity.

I normally don’t care about fashion and its associative accessories. True, when I was 20, I was subjected to a brief interrogation by my father’s friend for sporting an earring. He was a righteous man and most likely viewed my fashion statement as a subtle nod to a homosexual lifestyle. But my friend, probably wanting to deflate his father’s questions and their portent, possibly because I was a guest in his parent’s house at the time, came to my rescue before I could form a coherent response.

Friend’s father: “Mark, do you know who first wore earrings?”

Friend: “Yeah; pirates.”

Friend’s father: “Do you know what that earring says?”

Friend: “Yes! Made in Taiwan.”

Thirty years later, the hole in my earlobe (my left; your right) has since closed, and apart from the cane I occasionally brandish, I no longer dress in a way that might draw undue attention to myself. Instead, I wear what I find comfortable. At home this means either pajama bottoms and t-shirts or warmups and house slippers. In my line of work, I have little need for formal wear. When it comes to casual wear, the only reason I tend to choose name brands over off brands is because I find those name brands last longer, which allows me to shop less frequently for replacements. So while I sport Nike and Wrangler for my job or when running errands or lunching with a friend, it’s not because I want to be associated with an athlete any more than I identify with a cowboy. In short, apart from not wanting to look like a bum, the extent of my fashion identity could be summed up in a Mark Twain quote: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”  

As a result, before breaking open this book, I knew next to nothing about Dior or Yves or Vidal Sassoon. But the writer Marylin Bender, who wrote for several years for The New York Times, is a gifted wordsmith, and I found myself impressed by her finesse in shaping what I’d considered trivial subject matter into something well stated and engaging. Plus, as a writer, I always regard reading as a sort of lecture on writing. I’ve said it before: reading even bad writing can teach you what not to do.

I’m reminded of something Sol Stein said about how good prose can draw us into a topic we’d ordinarily care nothing about by the way in which it conveys that topic. That truth hit home for me throughout this book.

Bender’s exploration of the fashion industries of the Sixties is fascinating if only because the trends and fads of that era that turned some of these behind-the-scenes artisans into household names is conveyed with authority and flair. The celebrities and politicians’ wives who put many of these designers of the haute couture world on the map by either frequenting their establishments or naming them in interviews was engrossing primarily because Bender knows how to keep an otherwise indifferent reader engaged. The magazine editors and fashion leaders who colluded to advance one another’s careers, the fundraisers, soirees, benefits, press announcements – all of it is revealed with both sass and wit.
In the Pop decade, the man who came to dinner was the hairdresser. When dinner was over, he stayed for the dancing … A comparative unknown in the coiffing hierarchy who was identified only as Mario, he had been invited to the stateliest of American summer resorts to minister to the tresses of one of Mrs. Drexel’s friends.
Fashion, a principle perpetrator of pop culture, exploits the young through an unholy alliance of merchandisers and misguided parents. But the victim is also a tyrant to the same degree that the manipulator is a puppet. The fashionable child is a prop and a consumer, a means of distraction for adults as well as of social and economic gain, an authority and a wanderer on a road without signposts.
In the Sixties, fashion designers have reached new heights of esteem. They are lionized by hostesses, ennobled by the press, admitted to the ranks of pop celebrities. Yet this fashion-drenched decade has produced only a handful of creators. Those few – on both sides of the Atlantic and at opposite ends of the American continent – have initiated the new dialogue of fashion, which no longer takes place between the haughty dressmaker and his elegant client but between the mass designer and the adventurous hordes.

Five out of five stars.

A Fish Dinner in Memison, by E.R. Eddison (1941)

Imagine watching sports primarily for the athleticism. The power, finesse, and agility of a few choice athletes doing all kinds of impre...