Monday, December 27, 2010

Another Favorite Carol

While it's still the Christmas season, here's another of my favorite carols: this one is called by many names, including "The Huron Carol," "Jesous Ahatonia," "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime," or "The Indian Christmas Carol." French Jesuit missionaries wrote this carol in the Huron and Wyandot languages, trying to explain the story of the birth of Christ to the people of these tribes in terms that would be familiar to them. The lyrics were later translated into French and much later into English. Unfortunately, I can't find the Burl Ives version that's an indelible memory of my childhood, but here's a very nice interpretation by Terry McDade and the McDades:

Here's a very different interpretation by singer Heather Dale. The English lyrics are very different from the ones I remember, but I really like the way she delivers the song in the Native American languages, French, and English, and really emphasizes the Native American feel.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Two Irish Carols

A Merry Christmas to everybody and a Happy New Year to the whole world! As anyone who reads this blog knows, I love all things Irish, Scottish, and Welsh since many of my ancestors came from that part of the world. Here are two favorite Irish Christmas carols. First up is "The Wexford Carol" performed by Alison Krauss and accompanied by Yo-Yo Ma; one of my favorite carols performed by one of my favorite singers.

Next up is "Don Oíche Úd I mBeithil ("I Sing of a Night in Bethlehem") performed by The Chieftains with Burgess Meredith. Mr. Meredith will read an English translation of the song followed by Kevin Conneff's rendition in Irish Gaelic. This is believed to be the only known example of a Christmas carol in Irish.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Veni, veni Emmanuel

Here's a little something for the end of Advent and the beginning of the Christmas season proper: a lovely setting of the ancient Advent hymn "Veni veni Emmanuel," (O Come, O Come Emmanuel) performed by the early music ensemble Con Piace. This is another example of something wonderful I just happened to find on YouTube. I gather from the decorative border around the image that this was intended to be a kind of video Christmas card—and as such I send it to you, dear readers, with this prayer: O Come, O Come Emmanuel!

Christmas Under Fire

I find YouTube endlessly fascinating. Here one can find anything and everything on video: music of all sorts, cartoons, TV shows, home movies, and more; the entertaining, the intriguing, the irritating, and the just plain weird.

It's no secret that times are hard these days and many people, including your humble blog host, are facing tough times this Christmas. But they could always be tougher. Here's a little video I found on YouTube entitled "Christmas Under Fire," released by the British Ministry of Information in 1941. The short film depicts Britons doing their best to carry on and enjoy Christmas despite nearly ceaseless Nazi air raids during the previous winter of 1940. May we all have that kind of courage to bear up under hard times!

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Brother, Can You Spare A Click?

Ah, Christmastime! Snowflakes. Mistletoe. Sleigh bells. Twinkly lights. And the real reason for the season: SHOPPING!

Just kidding. But I do have a serious reason for talking about shopping. I'll be blunt: I'm desperately short of cash at the moment. I'll be even more blunt: I'm broke. But you, dear readers, can help with that. As you can see, there are ads for and other retailers all over the site. If you are considering a Christmas purchase from Amazon or one of these other retailers, please click on the banner ads on this site before you make your purchase. Please ask all your friends, neighbors, relatives, pets, and complete strangers to do likewise. That way, I'll receive a small percentage of the purchase price, you'll get a bargain on Christmas gifts, and help generate some Christmas cheer for your humble blog host. I thank you for your support.

And now for a musical selection. Take it away, Al!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Saturday, October 09, 2010

How 'bout Them Gamecocks . . . AGAIN!!!!

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)--Steve Spurrier finally delivered South Carolina's biggest win ever.

Stephen Garcia threw three touchdown passes, two to Alshon Jeffrey, and Marcus Lattimore scored three times as the 19th-ranked Gamecocks stunned No. 1 Alabama 35-21 on Saturday.

The defending national champion Crimson Tide had won 19 straight game, including last week's 31-6 rout against Florida, since losing the Sugar Bowl after the 2008 season to Utah. The Gamecocks (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) had never beaten a No. 1 team in four previous tries.

But the Head Ball Coach, in his sixth season at South Carolina, had the players to beat Alabama using the Tide's own formula.

Garcia and Gamecocks cashed in chances when they got close to the goal line and shut down the best tailback duo in the country, making themselves a factor in the SEC title chase.

South Carolina shredded the country's top-rated scoring defense, putting up the most points on Alabama (5-1, 2-1) since a 41-34 loss to LSU in 2007. The Gamecocks scored four touchdowns when they got inside the `Bama 20--double what the Crimson Tide had allowed coming in.

Alabama's Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson were held to 64 yards on the ground as the Crimson Tide tried to rally back, as it had in beating Arkansas 24-20 two games ago, through the air.

The Crimson Tide made a charge, getting an odd safety by Garcia, a field goal and a 51-yard touchdown catch by Darius Hanks that turned a South Carolina's 21-9 lead into a 28-21 ballgame.

Alabama's last chance to tighten things came at the start of the fourth quarter when Jeffery, the SEC's leading receiver, bobbled a catch into the hands of defensive back Will Lowery for an interception.

But Greg McElroy was sacked for a 7-yard loss by Stephon Gilmore and Alabama coach Nick Saban called a fake field goal that didn't come close to working as offensive lineman Ed Stinson dropped the throw from holder A.J. McCarron.

South Carolina answered back with a 75-yard drive, ended by Lattimore's 2-yard score with 7:01 left that put the game away.

Alabama could not respond and South Carolina fans, as they had after the basketball team beat Kentucky in January and the baseball team beat Arizona State at the College World Series in June, celebrated beating the country's No. 1 team.

Lattimore finished with 93 yards. He also caught Garcia's first scoring pass, a 9-yard touchdown in the opening quarter to take the lead for good.

Garcia was a tidy 17 of 20 for 201 yards and the one interception. He also picked up a critical fourth-and-1 on the Gamecocks final scoring drive. Jeffery had seven receptions for 127 yards, including TD catches of 26 and 15 yards.

McElroy threw for a career-high 315 yards, but was sacked seven times.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Do That Funky Hand Jive!

I saw this on Mark Shea's blog today and could not stop watching it. Really amazing stuff

Suzanne Cleary and Peter Harding are world-class Irish stepdancers who became bored with the strict requirements of the form and decided to turn the genre on its ear by blending it with other styles of music and dance. Videos like this are the result. They perform under the name Up and Over It and bill themselves as "Irish Dance for the Post-Pop Generation." From the duo's website:

Acclaimed Irish Dancers Suzanne Cleary & Peter Harding blow the brains out of the Irish Dance show genre in a multi-media extravaganza. This brand new show liberates Irish Dance from its velvet-clad, tin-whistle-blowing, diddly-idleness and drags it kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. Inspired by hip-hop theatre, contemporary dance and electro-pop, Cleary and Harding present their alternative take on the Irish dance show format, asking what’s next for the 90s phenomenon we all loved or loathed?

I'm not sure I like their rather dismissive, "Oh, we're so beyond all that," attitude toward traditional Irish dance; for me, as an American who discovered Celtic culture as an adult, much of the traditional music and dance is still new and interesting. However, there's no denying their talent or the fun of this video.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Pirate's Life For Me

Arr! Avast there, ye swabs! Once again, me mates aboard the good ship S. S. Blogosphere have reminded me that today be International Talk Like A Pirate Day, it be. So break out an extra ration of grog (or the refreshing beverage of your choice) for all hands and hoist a pint on yer own poop deck! (Mind now, you'll have to clean up any resulting poop!) Now go on and enjoy yerselves before I have ye clapped in irons and keelhauled, ye scurvy dogs!

While looking for something appropriate to post for this here auspicious occasion, I came across this interesting (and slightly disturbing) video on YouTube created by some swab calling himself thirteenthman. It's the skull on the Jolly Roger singing "A Pirate's Life for Me" from the original Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. I hopes every man-jack of ye enjoys it!

After seeing that, there's only one thing I can think of to say, and that's: Arr!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Amazing Celtic Dancing Baby

I was looking for clips of Celtic music today on YouTube and I found the following item. This little guy is only five months old, and he already looks like a natural born stepdancer! He's gettin' jiggy with "Jig Party," a set of tunes by Natalie MacMaster, fiddle phenomenon from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Enjoy!

Pope In Scotland!

Happy Feast of St. Ninian, "the first apostle of Christianity in Scotland." By now, His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, has arrived in Scotland, only the second pope in history to visit Great Britain and the UK. Pope John Paul II visited England and Scotland in 1982. Below is a picture of the special papal tartan created for Benedict's visit by American tartan maker and Catholic Matthew Newsome:

From Mr. Newsome's blog:

The design incorporates white and yellow (the colors of the Vatican), white and blue (the colors of Scotland), white and red (the colors of John Henry Newman's arms, who will be beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during the visit), and green for the lichens growing on the stones at Whithorn, site of St. Ninian's church.

There are also 8 threads in the wide white line, one for each of the Catholic dioceses of Scotland, and exactly 452 threads pivot to pivot in the thread count, one for each Catholic parish in Scotland.

Judging from the comments on his blog, Mr. Newsome is already being besieged by requests for information about how to purchase neckties, scarves, kilts, and other articles of clothing in this tartan. I wouldn't mind having a tie like this myself. Och, it does m' auld Scots hairt guid tae see sic a thing!

Many people may not know this, but Scotland has a long and proud Catholic history. The document that is considered Scotland's declaration of independence, the Arbroath Declaration, is in fact a letter from a delegation of Scottish noblemen to Pope John XXII protesting English violation of Scottish sovereignty. The nobles insist that the Scots have historically been faithful sons of the Church, and that if the pope does not intercede for them and against the English, God will judge him unfavorably. Andrew Leslie, one of the signers of the Arbroath Declaration, may have been a distant ancestor of mine. Another Leslie ancestor, William, became rector of the Pontifical Scots College in Rome and wrote a family history.

Welcome to Scotland, Holy Father! Viva il papa! Lang may your lum reek! (Scottish expression meaning "Long may your chimney smoke," i.e., long life to you!)

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Pup, the Accordion Playing Dog

Yes, you read that right. Pup plays the accordion in this rendition of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." This will make your day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Ads On The Site

Well, hey there! Remember me? The guy who runs this blog? I've been away for awhile for one reason or another. Just haven't had the heart for blogging much, to be honest. I'm experiencing a bit of a cash flow problem at the moment, so after some deliberation I've decided to sign up with Google AdSense and the Amazon Affiliates program as a way of earning a buck or two, perhaps. From now on until further notice (i.e., I see if this works or not), there will be ads on the site. If you see a product or service that strikes your fancy, click on through and visit the advertiser, thereby dropping a few coins in the tin cup of your humble blog host.

Thanks for your support.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Dolphins Blow Bubbles and Blow Your Mind

Here's a cool little video I found out about via e-mail. It seems some of the dolphins at SeaWorld (in Florida, I think) have learned to blow bubbles, shape them into perfect rings, and play with them as if they were toys. They seem to do this for their own amusement and for the pleasure of tourists who watch them. What's more, the dolphins who've learned how to do this appear to be teaching the others who haven't yet mastered the trick. Fascinating stuff.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Cheezburger of Teh Day


What makes this video laugh-out-loud funny for me is the way the dog turns his head at exactly the right moment, as if to say, "Yo! Check me out! I'm drivin' the lawnmower!" Gets funnier every time I see it.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Not Just Another Cheezburger

I first saw this over at, the website that posts funny pictures and videos of cats, but this video is different. It will bring a real smile to your face, and maybe a tear to your eye. Here's some information provided by the video's original uploaders to describe what you'll see:

A cat named Oscar that had its back feet severed by a combine harvester, has been given two prosthetics in a pioneering operation.

The new feet are custom-made implants that "peg" the ankle to the foot.

They are bioengineered to mimic the way deer antler bone grows through the skin.

The operation - a world first - was carried out by Noel Fitzpatrick, a veterinary surgeon based in Surrey, UK. His work is explored in a BBC documentary called The Bionic Vet.

Just goes to show you can't keep a good kitteh down! You go, Oscar!

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Ite filia!

That's Latin for "You go, girl!" in case you were wondering.

I first read about this via Dorian Speed over at Scrutinies, and she read about it via Deacon Greg Kandra at The Deacon's Bench blog. The more I thought about this, the cooler and more worthy of a mention it seemed.

Every year, Harvard University sponsors a speech writing competition for graduating seniors. Winners get to deliver their orations to the assembled faculty and student body during Spring commencement exercises. By tradition, one speech is given in Latin, and this year's Latin winner was Mary Ann Marks of Queens, N.Y., a double major in classics and English. This fall Miss Marks will enter the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Think of it! A Harvard grad and Latin scholar chooses to serve God as a nun! Score one for our team! Here's her oration as posted on YouTube:

Here's the Latin text and English translation. She seems to be truly enjoying herself as she delivers this speech. You can see that same sense of fun in the impish smile on her face in this picture from the Harvard Gazette:

May God bless you as you pursue this vocation, Miss Marks. The Dominicans will be richer for your erudition, enthusiasm, and skill put to work for the service of the Church. Deacon Greg asked his readers how one might say, "You go, girl!" in Latin, and someone suggested "Ite filia!" I heartily agree. Salve!

Monday, July 05, 2010

David Mitchell on the "Camelopard"

Apropos of absolutely nothing, here's a very funny animated monologue from British comedian David Mitchell on the obscure word "camelopard" and "animal marketing."

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Wondering About Wonder Woman

OK, so apparently I'm the last comics fan in the blogosphere to find out about it, but The Powers That Be at DC Comics have approved a nearly complete revamping of Wonder Woman, including retroactively rewriting her origin story and established continuity (known in the biz as a "retcon") and a major redesign of her costume. The first issue featuring the "new" Wonder Woman went on sale Tuesday, June 29.

In this more or less total overhaul, the Greek gods abruptly alter time and allow Wonder Woman's birthplace, Paradise Island or Themyscira, to be destroyed when Diana is still a child. The infant Diana is smuggled into our everyday world and takes up a new life as a kind of urban vigilante and street fighter. Head writer J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame, is fairly blunt about the reason for the makeover: Sales of Wonder Woman comics are lagging far behind other DC titles, and The Powers That Be hope that WW's new look and story line will perk up interest in the book.

So far, however, the reaction among fans at comics websites I've checked seems to be largely if not overwhelmingly negative. Some like the change in story line, and some like the new costume, but most don't seem to like either one. Chris Sims, host of Chris's Invincible Super Blog, and his pals at ComicsAlliance take readers on a guided tour of Wonder Woman's costume changes through the decades, and most of the panelists give the new look a thumbs down. Here's the Wonder Woman most of us are used to seeing, as drawn by artist Karyn Lewis:

Here, once again, is the "new look" Wonder Woman:

True enough, this redesign addresses some of the complaints fans have had for years about WW's previous costume. The new get-up is certainly more practical for combat and daily wear. For the first time, Wonder Woman has pockets (not to mention pants) for all her superhero gear. However, as other fans have noted, the jacket that's supposed to make her look hip and edgy and boost her street cred just makes her look dated. I had a jacket like that in the early '90s. It was already too small when I bought it, and I quickly outgrew it. I predict Wonder Woman will likewise quickly outgrow this look.

I understand the complaints about WW's old costume. Not to be unpatriotic on Fourth of July weekend or anything, but what's an Amazon princess, a figure from Greek mythology, doing running around in a star-spangled red, white, and blue battle bikini anyway? Yes, her costume could stand to go in a new direction, but I think the look DC chose is precisely the wrong direction.

Therefore, gentle readers, I chose to take Wonder Woman in a completely different direction using the latest version of HeroMachine. I, too, have entered the Wonder Woman makeover derby. Yes, Wonder Woman should be tough, and yes, she should be sexy, but she should also be dignified and regal. She is a princess, after all; a princess from an ancient land of myth, magic, and mystery. I wanted to give her a look that was very clean and simple and neoclassical, something that suggested a toga but still left her ready to fight at a moment's notice. I wanted to portray her on her island home of Themyscira, peaceful by nature but perfectly prepared to kick bad guy trash if the occasion requires. I give you MY version of Wonder Woman:

You'll notice that apart from the red white and blue color scheme, I kept most of her other distinguishing features: jet black hair, silver bracelets, golden belt of Hippolyta, and lasso of truth. I gave her cross-laced sandals because they seemed to fit with the classical, mythological vibe I was going for. I dispensed with the tiara, mainly because HeroMachine 3 doesn't have a tiara at present, and because I always thought the tiara looked a bit silly. (As if the idea of people running around in ridiculous costumes fighting other people in ridiculous costumes isn't silly enough?) A simple circlet might look better. She's a princess but not a beauty pageant winner.

Whaddaya think? Do you (a) love it, (b) like it, (c) hate it, or (d) not really care? Do you think I have a future as a costume designer? Or have I at last snapped and revealed the truly appalling depths of my nerdiness and geekery? Feedback welcome.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

How 'bout Them Gamecocks!

From the Gamecocks Online website:

June 29, 2010

Omaha, Neb. - Whit Merrifield singled home Scott Wingo in the bottom of the 11th inning, lifting South Carolina to a 2-1 win over UCLA, clinching the National Championship for the Gamecocks.

Wingo led off the final frame with a walk, moved to second on a passed ball, advanced to third on a bunt by Evan Marzilli and scored on Merrifield single to right.

The two starting pitchers, South Carolina's Michael Roth and UCLA's Rob Rasmussen locked up in a tight duel, but neither was around to figure in the decision. Roth allowed one run on six hits over 5.0 innings, while Rasmussen scattered six hits and four walks over 6.0 scoreless frames.

UCLA broke the scoreless tie with a run in the top of the fifth. Trevor Brown led off with an infield single, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and scored on Niko Gallego's RBI single to left.

The Gamecocks finally tied the score in the bottom of eighth. Pinch-hitter Brady Thomas led off the frame with a solid single to center. Pinch-runner Robert Beary went to second on a ground out and scored when Bobby Haney's grounder ended up in right field after being misplayed by UCLA first baseman Dean Espy and eluding second baseman Cody Regis.

Matt Price (5-1) worked three scoreless innings of relief for the win.

Jackie Bradley Jr. was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. He was joined on the All-Tournament team by Christian Walker, Evan Marzilli and Brady Thomas.

The Gamecocks finish the season with a 54-16 record, while UCLA ends its campaign with a 51-17 mark.

Congratulations to the 2010 NCAA Baseball CHAMPIONS!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Ah, Technology!

As readers of this blog may be aware, I've had a lot of technical problems with my computer setup lately. However, I think I've found the perfect addition to my system that will solve all my problems: The Rockwell Automation Retro-Encabulator. All it took was this promotional video and I was sold! Take a look:

I'm glad to see they solved the bi-directional endothermic convection problem caused by the duofrabulating Jason rod adapter assembly on the earlier models, but how in the world are you going to circumvent the Wangenfurter effect created by the inverse stimulation of the cross-circulating univalves? I mean, any idiot knows that you've got to decouple the Mollenswanger's invection-reducing biphasal rotator grid before you can even begin to address the tintinnabulation produced by the open-ended polyhexic velocitator! Wake up, people. On second thought, maybe this isn't such a good idea.

(Note: Yes, all of the foregoing is a joke.)

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Friday, June 04, 2010

Pournelle, Orwell, and Heinlein on Writing and More

As readers of this blog may be aware, from time to time I dabble in the craft of fiction writing. I owe my blogging colleague KT Cat a hat tip for pointing me to this short article by science fiction author Jerry Pournelle on what it takes to become a writer. Because the original article was written in 1996, Dr. Pournelle spends a good bit of it discussing software tools to help beginning writers that are now obsolete and unavailable, or that have been incorporated into other more recent products. His general advice on the craft of writing still holds, however. For me, these are the money paragraphs:

The secret of becoming a writer is that you have to write. You have to write a lot. You also have to finish what you write, even though no one wants it yet. If you don't learn to finish your work, no one will ever want to see it. The biggest mistake new writers make is carrying around copies of unfinished work to inflict on their friends.

I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that's another story.

I usually begin a project in a great transport of enthusiasm but become bored or disenchanted with it once I see that it will take more work and more words than I anticipated to tell the story properly and bring it to a conclusion. As a result, I have a large number of unfinished fiction projects lounging around my hard drive in various states of completion. I'm great at conceiving ideas for stories and not so great at executing and following through on them. I must finish, finish, finish!

Dr. Pournelle's article includes this link to some admirably concise writing advice from George Orwell. Here are six questions every writer should ask, and six general rules to follow:

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 
  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
  1. Could I put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
One can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.  
Finally, a reader commenting on Pournelle's original article includes this link to a speech by science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein at the U. S. Naval Academy in 1973. In his address, Heinlein, a Naval Academy graduate, offers his thoughts on writing in general, science fiction writing in particular, and, appropriate to his audience, reflections on the values of courage, honor, devotion to duty, and patriotism. His remarks were later published as a guest editorial in Analog magazine. I found Heinlein's remarks on the patriotic virtues particularly appropriate, given that we have just finished celebrating Memorial Day.

Like Pournelle and Orwell, Heinlein offers a few simple rules for effective and profitable writing:
  1. First: You must write.
  2. Second: You must finish what you write.
  3. Third: You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
  4. Fourth: You must place it on the market.
  5. Fifth: You must keep it on the market until sold.

In explaining his third point, Heinlein makes a crucial distinction between ordinary, common sense editing and a wholesale, top-to-bottom rewriting that fundamentally changes the story:
The efficient way to write, as with any other work, is to do it right the first time!

I don't mean that a manuscript should not be corrected and cut. Few writers are perfect in typing, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Most of us have to go back and correct such things, and — above all — strike out surplusage and fancy talk. The manuscript then needs to be retyped—for neatness; retyping is not rewriting. Rewriting means a new approach, a basic change in form.

Don't do it!

Two other interesting points from Heinlein's remarks jumped out at me. First was his estimate that at any given time, approximately half the literate adult population thinks about writing something for publication. A much smaller percentage, however, actually takes the time and trouble to write. A still smaller fraction dares to actually submit work for publication, and an even tinier minority tries to make a living by writing. In other words, writing is something that many of us dream of doing, but few of us have the courage and gumption to actively pursue.

Second (and this was interesting to me as a person with a disability) was Heinlein's frank admission that he became a writer only because a chronic illness (pulmonary tuberculosis) ended his naval career in 1934, the depths of the Great Depression, when few jobs were available. He pointed out that he was only one of a long string of authors who had become writers only because illness or disability prevented them from pursuing more strenuous and physically demanding occupations. There has always been room for those with disabilities in the world of writing.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Up With Up!

I didn't intend for this site to become a movie review blog, honest. However, just a few days after seeing James Cameron's visually dazzling but emotionally empty opus, Avatar, I saw another film that was everything Avatar wasn't: Disney/Pixar's Up. I didn't get a chance to see Up during its theatrical run, but I heard good things about it, so I put it on my Netflix queue. When I saw the film was available in streaming format, I jumped at the chance to see it. I wasn't disappointed.

Like Avatar, Up uses state of the art visual effects and digital animation to take movie audiences to a world they've never seen before. Unlike Avatar, however, Up takes viewers along for the ride with characters they can actually care about on a journey that's fun and unpredictable, and after which, both characters and audience have actually learned something about themselves. For all their mind-blowing technical skill with animation, the Pixar gang appears to have learned a lesson that James Cameron seems to have missed: the real essentials of any movie are character and plot, just like they've always been. Without these, all the razzmatazz in the world won't make a good film. The Pixar crew nearly always manages to create good stories, and they never tell the same story twice. The story of Up is no exception.

As kids in the 1930s, shy hesitant Carl (Jeremy Leary) and brash, fearless Ellie (Elie Docter) are captivated by the newsreel exploits of adventurer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) who roams the globe in his custom-built dirigible making astonishing discoveries and bringing back rare artifacts. When Muntz is accused of fabricating the skeleton of a rare bird from Paradise Falls, a beautiful and isolated region of South America, he's drummed out of the explorers' society in disgrace. He sets off in his dirigible, vowing never to return unless he can bring back a live specimen of the bird.

In the meantime, Carl and Ellie grow up and marry, dreaming of their own shared life of adventure. Unfortunately, these dreams are never quite realized as they face life's more mundane challenges, but their years together are long and mostly happy until Ellie's passing leaves the elderly Carl (now voiced by Edward Asner) lonely and sad. A city of high rises and shopping malls grows up around his little house, and life seems to be passing him by. Rather than go to a retirement community involuntarily, however, Carl unleashes one last surprise. He's equipped his house with a steering mechanism and thousands of balloons, making the house in effect a gondola for a hot air balloon rig. He too sets off for Paradise Falls, where he and Ellie promised each other they would live one day.

Little does Carl know, however, that he has an accidental stowaway on his voyage: Russell (Jordan Nagai), a hapless but goodhearted eight-year-old, a member of a Cub Scout-like organization called the Wilderness Explorers, in search of his Assisting the Elderly badge. In spite of the curmudgeonly Carl's best efforts to get rid of him earlier, Russell happened to be on the porch when the house took off and has unwittingly set out on the adventure of a lifetime. For all his reliance on the Wilderness Explorer's handbook and GPS (which he accidentally tosses out a window), Russell has precious little real knowledge of the outdoors and must rely on Carl for help.

When the unlikely pair reaches their destination they find not only a jungle paradise but also, strangely enough, a lovably goofy dog named Dug with a collar that enables him to talk and a giant multicolored bird that Russell immediately (but erroneously) dubs Kevin. Turns out Kevin is a she, not a he, with a brood of nestlings to protect, and that she and her nestlings are specimens of the very bird Muntz had sworn to find at any cost. Dug is one of a pack of talking dogs belonging to Muntz, who has sat for decades in his dirigible, waiting, brooding, and searching feverishly for a way into Kevin's inaccessible hiding place. Over Carl's protestations that it isn't his concern, Carl and Russell become involved in a mad scramble to defeat Muntz, keep Kevin and her brood out of his clutches, and return to civilization.

In the process, Carl and Russell bond, grow, and change. Russell learns that there's more to a life of adventure than reading about it in a handbook and earning merit badges. Carl, for his part learns that however much he treasures his memories of the past, he can't live in it forever. At one point he decides he's through with adventuring and will sit quietly in the house with his memories and mementos. As he's leafing through the photo album Ellie called her "adventure book," he comes upon the last photo of the couple together and a note from Ellie: "Thanks for all the adventures," it reads, "now go have a new one." Shortly thereafter, in order to get the house airborne again, Carl has to jettison the furniture, mementos, and odds and ends he's cluttered the house with for years. Ultimately, he has to part with the house itself. He may love the past but in order to survive in the present, he can't allow it to weigh him down.

While letting go of his past, however, Carl also learns that he doesn't have to face an empty future. In Carl, Russell finds the father and grandfather figure he wants so desperately, and in Russell Carl finds the son and grandson he was never able to have with Ellie.

One of the many things that impressed me about this movie was its understated approach to storytelling. For all the outstanding visual work in this movie, and in contrast to Cameron's ham-handed style in Avatar, the approach to narrative in Up is relatively and refreshingly subtle. Much is revealed in a brief, well-staged scene or a few well chosen lines of dialogue. The silent montage, accompanied only by background music, showing Carl and Ellie's life together, perfectly encapsulates the mixture of joy and sorrow that any married couple might experience. The brief but sensitively handled scenes revealing that Carl and Ellie cannot have children of their own and revealing Ellie's final illness will leave a genuine lump in the viewer's throat.

Later in the movie, Russell reveals that he doesn't have the relationship with his father he once did. "I call him, but Phyllis says I shouldn't bug him so much," Russell says.

"You call your mother by her first name?" Carl asks incredulously.

"Phyllis isn't my Mom," Russell says, embarrassed.

"Oh," Carl says, equally embarrassed.

What is obvious has been left unsaid. Russell's parents are divorced, his dad has remarried, and now he can't make time for his own son. Up is a movie that doesn't pander to viewers, respecting our minds while it tugs at our heartstrings. If there were more movies around like it,I might go to the movies more often; I might be up for more movies.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cheezburger of the Day

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Does he study his CAT-echism?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Our Lady of Fatima . . .

Pray for us.

 The new statue of Our Lady of Fatima, centerpiece of my parish's new Rosary and Meditation Garden, funded through the generosity of an anonymous donor. Thank you!

I've Finally Seen Avatar. Big Whoop.

In case I wanted to watch a movie while recuperating from my aforementioned colonoscopy, my sister and brother-in-law, who brought me home from the hospital on Friday, let me borrow their DVD copy of Avatar. Their daughter, my niece, absolutely loved the movie and bought a copy as soon as it became available. Neither of her parents, however, were particularly impressed with the film but thought I might enjoy some nice brainless entertainment during my recovery. Avatar is about as brainless as it gets. The film succeeds brilliantly at using visual effects to create a gorgeous piece of eye candy and an alien world that looks and feels truly alien. It fails miserably at pretty much everything else that makes a movie worth watching: creating interesting, multidimensional characters, exploring complex ideas, or constructing a plot that has an ounce of suspense or any real surprises.

Left paralyzed from the waist down by an injury, Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) ships out to the planet Pandora, where a greedy, soulless, nameless corporation (represented by a smarmy corporate executive played by Giovanni Ribisi) is busily plundering the jungle paradise for a rare mineral called "unobtainium." (Get it? Ah, you're a subtle one, James Cameron). We're never told what unobtainium is used for or what makes it so valuable, only that it fetches $20 million dollars a kilogram. The corporation needs Marines to provide security because the natives, the blue-skinned, catlike humanoids called the Na'vi, are fighting back to protect their planet.

Pandora's atmosphere, however, is toxic to humans, so Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her colleagues have created the Avatar program, in which humans can link their minds to genetically engineered Na'vi bodies in order to interact with the locals. Jake is recruited into the Avatar program and given the task of winning the trust of a clan of Na'vi and persuading them to relocate their village, which just happens to be atop the largest deposit of unobtainium on the planet. If the Na'vi won't move voluntarily, a detachment of Marines with gunships and heavy weapons under the command of the brutish Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is willing and all too eager to remove them by force.

On his first day in the field with his new Na'vi body, however, Jake becomes separated from Dr. Augustine and her companions and loses most of his survival gear. He's rescued by the beautiful princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the chieftain of the Na'vi clan Jake is supposed to approach. On her father's orders and against her own wishes, Neytiri begins teaching Jake the ways of the Na'vi.

The Na'vi are a Flower Child's dream come true. They wear minimal clothing, hunt only with bows and arrows, and thank the animals they hunt for surrendering their life force before killing them. They have a tendril-like object on the back of their heads that allows them to connect with a similar tendril on other animals and communicate with them telepathically. They prattle on about "the energy fields that connect all living things." Their deity, Eywa, is the planet itself, the sum total of every living thing on Pandora, and their most sacred site is a giant tree that enables them to hear the voices of their ancestors.

After several months of almost total immersion in Na'vi culture, Jake predictably "goes native" and falls in love with Neytiri, a development the audience can see coming from only about 50 miles away. The corporation, however, moves forcibly against Neytiri's village before Jake can negotiate its voluntary relocation. Horrified by this betrayal and the brutality of the attack, Jake organizes an army of Na'vi to mount a last-ditch stand against the human invaders.

Guess how the rebellion turns out. Of Of course the Na'vi defeat the humans thanks to Jake's courageous and inspired leadership, of course the villainous Quaritch is finally defeated in pitched battle, and of course Jake and Neytiri live happily ever after on Pandora, with Jake finally having the opportunity through a mystical ritual to become a Na'vi—not just a human mind controlling a Na'vi body, but a real live, honest-to-Eywa Na'vi.

Obviously, the complete predictability of the plot was one of the many things about this movie that really annoyed me. Except for the mind-blowing visuals, we've all seen every bit of this movie before. The soulless, rapacious corporations, and their soulless, rapacious corporate executives come straight out of previous leftist diatribes such as Wall Street. The trigger-happy, testosterone-fueled Marines, totally uninterested in the world around them and concerned only with what they can kill, are stolen from films such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now. The alien separated from his comrades and lost in an alien world meme goes at least as far back as Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and at least as far forward as E. T. The white guy going native and adopting a bogus eco-spirituality motif comes almost directly from films such as A Man Called Horse and Dances with Wolves. And of course, the "energy fields connecting all living things," and plucky but ill-equipped band of rebels standing up to a corrupt empire motifs are lifted straight from the Star Wars movies. Ho-hum.

Not only is there a complete lack of originality regarding the story, but there's also a painful lack of any subtlety, ambiguity, nuance, or complexity among any of the characters. Black is black, white is white. The corporate executives, for example, are always and everywhere evil and without compassion. They cremate Jake's dead twin brother in a cardboard box and then recruit Jake for the Avatar program because Jake is a genetic duplicate of his brother and ideally suited for the program. When corporate executive Parker Selfridge (a play on "selfish?") watches the brutal destruction of a Na'vi village via live video, he experiences no shock and revulsion as his colleagues do, but calmly goes on as if nothing had happened. Quaritch watches the ruthless destruction of a Na'vi village while calmly sipping coffee. Quaritch's Marines, to a man, are not portrayed as ordinary young men suddenly thrust into a strange and hostile environment and forced to survive; instead they are almost literally transformed into mindless killing machines by their oversized, mechanized body armor. The only exception is "a wise Latina woman" helicopter pilot who switches sides and fights for the Na'vi.

If the corporate executives and Marines are all darkness, the Na'vi are all light. They are peaceful and wise and spiritual and playful, in harmony with their ancestors and with every living thing on the planet. They are matriarchal where the nasty humans are patriarchal; veritable exemplars of fashionable, leftist, suitably vague New Age spirituality.

My brother-in-law remarked that he had heard or read something to the effect that James Cameron had conceived the original idea for Avatar while still in high school but only now had the resources and technology to bring his vision to the screen. If that's true, I can believe it; the story is certainly sophomoric. It reflects an adolescent disdain for established authority and a childishly absolute refusal to even consider the possibility that complex issues might require complex solutions. No reasonable person would argue that the natural environment shouldn't be protected or that humans shouldn't think very carefully about how to develop natural resources with as little damage to the environment as possible; the present BP oil rig disaster taking place in the Gulf of Mexico right now is proof of that. To argue, however, as Cameron seems to do here, that humans should reject technology, industrialization, and even their humanity and go back to some nonexistent pastoral golden age, seems to be just plain silly.

Similarly, no reasonable person would argue that the United States military doesn't have some black stains on its reputation to live down: the treatment of Native Americans during the 19th century, the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, and the outrages at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, for example. To suggest, however, as Cameron seems to do, that nearly everyone who serves in the military is a thug, a sadist, and a killer is an insult to the thousands of men and women who serve honorably in the military and put themselves at considerable personal risk to protect our country and continue to ensure that goofballs like James Cameron have the freedom to make expensive but trashy movies.

No, for all its eye-popping razzmatazz, this movie seems like nothing more than a laundry list of leftist gripes against capitalism, the United States in general, and the U.S. military in particular. Just think of what this movie could have been if James Cameron had bothered to craft a story and characters worthy of the amazing technology used to make the film's special effects.

Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego, Waldo Niall Mor?

You may have noticed, dear readers, (all three of you) that I have been away from this blog for several weeks. There are good reasons for this, namely:

  1. Technical reasons. As you may remember from previous posts, recently I've been beset with technical problems: a logic board failure, a failure of my wireless keyboard and mouse, and an infestation of viruses and spyware, despite having what I thought was good anti-virus and security software. It took several days to find satisfactory replacement software, get it installed correctly, and get the computer more or less debugged and working properly.
  2. Church-related reasons. As you may also recall, I'm president of my parish's praesidium (local chapter) of The Legion of Mary. Now is the time of year when our praesidium had to make its annual report to the Curia (the next level up in the Legion's organization) about everything we've been up to during the past year. Organization and record keeping, however, aren't my strong suits, so what should have been a fairly simple task turned into a mad scramble for information. Imagine doing all this whilst and at the same time trying to participate in a novena to Our Lady of Fatima called for by the pastor who really wanted—you guessed it—The Legion of Mary to be present each night of the novena. The climax of the celebration was the dedication of the parish's new Rosary and Meditation Garden and statue of Our Lady of Fatima, with a special Mass celebrated by His Excellency, The Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, Bishop of The Diocese of Charleston, SC. It was a BIG DEAL. 
  3. Medical reasons.  About a week ago, I began bleeding from my backside, a part of the anatomy from which no one should ever bleed. Because this wasn't the first time this had happened, my doctor became concerned and ordered me into the hospital for a colonoscopy. After two days on a clear liquid diet, several rounds of laxatives, two enemas, and much poking and prodding in places humans were not meant to be poked and prodded, it was determined that the problem was a simple case of hemorrhoids. Even though all of this was unexpected and immensely inconvenient, I don't regret it for a minute. Finding out you don't have colon cancer brightens your day immeasurably.  Deo gratias!
So. How are you?

    Saturday, May 01, 2010

    . . . And We're Back . . . Again

    I think.

    Ah, technology. It's grand when it works, but a witch when it doesn't. My computer rig consists of a laptop, a docking station, and a wireless keyboard and mouse. Just a few days after getting my laptop back from tech support, my wireless keyboard and mouse mysteriously stopped working. I checked for viruses and spyware, which I found in plenty (Gee thanks, ZoneAlarm!), and I consulted my brother the techno-geek, but nothing I did seemed to help the problem. I called tech support, and the ever-so-helpful tech support person swore on a stack that the best solution was to purchase a shiny new wireless keyboard and mouse combo. Fifty bucks and several days later, I now have one. It seems to be working. For the moment. Grrr. Yes, HP. I'm looking in your direction.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010

    "Put Not Your Trust in Princes"

    Gordon Brown has a problem.

    In an effort to show that he's just a regular bloke and a man of the people, the British Prime Minister, who just happens to be up for re-election this year, went to a carefully staged photo-op with an average British voter, a woman who proudly proclaimed that she, her father, and her grandfather had voted for Brown's Labor Party all their lives. When the woman had the temerity to make a comment about Eastern European immigrants to Britain, Brown was all smiles and gave her a carefully neutral politician's answer in public, but in private, unaware that his TV mic was still on, gave a completely different opinion of her and her views:

    Brown was immediately called out on his remarks and issued a personal apology with lots of backing and filling, but you have to wonder what the long term consequences for his political career will be. You also have to wonder, if this is what he thinks of his supporters and the people who are likely to vote for him, what does he think of his political opponents?

    Unfortunately, this kind of contempt for the people one claims to represent is not an exclusively British phenomenon. Remember candidate Obama's famous remark about bitter voters clinging to guns and religion?

    Or this, from Indiana congressman Baron Hill during a "Town Hall Meeting" on the health care reform bill:

    The arrogance of this guy is breathtaking:

    "This is my town hall meeting, and I set the rules."

    In other words, O measly and pathetic voter who elected me and might vote for me again if I don't act like a jerk, I have graciously deigned to descend from my Olympian heights and speak with you, but only on my terms.

    "Usually, the films that are done end up on YouTube in a compromising position."

    In other words, if I allow people to film this, they might see what a jackass I really am.

    Are you beginning to sense a pattern here? Are you beginning to suspect that maybe, just maybe, the people who run things don't care about you as much as they say they do? Gosh darn it, it's enough to make one skeptical about politics, politicians, and "change we can believe in," isn't it?

    "Praise the Lord, O my soul, in my life I will praise the Lord: I will sing to my God as long as I shall be. Put not your trust in princes: In the children of men, in whom there is no salvation." (Ps.145:2-3, Douay-Rheims Version; Ps. 146, other versions).

    Thursday, April 22, 2010

    Now That My Computer's Fixed . . .

    funny pictures of cats with captions
    see more Lolcats and funny pictures

    . . . And We're Back

    Let a Te Deum be offered, let bells be rung, let psalms be sung, let incense be lit, let solemn masses of thanksgiving be celebrated.

    After several uncomfortable, computerless days, It's All Straw is back in business, baby—ahead of schedule, too.

    The ominous, potentially catastrophic computer problems I mentioned in my last post reappeared after a couple of days absence, dashing my hopes that the snowy screen problem was a minor glitch. I decided the prudent thing to do was to send the computer off for maintenance and repair. The FedEx guy came about noon last Friday, and from that moment until earlier this afternoon, I was without a computer. No word processing, no e-mail, no web surfing, no podcasts, no nothing.

    I listened to music, I watched TV, I prayed, and I stared longingly at the place where the computer usually sits. When I called, the manufacturer's tech support people told me they had received the computer and diagnosed the problem but hadn't received an essential replacement part due to a parts shortage. They estimated they would receive the part, and that I would receive the computer by April 27. Clearly, heroic virtue was called for. I steeled myself for a long wait and possible withdrawal symptoms.

    Yet after griping to all and sundry about my ordeal, I heard a fateful knock at my door just after lunchtime this afternoon. On the other side of the door was a FedEx man with a very large package. My baby is home. My files appear to be intact. All is right with the world. God is good—all the time.

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    Technical Difficulties . . .

    Please Stand By

    It looks, dear readers, as if I might have to go offline for about the next two weeks. Last night the monitor on my laptop started flickering as if it were caught in a snowstorm or were a TV getting bad reception with a rabbit ears antenna. I called the manufacturer's tech support number, and they said it sounds like a problem with either the computer's LCD or the motherboard. I'm using an old desktop monitor as a workaround until a box from FedEx arrives for me to ship the laptop back to the manufacturer for repairs. Prayers to the patron saints of computers and high technology would be appreciated.

    UPDATE: As I was typing this. the laptop screen suddenly cleared, just as suddenly as it started snowing up last night. It's a miracle! :) Should I still send the unit back to the manufacturer for maintenance? If I could avoid it, that would save me a heck of a lot of money. Just to be on the safe side, I'm backing up critical files. Stay tuned.

    Friday, April 09, 2010

    Two Cool New Comics Sites

    As you may have noticed, dear readers, I'm a fan of comics. I try to keep my eyes peeled for really cool comics related sites. Here are two of my recent discoveries.

    First up is Digital Comic Museum, an online repository of downloadable, scanned versions of comic books from the Golden Age of Comics, the 1940s and '50s. The site is a successor to the "Golden Age Comics" site that was down more often than not and plagued with technical problems. The new site has been significantly redesigned and appears to be working smoothly. Simply create a user name and password, log in, and start downloading issues from the days when comic books were really comic books. Check the site's FAQ list and message boards for links to free reader software for viewing the comics you've downloaded. You can also chat with other fans and collectors on the forums and upload your own vintage comics. You won't find Action Comics #1 (Superman's first appearance), but you will find comics from many lesser known and defunct publishers in every conceivable genre: superhero, adventure, Western, detective, horror, romance, juvenile, and more. The Ace Comics titles "Atomic War" and "World War III," for example, play on Cold War era fears of a nuclear sneak attack on America by the Soviet Union. In today's cynical, ironic, detached pop culture, the deadly earnest, gee whiz writing style of these comics may come across as campy and unintentionally hilarious, but it's all part of the fun. Many issues come complete with ads for impossible products (for only 25 cents and three boxtops! Get yours today!) and pulp short stories as filler. Whatever your taste in comics, you should find something entertaining here.

    My other recent find is Project: Rooftop, a blog run by a team of comics writers, illustrators, and fans who are constantly re-imagining and redesigning the costumes of famous (and not so famous) superheroes from yesterday and today. The blog accepts submissions from both professional artists and fans, and the artwork, in a wide variety of styles and approaches, is sometimes stunning and always entertaining. Each week of posts at Project: Rooftop has a theme, and this week it's Kate Kane, aka Batwoman, from DC Comics. In the immortal words of Mark Shea, "Check thou it out."

    It's Time To Play . . .

    Spot the Star Trek Reference!

    moar funny pictures

    Monday, April 05, 2010

    He Is Risen!

    Better late than never! I want to wish a most joyous and blessed Easter Season to all my readers. The joy of the Resurrection of Christ is too huge to be confined to just one day.

    Unfortunately, I could not attend the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday this year as I usually do. I really missed hearing the Exsultet, the ancient, traditional chanted hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of the Resurrection. While searching YouTube for an appropriate Easter post, I came across this beautiful version of the Exsultet which is slightly different from the version most Americans are likely to hear at the Vigil Mass. It's sung by a community of English Dominicans. Enjoy, and happy Easter!

    Friday, April 02, 2010

    Good Friday

    "And at the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying: 'Eloi, Eloi, lamma sabacthani?' Which is, being interpreted, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' And some of the standers by hearing, said: 'Behold he calleth Elias.'

    And one running and filling a sponge with vinegar, and putting it upon a reed, gave him to drink, saying: 'Stay, let us see if Elias come to take him down.' And Jesus having cried out with a loud voice, gave up the ghost.  And the veil of the temple was rent in two, from the top to the bottom. And the centurion who stood over against him, seeing that crying out in this manner he had given up the ghost, said: 'Indeed this man was the son of God.'"

    (Mark 15 :34-39, Douay-Rheims Bible.)

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010

    While It's Still St. Patrick's Day . . .

    Here's a little something for your enjoyment — a video for the song "Patrick Was A Gentleman" as performed by the Wolfe Tones. Enjoy!

    St. Patrick's Day

    "And many gifts were offered to me with weeping and tears, and I offended them [the donors], and also went against the wishes of a good number of my elders; but guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others, and if I should be worthy, I am ready [to give] even my life without hesitation; and most willingly for His name. And I choose to devote it to him even unto death, if God grant it to me."

    from The Confession of St. Patrick

    Friday, March 05, 2010

    Comment Moderation Enabled

    I've received some rather unpleasant comment spam lately, so I've enabled comment moderation. This means I have to approve comments before they appear on the blog. If your comment does not immediately appear, fear not. It does not necessarily mean I don't like you. Most likely it means that I, your blog administrator, have not yet checked the comments waiting to be published. I regret this step, but it seems to be necessary. There are some real jerks out there.

    Thursday, March 04, 2010

    Because I've Been Feeling Very Scottish Lately . . .

    I created this version of a Highland Dancer with HeroMachine v. 3.0.

    Here also is a poem about a Scottish lass by William Wordsworth. (Not a bad poem, even if he was a stuffy English git).

    The Solitary Reaper

    BEHOLD her, single in the field,
    Yon solitary Highland Lass!
    Reaping and singing by herself;
    Stop here, or gently pass!
    Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
    And sings a melancholy strain;
    O listen! for the Vale profound
    Is overflowing with the sound.

    No Nightingale did ever chaunt
    More welcome notes to weary bands
    Of travellers in some shady haunt,
    Among Arabian sands:
    A voice so thrilling ne'er was heard
    In spring-time from the Cuckoo-bird,
    Breaking the silence of the seas
    Among the farthest Hebrides.

    Will no one tell me what she sings?—
    Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
    For old, unhappy, far-off things,
    And battles long ago:
    Or is it some more humble lay,
    Familiar matter of to-day?
    Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
    That has been, and may be again?

    Whate'er the theme, the Maiden sang
    As if her song could have no ending;
    I saw her singing at her work,
    And o'er the sickle bending;—
    I listen'd, motionless and still;
    And, as I mounted up the hill,
    The music in my heart I bore,
    Long after it was heard no more.

    Hat tip for the text of "The Solitary Reaper" to

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Celts, Pagans, and Superheroes, Oh My!

    A few entries ago, I told you about my idea for the Celtic League of Superheroes, a team of costumed crime-fighters originating in the Celtic countries and saving the world from various nasties found in Celtic mythology and folklore. It seems I'm not the only one to think of such a thing, because now Pendant Audio. is producing its own original Celtic-themed superhero show, “Genesis Avalon” that has a good many similarities to my Celtic League concept. What's more, in the director's commentary for the first episode, the show's creator, Kathryn Pryde, says she has the first three seasons of the show, 36 episodes, plotted and scripted. After two years, I'm still floundering around with the first draft of my main character's origin story.

    I didn't listen to the first few episodes of "Genesis Avalon," first of all, because I didn't want them to influence my development of the Celtic League of Superheroes concept. I reconsidered my decision because I decided I needed to see how others are developing similar material. After all, if you're developing a product, you have to know what the competition is up to. The second reason I chose not to listen to the show, however, was that I feared it would devolve into what was essentially a commercial for neo-paganism and its contemporary incarnations such as Wicca—something that, as an author, a practicing Catholic, and a person of Celtic ancestry, I did not want to happen with my Celtic League concept.

    Let me make two things perfectly clear. First, I love Pendant Audio. I listen regularly to many of their shows, especially the "fanfic" type shows based on DC Comics characters, and wouldn't have known about Genesis Avalon at all if I didn't. They are an extremely talented group of people who do a lot of hard work of very high quality solely because they love it.

    Second, I realize that there have been elements of mythology, mysticism, magic, and mumbo-jumbo in superhero comics probably ever since Billy Batson learned to say "Shazam!" and become Captain Marvel. That, in and of itself, does not bother me. What bothers me, both as a Celt and a Catholic, is that certain modern neo-pagan occultists have appropriated names and terms from Celtic mythology and folklore (including the word "Celt" itself) to fabricate a modern religion for themselves and to promote that religion and its ideology—a religion and ideology that are directly and deliberately opposed to my Catholic faith.

    My original nickname or handle when I first ventured out onto the internet via AOL was MrCelt ("Mr. Celt"). My user profile listed Catholicism as one of my interests. I was told by some grossly misinformed person in a chatroom, "You can't be a Celt and be a Christian." I am wearing a Celtic cross around my neck that says otherwise. Irish, Scottish, and Welsh converts to Christianity brought the gospel to much of the rest of Europe, thank you very much, founding churches, monasteries, and schools that are in existence to this day. I daresay that millions of Celtic Christians in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales today, both Catholic and Protestant, would also disagree with that statement. I resent the fact that the mythology and culture of my ancestral countries is being used to promote an agenda contrary to my faith, which once brought there, took deep root in those ancestral countries.

    It's not hard for me to wonder if there's an agenda behind "Genesis Avalon." The pilot episode begins with a prayer to “The Goddess” (to which goddess I’m not sure) and, six episodes in, there have already been numerous direct references to Wicca, and rituals of “The Craft.” The story begins when a young woman finds a mysterious amulet that enables her to become the superhero Avalon, endowed with the powers of the ancient Celtic gods. She invokes these powers by speaking the names of the gods aloud. That in itself wouldn't bother me so much if the protagonist and other characters didn't toss the name of Jesus around as if it were a garden variety interjection, a curse, or an insult. I realize that in real life and in fiction, people can and do say the name of Jesus in vain. Regrettably I've done it myself on more than a few occasions. However, in a work of fiction, when characters speak the names of pagan gods and receive or invoke great power, and then utter the name of Christ with little or no result, you can't help wondering if this betrays the author's bias.

    I realize much of what I've just said may sound like so much sour grapes because an author has successfully developed a concept similar to mine, while so far I've failed miserably to develop my own work. The folks behind "Genesis Avalon" may not have any agenda beyond the desire to tell a good story. Judged purely as an action adventure or a work of audio drama, the show isn't bad, and it may be possible to take all the New Age, neo-pagan woo-woo with several grains of salt.

    Looking critically at my own work, I worried that it too could be construed as promoting a particular theological agenda, which would be the opposite of what I intended and believed, and that's perhaps one reason that the writing has gone so slowly. I wanted to borrow bits, pieces, and motifs from Celtic mythology and tell cool stories of costumed superheroes slugging it out with evil druids on the streets of Dublin (and other places), not to advocate for a false or fabricated religion. I fretted over this problem with my blog buddy D. G. D. Davidson at Sci-Fi Catholic, and he told me not to worry because, as he astutely pointed out, Christians have been borrowing from pagan mythology to tell stories for centuries.

    Will the Celtic League of Superheroes ever be anything more than a vague idea in my head? Should I listen to "Genesis Avalon" or avoid it? I don't know the answers to either one of those questions. But I'll let you know when I find the answers.

    Saturday, February 20, 2010

    This Is What Happens When You Can't Get a Song Out of Your Head . . .

    You post a video version from YouTube and start studying Scottish and Irish history.

    OK, so I've been listening to an audio podcast version of Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of high adventure, political intrigue, and skullduggery in the Scottish Highlands during the 18th century. It gets my pride in my Scottish ancestry all stirred up, which means that my pride in my Irish ancestry can't be far behind (I think I have Scottish, Irish, and Welsh family connections). I go scrambling for Irish and Scottish music videos on YouTube, start listening to lots of music in Gaelic, and start singing the song "Oro sé do bheatha bhaille" almost compulsively. The song was originally sung by Irish Jacobites, or supporters of Bonny Prince Charlie" Stuart during the 1745 uprising ("The Bold '45"), an attempt to restore the House of Stuart to the English throne. It didn't work out. The events of the Bold '45 take place just a few years before Kidnapped begins.

    Later, the Irish nationalist poet Padraig Pearse rewrote the words to the song to refer to Grace O' Malley, (also known in Irish as Granuaile) an Irish noblewoman who took up a life of seafaring and piracy to protest the English domination of Ireland. When her relatives were captured by the English, Granuaile went to London to meet with Queen Elizabeth I to negotiate for their release. According to legend, during the meeting, Granuaile sneezed, and the queen offered her a handkerchief. Granuaile took the handkerchief, used it, and threw it into the fireplace, explaining that a used handkerchief was dirty and should be thrown away. According to the social customs of the time, disposing of the handkerchief would have been a calculated insult to the queen, a symbol of defiance. The queen must have been impressed with Granuaile's pluck, however, because she granted her request, and Grace O' Malley became a national hero, a symbol of Irish pride and refusal to knuckle under to the English. The song was used as a rallying cry by the IRA during Ireland's war of independence and has been recorded by many Irish singers and musicians, ranging from The Clancy Brothers to Sinead O'Connor. This version is sung by Paul Brady, and the accompanying animation tells the life and legend of Granuaile. You'll notice the melody is very similar to "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?" and I defy you to get it out of your head once you've heard it. This video was broadcast on Irish television's all-Gaelic channel, TG4.

    Tuesday, February 16, 2010

    "Beware My Power . . ."

    In brightest day
    Or darkest night
    No evil shall escape my sight
    Let those who worship evil's might
    Beware my power . . . GREEN LANTERN'S LIGHT!

    Hey everybody! Happy Mardi Gras! Because nothing says "Mardi Gras" and "Last chance to blow it out before Lent begins" like costumed superheroes, I give you my latest super team: Green Lantern Corps, The New Recruits. Except for John Stewart, I made them up on the spur of the moment last night (Please don't sue me, DC!) As usual, click on the image to see a larger version. Also as usual, I used HeroMachine v. 2.5, HeroMachine v. 3.0, and Paint.NET 3.5.3 to create the images. I like the idea of a band of costumed interplanetary do-gooders, and I like the way the GLC uses just three colors (green, black, and white) to produce nearly endless variations in the Green Lantern costume. Anyway, enjoy, and leave feedback.

    Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps, ©DC Comics.

    Saturday, February 13, 2010

    The All-American Family

    Once upon a time, in an alternate reality, the superheroine Lady Liberty, the leader of the Liberty Legion, married Freedom Fighter, commander of the Freedom Force. They produced a plethora of patriotic, powered progeny, a sensational series of super siblings. Here's a candid shot of the happy family at home: Mom, Dad, and the kids! Click on the image to see a larger version of it. Please enjoy and feel free to submit feedback.

    Images created with HeroMachine v. 3.0, Shakti Warriors, and Paint.NET v. 3.5.3.