Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Gabbing About Gaiman's Graveyard: The Platypus Reads Part XCIX

I grew up surrounded by graveyards.  They intrigued me by day and creeped me out by night.  Some of them had witches, some of them had apostates, not a few had a charnel house, and a few had ghost-stories. I've also liked Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" since seventh grade.  With that in my background, you'd figure I'd have picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book" sooner.  Fortunately, a friend gave me a copy for my birthday and I've just finished reading it.  I can see why Gaiman took away the Newbury medal for this piece of work.  It is a compact and delightful retelling of "The Jungle Book" that seamlessly blends its source material into the dark and weird world of Gaiman's fiction.  The characters are well-drawn and compelling and the story unfolds at just the right pace.  Though the main character is a child, there is nothing childish about the work.  Each sentence is the work of a mature author at the height of his career.  If you haven't read it yet, this is well worth the read.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Magician's Nephew: Whiteboard Platypus

* All Images Copyright James R. Harrington 2011

The Platypus' Directorial Debut

I had my directorial debut this year as a drama teacher.  The play we chose to do was Aurand Harris' adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Magician's Nephew."   It was well received by the school community.  While pictures are pending, here is the director's note that I whipped together (last minute) for the program.  (nota bene: I am heavily indebted to Dr. John Mark Reynold's lecture on the Magician's Nephew for the Torrey Honors institute for pointing out that "The Magician's Nephew" revolves around our response to pain.)

Welcome to our 2010/2011 Drama performance of C.S. Lewis' "The
Magician's Nephew."  "The Magician's Nephew" was originally meant to
be the second installment in The Chronicles of Narnia.  During
composition, however, Lewis found himself increasingly unable to
continue and thus shelved the manuscript for a number of years.  The
reason for this may be that the story was becoming too personal.  Like
the book's main character, Digory Kirk, Lewis also went through the
experience of having a mother struggle with cancer.  Unlike Digory's
mother, however, Lewis' mother died, plunging a bereft Lewis into
years of atheism.  Though Lewis, through the ministry of men like
J.R.R. Tolkien, eventually returned to the Christian faith, the death
of his mother had a lasting impact on his life and would return to
haunt him when his wife, Joy, was struck down by cancer after only a
few years of marriage.  This extremely personal struggle gives "The
Magician's Nephew" a distinct flavor from the rest of the Narnia
books.  Aslan is at his most god-like in the work, but it also
includes darker elements: a dying mother, a genocidal tyrant, and
Uncle Andrew's dabbling in the occult.  Throughout "The Magician's
Nephew," characters are forced to choose how they will respond to a
fallen world; a world in which mothers can die.  Uncle Andrew and
Queen Jadis choose to cut themselves off from others and pursue
power, thus attempting to make themselves impervious to pain.  Polly
holds on to a child-like faith in right and wrong, but this comes
easier for her as her mother isn't dying.  Digory, as the focal
character, occupies an interesting space between the other characters.
 The imminent death of his mother makes the problem of pain real to
him, but he also retains his belief in doing what's right.  This
belief is tested time and again throughout the story.  Whether it's
ringing the bell or taking the apple, Digory must choose either to
hold on to his knowledge of right and wrong or else pursue the selfish
use of power.  His crucial moment of choice comes when he must take
the apple of life that could heal his mother and surrender it to Aslan
in order to thwart Jadis' evil machinations.  In essence, Digory is
asked to trust in the goodness of a God that would let his mother die.
 Lewis provides an answer to this conundrum rooted in hard won
experience.  It is our job as an audience to determine what that
answer is and then assess its relevance for our own lives in a fallen

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part XCVIII

Summer is here in all its heat (and humidity this year!) and languor.  Thus, it is time for the return of Summer reading.  Over Finals week I was able to complete (nota bene: this was all for professional development as well as personal enjoyment):

"When Athens Met Jerusalem" by John Mark Reynolds (2nd read)
"World War I" by John Keegan (friend and mentor of V.D. Hanson and third title I've read by the author)
"Civilization and its Discontents" by Sigmund Freud (filling in an important hole in my understanding of the 20th century)

On the ticket are:

"At the Back of the North Wind" by George MacDonald (been on a kick lately and even read a couple of bios)
"Orthodoxy" by G.K. Chesterton (umpteenth readthrough for a reading group)
"Chaung Tzu" (the second great Taoist text)
"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaimon (thanks Liz!)
"War in Heaven" (2nd time for a reading group)
"The Rape of Nanking" by Iris Chang (been remiss in not reading this one)
"Alexander the Great" by Robin Lane Fox (a favorite historian)
"The Elfstones of Shanara" by Terry Brooks (it is time!  it is high time!)
"Amusing Ourselves to Death" by Neil Postman (for work)
"Ghostopolis" by Doug TenNapel (showin' support for "Ratfist"!)
"Iron West" by Doug TenNapel (ditto)
"Foucault's Pendulum" by Umberto Eco (his panache won me over.  Thanks Joi!)
"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson (reading group)
"Hannah Coulter" by Wendel Berry (ditto)

We'll see how much I get to and what surprises get added in along the way but it looks to be a fun ride.  I'll post my finished list with the appropriate awards come August.

So how about you?  What are your "Seven Heavens of Summer Reading"? 

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why the Leaves Change in the Fall: Academic Platypus

Our school had its graduation ceremony this Saturday.  In addition to the ceremony, an intrepid group of teachers made the rounds of four to five graduation parties as well.  It's an honor to be invited to a student's graduation party, an event usually reserved for family and close friends.  It's saying that they value what you've done for their child enough to consider you part of the family.

I was mulling this around in my head during the ceremony while a slide-show of the seniors was running along with the typical sentimental music by a popular country singer playing in the background.  One of the lines in the song struck me: "now I know why the leaves change in the Fall."  For the students, graduating is bitter-sweet since it means leaving friends and family.  It means saying goodbye to childhood.  However, the thrill of a new life and new experiences awaiting them tends to overwhelm this sober side.  For the parents, it seems to be in the reverse.  There is great joy and satisfaction in seeing a child cross the threshold and enter adulthood, but it is also an affirmation of the parents' death; one of life's great tasks has been finished and now they are left diminished.

This dynamic is what fills graduations with their special beauty.  If it is a Spring for the graduates' adult life, it is the end of their childhood and a sign that their parent's life is moving into its Autumn.  We get to see that in a crystal-clear moment at graduation and affirm it in Love as good.  Why do the leaves change in the Fall?  Because there is beauty even in aging and death if we accept it in Love.  

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Webbed Flippers and Ivory Keys: The Platypus Watches "Note by Note"

This week found us watching a documentary called "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037."  It's the story of the creation of a Steinway concert grand piano.  It's an enjoyable piece, but one of the recurring themes struck me in particular.  New York Steinways are still largely made and tuned by hand and this is the key factor in their excellence as musical instruments.  Most modern pianos are made and tuned by machine.  The result is a a large number of less expensive pianos and a great diminution in quality.  The narrative according to the documentary is that modernization is destroying the older and superior way of hand-craftsmanship.  This struck me as odd since the piano is a quintessentially "modern" (post 1648) instrument.  Let me explain.

The sheer complexity of a piano makes it a daunting task for any craftsman.  Producing it at a cost which places it within the purchasing range of the Bourgeois is nothing short of astounding.  Thus, the piano is a relative new-comer in the world of instruments, coming into its own only in the early 19th century.  Being a product of modernity, it is interesting to find that continued modernization has swiftly reached the point of diminishing returns; a modern device is being destroyed by the modernizing impulses that created it.

This leads one to wonder if the modern enterprise is by nature self-defeating.  The initial push has presented mankind with great gains but continued effort rapidly reaches the point of diminishing returns.  We might point out, however, that this may be said of any of the eras in human history.  Europe's Ancient World self-destructed as did its Middle Ages; each carried within it the eventual causes of its own collapse.  Now that we find ourselves nearing the end of this Third Age of Middle Earth, are there any lessons we can take with us into the age of Globalization?  That's a big question, but maybe we can start by narrowing down to the level of the piano.