Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 in Review: The Platypus of Truth

And lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the Age.

Today is the last day of 2014.  The big news of 2014 is that Western Culture has survived one-hundred years after the onset of the Great War.  The world is changed.  At least somewhat.  But in the shadow of that great anniversary, many other things have happened.  Here at the Platypus of Truth, it's been a pleasant, but low-volume year.  That may be due to the fact that 2014 was the first summer in some time that I didn't attempt any live-blog read-throughs.  Those raise the number of posts per year like nobody's business.  Instead, 2014 saw an uptick in poetic compositions and a continuation of 2013's travel-blogging.  That makes 2014 the year of memory and reflection at Platypus of Truth and that seems appropriate a hundred years after the end of one of the most astounding eras in Western history.  What will next year bring?  I don't know.  There will certainly be more about Clariel and Nix's attempts to sell a reluctant hero.  Then there's still plenty of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber on my shelf waiting to be read.  Having to buy a car has put a big dent in travel funds, so we'll see if that goes on hold for a bit.  Poems seem to come and go as they please.  The future is always uncertain, but what is certain is that if I'm still alive and kicking I'll be eager to share my thoughts with you here at Platypus of Truth.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIX

My strategic reading of Garth Nix's Clariel continues.  My goal with this reading is to find out how Nix creates an interesting novel with a heroine who persistently refuses the "call to adventure".  To this end, I've been taking notes as I read and sharing them here.  Those who have not read Clariel may not wish to continue reading as I do mention major plot points in my remarks.

*Dr. Song Says: Spoilers!*


The last post ended with Clariel's first lesson at the house of Magister Kargrin.  This post will run to the end of chapter nineteen or Clariel's escape from the prison hole.

7. A reluctant hero often draws the wrong conclusion from valuable information since their focus is in the wrong place.  Nix manages to use Clariel's wrong conclusions in a way that still keeps her headed toward the "the call to adventure".  She consistently fails to realize that the threats posed by Kilp and Aziminil threaten any chance she has of living as a boarderer and will continue posing such threats until they are completely wiped out.  Even then, it may not be possible for Clariel to ever become a boarderer.  While Clariel fails to fully realize these things until it's almost too late, her determination to use Kargrin and the others to get what she wants ends up pushing her in the right direction without violating Clariel's character as Nix has constructed it.

8. If the hero recognizes a similarity or link between themselves and the villain, then this will be a powerful inducement to take up the call.  In Clariel, this link paradoxically means that Clariel by agreeing to confront the villain is one step closet to getting what she wants since after the confrontation produces a link between the two she must be evacuated from Belisaere before Aziminil can find her.

9.  Nix uses small "wins," such as finding the colorful fish in Aziminil's hut, to keep the reader feeling that positive gains are being made in the story even when things seem to be going all wrong.

10. It's interesting that Clariel doesn't show any sentiments associated with actual people (in this case, to her parents) until page 148.  That's a long time for a character to remain unconnected to teh characters around them.  When we finally do see Clariel show some sentiment, however, it's much more powerful and just a little show of affection goes a long way toward making her a more sympathetic character.

11. Much of the middle section of the book seems to be about Clariel learning to find strength in her extended family to make up for the weakness of her nuclear family.  Clariel becomes more human as she realizes that she is not alone and others share her pressures and problems and are willing to help (i.e. Bel, Gully, and Kargrin).  This also begins to turn her toward taking up "the call to adventure," but her interaction with Aziminil taints this desire and keeps up the tension.  Even Hamlet has to take up the "call to adventure" by Act V.  A reluctant hero cannot always be reluctant.  Keeping the reader's interest in a reluctant hero is one problem, but negotiating the hero's transformation from reluctant hero to hero is another.  Nix seems to be coming at that transformation is small steps so that when it happens (even if it's a day late and a dollar short) the transformation is believable in terms of the character, her journey, and her world.

12. Throwing characters at a reluctant hero is a great way to railroad them into taking up the call.  This is because it's very hard for anyone to avoid forming any positive relationship at all with anyone around them.  At some point, the hero is going to feel obligated by some sort of relationship with someone to do something.  As long as that someone is tied in to the main plot, you have a motive for Prince Hamlet to act.  Nix uses the Academy as a way to force Clariel to develop the relationships (however tenuous) that will ultimately force her into action.  Even her meeting with Aronzo, who she has reason to hate, help drag her in to the main plot.

13. Kill off some characters.  Nix does a good job of misdirecting the reader from the fact that he's about to kill off Clariel's family.  The suddenness and injustice of their deaths, gives Clariel a wonderful vengeance motive and also allows her to realize that she cared about them far more than she thought.  This has the duel effect of continuing Clariel's humanization process and also giving her another personal investment in defeating Kilp and restoring order to Belisaere.  The final effect of this is that by page 227, Nix has foreced Clariel to accept the "call to adventure" and made her feel that she no longer deserves to go back to the forest.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Nix's Clariel and the Call to Adventure: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVIII

I'm about one-hundred pages in to Garth Nix's YA novel Clariel.  One purpose I have in reading this book is to discover how Nix gets us to invest in a story with a gruff and unlikable heroine who consistently resists the call to adventure.  That's a tall order for any author, but Garth Nix seems to have pulled it off.  So here I am, pen in hand, taking notes on how he does it.  Since it looks like I'll have quite the page of notes by the time I finish Clariel, I've decided to share my thoughts in several installments.  What follows takes us through the first one-hundred pages, or right up to her first lesson in Charter Magic.  If you haven't read the book yet, you may not want to continue reading.


1. To make an "unsympathetic character" "sympathetic", establish what they love and what their goal is early on.  Give them something they want that the audience can sympathize with.  For Clariel, it's a desire to go back to the Forest and be a Boarder.  Within just a few pages, Nix makes sure that we know what Clariel loves, hates, and wants.

2. In order to hook the reader and help them through their initial distaste for the main character, use a prologue that introduces the threat.  This shows us what the cost will be if the main character refuses the "call to adventure".  In the case of Clariel, we start off with a Free Magic creature possessing an old junk collector.  We don't hear about it again until around page ninety-nine, but the knowledge that it's out there adds an undercurrent of urgency to all of Clariel's sturm und drang.

3. A character like Clariel can make up for being gruff and angsty by demonstrating exceptional competence in one area (in Clariel's case, her wood-lore and survival skills).  They need not be competent in other important areas, but if they are not weak, then we can at least respect them and maintain our interest.

4. In order for the character to remain an "unwilling hero" and not simply become "wishy-washy", they must remain ardently focused on achieving their own goals (back to the forest, back to the forest, back to the forest).  This gives them an understandable reason for resisting the "call to adventure".  They cannot resist the call permanently and still have much of a story, so at some point they will need to try and wrench the "call to adventure" to their own purposes.  For Clariel, this seems to be a matter of "I do this and I get to go back to the forest".

5. Following point four, it is important that something from the world of the "call to adventure" threaten the hero's own goals early on.  This keeps the hero engaged with the "call to adventure" even while in the midst of trying to refuse it.  In Clariel's case, this comes when Mistress Ader tells her that unless the king resumes control of the kingdom, the Boarders will be disbanded.

6. Give the character friends and allies that are maximally invested in the "call to adventure" and who can help the hero see how it applies to the hero's own goals.  Let them help the hero remove an obstacle to the hero's personal goals while at the same time pushing them to accept the "call to adventure".  For Clariel, this process begins at the Academy where she is introduced to the conspirators who are seeking to block Governor Kilp and destroy the Free Magic creature that is using him to gain power.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Wintry Reading (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVII

Christmas Vacation is finally here and with it some time for Winter reading.  Winter reading isn't the long, lazy, meandering sort of thing that Summer reading is.  For one, the time is too short.  For two, the holiday season and the end of the quarter leave little time for easy ambling.  Winter reading is the sort of thing that gets done in a busy airport, in the shotgun seat of the car, while relatives watch t.v., or right before bed.  It's a way of filling in the corners of holiday time, a way to savor the last bit of the season.

So what have I crammed in to my Christmas Break?

Smith of Wootton Major: We read this Tolkienic scripta minora in one go with the Inklings Club this weekend.  Smith of Wootten Major is a melancholy tale about a boy who is given a passport to Faerie that he must surrender when he reaches old age.  Tolkien advised his audience to simply read and enjoy, but it's hard not to see this as Tolkien's musings on the limits of creativity and the threat posed to the Numinous and the Beautiful by Modernity.

Father Christmas Letters:  It was a Tolkien weekend that began on Friday with an Upper School trip to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and continued through a Saturday evening of food, fun, reading.  When the Inklings finished Smith of Wootten Major, we took a break to eat, fellowship, share our own creative endeavors, and then plunge back in to the world of Tolkien with his hilarious Father Christmas Letters.  The antics of Father Christmas and the North Polar Bear had us in stitches.  It was emblematic of the weekend that by the time we got to the fight with the goblins all I could think of was the North Polar Bear with his jaunty little scarf sitting on the body of Azog the Defiler and swigging a glass-bottled Coke.

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci: I've admired the work of Johnathan D. Spence ever since grad school when we read Treason by the Book.  Since then, I've gobbled down The Gate of Heavenly Peace, The Death of Woman Wang, and God's Chinese Son.  Spence has a truly literary flair and writes the best history of any living writer I've encountered.  I'm still working my way through this short book, but the level of form following function is astounding.  This is a true master-work and reminds me that some people have in fact earned the right to tenure, chairs, and research positions.

And Then There Were None: Agatha Christie is always good for a little fluffy fun.  In this case, we're reading her to get ready for this year's school play.  We have a new, experienced director who's also an alum, so I'm very excited to see this one on stage.

Clariel: I haven't read anything by Garth Nix before, but I have several friends who rave about him, so he's been on the list for some time.  The inciting incident for this particular read: I have a sad little book languishing in edit hell that needs some help with its reluctant hero and I've been told on good authority that the titular protagonist of Nix's book can point a possible way forward.

So there we go.  Who knows what of this I'll actually finish, but as with Summer reading, the point of Winter reading is not to finish but to have fun.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Gillette's Holmes: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXVI

Sherlock Holmes has been a perennial favorite since his creation at the turn of the last century.  Over the last few years, the super-sleuth's stock has risen higher than ever with an American movie franchise running side-by-side with the BBC's modern television adaptation.  Whether you're a fan of Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch, the baseline for the part was set down by now-forgotten American actor William Gillette.

William Gillette (1853-1937) led a rather colorful life that involved hanging out with Mark Twain, living for years on a river boat, revolutionizing American theater, having his posters done by the artist of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and building his own private castle on the Connecticut River.  He even had the cheek to dress up as Sherlock Holmes for his first meeting with Conan Doyle.  This singular gent over the course of 1,300 performances created the Holmes we know and love: deerstalker cap, bent briar pipe, hawk-like profile, and prominent cocaine addiction.  He's also the one who discovered that a handsome hetero-Holmes sold tickets (Cumberbatch has proved that in recent years a homosexual Holmes can sell just as well).  All this plus a trip to Gillette's quirky castle this past summer left me eager to get a hold of the play.

Sherlock Homes is a play in four acts.  It tells us as much about fin-de-siecle culture as Guy Richie's adaptation tells us about our own times.  That is to say that it's very much a play of its time.  However, being of its time does not mean that it isn't an enjoyable read.  Gillette has a flair for personal drama, tense action, and fun characters.  His take on Holmes as a smug, world-weary, sophisticate strikes just the right note to offset the inherent pulpiness of the plot.  It's the kind of thing I would love to see a revival of, maybe with a few judicious re-writes.  Even better than a revival, however, is news that a 1916 film adaptation of the play staring Gillette has been found and it will be released in the States in May of 2015.

So, if any of that has piqued your interest, why not get the 99 cent version of the script on Kindle and give it a read?  


Saturday, December 06, 2014

Wintry Platypus Entertainments

I can't really say that it's been a long December yet, and I don't really have any reason to believe that next year will be better than the last.  It may be some consolation that I've been out of the L.A. sprawl for more than five years now.  At any rate, Winter is coming.  Winter doesn't mean much in meteorological terms in Houston, but there is still a special sort of je ne sais qua that permeates the last month of the year.  Some books, some games, some movies, and some music (without special regard for their Christmas-i-ness) feel more appropriate in December regardless of where one happens to be.

Now that the month has begun, my thoughts are turning toward the right artistic combination for the season.  In two weeks, my students and I will all be going to see the final installment in Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy at the end of finals week.  In the meantime, my wife and I are in the middle of Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, a beautiful and slowly-unfolding samurai epic with just the right notes of melancholy and retrospective.  We'll see what else comes down the pipe.  Some J.R.R. Tolkien (perhaps Smith of Wootton Major?) is definitely in order.  I may also go back to Hellboy.  Whatever happens, you can be sure that I'll share any worthwhile reflections here at Platypus of Truth. 

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Across the Grey Atlantic: Creative Platypus

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across Saint Brendan’s sea,
Is the land where the lairds wear sackcloth
And all the serfs are free.

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across the spume and foam,
Lies the land of the Imrams castles
Where a Gael can find a home.

In the green fields of Elysium,
Every blade of grass is a sword
To pierce the feet of trespassers
In the Garden of the Lord.

Just so the Emerald Isle,
Though enslaved and conquered be,
Will never lack for weapons
To set her people free.

But wars go on forever
And the killing's never done
Though the smoke rise up to heaven
And strike from the sky the Sun.

So many Gaels went wandering
Across the Earth’s expanse,
To find fair fields in foreign lands
Where peaceful feet could dance.

They flooded into Boston,
Found safe harbor in New York,
And others flew to southern climes
As surely as the stork.

They raked the bogs for cranberries
While old Thoreau explained
That if they'd just be Englishmen
They needn't take such pains.

They built the mighty railroads
With thundering tracks of steel
And made the lonely prairies groan
Beneath the iron wheel.

In Savannah and in Charleston
They fought for blue and grey
And turned the earth to Ireland
Where’er their bodies lay.

They saved their pennies one by one
And carved in wood and stone
Till up they raised Saint Patrick’s spires
And made this land their own.

So now we dye the rivers green
On old Saint Patty’s Day.
But other things are quite forgot
We’ve been so long away.

What does it mean to be a Celt,
A Norman, or a Dane,
When here in Teddy’s melting pot
We’re pretty much the same?

I speak the language of my foes,
Pass with an English name,
And I’d raise a cry of righteous wrath
If someone were to blame.

But still the blades of Irish grass
Wave like a press of swords
Held high by arch-angelic hands
In the Hour of the Lord.

Oh God on high, You heard our cry
And set this people free.
Stretch out Your hand, raise from this land
A single sword to Thee.

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across Saint Brendan’s sea,
Is the land where the lairds wear sackcloth
And all the serfs are free.

Across the grey Atlantic,
Across the spume and foam,
Lies the land of the Imrams castles
Where a Gael can find a home.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Notes on Pixar's Brave and Beowulf: Film Platypus

Something struck me this year as I was reading through Beowulf with my tenth graders: Pixar's Brave is Beowulf from the perspective of Queen Wealtheow and Princess Freawaru and set during the time of the formation of the Kingdom of Scotland as opposed to the rise of the Danish people over their neighbors.  As in the case of Hrothgar's developing kingdom, Brave's Scotland is besieged by two troubles: a giant monster that carries off the people and an unstable network of human alliances that threatens war and division.  In each case, the reigning monarch finds himself powerless to stave off the supernatural terror and relies on the aid of his politically astute wife to keep order among the clans.  Where Beowulf deals with questions of finding a new warrior with courage and greatness enough to solve the problems and eventually become king, Brave deals with the problem of forging a marriage alliance with the princess and raising her up to be the next queen.

A careful read of Beowulf reveals that strong and capable queens are every bit as important to a society's flourishing as a good king or a great warrior.  In the world of Beowulf, good queens are astute politicians that use a knowledge of protocol and the art of speech-making to control the network of alliances that uphold a kingdom.  The good queen Wealtheow carefully times her appearance to prevent the argument between Beowulf and Unferth from getting out of hand.  After Beowulf defeats Grendel, Wealtheow moves in to make sure that Beowulf knows that while he will be amply rewarded for his loyalty, he will meet firm resistance if he sets his eyes on the throne of Denmark.  In contrast to Wealtheow is Grendel's mother, a hell-dame who brings war and division with only sea-snakes to rule over and a murky cave for a mead-hall.  Brave takes up this theme by transforming the queen (literally) into both Wealtheow and Grendel's Mother and thus throwing the young kingdom of Scotland into chaos.  To restore order, the young princess must learn the arts of political persuasion, culminating in a speech that heals the divisions within the kingdom while buying her time to free her mother from the curse and put off an unwelcome choice of suitors.

There are other themes in Brave, including ones that also find correspondences in Beowulf.*  For today, however, I would like to limit my thoughts to the way that both stories explore the role of a good queen.  Looking at the film Brave through this lens not only casts more light on the artistry and message of the movie, it also gives us a better understanding of the female characters that dominate the middle portion of the Old English poem Beowulf.



*For instance, Merida has already learned from her father how to be a good warrior when the film begins, but needs to learn the skills of a good queen that her mother can teach her.  By the end of the film, Merida has learned both what her father and her mother have to teach her, thus becoming the woman Scotland needs to forge new customs for a new age. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Patriots In Exile: Creative Platypus

Patriots in Exile

The real world has no room for an Aeneas,
And perhaps that is a good thing.
Troy burned and Troy rebuilt
As much as seven-gated Thebes
Or Hiroshima and Dresden –even
Roman Carthage- though the Goths
Sacked that one.
There are no more seas to sail,
No new worlds to discover.
I’ve been from one coast
To another
And believe me,
The World is round.
On the other side is Russia
And that’s right back to where
You came from;
Whether Irish or Algonquin.
So we’ll drink another round
In a bar in Massachusetts
And we’ll raise a toast to Foxwoods
As a Wonder of the World.

I met an old Oneida in the land
Of broken promise
And he spoke of David Brainard
And a little of John Eliot.
Here we were across the world
Far from both our lands and fathers
And I’d bless him by Saint Patrick
If I were still a papist.

Homes are tricky things
And a heritage’s a burden
Whether it’s one that you can’t get to
Or it’s lost as sure as Eden.
So let’s raise a glass of grape juice
And be glad we weren’t born Britons.

Rule Britannia, rule them waves.

Britons never will be slaves
For they’re better than almost
Anyone
At making slaves of others.

What is there between us,
Save a land we both call home,
Unless something so large
And universal
Big enough for Walter Whitman?
That is so large as to be useless,
Except to Eliot and Patrick.
But I drove by Brainard’s Rock
At least three times a day
And the gas station marks the
Place
Where he wrestled with discernment.
So in the end we both love something;
Our affinities unite us
And I’ll gladly show you round the
Place
When I cross your side of Jordan.

There’s no kingdom for Aeneas
And old Virgil’s half a fascist
But here’s to David Brainard
The Patrick of Oneida.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Walking in MacDonald's Walden: Platypus Travels Part LVII/The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXV

George MacDonald begins his enigmatic Science Fiction novel, Lilith, with a quote from Henry David Thoreau's essay Walking.  Thoreau's haunting, yet ultimately satirical and political description of a trip down an abandoned wagon road in rural Massachusetts is transformed by MacDonald's imagination into a statement on how thin the barrier is that separates our world from other realms.

The text below gives the quote from Thoreau as it appears in Lilith, which can be found in it entirety for free here.
I took a walk on Spaulding's Farm the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite side of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays straggled into the aisles of the wood as into some noble hall. I was impressed as if some ancient and altogether admirable and shining family had settled there in that part of the land called Concord, unknown to me,—to whom the sun was servant,— who had not gone into society in the village,—who had not been called on. I saw their park, their pleasure-ground, beyond through the wood, in Spaulding's cranberry-meadow. The pines furnished them with gables as they grew. Their house was not obvious to vision; their trees grew through it. I do not know whether I heard the sounds of a suppressed hilarity or not. They seemed to recline on the sunbeams. They have sons and daughters. They are quite well. The farmer's cart-path, which leads directly through their hall, does not in the least put them out,—as the muddy bottom of a pool is sometimes seen through the reflected skies. They never heard of Spaulding, and do not know that he is their neighbor,—notwithstanding I heard him whistle as he drove his team through the house. Nothing can equal the serenity of their lives. Their coat of arms is simply a lichen. I saw it painted on the pines and oaks. Their attics were in the tops of the trees. They are of no politics. There was no noise of labor. I did not perceive that they were weaving or spinning. Yet I did detect, when the wind lulled and hearing was done away, the finest imaginable sweet musical hum,—as of a distant hive in May, which perchance was the sound of their thinking. They had no idle thoughts, and no one without could see their work, for their industry was not as in knots and excrescences embayed.
But I find it difficult to remember them. They fade irrevocably out of my mind even now while I speak and endeavor to recall them, and recollect myself. It is only after a long and serious effort to recollect my best thoughts that I become again aware of their cohabitancy. If it were not for such families as this, I think I should move out of Concord.


We walked all around Walden Pond this summer as well as in the surrounding area.  There are still places in the woods such as Thoreau describes.  I don't know that I felt any particular thinness between the worlds, but I do know that the place is powerful and enchanting in its own right.  I can see why Thoreau found such power and energy living here.  Green space enlivens and empowers.  I am told that urban space can do the same.  There seems to be no reason to disbelieve those who say so, but the most I can find is a sort of melancholy grandeur that sets in on rainy days when the neon lights shimmer up from reflecting pools in the concrete.  My soul hungers and thirst for the living God in a dry and weary land where there is no water
  
 

Saturday, November 01, 2014

New England Reflections and Platypus Readings: Platypus Travels Part LVI/The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIV

Our travels this summer took us all over Connecticut and Massachusetts on the trail of historic locations and famous figures.  One place we were particularly delighted to see was Walden Pond, the site a which Henry David Thoreau conducted his famous experiment.  Both my wife and I have taught a selection of Thoreau's works and it was a treat to see Walden complete with a replica of Thoreau's cabin (the original was sold for scrap shortly after he vacated it).

I don't know what I think of Thoreau's thought.  On the whole, he seems more useful as a critic than as any positive role model.  On the other hand, we had a nice long chat with a wonderful park ranger at Walden who had been inspired in her job by Thoreau's love of nature.  If Dana Gioia can co-opt lapsed Catholics as part of a larger Catholic literary culture, maybe Thoreau can be treated as a lapsed Puritan.  His thought, iconoclastic, numinous, visionary, and full of a wonder and love for creation, certainly helped to solidify the move from Post-Puritan to Yankee.  This Christ-less Quaker still followed the internal light and managed to become something of a secular saint.  Most times, I don't think he deserves that -maybe he approaches it at his best moments.

Thoreau has many disciples in modern America.  I can feel his presence hovering over Wendell Berry and Marilynne Robinson.  I have known people who have taken up the call to simplify and turned to organic farming (ironic since Thoreau spends much of Walden attacking the cupidity of New England farmers).  Some have flourished and some have failed.  I've had students who have connected with Thoreau, particularly his essay Walking.  These students often come from families that spend a good deal of time hunting, thought I've also had one who was a nascent park ranger who particularly seemed to get it.  I have the most success in winning new admirers for Concord's Curmudgeon on our senior year "Thoreau Walks".  These are hour-and-a-half treks into the woods and farmlands that surround the school spent admiring nature and reading aphoristic passages from Walking.  One of the tragedies of living in Houston is that each year the available open space to walk has grown dramatically less.  This irony is far from lost on the students and it poses a real challenge to the die-hard-libertarian-no-zoning tendencies that all Houstonians have as a birth right.

So where do I fall in the end?  Preserving nature is second nature to me.  I grew up in a town with at least three sizable parks and a zoning laws that set some 11-15% of the land aside as open space.  One of these preserves was behind our house and even as a rather inactive child I benefited from it ways I can't even begin to express.  The wanton devastation of the natural world I've seen in just four years of living in North Houston appalls me.  On the other hand, I don't know that Thoreau provides a firm foundation from which to resist these depredations.  A sneer and a suggestion do not a coherent worldview make -not even a coherent argument.  So, in the end, I think Thoreau is a trailblazer.  He clears paths and suggests possible routes.  That's all he ever claimed to do.  It's up to us to chose the way.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LV

 The Wooster monument at Oak Cliff Cemetery Derby, Connecticut.  Many of the graves in this cemetery are arranged in family plots with a central monument that lists the names and dates of those buried there.  Small stones with initials mark the actual burial site of individual family members.  I have written about another family plot in this cemetery here.
Buried along with the Woosters in a place of honor is Harry N. Thomas, their African-American servant.  I'm in the middle of teaching The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Up From Slavery to my seniors.  We've had some hard conversations and will be having a few more.  One goal of those conversations is to help them see that slavery may have ended in 1865, but the effects of slavery continue on in all manner of forms down to the present day.

W.E.B. Du Bois begins his magnum opus The Souls of Black Folk by saying that there is one question he continually senses in the minds of white folk but that they are too sensitive to ask: "how does it feel to be a problem?".  The rest of the book attempts in some way to answer that question.  One way that Du Bois describes it is with the image of a veil that separates every African American from the white world beyond.  Face to face with this tombstone, I bumped into the veil, but from the opposite side.

You may bury me in the East,
You may bury me in the West,
But I'll hear the trumpet sound
In a-tat morning.

Rest well Mr. Thomas,  I'll see you in that morning where there are no more veils.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LIV

The Church on the Green

There are two churches on Huntington Green.  I passed them nearly every day.  Neither of them are particularly grand -at least not by the standards of other churches on other greens.  I never attended either of them, but I love them each in their own special way.  I've already shown you two gems from the Episcopal church pictured above.  Let me show you the rest.
 The sky blue vault represents heaven.  The lamps you see would originally have burned whale oil but have been converted for electricity.  All these pictures were taken in natural light at about 10:30 in the morning.
 The church is not laid out in a cruciform pattern, but follows the simple "salt box" colonial architecture.  In this, as in its general austerity, Congregationalist influence is evident.  To add a little Episcopal twist, the rectangular sanctuary has been divided (by the columns that support the balcony) into three parts (representing the Trinity), as in early Christian churches.
 The knave and altar have been re-done several times.  The arch was added in the Victorian Era.  It was one of three (probably representing the Trinity), but the two arches on either side of the main arch were removed in subsequent renovations.  The altar rail, altar, and tabernacle all alert us that this is an Episcopal church.
 Here, we get a glimpse of the lectern and the stone baptistery.  The rectangular window is edged with panes of colored glass, probably from the local Tiffany factory.  More consciously modern stations of the cross can be seen on either side of the window.  Also, note the old whale oil lamp above the lectern that has been refitted for electricity.  
 This is the rear of the church with the exposed organ pipes between the red curtains.  The organ console can be seen peaking above the neoclassical balustrade to the left.  Note also the mirror hanging above the organ that allows the organist to coordinate with the priest.  The bell tower contains a set of chimes that play three hymns three time a day.  We were able to hear the twelve o'clock ringing and it was beautiful.
 The picture above and the two that follow are all views from the balcony.  In colonial times, this is where slaves and servants would have sat along with others of low station.  Notice how the large and numerous windows that are the hallmark of the high colonial style fill the church with light.


 One of two front windows that have been left in beautiful simplicity.
 Another view of the exit with symmetrical staircases leading to the balcony.
One of the staircases and two plaques commemorating the refurbishing of the organ and the addition of the bells.

A rubbing taken of the slave carvings that line the section of the balcony where they once sat.  Connecticut freed slaves under a certain age after the Revolution, but the memory of their presence has remained.

The Return of Homestar Runner: Platypus Nostalgia

Homestar Runner is back on the map with a new music video "Fisheye Lens."  This quirky little flash comic provided infinite entertainment for me and my associates in years past.  I was sad when the site finally ground to a halt half-a-decade ago.  As promised in an interview this past summer, however, the brothers chaps have vowed to make a comeback.  Their quirky first offerings seem like a good start.  Where it goes from here, only time will tell, but I'm glad to see them back in the saddle again.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Hellboy in Hell: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXIII

After twelve issues spanning the better part of a decade, Hellboy's life on earth came to a apocalyptic end in The Storm and the Fury.  While his existence on this plain ended as was foretold, Hellboy's story is far from over.  That story continues with the launch of the brand new series Hellboy in Hell.  The collected first volume came out this summer and I was happy to stumble upon it at Barnes and Noble while I was looking for a map of Southern New England.

The original Hellboy series ended with such a resounding "bang" that I had a little trepidation upon first opening the volume.  The new series has to start at the start and build up the action from scratch.  That sort of relaunch can kill all interest in a story.  I was glad to find (and I've just finished my third reading) that this is not the case with Hellboy in Hell: The Descent.  By now, Mignola's imagined world is so thick that it can sustain our interest even when the action slows almost to a halt.  The images, the voice, and the characters are interesting in their own rights.  The images of hell are a rich blending of Dante, Milton, and Mignola's own eccentric vision.  Page after page of strange imagry emerges from the shadows, pierced by sudden stabs of fiery red, and then recede back into the abyss.  Mignola's unique story-telling voice is a pleasure to listen to as it comes out in the various characters that tell the tale.  The characters themselves are so rich, particularly Hellboy and Edward Grey, that we can merely revel in the pleasure of learning more about them while the plot builds up steam again.
All in all, while The Descent lacks the flash and epic sweep of the last three Hellboy volumes, it is definitely a work of pop-art in its own right.  I can't wait to see where Mignola will go in volume two.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LIII



...and cold hic jacets of the dead...

I have loved and feared cemeteries for as long as I can remember.  I grew up surrounded by them and so some sort of reaction to their ubiquitous presence was inevitable.  While the fear has lessened to the point of being negligible, the love has grown to make them one of my favorite places.  Fortunately, my wife shares this attraction so that our summers in New England have involved numerous trips to grave yards.  Featured here is a gem I found while looking for the graves of several Sheltons in Derby.  It's a family plot, but contains only three burials that I could identify.  This is common in 19th century cemeteries: acquiring wealth gave one generation a desire for permanence but keeping wealth required the next generation to embrace mobility.  The oak sighs in Mamre, but there is no one left to bear a coffin up from Egypt.
The funerary arch at the rear of the mortuary garden gives the name of the Family.  The words "come unto me" inscribed beneath the pediment are taken from Matthew 11:28, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest".  In context, the verse has to do with the present life, but one can see why the Mason's chose it for this particular use.  Here, the rest Jesus promises to the Christian in life is extended into eternity, the "Sabbath rest" that is the reward of the saints.  The style of the arch is reminiscent of Baroque churches in Italy and the use of Baroque elements in American funeral architecture was common during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  It is interesting that the arch here is not an entrance to the complex, but instead serves as a back-drop for the graves and, presumably, for the grave-side services that once took place here.  As a personal speculation, I wonder if it isn't meant to represent a doorway into eternity.
The open book as a tombstone or monument is another common piece of funerary architecture from this time period.  The book can represent the Book of Life found in Revelation or it can symbolize that this couple's story has come to an end.  Roses are usually associated with women who died young, so it is odd to find them here.  I can't find the original context for the phrase "we will all go home tomorrow," but it may be taken from a hymn or spiritual.  Whatever its origin, in context it serves as a sentimentalized "memento mori" and is typically Victorian.  Cemeteries also tell stories, and it's sad to note that this couple was separated by death for more than thirty years.  I wonder how often Eva Mason came here and if any of her descendants still visit her grave.
Some tombs take the form of benches, but this one seems to be merely an architectural feature. There is a grave associated with the bench, and it can be seen in the picture below.  The bench tells us that the area is the "Court of Peace" and it is still a wonderfully peaceful place on a warm summer day. The date on the bench, 1912, tells us that the Masons had this plot constructed two years before the first member of the family was interred, suggesting that Mr. Mason's final resting place reflects his own particular tastes and wishes,  Beneath the date is written Revelation 21:4 "and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying.."
This grave may tell another story from the Mason family.  The maiden name on this tombstone is the same as Mrs. Mason's perhaps indicating that this is a child from a previous marriage.  I wonder if the Masons had any more children.  If they did, I couldn't find their graves in the Court of Peace.


*Once again, I am indebted to Douglas Keister's Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.
**Update: Since the writing of this post, I have been able to identify at least two more graves in the Mason-Terrell plot: at least one Terrell and the second may be a another Child.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part LII

Lieutenant Daniel Shelton, the first of his family to settle in the town that now bears their name.  The lichen grows thick on his stone, but careful observers can still make out the name.

On my father's side of the family, the Irish and Italian, we're recent immigrants; solidly 20th century.  The Rileys and Kennedys on my mother's side go back to the potato famine. The Quebecois stretch back to the 1600s, but that side also migrated to the states in the 20th century.  Much of my family's world began in the mill towns of Northern Massachusetts.  The Italians fared better opening up a diner in Hartford that was a stop-off for musicians in the Jazz Age. Our roots were shallow and therefore easy to pull up.  The family tree has fared well in new soil from California to North Carolina.  We've done well, but my heart still belongs to the little Connecticut hill town where the bones of the founding families lie thicker than glacial rock in the fields.  Some of them are still farming there and burying their dead in the same plots as their long-fathers.

So what does it feel like to always be on the outside looking in?  To be Pip, Charles Ryder, Walter Mitty, never a Sebastian, an Estella, or even a Charles Dexter Ward?  I don't know.  But the trees still sing and dance for me when I come home, the sky weeps, and the sunlight falls over the valley like a door opening on the first morning of the world.  In those times, I feel most at home among the dead.  He who overcomes I shall make a pillar in the temple of my God and he shall never leave.  They have entered into their rest and their reward but, for me, the rough work of the world is still to do.  So I have to turn my steps again, as I did all those years ago, and bid my dead farewell.  I don't know if I'll ever really come home.  That's a privilege for w.a.s.p.s -we mics have to make our own way.  Yet Israel asked to be buried in the land of Canaan, by the oaks of Mamre, and when the Israelites went back they brought the body of Joseph out of Egypt with them. So for me it may be a coffin in Egypt.  We will not all of us sleep, but we all will all of us be changed. 

I met a sexton in a cemetery in Derby.  He was an immigrant from Portugal and he new every grave in that vast necropolis and all its history like the back of his hand.  He asked my wife and I if we were doing genealogical research; if we were looking for family.  I told him we were looking for an author of a book and two of her family that she mentioned.  Jane de Forest Shelton was there, and so were Aunt Mary and Glorianna.  I told him we were looking for people from a book, but I was looking for family.

When these things are washed away,
The River will keep flowing,
Wei la lei
And the daughters of the river god all sing:
Be mindful of these bones,
Be mindful of these bones.
Wash them, cradle them,
Lay them in the earth,
Till they lie
As thick as glacial rock
In the twinkling of an eye
They will be changed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part LI

When I began The Platypus Travels thread, I never thought that I would reach fifty-one posts.  The Platypus of Truth was originally conceived as a sort of daily journal share-able thoughts.  Around 2007-2008, it evolved into a literary blog with The Platypus Reads taking the lion's share of each year's posts.  The share-able thoughts and the book reviews have remained, but I'm pleased to see that The Platypus of Truth as grown over the past years to include poems, academic reflections, classic gaming reviews, and now travel blogging.  If one thread doesn't appeal to you, hopefully another will. From a small seed, this blog has grown into a vast tree and every branch and leaf is dear to me.

Today's post, then, is a short follow-up to this discussion of Victorian stained glass.  Specifically, I want to show you the companion piece on the west side of the church.  This window is in a more traditional style and features the Agnus Dei, or "Lamb of God".  The window is specifically dedicated in memory of the children that past away; whether in a specific epidemic in 1906 or over the course of several years is unclear from the dedication.  The Agnus Dei is a symbol of the Resurrection and thus fitting for a memorial window.  It may also be a reference to Blake's Little Lamb which had been converted into a popular children's hymn.  The daisies between the Lamb's feet are symbols of simplicity and are a typical emblem on memorials for dead children.  The Sunflowers in the field behind the Lamb are typically associated with the Roman Catholic faithful, an odd touch in an Episcopal church.  The lilies in the bottom panel are symbols of purity and resurrection.  The IHS can stand for the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek or for the Latin "In Hoc Signo" (In This Sign [Conquor]).  The later is particularly fitting given that the Agnus Dei is an image of the victorious Christ from Revelation.  The oval that the central portrait sits in is a feature of byzantine icons and depicts a window into heaven.  The cross is a broadfooted cross with the triangular ends representing the Trinity(as do the clusters of three circles around the IHS and the fluer de lis around the Lamb).  The image of the Lamb creates a nimbus around the cross that gives it a Celtic flair.*  Since the sun was decidedly in the east when we visited the church, the window lacks the dazzling luminescence of its companion.  I can only imagine what it looks like in the light of the full afternoon sun.




*For help with interpreting the symbols on this window I am indebted to Douglas Keister's handy guide on funerary symbolism, Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Seven Heavens of Summer Reading 2014: The Platypus Reads Part CCLXXII

Summer is dead and gone good lady; Summer's dead and gone.  The sunny season has finally given way to her more temperate cousin and that means it's time to take stock of this year's Summer Reading.  As usual on this blog, that also means that I'm handing out awards for the seven best books I've read during the break.  The awards are themed around the attributes of the seven medieval heavens in honor of C.S. Lewis and Michael Ward.  So, without further ado, here are this year's winners.

Moon: The planet of madness goes to a book that nearly drove me mad: Night Train to Lisbon.  Pascal Mercier's story of a Swiss school teacher's mid-life crisis is the sort of book that reminds you of the emperor's new clothes.  It attempts to cow you with its own pretentiousness.  That's sad, because with another round or two of merciless edits, I think it could have been a good book.

Mercury:  This year's award for the planet of wordsmiths goes to one of the more helpful volumes on the writing process I've seen: Ray Rhamey's Flogging the Quill.  There was more practical advice for writing and editing in this thin little volume than in just about any other book I've read.

Venus:  The planet of love and the green earth goes to a book about a place near and dear to my heart, Jane de Forest Shelton's The Salt-box House.  It's the next best thing to living in the Shire.

Sun: The Heaven of scholars goes to the formidable father-son duo of John Ronald and Christopher Tolkien for wonderful treasure trove that is Beowulf and Sellic Spell.  While acknowledging that his thought is dated, I have always appreciated professor Tolkien's reflections on Beowulf and make frequent use of them in interpreting the work for students.  This new edition of Tolkien's translation with commentary is a joy to read and has me genuinely excited to teach the Anglo-Saxon poem again.

Mars:  The planet of contention goes to a book about some particularly contentious little creatures.  That book is Brain Froud's The Goblins of Labyrinth.  I have what amounts to an inordinate love of the movie and this whimsical little volume of production sketches did not disappoint.   

Jupiter:  I nearly missed this one and was saved by a chance trip to Barnes and Noble in search of a map of Southern New England.  The planet of kings goes to a story about a king who comes into his kingdom and finds no one at home: Hellboy in Hell: The Descent.  The real treat of this volume is that Mignola has returned to do the illustrations in the visionary style that set the series apart from the very first issue.

Saturn: The planet of catastrophes goes to book that deals with one of the great catastrophes of the 19th century, pulmonary tuberculosis.  That book is Food for the Dead, by Michael Bell.  Bell's book chronicles a folk medical practice that evolved on the fringes of New England for dealing with this dread disease.  Those who had died of the disease would be exhumed so that their hearts, lungs, and liver could be burnt and the smoke inhaled by their infected relatives.  I remember hearing about such a practice when I was growing up and it was good get the facts from an academic folklorist.  This is not a sensationalizing book, but it is a highly interesting one that treats its subject with rigor and respect.

So there you have it, another year of Summer Reading pleasure.  This was the first year in a while that I didn't do a "Summer of Shannara" reading campaign and I have to say that I enjoyed the freedom to roam without any specific goal in mind.Who knows what next year will bring, but I feel a sense of satisfaction as I draw the curtain over another summer here at The Platypus of Truth.

Monday, September 01, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part L

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing‐masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

-Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yates

Having a Tiffany factory in town has its advantages.  There are two windows in the old Episcopal church that dominates one side of the green (the other, true to form, belongs to the Congregational church).  One of these windows (featured to the left) depicts Saint Paul, the saint after which the church is named.  We caught the image at the right time of day with the morning sun was streaming through the East windows.  It was a weekday, and the secretary was nice enough to lend us the key along with as much viewing time as we wanted provided that we lock up and return the key once we were done. Having had a good bit of time to view the window, then, let me share our observations.

My wife and I are still novices as students of stained glass and we noticed something in this particular window that we had never seen before,  The artisans, rather than painting in the folds of Saint Paul's garments textured the glass to simulate folded cloth. To provide deeper contrasts for the heavier folds, they used a darker shade of glass,  The trade-mark Tiffany mottling effect is still used in the non-textured portions of the window but it is more pronounced in the flat panels, particularly the edging of the Apostle's cloak, his gospel book, the ground, and the sky behind his head, where the technique is at its most subtle (see the first and the final picture).  The overall combination of textured, mottled,the technique is at its most subtle (see the first and the final picture).  The overall combination of textured, mottled, and painted glass is striking without imparting a sense of business -just the touch of genius I've come to expect from turn-of-the-century work.    

Thursday, August 21, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.):The Platypus Travels Part XLIX

Who says you can't go home?

Connecticut is called "The Land of Steady Habits" both by those that inhabit it and by their neighbors.  Going back, even after sixteen or seventeen years doesn't mean that you're going to find much in the way of change.  There may be a few new houses and a few new faces, but things mostly stay in their place -the trees grow taller.  Not all change is bad, however, and it's always a delight to pop back in to a place you know and love and find that its beauty has been carefully tended and enriched.  Below, is one of my favorite places: the old library.  The town I grew up in once had a Tiffany glass factory and that factory provided a beautiful set of stained glass windows(ok, it's not actually stained glass, but a modern technique [rolled glass?] that Tiffany pioneered) for the town library.  These turn-of-the-century windows were damaged long ago and moved to the musty recesses of the attic so that I never saw them while I was growing up.  The library board recently partnered with an offshoot of the original Tiffany factory that remains in the town to refurbish two of the windows and install them in the reading room.








  The two figures represent Art and Literature.  There are two other panels(non-representational) still awaiting restoration as well as the original light fixtures (So much better than the present florescent monstrosities!).  Something else to look forward to...

Thursday, August 14, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XLVIII

Major Connecticut hero, minor video game character

Places can become ways of seeing things, but things can also become ways of seeing places.  I discussed this in regard to books in the previous post, but today I'd like to take a moment and extend the concept to video games.

Games can also be a way of seeing.  In fact, we should expect this since video and computer games are primarily a visual medium.  An abnormally frosty morning in North Houston can be transformed for a group of teenage boys just by playing the first notes of the Skyrim theme.  Eyes light up, slack faces crack into a smile, and immediately their imaginations begin to spin.  The chill frost and bleak landscape they were complaining about a minute ago is transformed into a wide world of adventure with a wilderness of dragons.  In my youth, games like Secret of Mana and The Legend of Zelda colored the way I saw my surroundings.  Exploring the woods, or canoeing, or archery were all different because they were the sorts of things the heroes and heroines of those games might do.  Playing A Link to the Past is enough to ensure that you never look at bushes or tree stumps the same way again.  On the other hand, until quite recently the abstract quality of video game art required a well-stocked visual imagination to give it life.  The blocks of color in the original Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Brothers that stood for trees and rivers and mountains had to be transfigured by the imagination of the player to be enjoyed (that process still occurs in contemporary games but improved graphics have made it less pronounced).  This means that based on the stock of images in each player's mind, the game as experienced by the individual player might be significantly different from that of another player.  For me as a Yankee, Link's world had a New England feel, even as the woods of Connecticut and Massachusetts will always have something a bit Hyrulean about them.  Real world and imagined world each influence and enrich each other.

Like Tennyson's Ulysses we are a part of the real and imagined places we have been.  They are our way of seeing the world and circumscribe our personal autonomy just as light circumscribes our sight.  Put another way: places are a part of what makes us who we are.  We usually think of place in terms of geographic location, but the artistic locations of books and video games can have a powerful impact on us as well, both in themselves and in the way they subtly shape our perceptions of the locations where we live and visit.  What are the places real and imagined that have shaped you?  In what ways do they cause you to see the world differently from others?  In what way might the geographic and artistic locations you have visited shape each other?     

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

New England Reflections 2014 (Cont.): Platypus Travels Part XLVII

A way of seeing

Places are a way of seeing.  They are a prism, or a lens, through which we view reality.  The places that we live in shape us just as we shape them.  As an illustration of this principle, I've posted pictures from the area where I grew up with the first quotes that came to mind when I sat down to review them.  That's not to say that they're exactly how I picture Minas Tirith, or Camelot, or Rivendell, but that my vision of each literary location takes its color from the basic images of my youth.  Now this can be seen the other way round as well.  Books have colored my sense of place.  There's an extra layer of meaning to all the towns and hamlets of rural new England because they are so "Shire-like".  The Colt Arms factory, even now that its been renovated, will always appear to me through the screen of Osgiliath.  All the Victorian Gothic follies and monuments will forever be hallowed for me by the image of the king.  Books and places.  Signs and symbols.

and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at where we started and know the place for the first time. -T.S. Eliot



*Photo Credit: My wife: who has her own way of seeing.