Thursday, April 27, 2017

Wagner's Ring: Creative Platypus

This year marks the completion of Houston Grand Opera's staging of the complete Ring Cycle by Richard Wagner. My wife and I have been able to attend all four operas and have witnessed Wagner's retelling of the creation and destruction of the Nordic World. I haven't seen anything like it.

The La Fura Dels Baus staging HGO used seemed to swirl the Volsungsaga with The Orestiea, Final Fantasy, Mad Max: Fury RoadThe Wasteland, The Dry Salvages and The Abolition of Man. It was a heady cocktail that appeared to leave those over forty cold while it made the twenty-somethings I know weep with rapture. So you know where I fit in, I bought the boxed set on DVD.

Wagner's work is a paean to the power of Nature and a warning to those who would use power over Nature to gain power over others. It's a timely message for the city of Houston, a place that worships unbridled wealth, revels in the wholesale destruction of the natural world, builds its low-cost of living on the backs of undocumented workers, and is the hub of human trafficking in the United States. Yet the city also has a dynamic energy I haven't found anywhere else. Here, the gods and heroes are still young and a rainbow bridge rises up through the Woodlands to a Valhalla that is still under construction. There is so much good here, so much potential, if only they can heed Wagner's warning in time. If not, then it will collapse in blood and fire, and I will not blame those in Los Angeles and Greenwich who shake their heads and say "we could have told you so".

Even the Platypus occasionally speaks an uncomfortable truth.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Falling Forever: Creative Platypus

Still playing with my Clip Studio Paint... Here we have test of certain effects and wire modeling. There are dual inspirations here: Ghost in a Shell and The Hunger Games. So whether this is The Major plummeting to the tune of Inner Universe or Katniss imagining what it would be like to leap from the top of Training Center is something you get to decide. Of course, it could also be a reference to an Evanescence song. It all depends on what you were up to during the Oughts.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Weird New England (Cont.): Creative Platypus

I'm still learning the ropes of Clip Studio Paint, so here's a little of what I've been working on. These are two characters from an unpublished novel (The King of the Summer Court: The Strange Life of Ronald Fairfax Volume IV). Each one took more time than I care to admit, but at least it gives you an idea of my learning curve.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Weird New England (Cont.): Creative Platypus

concept art from an unfinished novel (The Place of the Skull: Volume II in The Strange Life of Ronald Fairfax) done in Clip Art

Mr. Hunter looked at the clock and dropped his lecture voice.
“Ok.  So it’s Halloween season, right?  Do you know Huntington has its own history of ghost stories?”
“Like Mellonheads?”  Horrowitz ventured.
“That’s a rather newer one, but ok, so you’ve heard of the Mellonheads.”  Mr. Hunter leaned back against the wall.  “Anyone else?”
“Hannah Cranna?”  One of the boys in the back piped up.
“Yep,” Mr. Hunter nodded, “ that’s one from Monroe.  Now, how many of you know about Sigismund Chesterville?”
To his surprise, Ronald found that his hand was in the air. 
“Fairfax?”  Mr. Hunter turned to face him.  “Evidently, we’ve got a connoisseur of local history.”
Ronald’s mouth felt dry and his mind went curiously blank.  He had a sudden sense of panic at the thought that he might be asked to say something more.
            To his relief, Mr. Hunter went on.  “Ok, so see how much of this you know, Fairfax, and the rest of you can learn something new.”
            Ronald swallowed hard and the saliva returned to his mouth.  There was a slight pressure on the right side of his face, but his thoughts began to return.
            “Back about a hundred years ago, they used to call Chesterville ‘the wickedest man in New England.’  He’s supposed to have used divination to find gold that the British buried during the Revolution and used it to buy an immense house along the banks of the Housatonic River, not far from here.  That house burnt down when he died and no one’s been able to build on the property since.  Two men working for the W.P.A. in the 1930s went digging there looking for his treasure and reported being chased off by wolves –wolves haven’t been seen in Connecticut for two-hundred years.  According to his own claims while living, Chesterville drove his wife mad, conversed regularly in his parlor with the spirits of the witches who died at Salem, killed six men by black magic, and started World War I.  Talk about an egoist.  Now, if you check in the town hall records, which I did once when I was down there doing some genealogical research, you’ll find that he died in a hunting accident.  What local legend says is that he tried to swindle the Devil at a game of lawn bowling one night and they were picking pieces of him off the trees the next morning.  Supposedly the pieces were still shaking so his friends cremated him and dumped his ashes in the river.
            Now, here’s the interesting part: Chesterville’s tombstone is in the old Cemetery about ten minutes drive from here.  When I was a kid, they used to say that you could light a candle on Chesterville’s grave and if you blew it out and said his name three times then his spirit would come and re-light the candle.  Lot of rubbish, right?  Well about a year ago last September, when we had all that rain, I was driving home –and it was coming down cats and dogs, wind howling- and what did I see in the cemetery?  There was a candle up on Chesterville’s grave, burning strait and clear.”
            He stopped, and there were a few awkward chuckles across the room.

            “Well, anyhow, the bell’s about to ring, so there you go.  No homework tonight.”

Monday, March 20, 2017

Coloring Katniss: Creative Platypus

So... I have Clip Art now. I am learning how to use it and getting another reminder that my creative abilities lag behind that of many 14-year-olds. Sigh... Anyhow, as a preliminary test of these new tools, I decided to sketch my version of The Hunger Games heroine, Katniss. I made sure to get the rough composition down before seeing the movie in an effort to record what I saw while reading the book. So, here we go. And yes, the jacket is from L.L Bean.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Hunger Games: The Platypus Reads Part CCCX

We're never on the cutting edge of anything over here at Platypus of Truth. So, today's confession is that we have only just finished reading The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The movie is in our Netflix queue. We intended to read this book when it first became popular, as we did Stephanie Myers' Twilight. Business got in the way as it usually does and the years rolled on. When I finally snagged a copy from the school library, I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd heard so much about the novels and the films at this point and yet I remained fairly spoiler free and couldn't form any real conception except "it's sort of like Battle Royal, but not".

I was pleasantly surprised. The Hunger Games packed Hemingway's terse prose with Orwell's conscience to deliver a world peopled by incredibly well-drawn teenagers forced to grow up way to fast. The pacing is perfect, and the Games, when they finally appear, were not at all what I was expecting. The combined effect is being forced to watch society's most vulnerable members victimized by a very American type of evil -not one we are exactly committing right now, but the kind we could so easily commit under the right circumstances. The Romans did it on a much larger scale for half a millennium -and the Founders viewed us as the new Romans. Collins real genius, however, is that her particular cocktail delivers its message in a way that is simple and elegant. I appreciate that even more after years of watching students wrestle through 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World.

On a personal level, I appreciated Collins' hero, Katniss. I know people from western Pennsylvania. I know poor people from western Pennsylvania. As a teacher, I've only just begun to dimly appreciate the way that generational poverty creates a prison for the mind -even when the body has escaped. Katniss embodies this reality in her relentless drive for survival, her ignorance of and ambivalence towards larger social forces, and her dyed-in-the-wool fatalism. She also is quite clearly a girl who grew up in the woods. As a boy who grew up surrounded by large tracks of state forest, I appreciate the way that Katniss moves through her environment. There are things that come with growing up in the wooded Northeast that are second nature even to a wimpy nerd like me and they saturate every page of The Hunger Games. I never feel quite right unless I can see (preferably be under) a canopy of trees. It's good to see a heroine who feels the same way.

Catching Fire has just come in from the library, so we'll see where Collins takes us in volume two. Volume one will be a hard act to follow.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Sunny Day: Creative Platypus

Sunny Day

The Sunny Days have returned
(You can have them)
Soon, no one will want them.
Heat and humidity will send
Us all in doors
and things will go unseen
as so much of the World
Does that can’t be
Viewed from a screen.

I think Hell is full of screens
Where we watch anything
but what we should be watching.

You, Stranger, who pass
Through this day with me,
Stop a moment with me
to regard the things
That need regarding.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Proclamation, December 2017: Creative Platypus

Proclamation, December 2017

I Do Proclaim:

That this is my hour.
I take as my demesne
All things that you reject:
Rainy days,
Cold, crisp Autumn,
The glistening thickets of Winter,
Old churches,
Graveyards.
And the moss about the foot of trees.

I will be kind to postmen,
And those who prepare my food.
Praise God for tobacco, and
The fellowship of working men
Smoking cigarettes on the porch.
I will thank God for immigrants
Who cut grass,
Domestics,
All who do the work my Irish ancestors
did.
Praise the Almighty for every man
Who calls himself a stranger in his home,
Chronically reduces his boil to a simmer.

I will not forget you either,
If you have what you love
Taken from you
Yet remain unbowed.
You are my teacher.

I welcome All
From the boarders of my kingdom
In the particular-
A shake of hands
Or a nod
Between potentates.

Monday, February 06, 2017

On Rainy Days: Creative Platypus

On Rainy Days

On Rainy Days like this one
I feel Gettysburg in my bones-
or maybe Plymouth-
seeing puffs of smoke in
the wet air
when no one else is out.

You happy people
who will not face the
Rain,
you Insiders, who never
looked in through lighted
Windows
and wished to God that you
belonged:

What do you know of
Astor or of woodsmoke-
who never had the larger fellowship
that comes with being
Alone.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Moby Dick: Creative Platypus

After a drawing by Rockwell Kent
Marker on Strathmore Toned Tan

A whale-ship was my Yale college and my Harvard.
-Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Howard's Conan: Final Thoughts: The Platypus Reads Part CCCIX

Well, I've done it: I've finally finished Robert E. Howard's entire Conan oeuvre. The journey has been several years long, and I've also taken side trips to cover Howard creations Kull, Solomon Kane, and Bran Mak Morn, but I have finally reached the finish.

What do I say now that I have reached the end? When I began this journey, one of my friends quipped that Conan should be known as "the venerially diseased" instead of "the barbarian". Others told me that they had simply given up along the way -the racism and misogyny were too much. I did give up on Howard's younger contemporary, Fritz Leiber, for about that reason. Having read to the end, I can confidently say that these criticisms are true: Conan is not a good man, and Robert E. Howard was a cynical nihilist out to earn a buck -but that's not the whole story. Conan and his creator also reflect the realities of the Great Depression and a life on America's not-so-tamed former frontier. It was an age of motorized bandits, speak-easys, okies, mafia, and lynchings. Howard reflects that reality in his fantasies as surely as Tolkien and Lewis do the Great War and its sequel. It's that artistic integrity -to show the world the way he saw it- that kept me reading. Texas often makes no sense to me, but reading Howard I get it just a little more than I might otherwise.

I love Lovecraft in spite of all his evils because he loves New England. I don't love Howard, but I do see in through his eyes how someone could passionately love Texas. Thank you Rob.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Conan: Beyond the Black River: The Platypus Reads Part CCCVIII

This post will cover two of Robert E. Howard's Conan short stories: Beyond the Black River and The Black Stranger. Prior posts on Conan and his world can be found by following the "Howard" tag at the bottom of this post.

Beyond the Black River:

The last phase of Howard's Conan stories find him transitioning from the world of oriental adventures to the American frontier. Beyond the Black River owes more to books like Buchanan's A Salute to Adventurers than to Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse. Nonetheless, Howard still preserves the ancient world setting by calquing the American frontier onto the Roman frontier and cover the whole thing with a facade of Hyborian places and peoples. The author's commitment to side with barbarism over civilization comes to the fore here and the lesson seems to be that of the noble savage showing up the folly and weakness of society. One wonders, given Howard's deification of the "barbarian," how he thinks the United States was ever settled by Europeans and transformed into a modern nation state. With this final decision to side with barbarism also comes a firm decision to side with racism and misogyny as well a generally darker tone that sees the death of all the lead characters except for Conan. Which leads us to...

The Black Stranger:

The Black Stranger is a more "barbaric" retelling of Beyond the Black River. Howard eliminates as many civilized elements as possible by peopling his cast almost entirely with Picts, pirates, and outcasts. As with Beyond the Black River, there is a touch of the supernatural to make the story fit for Weird Tales (The Sci-Fi-Horror-Fantasy magazine Howard sold his Conan stories to). Unlike Beyond the Black River, Howard throws us into the heart of the siege and allows us to witness the sack and ruin of the Zingarian fort. This key choice ramps up the brutality of the tale and makes the action feel more immediate. The ruin of the fort also marks Howard's farewell to civilization as each of the remaining stories pictures Conan assaulting the corruptions of urban society and returning to a life of wandering.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there is one real gem in this episode: the cave of the cursed pirates. The great banquet table with its eternally slumbering feasters seems to be a direct parallel with the cursed feasters in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Given the dates of the two stories, it is entirely possible that the scene inspired C.S. Lewis or that both authors drew from the same source material (perhaps the table of dead kings in King Solomon's Mines?).