Monday, January 31, 2011

RIP Joh Barry

Here's a link to an article I wrote about John Barry, one of my favorite composers, who passed away yesterday.

His music for the Bond films shaped, if not defined, what I think of as film music. But he also wrote some of the most wonderfully romantic themes ever, including Somewhere in Time.

But I also really love The Beyondness of Things, an album he did of original music, not specifically for any film at all. I think I'll go listen to that right now...

Friday, January 21, 2011


The other day I (once again) participated in Leah Petersen's weekly Five Minute Fiction exercise. This week's writing prompt was "unexpected."

And before I share the story I came up with, a quick mention for the CONTEST she is now running. She's trying to grow her blog and, if she gets to 100 followers, she'll be giving away books and a hand-knitted item of your choice. I, for one, am always up for a new scarf. So head over and click on that little box on the right hand side to become a follower and enter the contest.

Meanwhile, here's my story.

She’d watched it hundreds of times. In fact, it was the first thing of theirs she ever remembered seeing, way back when she was 8 or 9, staying overnight at Debra’s house, watching TV later than she’d ever been allowed to at home. Strange, sometimes unintelligible to her at that age, but always and forever, somehow, funny.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”

She and Debra played out the sketch on the playground, to their friends’ bemusement.

“Tie her to the comfy chair,” she’d shout, and Debra would comply. Soon their friends joined in the game and they’d rush around the playground, shouting about their “chief weapons” and poking boys with imaginary Soft Cushions.

And then, soon enough, they became more concerned with teasing the boys, and acting aloof, and, much later, competing for the boys.

And she moved to another town, found a new group of friends and a gruesome new group of boys and then college and then a move to the big city, alone.

And then, one night, alone as always, she saw the sketch on TV. And she thought about Debra. For the first time in years, she thought about Debra. And she smiled.

She found Debra on Facebook. They posted on each other’s walls. They rediscovered the many things they had in common. They realized that they only lived a few miles apart.

And they reconnected. And the bond was even stronger than before.

And now they’re not alone. And the Soft Cushions only signal the beginning.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love

Last summer, a little book called Freedom was published. I read it and also got quite a bit of enjoyment by following the book's author, Emperor Franzen, on Twitter. Of course, it was not the actual author Jonathan Franzen writing the imperious tweets. It was, in fact, another author, Andrew Shaffer, who also writes under yet another twitter persona, Evil Wylie. He also hosts the website Evil Reads and prints a line of atheist Christmas cards.

Oh, yes, and he also wrote a book.

It's called Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love and it's short, informative, and (at times) funny. And it makes me glad that I did not major in philosophy.

The book presents snapshot portraits of a host of philosophers and, yes, their utter failure to maintain successful love lives. Some of the philosophers were full of themselves, some were full of non-traditional ideas, and most were miserable. That's what thinking will do for you.

But one portrait I found heartbreaking. Nicolas Chamfort (someone I'd never heard of before) told his principal that he could never be a priest. "I'm too fond of sleep, philosophy, women, honor and real fame." And for a while, he had all that. He became a playwright and spent a lot of time "rumpling the bedsheets" of beautiful actresses. But then, at 25, he contracted an unknown disease that left him scarred and disfigured from head to--well, let's just say he rumpled a lot less sheets. It took some 15 years before he found happiness with a woman, and then she promptly died. He ultimately attempted suicide, which left him even more disfigured and in more pain, before finally dying, alone. After a short time of living an ideal life, he was struck down and became bitter and pessimistic. His whole outlook on life reversed. And I guess I can try to take the usual lessons from all this - that you should enjoy what you have while you have it, that a single incident can change the path of your life, etc. - but mostly I just feel bad for him. Stupid empathy.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed this book. It would make an excellent gift for the budding philosopher in your life or for the bitter old philosopher in your life. And it'll provide you with some great material for your next snooty cocktail party. "Sure, Ayn Rand's philosophy is embraced by some of Wall Street's major players, but she was a shrieking control freak in the bedroom..."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

11 Ways to Live Like Doctor Who

At 10:35 am on Sunday, January 2, I accepted Matt Smith into my heart.

I’d been resisting. I shuddered at his horrible Flock of Seagulls hair in the initial publicity photos. I shook my head at his age – damned kids! I frowned at his post-regeneration “Geronimo!” I kept myself emotionally distant from the entire run of his episodes, dismissing him as too goofy, too young, too something to really be The Doctor, the character I’d been watching since Pertwee.

I had hardened my heart against him.

And then, that fateful Sunday morning, as I dressed for church, I made a decision. I would put on a bow tie.

I’m not really a bow tie guy, even though I have an honest-to-goodness tie-it-from-scratch bow tie. I hadn’t worn it in years, but that morning I decided I would put it on, along with, yes, my tweed jacket. In short, I decided to dress like Matt Smith.

I don’t usually dress up like anyone in particular. Sure, I own a long Tom Baker-esque scarf. And I searched for glasses frames that were as much like David Tennant’s as possible, and now wear them every day. But otherwise, I keep my Star Trek insignia in my dresser drawer, my Indiana Jones fedora on the closet shelf and my Timothy Dalton-as-James-Bond leather jacket—oh, wait, I guess I do wear that one fairly often.
But I don’t often dress like Doctor Who.

Yet that Sunday I quite intentionally Matt Smith-ed myself. And as I did it, as I fumbled with and (with my wife’s intervention) finally tied that bow tie, I realized that I was looking forward to the next series. That I had accepted Matt Smith into full Doctorhood.

And it put a smile on my face. I looked at the bow tie and glasses look I’d affected, my own Tennant-Smith hybrid, and I began thinking about the Doctor, about all the wonderful blog posts I’d been reading at And I realized that more than just accepting Matt Smith in the role, I could go a step further. I could welcome the Doctor himself into my heart.

It’s a New Year, a time for (I have to say it) regeneration. And why not take to heart some of the lessons I’ve learned from the Doctor over these many decades. Why not try to be a little bit more like him—each one of him, in fact…

1.     Take action. The Doctor stole a TARDIS and went gallivanting around the cosmos. He landed on Skaro with his first companions – who promptly wanted to leave – so he sabotaged his own ship to give them a reason to hang out and explore. When he finds something evil, someone doing harm, he takes action. He doesn’t let tradition or overwhelming odds deter him. He does what he thinks is right.

2.     Be playful.  Play a musical instrument. The Doctor toodles on a recorder from time to time. And never underestimate the power of humor. He’s as quick with a joke as he is with the answer to a complex calculation. And just when you dismiss him as a meddling fool, he shows his true colors.
3.     Ask questions. Don’t blindly accept authority, especially authority figures. The Doctor rushes in to find out what’s really going on behind strange, seemingly impossible projects, to find out how things really work. He recognizes pseudo-science and does his best to expose the truth and help people choose the right path. And he only resorts to violence when absolutely necessary – and when he does so, it’s Venusian Aikido! Hiiii-Yah! Oh, wait I seem to have moved away from the idea of asking questions…
4.     Smile. Before the new series, the image most folks had of Doctor Who was the smiling man with the floppy hat and long scarf. And for good reason. This was a Doctor who disarmed folks with his good cheer. He confounds foes by offering them candy. He’s charming and brilliant and, for many people, he still is The Doctor.
5.     Feel compassion. The fifth Doctor brought with him a deep sense of feeling, of compassion for both his companions and everyone he encountered. He made the ultimate sacrifice for a companion he’d only known for one adventure (unless, of course, you count the many stories that Big Finish inserted into the gap between those two episodes).
6.     Wear whatever you want. Say what you want about the sixth Doctor’s horrible jacket, but it once again shows that fashion, for the Doctor, is whatever you make of it. Fortunately, you don’t ALWAYS have to dress in such an outrageous way, but it’s okay if you do so. Once in a while.
7.     Observe. The Doctor always knows what’s going on. No matter what he might seem to be doing at any given moment, he’s always keenly aware of his situation and surroundings. He makes connections. He looks for patterns. He connects the dots.
8.     Embrace change. Whether it’s an unexpected regeneration or an unexpected revelation, the Doctor doesn’t hesitate to accept changing circumstances. Wake up in a morgue? No problem. Just find a new set of clothes and go on with your day. And go ahead and kiss the girl. It’s okay.
9.     Know when to say No. Sometimes you have to put your foot down. Say “no” to unreasonable demands. Even if it seems like the odds are stacked against you and giving in is your only course of action, don’t be afraid to say “no.”
10. Dive into the unknown. Unable to predict the outcome of a certain choice? Don’t worry about it. Just go ahead and jump in. Strange new world ahead? Find out what it’s all about. Take that other road, make that left turn. See what’s out there. You never know what you might discover.

11. Be positive. There’s almost no situation that can bring the Doctor down. He always looks for the bright side. He’s optimistic even when it seems idiotic to be so. He sees the potential in everything and everyone. He doesn’t worry about what others think, because he knows in his hearts that bow ties are cool.

Need more advice on how to live life? Why not try to live more like Spock...

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Spock as Wisdom Figure

A few weeks ago, I performed a piece for Pecha Kucha night. It's a format in which each speaker shows 20 slides, and each slide is shown for 20 seconds. It began as a way for designers to show off their works, but has evolved into something a lot more freeform and interesting. I decided to do a sort of expansion of a piece I wrote as a writing exercise a couple years ago. I had fun performing it and thought I'd share it here.

UPDATE: Now you can also see a video of my presentation.

The writing instructor told us to choose a Wisdom Figure to write about.

I had to wrap my head around the term for a moment. Who is a wisdom figure to me?

I guess I should list Moses or Jesus or one of those bible guys. My high school drama teacher inspired me. But wisdom figure? The whole concept sort of stumped me.

And then I had a revelation.

Okay, so he's got pointy ears.  Yes, he's from another planet. Yes, he lacks emotions. Yes, he's fictional. But Spock is there, in my memory, in my views of the world, in the views of my own life. He stands there erect, hands clasped behind his back in an "at ease" position that I still mimic to this day.

He's loyal. Rational. Yes, I have to say it, he's logical. He appreciates the scientific method. And while he maintains a cool reserve, we all know that underneath he's got a seething cauldron of raw feelings boiling away, kept under control by a single upturned eyebrow. Puzzles are a challenge, a way to learn. And he usually handles conflict with a zen-like detachment.

He's a stranger amidst a crew of irrational humans, trying to understand the foreign language of emotional responses. For a kid who kept moving to new houses, new cities, new friends, why not rely on someone constant, someone whose judgment you could trust, who would loyally appear in your living room weekday afternoons at 4.

Spock as Wisdom Figure. Why not?

What could be a better greeting than Live Long and Prosper? It’s the first indication that the renowned Vulcan “logic” is not just lifeless and computational. It’s a philosophy of rationality, yes, but also of radical empathy. And it’s a blessing. Famously, Leonard Nimoy based the salute on a gesture he once saw a Rabbi perform.

Vulcans also celebrate diversity. This symbol – perhaps created cynically by Gene Roddenberry as a way to sell jewelry – represents the IDIC, or Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.  It’s a cornerstone of Vulcan philosophy and it makes sense. It’s logical to understand that the universe derives power from the diversity of its natural phenomena and its differing cultures.

Diversity invites democracy. Diversity is expansive, it invites the embrace of exploration, of change, of growth. It shows that the Logic Vulcans practice is not cold and computational. It affirms life and peace as well as the triumph of intelligence over force.

Spock says many times that it’s illogical to kill without reason.  That’s why he’s a vegetarian, why he’d rather nerve pinch one of his enemies than phaser him out of existence.  Spock is part-human, and we can sense that even though he suppresses his emotions, even though he might deny it, he still feels compassion, still feels empathy.

Remember the space hippies? Spock found common ground with them in their concept of One.  “One is the Bginning.” They sought peace, you  know, like hippies everywhere, and Spock knew of their ideas, maybe even respected them. He reached out to the hippies in a way that the establishment – Captain Kirk – never could.

He even jammed with them. Because Spock digs music. He plays an instrument – the Vulcan harp. Yes, the arts are important to the logical, unemotional Vulcans. And that makes sense. Music can help us reach places that words can’t always touch. It delve deep into our, yes, emotions, and move us in distinctly unrational ways.

And why not? After all, Spock also practices meditation. He contemplates the divide between self and the world, keeps himself in balance between the emotions he feels and the world in which he exists. Contrary to popular belief, Vulcans have emotions, they just keep them under control.

And Spock learned the value of feelings. As you watch the character grow from the original series to the movies, you can see the change. In the first movie he learned that a machine cannot experience the joy of touch, of physically connecting with others. And that experience changed him. Spock learns. He grows. He became comfortable with the balance between his emotional human half and his rational Vulcan self.

By the time of the latest movie, Spock has mellowed significantly. He’s literally a wise old man, a sage who’s extremely comfortable in his own ears, so much that, if you watch closely, he pretty nearly smiles at the end of the film. Fascinating.

He’s also a cheerleader for science. After all, the scientific method is simply the best tool we’ve yet devised to understand our surroundings. Careful experimentation, reason, making choices based on evidence rather than instinct or intuition. Emotions have their place, but reason and evidence usually bring us to the best conclusion.

The philosophy that sums up Spock’s experience? The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. You have to apply this idea on a case-by-case basis, of course, and that’s where logic fits in. If killing one person would save a million people from a nasty headache, do the needs of the many still outweigh the needs of the one? Probably not. But it’s worth spending time thinking about how your own personal needs conflict with the needs of the many - and whether there are instances where you might be able to put others' needs first.

And isn’t that the point underlying many of our earth-based philosophies? Some guy named Jesus said lots of stuff about subverting your own needs, your own desires, about giving away what you have and serving others. Spock serves others by operating as a vessel for science. He’s your first officer, your trusted advisor. Your friend. He’s got your back.

Sure, Kirk got the girls. But the girls WANTED Spock. And he truly understood -- if not himself, at least the world - the universe - around him. Maybe, one day, I'll be able to say the same. It's not logical, I know, but maybe, someday, it will be true. After all, sometimes I think he’s actually part of me, lurking deep within, forged in childhood, shaped in high school.

For a district speech contest, I had to perform a dramatic monologue. I chose a selection from Leonard Nimoy's book, I Am Not Spock, an internal dialogue section, in which Nimoy wrestles with the Spock inside himself. “Don’t forget that I’m real and you’re a fictional character,” says Nimoy. “Are you sure?” Spock replies.

Maybe, inside me, there's still a Spock, a logical creature, trying to get out. I know my wife thinks so. Since I didn’t cry at my wedding, nor at the birth of my children, I must be part Vulcan, she says. And I'll admit I'm insanely jealous of her ability to raise a single eyebrow, a trait that's passed me by, despite years of practice.

So Spock as wisdom figure. Why not embrace it? Yes, I am a nerd. And I can embrace the inner Vulcan, appreciate what I’ve learned from a TV character. I’m not going to go out and have my ears surgically altered. But I will go out of my way to say that I truly wish that all of us Live long and prosper.

Sources include Charlie Jane Anders “How You Can Live Like A Vulcan Without Bleeding Green” from
I Am Not Spock by Leonard Nimoy
Raised Vulcan Eyebrows and Hopeless Human Hopes” -
My sad nerdly brain