Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Month That Was - April 2014

The saying goes there are two seasons in Michigan: Winter and Construction.  With the receding of the glaciers the roads were revealed to be cratered like the surface of the Moon with potholes.  The end result is there is the potential for a construction traffic jam lurking around every corner.  I can't imagine this taking less the the bulk of the summer to sort out.  Never seen it so bad.

Perhaps it should be Winter and Projects season because I have my own projects.  I spent the better part of the tolerable weekends getting the yard into shape, all the while trying to get an electrician to call me back about some interior projects.

My new book -- let's generously call it a novella -- is out, at last.  More below but I've started on the next one already.  Perhaps it will be done before I die.

Apart from all that I am just looking forward to a summer of activity and some minor travel -- as usual.  No desire to do anything epic. Things have changed from when I wanted to make sure to seek out new experiences.  My mind is still open, but between working on the house and revisiting places I love, the urgency for adventure, however minor, has waned.  Perhaps that's only temporary.

[Books] Book Look: Basho's Inward Road
[TV] Going on a Binge
[Science] Cosmic Debris

[Books] Book Look: Basho's Inward Road, by David Mazzotta

Interestingly, everything I have seriously considered writing over the past three or four years has been modifications or adaptations -- riffs, if you will -- of existing works or characters.  Basho's Inward Road happens to be the first, and only so far, that has come to fruition.

Matsuo Basho is generally acknowledged to be Japan's greatest poet.  Among Japanese scholars he is probably thought of as we in the West think of Shakespeare.  He lived in the later half of the 17th century and gained much fame in his lifetime and is considered to be the grand master of Haiku. He wrote the most instantly recognizable Haiku to anyone native to Japan:

an ancient pond
a frog jumps in
the splash of water

In English translation, this, like most Haiku seems almost childish in its simplicity, but in the original tongue it (I am told, since I do not speak Japanese) it carries tremendous subtlety.  One can imagine that the source word for “ancient" conveys a great deal of scene setting, and that the “splash of water" indicated a very specific sort of sound.

Towards the end of his life, he went on a journey to the far reaches of Japan along with this friend and student Sora.  He documented his travels into a series of vignettes and injected many of them with poems.  It was released posthumously as The Narrow Road to the Interior and it was a great success.  To this day travelers in Japan attempt to retrace his steps in homage.

I can't recall how I first stumbled on The Narrow Road.  I suspect I read it out of curiosity and an offhand interest in Haiku and the nature of translation in general. It is a short work, novella-length at most, and I ended up reading numerous translations which varied in tone from near-Victorian-baroque-epic to simple-and-blunt-Google-Translate.

The poetry was interesting, but the inherent problem of translation really diminishes its value.  You could argue that all poetry fails in translation and you would probably be right.  The same could be said about its value as a travelogue.  But here and there, we are given glimpses of Basho's personality and state of mind.  This is where the real interest lies for me.

Basho was a rapidly aging bachelor who spent his time travelling, unsure of his motives and purpose, alternating between mortal anxiety and joyful engagement with the world.  Who does that remind you of?  So I decided to rewrite it in my image.  I embellished and “re-imagined" Basho and his adventures under the assumption that the thoughts and feelings I recognized in him were equivalent to mine and so I could add legitimate depth to them. For example, I added humor and a strong sense irony -- things that were only hinted at in the original, but that I know to be essential in the make-up of any successful traveller.  I kicked up the moments of anxiety and worked hard to contrast them with moments of acceptance and resign.  I brought a more colloquial sense to the work and to the poetry.  I changed to arrangement but song remains the same.

This book has no hope of commercial success.  It's a personal project based on a 300 year old book from a distant land.  To call it esoteric is an understatement.   It's short -- barely a novella -- it could easily be read on a single plane ride or while you're waiting at the auto shop.  It's Kindle only so it's cheap -- $1.99.  If you're curious, you can get a copy for less than a latte.  My only wish is that it has some value for a few people -- that it connects in a small way.  If it does, please drop me a note

[TV] Going on a Binge

I've finally got around to that new national pastime, binge TV watching. Now mind you, for me binge watching is not a hammer-through-an-entire-season-in-one-sitting-until-your-eyes-shrivel sort of activity. I'm talking 5 or 6 episodes a week. Maybe 2 in one sitting now and then.

Terriers -- A cult favorite. A pair of low-end private eyes -- a disgraced ex-cop and a two-bit burglar he arrested at one point -- cracking wise and solving crimes. Exceptionally well executed with sort of a crime of the week along with a season long build up of a larger mystery. The writing is terrific, just crackles with wit at times. Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James had great chemistry as the leads solving crimes in their beat up little pickup truck. So there's no mistake, this is not pantheon level stuff, but it is absolutely state of the art police procedural with minimal contrivance.

Everybody who watched it loved it, but nobody watched it. It's a shame that building an audience through catch-up binge watchers wasn't on anybody's radar back then because I have no doubt it would have picked up a whole lot of steam over the seasons had it been allowed to. I really hope networks are beyond abandoning an obviously high quality show for poor first season ratings. (Case in point, had they done that Big Bang Theory would never have become the huge money machine that it is for them.) Here's a good gauge of what the cancellation of Terriers cost: imagine if nobody watched the first season of Justified and it got cancelled. That would have been a big loss. I think that's effectively the level of loss by cancelling Terriers. We lost a great show and FX lost the eyeballs of a future audience for years to come -- people like me.

Veronica Mars -- Another cult favorite although a much more successful one. So much so that they have basically done a 10 year anniversary reunion theatrical movie a couple of years early.

Veronica Mars has two obvious precedents. 1) Nancy Drew. Veronica is a high school girl who helps out her Dad in his investigation business, but spends plenty of time branching out on her own. 2) Buffy. Veronica is a little blonde girl who is actually a bad ass. No vampires, but there is a seasonal Big Bad. Action in pursuit of justice and right is intertwined with her circle of schoolmates and their shifting positions as friends, enemies, rivals, and loves.

In fact, Veronica Mars is just laden with cliches. The motivating force behind most of the episodic conflict is class warfare; Neptune High School has rich and poor factions, and the rich kids are all mean and spoiled and crush people through peer pressure, and the poor kids are good-hearted and oppressed and do bad things out of desperation. The big bads are authority figures who hurt kids. The Mars' have no qualms about any violation of privacy or criminal activity in the name of justice for their clients or friends.

It all sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it isn't. It's actually terrific. I credit the writing to some extent. There's not a lot of fat in these scripts. They are well-honed, sharp, and witty with little exposition. 22 episodes a year is tough, but Veronica Mars seems to keep things fresh by angling off into new subplots rather than getting overly detailed. They seem to be quite comfortable opening and resolving minor character development points in the course of a couple of scenes. Also the core relationship of the series is the relationship of Veronica to her father, and Kristen Bell (Veronica) and Enrico Colantoni (her father Keith) have this wonderful, easy-going, good humored, delivery. The side characters vary from annoying to enjoyable, but again, there is no dwelling on the rough edges, no wasted sequences. The overall effect makes it very engaging. I have not reached season three (the last) yet and I've read the quality drops off. But at least through season two Veronica Mars is very worth the binge.

Deadwood - Yes, I have waxed on about the beauty of Deadwood before, but HBO Signature started running them one episode a day and it still puts all other TV writing to shame. Every other word is f***ing or c***sucker and it is still the most poetic dialogue ever heard on TV and would compare well with the best of any drama (David Mamet, for example, who is great and honored in this respect, doesn't approach it).

Despite that, I can't recommend it universally. Having to pay attention to think about dialogue is not a part ot TV watching for most people. Others would never get past the frankness and coarseness to catch the beauty of the meter and pacing and plot structure. To a lot of folks it would just be just a ugly, dirty Western with cruelty and swearing. Compound that with the driving concept which is a dramatization of how a place moves from Barbarism to Civilization, and you end with something so far from the mainstream that it can't be watched casually. Still, if you're one of the ones who gets it, you know it has no peer.

The Future - When TV cools off this summer, after Mad Men and Game of Thrones close up for their respective seasons, I plan on going through a couple more series, probably The Americans and Silicon Valley and maybe something else, suggestions welcome.

[Science] Cosmic Debris

Just some links of some scientific relevance.

I previously discuss the validation of the Theory of Inflation for the pre-Big Bang universe, but here's a nice easy summary, along with an angle on the key scientist, Alan Guth. I was especially impressed with the story of his high school teacher who, realizing Guth was already way beyond anything he could teach, pulled him out of class, handed him a college level physics textbook, and told him to teach himself. Today he'd probably be fired for encouraging elitism or something.

As I also alluded to previously the big discoveries regarding Inflation and the Higgs Boson, while brilliant, don't really get us much closer to figuring out why there is so much darkness (matter and energy). This article suggests the answer most likely lies in the study of neutrinos where, instead of theory confirmations, we the unexpected.

But you want to get really out there, someone seems think they may have an explanation for the “Arrow of Time". Unlikely virtually everything else in the universe, time can only go in one direction, it's not reversible. Cosmologists find this deeply annoying. Matthew McConaughey believes it is because the time is a flat circle, but the folks here think it is an outgrowth of quantum entanglement -- what Einstein called spooky action at a distance. Personally, I think it may just be bad luck.