imperial, mysterious, in amorous array

Tomorrow, as I’ve mentioned once or twice already, I’ll have the honor of marrying two of my best friends in the world – John Fraley and Melissa Carubia.

A portion of this weblog’s audience knows the two of them already. Many of you will attend the ceremony. But for those of you who aren’t, here’s a preview of what I’ve put together for the readings.

Entrance Music: Melissa will walk down the aisle, supported by her dad, to Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” (the nine-minute version):

First Reading: The maid of honor will read the entire text of Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy”:

Second Reading: The best man will read selections of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” He’s already been coached on the appropriate use of unpredictable changes in timbre and long silences to underscore the points he finds important.

Interlude: Eleven minutes of shortform improv from A Sparkle in the Sprocket, Lesley University’s second least-terrible improv troupe. No suggestions from the audience will be taken.

Music: A performance of the “Pas de Six” from Benjamin Britten’s Prince of the Pagodas. The bridesmaids will don tutus and ballet shoes to portray the palace guards; the groom, a unitard and codpiece to portray the salamander who turns into a prince. Officiant will cover during the time it takes to change by finding fault with audience members’ apparel.

Third Reading: The third and climactic act of “A Matter of Perspective,” the third season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in which Riker is accused of impropriety on Tanuga IV and a court is convened on the holodeck.

Ritual Combat: To first blood.

Vows Exchanged: In the interest of deviating from tradition, the audience will read the vows aloud. Each program is printed with a different word of the vows, which must be read in order. Hopefully the audience will have sorted the order out amongst themselves by this point; if not, get comfortable.

Outrelude: Another six minutes of improv.

Exit: Bride and groom exit the hall to Radiohead’s “Treefingers”:

It’s going to be magic. Looking forward to seeing you there!


the past is prologue

At or around 625 B.C., the great Median empire, in what is now Iran, staggered from crippling blows. The Assyrians had slain the Median king Phraortes. The Median armies, though vast in number, had no tactical organization or formation; they were “all mixed up in a mob,” according to the historian Herodotus. And when Phraortes’ son Cyaxares led a march on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, a surprise attack by the Scythians scattered his forces, costing the Medians the better part of their power.

From these setbacks, Cyaxares would reunite Media and not only slaughter his enemies, but go on to expand Media further. First, the King of the Medes invited the Scythians, nomads and lusty warriors, to a gigantic feast. Getting his enemies drunk, the Medians then slaughtered them. In order that he would succeed where his father failed, Cyaxares then allied with Babylon in order to destroy the city of Nineveh, looting and ruining it utterly. In the course of his conquests, Cyaxares organized the Median army into ruthless efficiency, separating infantry, archers and cavalry. At the height of its power, the Medes received tribute from the Persians, Armenians, Parthians and Aryans: all the greatest forces of the ancient world.

The Medes’ rise to prominence troubled Alyattes, fourth king of Lydia. Alyattes ruled the vast kingdom in what is today Turkey, and launched wars of conquest with caution and cunning. He made a policy of pillaging his enemies without ruining them, allowing them to recover for later harvest. Herodotus notes that, in his annual invasions of neighboring Miletus, Alyattes “refrained from demolishing houses in order that the Milesians, having somewhere to live, might continue to work the land and sow their seed, with the result that he himself would have something to plunder each time he invaded the country.” Capable, and possessed of great foresight, Alyattes had every reason to fear a union between Media and Babylon.

For five years, the Lydians and the Medians clashed regularly, with the balance of victories split very evenly. Each great empire had just cause to fear the other, but the early assaults matured into a relentless conflict. The feuding had reached the intensity of a bonfire when the great armies met in western Turkey, at the Halys River. They charged, filling the sky with arrows and plowing through ranks of spearmen with heavy horse.

Then, as Herodotus records, “the day was turned suddenly into night.” A total solar eclipse plunged the world into darkness at noon.

Now, the men of Lydia and Medes weren’t ignorant savages. A darkening of the sun would not strike a civilized man as the work of demons. In fact, this same eclipse had been predicted by Thales of Miletus, to the exact day and year. Nevertheless, the generals must have taken it as a sign, because both armies lay down their weapons. The empires of Lydia and Medes made truce. Alyattes gave his daughter to the son of Cyaxares, and marriage sealed the bonds of peace. The Median empire crumbled under the rule of Cyaxares’ son, and soon joined the Assyrians and Scythians in the furnaces of history.

The battle at the Halys river, which produced the peace between empires, occurred exactly two thousand, five hundred and ninety-four years ago, today. I can say this with some certainty, unlike most dates in ancient history. And that in and of itself is astonishing.

Nothing in the fragmented records of historians, who were themselves borrowing from hearsay, gives us this kind of precision … except a total solar eclipse.

By pinning an astrological event to a point in history, we establish not just one date – the last exchange between Lydia and Medes – but dozens of dates surrounding it. From those dozens, we can pinpoint hundreds more, a starburst of concrete information exploding outwards from a single conflict and a single solar occurrence. Combining two unrelated fields, the physical science of astronomy and the social science of history shifts the picture from two dimensions to three. History evolves from guesswork into certainty.

All this from a single clue. Historians refer to May 28, 585 BC as one of the cardinal dates of history – a point of certainty whereby other dates can be established. It’s the Rosetta Stone of the ancient calendar, the Grand Central Station through which the empires of the old world pass. The past is no longer a mystery to us. We know what happened, and, for the first time, when. When one astronomer from a conquered province took the time to predict a solar eclipse and make his prediction known, he gave the future an inestimable gift.

The moral of the story: write everything down.

nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by

I found a new karaoke spot on Friday: the bar beneath the Charles Playhouse in Boston’s theatre district. Small turnout for a Friday, though Memorial Day weekend might have contributed to that.

A few friends had turned out for Dave C’s twenty-ninth birthday. “I wanted one last big bash,” he said. “I’ve noticed that I have different priorities in an evening as I get older. I can’t bounce back from those big nights out any more.”

I agreed with him. But that strikes me as an excuse to schedule your Saturday mornings wisely, not to cut short your Fridays.

# # #

I missed my car (in the shop – over one thousand dollars of spring and strut work) most acutely on Sunday, when I had to hoof it to Brighton to grab a burger wih Sylvia then back to Cambridge to have a drink with Pre-Doctor Margaret N. But the benevolent confluence of the Red Line, the #66, the D Line and the #1 made it all work.

The evening brought me through a gamut of bars, too – from the 112 beers on tap at the Sunset Grill in Allston to the cultivated dinge that is the People’s Republik. Does anyone else think a 112-beer tap is wasted on 90% of Allston residents?

# # #

Explored the bike path in Davis Square with Andrea on a balmy Monday afternoon. We passed and were passed by a record number of cyclists, enjoying the shaded ride and the air free of humidity.

“That dog looks lost,” she remarked, commenting on a pug that had planted its feet in the middle of the sidewalk.

I indicated the pug’s owners, a mom and her toddler pedaling a few yards away. “The dog knows what it’s doing. It can wait all day if it has to.”

I also hit up Joanna’s annual barbecue in Porter Square, eating some grilled sausage and listening to Serpico recount earlier adventures in New Jersey.

“It’s a massive grown-up arcade and restaurant complex,” he was saying, of Xanadu, “that looks like nothing so much as a stack of shipping containers dumped in the parking lot of Giants Stadium. There’s no way that place can be making money.”

“Well, sure,” I said. “Based on the set of books you’re looking at.”

“True. There’s probably a wealth of boxed-up arcade games in there that’ll burn real easy.”

“Or just vanish overnight. ‘Hey, it’sa one ‘a dem extremely local collapsars. Just sucked everyding into its event horizon. Whaddaya gonna do?'”

revelations 21:4

“Did that guy just check you out?”
“Who?” I asked. It was a cool Saturday – high 60s, sunny, not much breeze – and we were lounging on a park bench in Boston’s Public Garden.
“That guy that just walked by.”

The gentleman in question: early fifties, Mediterranean complexion, expensive gray suit and a fat wristwatch. He passed by our bench to join a similar man and a boy younger than me (his son?) two benches down.

“No, he’s a bodyguard,” I replied glibly. “Just making sure I’m not a threat.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, you see how he sits on a different bench than the rest of the party? That’s the principal; he’s the bodyguard.”
“This is you doing your whole ‘I wish I were a spy’ thing.”

# # #

“I love cities,” I said later. We had an excellent view of the Boston skyline above the trees. “I took the train to Baltimore about a month ago. It passed through New York, on this big sweeping arc that skirts the island before taking you underground to Penn Station. So we got this extended view of the Manhattan skyline. It overwhelmed me for a second.”
“I could never live in a city that big. People everywhere, buildings blotting out the sky.”
“That’s the point,” I insisted.

# # #

Bagpipes struck up from the other end of the garden. A piper led a procession along the asphalt path, winding through the Garden to a secluded copse of trees eighty yards away. The piper returned a few minutes later, talking with one of the wedding party about his work in a genuine Scottish burr. “Did a show up in Dedham recently,” he was saying.

Twenty minutes later, the piper came back the same way, this time leading the bridal party.

“That’s a bit of a wait between entrances, isn’t it?” I observed.
“It’s the guy!”
“The one who was checking you out.” The Mediterranean fifty-year-old supports the arm of his tanned daughter, beaming in her white dress.
“So he wasn’t checking me out,” I explained, “and he wasn’t a bodyguard. He was making sure we wouldn’t get in the way.”
Sure enough, the bridal party passes within six feet of us, sitting on our bench just off the path. If my legs had been splayed out – the way they often are when I get comfy on a park bench – the procession would have had to arc a little to avoid me.

# # #

A couple in their late forties, healthy weight around their midsection, tumbled into a cuddle on a hollow in the lawn. The woman rested her head on her husband’s chest; he languidly stroked her bare arm. Soon the two of them were kissing, then making out passionately, legs thrown over each other. It was a pleasant Saturday in downtown Boston; probably one hundred people passed them every ten minutes.

The wedding continued about fifty feet away. All part of the circle of life.

# # #

“Every now and then you poke your head out of your shell.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Very rarely. And it takes so much work.”
“I’m proud of my mask,” I said. “I put a lot of effort into making it.”

# # #

We took a detour as we exit the Public Gardens, finding a statue on a pillar in an empty fountain. Trees in bloom surrounded it, blocking out the sunlight as thoroughly as the New York skyline. The statue atop the pillar was Morpheus, god of sleep, cradling a dying child in his arms.

The inscription on one face of the pillar read: In gratitude for the relief of human suffering by the inhaling of ether a citizen of Boston has erected this monument A.D. MDCCCLXVII.

On another face, it reads: Neither shall there be any more pain – Rev..

“This is my favorite statue in the garden. I always try to look for it every time I’m here.”

I didn’t say that. For a while, I didn’t say anything.

a highly critical review of the first 1:30 of NBC’s Supertrain

(Why only the first minute-thirty of Supertrain, NBC’s notoriously poor 1979 television drama about a luxury train and the lives of its passengers? Because you’re busy people, for one thing – you don’t have time to waste on an entire two hour pilot when you can dispose of a 30-year-old show in less than two minutes.

But, more importantly, I feel the first 90 seconds of this piece of garbage indicate the flaws that would poison the entire product. In the terrible dialogue, shitty cinematography and ludicrous plot of the pre-credits sequence, you see a synecdoche for the entire nine episode disaster. The part stands in for the whole.

Enough metonymy! Enough preamble! On with the pablum!)

N.B. You have T.C. to thank for this)

A Highly Critical Review of the First 1:30 of NBC’s Supertrain

Seriously. Just watch the first one minute and thirty seconds, then press Pause. I’ll wait.

… back with us? Right. Here we go:

The Opening Shot: From the very first fade-up from black we’re already in trouble. I don’t know what the photographer wanted to convey about this remarkably cramped board of executives. Are they bold captains of industry, leading us into a future full of supercars and superjets? Are they demons of greed, willing to sacrifice the lives of thousands of passengers in the name of profit? Neither. This off-kilter crane shot tells us that these men are mere Legos for the viewer to manipulate and discard at will.

The Opening Monologue: Apparently, the “Federal Department of Transportation” (because Winfield, the CEO, doesn’t even pick up the fucking phone if it’s Municipal or lower) has called Winfield in for help on “the pitiful state of rail passenger travel in this country today.” “As a result,” he slurs, “Trans-Allied Corporation will construct, starting from scratch, the first continental railroad built in this country in seventy-five years.”

The Board reacts visibly, none of them having read the memo or remembered the phone call or even asked Winfield why they got called in.

Winfield soldiers on. “An atom-powered, steam turbine machine,” he explains – revolutionary, of course, since lumber and coal certainly aren’t made of atoms. “Capable of crossing this country in thirty-six hours. And coupling that locomotive to the most luxurious, most comfortable best served train of coaches ever designed.” So, four times slower than a commercial jet-liner and, with all those amenities, at least twice as expensive. Hell of a business plan, Winfield.

I’m Not Done Bitching About The Cinematography: As if to apologize for the awkward crane shot that opened this fiasco, every subsequent shot crams as many faces into the screen as possible. When Winfield speaks, we see his aviator-wearing bodyguard smirking behind him and the sides of at least two other people’s heads. As he outlines the extravagance of his plan (“thirty. six. hours“), the camera pans down the greasy, jowled faces of the Board – I swear, it’s like a buffet of gravel painted to look like ham – in claustrophobic detail. If I could rent out a theater and show this on a big screen without getting sued by Trans-Allied, I would, just for the terror these faces would inflict on a 20-foot scale.

Now See Here: Shockingly enough, this plan to lasso three hundred civilians to a nuclear power plant and rocket it across the country on an untested railroad line has a detractor. He sits at the exact opposite end of the table, as detractors must by law, and waits for a break in the rambling before saying his piece.

“You know what I think, Winfield?” he asks. Then he tells us: “You’re letting your psychotic fascination with railroads [sic] lead you into a suicidal gamble with the future of this company!” Heads nod in agreement.

While I’m glad someone in this wood-lacquered closet has an eye for the bottom line I don’t quite get his objection, for the following reasons:

  • Isn’t a fascination with railroads understandable? I hear it was rather common among boys who grew up around the turn of the (last) century – machinery and timetables and vast quantities of freight and all that. Maintaining that hobby into one’s golden years might be a bit eccentric, sure, but I hesitate to call it psychotic.

    (Well, all right, Winfield did murder all those people six years ago. Bringing it up now is bad form, though)

  • Wait – what the hell does Trans-Allied Corporation actually do? I assumed for the first minute or so that they were already in the railroad business. But this guy’s objections suggest they aren’t (since a “fascination with railroads” would be tolerable – almost a prerequisite – for the CEO of a railroad company).

    So what is it they make? Nuclear reactors? Steel? Scarves? Whatever the hell it is, why did the Federal Department of Transportation give them permission to build a nuclear train and the four thousand miles of track necessary to run it? “Well, Trans-Allied has next to zero experience in construction projects of a cross-continental scale, having invested vast fortunes in skate keys and pet rocks. But they seem so damn determined!”

You Forgot One Thing: My Impending Death: But Winfield’s got a honey of a rejoinder lined up. “So you think it’s a gamble, do you? Well, gentlemen, since I can count my remaining years on the fingers of one hand, from my point of view it’s not much of a gamble at all.”

Okay, hold up:

  • That’s your idea of reassurance? “Gentlemen, you raise some interesting objections. But I’m five years from the grave! My ideas are clearly sound.”

  • Unless perhaps this is some oblique and cynical reference to the inefficiency of all government contracts! It took twenty-five years to complete the Big Dig (from initial planning to project completion), and that was just one city. Can you imagine how long it would take to build a never-before-seen type of rail line, capable of supporting a nuclear reactor that could travel at over one hundred miles per hour, that would cross a dozen states?

    Winfield must be grinning like a fiend behind that bushy mustache of his. “I’m going to lock us into the biggest boondoggle since Teapot Dome,” he’s saying, “and then die before the first rail gets laid! Hope you like federal prison, dicks!”

  • If I ever get the opportunity to tell a room full of people that I can “count my remaining years on the fingers of one hand,” I’m only holding up one finger. And I think you know which one.

The Big Reveal: Having dropped that turd right in the middle of the table, Winfield stumbles around to a covered portrait. “I give you – SUPERTRAIN!” The board oohs and aahs at the gorgeous painting.

Again with the nitpicking:

  • “Your objections are irrelevant. I’ve already started this hideously expensive project and called this meeting as a courtesy. And by courtesy, I mean ‘slap in the face with my dick.'”

  • The Board’s awfully impressed at a painting. Well! I didn’t think his plan was feasible before, but he’s got some concept art. And check out that bitching frame. I have seen the Supertrain and believe; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.

Roll opening credits. Cue disco theme song. Enter the Supertrain.

I would urge you to watch the rest of the pilot episode, but I assure you it gets even dumber. Intolerably dumb. The pointless board meeting held in Grandpa’s basement is the high point of the first ninety minutes. You’ve seen everything you need to see – bad camera work, stupid dialogue and a plot that can’t shoot straight. I’m amazed NBC let it go five episodes, much less five months.

you see the face on the TV screen, coming at you every sunday

When I called the Internet out last week, asking for the one season of Buffy I had to watch, I took a little flak for the following comment:

“Oh, but you really have to watch these episodes from Season X-1 in order to get Season X.” If that’s true, then Whedon fails as a writer and everything I’ve ever said about him is true. Network television is episodic – it uses a formula to fill a structure. A viewer should be able to pick up any episode of a good TV show and follow along. I might laugh a little more at recent episodes of (say) The Office if I knew that Dwight and Angela used to sleep together, but the episode should still work as a story if I don’t know that.

So now, a series of retractions and clarifications.

First, this probably isn’t something Whedon is guilty of. Whedon’s a master of the sitcom art, capable of making memorable (if not interesting) characters and putting them in situations that escalate at a good clip. He has a season-wide arc as well as an episode-length arc, and that’s fine. But he doesn’t script boring episodes up front and save the interesting characterization for later (Dollhouse being the apparent exception).

However, I am not making the above quote up. People say that to defend TV shows all the time. Babylon 5, for instance: every time someone recommends that I watch that show, I remind them that the dialogue is terrible, the acting pretty mediocre, the plots ridiculous, and even the setting’s a bit of a laugh (the good guys are “the Rangers”; the bad guys are “the Shadow”; got it). And the funny thing is, the show’s staunchest defenders agree with all this. But they insist I try the show anyway because “Stracynzski has such a complete vision. If you watch the whole thing, you’ll see what he was getting at.” I’m sure. But I’m not going to give up 88 hours of my life just to sit back at the end with a reflective “Huh.”

Furthermore, some folks tried to defend that ridiculous proposition. “You wouldn’t say each chapter in a novel has to stand alone,” someone said. Well, no. Nobody does. A chapter is not meant to stand alone. The chapter division of novels is largely artificial – a holdover from serialization, a method of introducing suspense and delineating plot points. But each chapter is not meant to have its own arc. This analogy fails because novels and episodic television are different things, and you can’t evaluate one medium by the standards of another.

That being said, this requirement that each episode in a TV series stand on its own merits belongs primarily to network TV. Cable television doesn’t have to worry about this as much – premium channels, like HBO or Showtime, even less. It’s a function of how advertisers pay for airtime and track a show’s success on a week-by-week scale. That’s a limit on the medium, sure, and it’d be silly to confine a medium to its established limits. But it’d also be silly to expect a show to succeed which blatantly ignores those limits.

I don’t know why I spent so many pixels defending a proposition that doesn’t apply to Whedon (as far as Buffy is concerned). But I like explaining myself.

it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor

I haven’t been religious for more than a decade now. From the day I decided to walk away from religion I’ve never missed it. It fills no essential role in my life, either ethically or logically. I almost forget what it was like to be religious.

But I have noticed one thing missing: the sense of community.

Church, or temple, or the mosque: these are all great places to meet a broad cross-section of neighbors. Consider that the people you see at your place of worship, you might never run into otherwise. They don’t work at your office; they don’t belong to your community pool; they don’t date your friends. But once a weekend, you show up at the same place. You bake stale brownies for the same picnics, assemble the same houses on church retreats to the Appalachians and chaperone the same pool parties. You’re forced to meet people whose paths would never cross yours normally.

Networking like that improves the quality of your life. The broader and stronger your network, the better the type of jobs, perks and friends you’ll find. Oh, you’re in the market for a car? My cousin’s a dealer out in Springfield – he’s been trying to offload some inventory. Or: sixth grade, you said? My daughter just entered sixth grade at that private school up in Clinton; she loves it. And my wife sits on the school board. Let me give you our number.

Religious services work like that, in a way few other groups do, because of the disparate interests they draw in. Other groups – professional organizations, amateur sports teams, bar-hopping circles of friends – can approach that level of networking success, but they can never duplicate it. You need the random-but-not-quite sampling that a faith draws in – people who believe enough in common to talk to each other, but not so much that they have nothing to say.

I’ve been part of like-minded atheist experiments – the Boston Objectivist Network being the most successful – but it’s never quite the same. And I think this is why religious people will enjoy a statistical, and thus political, advantage over the non-religious for decades to come. They have instant networks. They have a voter base – or, more importantly, a movement base – that can easily be tapped into. Atheists do not.

I’m not saying you should join a church you don’t believe in for the free brownies and car washes. But I’m always looking for ways to expand my network.