musings, thoughts, and writings of Barbara W. Klaser

May 3, 2009

Office Cat

OfficeCatclick to enlarge

Our home office is in the second bedroom, where we’ve removed the closet doors and added storage shelves. As soon as she was big enough to jump that high, Tara began insisting that one particular spot, on a shelf at about my eye level, was hers. She started pushing things out of the way, and wouldn’t leave it alone. Finally I gave in and cleared a space for her. (The shelf doesn’t really sag, that’s a trick of the lens.)

She’s asleep there right now, so shhh!

Cats always know their place. Humans can only get out of the way.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 5:04 pm PST, 05/03/09

April 20, 2009

Catnip anyone? No?

My strange little cat, Tara, doesn’t like catnip. But she loves valerian root. I never knew until she came along that some cats like that. I saw it mentioned on a humane society site and decided to try it — based on her love of dirty socks, which smell about the same. She goes nuts over it. Valerian root is the one thing she’ll sit up and beg for. Catnip? She reacts to that about the same way some kids react to vegetables. It’s just not for her. But she has learned the sound of someone opening the cabinet and bottle that hold the valerian root. She can be in an entirely different part of the house, but as soon as I reach for that bottle she materializes beside me.

Thanks to Sarah for the post prompt.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 8:13 am PST, 04/20/09

April 19, 2009

Local festivals

Today is our local Avocado Festival. I don’t plan to go this year. My spouse went very early, before the crowds arrived, for some fresh produce and a carne asada burrito.

I would’ve titled this post with the name of the actual festival we had here in town today, except that I’m going to criticize it a little bit, and I don’t want to cast a shadow over that particular event for any locals who otherwise enjoy it. My criticism isn’t about just our Avocado Festival.

The positive side is, I’m eating a strawberry. That’s always a good thing. In fact, I’m rich today, with three little baskets of strawberries and a good week or two’s supply of avocados. Not only that, we got some of the avocados for free, from a local business near one of the avocado packing plants. Presumably they’re cast offs from the preparation for the festival, since they aren’t very pretty ones. But they’re still delicious, and dead ripe, so I already got to enjoy some for breakfast. My favorite way to eat avocado is mashed with salt and pepper and spread on toast. Since I live with my favorite bread baker, this is the ultimate easy (for me) and delicious breakfast.

My rant is not about the immense crowd that will be there later today, even though I’m not a crowd person. I can handle crowds, and even enjoy them, in small doses. My rant is not about the local vendors who show up each year. It’s not even about the non-local vendors who show up there. After all, everybody’s got to make a buck, right? Some of the vendors are wonderful.

You can get the best local tacos, tamales, and burritos at our Avocado Festival that you’ve ever eaten, and there’s always a nice supply of fresh avocados, of course. Then there’s the standard fair fare, funnel cakes and lemonade and . . . well, the list goes on. We don’t buy most of that standard fair food, so I’m not even aware of what it all is. We usually go for the Mexican food. Some of it’s not available year round, even here, because it’s from groups or businesses that put out a special effort just for the festival. It’s a rare treat, and one of the great draws of the festival for us in the years we attend.

In the years that we attend, we’ve learned to walk there early, as soon as the booths are opening. That way we avoid the biggest crowds and the worst heat.

I’m not sure why, but the day of the Avocado Festival is always hot, even though we can get some pretty cool weather in April. Three days ago we had a high of something like 67 degrees Fahrenheit and the nighttime temp dipped into the low 40s. I wore long sleeves all day, and sometimes a sweater. Yesterday the high was over 80, and today promises to be at least that. (Update, it got up to 93 in town today!) But as usual, of those two weather patterns, the festival happens to fall on the warmer day. Or should I say the warmer day happens to fall on the festival day — the festival was planned well in advance.

Because of the heat and the larger size of the crowd later in the day, and some combination of those factors that seems to make everyone tired and cranky by afternoon, the feeling of the late day crowd changes in a way that becomes distinctly unpleasant for me. So if I don’t go early, I’m not likely to go at all. In fact, I’d just as soon the booths opened at six in the morning rather than nine.

What bothers me about the festival is now fairly universal, I suspect, to local festivals and fairs all over the country. There are very few locals selling handcrafts and artwork anymore. Many of the vendors that sell non-food and non-produce items — and some of the food vendors as well — have traveled from other places. Some of them make the rounds of, possibly, every local festival and county fair in the state, and maybe more than one state. Some are from industry, manufacturers’ representatives selling things like secure mailboxes and automatic sprinkler systems, the sorts of things you expect at home shows and trade fairs, not unique to an Avocado Festival. Some are selling manufactured clothing and home decoration items that I can buy at a department store or a swap meet. The traveling vendors have always been around, but lately they seem to be the only ones. Where are the locals? To me this trend of increasing numbers of non-local vendors is like finding the same chain restaurants everywhere you travel. That used to disappoint me when traveling on business. If there’s any perk to having to take business trips, it’s discovering local eateries that are unique to the city you’re visiting. But if you travel to another place only to eat at Outback or Chilis, you might as well have stayed home. Why go to the local festival to buy the same items that will be sold at the county fair two months from now? More importantly, why go to find items you can buy at the department or hardware store? The point of a local festival, I thought, was to find things that can be found in only one place, to celebrate that location’s unique qualities and products.

I’m glad that we still have some local businesses that sell food and a few other items there. In the years I attend, if I go early, I can pick and choose which places to visit, and I usually enjoy myself. But I miss the kinds of things we used to see more of and that I always loved festivals and fairs for: handcrafts, local artists’ work, and those really unique and unusual items that once were only found at local fairs. They seem be rare these days, almost extinct.

I’m sure there’s a reason for this. Perhaps it has to do with the process of arranging to sell at one of these events, that it’s become so business-oriented that it shuts out local artists and craftspeople. Perhaps people don’t have time anymore to make things themselves and arrange to sell them locally unless that’s their full time business. If it is their full time business, they likely have to travel from fair to fair to make it pay off year-round.

We see some of those traveling vendors selling beautiful things, like handmade herbal soaps, stunning hand-carved gourd art, and some unique pottery. It’s great stuff, and I’m glad it’s there. But, whatever the reason it’s not there, I still find the lack of local handcrafts and artwork at these events sad. I know some of the vendors hate it when I ask, “Are you from around here?” But I continue to ask. It doesn’t mean that I won’t buy what they’re selling, if I love it and can afford it. But I can’t help being more enthusiastic about finding local goods that I love at our local festival.

The only other rant I have is, where are the hats? This is the time of year our warm weather sets in. In the past I’ve arrived at the festival only to wish I’d brought a hat. I can’t be the only one. There used to be hats for sale all over the place there. I usually bought my hat there to use for yard work or walking around in the sun for any reason, because it was the right time of year and they had a nice selection for good prices. Last year I hardly saw any hats. Maybe they were there and so few that I never came across them. I hope at least the hats were back this year.

Last year, too few local handcrafts, too few hats. This year I’m not going to the festival. Can anyone connect the dots?

Maybe the real problem is that I’m not like other people who attend. Maybe most people prefer mass-manufactured, universally available things. Who knew that would become the major draw of a local festival? Maybe it’s just me.

In any case, I’m happy for the strawberries and avocados. It’s a good day.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 11:09 am PST, 04/19/09

April 13, 2009

I know there’s something good happening out there

I’ve been in a horribly bad mood, mainly due to family troubles of the kind that make me feel helpless and small — the news of the death of my oldest brother, and my dad’s loss of independence due to a stroke. I’ve also had some just silly bad luck at home, little things like stubbing a toe so hard a few days ago that I worried it was broken (it’s still sore), straining my back lifting a bag of cat litter yesterday, frustration over the economic crunch that everyone is feeling, when I really could use a newer more reliable car. Why is it that bad news and events seem to come in these overwhelming groupings that feel as if they’ll never end — or, if that isn’t what’s happening, why is it that my mind seems to make even the small problems feel big, once it starts on a downward spiral?

Today I knew I needed to crawl out of this hole I found myself in. I’ve been avoiding the news, because that usually just makes me feel worse, and worse was definitely not what I needed. I know some people think that’s an unrealistic attitude, but I find the news unrealistic, in its focus on everything bad and very little good except nonsensical news about the personal lives of celebrities — people who would likely just as soon be left alone when it comes to personal matters.

I decided to search for some positive news on the Internet, and I found this story on a blog called Great Pet Net that I thought I should share in case anyone else could use a lift: Jasmine the Mother Theresa Greyhound. Dogs tend to have a healing way about them, all around, in my opinion. But this one is exceptional. She certainly had a distant healing effect on me.

It’s a beautiful spring day here. Flowers are blooming, in spite of the gopher that keeps eating them. (Our gopher loves California poppies and nasturtiums. What does yours like?) The The Hooded Orioles arrived early from Mexico, and one almost flew right into me yesterday, maybe because I was wearing green and blended with the plants. Later I watched three Red-tailed Hawks circle the sky above our house. Clouds sail across the sky today in a stiff, delicious ocean breeze. My cat Tara is always up for a game of chase or a tumble with toys. Someone I care about is playing Bach on the piano in the next room.

Yesterday I spotted a long, sinuous cloud in the western sky that looked like a Japanese dragon. I didn’t get a picture, but if you’re familiar with the animated film, Spirited Away, it looked a lot like Haku in his natural form as a river spirit.

Now that I’ve set my mind back in its more customary direction, at least for the moment, good things are beginning to happen inside me again, too.

Every now and then I find it necessary to keep a gratitude journal, to find at least three things each day that I’m grateful for to write about. I think I’ll take up that practice again for a while.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 4:30 pm PST, 04/13/09

March 27, 2009

Crane flies and a flying cat

We have crane flies like crazy here right now. I’ve always called them mosquito hawks, but apparently they don’t eat mosquitoes (and we’ve already had a few of those).

Tara’s pretty good at catching bugs. She loves to chase the crane flies that get into the house. I’m not sure which is worse, though, pesky crane flies, or a flying cat. She’ll leap, climb, or fly wherever in the house she needs to go in order to catch one. She got so busy hunting them a few nights ago that she didn’t even eat the chicken I gave her. They must be very tasty bugs.

Fortunately I stowed most of our breakables away when she was smaller, because now she’s a force to be reckoned with when she goes flying through the house after a bug. It’s almost like having a monkey on the premises. An eight-pound fur ball flying at you is no laughing matter. She proved that a few days ago when she knocked over my office chair. I wasn’t in it, I just came running when I heard the crash from the other room, and found the chair lying on its back on the floor with one of its adjustment knobs broken off. I think it had something to do with a running, flying leap into it from front to back. A few days later she tried to knock me over, seated in the chair, with an unbelievably football-like tackle for one so small. No claws were used, it was all in fun, of course, but what a cat. I think her Siamese is showing.

Mice beware. Do not enter here.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 11:57 am PST, 03/27/09

March 21, 2009

Premio Dardos Award

Eric Mayer at Byzantine Blog has honored me with the Premio Dardos Award. Eric is author, with his wife Mary Reed, of the John the Lord Chamberlain Mystery Series set in the Byzantine Empire of the 6th century.

Now don’t be too impressed with me, because I keep trying to type the award name as “Permio” today. I’m not sure whether I should get to keep an award I can’t spell. I’ll try to be more worthy and at least post a blog entry now and then. In any case I’m grateful to Eric for thinking of me.

Premios Dardos Award

Premio Dardos means “prize darts” in Italian and is awarded for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary and personal values in the form of creative and original writing. The rules are:

1. Accept the award by pasting the graphic on your blog along with the name of the person who granted the award and a link to his/her blog.
2. Pass the award to another 15 blogs that are worthy of acknowledgment, remembering to contact each so they know they have been selected.

I’m fudging on the rules a little. I’m paring down my list to award three writers, poets, or artists who blog. All of them are one or the other, and two of them are all three — creative writer, artist, and poet. Don’t ask me why I separate out poet as if it’s not also a kind of creative writer, but poetry is near to my heart. Here’s my list of award recipients:

1. Bev Jackson at Jackson’s Actions
2. Catherine Kerr at Beyond the Fields We know
3. Susan Gibb at Spinning

— Barbara @ rudimentary 5:57 pm PST, 03/21/09

February 24, 2009

Watch the skies for Comet Lulin

It’s a hazy, cloudy day here today, so I don’t hold out much hope, but in some places tonight will be the best night to see the comet Lulin:

Green Comet Approaches Earth

Comet Lulin making nearest approach toward earth, one-time only

— Barbara @ rudimentary 2:56 pm PST, 02/24/09

February 6, 2009

On not being in such a hurry

It doesn’t seem possible that we can already be one month and six days into 2009. I’ve been posting so infrequently that the blog barely has a pulse. But it is alive I assure you. It’s just been sleeping, dreaming if you will.

It’s raining and stormy today and I’m grateful for that. I think this is only our fourth big rain of the season so far. My cat Tara had a bath a few days ago on a warm, sunny, dry day that got to 80 degrees and seems to have become typical weather this winter. At least it’s been easy on the heating bill. Not so easy on the water bill or my sinuses.

I’ve been away from blogs except to post my ramblings about Tarot at Spirit Blooms. I’ve worked off-line at my other computer on artwork, read or posted on a couple of favorite Internet forums (more than I should), and searched out alternatives on- and off-line to spending money that I don’t have on books that I dearly want. I started out reading about Carl Gustav Jung; now I’m reading the writings of Jung himself, beginning with his autobiography written late in life, Memories, Dreams, Reflections. Still deep in my J. R. R. Tolkien adventure, I recently finished reading The Annotated Hobbit, and now I’m savoring The Lord of the Rings. I’m a little shocked by how much watching the movies in the interim has botched my memory of the original story. Still they’re excellent movies. One should appreciate each on its own merits, the novel and the movies as separate creative entities. To do the written story complete justice there would’ve had to be nine or more movies instead of three. Not that I would complain, but not everyone is the Tolkien fiend that I am. Up ahead I plan to continue with The Silmarillion and The Children of Hurin. Perhaps others, who knows? I’m taking my time, reading mostly late in the evening before sleep, if I’m not too tired by then.

Eric Mayer mentioned, in his comment on my earlier post about rereading favorites, that he almost never rereads books. I’ve been the same way most of my adult life. I reread a lot when I was a teen and young adult, but at some point I realized there was plenty in print to read the first time around, and life was short. I felt that I’d miss out on too many other things if I spent my time rereading favorites.

I’ve changed my attitude about that again only recently. This has to do partly with some of the newer fiction that I’ve been dissatisfied with, partly with my budget, and partly with the tiny library here in town where the tastes of the librarians don’t seem to mesh with my own — or I’m just quirky in my reading tastes. I’m sure they have some Tolkien and maybe some Jung, but I’ve come to prefer to take my time and not feel constrained by a return date anyway. I tried writing reviews here for a while, and I found that if the book was a library book I had to return it too quickly, and if I tried to write a review after that, I kept wanting to refer to the book. If I like it, I want it to stay around for a while. I also tried our library’s on-line interconnection with an ebook download system, but that didn’t work for me. Old computer or aging human brain inside user? Either way it didn’t work and I didn’t want to waste time fussing with it. I wanted to read the book. You know, just open a cover and start reading. If something is going to slow me down I want it to be the savor of words.

That brings me to the fourth reason I’ve gotten back into rereading. Mostly it has to do with wanting to read slowly. I’ve given up on reading everything out there. I’ve finally accepted that’s impossible. I’ve decided to hone down my reading list and read what I love — slowly, and as many times as I want.

When I reread an old favorite I don’t have to be in such a hurry to get to the end. I already know how it ends. There is something to the first bloom of a new story, that first time through when it’s a path of discovery, recognition, and suspense. But this time I can pause and enjoy the language along the way, let the suspense build again slowly. My old favorites have language worth pausing for. The more commercial books today tend to be heavy on suspense and bizarre plots and twists, while they seem too often short on the kind of writing I savor. Many feel to me as if they’re written in too much of a hurry, or as if the writer didn’t even like the story he was writing. The secret to great writing, I think, is for the writer to so love the story that he’s reluctant to leave it. Chances are the reader won’t want to leave it either.

But then I’m not a hurrier, never have been. I think it’s too easy to get into an “I’ll miss something if I slow down” mindset in our day and age, though it’s a valid concern to some degree. In the work world, one must hurry enough to show up when needed, and if one slows down one is in danger of not getting important work done, of missing opportunities, or of not being able to do one’s job anymore because one hasn’t kept up with hyperactive technology. There are sometimes valid reasons to hurry. I don’t want the emergency room team to dawdle, or firefighters to take their time arriving at a fire. For readers who want to keep up, there’s such a huge amount being published, in spite of aspiring writers’ concerns that no one is publishing what they write, that it’s easy to think one has no time to reread or to read slowly the first time. There are also such a great number of people who want to be writers that it doesn’t appear we’ll ever have a shortage of reading material, even very good reading material leaving out the bad. It’s a crowded world full of people with something to say, many of them excellent writers.

Still I think we miss out on too much by trying to do or read everything. I’m not well-read, mainly because I’m a slow reader. Maybe that’s why I appreciate books that take a long time to produce. I can sense the love and time that was put into them. I can linger, relish, and wonder why. I can spend a relatively equal time enjoying them, and feel gratitude that the authors took the time to do it right.

Tolkien took something like 13 years to write The Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949. He took longer, when one considers all the thought prior to beginning it that he put into creating the world of Middle-Earth, from the time he was a boy, and the time between 1949 and 1954 that he worked with his publisher to get everything just right. That time shows. And it’s not as if by taking that long he missed out on sales, which seem these days so unforgiving of anyone lagging behind. The only time any of his books went out of print was during Word War II and the after-war years, when paper was rationed in England. Oh, and there was the problem of some proofs being destroyed in a bombing or a fire (I don’t remember which) that caused further delay in getting one edition of The Hobbit back into print. Of course one important factor in his print longevity was in being Tolkien. There have been many imitators and, as Eric seemed to hint in his comment, most imitations have not held up very well. Time is, I think, one reason.

I’m certain that the biggest problems with many books is that they’re devised and written in too much of a hurry, and because they aren’t true to the writer’s own creative promptings. I can see some publisher urging a writer to create something like Tolkien wrote, but to do it right now. Imitation done in a hurry can rarely hold up to the proper process of creation. Sometimes, but not usually. Imitation as a whole is an iffy and questionable practice. Readers may say they want another story like The Lord of the Rings, but they’re not saying they want an imitation. They want more Tolkien, and that’s simply the best possible compliment to the original creator, not to any would-be imitator. Perhaps we sometimes, as readers, make the mistake of confusing the two ideas ourselves and go looking for another Tolkien when we should be looking for something else that’s new and fresh, and over which someone labored long and lovingly.

It’s been said that most of a writer’s work doesn’t take place at the typewriter or keyboard, or even necessarily with paper in hand. It happens inside the mind of the writer. I personally think every writer’s workspace needs a comfy couch, or a bed, and a window with a view of a natural setting or garden, as well as an immense library. I also think it’s safe to say that most great fiction writers have lived what they write. By that I don’t mean they’ve experienced it in physical reality. I mean they have a fertile and active imagination, an ability to visualize the experiences they haven’t actually lived. A relentless imagination at that. We use our imaginations to read, but the writer uses his imagination far more, over and over again, actively reliving the scenes he writes in his mind, working them out until they feel right, until he’s ready to translate them into written language. They get to know their own unconscious realms and facets of their own characters, as well as the archetypes of the collective unconscious, even more than we do ordinarily when we dream at night.

Now I know that some writers create at the keyboard on the fly. I’ve done that too. But the stories I’ve written that I felt best about were usually those that I had in mind for a long time before I dared to put any words down. They were an integrated collection of many things that occurred to me, including some fantasies, day dreams, things I wondered about, and even whole scenes, characters, or settings that occupied my mind well before I realized they’d formed anything close to a story worth sharing or writing down. Some were ideas I couldn’t put away because they begged to be told.

Fast writing may be part of the problem. I once rewrote a novel (Snow Angels) in the course of a few weeks, retyped the whole thing from scratch, from my head. But that story had been in my mind for a long time, in various forms, and even on paper in a few forms, before I did that. I’ve never taken part in NaNoWriMo, but I think it is possible for it to produce something of value, provided there’s something already percolating in the writer’s mind before they begin, perhaps for years before they begin typing it out. I’ve done fast writing exercises, and I know they have their value. But I wonder if the trend in fast writing is the reason so many new books I read leave me flat these days.

There is fast writing that’s great, and there have been many great prolific writers. But if we make the mistake of thinking their greatness lay in their proliferation, we do them a disservice. The secret to great writing also doesn’t lie in taking forever to produce something. I’m sure there are plenty of slowly written pieces of rubbish passing for fiction. But prolific writers are the exceptions to the slow writing rule, I think, and like Mozart’s music, great fast writing is great for other reasons than its speed of production or lack of revision. Of course everyone should write at their own speed, but fast writing of a single draft usually requires slow thinking up front, and long, slow revisions afterward. If one doesn’t take the time to do it right, to follow through, to consider it worth some effort, then even that smaller portion of fast writing time is wasted, not to mention the time anyone else takes to read the result. If it’s not worth spending lots of time writing, then maybe it’s not worth reading either.

In spite of how long Tolkien’s work has remained in print, it’s still possible that work of this kind is best done for oneself, with any idea or intent of publishing as a mere afterthought. One should, after all, consider oneself worth writing well and respectfully for. From what I understand of Tolkien, he only shared what he created with a few colleagues, friends, and his children, until the friend of a friend mentioned the possibility of publishing The Hobbit. Maybe that’s why it’s so good. He took time to shape and polish it to be what he wanted for himself and those he loved. Only after that did he shape and polish it for publication. Surely that provided him a great deal of satisfaction in what he wrote, regardless of whether strangers in his own land or across the pond liked it later on. He was also a real-life expert regarding myths of a world similar to the one he created and regarding the language he used to create it. But was he an expert who happened to come up with a story he was best suited to write, or was he a writer in the making, even as a child, who lived in his head creating a world first and who worked all his life to become expert at just what he needed to recreate that world on paper? Either way, he took his loving time about it, and that’s a good thing for all of us. After all, what’s the rush?

— Barbara @ rudimentary 1:55 pm PST, 02/06/09

January 19, 2009

What’s the appropriate response to this?

I received a link to this news article in an email:
Melbourne writer jailed for insulting Thai royals

“FOR writing three ill-conceived sentences in a novel that sold fewer than 10 copies, Melbourne man Harry Nicolaides was yesterday sentenced to three years in a Thai prison.” (click to read entire news story)

Consider what would result in the world if everyone reacted to a perceived insult in this manner.

Imagine the silencing effect.

Even more disturbing, in another article on this topic — Thailand sentences writer for insults — it seems clear that this is probably a case of a writer getting caught in the middle of political maneuvering that has nothing much to do with insulting the royal family or with three sentences in the writer’s self-published work of fiction that only sold 10 copies. It has much more to do with someone else’s power play, or their fears about what will happen when the current Thai monarch dies.

Still it’s enough to make every writer in the world think hard about what freedom is and how much freedom of expression he or she really has. And on the Internet, we’re all writers.

— Barbara @ rudimentary 10:25 am PST, 01/19/09

January 11, 2009

Favorite things

I’m rereading a favorite book in a new form, and watching some old TV shows I’d forgotten were so good, so it’s been a week of favorites for me and I thought I’d share.

I’m also a little desperate for something to blog about, and I must be growing jaded, because my favorites are old, and sadly far too few.

Favorite Books:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’m currently reading The Annotated Hobbit, an edition annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. I’m loving it, though I think most of the annotations will be something to enjoy on my second reading of this edition. It’s been so long since I read the story, that I find myself just sticking to the story and not reading footnotes (marginal notes in this case). But I did read the introduction, and immersed myself in some fascinating biographical and publishing history. Now and then my gaze veers into the margins and my curiosity is piqued.

I decided to read this story again because I’ve read that Peter Jackson is finally involved in a film adaptation of it, which I’ve looked forward to ever since the LOTR trilogy that he produced and directed. This time I want to view the film adaptation fresh from the written story, rather than from the perspective of more than a decade of fogging over of my memory as I did with the trilogy. Which means I’m reading it now and likely will read it at least once more before the film is released.

I’m also rereading this, and plan to reread LOTR, because the film trilogy has become a mini-obsession of mine and yet every time I watch the movies I keep thinking how much I want to read the books again.

Tolkien is easily my most favorite author, ever. I’d be hard pressed to name a second favorite who comes anywhere close. Maybe it was his relationship to language, as a philologist. He also had a deep, abiding love of the fairy story and ancient poems and songs. (Many of his dwarves’ names are borrowed from the Elder Edda.) I like that he was unapologetic about his errors. He didn’t try to hide them and, if it made sense he fixed them in later editions. If fixing them didn’t make sense, he lived with them without shame or excuse. He was still a teen when he began to create his own language, that of the elves that he used in his stories, incorporated so elegantly into the film version of LOTR a few years ago. Tolkien wrote circles around anyone else, and almost singlehandedly invented the modern fantasy genre. He seems to have recalled something both childlike and ancient, and filled it with something else profoundly basic to humanity, all of which make him seem himself to have been a wizard — of storytelling. Stories are his version of Gandalf’s fireworks, and even of Gandalf’s defeat of the Balrog and death. Tolkien is pretty much at the top of the mountain and well beyond compare, in my opinion. All the rest, even my other favorite authors, are still down there in base camp, wondering about the weather up there on high. Keeping in mind that when climbing the highest mountains in the world, just getting to base camp is something, nothing to sneeze at. Most of my favorite books that even come close to Tolkien’s, though, are older, the authors also long dead.

This makes me wonder if we’re ripe for a literary renaissance. And when I say literary, I mean a STORY renaissance. Preparatory to that, if Tolkien’s work isn’t now required reading in school, I think it should be. I would love to see a new generation fall in love with language and with story.

Favorite TV series:

Star Trek The Next Generation. There’s no comparison, and even viewing old dilapidated recordings of it compares favorably, in fact stunningly so, to most of what I see on TV today.

I was saddened to hear of the death last month of Majel Barrett, and I felt as if her death marked the end of an era (started by her husband, Gene Roddenberry) in science fiction and in television.

While watching old Star Trek TNG episodes, I can’t believe how often I have to reach for tissues because a story line touched me deeply, or I’m still amused by the always tasteful humor some 20 years later, or I’m struck dumb by a profound insight or bit of ageless wisdom. At the same time it’s immensely entertaining, and frequently filled with suspense. There’s nothing like it.

I have a second favorite TV series — actually two sister ones: Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis. Still, Star Trek the Next Generation is another top of the mountain favorite that is difficult to compare to anything. Who knows, Tolkien himself might even have loved it.

I like The Closer, mainly because the female lead is a character, someone I can relate to. She’s over thirty and still attractive, but it’s not in-your-face plasticized starlet attractiveness. Kyra Sedgwick is beautiful in a way that goes beyond starlet appeal, and you get the impression this is a woman who’s actually honest-to-god aging and struggling to maintain, rather than magically stopping time until the powers that be disappear her from TV as soon as she shows signs of (horrors!) appearing to be over forty. She holds her own in a man’s world without needing to act like a tough chick. She’s spunky and vulnerable, and she doesn’t have to show us the inside of the body as the bullet passes through it for cheap thrills, or make us help examine the vomit under a microscope or eat bugs (honestly, some TV cannot be viewed while enjoying dinner), or be right there for the bloodiest new surgical procedure of the century, spurting arteries and all. I need some mystique left in my mysteries, some characters I can relate to, and not to feel as if I have to learn how not to be squeamish along with the interns in my medical shows. I also wonder why there are so interminably many “realistic” detective and medical shows. Isn’t there anything else to write about, guys? Is the sitcom dead? I guess so.

I like Ghost Whisperer, though I’ve discovered it only recently, so we’ll see how that works out.

I liked Dead Zone, until they killed off Walt the sheriff. I thought he provided an important obstacle between Johnny and his former love, Sarah. Conflict in the form of strong romantic and other obstacles is critical to good series fiction, even a paranormal series that has a new problem to solve each episode. Without the core conflicts and tension to fall back on, a series falls flat because no one seems to be trying very hard, day to day. They’re just biding time until the next psychic flash, murder, ghost, mystery disease, or demon appears. A good series has several backup sources of tension. In Star Trek TNG, nearly every character has a known source of personal conflict that’s always simmering just under the surface, and the series as a whole is full of those tensions sometimes rising, and frequently interacting with others’ conflicts. Killing Walt off, in The Dead Zone, was like letting Marshall Dillon marry Miss Kitty, or letting The Fugitive catch the one-armed man. You just don’t do that, until the very last episode ever. The End.

All that said, I would be hard pressed to come up with new series or episodes from season to season and week to week as the best TV writers do.

Maybe we need a television renaissance as well as a literary one.

Barring that, we may need to let all the Marshall Dillons marry all the Miss Kittys in a big Sun Myung Moon style wedding — and then give TV one big funeral service and be done with it. Most of the shows are so lame, and the commercial breaks are so long these days, that I frequently leave the room to finish the dishes, make a snack, or check my email, and then lose interest and forget to return to see how the show ends. They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and television, as a whole, seems to be trying awfully hard to prove it.

Do you have any new/old favorites to share? What entertains you these days?

— Barbara @ rudimentary 9:34 pm PST, 01/11/09

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