Transfixed

“Transfix” is not a word one gets to use often. Last Thursday, three times, I found myself in a place and a condition that matches the definition: “make motionless or helpless, as with amazement.”  The word origins are more graphic. Think of the unfortunate butterfly or beetle mounted with a pin through its thorax. Here is an Etsy page with dozens of specimens. Instructions abound for doing this yourself, and unlike those 50 insects we were to capture, kill, and mount for 9th grade biology, the killing is now discouraged. The point is, that the motionlessness was not completely voluntary.

The occasion was the Arts Commission mixer, this iteration dedicated to poetry. Here’s the key to its success: A spoken word performer called Black Ceasar. Here’s a magazine article about him. This is his Instagram post at our event. Here he performs “Champagne Poetry” on YouTube. He does commercials for the Texas Rangers, available here from March 2023 in the Dallas Observer. An important sentence: “They’re also a leap in the right direction toward making fans of all cultural backgrounds feel welcomed and connected to an organization that has endured its share of diversity missteps.” In a similar but more pointed example, here he performs “For Change” sponsored by the Dallas Cowboys. For these he has been nominated for two Emmys.

His name is Kristoddie K. Woods. Originally from Mississippi, he performs and mentors, teaches and coordinates. Publishes. All those things are great, but on some level the most important are that he answers emails, makes it on time to Zooms, all with beauty and grace. Not everyone does that. “Nice” is not a very strong word, but having worked with him for a month on the mixer, I can assure you I am his fan first because he is legitimately, actively nice.

From an established, well-known figure, let’s move to a high school student, “a real find,” someone said. Aryianah is a high school student who has won awards for her spoken word poetry. She’s in the National Honor Society and serves on her city’s Youth Action Council. She also teaches and mentors others in her craft. Her transfixing performance involved the story of a girl who doesn’t feel loved until she does. As with Black Ceasar, she takes you places. You have to be there.

Empress in her own words, she “wants to impress on the hearts and minds the good news of empowering encouragement”…and “is a poet of passion who delivers strong punchlines about loss, love, and life.” Empress has been named top 25 WOWPS Slam Champion (2021); ExtraOrdinary Women in the Arts (2022); and Denton Black Film Festival Slam Champion (2023). Here is her feature: Shoutout DFW in January 2024. A Duncanville native, she has a day job that requires clarity and strength, to which she brings charity and kindness. I met her the night of the event after exchanges of information in preparation. Somehow, I was elsewhere when she performed. We were outside when I was apologizing, and she said, “You didn’t miss anything.” She took a breath and gave me the performance. In its entirety. Just for me. Her eyes on mine for minute after minute of transfixed journey making. Her work was about her mother, given with such depth and detail that I can only say—you had to be there.

A brief distinction between reading poetry and performing poetry: I can do the former. I cannot do the latter. As I have said before on these pages, I sometimes come across a poem I don’t’ remember writing. And I could no more quote you a single poem of mine than the man in the moon. No, I don’t perform, although I believe I can read my work better than anyone else. Not necessarily a good sign. I want to commend to you a poet who is better than I, Chris Mikesell. He read one of my favorites on Thursday, “Baptism by Night.” His work is not just clever; it can be funny, allusive, insightful. He takes to places of the heart and of the mind. His presentation was not less than the others. It was different.

Most people have heard the phrase “Water water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” It’s a slight misquote from “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” whose poet uses “Nor any drop to drink.” You can hear it here read by Ian McKellan. Long, but well done. A much shorter interpretation by Iron Maiden is here. AI images, too. I’ve heard of them, believe it or not. That’s about it. Genre-making apparently. The music for the Mariner is compelling. A galloping rhythm, guitarist/composer grandson explains. (“You’re not going to go to the drive-up window with that playing are you?”)

The phrase from the poem that our mixer’s performance poets made me think of is “He holds him with his glittering eye—” because now I know what that feels like, literarily speaking. Coming away from an event richer than you went in makes all the difference. Support the arts. Experience can’t be shared. Kim Campbell, co-founder and Executive Director of the Dallas Winds, ends his introduction of the group with “Be amazed!” It’s true. You’ll be glad you did. Transfixed at least occasionally.

Netsuke

In February 2020, I wrote about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing damaged pottery with gold. The month before the nightmare. But I recently learned about another art form called netsuke, tiny carvings originally made as button closures. Before ivory from living animals was banned, it was the usual material. I am thrilled to report that there are, in fact, huge quantities of mammoth ivory available these days. I didn’t know.

Last week, I toured a wonderful art collection with a few pieces of pottery that were used to hold these miniature works of art. And, of course, there was a story. During World War II, a Jewish family in Vienna lost their home to Nazis who also plundered their art collection. The father had amassed a large set of netsuke which were lined up on narrow shelves. Although they were in plain sight, the looters didn’t recognize their value and ignored them. The family’s housekeeper had been commandeered as well, and she took one or two out in her pockets.

The story is similar to Woman in Gold (2015) but on a smaller less gilded or personal scale. The film is well done, with Helen Mirren starring as Maria Altman. The woman in the Klimt painting is her aunt, the painting stolen from the family in the same way. The plot uses flashbacks to show the validity of her claim on the Austrian government to restore the masterpiece to its rightful owner. Ryan Reynolds plays the young attorney who helps her. There is more depth to the resolution so watch it if you can.

My parallel for today is size. Netsuke can be valuable. On eBay, the most expensive one today is $107,000. The record at a Bonham’s auction is $441,300. It’s not that element–-worth or value—for now, however. Nor is it ignorance. The family housekeeper knew what they had. The Nazis didn’t. Rather, I’d like to think about small gestures for a moment.

Recently, someone was asking if I had a conducting class in college. Yes. Her assumption was mistaken, though. She thought a conductor’s job is to give musicians cues when to come in. That may be what it looks like. But musicians know where they are and when to play. (Although once I was playing second flute in the San Angelo Symphony when the first flute learned over and asked where we were. I knew but was so startled that I didn’t know what to say and just pointed. Apparently, everyone was lost because soon the conductor bellowed out “KEY CHANGE” and we were back on track. Important fact: The SAS was actually the Dallas Symphony second stand players with some local talent thrown in. It was memorable, and a piano concerto to boot. This short video explains using examples of some “historically important” conductors. The small gestures often offer interpretation. The purpose can also be to “exalt” the orchestra. It’s not always pretty. Here are five conductors and the same piece of music (just 10+minutes).

It’s odd how a single second or two of time will hold a memory. Decades ago, the kids and I were at the mall in San Angelo. There was a large fountain in the center. The boys were bored and started putting their hands in the water and splashing it out. A security guard walked by, didn’t say anything, just moved his hand with a flick of his wrist that meant “get your hands out.” It was subtle and relevant. Graceful, even. The style was, also, memorable.

Tonight, at my music fraternity, one member noticed the sun was in someone’s eyes. She held a book up to block it. A small act, perhaps, but one that lasted until the shade was lowered. Most thoughtful gesture today.

David Brooks

It is 7:54 on Monday. Evening. Oh, wait. A friend called and needed help getting a message to someone because her internet isn’t working. We discussed a pending trip. Nothing else, I promise. It is now 8:17. Oh—a pleasant call back, 8:52. I really wanted to do this well. It’s an essence only.

My topic for the week is David Brooks’ new book, How to Know People. Last week, I attended a luncheon where he spoke and an evening conversation with him. Before the latter, he was signing books at the Interabang table (small independent bookstore). No one else was there. I’d brought my Amazon-purchased one, and with no shame said, “Will you sell my book?” Yep. There it is. The three people looked at me oddly, and I had to ask why. So, there was that.

The book is worth reading. Beyond that, I found it transformational in some ways. There are a zillion anecdotes and quotations, glimpses into his heart and mind, jokes and quips and allusions. While it could be summarized as “Be a good person, thoughtful and attentive, he offers two paradigms for How to Be and How Not to Be.

One is called Diminisher. This is one explanation: “Diminishers are so into themselves, they make others feel insignificant… If they learn one thing about you, they proceed to make a series of assumptions about who you must be.” Friends once took us to The Mansion, a legendary Dallas restaurant. It has its own Wikipedia page, for goodness’ sake. These people recounted hearing the story of two other couples arriving, looking at the crowd, and remarking, “Oh, nobody’s here.” Using people, not caring about their needs, and not seeing them as anything other than other—these are the marks of a Diminisher.

An Illuminator, on the other hand, has light within and can shine that light on another. That seems like a metaphor within itself, so think of it as having curiosity about people not just for what they’ve done or what they have but for who they are. Brooks has found two words to elucidate: nunchi, a Korean term for the ability to be sensitive to other people’s thoughts and moods. The Germans have herzensbildung, training one’s heart to see the full humanity in another.

There is a bit of a sting to realize sometimes I’ve been the former, not the latter. Listening—really hearing and not waiting to say something myself—needs attention. So does being what he calls a topper, someone who takes the speaker’s story but rather than acknowledge it and learn more adds her own story that is just above it in scope or seriousness or drama. That’s not hearing or seeing at all.

This is an important book, too. I wish there were a workbook. The concepts are important, but perhaps not completely original. If any of us truly lived The Golden Rule, the world would be different. I am humbled enough that you’d think I would catch on better. (At The Mansion, an entire, juicy, purple blackberry rolled down the front of my dress, mocking me all the way.) Brooks includes this which will serve as my conclusion as well: “If our country is going to come back from the inhumanity, and if our families are going to come back from the breakdown, and if our workplaces are going to thrive, we just have to be really good at this skill of seeing others, making them feel valid, respected, heard and understood.” Easier said than done, so let’s do it anyway.

(A link to a lecture from his book on character here.)

On Value£

A Mexican man was scrolling through the Cartier online catalog on Instagram, as one does. He came across earrings priced at MX237. This happened in England, so they show it as £11, which is USD13.81. Being no fool, he purchased two pairs. Cartier immediately corrected the price, but in England they are apparently strict about selling for the advertised price (with a “z” pronounced “zed” in British English). He won his claim and Rogelio Villareal has two pairs of earrings described as “encrusted” valued at (or worth) £11,046 each or USD27,742. Perhaps he’ll share, but the photo shows him sporting two on one ear. The follow-up may be interesting. I don’t care for them personally, so not a gift idea.

Value is one of those words with many and varied meanings—from what something is worth to a moral (usually plural) to the length of a musical note or the intensity of light or dark in a painting. The one referred to here, of course, has to do with what the dictionary calls “intrinsic” worth. It is a concept I don’t believe in, financially. If you remember, I do have that bag of diamonds and emeralds still missing. Strictly speaking, they have no value to me because I have nothing invested in them. Hurray if they turn up, no loss if they don’t. (Yes, I look for them now and again.)

In Stephenie Meyer’s sci-fi, post-apocalyptic romance novel The Host (2008), the aliens take over human bodies to learn what it’s like to live on Earth. Reviewers dub them “parasitic,” which is accurate if harsh, but their actual name, Souls, is much more relevant to the storyline. They don’t think much of the human race, however, and most humans have been taken over by a Soul. The culture changes dramatically. They do not understand the concept of worth, for example, and everything immediately becomes free. It’s a stretch, but memorable. How different life would be if we had neither capitalism nor socialism, neither fascism nor communism. Here’s a handy chart from the Navy that puts it all in a short PDF. Accuracy not guaranteed.

In our family, among my many mottoes is this: If money will fix it, it’s not a problem. And there are many things money won’t. I’ll let you make a tailored list of those things. Conversely, there are many things we value that have nothing to do with money. You know those, too. Having come to this point, I can end by speculating most of us value values. As for the money, I have been known to take a photo of a receipt on which I saved $57.06 at Kroger’s and sent it to kids.

Everybody (Doesn’t) Know That

Cash Cab was a game show that first aired in 2005 and is now back on Bravo with its original host (in the US) Ben Bailey. Contestants enter what they assume is a regular taxi only to suddenly be sitting in the middle of flashing lights and music. They answer trivia questions for mney in ascending amounts until they arrive at their destination. If they get three wrong, they must get out. Two shout-outs are available—one to a random stranger on the New York City street and another to a person of their choice.

On one episode of Cash Cab, two youngish—maybe mid-30s—professional types were asked this question: “What Algonquin word means essentially a baby backpack?” The couple didn’t know. Rather than take a strike, they did a mobile shoutout to an equally professional guy in a nice camel-hair coat, repeated the question, and got this response: “Everyone knows that—papoose.”

He was wrong—not about the word but about everyone knowing the word. Obviously, since he was being asked. Probably he didn’t intend to be rude, though the woman mumbled something under her breath. And the couple didn’t win anything because they got three strikes, having only answered a couple of questions correctly.

Recently, my visiting family and my local family were introduced to a trivia board game called Eye Know, purchased at a thrift because of the packaging. (The box looks like an eye, complete with a lenticular iris and 2-inch long eyelashes. Irresistible.) Players ranged in age from 26 to older by a lot. Play uses two-sided cards. Twelve are placed face up with an image showing. Players roll a die to choose which category they must pick (colors suspiciously like Trivial Pursuit). Correct identification leads to a question about the image. Knowing both results in a won card, six to win.

It was fun and funny. One interesting phenomenon came to light: Different generations knew different things. Obviously, you might say. It’s more complicated than that: The older ones were surprised by what we would have considered “common knowledge” absent from the younger ones’ sphere.

The example: First, the image was a grasshopper. Easy enough. The question on the back was this: “What other insect is associated with the grasshopper in the familiar fable?” Our 20-something was clueless. “You know—from Aesop…The Ant and the Grasshopper.” No help. Never had heard of the fellow.

The ideas flowed naturally, at least from the older folks’ gallery. Wouldn’t it be great to share with the under-30s what they need to know but don’t know they don’t know? These are what we worked out:

  • Aesop’s Fables are used all the time, in that they are part of our vocabulary. People say “sour grapes” and have a general understanding of the meaning. “If you describe someone’s attitude as sour grapes, you mean that they say something is worthless or undesirable because they want it themselves but cannot have it.” The source is Aesop’s “The Fox and the Grapes.” Another common reference one hears regularly is “crying wolf,” based on
    The Shepherd and the Wolf.” In fact, the site is from the Library of Congress, and all the illustrations are lovely. That said, guess what? There are hundreds of fables! I don’t know them all, obviously.
  • Stories that are just stories, not fables. That doesn’t make a lot of sense perhaps. Aesop is ancient, but these are modern. The Little Red Hen in this version is from 1918. The earliest appearance of Donald Duck, in fact, is in this version called The Wise Little Hen from 1934 in which he and a pig refuse to help the hen because they have a tummy ache. She is planting corn and when her cornbread is ready, she gives them a bottle of castor oil instead. Even then Disney was changing details, but the premise is the same: If you help, you eat. If you don’t, you don’t.

Another is The Little Engine That Could with a written version in 1930. That the often-repeated refrain of “I think I can, I think I can” gets to “I thought I could, I thought I could” sounds onomatopoeia-cally like a steam engine is probably lost to the modern generation, but that can’t be helped. These stories are obvious lessons on work and attitude.

More obvious, however, are phrases like “down a rabbit hole,” heard commonly. It comes from Alice in Wonderland, in the first chapter which you can listen to and read in the link. Again, there are hundreds of such things, and I’ve chosen only three.

  • Mother Goose rhymes, fairy tales, the Greek and Roman myths, the Norse ones—the list is very much a short beginning which soon gets too long. Sometimes we hear just a part, like with Alice: “Birds of a feather flock together,/And so will pigs and swine./Rats and mice have their choice,/And so will I have mine.” How could anyone not know their fairy tales, with Disney princesses everywhere? It’s the unnamed adaptations that are relevant. Would the youngers recognize Working Girl (1983)or Pretty Woman (1990) as Cinderella stories? What about the relevance of the phrase “If the shoe fits…”? Myths are explanations, often, but the names of characters are everywhere. All the planets except Earth (which pretty much means just “ground”) are named for Greek and Roman gods unless you call Earth by its Greek name, Gaia.
  • Your mother’s phone number. Just kidding. I know people who don’t know their own without looking. The general message is that you might be lost if somethings aren’t written down.
  • Just to list a few others suggested: Shakespeare, the Bible, the Lord’s Prayer, the Bill of Rights, dates and dates every American should know (thought these are technical opinions), causes of wars from the American Revolution onward), basic life skills like writing checks (maybe) or filing taxes (definitely), age-appropriate expectations. A friend in her late 60s recounted a nephew asking her to pick wild mustang grapes—standing up in a kayak holding a bucket. Not realistic. I once testified in court that a 12-month-old can’t be expected to potty train.

Time Out: Almost 1000 words on the youngers.

PART 2:

In the midst of our enthusiasm, it came to me how one-sided it was. And overwhelming. I asked our 20-something for a favor—what do you want us to know? Harder, but here’s a start.

The remote(s). Everything has them. Mostly the tv, but also the sound system, the ceiling fan, and so on.

The telephone. Everyone (almost) has one. Few of us know many of its features. I am just handed a new one occasionally, with everything transferred over thank you very much. I have no idea how to do any of that.

Google. Ah, you say, I know how to do that. Maybe. But there is more to it than most of us realize. Listen to what the young ones might say. They can get better answers quicker.

Etiquette. Oh no, you say. I definitely know that. The question is what kind of etiquette. The word itself just means how to behave. Once I was given someone’s phone with the photos up and started scrolling through others. The thought makes me quiver with embarrassment now. That younger schooled me in proper etiquette. “Don’t,” more or less. Applies lots of times.

So, part 2 is harder. I know there are songs and artists I should know. Taylor Swift’s new album The Tortured Poets Department has these lines: “You left your typewriter at my apartment/Straight from the tortured poets department/I think some things I never say/Like, who uses typewriters anyway?” As I look through the lyrics, I recognize Dylan Thomas but not Patti Smith or the Chelsea Hotel. What am I missing?

This blog is a beginning. It needs to be a book, I suppose. Of more interest in what you need to know is what I need to know. As someone put it recently, “The thing is, we old fogies can pick up things that weren’t addressed when we were in school if we so want, but the kids don’t even realize that there is something missing in their knowledge, Their entire cohort is missing it, so there are no casual references that would clue them into the gap and make them go searching for the knowledge.” True, but I think it goes both ways.

And for both, it’s the curiosity to figure out what I don’t even know I should know. Something like that. Contributions welcome…

Moon blots out Sun; Mary Ann learns Pickleball.

What an amazing few minutes were 1:40-1:45—give or take a few seconds—on Monday, April 8, 2024. By now you may have seen many photos or videos. At our location we had a rooster named Steve; he has a bad reputation for being a jerk.

Although it wasn’t nearly as amazing, I did learn how to play pickleball. We worked at it for an hour. I can barely move. Turns out, I’m pretty good. it didn’t hurt at the time. In the past, I did play ping pong, racquetball, and tennis. Must have helped.

Sometimes you do something because you said you would. Today’s blog is one of those.

photo credit: David Sprague

As Did Esther

I have lots of unfinished projects. Only the novel is likely to make money, and it’s not very likely. Below is the beginning of a short story, and I do know the ending. I’m interested in what people will think of the other “voices” here. Who are they? Good question. Dueling impulses in a writer’s brain or a technique for adding another layer of…?

Why now? We just passed the Jewish holiday of Purim, March 23-24, the remembrance of Esther’s bravery in approaching (uninvited—a no-no) the king (incidentally, also her husband) and saving her people. It’s a story with, well, lots of layers of meaning and, incidentally, the only book in the Bible in which God isn’t mentioned. Purim is a plural of pur, and means “lots” as in dice except the bad guy (Haman) was choosing the day the Jews would be killed. That story gets pretty brutal.

Also, there’s a line about refunds. One assumes for taxes, and today is April. If I were clever, I’d write an April Fool’s prank. Too bad.

“So, when you going to finish this, Mary Ann?”

Nice weather we’re having. I need to plant one more Japanese maple and clean the house from top to bottom. Later…

As Did Esther

She thought of all the people who had died for no reason and were buried with tears. Not that anyone dies without reason, of course, but the ones who died suddenly, unexpectedly, sadly. Phil had been dying so long, she’d had him dead and buried for years. Seemed like the rest of the world had too. If she heard anyone say “what a blessing” once more, she’d decided to slap that unwitting face.

The air was biting cold, and the old people were getting restless. They didn’t want to be coming back too soon but did want to get home to some nice hot chocolate. The funeral director had whispered to her that they needed to start right on time so these people could get inside. She smiled and said the required “Of course.”

Such a good customer/employee/patient she was. Not like Jack. The real one had been gone a long time anyway. This new thing that looked like him was crabby and asked “What’s for dinner?” every half hour. It was good she didn’t…, well, she stopped herself it was just good she didn’t. She smiled at the director again in what she knew must look brave and said “Please, go ahead.”

The preacher man Jack had wanted began with the 23rd Psalm. Such a short, sweet thing it was, she thought, read at every funeral in her family for the three generations she’d been hearing funerals. And then the passage from 1st Corinthians. She closed her eyes hoping to hear the angels speaking, but it was not to be. Instead, there was “the creaking of a rusty gate” instead of “angelic ecstasy” and love was “putting up with anything” and we were “squinting in a fog.”

It was the wrong one. She’d told him carefully, repeated it—King James, please, if you will. Nothing else sounds so regular, so measured, so beautiful. If it was the wrong one, all was lost. But he didn’t read it choosing instead to torture her. So much for caring clergy. “No,” she corrected herself. “It doesn’t matter. I can do the words in my mind. The real ones.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Wait a minute, wait one minute. I thought you said this was going to be funny. This woman is sick. All these deep dark thoughts. Are we going to find out she killed him? No The Little Foxes ending, OK?

                              She is giving me a lot of trouble. She can’t stop thinking about the past when I want her to get on with it. Sorry. Maybe there should be a reversal about now. What do you think?

                              Dude, what would work?

                              Well, I don’t know. A hawk almost landed in my backyard just now. I hope he’s okay. It’s hard to believe how big he was. Looked like he was falling almost. I mean, they stoop and maybe he didn’t stop. You just sit around and things drop out of the sky. Weird.

                              Maybe.I don’t know my predators very well. So we have this grieving widow whose grief is questionable anyway, and this bird settles in her yard? What about that? Sort of Poe-ish. Dude, can you imagine what people would read into that? Is it going to be a rescue effort?

                              Hey, you asked. It’s early. Want to go for breakfast?

                              Sure, why not. I need to check the bank once more to see how much the refund check is for sure.

                              It’s breakfast.

                              I know.

 

A Perfect Day

You arrive three minutes late, for no good reason. A lovely young mother motions you to sit in your usual space, back row, mid-hymn. “Come Unto Jesus” which makes you smile, remembering your husband saying, “As easy as Come Unto Jesus in Bb,” which it is. Such a solid, familiar key. A few announcements (two new babies, as we remember one just gone too soon), then a few releases and callings (stake Young Men.) You don’t know any of the new ones but trustingly raise your hand.

The Sacrament hymn “We’ll Sing All Hail to Jesus’ Name” is not the one where you weep at “the courage to accept His will.”  The young mother seems to know all they lyrics to all they hymns, which you find humbling, too. Her son is not yet one. Her daughter is incredibly special, quiet today, both in strollers, he now, her always. A young man with muscular dystrophy blesses the bread, the mic held near his mouth so we can hear. For that, you weep. The young deacons have white shirts, various ties, shoes and socks, but a great variation in heights and heads.

The room is quiet except for the noises—not squeals of delight—from the youngsters. The bread trays are carried to the front, and the boy who said the words that blessed the bread receives his morsel and struggles to bend his head to reach his mouth to his hand. Again, you weep at that. Another boy blesses the water. The visitor beside you asks, “Is it just water?” Yes. The young man who blessed the bread needs help with the tiny cup of water, just a bit to bring it to his lips. How could you not weep in humility?

A young woman rises, finally, to give her first talk. You could not have done this at her age, sixteen perhaps. You smile when she mentions an agreement to be brave, bargained for a Dungeons and Dragons meetup. You smile again when she ends in five minutes. Another hymn. Standing as requested, and to set a good example for the visitor, for “Our Savior’s Love” which ends with “our hearts rejoice.”

Two women, one talk. Your Spanish sisters, one petite, the other tall, both smiling with such grace as to amaze. The topic, tithing, delivered with stellar articulation in Spanish then read in English, with equal perfection. They smile in beauty. You are humbled yet again. A closing hymn “We Love Thy House, O God” which is so short (8 measures!) as to be perfect when the meeting is running long though this one is not—and done.

So why is this one so perfect, you ask? A difficult Saturday by contrast? They took your blood for someone’s need, no obvious loss to you. A vulnerable rain-induced sadness? Or a tangible depth of feeling for a sacrifice you cannot on this earth understand, an Atonement that covers all the grief and pain of an entire universe? Or something you don’t need to know in order to say. Agreed. Perhaps never again so good, but a memory here, for then.

 

 

 

Dune and Star Wars Are the Same Movie (or not)

Friday evening, my 16-year-old grandson and I went to Dune 2 (2024). Not in IMAX, but the sound system was good enough that there was a lot of seat shaking. Also lots of dagger/swordplay. Lots of sand. A very lot of sand. Intrigue. Deception. Mean/cruel people. Families. Always families.

Someone else suggested that the David Lynch Dune (1984) is not as bad as assumed while the assumer deems it one of the worst movies ever. Here is a trailer. The novels are dense and full of messianic symbolism, with powerful women/witches of whom the mother of the protagonist is one. Disobedience is an element throughout. For its time, though, the early movie was competing with Star Wars and doesn’t compare. Roger Ebert was prepared to like it but came away with this: “This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” The review from 1984 is worth reading, if depressing, and gives one star.

Comparisons can be made with the new Dune. The star, Kyle MacLachlan, familiar from Twin Peaks, looks very much like Timothee Chalumet. Sting and Patrick Steward are in the older one, and other now-famous people. It’s not just that both are based on Frank Herbert’s original 1965 novel (instead of the many that have appeared since his continuation of that, plus a fan site). The novel is so specific in its visual portrayals that any interpretation would have to make them so. Execution is the essential element. See Ebert.

The question posed in the title is the connection between Star Wars and Dune. There are sites to help with this: Here short, Here longer and better, Herbert’s view (not based on actually viewing Stars here, one that disagrees with the premise and conclusion of similarities here, and a blog that defines similarities and differences. And a dozen million more. Regardless, the experience of seeing the two, albeit decades apart, and reading the novels as a very young adult allows for a narrow opinion: The themes are deeply similar, but the emotional appeals are quite different. The follow-up is simplistic: Seeing Dune twice would be more difficult than the George Lucas films. The former has not a shred of humor; the latter, good versus evil but with wit. Messiah figures aside, families and dynasties aside, fights aside (even though Dune’s are gorgeously choreographed), each film asks something completely different from its audience. The similarities, therefore, don’t matter.

Either way, watch more Akira Kurosawa, the inspiration for both. And see if you can get a teen to go with you to see anything. It’s great.

From the Source: “I am a part of all that I have met.”

Last weekend was the yearly college English teachers conference. I’ve reported on it when I’ve won a prize (poetry and Shakespeare, most recently) which I did not do this time. “Vaguely vain” serves as my alliteration for the day. When I told a non-college teacher friend my plans, she said she knew I’d have a lot of fun. We laughed a little, but then I realized she was kidding. How is it “fun” to sit around reading and listening to essays and—gasp—poetry? Let me tell you where we went other than our physical destination of Denton at Texas Woman’s University.

Jason Guajardo from Texas A&M University—Corpus Christi took us to his childhood backyard. His late grandfather had gifted him the desire of his heart one Christmas: an orange tree. He told us its history from planting to demise. We learned, too, about his special relationship with this man, all beautifully told. Of special interest was the attendance of his family—mother, siblings, grandmother, all there in a show of unity and pride for his first-ever scholarly presentation.

[I, too, read a prose poem about oranges. One colleague remarked that there is no idea without the thing. This poem by Wallace Stephens, “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself,” is quite beautiful; his alliteration is “vast ventriloquism.” An accident? I think not.]

We then went into a mother’s heart. JennahRose English (yes, her real name) spoke about the death of her infant son in “The Autumn of My Grief.” Although her work was prose, the poetic beauty of the images she used brought us into the natural world of burnished sunlight and the slightest of breezes.

[I, too, wrote about loss. A friend loved my phrase “the courage to grieve” and suggested I explore it further. I’ve known him for decades, and it’s the first time he has heard me read. Here is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Epitaph” which includes the line “Beneath this sod/A poet lies, or that which once seemed he.”]

The title of Chuck Etheridge’s collection, “Poems About Family Life,” does not reflect the depth of connection a father has with his sons or the desire a grown son has to thank his father. He writes, “Eager to talk/With little to say” and that muttered “I love you” at the end of conversations. If you were there, we could have shared tears, in that quiet room. His conversation with his deceased abuela about his prolific use of cumin (apparently you can’t have too much; she disagreed) was written in both Spanish and English. I have foreign fluency envy, so I asked him to read only the Spanish, without interlinear. I wish you could have seen his animation.

[I, too, wrote about the love for a child. Some years ago, I posted “Contranyms” which is the term for a word that is its own opposite. Think “leave” as in forget and depart. Just last week in an obituary, I saw the title “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Dylan Thomas is writing to his father who is on his deathbed.]

Chuck also took us to Mexico with his discussion of The Forgotten Village (1941) by John Steinbeck. It’s a staged documentary about a little town with contaminated well water, found here, 1:05:05 long, and narrated with no conversation. Moving and relevant.

Sally Henschel showed us stills from Louise by the Shore (2016), an animated French film about an old lady who missed her train back to the city and must live in the little town she had visited, finally in a tent with a dog named Pepper. She has dementia and cannot do much except be determined. I told Sally about Linoleum (2022), reviewed here.

A long-time colleague, Paul Benson, kept us right at home with “The Whoopee War: Dallas-Fort Worth’s Biggest Battle.” This history of the Texas Centennial and the rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth. This 21-second clip of Amon Carter fuming about Dallas outbidding the rest of the state for the celebration is worth watching. “Where the West really began!” Paul told the story without notes. Yes, he wrote a paper, too, but he is a great storyteller. Some wild things going on involving some risqué matters. Not yet published, his account needs to be. This article pales in comparison.

Movies? We had Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and The Godfather (1972) trilogy. Narratives? We had Dame Ragnell (think Arthurian legend and Shrek) and Jane Austen (why to teach her novel Mansfield Park instead of Pride and Prejudice). That presenter had 7 (seven) daughters.

All wonderful. Some good sci-fi individual conversations. Good food. (On a side note—I had French fries 4 days in a row, twice free, so another story.) And a concluding speaker who explained AI to us (sort of).

That was my experience. However, there were 58 other presentations I couldn’t hear. That’s a huge number for a day and a half!

It was fun. But perhaps the most moving of all was a breakfast talk (7:30 Saturday) by Dr. Don Vann for two reasons. His former student, Moumin Quazi, introduced him professionally with background and area (Victorian literature) but added that this favorite professor had saved his life. I know I could say something similar about a few teachers, and I have heard others do the same. Dr. Vann is almost 90, he said, and when he asked Moumin to conduct his funeral, the reply was, “Sure, but I’m pretty busy this week.” When he was going off to Tech with nothing like a PhD, Dr. Vann changed his major from pre-med to English. His mother wept and said, “I hoped you’d amount to something.” Her attitude changed with his success, of course, and his books went right on her coffee table.

Dr. Vann’s presentation was the English teacher’s version of clickbait: “The Greatest Poem Ever Written.” Got me there. Chuck Etheridge guessed accurately: “Ulysses” by Tennyson. Dr. Vann read it and explained it and we were all back in the classroom, floating and aloft. Here a surprising reading of part: Helen Mirren to Stephen Colbert (their topic—things that make us cry. She is superb.) Here an odd combination of the Kennedys’ connection to the poem, though you’ll need to get through a bit of Debussy’s “Claire de lune” first. Lemn Sissay, poet of the London Olympics here. Visceral. Here nicely read quietly with the text (and an inexplicable sound of a crackling fire in the background).

Small talk (Chuck isn’t good at it) is not fun. Movies about the Mafia and dementia, poems about loss and oranges, families coming to hear their beloved? But you weren’t there, were you? It was all about love. So I can say, as does Tennyson, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Which is, finally, quite more than fun.