Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dragons Can Be Beaten

Apparently, it is Neil Gaiman who said in Coraline:
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
On the Federalist blog, this is listed specifically as a quote that is frequently mis-attributed to G.K. Chesterton.  They set forth a passage from Chesterton's "Red Angel" to support Gaiman's assertion that "The sentiment is his, the phrasing mine."  This seems to be the heart of it:
Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear. 
But I had also thought, vaguely, that Lewis and/or Tolkien had said something similar as well.

So here's what I found in Lewis's "On Three Ways of Writing for Children":
Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book.  [. . .] And I think it possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors, and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones; and the terrible figures are not merely terrible, but sublime. It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears, a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St George, or any bright champion in armor, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.
Surprisingly, a quick perusal of Tolkien's "On Fairy-stories" does not immediately turn up a similar sentiment.  Perhaps the closest is this line:
I desired dragons with a profound desire.  Of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighbourhood...

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047" (NO SPOILERS)

Alas, the dystopian future of Lionel Shriver's novel strikes me as dismally plausible; the relatively optimistic and comforting conclusion, much less so.

Still, a small collection of quotes toward the end made me at least smile wryly:

  • "[R]epairing their own properties, tilling gardens, walking to save on fuel, and beating intruders with baseball bats had rendered Americans impressively fit."  p. 333 (nice use of a standard humor technique, the list with a twist; though it would be funnier to have only three items in the list -- I'd have deleted the second item)
  • "Rumors had long circulated about the '├╝ber-rich.'  In folklore, these pampered fiscal vampires had retreated to fortified islands of sumptuous abandon, ... while their countrymen starved.  To discover ... that, if nothing else, they may not have escaped one another [] was satisfying."  p. 370 (considering that I just took a course on vampire folklore...!)
  • "It cared nothing for virtue.  It was crass, it was loud, it was heathen.  It was silly, and it was fake -- honestly, admittedly fake, which gave it a genuineness of a sort.  It did not apologize for itself."  p. 383 (written of a particular city, but potentially applicable to certain other contemporary phenomena...)
  • One character "took up coaching the debate team at their local high school, teaching precocious teenagers how to be show-off know-it-alls who tested adult patience.  He was very popular with the kids."  p. 401 (a cheap shot, but it works here)
The book is heavily laced with pointed observations and commentaries which are often, but not always, placed in the mouths of characters.  Two examples from late in the book:
  • "Presidents always rail against 'billionaires and trillionaires,' and then the top bracket conveniently kicks in, not at a billion, but 250K."  p. 383 (character dialogue)
  • "Everything in [a particular] newspaper wasn't accurate, but the odds of a given factoid being at least sort-of-true were better than fifty-fifty, which beat the internet by a yard." p. 400
And a prediction, of sorts, of the Clinton family's future relevance after a series of crises:
  • "The Chelsea Clinton administration quietly assumed that [_____] would crumple into a whimpering, remorseful heap within months if not weeks.  Except it's been five years."  p. 390 (character dialogue, year 2047)
(In light of the society described in year 2047, I would not say this prediction is one that puts the Clintons in a favorable light.)

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

I had the BBG's nature walk/birding tour with the Kleins on my agenda for today.  Despite the bright sunshine, with one thing and another, I gathered up my binoculars and camera and headed out for BBG about 20 minutes after I thought the program had begun.*

Things did not look good at 150 Eastern Parkway. The beautiful gate was closed and locked, without explanation, and there was no sign of any personnel.  So I headed over to 990 Washington Avenue (next to the visitor center and gift shop).  Another locked gate, but now I could see some guards moving around inside the garden.  Things were looking up!  A guard directed me on to the administrative entrance halfway down the block at 1000 Washington Avenue.  And fortunately, I had wildly misrecorded the start time for the nature walk and arrived with a few minutes to spare!**

For the tour, we had to stick to the plowed paths, which pretty much meant staying in the lily pond and magnolia tree area.

Even the hardiest water-lilies were nowhere to be seen...
It was very, very cold (I'd needlessly worried about being overdressed), but we had a few great sightings.

Pride of place goes to the Cooper's hawk.  It very graciously perched in plain view on a tree for a good 20 minutes or more -- long enough for the entire group to take turns observing it through the scope, take photos, and hear all about the distinguishing features etc.

According to our guide, the hawk was a juvenile (based on the vertical feather pattern on its chest), and probably female (based on its relatively large size).  He said the Cooper's hawk is often confused with the sharp-shinned hawk; the tell-tales are (1) pale arcs (like eyebrows) over the eyes and (2) thinner vertical markings on the chest.

The right leg has been pulled up into the chest feathers to keep warm.

She was not interested in the various robins that flew by, nor in the gull far overhead.

We did see her chasing after a mourning dove later on, but the prey got wise to the chase and undertook evasive action, so the predator abruptly gave up and turned aside to the woods.

Cooper's hawk, sitting pretty

Brad explained that juveniles are more commonly seen than mature hawks, because the life of a hunter is very hard - probably 50% do not survive their first year.  Apparently, Cape May in the autumn is great for watching juvenile hawks -- they follow the NJ coastline south, and then turn around when they realize they have a huge expanse of water to cross.  They go back north, and cross the Delaware River where it is relatively narrow.  Only juveniles do this, however -- apparently if they survive that first year, they don't make that mistake again!!

(He also had some funny stories about birds perching on one leg.  This is apparently something they do to keep at least one leg warm while the other leg is holding on to a cold branch. It seems that ometimes they are so reluctant to remove the warm leg from its comfy "pocket" that they'll just doggedly hop around on the other leg. And apparently many novice bird-watchers are certain they've seen a one-legged bird.  He also mentioned a book "H is for Hawk" which has a very pretty cover illustration of a hawk, but the artist might not be a trained scientific illustrator.  The evidence?  The bird's front has a bulge, as if one leg has been pulled up into the bird's chest, but then the artist still showed two legs holding the branch!)

We also saw, in the distance, a red-tailed hawk heading away from us into the sun, and a falcon over the rooftops to the east.  Brad noted that the falcons and gulls have evolved to resemble each other more closely; a sort of arms race (or survival race) between predator and prey.  They both have long narrow wings, for example.  But he noted that the gull's wings are longer, as they often need to glide over the sea for long distances.

Magnolia trees with snow "berries"

Shayne Dark, "Glacial Series: Drop Stones" (2014) [corten steel, bronze]***
At the end of the tour, I went into the greenhouses to warm up!!!  What a relief.  

bonsai and icicles (from the outside)

bonsai and icicles (inside out)
bonsai and icicles (outside in)
I was looking forward to a nice dry heat in the desert room, but it was actually less toasty than I expected.

The kids' programming in the basement of the conservatory was well attended.  They seemed to have four different activities going on in the four corners of the play area.  In one, they had origami water lilies on tiles to move around.  That was very cute.  In another area, they had a petting zoo, complete with straw, in a little enclosure.  Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed an adorable little goat or lamb lying down near the entrance.  I walked around to check it out, and realized the littlest kids in the central sub-enclosure were just playing with stuffed animals (e.g., a fuzzy mallard duck, etc.).  Very obviously fake.  So it would seem that only the older kids got to ... No, waaaait a minute!  ALL the animals were stuffed animals!!!  Including the little goat that had attracted my attention in the first place!  But the hay was real, OK?  Anyone could have made this mistake.  I mean, really!

Shayne Dark, "Windfall" (2010) [applewood, aircraft cable]  

After that, I wandered back up to the magnolia area and discovered they'd plowed and opened the path leading to the gift shop and entrance #2. 

Always remember to stop and smell the flowers

A nice vista with the Shinto Gate


After that, I cut through the Brooklyn Museum's parking lot and lobby to get to Eastern Parkway.  There were a lot of kids sledding on the little hill behind the BBG.  I don't recall seeing this sculpture before, though:

I had always assumed the squat, disproportioned statue of liberty replica in the museum's back lot was a crude parody, intended as some sort of scathing commentary on the USA or its institutions, or our notions of freedom, or the like.  Instead, the plaque advises that an entrepreneur commissioned it in 1902 to adorn the rooftop of his Liberty Warehouse in Manhattan.  The museum's website provides some information about the statue and conservation efforts.

Hangover sufferers of yore

Hedwig, is that you?
I'd always figured this sculpture was a modern piece (1980s or later) with some kind of (perhaps ironic) racial commentary, depicting whites over blacks, although the whites are hardly sitting pretty -- they seem to be in agony.  And I couldn't figure out why they had wings.  And what's with the snakes?

Well, I was pretty close with my guess - only off by a hundred years or so!  The work is by Salvatore Albano (Italian, 1841-1893).  It's called The Fallen Angels, or The Rebel Angels, and dates from 1893 (marble); 1883 (base). 

The official plaque says: "At the apex of this sculptural group, a sword-wielding Satan struggles alongside his rebel angels against God and his army (both absent) in heaven.  Below, under a coiled serpent, a defeated angel (possibly Satan again) lies facedown and mangled in hell.  Such continuous narratives were common in monumental ancient Roman sculpture, a major influence on the academically trained Florentine Salvatore Albano.  Here, the angels are so idealized that only the snakes in their hair identify them as fallen."

I'm not sure I'd agree that "only the snakes in their hair" identify them as fallen -- I think the expressions of torment reflect their separation from God.

 The website also offers some commentary on the work: "It depicts 'The Fallen Angels.' In the Bible, fallen angels are those who rebelled against God along with Lucifer, an archangel who became the Devil. The dark base, where the snake slithers over a body, is probably the depiction of hell, and the figure down there could be Lucifer himself. The expressions on their faces are remarkable. There are so many different emotions carved into the marble. One figure is biting his knuckle in anguish or torment!"

He doesn't look dead quite yet...

Snakes in the hair - not just for Medusa anymore!

marble fingers sinking into marble flesh
Additional commentary from the museum website: 
"I encourage you to get as close as you can and look at how the artist, Salvatore Albano, handles flesh. He makes it seem so soft and realistic for being carved out of stone. This is a technical masterpiece of carving stressing how the figure can be seen in the round from all angles."

Wavy sword - did it melt when used against heaven's angels?

snakes, feathers, and feet


Not sure that sword is gonna be much use to you now...

So all in all it was an educational day.  Celebrated with two loads of laundry and a viewing of the Signum Symposium on Rogue One & Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

FN* My lack of urgency was perhaps in part because I'd seen on the BBG's website yesterday that the garden was closed for snow removal; despite their assurance that they'd be open "tomorrow," I had my doubts.
FN** It turns out the garden was not really open, after all, at the time I arrived -- the public was being allowed in only for the conservatory and the First Sunday programs.  That's why it was such a big deal that I'd made it in time for the nature walk!  When I initially told the guard I was there to walk around the garden, she gave me the stink-eye and handed me the program list. 
FN*** According to wikipedia, "Weathering steel, best-known under the trademark COR-TEN steel and sometimes written without the hyphen as corten steel, is a group of steel alloys which were developed to eliminate the need for painting, and form a stable rust-like appearance if exposed to the weather for several years." So we may be seeing the possible slow death of a trademark here if people are using corten steel as a synonym for generic weathering steel, just as they use kleenex as a synonym for generic tissue.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Hold on to Your Butts!! and The Mikado

Friday, Amanda and I went to see a third production by Recent Cutbacks at The Pit.  (Previously, we'd seen Fly, You Fools! and Kevin!!!, which lovingly re-created/spoofed LotR and Home Alone, respectively.)  Of the three, my favorite remains Fly, You Fools! -- mostly because I'm more familiar with the story and the movies.  But "Hold on to Your Butts!" was also a lot of fun.  Two guys acted out all the parts, using mostly simple props (e.g., an umbrella served as helicopter blades, gun, and triceratops horns).  Sound effects were all done by a woman seated near them on stage.  She did a great job!  They managed to evoke the beauty of the landscape with majestic dinosaurs loping, as well as all the action-adventure bits, and used simple black frams to give us the famous camera angles and close-ups (e.g., the cup of water shaking with the approach of the dinosaur).  Lots of creative use of the performance space, lots of knowing jokes for the audience, and the occasional self-aware breach of the fourth wall.  Very fun.  I think they should do Indiana Jones next.  Or possibly Star Wars.

Saturday, I took U-chan's suggestion and watched The Mikado at Hunter College.  (Oddly enough, I'd not remembered that I knew where Hunter College was, when she first mentioned it.  I kept thinking of Baruch College, and apparently forgot that for some years I'd attended Redeemer services at Hunter! My only excuse, perhaps, is that I'd never gone into the Kaye Playhouse - services were always held in the auditorium, not the theater.)  There weren't many seats left when I got my tickets, but I decided to go for the front row, on the side.  This was a pretty good view (just a few moments when I couldn't see the action) but not very comfortable.  I'd wondered if I might have my pick of seats, due to the inclement weather, but the show had entirely sold out, and I think just about everyone showed up.

They tried to deal with the racial/cultural insentivity of the original by framing the story as Sullivan's dream when he faints.  They had a racially diverse cast, and fanciful Victorian-dreamscape costumes for most characters. I really liked the women's costumes; "normal" dresses with an uncovered frame for a fuller hoop skirt attached in back.  It was pretty cool.

They also managed to avoid  Japanese schoolgirl cliches in the "Three Little Maids" song - which was a bit of an accomplishment! - and, refreshingly, updated the "List" song without any political commentary.