Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Something Wicked

Throughout my days in high school and undergraduate school, my mother was a freelance arts critic, covering theatre, dance, and music in the Houston area (mostly theatre; she even wrote a book on local theatre history). I tagged along with her to more than a few performances, and one I recall in particular was Houston Ballet's Caliban, created in collaboration with local rock group St. Elmo's Fire (which evolved from the earlier Wheatfield and featured one half of the future Trout Fishing in America). The notion that the monstrous slave from The Tempest was a misunderstood character was common in literary criticism, but this work reimagined Shakespeare's story from Caliban's point of view. The actual details of the show (which I remember enjoying) didn't really stay with me, but the concept did.

I thought of this last Sunday as I was watching the touring Broadway musical Wicked. The musical is based on the novel of the same name by Gregory Maguire, who has recently made something of a career out of this trick of reimagining beloved stories. In case you've been too busy hiding from the NSA to notice, this award-winning show and the best selling novel that inspired it recasts The Wizard of Oz, telling the story not of Dorothy and her traveling companions, but of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good.

OK, so I'm sitting in Hartford's Bushnell Performing Arts Center, expecting a big theatrical spectacle based on a clever twist; a sort of literary joke. Well, spectacular it was, and clever as well... but I was surprised -- pleasantly astounded, in fact -- by the literary depth of the piece. Beginning with Elphaba and Glinda as schoolmates, reluctant roommates, and neophyte sorcerers, Wicked is in turns a multigenerational family tragedy, a rumination on the nature of friendship, a cautionary tale about the unintended consequences of good intentions, and an exploration of the sometimes blurry boundaries between good and... well, wickedness.

But wait; there's more! This confection of light and sound is also intensely political, examining the uses of propaganda and exposing its power to obliterate criticism, demonize opponents, and unite an unsuspecting people behind a leader who, as Elphaba immediately perceives, has no real powers of his own except for the art of flim flam.

The New York Times review of the original Broadway show (excerpted on the show's website) comments that "[t]he contrast between the young women, who wind up as reluctant roommates at sorcery school, is used to examine a society that values surface over substance, the illusion of doing good over the genuinely noble act. It goes without saying that you don't have to squint to find parallels with a certain contemporary Western nation in which artful presidential photo ops win more votes than legislative change." And Time cuts to the more chilling political center of the piece: "As the Wizard ... puts it, 'The best way to bring folks together is to give them a really good enemy.'"

The Wizard does give his people enemies, in the form of the anthropomorphic Animals who live among them. Hounded out of teaching jobs and other professions in which they use human speech, the Animals systematically lose their ability to speak. Elphaba comes to the Wizard believing he is noble, kind, and wise, and that he will help her defend Animal rights. When she discovers the truth and turns against him, the Wizard has an even more compelling "enemy" through which to frighten his subjects into compliance. Using faulty intelligence, exaggerated claims, overzealous police forces, and domestic spying (the flying monkeys are, it turns out, unfortunate slaves whom the Wizard has tricked Elphaba into giving wings specifically so he can use them as "scouts" within the Land of Oz) to brand Elphaba as the Wicked Witch and mobilize the people of Oz to track her down.

Hmmm... anything sounding the teensiest bit familiar?

Time calls Wicked "a family musical that might make the Bush Administration squirm." Indeed. And that's (to borrow a phrase) a Very Good Thing.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Airing of Grievances

I was in Home Depot yesterday buying replacement fuses and other mundane household items when it hit me: There was no special seasonal display of aluminum poles. And when I thought about it, I realized I'd been shopping in Target, Kmart, Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, and Borders over the last several days, and in not one of those stores was I wished a Happy Festivus! Could it be that there's a War on Festivus? Where is the Bill O'Reilly who will rally to the defense of Costanzians everywhere? Really, I ask you, does this seem moral? At long last, have we no values??

Notwithstanding the fact that holiday shopping often turns into Feats of Strength, it seems that traditional Festivus observances are largely disregarded by our crass, all-too-busy consumerist culture...

...or so I thought. On a whim, I Googled "Festivus" and discovered that Seinfeld's fictional (or should I say, formerly fictional) secular alternative to Christmas refuses to go away. To complement a variety of quirky celebrations around the world, it has its own website, two new books, even its own song. One of the editorial reviews at Amazon refers to Festivus as a "bare-bones celebration of second-rate miracles and hopeless regrets," and really, what could be a more relevant holiday for these benighted times?

This Thursday you can see how it started -- the Festivus equivalent of It's a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas all rolled into one -- on TBS. Check your local listings!

BTW, in case I don't talk to you tomorrow... Happy Solstice!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Luna City Olympic Organizing Committee

Just to prove this blog won't always be crusty and full of political angst... how cool is this discussion of space sports? Now that Richard Branson is preparing to open the first commercial spaceline and Peter Diamandis' Zero-Gravity Corporation is flying private customers, the idea of of sports in microgravity or lunar gravity is edging out of the realm of science fiction and into reality. Because Zero-G's microgravity parabolas last only 25 to 30 seconds each, it's hard to see how the Paraball game IPX Entertainment is developing could be anything other than an exhibition sport, but eventually there will be hotels in space (at least, there will be if Robert Bigelow has anything to say about it), and as surely as night follows day, there will be sports.

Probably the "killer app" of space sports will be a totally new game that we've never heard of, but it's fun to speculate about how existing games would work in space. Some sports -- soccer, lacrosse, team handball (or water polo without the water) -- seem like they'd translate pretty easily to 3-D, zero-g versions; others -- basketball, volleyball, tennis -- seem like they'd be pretty hard to shake loose from gravity: How do you dribble, spike, or serve a ball when there's no up-and-down? And individual sports, especially so-called extreme sports, are surprisingly tied to gravity: It's no coincidence that NBC's X-Game competitor is called the Gravity Games.

But what about space environments where there is gravity? The most famous moment in space sports history (admittedly practically the only moment in space sports history!) is Alan Shepard's lunar golf shot. But lunar golf as a sport rather than a stunt will probably be played indoors. On the Moon, low gravity may be a plus for games, but the lack of air outside is probably a minus: In golf, no slices or hooks... but no deliberate shot shaping, either. In baseball, no curveballs, sliders, knuckleballs, or "rising" fastballs, and no waiting to see if that deep fly ball hooks foul, either. Where's the fun in that? Of course, all these quibbles would be answered by moving the games indoors: Standard air pressure and lunar gravity (1/6g) would give you crazy hooks and slices, and perhaps fastballs that really rise! Of course, given how far the balls would travel, the venues would have to be huge. Try to imagine how big a sheet of ice you'd need for lunar curling!

One thing you could do on the Moon is... fly! Immortalized in Robert Heinlein's story "The Menace from Earth" (in the collection of the same name) and described in Neil P. Ruzic's 1970 speculative nonfiction work Where the Winds Sleep (unfortunately out of print), the coolest imaginable lunar sport is to strap on a pair of wings and fly like a bird, taking advantage of Earth-born strength, Earth-standard pressure, and lunar weight.

So what do you think? Looking forward to the Luna City Olympics? I know I am.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Essential Math: D>R!

"Atalbot," a friend of my daughter's, is blogging the effort to defeat Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut. His introductory post makes a number of very good points about the fact that Simmons, who represents a relatively liberal district, poses as a moderate while in fact serving as a loyal footsoldier in the Republican Congress. The same entry includes a pointer to a site for Connecticut progressives that includes, among other things a great deal of unhappiness about Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Senator and former candidate for vice president, who increasingly seems to be a Democrat in name only.

Points well taken, all. Simmons is a winger in moderate's clothing and Lieberman is to the right of more than a few of his Republican colleagues... but I don't think it matters: Simmons could in fact be everything he claims to be, and I would still oppose him, because of that pesky R next to his name; Lieberman couldn't possibly disappoint me more, yet I will continue to support him, because of that D (until, that is, I'm certain he would be replaced by another D).

Here's the thing: At the beginning of my "career" as a voter, I was very much an issue-oriented, vote-for-the-person-not-the-party sort of guy. I still think that's a good strategy for a thoughtful voter in a perfect world. But our political world is far from perfect, and much farther from perfect than it was when I first started voting. Beginning with the Reagan administration, the Republicans have steadily driven U.S. politics to an increasingly stark ideological division. Now I find it impossible to vote for a "good" Republican (or against a "bad" Democrat) because no matter how much I might respect and agree with the individual candidate, one more R (or one fewer D) inevitably strengthens a governing ideology that I find as intolerable as it is intolerant.

In the run-up to my town's recently completed elections, a candidate for town council knocked on my door. This was a man I knew of and respected, a police officer who works with the DARE program in the local schools and who, as far as I can tell, is a decent, thoughtful citizen. But when he started to tell me his positions on the issues, I had to stop him:

"You're running as a Republican, right?"


"Well, I'm afraid I can't vote for you under any circumstances. You're probably a wonderful person, and you might even be right on town issues, but I can't vote for any member of your party for any office for any reason. I disagree that strongly with the direction your party is leading us."

He tried to tell me how little town politics had to do with the national party; I didn't care. These days, I can't escape the notion that every elected Republican, at any level of government, inherently supports and strengthens a philosophy of government that is, IMHO, ruining our country.

Maybe someday we'll be less polarized, and it will once again be safe to focus on individual candidates and issues. In the meantime.... Well, in the last presidential election cycle, we heard (as always) a lot about "electoral math." As the 2006 election season gets underway, there's only one expression of electoral math that matters: (D>R)X2!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

A Very Taliban Christmas

Until this year, I've been blissfully unaware that the "War on Christmas" has joined Charlie Brown, Rudolph, and the Grinch in the pantheon of seasonal media perennials... guess I need to pay more attention, eh? Imagine my surprise (dismay, actually) to discover that this was not just some News of the Weird item, but a somewhat serious issue in some allegedly mainstream media outlets.

Well, beating up on retailers (Wal-Mart, Target, Land's End, et al.) during the "overcommercialized" holiday shopping season (there's some irony there, about which more in a bit) is always easy, but today I'm reading reports (e.g., here) that even the Bush White House has run afoul of this self-appointed Christmas Inquisition. It seems that the White House has, like the aforementioned retailers and many others, opted for an inclusive, nonsectarian holiday greeting, sending a "Christmas" card that wishes recipients a happy holiday season. Horrors!

Now, the "overcommercialization" of Christmas has been a theme of public comment for as long as I can remember. In fact, I believe that's one of the major themes in the 40-year-old A Charlie Brown Christmas. Viewed from that perspective, you'd think that retailers "taking the Christ out of Christmas" by using generic non-Christian holiday greetings would be a feature, not a bug... a welcome separation between the allegedly crass commercialism of the season and serious religious observances. Apparently not, according to the "War on Christmas" crowd (and there's that irony I mentioned above).

But never mind commerce, what about the President... our President... a professed Christian? Shouldn't he send out "real" Christmas cards? In a word, no. Let's be clear about something: "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings," and such do not insult, demean, or exclude Christians; what such greetings do is not exclude non-Christians. Given that he is, in fact, our President, it's entirely appropriate that Mr. Bush include all of his constituents in his holiday greetings, whether they are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Druids, Wiccans, agnostics, atheists, or whatever. Even secular humanists!

People who reject these efforts at inclusiveness, no matter what they may say, are not "defending Christmas." They are, in fact, attacking all expressions of holiday cheer that are not explicitly Christian. This is the Taliban attitude: It is not sufficient that you tolerate and respect my faith; you must respect my faith above all others. Ideally, you must practice my faith, in the way I consider correct. If you do not practice my faith, you must shut up about the existence of any other faiths, or about the notion that some people practice no faith. It is this attitude that led the original Taliban to destroy all signs of other faiths, even at the cost of denying the world historic treasures, and it is this attitude that motivates these American Taliban to shout down all expressions of winter holiday joy that are not their own.

Now, on the grand stage of world events, arguing over holiday greetings might seem trivial... and it would be, if that were all that was going on. But already the "War on Christmas" has been tied to Supreme Court nominations, and that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Consider: The Bush White House represents the most overtly religious, Christian-friendly administration of my lifetime. If they don't satisfy the "War on Christmas" faction, it's hard to imagine anything short of outright theocracy will. People, I don't care whether you're religious or secular; right or left; Republican, Democrat, or other... you must not vote for these theocrats or anyone who supports them, or enable them in any way. If you think you're safe because you're Christian, think again: If the President isn't Christian enough to suit them, how do you know you are? And if you are today, how do you know you will be tomorrow? Don't forget that under the original Taliban, the people who suffered the most were Muslims.

That's about enough for my first real blog entry, eh? So I'll just say... Happy Holidays!!


PS: This may be the only time I ever defend the Bush White House, so enjoy it while you can. ;^)

Friday, December 02, 2005


I guess having a blog is mandatory these days, eh? You could say I'm just trying to keep up with my 15-year-old daughter... but the truth is, my favorite online forum (The Space Arena Board) has just stopped accepting new posts, and I need a new place to rant, rave, and pontificate. I don't know how often I'll post here, or whether anyone will care... it is what it is (or rather, it will be what it will be).