Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cool Toys - or, what the heck is an atalatl?

I had an email exchange with a friend about my Celebrity Roast post last night. Briefly, it started with a question "Why do you bother with that garbage?" Fair question. I did turn it off after ten minutes, but there was nonetheless something horribly fascinating about it. Kind of like looking at road kill in an advanced state of decay.

I commented, "I'll probably develop this more later, but a sense of humor and the ability to be funny has a lot to do with wisdom, courage and other desirable qualities. The interesting thing about that sad spectacle is that they weren't having fun. What the heck is it with these people? Their eat-out budget is likely enough to support my lifestyle. I bet I'm having more fun though. I despise cheap Jacobinism, but really, why aren't these people happier than they appear to be, having far less in the way of financial worries and far more in the way of cool toys than I do?"

Eric Hoffer once said it was a mistake to believe that a sense of high purpose is necessary for great achievement, that great things are often accomplished by men who set their hearts on toys.

What kind of cool toys could I buy with the kind of money major Hollywood stars have? Cool cars, and motorcycles! A private plane or an ultralight. Trips to really interesting places. A custom-made Nihon-to (samurai sword).

Well, even without that kind of money I'm not doing to badly in the fun department. One of the first things I noticed on my return to America after a long absence was that the price of toys for the big boys has come done a lot in the past decade. Not to mention all the stuff that just flat didn't exist when I was a kid. How about a model rocket that not only flies real high and parachutes back - it takes a durn digital picture at the apogee! And it was less than $50 at Wal-Mart! I can hardly wait for my son to be old enough for me to buy him one. I may even let him play with it.

My family and I like to take long trips by car, which is not terribly expensive even with current gas prices. If you stay off the Interstates motels are a lot cheaper and when the weather is decent we like to pack a tent. Ours is a $35 Wal-Mart cheapie, though we're thinking about investing in a really cool tent with two rooms, screened porch and closet, a folding apartment really. Price, less than $100.

Years ago I noticed that in America, a skilled workingman can usually afford, with some sacrifice and an understanding wife, one expensive hobby. A hobby such as: Harley riding, SCUBA diving, skydiving, hot air ballooning, sailing, windsurfing, a yearly pilgrimage to Graceland etc. A rich man can afford two. The late Malcolm Forbes was an enthusiastic Harley rider and hot air balloonist. But nobody can really afford three at the same time, because now the constraint is not money but time. Starting with the time necessary to get good at something worthwhile.

And speaking of getting good at something, I just got a new cool toy. I bought an atalatl on eBay.

"A WHAT?" (I hear you say.)

An atalatl is mankinds oldest, or second oldest missile weapon. (It's either that or a sling - and slings being made of grass or leather, don't preserve very well for archeologists to find.) An atalatl is a dart thrower, a wooden piece about as long as your forearm with a spur at the back to fit into a notch in the end of a 5-6 foot feathered dart.

Rather than attempt to describe it and its use further, go here to THE atalatl site on the Web (and I mean, THE site) http://www.thunderbirdatlatl.com/

There is something deliciously primieval about flinging an atalatl, even though I'm not at all certain that I could hit a mammoth (which would answer for the proverbial "broad side of a barn") yet.

My wife thinks it's really cool and wants to try it. My son regularly demands that we go out and fling it - and it's made him the envy of his playmates. He's too small to use it, but he loves to chase after the darts and bring them back. This is a jewel beyond price for a parent, a passtime that wears the kid out more than the father!

The range and accuracy is significantly less than a bow, but the equipment is a lot cheaper and doesn't require a special place. A reasonably-sized field will do.

I got the cheapest atalatl (half-price on EBay) and three darts with field points. But already I'm starting to think about how my accuracy might be improved with a weighted back end or a dart rest on the front...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Have you ever kippled?

Note: See my post on Ilana Mercer's blog http://www.ilanamercer.com/ under Solomonic State Censors Speech. I post fairly frequently there.

"Do you like Kipling?"
"I don't know, I've never kippled."

John Derbyshire has a column on poetry at National Review Online here http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=NmY5ODVkZjdiZDAzYWUwZjM0YzhmZWZhMWQ0MGNmMjk=

"Popular poetry is no longer written. If a person, other than a salaried academic or the recent product of a university Eng. Lit. course, spontaneously quotes a line of poetry at you, the line is unlikely to be less than 80 years old. (In my experience, which to be sure is mostly with fellow conservatives, it will be a line from Kipling about 50 percent of the time.)"

I have long been puzzled that few people in college English departments seem to recognize what seems perfectly obvious to me, that Rudyard Kipling is the major poet of the modern English language. One college textbook said that he was once considered in the first-rank of English poets, but now is recognized as a second-rank poet. I was told by a Polish academic however, that Jorge Luis Borges considered Kipling the greatest English poet, "Because he's the only one who wrote about real things."

Kipling is one of those writers who looked at life as it is, not as we wish it were, and wrote about it with brilliant insight and ruthless honesty. For this he is passionately loved and passionately hated, nobody is indifferent to him. And if the quality of a man is made known by his enemies then Kipling is certainly worth a look.

Poul Anderson commented that, like Homer, Kipling may outlive our civilization. A thousand years from now scholars are going to have their hands full understanding the language he used, full of Hindi loan words, soldiers argot and the dialect of common folks rendered in phonetic spelling. This gives non-native speakers trouble trying to understand him. (Though my wife loves him and often brings works she's found on her own to my attention.)

(Academics think that writing in the common tongue is kind of no-class evidently. Didn't a fellow named Dante Alligheri shock everybody once by doing something like that?)

People who hate Kipling don't just disagree with him and his quaint, old-fashioned notions of virtue, honesty, character and loyalty, nor do they fail to understand what he's saying, they go out of their way to misrepresent and vilify what he said and stood for.

"Kipling was a racist."

In a word, poppycock. (I would have said "bullshit" - but Kipling wouldn't.) Read his short stories "Without Benefit of Clergy" or "The Story of Mohammed Din" or poems such as "My Mother Lodge Back Home" and say that.

Those who cry "racist" sometimes cite "Song of the White Men"

"Now this is oath that the white men take when they build their homes afar,
Freedom for ourselves, and freedom for our sons, and failing freedom - war.
We have kept our faith, bear witness to our faith, dear souls of freemen slain,
But well to the world when the white men join, to prove their faith again!"

Two observations: To speak well of your own people is NOT equivalent to speaking ill of someone else's. And it's pretty plain from the body of his work that he was talking about Western Civilization, not a race per se. Now try reciting the poem to a gathering of the very PC, substituting "Black Men" for "White Men" and see who thinks it's racist. It's a hoot - but stand near the exit if you can't resist letting them in on the joke eventually.

Others cite the line, "Those that hold not thee in awe, lesser breeds without the law." This is great because it's prima facie evidence that they haven't read him. Otherwise they'd know that he was talking about the Germans in the years between the world wars.

Now sample this if you still believe Kipling was a racial chauvinist.

"The people of the Eastern Ice they are melting like the snow,
They beg for coffee and sugar, they go where the White Men go.

"The people of the Western Ice, they learn to steal and fight,
They sell their furs to the trading post, they sell their souls to the White.

"The people of the Southern Ice, they trade with the whaler's crew,
Their women have many ribbons, but their tents are torn and few.

"But the people of the Elder Ice, beyond the White Man's ken,
Their spears are tipped with the narwhal horn, and they are the last of The Men!"

Has anyone else written as eloquently about the passing of traditional cultures?

"Kipling was an imperialist."

Yes he was - and we all know that Imperialism is always and forever a Bad Thing. I have heard people in academia argue that the British had no right to interfere with indigenous customs such as Thuggee (the worshippers of the Hindu goddess Kali, whose devotion consisted of strangling and robbing parties of travellers on the roads - 40,000 in a good year), Suttee (the custom of burning widows on their husbands funeral pyre) and slavery. (Not at all the same as the detestable practice of the American South, more like an extended foster-family. Really.)

Kipling pretty obviously thought the British Empire was on balance, a force for good. He also recognized that there was a lot of stupidity in it - and that it was not going to last forever, perhaps not even his lifetime. Now the British Empire is no more and one might ask, "Is the world a safer place specifically because of this?"

"Kipling was a Victorian moralistic prig." (Freely paraphrased.)

Again, read "Without Benefit of Clergy" about the love of an Englishman for his 16-year-old Indian concubine and their child. Or, "The Gardener" about a woman who passes off her illegitimate child as the by-blow of her late brother. Be warned though, be prepared to have the heart torn right out of your body. Both stories are told with a depth of compassion one doesn't see much of these days when everybody seems filled to the brim with a smug, self-satisfied counterfeit of it, but both make it plain that violating the taboos of your tribe has consequences.

"Kipling was an elitist."

If you mean, Kipling had the deepest respect for competence in any field, OK. If you mean "disdain for the lower orders" you can't have read the same Kipling. Unlike the phoney and fatuous love for the common man expressed by Leftists, Kipling actually spent quite a lot of time with army rankers, civil service clerks and workingmen. He loved and respected them are they were, warts and all. From a bit of openly commercial doggerel written to raise money for soldiers' family relief in the Boer War:

"He's an absent-minded beggar and his weaknesses are great:
But we and Paul must take him as we find him:
He is out on active service wiping something off a slate:
And he's left a lot of little things behind him!
"There are girls he walked with casual, they'll be sorry now he's gone,
For an absent-minded beggar they will find him,
But it ain't the time for sermons with the winter coming on:
We must help the girl that Tommy's left behind him!"

So much for Victorian moralizing.

"Kipling looked down on non-Western cultures and religions."


"My brother prays, so saith Kabir, to stone and brass in heathen-wise. But in my brother's voice I hear, mine own unanswered agonies. His God is as his fates assign. His prayer is all the world's - and mine."

Or check out, "Buddah at Kamakura" or "Kim" for that matter.

Even Kipling wrote doggerel sometimes (see "Great Heart"), and often in an otherwise great poem you'll find awkwardly forced rhymes ("The Old Issue").
My son's godmother, who remembers Kipling coming to visit her father, attributes this to his wife (who she will only describe as "that dreadful American woman") making him write to pay the bills when the muse simply wasn't with him. But Kipling's doggerel is better than most of anyone else's best and when Kipling was in top form, he transcends poetry into what one girl I introduced him to described as "inspired prophecy". See, "The Gods of the Copybook Headings".

"In the Carbonifeous Epoch, they promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter, to pay for collective Paul.
And although we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said, "If you don't work, you die."

"On the first Feminian sandstones, they promised the Fuller Life,
Which started by loving our neighbor, and ended by loving his wife.
Till the women had no more children, and men lost Reason and Faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said, "The wages of sin is death."

Beginning to see why he's hated, vilified and lied about? He said things that make people profoundly uncomfortable. He said that actions have consequences, that every good thing must be paid for, and that pain is part of our lot in life and there's nothing you can do about it but meet it as bravely as you can.

I was introduced to Kipling by my father when I was a boy, "Gunga Din" I believe it was, and to this day I'm not sure there's anything better he did to prepare me for life's rough spots. I can recite pages of Kipling from memory and can recall some very bad times when I took comfort and strength by taking long walks reciting it to myself.

If I were to recommend literature for the moral education of children, I'd start at an early age with The Jungle Books and I'd make sure they were familiar with "If" and "Hymn to Breaking Strain".

Surely any writer should keep in mind:

"If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken, twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or see the things you gave your life to broken, and stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools."

And take comfort from:

"Oh veiled and secret power, whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour, of overthrow and pain.
That we by which sure token, we know thy ways are true,
In spite of being broken, because of being broken,
May rise and build anew.
Stand up and build anew."

Kipling knew whereof he was writing about. His beloved youngest daughter died aged four. He and his wife watched as their 17-year-old only son went off to France and certain death in WWI. After preaching the necessity of sending their nation's youth to the horror of that war, they couldn't find the hypocrisy in themselves to urge him to avoid military service or pull strings to keep him from harm's way.They never even had the comfort of recovering his body. Kipling's line ended with him, none of his surviving children had children of their own.

What he left behind for us is the knowledge that you can take it. Life's blows can break you, and will eventually kill you, but can't beat you unless you give in.

There are worse ways to spend an evening with friends than having a kipple. Turn off the TV, grab a beer, pass around the Complete Verse and have everyone read their favorites.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Alright, everybody else has commented, so...

So the confessed killer of JonBenet Ramsey is just another twitchy pedophile wanting his fifteen minutes after all. It's not like we all didn't see it coming, the networks said from the beginning that the details of his "confession" didn't jibe with the proverbial "details never released to the press".

One possible good that came out of all of this was that the media got to focus on how badly they and the authorities had treated John and Patsy Ramsey. Cold comfort to Patsy, who died not long ago - but at least she died with the illusion that there was going to be some kind of resolution. If she'd hung on a little longer she'd have died with bitter disappointment rather than hope.

Now having said that, does anybody out there think that there was NO connection between the creepy beauty pagent lifestyle that little girl was injected into and her murder?

Yeah, yeah she really liked it. So what? Kids like a lot of things which parents shouldn't let them do.

When the murder was new, I was single and had no kids. Now I have two, an active boy and a beautiful six-week-old daughter. When I figure out how to, I'll probably post some pictures (see previous post). But gentle readers, after she's a no-doubt lovely little girl and recognizable from pictures, none are ever going to be posted on the Internet if I have anything to say about it.

I love the computer age! I hate computers!

Remember back in the days of huge mainframes and punched cards how we thought that computers were going to be the driving engine of Big Brother's all-powerful police state? How they were going to dehumanize us and make us more like machines, perhaps with numbers instead of names? Remember, Colossus: the Forbin Project, and Ira Levin's, This Perfect Day?

Didn't happen that way did it? Nobody anticipated the personal computer and its enormous potential for making us less dependent on central sources of news, information and commerce.

Computers didn't dehumanize us at all, instead it seems that computers became more human. And you know what? I DON'T LIKE IT! I want machines to be machines, I don't want them to have a personality.

Back in the Mechanical Age you flipped a switch, pulled a lever or turned a dial, then something either happened or it didn't. If it did, fine. If it didn't, you fixed the machine or junked it.

With my computer the same set of commands sometimes works - and sometimes doesn't. How soon you push one tab after another can make the difference between whether I'm going to check my mail or do Control/ Alt/ Delete, shut down and start over. Sometimes a procedure works as it should - and then sometimes I have to ask it, "Pretty please with sugar on it."

I love the Internet and couldn't get along without it anymore, but when I get these popup messages, "A recent attempt to attack your computer was blocked" I feel like I'm sitting in the doctor's office waiting for test results and beginning to regret a promiscuous past.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Celebrity Roast: Last night while channel surfing I came across a celebrity roast for William Shatner and as an old Star Trek fan couldn't resist. I should have.

It occurs to me that I haven't actually seen many celebrity roasts, in fact it's been... a long time. The last one I remember had Dean Martin, Don Rickles and Demond Wilson (I told you it was a long time). I don't remember who was being roasted but I remember it was side-splittingly funny.

This roast had Farah Fawcett, who still has a nice figure (with her clothes on at least) though almost unrecognizable in the face and obviously stoned out of her gourd, Geroge Alexander from Seinfield, Nichelle Nichols, Betty White, George Takei and some comedians I didn't recognize.

Farah couldn't speak her lines without cracking up and announced that she and Shatner had a lot in common, they were both known for their hair, their boobs and they'd both f*&ked Lee Majors. It went down hill from there.

Somebody in a Vulcan costume announced that he was "Kock" the "butt baby" of a union between Kirk and Spock. A young comedian kept getting up, walking over to verious people and licking their faces. George Takei, evidently just out of the closet, came up with a lot of female genitalia smell jokes and a rather racist jab at Carlos Mencia who wasn't even there. Takei was the butt of the one funny joke we heard in the ten minutes we were tuned in. "Hey George, when you came out of the closet, did the door slide aside "whoosh" like on the Enterprise?"

Thank God Nichelle Nichols and Betty White kept their mouths shut, I always thought they were classy ladies. (If you watched more than I did and know different, keep it to yourselves please.) It hurt a little to see the luminously beautiful Jerry Ryan laughing in the audience.

Look, it's not that it was vulgar and tasteless. I've told more than my share of vulgar and tasteless jokes in my time. It's that IT WASN'T FUNNY!

I've seen and enjoyed a lot of vulgar humor in not very good taste that was redeemed by being funny. (Actually, when it's funny I think you call it "earthy".) This was just sad. And for what it's worth I thought there was a strong undercurrent of very real bitterness between the participants.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

I recently reminded a very old friend that it was rude and inconsiderate to stuff every acquaintance's mailbox with six to eight posts per day. If you have that much to say - start a blog.

It occurred to me that I probably ought to take my own advice. Another good reason for doing so is the writing discipline. Since I returned to university as a superannuated grad student I haven't had time to write for publication. (That and our second child tends to cut into writing time.) The best advice I ever heard on writing was from Stephen King, a writer whose fiction I don't read much. He said something to the effect that, if you lift weights every day, you get big muscles. If you write every day, you get good at writing. It's probably about that simple.

So here it is at long last, Rants and Raves.