Thursday, December 15, 2011

Very true

So this is weird.

We all know that the word "really" can be the adverbial version of "a lot": He was really tall.

We all know that "literally" is often misused as an adverbial version of "a lot": He was literally the tallest man I had ever seen.

And we all know that "very" is the traditionally preferred adverbial version of "a lot": He was very tall.

But did you know they all have the same root meaning? "Really" and "literally" both retain their "actually" sense: It's really going to happen. We're not talking about metaphors here. He's literally going to punch me in the face. "Very" doesn't retain that sense any more, but apparently it used to have the same sense:
1200–50; Middle English  < Anglo-French; Old French verai  (French vrai ) < Vulgar Latin *vērācus,  for Latin vērāx  truthful,equivalent to vēr us true (cognate with Old English wǣr,German wahr  true, correct) + -āx  adj. suffix
Sociolinguists of the World: What does it mean that our words for "a lot" are all related to our words for "actually"?

UPDATE: I just saw this quote from Michael Crichton: "Anyone who says he knows God's intention is showing a lot of very human ego." Since you can't (technically) be more or less human, then I guess we do occasionally use "very" to mean "actually."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

TV rots your brain

Watching X-Files with no lights on,
We're dans la maison.
I hope the smokey man's in this one.
- Ed Robertson (c.1999)

I recently began watching The X-Files. When I first started, I couldn't help but notice how terrible some of the effects are. The kind of terrible that might make you stop watching a show or that tear you out of the hypnotic trance a good piece of art puts you in. But as I kept watching, I noticed that the special effects, while terrible, somehow don't pull you out as much as they could. I think it's because the characters are so interesting and engaging. Fox Mulder with his quasi-paranoid search for the truth. Dana Scully with her bewildered attempt to hang on to make sense of everything she's seeing. And, we can never forget, the dozen other characters, both recurring and one-off, who get interesting little backgrounds and add spice to the show.

The characters make the show, not the mysteries or the visual effects. At least through 10 episodes, the creators of The X-Files haven't forgotten that.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

A man and his horse trudge along a country lane. It is early evening, but the sun has gone down and the light of the moon is covered by a thick blanket of clouds. The snow falls steadily, all-but-silently covering first the ground and then itself and then itself again.

The lane dips to meet a frozen lake, and the man and his horse pause to collect themselves before tackling the climb back up. What looked like a hill in the warm sunshine looms ahead like a craggy peak.

The man looks around. "Whose woods these are, I think I know," he mumbles to himself, thinking he might find a warm bed or at least a cup of coffee. But he shakes his head. "His house is in the village though."  There is no one around for miles. "He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow."

The man's mind wanders while he puts off climbing the hill, and he thinks about his horse. "My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near." Queer indeed. No farmhouse. "Between the woods and frozen lake. The darkest evening of the year." The man closes his eyes and opens them slowly. What a place to stop.

The horse, as if to show that horses know what cold means, "gives his bells a little shake to ask if there is some mistake."

But the man, too cold and too tired to focus on anything for long, doesn't respond. His mind has already wandered on to the loneliness and silence of this particular stretch of highway. "The only other sound's the sweep of easy wind and downy flake."

The near silence. The darkness. The cold. He wants to lie down and sleep. The woods might offer some shelter. They don't look intimidating or scary. In fact, they "are lovely, dark and deep."

"But," he remembers, "I have promises to keep." He turns his face forward. "And miles to go before I sleep."

He puts one foot in front of the other and his horse follows. The words echo in his exhausted mind. He tries to push sleep a little further away. "And miles to go before I sleep."


My wife and I are in the middle--well, the middle of the beginning--of a long, long journey. We finished one long journey a few years ago and promptly started another. Some days feel like the darkest evening of the year, and I wallow in the kind of self-pity that says, "It's so dark! And it's not even 9 o'clock yet!"

But somehow, and I don't understand this, somehow there is comfort in the idea that others have gone through these types of journeys before. I don't know whether Robert Frost finished his, but maybe that's the point.

Maybe journeys aren't about getting where you're going; maybe they're about being where you are.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Ruff Crossing

"I shall be telling this with a sigh"of disappointment? of happiness? of nostalgia?"somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and II took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." - Robert Frost, c.1920.

There are two things I don't like about that stanza. First: duh. If two roads diverge, taking one instead of the other will make all the difference. If I'm at the crossroads of I-70 and I-95 in Baltimore, and I take I-70, I will never reach Miami or Boston or New York. But if I take I-95, I will never hit Indianapolis or St. Louis Kansas City or Denver. Those are completely different experiences, and those differences result from taking a different road.*

*You may be interested to note that I-70 is probably less traveled by than I-95.

Second, the rhythm gets awkward. The words "hence" and "difference" are only imperfect rhymes. Poetry, for me at least, is all about rhythm and sound. That last line is something like the last note of a song being slightly sharp. Your ear picks it up, even if your conscious mind doesn't. I don't like it.

That said, I like the poem. It's one of two I (currently) have committed to memory. The poem has an interesting irony to it. He claims to have taken the road less traveled by, but says that "both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black." The first stage of the irony is the "equally" part: neither road was particularly less traveled than the other. The second stage is the "no step had trodden black" part: both roads were pretty untraveled. So, really, he didn't take the road less traveled, at least among the two that diverged in the yellow wood. Is he lying to himself?

But then there's the other part, the growing up part, the part about how "way leads on to way" and the slow realization that living involves making choices and regretting them and wondering what might have been and realizing the full depth of not being able to go back. If I could go back, would I try out for football in seventh grade? Would I sign up for band in sixth grade? Would I choose Howard Payne over Mary Hardin-Baylor again? Or Baylor over Texas? Would I still major in political science instead of chemistry? Would I buy this car again or that phone? Would I try harder in calculus?

When I was 16, Hewitt Drive was a well-traveled road. When you hit Spring Valley Road, you could turn right or left. Left was more well-traveled than right. If you went right, you would eventually hit Old Lorena Road, which was a little more traveled than Spring Valley Road. But if you kept going, you would hit Cotton Belt Parkway, less traveled than Old Lorena, Spring Valley, or Hewitt Drive. Cotton Belt Parkway would take you to Church Road. Church Road, at the time, was so untraveled that it had a one-lane wooden bridge. And Church Road would take you to those unnamed county roads.

Maybe Frost started off on Hewitt Drive but ended up on County Road 314.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Silken, sad, uncertain

Real men resign in chess and real men read poetry.

There's almost something Jaws-like about reading "The Raven" out loud. Go now and do it. I'll wait.

First, Poe uses trochaic meter. That's not the dumDUM iamb we all loved so dearly in high school, but the DUMdum trochee nobody ever told us about. Then, he puts together eight of those dang trochees in a row. No matter how you slice it, octameter is always kind of awkwardly long in English. I always try to read it as two separate, bite-size lines. But Poe doesn't let you do that by using a combination of alliteration, drawn-out thoughts, and off-center breaks. For example:
And the silken, sad, uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me--filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
The fourth trochee of the first line is "-certain." That should be the natural break. But we slip on the alliteration--"silken, sad, uncertain"--and slide right into the end of the thought. We dig in our heels after the fourth trochee, but the alliterative momentum and our own curiosity knocks us over into the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth trochees.

The second line has the off-center break I was talking about. Instead of giving us a nice comma after the fourth trochee ("-tastic"), Poe makes us take a breath after the first trochee: "Thrilled me." Even though the second line doesn't have the alliterative momentum, it has the thought momentum that pulls us forward into the second half of the line.

Finally, Poe uses an analog to the old idea of comic relief. After five lines of trochaic octameter, he gives us a bite-size trochaic tetrameter at the end of each stanza. For me, these serve as a sort of breather, but the bad kind, the kind of breather you take when you're swimming in from too far out in the water. You don't think you're moving, but you're slipping farther and farther out to sea. Only here, it's the hypnotic sea of The Raven.

Finally, the salt on the watermelon are the sprinkled in lines that are nearly comedic:
"Surely," said I, "surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see, then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore--
That is, lattice, and thereat is. The man was a rhyming genius.

PS--I just learned the ravens can talk. This poem just went from fantastical to dadgum.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Wright and Haiku

Good poetry involves the synergy of sound, rhythm, and connotation:
Standing in the field,
I hear the whispering of
     Snowflake to snowflake.
- Richard Wright (1968).

Out of all the photographs I've ever taken, this is one of my favorites:

There's just something beautiful about winter.

Friday, October 28, 2011

There's always next year

Baseball is a tough game. Especially on its fans.

The first math I remember learning was how to figure batting average and ERA on a calculator. I learned my colors from baseball cards. ("Give your mother all the red teams."*) I learned to never give up from baseball.

*My mom's favorite color at the time was red. Ironically, her favorite team was the Royals, but she had a hundred cards of Reds and Red Sox and some other team that won't be named.

I also learned how to lose from baseball.

And the worst part about it is that I can't do anything about it.

I'm not going to say the better team won. I'm not going to say the more deserving team won. I'm definitely not going to say the more deserving fan base won. I don't really believe any of those things. All I can say is that baseball is a game uniquely influenced by luck, and I have never had good luck.

Oh, I do want to say one other thing. I can't think of a single player on this team that I don't like. I'm glad I'm not Jon Daniels. I don't want to try to figure out how to make this team better.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

My Weekend at the Movies

Or, I guess, at home, really.

This weekend, we watched two movies: Helen Hunt's directorial debut Then She Found Me and David Fincher's second attempt at defining a generation through film, The Social Network.


Then She Found Me: 3/5

I really liked Helen Hunt's directorial debut.  She cast herself as April, a late-30s urban school teacher, recently married to her long-time best friend and coworker, Ben (Matthew Broderick).  One day, she comes home from work ready to make a baby, and Ben is sitting at the kitchen table wearing a tee-shirt and sneakers.  They have a brief argument over who should stand up or sit down and who should take her coat off, and the argument ends with breakup sex.  The next day, she meets Frank (Colin Firth), a recently single father of one of her students.  They have instant chemistry, but they are both trying to get a handle on their new stations in life.  Add April's heretofore unknown birth mother, Bernice (Bette Midler), and you have a recipe for interesting drama with some spice of real world comedy.

I've already said it once, but I'll say it again.  I really liked TSFM.  You have four likable actors playing three likable roles, and you instantly have characters I care about.  This is one of those movies where I lost track of time and just enjoyed being with April and Frank as they tried to figure out how to be who they've become.  The characters are the strong point of this movie, and Director Hunt did well to avoid distracting us with stunning visuals or swelling orchestral numbers or lampshaded plot metaphors.  Instead, everything takes a backseat to the characters.  And that's OK.

If there's one thing I didn't like about the movie, it would be that the relationship between April and Ben wasn't developed enough.  At one point, April tells Bernice that Ben is the kind of guy that she knows she'll do whatever he asks.  That point becomes painfully obvious twice.  What confuses me is that I don't understand why she'll do whatever he asks.  What does he bring to the table?  I guess I just would have liked to have seen more pre-split development.

The Social Network: 3/5

David Fincher, once again, tries to define a generation.  He did it the first time (very successfully, I think) with Fight Club.  Now, he's taking a generation-defining technology and talking about it.  I think he makes a subtle point about greed and loneliness and technology that might get lost without some post-viewing thinking.

The Social Network tells the tale of the founding of Facebook.  We watch it mainly as it revolves around Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), and we see what happens.  It's hard to say who really did who wrong, but that's not really the point.  The plot goes something like this: Zuckerberg is a brilliant computer scientist-in-training.  He gains notoriety by developing a website overnight that allows users to vote on the various girls of Harvard in one-on-one competitions.  The Winklevoss twins (played simultaneously by Armie Hammer) and their crony Divya (Max Minghella) call him up to see if he can put together a website they've dreamed up.  They call it "Harvard Connection."  He takes the idea, pitches it to his best friend, financial wizard Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), and Eduardo and he take the world by storm, making a million friends and a few enemies along the way.

My favorite thing about SN is that it tells the story through some type of legal proceeding several years down the road.  Fincher cuts in interesting ways between the legal proceeding and the events as they happen, lending an air of credibility to the speaker at the legal proceeding (usually Eduardo).  But---and this is what I like---he lampshades their incentive to lie.  After Zuckerberg accuses somebody of lying, one of the lawyers points out that she was under oath.  "Oh," he says, "then it's the first time anybody's ever lied under oath."  It's a subtler version of the Rashomon effect, and it hearkens back to Fincher's Fight Club days.  Where Kurosawa had four narrators tell the same story four times, Fincher has two narrators tell different parts of the same story.  It all vaguely fits together, but we still don't really know what happened.

[Apostrophe: I saw Passengers at Safeway today for $6.99.  Talk about untrustworthy narrators.  I thought about buying it.  And you thought you'd only get spoilers for Then She Found Me and The Social Network.  Bah.  I spoil it all.]

What did I dislike?  Well, mainly, Mark Zuckerberg.  And that's a problem.  When you have a movie revolve around a guy, he has to be sympathetic in some way.  Otherwise, you can't watch the movie.  Thankfully, Eduardo hangs around long enough to make Zuckerberg palatable.  (At least until Zuckerberg royally screws Eduardo.)  Don't tell me that that's the point of the movie.  It's not.  Fincher bookends the movie (and throws in two lines at about the 1/3 and 2/3 marks) with references to Erica Albright.  She is the only one he doesn't screw.  Tell me what you think about that.


Rent them both.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Kids Are All Right: 3/5

The Kids Are All Right is the third feature film by Lisa Cholodenko.  The basic plot is simple.  Nic and Jules (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, respectively) are a middle-aged lesbian couple about to bid their daughter Joni (played by Mia Wasikowska) adieu as she goes off to college.  Now that she's 18, she can get in touch with her sperm-donor father Paul (played by Mark Ruffalo), which she does, and he knocks all their preciously balanced lives off kilter.  I liked the first two-thirds of this movie, then it kinda ran off track.  I wouldn't mind watching it again, but I don't really need to.

Three Up

  1. The acting - The five main actors in TKAAR do well.  Four of the five are charming and sympathetic.  These are people that I might want to get to know.  For the first two thirds of the movie, I was content getting to know these characters.
  2. The setting - Maybe I'm just coming out of my winter hibernation, but I really enjoyed looking at all the sunny, warm, green lusciousness of Los Angeles.  If movies are about making us wish we were somewhere else, then this movie accomplished that for me.
  3. I liked the normality and banality of Nic and Jules's relationship.  The sooner we realize that other people are, in fact, other people, the sooner we will get over our foolish hangups and hatred.

Three Down

  1. The title
    1. Option A: I read that the title borrows from a song by The Who of the same a similar name.  If so, that suggests that the titular "kids" are really the parents.  But are the parents all right?  One parent is inattentive, controlling, and struggling with alcohol; the other is (apparently) irresponsible, cheating, and perhaps sexually confused.  The second mother may also be going through a mid-life crisis.  If the titular kids are the actual parents, then they don't seem to be all right. 
    2. Option B: If the titular "kids" are, in fact, the kids, then the title answers a question nobody asked.  Are the kids all right?  Why is that even a question?  Is this a comment on same-sex couples raising children?  As in, Don't worry - the kids are just fine without having a male father figure, and if he ever shows up, he'll only mess things up.  And if the titular kids are the actual kids, why don't they have character arcs?  
    3. Sidenote: Maybe it's a generational thing, but would the kind of people who name their children after Joni Mitchell also listen to The Who?  They seem sort of like opposities to me.
  2. Character development - I just have some questions.
    1. Was there any real indication that Jules is irresponsible?  The work history I remember is that she went to school to be an architect, but stopped pursuing that career path when they had children.  (I would be hard-pressed to call stay-at-home mothers irresponsible.)  Then, at some point later, she opened a furniture store that didn't quite work out.  (Like Paul said, "Businesses are hard.")  And now she is pursuing a third business, as part of which she fires a guy she thinks has a drug problem.  Maybe you can say that sleeping with your client is irresponsible, but it seems like two different senses of the word.
    2. Why does Nic get to act like the innocent victim of Jules's infidelity?  Nic was inattentive, controlling, judgmental, and possibly alcoholic.  Nobody deserves to be cheated on, but it's not like Nic's hands were clean.
    3. Why do we care that Joni and Laser (really?  Am I supposed to believe that someone who would name their child after Joni Mitchell would name another child Laser?) have their unique talents?  
    4. Why does Nic call Paul "self-satisfied"?  Paul seems like a decent guy living a decent life before he met Jules.  
  3. Fridge Logic - If I presented to you two character portraits, one of Nic and one of Jules, who do you think would be more likely to have a child first?