Saturday, June 23, 2007

Special K

It has occurred to me that K. hasn't been getting that much coverage in this blog, largely owing to the fact that K. prefers to disseminate her news via email rather than fling it onto the world wide web for all to see. Still, this purports to be a family blog and she's part of the family, so I don't see why she should be spared. Besides, just look at that freckled face.
We took this photo in mid-April when we went down to the coast for me to attend a judicial conference. I think they got a good rate on hotel rooms, because a lot of the seasonal stuff was still closed and the water was cold enough to turn your toes blue. No kidding. K. did more than her fair share of watching the kids wade in the icy surf, so it's not for nothing that she's wearing her hood in this shot.

Lee and Melissa Kennedy were nice enough to put us up when we visited C-Ville in May. Melissa and K. were very glad to see each other and resumed getting along famously (the best kind of way to get along).The picture of K. and Melissa didn't turn out so well, but here's another one of K. and her friend Marta, taken near our old law school apartment.

K. and I watched the movie Wordplay a while back (basically a sports film for nerds) and decided to test the hypothesis that crosswords stave off mental atrophy. K., it turns out, is much quicker at it than her English major husband, but left-brainers tend to fare better, or so the documentary says. (In a side note: Will Shortz, the NY Times crossword editor who is one of the film's main subjects, is a graduate of UVA Law. Who knew?)
Here's my beautiful mind puzzling it out in the Brandywine Springs park, close to Ian's school.

A couple days after that picture we went back to Brandywine Springs for K.'s surprise 30th birthday party. A lot of friends conspired to make the day extra-special (you know who you are).If you look closely you can see that the 3 in "30" is spelled backwards. Obviously, the crosswords aren't helping me that much.

K. and five other roommates achieved a Zion-esque level of apartment unity while they were all at BYU, and here it is ten years later and they all still keep in pretty close contact.Here's K. with ex-roomates Natasha and Clarissa, hanging around Elsewhere's Battery Park so that a ship can come along and fire at them.

And you thought I was kidding. I never joke about the navy.K. is good friends with the wife of the gunner (he's actually one of the ship's carpenters and climbers, but got to fire part of the two-gun salute on the ship's voyage back from Norfolk).

During one of my frequent bouts of Virginia withdrawal, I asked K. what her favorite place on Earth was. Luckily for her, it's a short drive away--Longwood Gardens near Kennett Square, PA.Heaven bless the DuPonts: it's amazing what a fine botanical collection you can amass when all you have is patience, a vision, and bottomless coffers of money.

K. and I are both working on our macro photography. Here's a particularly nice one she took.Tulips are my favorite flower anyway, but I really like how she captured the feathery edges, in and out of shadow.

Just the other week K. and the kids looked out the window and what did they see? A ginormous red-tailed hawk eating a squirrel on our front lawn.The hawk was unperturbed when they went outside to get a closer look, being fairly engrossed in eating Skippy.

I'll end with another photo from Longwood, this one taken in early April when our friends Dave and Mindy came to visit from Seattle (Dave was in the area to wow the State Department with his mad public management skills). Longwood has a world class conservatory (big ol' greenhouse) that is both incredibly large (4 indoor acres) and incredibly varied in the types of climates represented (dry deserts, humid jungles, and an overpoweringly scented room stacked to the ceiling with orchids). We've put in a bid on the property but I think it might go to someone else. At least we have each other.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dynamic Duos

Well, I tried reading somebody else for a while, but I've fallen off the Patrick O'Brian wagon and am voraciously working my way through book seventeen (!) in the Aubrey-Maturin series, The Commodore. It's going to be a crushing letdown, I'm afraid, when I reach that point in the series where O'Brian died and there are no more naval adventures in store for Captain Jack Aubrey and ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin. I now realize that I'm a sucker for a good, literary buddy story. Here are my top three dynamic duos, all of them straddling the line between entertaining pulp and high-falutin' literature:

3. Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call
Larry McMurtry taught English at Rice University years before I ever attended, but one of his former colleagues told the story of how, at a certain point of McMurtry's career, it looked like all his glory days were behind him. Up till then, he was probably most famous for The Last Picture Show, a book noted for lamenting the passing of the small-town American community (and infamous in my family for having been adapted into a movie with a skinny-dipping scene that my brother's 11th grade English teacher made them watch). In a slump, McMurtry thought of easing his way into semi-retirement before he hit upon the story of a couple of retired Texas Rangers who decide to organize a cattle-drive from Texas to Montana, along the way confronting the last vestiges of their former, frontier life. That story became the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, and eventually grew into a four-book series about the friendship between Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Woodrow F. Call.

Gus and Call are mismatched in the true, buddy-genre fashion. Gregarious, philosophical, and magnificently lazy, Gus has spent his whole life nurturing not just his romantic cowboy notions, but also his weaknesses for gambling, women, and talk for talk's sake. He is a perfect foil for Call, a laconic yet reliable stoic who possesses few vices and admits to none. On the road to Montana both men confront the great regrets of their lives; for Gus it is the woman he should have settled down with, and for Call it is the boy he can never quite bring himself to recognize as his son. It is a tremendous book, full of vivid Western characters and great humanity, equally given to humor and heartbreak. As old friends, Gus and Call can recognize in each other those deep-seated flaws that, over a lifetime of hardening, will ultimately lead to tragedy, but it's too late to change each other and there's nobody else worth arguing with. If you've never seen the mini-series with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and Call respectively, you are in for a big, sprawling, six-and-a-half-hour treat.

2. Reginald Jeeves and Bertram Wilberforce Wooster
Douglas Adams was of the opinion that humorist P.G. Wodehouse outranked William Shakespeare on the list of great, English, comic writers. Having slogged through dozens of Shakespeare plays for class, while breezing through dozens of Wodehouse novels for fun, I'm inclined to think that Adams got it right. Wodehouse (pronounced "wood house") worked very hard on his prose, pasting each page of his chapters in sequence around the walls of his study so he could single out and re-write those pages that weren't as funny as their mates. It shows. I can't get through a single page of Wodehouse without cracking a big smile, sometimes going as far as to guffaw at appropriate intervals. Not too shabby for someone who wrote lyrics and librettos for over thirty musicals (including Anything Goes and Show Boat) and a whopping 96 books between 1902 and 1975. And yet none of his creations are as dear to my heart as the pairing of Reginald Jeeves with Bertram "Bertie" Wooster.

Before there was simply Jeeves, the apotheosis of velvet, deferential cunning. However, there would have been no need to create Jeeves if Wodehouse had not first created his true masterpiece in the form of narrator Bertie Wooster, amiable upper-class twit extraordinaire. Simply put, Bertie needs a minder. Gullible, over-educated yet dim, and far too honorable for his own good, Bertie cannot step outside his upscale London flat without being assaulted by disapproving aunts or undeserving school chums eager to draw the easily-led aristocrat into some brush with matrimony or the Law. Bound by his outmoded "Code of the Woosters," Bertie will never refuse to help a friend no matter how questionable the end or the means, and as a result he frequently ends up, not fifty pages into the plot, accidentally engaged to this month's Toxic Bachelorette and threatened with bodily harm by this week's Jealous Boyfriend.

Enter Jeeves, an unassuming servant whose Machiavellian intellect fairly towers over the feeble-minded Wooster and whose quiet resourcefulness knows no creative or ethical bounds. As one critic put it, Jeeves is essentially a well-dressed deus ex machina who swoops in at critical moments to save Bertie's bacon, usually in a slightly underhanded way that humiliates Bertie enough to remind him of his place in their inverted hierarchy. Contrary to the direction of most comedies, Jeeves novels are essentially anti-marriage plots, as the valet helps free his master from cloying, conniving, and controlling women so that Bertie can remain all the more completely under Jeeves's firm, yet generally benign, control. It's a marvelous double-act that only Wodehouse could have pulled off for so long and so consistently.

If you're not sure if Wodehouse is your cup of tea, I suggest you start with Code of the Woosters and The Mating Season. The former represents the high point of Bertie Wooster's hilarious, slang-riddled, blathering narration (read it out loud and you'll see what I mean), while the latter achieves an incredible technical mastery in juggling four (count 'em, four) rotating pairs of fickle-hearted lovers while showcasing the world's saddest--and therefore funniest--local talent show. Moreover, if you have never seen the television series Jeeves and Wooster, starring Stephen Fry and the rubber-faced Hugh Laurie, you are in for a treat.

1. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin
Don't act surprised. Anyone who paid attention to the beginning of this post knew that these stalwarts were going to be at the top of my list, and for good reason. The complex relationship between "Lucky" Jack Aubrey and his "particular friend" Stephen Maturin ought to go into any pantheon of great literary duos, taking their rightful place alongside Holmes & Watson, Nick & Nora, Goofus & Gallant. At the dawn of the 19th Century the red-blooded young British Captain Aubrey gets into an argument with the sour young Maturin--arising, as it turns out, from their mutual love of chamber music--and the rest is naval history. For twenty-and-a-half wonderful novels O'Brian followed Aubrey and Maturin from young adulthood well into advanced middle age, chronicling not just the substance of their nautical voyages to the farthest reaches of the British Navy, but also recording the travails of each man's inner life with the deft accuracy of a poet philosopher. Jack Aubrey is in many ways a throwback to a simpler age--a lover of "old ways and old wine"--the robust embodiment of England at the height of her naval powers. However, O'Brian's greatest feat is painting Jack with all the checkered colors of humanity, so that in addition to being a great sailor and formidable leader at sea, he is also a great, blundering jackass on land, particularly in his own home.

Where the red-faced Captain Aubrey is bluff, jovial and artless, the pale-eyed Stephen Maturin is slight, skilled, and thoughtfully morose. If Jack Aubrey is a product of the old century's tradition and spirit, Stephen Maturin is a child of the new Enlightenment, a natural philosopher whose zealous pursuit of knowledge casts an eager if dispassionate eye on humanity and its fellow creatures. Stephen is the ultimate outsider in Aubrey's world--a half-Irish, half-Catalan Catholic who couldn't tell port from starboard to save his life, yet his hatred of a Napoleonic tyranny makes him an invaluable and unlikely ally to imperialist Britain. In another creative masterstroke O'Brian makes this cold, ugly little man one of the Admiralty's most trusted intelligence agents, so that while Jack fights Napoleon's captains in the open ocean Stephen fights his agents in back alleys and behind closed doors, stealing papers and laying traps with reptilian cunning. Unlike Jack's perhaps undeservedly blissful marriage to his wife Sophie, Stephen's unhappy pursuit of Sophie's fiery cousin Diana forms an aching domestic undercurrent to the entire series, occasionally spurring him to dangerous flirtation with his other mistress, laudanum.

Neither of them unblemished heroes, both Jack and Stephen are largely redeemed by what they love: for Jack it is the thrill of the brisk chase and the roar of the cannon, while for Stephen it is the beauty of Creation, in all its stunning variety. There is a telling scene, early in the series, where Stephen is walking up the long lane to Jack's country cottage, his heart torn up over a particularly cruel slight from his beloved Diana. As he proceeds slowly up the path, the English countryside gradually reveals itself to him. Birds glide through the early morning light, while a hedgehog grumbles up the path ahead of him, giving him a weary, backwards look before trudging into the underbrush. "I don't know why I'm happy," Stephen remarks to himself after a pause, "but I am." That ability to capture the highs and lows of life, the steady diet of joy roughly tempered by pain, is what makes the Aubrey-Maturin series shine, and what makes it such a joy to my heart. Put together, Jack and Stephen form a complete picture of something--I couldn't say exactly what--that gets at the heart of what it means to live in this world. For a pairing of two fictional characters, you couldn't ask for a much loftier achievement.

PS: If you have not seen the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World starring Russell Crowe as Jack and Paul Bettany as Stephen, you are in for a treat. Is it too late to harangue Hollywood into making a sequel?

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Puppets' Corner: Rainy Days

Red: Hi folks. We're the monster puppets the kids made this week. Ian made me.
Blue: That's right. Mom and Dad helped a little, but Sage cut my eyes and horns out herself.
Green: Meep meep.
Blue: Green belongs to Lucy. The kids named us all after Pokemon characters, but Dad can't really keep us straight.
Red: Hence the color-coded transcript.
Green: Gunga galunga.
Red: Anyway, here's the rundown from this afternoon.
Blue: At 2:45 Dad looked out the window and asked if kids wanted to go swimming.
Red: At 2:45 and 2 seconds the kids said "Yayyyyy!"
Green: [now transfixed by Bambi]
Blue: At 3:50 the kids finally got dressed and ready to drive to the pool.
Red: And, of course, at 3:55 it started to rain. That's when the kids went home and turned on Bambi for us monsters to watch.

Blue: The sun came back out at 4:10, but Dad waited half an hour before driving everyone back to the pool, since that's when the apartment complex usually reopens the pool after a heavy rain.
Red: When we got there at 4:40, they were closing the pool even though it's supposed to be open until 8pm.
Blue: Lazy teenage life guards.
Green: Grrrrr...
Red: By 4:50 we were back on the couch learning about twitterpation.
Blue: I've never seen this movie before, but I think I like it.*
*Blue puppet's film commentary as imagined by Sage.