Saturday, September 27, 2008

arlo guthrie nails it

So, we've now been to the local branch of our bank, and All Is (ostentatiously) Well, with no evidence of their precipitous collapse, take-over, shut-down, and buy-out except that FDIC announcements about how safe your money is have discretely popped up everywhere.

Recently Janice and I have felt the odd urge to sing snatches from an old song whenever we hear financial news about the latest bailout. Though I know it from Arlo Guthrie's performance on PRECIOUS FRIENDS [1982], it was originally written [circa 1979?] by Tom Paxton (as Guthrie himself is careful to note). See if it sounds more applicable than is quite comfortable:

"Oh the price of gold is rising out of sight
And the dollar is in sorry shape tonight
What the dollar used to get us
Now won't buy a head of lettuce
No the economic forecast isn't bright

"But amidst the clouds I spot a shining ray
I can even glimpse a new and better way
And I've devised a plan of action
Worked it down to the last fraction
And I'm going into action here today


"I am changing my name to Chrysler
I am going down to Washington D.C.
I will tell some power broker
What they did for Iacocca
Will be perfectly acceptable for me
I am changing my name to Chrysler
I am headed for that great receiving line
So when they hand a million grand out
I'll be standing with my hand out
Yes sir I'll get mine

"When my creditors are screaming for their dough (for their dough)
I'll be proud to tell them all where they can go
They won't have to scream and holler
They'll be paid to the last dollar
Where the endless streams of money seem to flow

"I'll be glad to tell them what they all can do
It's a matter of a simple form or two
It's not just renumeration
It's a liberal education
Ain't you kind of glad that I'm in debt to you?


"Since the first amphibians crawled out of the slime (of the slime)
We've been struggling in an unrelenting climb
We were hardly up and walking
Before money started talking
And it's sad that failure is an awful crime

"Well it's been that way for a millennium or two (um or two)
But now it seems that there's a different point of view
If you're a corporate titanic
And your failure is gigantic
Down in Congress there's a safety net for you


"I Am Changing My Name To Chrysler" by Tom Paxton, as performed by Arlo Guthrie.


Friday, September 26, 2008

A Seventh Ring

So, thanks to Steve Morrison's comment on my earlier post* (thanks Steve), I've now learned about another Ring of Invisibility, this one occurring in E. Nesbit's THE ENCHANTED CASTLE [1907]. Turns out (thanks again, Steve) the first to point this out seems to have been a Dean Hazelfan back in 2003:

More recently (Sept. 13th), Wayne & Christina have posted a more detailed account of the book's magical ring and the specific ways it might have influenced Tolkien (thanks Wayne):

Now that I've read the book for myself, I agree that it might well have been another element in the pot that contributed to Bilbo's ring. The most distinctive shared feature, as Wayne and Christina point out, is that Nesbit's ring makes the wearer invisible but not her shadow, which creates awkward situations. There are some minor points that may also be worth mentioning, such as one character's constant concern for missed mealtimes, the difficulty of getting meals when one is invisible; the breezy narrator is also at times rather like that in The Hobbit.

One interesting point is that Nesbit's is not really a ring of invisibility at all; rather, it's a ring that causes whatever its wearer says to come about. Thus at first it makes various of the characters invisible; then it makes one an old man, then another twelve-feet tall, then another a statue; eventually it brings two lovers together and creates a ghost. While it does at first seem tricksy, eventually the children learn how to use it properly; it's not in any way sentient, or evil, though its effects usually cause terror in all viewers.

It's not as good a book as FIVE CHILDREN AND IT, which we know was a direct influence on JRRT (the 'It' reappears in ROVERANDOM), nor an important influence on THE HOBBIT, such as Kenneth Grahame's THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS and Loftings DOCTOR DOLITTLE books. But it's definitely worth considering as another element in the mix.



Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bank Failure

So, today the Federal Government shut down our bank. It wasn't entirely unexpected -- we'd been talking for several days about what happens when a bank fails, something outside our experience, and made a few emergency preparations, just in case. All the accounts are protected by the FDIC (thanks again, FDR: there's a reason you're still our greatest president), but we'll find out the practicalities involved over the next few days. How does a bank failure affect direct deposit? Is money from checking or savings accounts temporarily frozen? Have they shut down their Tyme machines, as seems likely?

Turns out this is the biggest bank failure ever ($310 billion dollars). I put it down to deliberate mismanagement -- they've done everything they could to wrack up as many bad mortgages as possible in order to collect as many processing fees as possible -- but their recent decline in customer service (every in-person visit now involves a sales pitch to give them more money) and name change from Washington Mutual to 'WaMu' (which sounds like a sick killer whale in faux-Inuit) couldn't have helped. Now WaMu is KaPu, it seems. Too bad.

In connection with the shutdown, they're being bought out by J. P. Morgan (the legacy of one of the most repulsive robber barons of the Gilded Age). Some of their branches will be shut down; I assume the name will change. For now the new owners promise to carry on with business as usual (but presumably less incompetently). Here's the link:

And on a day like this what did the best local paper have as its lead story? A piece about police tasering an emu. I kid you not:



More details about the downfall of Washington Mutual:

and here's another about what the new combined bank might look like:

Both of them leave out the big one I've become more and more convinced of: a bank shd not be traded on the stock market. Doing so creates obsession with short-term profit at the expense of long-term stability. Long-term is what a bank is all about; trying to run one like a start-up high-profit stock company is a recipe for disaster.

Monday, September 22, 2008

When is a Hill a Mountain?

So, I've always assumed that something was a hill or a mountain depending on who named it -- otherwise, why would the Black Hills be higher than the Ozark Mountains? Well, it turns out that there's a more or less official definition that if it's 2,000 feet high, it's a mountain; anything less than that is a hill.

This became relevant (well, as relevant as it gets) when they re-measured a Welsh hill this week and found out it's actually a few inches higher than they thought. So they're reclassifying it as a mountain. Thanks to Janice for drawing this story to my attention.

Here's the bbc article with a short video report:

And here's a bbc radio report on the same topic:

Finally, just for fun, here's a little piece on some volunteers fixing up one of England's chalk figures (the Cerne Abbas Giant). I got to see the White Horse when I was there in October, thanks to Charles and Tammi Ryan, and on my next visit I'm hoping to visit all three of the surviving Chalk Figures -- the White Horse, Long Man, and Cerne Abbas Giant (and possibly the sites of two destroyed figures, the Red Horse of Tysoe and the Plymouth Giants Gog/Magog). So, if like me you're interested in what Paul Newman called "The Lost Gods" of England*, enjoy:

--John R.

*[not the actor, but the author of the same name who wrote LOST GODS OF ALBION: THE CHALK HILL FIGURES OF BRITAIN]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tom Taylor

So, three years back as part of an ongoing effort to build up my library in books needed for a long-term Tolkien project I had (and have) in mind, I picked up an 1865 copy of BALLADS & SONGS OF BRITTANY, translated by Tom Taylor from Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarque's BARSAZ-BREIZ, the source for Tolkien's "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun". It's a fascinating little book, not least because it includes the original Breton tunes in the back, set to music by "Mrs. Tom Taylor" (i.e., Laura W. Taylor).

For years, this has been all I've known about Tom Taylor. Then this summer I came across a reference to him in Anthony Trollope's AUTOBIOGRAPHY, where he lists Taylor as one of the literary friends he made once he began to be successful as an author [circa 1864] and get invited to join the right clubs (in this case, the Cosmopolitan in Berlekey Square). This still did not tell me much about Taylor, but at least it gave me an idea about what circles he moved in.

Then in August (8/14-08) I was visiting the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. and found in their gift shop, of all things, a copy of the play Lincoln was watching the night he got shot: OUR AMERICAN COUSIN by Tom Taylor. I checked, and it is indeed the same Tom Taylor. It turns out that Taylor was a prolific playwright, writing more than a hundred plays, though this is the only one that lingers on in even a ghostly existence because of its accidental notoriety.

There's no entry on Taylor in my [1995] edition of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA -- one of the things that balked my initial cursory research -- but he's well represented in the Ninth Edition (Vol. XXIII of the 1888 American edition, pages 95-96), which reveals the further surprising information that he was, for most of the 1870s the editor of PUNCH.

As for OUR AMERICAN COUSIN [1858] itself, no one would ever call it a good play, but it does have its points. Think of the Beverly Hillbillies meeting up with Bertie Wooster and you more or less have the gest of the thing. It is amusing to note that some of the peculiar Americanisms of the main character's speeches include such words and phrases as 'small potatoes' , 'a swap', 'barking up the wrong tree', 'take the pledge', 'get hitched', and 'doughnut', all of which the English aristocrats who make up most of the cast find baffling and quaint.
So: there it is; another unexpected connection.


*[Trollope also mentions getting to know a number of politicians at the same time and in the same way, mentioning among others Knatchbull Huguessen (Jane Austen's great nephew, and the author of "Puss-Cat Mew", a childhood favorite of Tolkien's). Another literary acquaintance, mentioned elsewhere in the volume, was the now forgotten Fitzjames Stephen, Virginia Woolf's uncle.]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Drinking the Rain

So, yesterday I was watching the hummingbird as it sat on the dowel that holds the hummingbird feeder suspended off the railing of the deck, and thinking how much it looked like a miniature kingfisher, when it did something odd. It started to rain (prefiguring today's all-day drizzle), and the hummingbird began to dart its head back and forth, darting its tongue out and back each time. After a while, I concluded that, unlikely as it seems, what I was seeing was it drink raindrops from the air as they fell.

In any case, I was glad to see the hummingbird relaxed and in possession, since two days ago I saw it hunched miserably beside the other feeder, I think lamenting the passing of warmer weather. And it's been dueling with a yellowjacket for its favorite feeder, with the yellowjacket I think getting the upper hand. Now that the cooler weather has come, though, the yellowjacket's days are numbered and the hummingbird shd be in ascendance until the new year.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Sixth Ring

So, I've been dipping back into Wm Morris lately, as part of the research for a Tolkien paper I'm working on, and just finished reading THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES, one of only two of his medievalist romances I've never read (the other being CHILD CHRISTOPHER & GOLDILIND THE FAIR). I was surprised and delighted to find that it includes a ring of invisibility.

As part of my commentary on the Gollum chapter in MR. BAGGINS, I included a fairly substantial mini-essay on Rings of Invisibility, in which I discussed the five such rings I'd found that predate Tolkien:** one from a philosophical dialogue (Plato's Ring of Gyges), one from a medieval romance (Lunete's Ring in Chretien, which also appears in the Welsh [MABINOGION] and German [Hartmann von Aue] adaptations of Chretien's work), one from a Renaissance parody of medieval romance (Angelica's Ring in Ariosto), one in a French courtly fairy tale (Fenelon's 'The Enchanted Ring'), and one in a Baltic folk tale (Kreutzwald's 'The Dragon of the North').

Of these, I have no doubt that it was Chretien's ring (probably through the MABINOGION version) that is most likely to have been Tolkien's direct source in as far as he might have had one, while Plato's ring probably influenced the more sinister development of the Ring in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. But it was surprising to me to find no such rings in the century or so of fantasy literature that preceded Tolkien.

THE WATER OF THE WONDROUS ISLES [1897] tells the story of a girl stolen by a witch who in addition to becoming the witch's slave befriends a 'wood-woman', or elf. To help her escape from the witch, the elf gives her a magical ring:

"here is a gold finger-ring . . . fashioned as a serpent holding his tail in his mouth; whenso thou goest on this quest, set thou this same ring on the middle finger of thy left hand, and say thou above thy breath at least:

To left and right
Before, behind,
Of me be sight
As of the wind!

And nought then shall be seen of thee even by one who standeth close beside. But wear not the ring openly save at such times, or let the witch have sight thereof ever, or she will know that thou hast met me . . . " (page 35)***

After testing the ring, the heroine hides it by sewing it to the inside of her smock, enabling her to keep it safe from the ever-suspicious witch, and thus is able to spy on the witch and learn the spell that empowers the magical boat in which she makes her escape (pages 39-40). But before she can escape, the witch comes across the ring among the heroine's cast off clothes while the latter is swimming, and our heroine has to make a run for it, leaving clothes and ring behind (pages 50-51).

And that's it: the Dragon Ring quickly passes out of the heroine's hands and is never mentioned again, even though she one day comes back, finds the witch dead, and takes up residence herself in the abandoned house where she grew up. Perhaps Tolkien thought it a promising motif that was dropped too soon. In any case, the idea that the ring should be carried with one but not worn, lest an evil creature notice and disaster befall, is suggestive.

--John R.


*[and this despite having a copy on my shelves for more than twenty years (since WisCon '85), the Adult Fantasy Series edition with an awful cover by Gervasio Gallardo and Introduction by Lin Carter, who despite boasting of his "familiarity with Morris" shows no signs in it of actually having read the work.]

**[I did not discuss one post-Tolkien ring, since it comes in a parody of Tolkien's work in the D&D comic strip FINIEOUS FINGERS (the February 1979 installment, published in THE DRAGON #22 and later [1981] collected in THE FINIEOUS TREASURY page 22). I also omitted mention of a third false ring in the medieval tale VALENTINE & ORSON, when some preliminary research revealed it does not appear in the tale itself but that some scholars claimed such a ring had appeared in lost precursors to the surviving text.]

***[all citations come from Vol. XX of THE COLLECTED WORKS OF WM MORRIS, ed. May Morris (1913); cf page 23 & ff of the Ballantine edition.]


McCain Forgets Where Spain Is

Here's a story that was on Talking Points Memo last night that seems to getting picked up in more mainstream outlets today: In an interview on Spanish-language radio, McCain not only didn't know who the prime minister of Spain was (most people don't, but you'd have thought he'd have been prepped on it) but even worse got mixed up and kept talking as if Spain is a country in South America. Today his campaign is claiming that by lumping Zapatero with Chavez, Castro, and Morales he was sending a stern signal that a NATO ally that crosses us in any way (e.g., pulling out of 'the coalition of the willing') is an ally no longer. But it seems more likely that exhaustion of the campaign trail has combined with his seventy-two years to leave him momentarily addled -- which makes it part of a pattern of "senior moments" in recent weeks (the 'Iraq/Pakistan border', Czechoslovakia), and raises again the spectre of how well a frail old man can survive the incredible stress of the presidency.

Here's the link; there are plenty of follow-up reports examining different aspects of the incident on the same site.

--John R.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Home At Last

Posts have been erratic here for the past month, largely because I've been on the road more often than not, with only two roughly one-week periods between July 25th and September 15th when I was at home in Kent. The first trip (7/25 thr 7/30), to be guest of honor at MERPcon in Spokane, followed by a visit to the Mount Adams area (the High House at Trout Lake) by way of Kenniwick, Maryhill, and Fake Stonehenge, was planned. So too the next trip (8/7 thr 8/15), a long-awaited return visit to the DC area (our first since 96/97), where we met up with some Tolkien friends, had much good conversation that, as always, filled me with ideas and inspiration, met some elderly cousins (the son and daughter-in-law of my mother's uncle, who was a missionary in the Belgian Congo) I'd had some correspondence with but not been able to meet with before, and saw some of the sights (including Mount Vernon, the Great Falls of the Potomac, the Museum of the American Indian, Arlington House, the FDR memorial, a creepy boy scouts statue, and much else). After that, it was time to get back to work and stay at home for a bit, spending some quality time with the cats and enjoying just being in a familiar place.

That's when we got the phone call (Sat.8/23-08) that my father-in-law had been airlifted out of Yellowstone* to Billings, Montana, where he was to undergo open-heart surgery. It took us a day or two to make plans and get things ready for the trip, then we were off (T.8/26) on the 800-mile drive to Billings. We got there two days later (Th.8/28), in time to be there for his triple bypass (Fr.8/29). Things went v. well, but it was clear it'd be a while before he could travel. Luckily, the Coulter Family is amazing in a crisis: one of his sons and a grandson had driven out from Illinois and collected all his things from the dormitory at Yellowstone; his eldest daughter had also come out, and gotten his car from Yellowstone to Billings; a niece who happened to be vacationing in the area dropped her plans in order to stay and visit with him until he was out of danger. After everyone else had to head home, the original plan was for the daughter to drive him back home in easy stages once he was well enough; Janice and I would stay as long as we could and, if it looked like it would help, I'd join Mr. Coulter and my sister-in-law for the long drive back to the Midwest.

A good plan, perhaps, but we never got to put it into effect, because my sister-in-law had to head back to Chicago (Sat.8/30) long before her father was released from the cardiac unit. So we went with the back-up plan: Janice returned to Kent (Sat.9/6), driving our car back over the mountains (so we didn't have to deal with two cars), and took care of some business back home (since we hadn't planned to be away for so long), while I stayed in Billings (so he wouldn't be alone in an unfamiliar city, without any visitors).

I shd say that if you're going to be stuck in Montana for two-plus weeks, Billings is a nice place to do it in. There are amenities (Borders Books, a nice used bookstore, a tea shop with a v. vocal parrot, a pleasant downtown, some interesting restaurants), interesting local sites (the Rimrock, Pictograph Cave, the Moss Mansion), and in general a nice feel to the place --larger than Kent (more like Kent+Tukwila), smaller than Shreveport or Little Rock.

After a few days, Janice flew back to Billings, and the next day (W.9/10) Mr. Coulter, who was raring to be out of the hospital and back home again, was released. We took it relatively easy on the 1200-mile drive to Illinois, stopping frequently for breaks and keeping the time in the car down to about six to eight hours a day. Things were complicated by his having to ride in the back (word to the wise: an airbag can do terrible things to you if you've just had major chest surgery) and by his diabetes having been aggravated by all this upset so that he has (temporarily, we hope) become insulin-dependent. So, I became responsible for giving him his triple-daily insulin shots. Never having given a person a shot before, I took solace in the fact that I had now, at long last, become 'the kind of doctor who helps people'**

Not to spin the story out too much longer, we got Mr. Coulter safely to the home of his eldest son (a physical therapist) and daughter-in-law (a trained nurse), who will take very good care of him during his convalescence (Sat.9/13), and the next day flew back home (Sun.9/14). Since when I've been all over cats (they missed us terribly while we were away), not to mention cat-sitting for a friend, while catching up on work. I'd proud of the fact that I finished up two projects while away, and made a good start on a third one, but there's only so much I can do when away from my library and all the reference material I've built up slowly over the years.

And my father-in-law? He's planning on celebrating his 80th birthday at Yellowstone next year, and I wdn't be at all surprised; he's one of the bravest and most resilient people I've ever known.

So, how did you spend your summer vacation?



*[Again!--he works there each summer, and had been airlifted out for a different medical emergency last year. I was starting to imagine the conversations he might have had with the flight-for-life folks --'you know, we airlifted a guy out of Yellowstone last year' 'yeah, that was me'-- and wondering if emergency helicopters give frequent flier miles for return customers, but turns out it was a different group this year. Still, it's a tribute to my father-in-law's toughness that he's survived two such trips in consecutive years and is planning to go back to Yellowstone again next summer.]

**[Years ago, when my niece Kristy, then about two, learned that I was going off to graduate school to earn my Ph.D., she said 'Uncle John is going to become a doctor and help people'. When it was explained to her that I was going to become a different kind of doctor, she summed it up sadly that I was 'the kind of doctor that didn't help people']

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Best Place to Eat in Billings, Montana . . .

. . . is The Soup Place (which I dubbed 'Splendid Soups'), on Broadway (106 28th street), in Downtown Billings. For a non-sandwich eater like myself, it's a soup-lover's delight. Seven soups every day, plus three daily soups, for a total of ten to choose from. And they offer a trio sampler whereby you can have three cups, each of a different soup, rather than a big bowl of only one. There are sandwiches too, but why would you eat a sandwich when you could have soup?
The next best place is Huhot's Mongolian, down on King Avenue; one of those Mongolian grills where you collect a bowlful of raw materials and sauces and they sear it for you on a massive hot metal drum. It came close to matching Genghis Khan's of Milwaukee (on Hwy 100), the standard by which I judge all other Mongolian restaurants, and far surpassed the Seattle area's offerings, which tend to leave the food in one place until it chars, then scrape it off, rather than keep it moving.
As for why I now know all this, that'll have to wait for another post.


Friday, September 12, 2008

The Sixth Ring

So, I've just come across another Ring of Invisibility I hadn't known about before.

It's in the work of an author whom Tolkien certainly read, though I don't have specific evidence of his reading this particular work.

Best of all, this marks the first time I've found a Ring of Invisibility in a fantasy novel before JRRT.

More details to follow.


My Tea Is Kosher

Recently, while getting a late-night cup of tea at an airport,* I happened to notice some labelling on the back of the foil teabag sleeve to the effect that this tea was kosher. It's turns out it's also halal, a term I'd not heard before, meaning roughly the Muslim equivalent of kosher.
So, now I'm mildly curious whether this applies to all types of tea (because the people who wrote the Pentuach and the Koran didn't know about tea and thus didn't forbid it), or to this particular brand (because of special preparation). Is there an explicit way to make tea that renders it kosher/halal, or is this an example of Bellairs' Law?
Further investigation definitely called for.


*[Cleveland, between flights]

UPDATE (W.9/17-08): I found the foil sleeve for the teabag in question, which I'd set aside, and can now report that it was NUMI brand (Morning Rise Breakfast Blend, a black tea). At the bottom on the back are five icons signifying that it is certified Organic, certified Fair Trade, 'Kosher & Pareve', and 'Halal', and noting that the sachet itself (the actual teabag) is biodegradable. Although, as I understand it, the tea will only remain 'pareve' so long as you don't add milk or cream to it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


So, a friend* recently sent me a link to a series of three Tolkien cartoons. It's a common theme, the 'Tolkien's grocery list' joke, but better done than I've seen it before. If you get a kick out of this sort of thing, check out the whole sequence, but especially the middle cartoon:

Of course, the whole point of such jokes is that they can only be made by those who haven't actually read the work they're ridiculing, because the descriptions they give of those works doesn't correspond to the reality. And there's good precedent for posthumous publications -- the world would be a poorer place if Vergil's AENEID had been destroyed when he died,as was his explicit direction (he thought leaving it behind in an unfinished state, only half its projected length, would detract from his reputation). And while the AENEID isn't my cup of tea, I quite like THE CANTERBURY TALES (another unfinished posthumous collection of scraps) and Emily Dickinson's poems (which she ordered destroyed).

To put the shoe on the other foot: if the unpublished works Tolkien left behind weren't any good, people would have stopped buying them after the first or at most second volume; the project would have been unsustainable over twenty-plus volumes and thirty-plus years. There's something there we can't get anywhere else. It would be worth publishing a book of Van Gogh's sketches or unsold paintings, because even an unfinished work by Van Gogh would be something distinctive and worth preserving.


current reading: UNDINE.

*hi Stan!