Category Archives: Popular Culture

Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away

Steven den Beste has an interesting post about feral horses. It’s particularly interesting to me right now, because I’m up in wild horse country.

He’s right. This isn’t an endangered species issue–it’s more of an emotional and cultural one. We’re read too many romantic stories about horses running free, unbound from bridle and fence. Wild horses are one of those “large charismatic animals” that get too much attention relative to smaller, less cute, but more endangered species.

And it’s a powerful emotion, too. I still vividly recall a time, over a decade ago, that I was driving in a remote valley on the California-Nevada border, population density .0001 per square mile, and I saw a small herd off in the distance. It was a stallion with three mares and a couple colts, running with the wind. They looked as though they belonged there.

But until I read Steven’s post, it hadn’t occured to me that they might have an inbreeding problem, and certainly, given the finite resource of the open sage, it would make more sense to use it for animals that are not raised by the millions domestically.

Idiot Judges, Part Deux

The Canadian figure-skating couple was robbed at the Olympics last night. I’d be upset about this, if I wasn’t so upset at the whole concept of figure skating as a sport, which is the cause of this kind of nonsense.

Figure skating is beautiful, often divinely so. It requires talent, dedication, practice, strength, focus. But it is not a sport; it is an art. If figure skating is an Olympic event, why don’t we see ballet in the summer games? How about finger painting?

The problem, of course, is that for many, it’s the star of the show, and to remove it would simply hasten the demise of that modern corrupt bacchanalia (though this year with less emphasis on the bacchanal, given Mormon predilections) called the Olympics. So we will continue to have people dancing on ice, winning and losing on totally subjective criteria, judged by people with political agendas.

Half Twain

As a non-(modern)liberal, and someone who regularly rails against PBS and NPR (and still thinks that they should receive not a dime of taxpayers’ money), I have a guilty confession to make.

I like Ken Burns documentaries. Parts of “The Civil War” brought tears to my eyes.

Tonight I watched the first part of his two-part series on Mark Twain.

This is not a subject with which I’m unfamiliar–as a high-school and college student, I read every word of Clemens that I could lay my hands on, including several biographies and critiques, both by his colleagues, such as Howells, and contemporary. One winter afternoon, after class, I went up to the fifth floor of the graduate library in Ann Arbor, and dug out of the stacks an unpublished (and uncheckoutable) copy of the forbidden “1601.” I started to read it there, and before I got through the first several lines, realized that I would have to spend the geld to make a copy so that I could take it back home, because I would have otherwise disturbed the other, more serious students with my uncontrollable, lachrymose laughter. (Now of course, one need not dig through musty stacks of university libraries–it can be found at web sites like this.)

But I also realized that he was not just a humorist–he was a great (in the most profound sense of that overused word) writer. I realized this not in reading his greatest work, “Huckleberry Finn,” but in a more obscure passage, in “A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court.” And I can’t even say quite why the passage moved me, though I think that it encapsulates many of the themes of both the everyman and unhereditary nobility that made him such a universal spokesman for the American ideal. I can only offer it here, and see if it has a similar effect on others. It is from a part of the book where the Yankee is traveling with King Arthur, and they are both incognito. They have come upon a hut infected with smallpox, and despite the Yankee’s warnings, the king enters the hut to try to help his subjects.

There was a slight noise from the direction of the dim corner where the ladder was. It was the king descending. I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other. He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox. Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with all the odds against the challenger, no reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth-of-gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king’s bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition–I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest, it would be a king in commoner’s garb bearing death in his arms that a peasant mother might look her last upon her child and be comforted.

As I watched the program, I gained some new insights into the author and the man.

He was wholly representative of the America in which he grew up. There may have been places as good as the 1840s river town of Hannibal, Missouri to serve as a childhood home of an iconic American writer, but there were certainly none better. He matured as the country did. He was born in its adolescence, and he lost his innocence as it did, in the hellish cauldron of the war that resolved our original sin, though he spent it in the new frontier out west, avoiding the fighting itself. He lent a voice to the young nation, and with “Innocents Abroad,” almost singlehandedly transformed it from an uncertain, self-conscious adulator of old-world culture, to a brash and self-confident skeptic of the ancient verities, proud of its own virtues and ready to lead the world. He truly was the first American writer, who unlike Hawthorne or Poe or Melville, had no pretensions or desires to imitate the stale Europeans. With Huck Finn, he both invented modern American literature and provided the first real black character, while setting out, (both figuratively and literally) in black and white, the moral choices that would have to be made by our nation over the next century, even as the war over slavery remained fresh in peoples’ minds.

He represented the America of the nineteenth century–a mythical boy playing in bluffs and caves, on idyllic islands in a mighty river that both defined and divided the nation; a riverboat captain; a gold miner; an entrepreneur; a lecturer. He worked with deck hands and supped with kings.

The documentary focuses on the tragedies of his life, which were many, but that is also part of the character of our young nation. Few children today are familiar with death, which is why we have to bring in “grief counselors” at school shootings, or when, due to the wonder of television, they see Space Shuttles blow up, or skyscrapers fall down. But in Mark Twain’s day, and even in the day of many of our parents or grandparents, depending on our age, it was not unusual to attend the funerals of many childhood friends–death was a fundamental and inescapable part of life.

But he was a man for the ages. One has a sense that if he were somehow plopped down in the year 2002, he would take no longer than an hour or so to quickly become acclimated–get a car, a cell phone, a computer, get himself booked on Larry King, set up a web site, and tear into the politicians, preachers and plutocrats with the same zeal as he did a century ago. And he would retain fully the power to make us laugh. And cry.

If you didn’t see it tonight, watch the second half tomorrow, even though it’s on PBS.

[Update at 11:48 PM]

De gustibus non disputandum.

Ken Layne just did his own review, and he hated it. Actually, “he hated it” is an extreme understatement. But he also seems to hate Ken Burns in general, particularly for “Jazz,” which I didn’t see.

So, we report, you decide…

The Grass Is Blue

As a break from All Enron, All The Time, time for a little culture.

As I said previously, “Rocky Top” sucks big time as a college fight song, but it’s a great bluegrass song, and the genre seems to be taking off in a big way, with a new generation. Over the years, the public’s exposure to bluegrass has been episodic and misleading (Beverly Hillbillies theme song, “Dueling Banjos,” miscegenation, and forced sodomy from the movie “Deliverance,” etc.).

With only this exposure, most people thought of it as music for barefooted southern yokels (which is ironic, since it was actually invented, developed, and celebrated in Kentucky, Chicago, and Indiana), and even the country music industry has treated it like an ugly cousin. Most music stores don’t even have it as a category, burying it among folk (if they have such an aisle) or country. Few realize that it is a profound type of music, a purely American art form (with roots from both the British Isles and Africa) containing elements of jazz, blues, folk, and, done well, requiring great instrumental virtuosity. (Ironically, at least until recently, there was actually a larger following for it in large cities than in the South).

Here’s an article from USA Today Weekend describing the recent bluegrass revival, partly spurred on by the Cohen Bros. movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” but also by the now-easy availability of a wider variety of music via the internet. Like blogging, this is another example of how the net is bypassing big media (and big “entertainment”) to offer music that people might actually want, instead of what suits in towers think that they might, or should want.

Star Dreck

OK, I thought that when I saw the pilot, that this prequel to the Star Trek series had promise. Perhaps it still does. But tonite’s episode sucked. I had hoped that with what happened a month ago, that all this politically-correct script nonsense from Hollywood (and Rick Berman and company) had ended, but this one was probably in the can long before the event, and they didn’t think it was any big deal.

(Note to non ST watchers–if you didn’t see the episode, feel free to ignore the rest of this rant–it is predicated on the assumption that the reader actually watched it.)

First of all, it really got off on the wrong foot with me when he is on the alien ship, and they offer him a bowl of something, and tell him that it’s the closest they can come to water.

Water is one of the most common and simple molecules in the universe. It is very easy to make. Take two atoms of hydrogen, one atom of oxygen, and mix (shaken, not stirred, and do it somewhere that can safely contain the exothermic energy thereby released).

Then they do this goofy alien sex thing where she (and it’s obvious that she’s a “she” even though “she’s” hairless–you can tell from the shape) and the visiting engineer put their hands in a box of packing peanuts in a holodeck of sorts.

And of course, he gets pregnant. Why am I not surprised?

Much of the rest of the episode deals with how he handles being pregnant, and they use all the stereotypes of a pregnant woman to demonstrate this. Was there some point to this? Are we supposed to now be more sensitive to how a woman in pregnancy feels because we see some redneck guy go through it?

Give me a break. Anyone who was insensitive to pregnant women before seeing this episode will remain so afterward.

Anyone who was not will find it faintly amusing, but no more than that.

I have to say, however, in redemption, that at least at the end, when the pregnant “father” caught up with the “woman” by whom he was impregnated, she found another host for the pregnancy, rather than just flushing it down a sink.

But still, my hopes for a more realistic Star Trek were somewhat diminished by this particular episode.

I probably won’t be posting much in the next few days, for those two or three people who have been logging in to see what I’m raving about currently. I’ll be at the Space Frontier Foundation annual conference. However, on Sunday or Monday, I’ll attempt to post a report on any interesting developments that I discover in the process of attending it.