Indiana Jones and the Hills of White Elephants

This afternoon novelist Una McCormack retweeted a link to a McSweeney’s Internet Tendency piece by Rachel Klein titled Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” from “The Girl”‘s Point of View. I don’t read McSweeney’s as often as I feel that I should, so I was glad that I read this.

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” centers on two characters, sitting in a bar at a railway station somewhere in the middle of Spain in the mid-1920s. One character is “the American.” The other character is “the Girl.” They order drinks and have a cryptic conversation. The Girl is going to have an operation of some sort. It’s widely believed by critics that the operation is, in fact, an abortion, since the cryptic conversation turns on the relationship between the two characters, whether they love each other now, and whether they will continue to love each other if the operation happens or does not.

Klein’s piece takes the widely assumed belief about the operation in Hemingway’s story and makes it explicit, profanely and humorously: “It’s an abortion, folks. That’s what we were talking about, except that I knew if I said the actual word to him he’d fucking freak his shit, but, like, not tell me so directly. Instead he’d say something about how cold his beer was and I’d be like, ‘Is that some sort of veiled reference to my pregnancy?’ and he’d be like, ‘Were those clouds there a moment ago?'”

Klein’s piece prompted me to dig out my collection of Hemingway’s short stories, and I read through “Hills Like White Elephants” in about five minutes. (It’s a very short story. In the collection I have, it runs four pages.) It’s pretty much all dialogue, from top to bottom, with the usual Hemingway quirks (like lapsing into Spanish for no particular reason). I am unabashedly a Hemingway fan, but I can’t say that I found anything particularly compelling about “Hills Like White Elephants” except for one thing — I wondered if “the American” was none other than Indiana Jones.

Obviously it’s not; Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn’t filmed until twenty years after Hemingway’s suicide. But within the universe of Indiana Jones, Ernest Hemingway and Indiana Jones were good friends and shared several adventures. Perhaps that Ernest Hemingway modeled some of his characters on his globetrotting adventurer friend, Indiana Jones. Why not? Hemingway modeled some of his characters, Nick Adams and Jake Barnes notably, on himself.

Let’s assume for a moment that the American is Indiana Jones. He could have been on an archaeological dig somewhere in Spain, either as a grad student or as a post-grad. While there, he becomes romantically involved with a woman, perhaps someone working alongside Indy on the dig as well. She becomes pregnant, Indy is in his mid-twenties and neither one is really ready for parenthood, and Indy suggests strongly that she have an abortion because he doesn’t want her or his potential child to tie him down and keep him from achieving his “fortune and glory.”

This backstory works. Whether it’s a good backstory or not I leave to others to ponder. I could imagine Hemingway and Jones meeting up in Paris and having a drink, Hemingway hearing the story of Jones’ expedition in Spain, and deciding to write up one part of it as a literary experiment. And then the telegram from one to the other:

ERNIE -[STOP]- TOLD YOU STORY IN CONFIDENCE -[STOP]- ANNOYED BY HILLS -[STOP]- WILL DISCUSS IN PAMPLONA -[STOP]- INDY

The unfortunate thing about Hemingway’s story is that the Girl is such an utter cipher. We don’t know her age or her nationality. She doesn’t know a great deal about alcohol. Presumably she speaks English, but that’s not at all certain. For all we know, in Hemingway’s story all of the dialogue in the story happens in Spanish; even the use of “cervezas” instead of “beer” in one line isn’t enough to make any sort of determination one way or the other.

It’s all so vague. Not one of Hemingway’s finest works.

Still, if one squints just so, it’s quite easy to see Indiana Jones as the unnamed American in Hemingway’s “Hill Like White Elephants.” Quite easy.

Digging into the Website

Sometimes my website goes through fallow periods, and when I say “fallow” I mean that in two ways.  On the one hand, I don’t feel like creating content.  On the other hand, I don’t feel like looking at my PHP and CSS code.  I used to post to the blog every single day.  Now I feel lucky if I write a blog post a week.  I used to dig into my PHP code at least every other weekend, and I’d stay on top of the WordPress support forum looking for new and interesting pieces of code or plugins.  Now I have a blog theme that is all sketched out and all I need to do is to sit down and finish the last code push, and it’s been that way since autumn.

Then there’s a week like this week, where I’ve made three posts, one of them a significant piece on a college baseball game, I tinkered with my theme’s CSS code, I wrote a little routine to replace the dates on my blog posts with Hobbit dates, I installed a plugin to enable front-end editing (and that required some tinkering because it hasn’t been updated in a while and triggered four PHP Fatal Errors), and I’m writing this post using the new Gutenberg interface (the future editor in WordPress) to see whether I like it or not.

Do I like Gutenberg?  Not particularly.  The Blade Runner post was written, at least in part, with Gutenberg, and since it represents the future of WordPress I want to build my experience and comfort with it.  I’ve become accustomed to writing my WordPress posts in HTML markup — WordPress has a visual editor, but I like the feeling of control and cleanliness I get from composing directly in code, and fifteen years of writing blog posts in code is so familiar to me that when I work with the CMS at work I write in code, not the WYSIWIG editor — that writing in Gutenberg’s WYSIWIG composition screen feels strange to me.  With the Blade Runner post, I wanted to embed videos from YouTube, but Gutenberg wouldn’t let me do it.  And, as a purely aesthetic matter, Gutenberg produces garbage code.  It turns my stomach and, for a project like WordPress that has the motto “Code is poetry,” the code Gutenberg produces for the user’s content is anything but poetry.

Still, familiarity with Gutenberg breeds comfort, and I’ve come to feel comfortable working with Gutenberg purely as a visual editor.  That’s the thing.  It’s useful as an editor.  I can see my words through the HTML tags.  I can see how my sentences hang together.  I can see my typos, I can see where I’ve left ideas out, I can jump in and fix my mistakes.  It’s very easy to add hyperlinks.  Gutenberg feels like a basic, distraction-light WYSIWIG editor.  I doubt it would suit all of my needs, but if I want to prototype text and then dig down into the guts of the code and fine-tune the post in the standard WordPress editor that would work.

Which leads me to the Front-End Editor.  I’m not sure how I stumbled across this plugin this week, but I did, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a plugin that was being developed for the WordPress core that was, for whatever reason, abandoned about two years ago.  One of the worst things about writing in WordPress is finding mistakes and typos after hitting publish.  Fixing these mistakes becomes cumbersome; you need two tabs open in your browser, one showing the post live on the blog, the other showing the editing screen, and then you need to flip back and forth between the two.  It’s not an ideal way to fix mistakes.  “Did I fix that comma?  Did I add in the verb I completely missed?  Did I catch everything?”  With the Front-End Editor, I can hit publish, then fix my mistakes live on the blog.  “This is genius!” I exclaimed (once I fixed the PHP Fatal Errors), and I can’t imagine how I ever lived without it.  It matches my workflow and, more importantly, it streamlines that workflow.

In my view, that would be the ideal direction for WordPress to take Gutenberg.  Instead of creating a brand-new editor experience, put the resources into bringing the Front-End Editor up-to-date.  The Front-End Editor won’t have all of the bells and whistles of the main editor in the WordPress admin, but it doesn’t need the bells and whistles.  It just needs to be able to create a post, add images, add tags and categories, and publish.  Ideally without the code garbage that Gutenberg produces.

If plugins like Gutenberg and Front-End Editor simplify content creation, why haven’t I been creating content as I once did?  There are two reasons, and they’re somewhat interrelated.  First, I could write to my blog every day when there weren’t other outlets for communicating with people online; either Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist then, or they weren’t the platforms that they’ve since become.  The kind of ephemeral, insignificant material I might post to my blog is the kind of ephemeral, insignificant material that modern social media is made for.  On Facebook and Twitter, material like that disappears down the memory hole (unless you’re someone like my Twitter follower Anthony Scaramucci, who has had his entire Twitter history dredged up in the last forty-eight hours).  On the blog, it’s important.  And the second reason, WordPress increasingly needs images with posts for thumbnails and headers depending on the theme in use, especially if the posts are going to be shared on Facebook and Twitter where those images are used as thumbnails and Twitter cards.  Sometimes, I don’t have an image.  Or sometimes, what I’m thinking about writing about doesn’t feel important enough for an image.  In a weird way, design decisions of the website itself drive whether or not something is worth publishing, let alone writing.

The goal, ultimately, of the blog design that I keep tinkering with is to get around those two problems, to have room for the important posts that justify the time and the illustration on the one hand and room for the ephemeral, random stuff on the other.  Ironically, that part of the blog’s design is done.  It required custom functions and the shortcode processor.  It’s been tested.  It’s worked for months.  It’s the other key component of the design, the one that requires a responsive slider and custom menus and a custom Walker that’s posed difficulty.  It’s not an insoluble problem, merely a tricky one.

All things considered, writing this post in Gutenberg wasn’t a bad experience.  It’s becoming comfortable and familiar.  At its worst, it feels like I’m writing in some open source attempt at mimicking Microsoft Word.  I’m not sure that it’s the right solution for every WordPress user, especially for those who use WordPress as a CMS rather than as a blogging platform.  If Gutenberg really is the future of WordPress, then I hope that the current editing screen remains as a fallback option for users.

And, as for my own blog theme, I’m getting close.  It’s almost there.  Almost.

Lollipopping

Even now, an adult in his forties, when I go to the bank, I’ll pick up a lollipop. The circular ones, the cheap ones, in the plastic wrapper, with the raised edge and center. A green one. Always a green one. No other color will do.

Is it because I like the taste of lime? I assume the green lollipops are lime. Come to think of it, I don’t really know. I certainly do like the taste of lime. Give me a key lime pie! Give me Lime Kool-Aid! Give me a green lollipop!

Whatever the reason — the color, the flavor — I peel off the wrapping, pop it in my mouth, let it just dissolve there, and then munch down on whatever’s left, leaving only the tightly wrapped paper stick in my mouth with.

Maybe I’m doing lollipops wrong, but if I’m doing them wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Things Were Simpler Then

On Monday Warner Bros. dropped a new trailer for Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Blade Runner, starring Ryan Gosling and, reprising his role as Rick Deckard, Harrison Ford.

To say that I’m looking forward to this film is an understatement.  It’s quite possibly the film I am most anticipating this year, edging out even Justice League.  (For the record, I’m indifferent to The Last Jedi.)  I wouldn’t even call myself a massive fan of Blade Runner; it’s a film I like a lot, that I’ve watched too many times to count, that I’ve thought about extensively over the last thirty years.  But it’s a milieu that fascinates me.  I’m a Philip K. Dick fan, I’ve read K.W. Jeter’s sequel novels (well, the two published in North America), I’ve read Chris Roberson’s prequel-to-the-novel comic book, I’ve read and pored through Paul Sammon’s Future Noir several times, I’ve even heard the BBC Radio 4 adaptation of PKD’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? with James Purefoy and Jessica Raine.  Excited for Blade Runner 2049?  Absosmurfly.

There’s nothing I can really say beyond that, so I’ll simply share the teaser, the two trailers, and a featurette that WB has released thus far.

The teaser trailer:

The first trailer:

“Time to Live,” a behind-the-scenes featurette:

The second trailer:

I think that, over the next three months, I’ll reread Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Jeter’s sequels, and Roberson’s prequel. I want to be ready for Blade Runner 2049. :)

(Mostly) Spontaneous Baseball Road-Tripping

Inside my shirt there was a beetle.

I was driving south on Route 11, somewhere between New Market and Tenth Legion, traveling fifty-ish miles an hour, when I felt it crawling on my skin. Pitch black, 10:30 at night, no lights except for the occasional home or oncoming car and the glowing letters of the Endless Cavern sign on the distant mountainside — and there was this thing inside my shirt.

Carefully, very carefully, I slipped a hand under my shirt and found the bug, closing my hand around it. It squirmed in my hand. In the dark I couldn’t see it; I only assumed it was a beetle. For all I knew it had a stinger, and I was risking my health and sanity the longer I held it in my bare hand. I then unrolled a window, held my hand out over the highway, and let it go. Who knows what happened to the beetle, suddenly buffeted by the still air? I didn’t stop to think that it was far removed from its habitat, nor that decelerating from fifty miles an hour to nothing as I let it go could have killed it. I certainly didn’t care. I was simply glad that it was gone. After all, what’s a road trip without a random, unexpected, and very much unwelcome encounter with nature?

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Did Amelia Earhart Survive?

Has a forgotten photo in the archives of Naval Intelligence answered the mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance?

I have no idea. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t. But that’s the claim of an upcoming special on the History Channel.

The reporting on the photo hasn’t made a case for believing that the photo does what its claimants say it does. Perhaps the special will have more information, with a chain of evidence that will link this back to a specific time and a specific place and reasons for believing that two of the figures are Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan.

Right now, however, all I see is an undated photograph of people of indeterminate age and ethnicity standing on a wharf in the Pacific at some point in the past.

Update! The answer is, no, the photograph does not show Amelia Earhart. The photo, it turns out, was “first published in Palau under Japanese rule in 1935, in a photo book,” two years before Earhart and his navigator, Fred Noonan, disappeared on their round-the-world flight.

However, this raises a question in my mind. How and why did this photograph end up in the archives of Naval Intelligence? That we will likely never know.

Scott Simon’s My Cubs

The night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I knew, then and there, that there was only one book on the Chicago Cubs and the 2016 season that I wanted to read — David Ross’s. One hadn’t been been announced yet, but it was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that there would be a dozen (or two!) books on the season within a year. I expected books from most every player, Cubs beat writers, fringe fandom figures. A book from Wrigley’s janitorial staff on the 2016 season wouldn’t have surprised me.

My Cubs coverWhen Scott Simon’s My Cubs: A Love Story was announced, the number of books I wanted to read increased to two.

Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, has been a part of my life for the better part of the last twenty years. His voice — rich, distinguished, measured and warm — has the assurance of the radio men of old, the latest in a line that stretches back through Robert Siegel and Bob Edwards back to Edward R. Murrow and the Golden Age of Radio. Simon invites listeners into his world, makes them feel at home, and tells them stories, painting pictures with his voice, whether he’s reporting on the death of four Boy Scouts in Iowa or interviewing one of my favorite bands.

A Chicagoan, one of Simon’s favorite topics is the Chicago Cubs. Simon wears his Cubs fandom like a battered yet beloved baseball cap, part of his identity and something that shaped him into the person he is. Whether he’s offering a paean to Wrigley Field or telling the story of his uncle, 1940s Cubs manager Charlie Grimm, and a famous Norman Rockwell painting, Simon’s love for the Cubs — the team, the culture, the history, the city of Chicago itself — shines through, and in My Cubs: A Love Story Simon pulls a lifetime of memories together to tell the story of his love affair with the Cubs.

As I read My Cubs, I could “hear” Simon’s voice — so warm, so familiar — in my mind, as though I were listening to him on the radio on a Saturday morning, a mug of coffee in my hand, sunlight streaming through my apartment’s windows. Yet at times there was another voice I heard in the background, that of Frank Delaney, the Irish journalist and writer who passed away suddenly in February. Delaney was an occasional guest on Simon’s Weekend Edition Saturday, and their conversations ranged from James Joyce to diving at the World Cup. Scott and Delaney had a warm rapport, two erudite and eloquent moen, bonding over a shared love of words and ideas — and life itself. Though they never discussed the Cubs on Weekend Edition, I imagine their conversation would have gone something like this, something like a running commentary on My Cubs:

Delaney: You know, Scott, in Kildaire in the tenth century the King’s personal retinue of knights were named in the Irish Chronicles the ‘Little Bears,’ or, as you would say in your home town of Chicago, the ‘Cubbies.’

Simon: And these ‘Little Bears,’ how victorious were they in battle?

Delaney: They were reputedly cursed by goats and a black cat as well, and when they were overrun by the invading Vikings in the eleventh century, no more was written of them.

Simon: Fortunate for my Cubs, then, that today’s Vikings play an entirely different sport.

The stories Simon tells — playing baseball in Chicago’s alleys in his youth, sitting with Jack Brickhouse in the reporters’ lounge at Wrigley in his high school years, sharing his love of the Cubs with his daughters and practicing to throw out a first pitch at Wrigley, weighing whether or not he even wanted to attend a World Series game in case he was the Cubs’ jinx… and then making friends in the stands — may be specific to Simon’s life yet the feelings of passion for the Cubs and of the community of fandom are universal: the Cubs are a shared language that transcends time, bonding generations into a family bound by love, triumph, heartbreak, and hope.

In the opening pages of My Cubs, Simon recounts a dream of pitching in the World Series alongside Cubs legends from the distant past (Mordecai Brown), the remote past (Ernie Banks), the recent past (Ryne Sandberg), and the present (Kris Bryant), showing that even history that exists only in still photographs and dry newspaper accounts, history that has fallen out of living memory, lives on today, shaping and informing the present, still making its influence felt. As Delaney would note, stories bear within them an innate power of their own, and the more people who share those stories, invest themselves in those stories, and carry those stories with them the more power, the more reality those stories have. Simon himself noted in an essay for the Wall Street Journal that a single baseball game has all the tension and twists of a classic literature. Baseball, more than any other sport, celebrates and embraces its past as living history, part of an ongoing conversation that stretches back a hundred and seventy years to Eylsian Fields, and My Cubs is Simon’s own conversation with the Cubs and their history, a history that intertwines with Simon’s own history yet also one that, like Mordecai Brown, pre-dates Simon’s lifetime yet still lives on and influences Simon’s life today.

Cubs fandom is a shared dream that lives on in the hearts over everyone who has loved the Chicago Cubs, felt hope on Opening Day, felt heartbreak at a crushing loss, felt sorrow when a loved one died without seeing their Cubs win it all, shed tears that November night when the Cubs finally did. Stretching back through time, all the way to Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings, there have been perhaps a hundred million Cubs fans and a hundred million different reasons for loving the Cubs. My Cubs: A Love Story tells the story of Scott Simon’s reason for loving the Cubs. Personal and intimate, funny and melancholic, Simon’s stories should strike a familiar chord in the heart of every Cubs fan, even those, like me, who are long-distance fans for whom a trip to Wrigley (as I took this year) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Simon paints a picture with his words and takes his readers on a journey into Chicago, into his life, into his love for the Cubs with that familiar voice and his lyrical prose, making his Cubs our Cubs, too. My Cubs is a book that only Scott Simon could write, and I savored every word.

Last Night in Stumptown

A clipping from the Stumptown Progressive…

The hometown crowd witnessed something they had never before seen — the umpires examining a baseball for scuff marks and paint — when the Lake Wobegon Whippets took on rival Stumptown at Olaf Field Friday night.

The drama came in the top of the seventh inning when Whippets second baseman Jonny Gilmore faced Stumptown pitcher Frank Bayliss.  Trailing by two runs, with a runner on first and no outs, Gilmore showed bunt, then ducked down in the batter’s box when Bayliss’ throw went awry.  The sound of the ball smacking against something was heard by the entire crowd of 346, and the home plate umpire promptly ruled Gilmore hit by pitch and awarded him first base.

Stumptown’s catcher tossed the ball back to the pitcher and, before play could resume, the home plate umpire summoned the first base umpire to the pitcher’s mound.  The two umpires asked for the baseball and proceeded to examine the ball.  Conferring for several minutes and finding no scuff marks from Gilmore’s helmet on the ball, the home plate umpire reversed his initial call and declared the pitch a foul ball having struck off of Gilmore’ bat rather than his helmet.  Art Ramsey returned to first base, Gilmore returned to the batter’s box, and both runners were erased when Gilmore hit a ground ball to short and Stumptown’s infielders turned a double play.

“In my sixty years of watching baseball,” said fan Jordan McKeever after this inning, “I’ve never seen umpires examine a baseball like that and make a decision based on that.”  This reporter would note that he has known McKeever since elementary school, and McKeever has only watched baseball for forty years, not being old enough to have watched it for sixty.

Stumptown took its 4-2 lead into the ninth inning, when Stumptown closer Erik Warner coughed up four runs, giving Lake Wobegon a 6-4 lead.  Stumptown went down in order in the bottom half of the inning, extending Stumptown’s losing streak to 8 games, leaving them 12 games under .500 and in last place in the Green Grass League’s Northern Division.

Stumptown manager Joe Shlabotnik , asked after the game why he stayed with his closer after Warner loaded the bases on two walks and a hit by pitch with no outs, said, “Warner made himself a mess, and I wanted to show faith in my player that he could get himself out of it, but he didn’t, and that’s the way baseball goes, and we’ll get ’em tomorrow.” Warner now has seven blown saves on the year, including three from a critical series against Hillsdale last week.

Stumptown’s series against the Lake Wobegon Whippets continues Saturday night at Olaf Field with the first pitch scheduled for 7:10.

Adventures in Off-Brand LEGO: Fortress Tower

Six weeks ago, when I went to the Mid-Maryland Celtic Festival in Mt. Airy, Maryland, I made a stop at Dollar General on my way home. I had bought a Celtic art print at the festival, I needed a frame for it, and Dollar General seemed like a good (and inexpensive) place to get a frame. I browsed the store a bit, picked up a bottle of V-8 Splash Strawberry Banana (which I can’t find anywhere else), and in the toy section I found some off-brand LEGO that I didn’t even know existed — Hasbro’s KRE-O Dungeons & Dragons: Fortress Tower.

When I say that I didn’t know it existed, I mean that I had no idea that there were KRE-O Dungeons & Dragons sets. I knew there were Transformers sets (I have several), Star Trek sets (I have several of these, too), Battleship sets (I have none), even some city and zombie sets. But Dungeons & Dragons? No idea whatsoever.

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Things I’ve Been Reading: James Bond: Service

Tragically, Ian Fleming only wrote 8 James Bond short stories. (Nine, if you count the short piece about making scrambled eggs. I do not.) I say “tragically,” as I consider “The Living Daylights” to be Fleming’s finest James Bond work. (The Timothy Dalton film The Living Daylights generally does justice to Fleming’s short story in its first act.) The short story may not seem like the ideal length for a James Bond story, but that’s only because our idea of what a James Bond story can and should be has been warped and molded by fifty years of increasingly convoluted and ever more spectacular films that lack the focused concision of a straightforward short story. There’s pleasure to be found in a singular story.

Which is why Service, the new James Bond one-shot from Kieron Gillen (Phonogram, Star Wars: Darth Vader) and Antonio Fuso, published by Dynamite Entertainment, is such a delight.

A new American administration, one extolling nationalism and American unilateralism, downplays the importance of the long-standing “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom on the eve of the Secretary of State’s visit to Britain for high level talks. Meanwhile, someone has anonymously sent MI-6 a coded message and a parcel that suggest an attempt will be made on the Secretary of State’s life. Due to the sensitive nature of both the target and the transatlantic political moment, M assigns Bond to investigate and, if necessary, neutralize the potential threat.

The result is something blissfully straightforward. Bond investigates. Bond locates his quarry. Bond is captured and beaten up. The villain reveals the plan. There is an escape and a firefight and a resolution and a harsh coda.

Service‘s story is grounded in the political now. Not only does Gillen draw on the new nationalism exhibited by the current presidential administration, he also draws upon the backlash to the EU that prompted the Brexit vote last summer. Gillen uses these elements as a backdrop to his story, informing the world James Bond operates in but not overwhelming it. Gillen’s answer to the age-old question, “Does James Bond work when divorced of his original Cold War setting?” would be, unequivocally, an emphatic yes.

Gillen uses one of his trademark touches — a conversation told symbolically — in one section of the story. By “symbolically,” I mean that, rather than spell out the dialogue’s conversation, Gillen collapses the actual words down to a few visual symbols. The reader gets the idea of what Bond and his conversation partners discussed without going through the actual dialogue, dialogue that would have taken more time and space. Fleming would have achieved the same narrative economy by summarizing the conversation in a sentence or two — something like “The woman at the door told Bond, after some careful questioning, the man he was looking for sported a phoenix tattoo on the back of his shaved skull.” Gillen and Fuso simply make use of the illustrated form of comics to achieve that same economy.

In my book, Service compares favorably with “The Living Daylights.” Both are straightforward stories, well told. If you like your Bond gritty and hard-edged, Service is the James Bond short story you want.