Returning to a Cemetery

Thursday I got the Beetle back.

It had been in the shop for a week and a half, after I had broken the key off in the ignition. It should not have taken that long, but the newly cut key Volkswagen sent wasn’t cut properly — keys for the Beetle are laser-etched, for security purposes — and when the dealership received the second key, this one properly cut, late on Wednesday it still needed to be programmed, otherwise it would have been little more than a valet key and I’d have been able to drive maybe ten minutes before the engine shut off.

Anti-theft measures. Gotta love ’em.

Suffice it to say, being without a car for a week and a half meant that I had a backlog of errands I needed to do. Things like grocery shopping and buying new shoes. (I’m terrible on my shoes, specifically the soles, specifically the soles at the balls of my feet, and I needed both shoes for work and sneakers for everything else.) And while I could have done these things around the York area, I decided that, no, I could hit the highway instead and just as easily do them around Baltimore.

I’m not sure when the idea of a return to Loudon Park Cemetery came to me, but the idea had an attraction to it. My great-grandfather and his family are buried there, as are three of his siblings and his mother, not to mention a number of nieces and nephews. I visited there in late May and intended to go back when I learned where his brother is buried. Though I’ve not learned that — at some point I’ll call the office and ask if they can tell me which section he’s buried in — I decided I could make a quick stop. There’s a Giant a half mile away, I could buy some inexpensive flowers, and leave them for people that died long before I was born.

Continue reading “Returning to a Cemetery”

The Ire of Reince Priebus

I love it when Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, writes me. He’s usually incensed about something and expects me to be so, as well. And, of course, he then hits me up for money.

What has raised his ire this week? President Obama’s appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast, which I wrote about last week. Right in the subject line, Reince says, “Demand Obama apologize for his insulting remarks.”

I don’t want to repeat myself, that’s why I’m including the link to what I said before, but I’m a bit baffled by what, specifically, was insulting and demands an apology. Can you enlighten me, Reince?

Rather than lift people up and bring them together at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, President Obama has managed to insult, hurt and offend.

While speaking about how we should grapple with the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, Obama said:

“And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

Now is not the time to divide Americans and attack Christians. The crusades are over — and have been for some 1,000 years now.

Now is the time to stand strong and united against those who threaten our country, our families and our freedom.

Obama needs to stop lecturing the American people and insulting Christians. And he needs to start focusing on the very real, very current and very dangerous threat at hand by Islamic extremists.

Add your name to demand Obama apologize for his insulting remarks.

Reince, really. Don’t take me for an idiot. You’re taking one sentence out of a larger speech and using it to completely the miss the point.

Here, from the Washington Post, is the full context of that single sentence.

How do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe.

And, first, we should start with some basic humility. I believe that the starting point of faith is some doubt — not being so full of yourself and so confident that you are right and that God speaks only to us, and doesn’t speak to others, that God only cares about us and doesn’t care about others, that somehow we alone are in possession of the truth.

Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments. And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process. And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty. No God condones terror. No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

And so, as people of faith, we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends. And here at home and around the world, we will constantly reaffirm that fundamental freedom — freedom of religion — the right to practice our faith how we choose, to change our faith if we choose, to practice no faith at all if we choose, and to do so free of persecution and fear and discrimination.

In context, Reince, the sentence that raised your ire is an example of how the practice of a religion was perverted into something against its professed beliefs. The point of the anecdote comes at the end of this extract: “we are summoned to push back against those who try to distort our religion — any religion — for their own nihilistic ends.” By taking one sentence and holding it up as example of the president slamming Christianity, Reince, you missed that he was offering that sentence so he could criticize and condemn the very ethos that allowed such actions to happen.

Reince, you’re attacking the president for the exact words he uttered but not the exact meaning behind them. And, in so doing, you look like a putz.

On Musing about Beowulf and Its Culture

This morning, while I was listening to Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition and waiting for the coffee to kick in, I saw that a friend posted a question on Facebook about Beowulf.

No, not the Robert Zemekis film. The Anglo-Saxon epic poem on which the Zemekis film was based.

What, he wanted to know, was the significance of Beowulf’s cursed treasure. In symbolic terms.

I admit, I had to turn to the Googles. I didn’t remember a “cursed treasure” in Beowulf, but, with the help of sites like this, twenty-plus-year-old memories came flooding back.

To make a long story short, Beowulf dies fighting a dragon. His companion Wiglaf discovers that there’s a curse on the treasure that Beowulf gave his life to acquire, so when Beowulf is placed on his funeral pyre, the treasure is left entombed where it is of no benefit to anyone that Beowulf ruled.

I’m not going to name the friend who asked the question; it’s not really a secret, but I also don’t feel like outing a friend on the completely random chance that he pilfers from my theories for a paper. :)

I did devote some thought to Beowulf, though. First, as the coffee was oiling the synaptic gears. And later as I was driving through the back country. This is (roughly) what I posted as comments to the Facebook thread:

In my view, applying lit-crit techniques to Beowulf is madness; the poem wasn’t written for that purpose. It was simply an heroic epic, meant to be recited to entertain an illiterate audience. (The scene that makes Reign of Fire worthwhile is the heroic recitation of The Empire Strikes Back in the post-dragon-apocalypse hold.)

In narrative terms, there is no symbolism to the cursed treasure. To the Anglo-Saxon audience that would have heard Beowulf in recitation, they would be familiar with the practice of treasure burials. Look at Sutton Hoo. Or look at the recent discovery of a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon bed burial.

But what made the treasure “cursed”? I have to be honest, that nagged at me. Then it came to me.

The text we have of Beowulf is a tenth century Anglo-Saxon text, written down by a Christian copyist, that relates events that probably happened in the fifth century or before. (As Christopher Tolkien notes in his introduction to his father J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, Beowulf makes reference to the Volsungs, and the Volsung Saga is itself based on historical events that happened in the Rhine Valley in the early fifth century.) Thus, our Christian scholar is five hundred years removed from the events that are described in the poem he’s transcribing. Henry VIII’s reign is as close to us in time as Beowulf was for him.

We know that treasure burials are common in the time period and culture that Beowulf describes. How do we know this? Archaeological finds like Sutton Hoo. Records in historical texts. In short, we have evidence that there was nothing unusual about a king being buried with his treasure (or treasury). Two centuries of research has given us a perspective on the time period of Beowulf that the intervening centuries did not have.

Our tenth century scholar doesn’t have that perspective. What he has is a story that has, in his view, an unusual feature — a king is immolated and his treasure is buried. Why? That’s not how burials are handled in his time. Wouldn’t his people benefit from the hoard? Since they didn’t, there must be a reason…

Our scholar is a creative man. He must be; he’s literate in a time of illiteracy. “The hoard must be cursed! If it is evil, then its curse would taint the people. Therefore, it must be buried.”

In short, burying Beowulf with the cursed treasure is a tenth century retcon of a not-at-all-uncommon fifth century treasure burial.

And I suspect that this is the first time that the word “retcon,” in the fannish sense, has ever been applied to the first great epic of English literature… ;)

On the Lewis Chessmen

For March I’m planning a trip to New York City. I put my vacation request in yesterday for a few days in the middle of the month.

The Lewis Chessmen are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through early April, and they’re something I would very much like to see while they’re on this side of the Atlantic.

While I’m a terrible chess player, I’m fascinated by the artistry and history of chess.  Several years ago I plotted out a Doctor Who novel that contained a scene with chess-playing Vikings.  I have one chess set (a Lord of the Rings chess set), intend to acquire at least two more in the coming months (a Doctor Who set and Eaglemoss’ DC Comics chess set), and have given serious thought to tracking down the vintage Franklin Mint Star Trek 3-D chess set made about twenty years ago.  The Lewis Chessmen, then, are precisely the sort of thing that would captivate me.

What are they, then?  From memory the Lewis Chessmen are a more than complete set of chesspieces, in white and red instead of the modern white and black, carved from ivory by unknown Norsemen in the 13th-century (or was it the 11th?) which were discovered buried in the sand of an island off the coast of Scotland a century and a half ago. The chessmen are displayed at the British Museum and they are presently on loan to the Met.

Naturally, this is the very sort of thing that interests me. History! The Norse!  Chess!

And since they’re on this continent through April, I intend to go see them. :)

On the Presidency of Al Gore

In less than two weeks the United States will mark a solemn and unfortunate anniversary, the tenth anniversary of 9/11.

I bring this up, not to disturb the memories of some who are still traumatized by the incident, but because of a recent poll that asked Americans what they thought the world would be like if Al Gore had been President. And the truth is, most Americans think we’d be in the same place we are today if Al Gore, not George W. Bush, had been inaugurated in 2001.

There are a few blogs that have been discussing it. Matt Yglesias discusses it. So too does Andrew Sullivan. The point both make is that there would have been some military intervention in Asia and the Middle East, at the very least Afghanistan and possibly Iraq as well, thanks to 9-11.

However, that belief presumes there would have been a need for an invasion of Afghanistan to take down bin Laden in a Gore presidency. It’s difficult to prove the counterfactual, but there’s every reason to think that 9/11 would not have happened.

During the presidential transition in 2001, President Clinton gave Bush a plan to retaliate against al-Qaeda for the USS Cole bombing. Clinton did not implement the plan himself, as he did not want to bequeath his successor a military operation (in the way that Bush pere had left Clinton to clean up the Somalia mess). Bush promptly tossed the retaliatory strike on al-Qaeda because the people he had surrounded himself with believed that terrorism was not a big deal. Gore, on the other hand, would not have been as dismissive of the idea of terrorism, having been in the Clinton administration. Even if the Cole reprisal didn’t disrupt al-Qaeda sufficiently, not backbenching Richard Clarke as Condoleezza Rice had would have paid dividends. That’s not to say that the Bush administration was not aware of the impending attack — John Ashcroft suspected enough that he stopped flying on public planes, Bush was given the PDB of August 6, 2011 that warned of an impending attack — but the Bush administration wasn’t focused on or interested in doing anything about the intel. A President Gore presented with a Presidential Daily Briefing entitled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike In US” would not have said to his CIA briefer, as Bush did, “Okay, now you’ve covered your ass.”

Even presuming that 9/11 occurs on Gore’s watch, we don’t get from Afghanistan to Iraq. Yes, it is true that Gore believed in the existence of Iraqi WMDs. But Gore was not the unilateralist that Bush was, and Gore didn’t have the Cold War Revivalists like Cheney surrounding him. (And, if you accept the premise of Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy, Gore didn’t have the psychological and familial issues that pushed Bush into Iraq.) Would Gore have used intelligence he knew to be false and fabricated to make a case for war? I genuinely doubt it. In any event, the link between Afghanistan and Iraq wasn’t just tenuous. It was non-existent. Yet, that purported link was one of the reasons that Bush and his administration argued for war. If you ask people today if there was a link between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, many many people think there was, because Dick Cheney and George W. Bush kept telling them so. If they weren’t in a position to use the bully pulpit of their offices to tell the American people an outright lie, the non-existent link would not have been forged in the mind of the people. That’s not to say that Cheney couldn’t have written editorials and the like claiming that it was a vital interest of the United States to depose Saddam Hussein. Along with other neocons with the Project for a New American Century, he wrote a letter to Clinton in the mid-90s arguing for regime change in Iraq. There’s a vast difference between writing a letter to a President and being a Vice President with the ear of a President who had something to prove to the world.

In short, the evidence supports the contention that the 9/11 attacks happened because of the incompetence of Bush and his advisors. In a hypothetical world where Gore became President in 2001, there’s every reason to believe that the al-Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington would have been disrupted in advance of the hijackings and the Twin Towers would continue to stands. At times I wonder how people like Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy can sleep at night. They have the blood of the last decade on their times I wonder how people like Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy can sleep at night. They have the blood of the last decade on their hands. If only for that reason, a world with President Gore would be a better world than the one we inhabit today.

George Bush’s presidency is also an argument against Leibniz — we do not live in the best of all possible worlds.

On Fascinating Periods of History

At times, I think of myself as an amateur historian. It's unsurprising that I think of myself in that way; I was a history student in college, after all, and my library is filled with history books, from general histories of the world to histories of specific periods to histories of specific ideas. Among the niche histories in my collection General Howe's Dog (a book about the dog owned by General Howe during the Revolutionary War, which was lost during the Battle of Germantown) and Birth of the Chess Queen (exactly what the title implies — a book about how the Queen evolved and become the most powerful piece on the chessboard).

What can I say? I have varied interests.

The thing is, many people have favorite periods in history. They're fascinated by the American Revolution, or they're captivated by the Edwardian era (thanks to BBC costume dramas, of course), or the early industrial age tickles their fancy. Or any of a dozen, a hundred other periods.

I like them all. There's always something new to learn.

I love the medieval period. Castles and crusades and feudalism.

I love the Age of Fighting Sail and the Napoleonic Wars. Not just for Sharpe and Hornblower, but because an entire continent was at stake. I'm not a believer in the "Great Man of History" theory, but Napoleon is one of the few truly captivating figures to stride across history and leave his mark upon the world. Or Horatio Nelson, who is one of the rare figures in history to die at precisely the moment when history no longer needed him.

I'm fascinated by the colonial period. I'm especially intrigued by the French and Indian Wars. I also find it interesting that the final battle of the English Civil War took place in Maryland.

World War I is endlessly fascinating to me. I've recently read Harry Patch's autobiography. (Patch was England's last survivor of the trenches. Radiohead did a song about him in tribute, and it is achingly beautiful.)

And that's just four. There are other periods that are just as compelling to me. Just today, I was listening to a radio documentary on the French Wars of Religion, the suppression of the Huguenots, and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Eve. And not because that has anything to do with Doctor Who. ;)

So history is something of a hobby. :)

There's one period I find particularly fascinating, partly because I find it so inexplicable — Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties aren't quite what I love about the era, though I admit I do feel a certain pull toward the Jazz Age and the world F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote. I love the Art Deco stylings of the time, I love the architecture of the period. "An expensive orgy," Fitzgerald called the period, and somehow the party went on because of — or in spite of — Prohibition.

I admit that the criminal side of it doesn't interest me a great deal. I could care less about the bootleggers and the criminal enterprises. What fascinates me is how a country decided to legislate a narrow view of morality, and then an underground culture grew up around it.

I realize that Prohibition was not just like The Great Gatsby, but it's romantic to think so. In reality, for most Americans during Prohibition, life continued to be nasty, brutish, and short, much as life had always been. But you think about the speakeasies, you think about the flappers, you think about the jazz, and you realize that people were having fun. There's a line in Joyce's Ulysses that goes (and I'm doing this from memory), "History is the nightmare from which we awaken," and in a way, that's what Prohibition was. It was the time when society awoke from the patterns in which it had been stuck.

Now I feel like rereading The Great Gatsby;)

And tomorrow, I may have a different idea of what time period has my attention. For all I know, it could be the Swingin' Sixties, or it could be pre-Roman Britain or it could be the Han Dynasty in China. Such is the life the amateur historian leads, following his interests down whatever road they carry him.

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On Ann Brashare’s My Name Is Memory

I read a novel because of Hawkman.

As some may know, I love Hawkman. I think I love Hawkman more as a concept than as a character — there’s something indescribably awesome about a character who straps mechanical wings to his back, flies around, and beats the crap out of evildoers with his giant spiky mace — but there are periods of Hawkman history I adore unreservedly, like the Tim Truman/John Ostrander Hawkworld era.

A few months ago, word went out that Warner Brothers wanted to make a Hawkman film. And this caused much discussion on bulletin boards, because when you’re talking about Hawkman, the first thing you have to ask is this — Which Hawkman? The 1930s Egyptologist? The alien Thanagarian policeman? The immortal reincarnated soul? There are so many different — and not at all compatible — takes on Hawkman that you have to ask.

Obviously, I’m a fan of the Silver Age Thanagarian Hawkman, though I do appreciate the Golden Age Egyptologist, especially when drawn by the late Mike Parobeck. The immortal soul, resurrected through time to be with and love his soul mate Shiera, well… that one’s a little different. It’s not really a version of Hawkman so much as a retcon of Hawkman, a way of reconciling all the different versions of Hawkman so that there can be a single coherent history from the 1930s to today of this unique character.

In the course of one of the discussions online, probably at TrekBBS, someone posted how the immortal love story of Carter and Shiera Hall, beginning in ancient Egypt and stretching into the present, was the most compelling thing about Hawkman and the movie clearly needed to focus on that. Then someone mentioned that there was novel with almost exactly that premise that had been optioned for a movie, a story about two lovers who met in ancient days who were kept apart by the machinations of fate and another immortal soul, one who sought to wreak havoc upon them across the centuries. I don’t recall that the name of the book was ever mentioned, but then on Friday at Borders, during their Going-out-of-Business sale, I chanced across an entire shelf of the book (or what I presume was the book), and I bought it, at 40 percent off.

My Name Is MemoryIt was Ann Brashares’ My Name Is Memory.

Brashares is probably best known as the writer of the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants young adult novels, but as I’ve never read the books or seen the movies (and there’s doubtless little surprise from my readers on either point) I was wholly unfamiliar with her work. My Name Is Memory is a novel for adults, and the pullquotes from reviews cite the influences of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Twilight on the book.

In 2004, a high school senior named Lucy meets a transfer student at her school in central Virginia named Daniel. He’s an odd, quiet boy, and a graduation party they have a fateful encounter. She’d had a crush on him since the moment she first saw him. He haunted her every thought. Now, face to face with him, he tells her that her name is Sophia and he’s known and loved her for over a thousand years, a thousand years that he remembers but she does not. Both intrigued and frightened, she gives in to her feelings and they kiss, but then she pulls away, and this leads the two to part suddenly on difficult terms — Lucy going to the University of Virgnia, Daniel apparently to a suicide in the Appomattox River. But Daniel isn’t actually dead, Lucy comes to understand what actually happened between them, and circumstances, to say nothing of Daniel’s immoral and immortal brother Joaquim, may bring them back together — or drive them apart forever.

My Name Is Memory is a complicated book, but not a complex book. In terms of narrative, it is straightforward and linear. One narrative strand follows Lucy from 2004 to 2009 as she moves from high school to college to grad school. Running parallel, we have chapters from Daniel’s point of view, as he leads a succession of lives from sixth century Turkey to early 21st-century Virginia, sometimes meeting Lucy/Sophia, sometimes not, and sometimes facing off with his brother from his first life, Joaquim, a sadistic and brutal man who is reborn again and again. Midway through the book, for two chapters, there’s a third narrative thread, which tells some of Daniel’s story from the perspective of Lucy/Sophia as she was at that time, which explore part of Lucy’s journey from incredulousness to acceptance of the fact of her immortal soul. The two narrative threads, Lucy’s and Daniel’s, finally merge in the present late in the book (page 237, to be exact), and then we stay firmly in the present. It is also at that point that the book’s plot kicks in.

The three segments of the book are very different.

Lucy’s sections of the book are strangely superficial. There is occasionally warmth to them, at times her inner emotional life is sharply drawn, but the descriptions of the world in which she lives is surface. Her family, for instance, never comes into focus, and her friend Marnie, who is probably the third most present character in the book, is little more than a cypher, an honest cypher but a cypher nonetheless. Even the boy she loses her virginity to exists solely for the five pages in which it happens; he is never mentioned before then, he exists to do the deed, and then save for a late mention he’s gone from the book entirely (though I have a theory about that, which I will come back to). The only reason some of the places in her story had any weight for me was that I had either experienced them personally (like Tysons Corner) or seen pictures (like the UVA campus). Lucy’s story inhabits a fuzzy, out-of-focus world.

Daniel’s sections are better written and have greater depth, even though they must sketch out an entire life in a remote century and distant country in a matter of ten pages or less. If Lucy’s chapters are basically comtemporary fiction, Daniel’s chapters are historical fiction, beginning in North Africa in the sixth century, then moving to Constantinople, Venice, and even World War I as the centuries pass and Daniel’s unique soul, which can remember all of his lives, is reborn again and again. Daniel’s chapters hint at larger stories that exist outside the book in a way that Lucy’s do not, even as she tries to piece together the story of the strange boy was who kissed her and who she was in a different life.

The final section of the book — the final hundred pages — are, in my estimation, the weakest chapters of the book, as My Name Is Memory, which had been a strange, odd, and even compelling character piece, turns into a mundane kidnapping/revenge drama. While it’s not unexpected (it grows out of events that happen in the novel’s first twenty-five pages), it also does nothing unexpected. In a way, it feels that Brashares didn’t know how to finish the book she began, while in other ways it feels like suddenly reading an entirely different book. Compared to the story of Lucy’s search for the truth about Daniel and Daniel’s long life across the centuries, the final third of the book is less interesting and less vivid. Characters are reduced, the action becomes sketchy, and the story at that point is told almost entirely in dialogue. I should also note that My Name Is Memory doesn’t end; it simply stops with many unanswered questions. (Supposedly, My Name Is Memory is the first book in a trilogy.)

For a book that spans a millennium and a half, the cast of My Name Is Memory is ridiculously small — Daniel, Lucy, Joaquim, Ben (a friend of Daniel’s with similar powers to recall his past lives), Marnie, Alexander (Marnie’s brother, and Lucy’s lover), and that’s it. I hesitate to list Alexander, as he appears on five pages and plays no role in the story save to take Lucy’s virginity, except that I mentioned that I was going to come back to him and so I shall.

As I mentioned, My Name Is Memory leaves a number of unanswered questions. The major one, for me, was this — who led Joaquim to Lucy? It was mentioned in Daniel’s chapters that while he had kept tabs on Lucy while she was at UVA, he was careful not to interact with her or make any move that even suggested that he knew her, lest he lead Joaquim to her, setting in motion the same revenge story that had played out across the centuries. Someone did lead Joaquim to her, though, and, unfortunately, we don’t have many suspects. Joaquim would not have found Lucy/Sophia on his own; his powers are explained, and one thing he cannot do that Daniel can is to recognize a reincarnated soul in its new body. Marnie can be ruled out for two reasons; first, she was Lucy’s mother in their previous lives, and second, she actually knew Daniel. Ben can also be ruled out; he had no idea who Lucy was in this current life or where she could be. Of the characters in this book, that leaves only Alexander as a possible suspect. It’s Roger Ebert’s “Law of Economy of Characters” — no one else would or could have led Joaquim to Lucy, so it had to be Alexander that did. The question then becomes, How did Alexander fall into Joaquim’s orbit, and was his relationship with Lucy ever genuine or was it simply so that Joaquim could keep tabs on her location? (Alexander gets a late mention in the book, where Lucy’s narration indicates that they’re fuckbuddies.) I hate to belabor Alexander’s existence on the page, but it is so baffling that I can’t help but ponder it.

I was also interested in the mechanics of Daniel’s financial system that spanned the centuries. It’s mentioned, and he actually uses it in the book, but I was intrigued by the fact that he would realize that he had a memory that spanned lifetimes, so he could create boltholes and money/supply caches that would and could survive the centuries. How did he come up with that insight? Were there other immortal souls with Memory that had done the same thing? Of course, that leads to the idea — what if the power brokers of the world aren’t just well-connected through their family and business connections, what if they also have memories and identities that span the centuries? It’s an obvious question, and one I considered more than once.

I’m also curious where the story will go. If it’s a trilogy I can make a decent guess. Since the first book ends with the lovers unified but separated, the second book would likely turn on a shocking betrayal (probably the revelation of Alexander’s perfidy) and the the lovers torn apart (probably the death of Daniel in his current body). The third book would end with Daniel, now using Joaquim’s powers to move from body to body, finally defeating his brother once and for all (perhaps even destroying his soul, if such a thing is possible, and taking his current body), and the lovers ready to face the future together. I think there would also be some reconciliation between Daniel and some of the people that he knew, like Molly, his mother in his previous life, who is mentioned in My Name Is Memory but who doesn’t actually appear.

I kept thinking about how this would translate to film, and I think much of it would probably work quite well, but it would need a serious rethink of the third act. My Name Is Memory does not end on an entirely satisfying note.

I sound overly critical of the book, but in reality I’m nothing more than mildly critical. My Name Is Memory has an interesting premise, it develops it in some interesting directions, it can be evocatively written, and the book leaves you with a lot of thoughts (as you can see). But it’s not a perfect book by any means; it’s surprisingly shallow at times, the final third awkwardly meshes with the rest of the book, and the story is ultimately unfinished. My Name Is Memory was an enjoyable, occasionally moving novel, even if it had nothing to do with Hawkman, and if unusual or historical romances interest you, it’s probably the kind of book you’d enjoy.

On the Meaning of Thanksgiving

For reasons that are obscure even to me, on a bulletin board I frequent there is a discussion going about whether or not, in the United Kingdom, holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are celebrated.

To those reading across the Pond, I apologize for the obtuseness of my fellow countrymen. We have a bit of myopia where our role in history is concerned.

One person made an impassioned rant against a British celebration of Thanksgiving — “Why,” he asked (paraphrasing here), “should we celebrate a bunch of people leaving the Mother Country and starting over? We’re not even descended from them!”

I don’t know. It occurred to me that there’s a very good case to be made for Europeans of all stripes to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Yes, really. Let me explain.

A bunch of Calvinists boarded a boat, left England, and set sail for the New World. A bunch of Calvinists who were too batshit loony for the Church of England that they fled first to Holland and then to the New World because the CoE was too liberal for them. I would jokingly say that the United States was settled by England’s religious nutters, but it’s actually true, and after the United States became independent, we started taking in Europe’s religious nutters, too.

Seriously, there’s a reason for the English to celebrate Thanksgiving. It’s a commemoration of how the religious malcontents buggered off to make America a religious wreck, leaving the Mother Country to thrive in peace without them.


On a Calendar in the Mail

An unexpected package arrived in the mail today.

“The Hidden History of the United States 2011 Calendar,” courtesy of The Progressive.

I subscribed to The Progressive for a few years, from ’98 to ’02. What soured me on the magazine was Howard Zinn’s response to 9/11, which I seem to remember as a “We brought this upon ourselves” response, though I don’t remember the specifics. It was enough that I let my subscription lapse, and I didn’t really miss The Progressive. I had The American Prospect to keep me company. Daily Kos, too, and Talking Points Memo.

But a few months ago, I began listening to The Progressive‘s “Progressive Point of View” podcast, a little two minute spiel by editor Matthew Rothschild, then at the new year I decided to re-up my subscription. With the Republican Party ready and willing to push the country — and the world economy, for that matter — off the cliff, I decided I needed The Progressive.

Ironically, two days after I mailed off a subscription form, along with a check for $14.97, I received in the mail a letter from The Progressive asking me to subscribe. For the low, low introductory price of $10.00.

Isn’t that the way life goes? :-/

While I’ve yet to receive my first issue, The Progressive sent me their 2011 calendar, and it arrived today. I didn’t expect it, and it’s kind of interesting. Each day has one or two historical facts listed. Today, for instance…

  • 1790 First treaty with Iroquois signed
  • 1937 First United Auto Workers contract, General Motors
  • 1978 300 Native Americans begin “Longest Walk” to protect treaty rights
  • 1990 Nelson Mandela released from prison after 27 years in jail

Honestly? I knew that today was the anniversary of Thomas Edison’s birth, and I only knew that because Garrison Keillor said so on this morning’s “The Writer’s Almanac.” And the first — a treaty with the Iroquois — induces an itch to play Age of Empires III and crush Napoleon beneath my boot…. ;)

I don’t know that I’ll use the calendar. It’s not the prettiest calendar, though it doesn’t have to be; it’s more about being thought-provoking, and less about being a simple regurgitation of dates and holidays.

I’ll keep it, much like I’ve kept the various Colonial Williamsburg calendars they’ve sent me over the years.

Maybe next week, I’ll get my first issue of The Progressive in several years. Maybe.

On 25 Years Since Voyager 2’s Uranus Encounter

Friday evening, I received a press release from NASA. The reason? The twenty-fifty anniversary of Voyager 2’s closest encounter to Uranus.

Voyager Celebrates 25 Years Since Uranus Visit
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
January 21, 2011

As NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft made the only close approach to date of our mysterious seventh planet Uranus 25 years ago, Project Scientist Ed Stone and the Voyager team gathered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., to pore over the data coming in.

Images of the small, icy Uranus moon Miranda were particularly surprising. Since small moons tend to cool and freeze over rapidly after their formation, scientists had expected a boring, ancient surface, pockmarked by crater-upon-weathered-crater. Instead they saw grooved terrain with linear valleys and ridges cutting through the older terrain and sometimes coming together in chevron shapes. They also saw dramatic fault scarps, or cliffs. All of this indicated that periods of tectonic and thermal activity had rocked Miranda’s surface in the past.

The scientists were also shocked by data showing that Uranus’ magnetic north and south poles were not closely aligned with the north-south axis of the planet’s rotation. Instead, the planet’s magnetic field poles were closer to the Uranian equator. This suggested that the material flows in the planet’s interior that are generating the magnetic field are closer to the surface of Uranus than the flows inside Earth, Jupiter and Saturn are to their respective surfaces.

“Voyager 2’s visit to Uranus expanded our knowledge of the unexpected diversity of bodies that share the solar system with Earth,” said Stone, who is based at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “Even though similar in many ways, the worlds we encounter can still surprise us.”

Voyager 2 was launched on Aug. 20, 1977, 16 days before its twin, Voyager 1. After completing its prime mission of flying by Jupiter and Saturn, Voyager 2 was sent on the right flight path to visit Uranus, which is about 3 billion kilometers (2 billion miles) away from the sun. Voyager 2 made its closest approach – within 81,500 kilometers (50,600 miles) of the Uranian cloud tops – on Jan. 24, 1986.

Before Voyager 2’s visit, scientists had to learn about Uranus by using Earth-based and airborne telescopes. By observing dips in starlight as a star passed behind Uranus, scientists knew Uranus had nine narrow rings. But it wasn’t until the Voyager 2 flyby that scientists were able to capture for the first time images of the rings and the tiny shepherding moons that sculpted them. Unlike Saturn’s icy rings, they found Uranus’ rings to be dark gray, reflecting only a few percent of the incident sunlight.

Scientists had also determined an average temperature for Uranus (59 Kelvin, or minus 350 degrees Fahrenheit) before this encounter, but the distribution of that temperature came as a surprise. Voyager showed there was heat transport from pole to pole in Uranus’ atmosphere that maintained the same temperature at both poles, even though the sun was shining directly for decades on one pole and not the other.

By the end of the Uranus encounter and science analysis, data from Voyager 2 enabled the discovery of 11 new moons and two new rings, and generated dozens of science papers about the quirky seventh planet.

Voyager 2 moved on to explore Neptune, the last planetary target, in August 1989. It is now hurtling toward interstellar space, which is the space between stars. It is about 14 billion kilometers (9 billion miles) away from the sun. Voyager 1, which explored only Jupiter and Saturn before heading on a faster track toward interstellar space, is about 17 billion kilometers (11 billion miles) away from the sun.

“The Uranus encounter was one of a kind,” said Suzanne Dodd, Voyager project manager, based at JPL. “Voyager 2 was healthy and durable enough to make it to Uranus and then to Neptune. Currently both Voyager spacecraft are on the cusp of leaving the sun’s sphere of influence and once again blazing a trail of scientific discovery.”

The Voyagers were built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which continues to operate both spacecraft. For more information about the Voyager spacecraft, visit: JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Tomorrow’s anniversay is the happy quarter-century anniversary for NASA this week; this Friday also marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Challenger disaster.

The Voyager 2 probe is on Twitter; send the little guy a congratulatory Tweet today! :)