Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Christmas Hangover

There's a lot I like about the Christmas season. Festive decorations. Guilt-free gatherings of friends and family, complete with foods and beverages that are, strictly speaking, not good for one's body. The sense of excitement in the air. And, for Christians, a celebration of a Very Important Event.

Despite this, the season is one that generally fills me with dread. Let me count the ways: first, there's more to do and yet no additional time in which to do it, which increases stress. Second, repetition of seasonal songs, in a mind-numbing number of versions, usually performed in a perfunctory manner, inflicted on an unwary public. (One of our discussions this year was "Holiday songs I never want to hear again," which occasioned a great many variations on "Wonderful choice!") Preparing for guests to stay over. Preparing to drive, usually through heavy traffic, to visit relatives. The hassle of shopping for people who either have everything they need or want nothing more than the universal gift certificate. (Watching people open gift cards is a dull activity, matched only by receiving such a card when there's no way to spend it until the next day at the earliest.)

Lost in all the shuffle are the normal things one would do over the course or a week or two. Most of those things are not important, but some require a certain amount of sacrifice. To wit: as I type this, I have yet to see the Christmas episode of Doctor Who, "The Time of the Doctor." I have had to avoid all discussion of the episode. I'm told some guy named Capaldi shows up in it, but I have no direct knowledge of this. The things I sacrifice for the sake of the season!

Lest anyone think this is merely a litany of complaints, I hasten to add that I genuinely enjoy the company of my relatives. If any of said relatives are reading this, yes, I mean it, and I'm not just saying so for the sake of smoothing some feathers come next Christmas.

Christmas is also the time when, over a few drinks, friends and relatives are liable to share the more interesting, not to mention embarrassing, pieces of gossip. Items that would never be forthcoming over the telephone or via mail (electronic or otherwise), and certainly never hinted at in the Christmas letter that stays resolutely chipper, come lightly off a tongue loosened by liquor. Little Bobby's close encounter with law enforcement after running that red light, or the explanation for why Uncle Fred is not with us this year (still in rehab). One is reminded of the foibles of one's nearest and dearest. My stepmother, a genuinely warm-hearted person, is also increasingly deaf and staunchly unwilling to do anything about it, so she'll take opportunities to turn up the volume on to the point of distraction on the television, and is unaware that the Christmas tree that plays nothing but a tinny version of "Jingle Bells," over and over, is a seasonal version of water torture. My uncle mercilessly baits the woman. And so it goes.

Which brings me to the Christmas Hangover. Oh, you thought the title was a metaphor for the post-holiday letdown? Perhaps it is that as well. But the CH is a genuine phenomenon. Extracting gossip requires not only plying others with drink, but keeping up as well. I'm also convinced that trying to pay attention to multiple conversations, all held at high volume, causes alcohol to be absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream.

This year, my best efforts were destroyed by the confluence of two kind gestures. Back in June, Uncle J__ bought his brother a bottle of Sauternes for the latter's 80th birthday. Said bottle was saved until Christmas, when all of legal drinking age assembled could have a glass of the sweet dessert wine. A temporary madness descended on me, and I forgot my vow forsaking all sweet alcoholic beverages after an unfortunate episode involving Rusty Nails. (To this day I cannot look at a bottle of Drambui without feeling slightly ill.) One glass and - bam! - the next morning was a sad occasion. In fact, I missed most of December 26. If I could have regenerated, I might have done so.

So let this be a cautionary tale to young people with strong constitutions and poor judgment: one day, that strong constitution will be gone, leaving only the poor judgment. When that day arrives, woe betide you. Until then, I envy you.

And now another Christmas has come and gone. For now, only the cleanup remains, itself another form of post-holiday hangover in which decorations return to their cramped little boxes, furniture is moved back to its normal location, and the trash and recycling bins bulge under the onslaught of wrapping paper, boxes, and the remains of that casserole that no one really liked. And in just 51 weeks, we do it all over again.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Victorian Fantasy: "La Belle Dame sans Merci"

This month’s meeting of the Victorian Fantasy discussion group addressed John Keats’s “pocket epic” poem of 1819, “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Sir JJ Drinkwater coined that oxymoron, and what an appropriate term it is!

Despite its brief length, a mere twelve stanzas of four lines each, the poem relates a tale in which a traveler encounters a knight, “alone and palely loitering” in a place where “the sedge has withered from the lake, and no birds sing.” The knight then tells of meeting a lady - “full beautiful - faery’s child” - who, “in language strange,” declared her love for him. The lady induces the knight to sleep, where he dreams of “pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death-pale were they all” who were similarly seduced by the fae lady. He awakes, alone, on the hill where he met the traveler.

Victorian Literature  Keats 001
Left to right: Dame Kghia Gherardi, Mr. Simeon Beresford, Miss Sanchia Bumblefoot

The Poetry Foundation describes the poem as follows:
This dialectical probing of enchantment, of the always-threatened artifice by which imagination seeks its fulfillment in the world, initiates Keats’s most profound meditations in the spring of 1819. The dangers of enchantment deepen in the haunting, beautifully suggestive ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” written 21 or 28 April 1819, and published in a slightly altered version by Hunt in his Indicator of 10 May 1820. Here a knight-at-arms is seduced by a strange, fairylike woman, reminiscent of Morgan Le Fay or Merlin’s Niniane, and in the midst of this enchantment a warning dream comes to him from other lost princes and warriors. But his awakening from her does him little good; he wanders “palely” on “the cold hill’s side,” where “no birds sing,” a world as empty of charm as the fay’s was empty of real life. The poem has been seen as allegorical of Keats’s ambivalent feelings for Fanny Brawne or for poetry itself. More fundamental, though, is Keats’s growing sense, here and in his letters, of the dark ironies of life, that is, the ways in which evil and beauty, love and pain, aspiration and finitude, are not so much “balanced” as interwoven in ways that resist philosophical understanding. The more we imagine beauty the more painful our world may seem—and this, in turn, deepens our need for art.

Victorian Literature  Keats 002
Back row: Miss Janet Rhiadra, Miss Zanicia Chau; Front row: Miss Morgan Trevelion, me

Our group discussed the nature of the knight and of the lady; how much time passed when the knight was with the lady; whether she was seductress or whether it was merely her nature that men fell in love with her; and Keats’s influence (folk ballads) and others who may have been influenced by the poem (Tolkien was one suggestion).

Victorian Literature  Keats 003
Miss Ravenstask Bayr and Miss Galiena  De Tourney

Victorian Literature  Keats 004
Sir JJ Drinkwater, Miss Herndon Bluebird, Miss Thuja Hynes, Miss Ellie Mink

Other interpretations of the poem may be found here and here, both apparently part of a syllabus from a Citiy University of New York English class.

As one can see from the pictures, we had quite a number of people (plus a few stragglers not pictured), many of whom were familiar with Keats in general and this poem in particular. That made for a good, lively discussion, which is always a treat.

The next meeting is scheduled for January 16, where the topic will be the 1850 novel The King of the Golden River, by John Ruskin.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Station and the Dead City

A new(-ish) Steampunk build and RP area, I first learned of The Station from the inimitable Honour McMillan. Above the ground, it’s a floating Steampunk city, with a high-speed train, a Fun House, the Orpheum theater, and more.

The Station 001
The central area of The Station

The Station 002
The entrance to the Fun House

The Station 003
The Orpheum

On the ground is the Dead City - an older, disheveled part of town, so to speak, but a misnomer because the city isn’t dead at all. To get there, one can take the civilized route - a balloon - or the Fun Ride, a wild, careening shot through a series of tubes. Naturally, I chose the latter.

Below there are a number of other places to visit, including the hotel (with Chev’s Attic, a nightclub, and a ground-floor casino), an amusement pier, and the old Orpheum theater.

The Station 004
The hotel, where rooms by the week are available

The Station 005
The entrance to the amusement pier

The Station 006
Shopping in the Dead City, with a passing trolley

The two cities constitute an RP area. Fortunately for my ability to take pictures, but unfortunately for the continued viability of the area, no one else was there during my visit. It’s an intriguing setup, so I hope it catches on.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Review: Sapphire and Steel

Reading about Doctor Who, I saw a number of references to another British television show, Sapphire and Steel, which ran on ITV from 1979 to 1982 and is now available on DVD.

The show follows two “elementals,” Sapphire (Joanna Lumley of The New Avengers and Absolutely Fabulous fame) and Steel (David McCallum, from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and currently in NCIS). As Sapphire says, “It’s our job to safeguard the structure of time.”* Each story - an “assignment,” in the show’s language, is made up of multiple half-hour episodes. The agents arrive on scene with a vague idea about what’s wrong, and spend the assignment investigating and resolving the issues. This site provides a more thorough description of the series.

Steel is generally grim-faced and, yes, steely, demanding answers from those around him and generally playing the heavy. Sapphire has certain powers to analyze objects and rewind time, and knows about the habits and customs of humans. They are occasionally aided by other agents, namely Lead (a large man who can knock down doors with a single blow) and Silver (a “technician,” rather than an “investigator,” who can manipulate metals and machinery when not flirting with Sapphire).

The show seems to have been shot on a budget of about $25 per episode. There is generally a single set, whether it’s a house (assignments one, four, and five), a train station (assignment two), an apartment building (assignment three), or a gas station-cum-diner (assignment six). The number of speaking parts is limited, and the combination of the single set and limited number of roles gives the show the feel of a staged play.

In Assignment One, creatures are using children’s nursery rhymes to enter the corporeal world. In Assignment Two, a man in a disused train station is attempting to make contact with the spirit world and finds soldiers killed in battle trying to return to life. In Assignment Three, time travelers from far in the future come to 1979 to understand the period - but they with them a force that can influence time. In Assignment Four, Sapphire and Steel investigate a man with no face who can take children out of photographs. In Assignment Five, a 1930-themed dinner party creates a shift in time so that the guests find themselves actually in 1930, where guests are murdered one at a time. In Assignment Six, the time agents are in a gas station in 1981, where a couple from 1948 has arrived in their car. The last two stories are the best, most coherent ones of the series.

 One difficulty with the show is that it’s too mysterious for its own good. We never learn what these “elementals” are - certainly not human, despite their form, but also capable of being killed - or who they work for, or how time can get out of whack. We never seen any underlying logic to the show’s universe, so that much of the peril for Sapphire and Steel, and many of the resolutions, seem to come out of thin air. The two leads, Lumley and McCallum, are accomplished actors who try to overcome the often-weak material. The show deserves credit for creating something out of the mainstream, with an intriguing premise, but is ultimately let down by its scripts and its incomplete vision of its own universe.

*No, neither sapphire nor steel are elements.