March 31, 2005
"When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better."
Mae West deadpanned that line in her 1933 movie, I'm No Angel, and in many ways she spoke for the entire movie-making industry. This fact was never more clearly illustrated than during a nearly four-decade period of film history which moviegoers today might have a hard time believing ever happened. In a country where, unlike the America in which Cole Porter's inaccurately-titled broadway musical became a smash-hit (in 1934, ironically enough), anything truly does seem to go, both on the silver screen and off, it is difficult to remember that there was a time when this wasn't the case . . . and most people liked it that way.
75 years ago today, Hollywood imposed the Production Code on itself in order to avoid the looming threat of censorship by the federal government. Such a move by the government appeared more and more likely in the face of loud public outcry against the immoral content of motion pictures (thanks in part to scandals within Hollywood itself, sensationalized by the media, and in part to the advent of talking pictures that revolutionized the industry) and an ever-growing number of local censorship boards.
The Production Code of 1930 (linked above, also known as the Hays Code after Will Hays, former campaign manager to Warren G. Harding, hired by the major film studios in 1922 as the PR man in charge of the predecessor of the MPAA) consisted chiefly of a list of material deemed unsuitable for treatment by the motion picture industry. These forbidden subjects ranged from showing such things as crime and adultery in a positive light (crime doesn't pay), to any portrayal of miscegenation or white slavery, to prostitution, profanity, disrespect for religion . . . Well, you get the idea.
The code was initially pitched to the studios by Hays as a money-saver. Many studios in 1930 were in deep financial trouble after the 1927-and-following costs of switching to "talkies" and the Stock Market Crash of '29. Policing the content of their own movies while in production by the application of a universally-acceptable set of guidelines was much less expensive then sending reels back to the cutting room after government censors had taken a hack at them.
At first, (treating Hays Code as just that, a set of guidelines) the effort wasn't particularly effective . . . in fact, violence and sex in the movies actually increased. Then, in 1933, sexual innuendo in She Done Him Wrong and I'm No Angel served as the catalyst which caused the powers that be to crack down hard on Hollywood, forcing it to set up a "Production Code Administration." Brought in to run the PCA was a conservative Philadelphia Catholic named Joe Breen, and his regime was given the power to review every movie prior to release and demand whatever changes were deemed necessary before giving a movie the seal of approval. Any theater that ran a movie without this seal was fined $25,000.
Incidentally, both of the movies most immediately to blame for this were written and starred in by celebrity sex icon Mae West. West was already a notorious figure by this time, and she would go on to get herself banned from public radio in 1937 after a licentious appearance on the Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy Show.
In 1951 the Production Code was modified again . . . becoming more, rather than less, stringent. Some of the more humorous effects of the strictness of the code can be seen clearly in things like the separate twin beds slept in by Lucy and Ricky Ricardo on their popular television show (which ran during most of the 1950s), and the fact that the toilet which is shown in Psycho (1960) was the first one to appear on film. However, by the mid-50s self-censorship was beginning to be challenged by movie-makers.
In fact, one of my favorite movies (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959) was released with a number of direct violations of the code despite the lack of a certificate of approval. Thanks to the success of this and other unapproved movies, the code's already crumbling foundation eroded still further. Money, after all, has always been the bottom line. The slow, subtle war on the Production Code wasn't over yet, though. The movie was banned in Chicago, and Jimmy Stewart's father was so offended by the "dirty picture" that he took out an ad in a local newspaper telling people to avoid going to see it, even though his son was the star.
By the mid-60's, however, even MPAA member companies were beginning to release films which did not conform to the code (most notably the 1966 Cannes-winner Blow-Up), and in 1967 the Production Code finally came down forever (just in time for the release of another of my code-violating favorites: The Graduate). After 37 years of self-imposed censorship, Hollywood had finally bowed to the almighty dollar. Actually, it would probably be more accurate to say that the almighty dollar had served as the medium of communication chosen by Americans of the 1960s to prolaim that they no longer cared about the immoral content of movies nearly as much as their parents and grandparents in the 1920s.
In 1968, the MPAA film rating system went into effect with the ratings G (General), M (Mature), R (Restricted), and X (Children Under 17 Not Admitted). M was soon changed to GP, then to PG (Parental Guidance Suggested). In 1984, Steven Spielberg suggested the implementation of a new rating (PG-13, Parents Strongly Cautioned) in response to loud complaints concerning his latest PG-rated movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In 1990, X was renamed NC-17 in order to escape the "adult entertainment" connotation which damaged the business of non-pornographic movies. In spite of this, no NC-17-rated movie has ever achieved commercial success.
So, the (admittedly a bit simplistic) question is, did 37 years of Hollywood restraint make us a more moral society? The equally simplistic answer is: Not really. You see, the Production Code was, in the first place, an oversimplified solution to a problem that was misunderstood, at best. Cinema is an art form, and art cannot be limited by hard and fast rules of what does or does not constitute acceptable subject matter.
Art is a way to communicate something, whether it be as profound as elucidating a life philosophy or as simple as sharing beauty. Sure it's nice to have movies that are just entertaining that the kids can go see, but it is not the duty of the artist to blunt his message just so a six-year old can watch his movie. The Production Code made the all too-common mistake of viewing cinema as entertainment only and therefore subject to strict definitions of morality and immorality. After all, being entertained by violence or sex is clearly immoral . . . Unfortunately for all concerned, that's not the whole story, and the consequences only entrenched this mistaken view of cinema deeper into the Christian psyche.
Now, I'm not saying there were no good movies produced between 1930 and 1967. That certainly isn't true . . . Heck, you can't swing a dead Communist during that period without hitting one of the great film classics. I would simply say that I trust the exceptionally talented, the the Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcocks, to get it right with or without a babysitter. And this is borne out by the fact that good movies didn't suddenly stop coming out after 1967. Tomorrow's film greats are coming out right now, and will continue to do so . . . Now, fortunately, without any watchdog agencies to clip the filmmakers' wings.
And what about those movies which are vile and reprehensible and immoral and unconscionable? That's where one exercises one's own personal responsibility and discernment as an individual, of course. That was our job all along and it was a mistake to ever give it to a group of people who, if not primarily concerned with their art form, are simply worried about how much money you've given them this year.
Anyway, in view of the importance of this day in film history, my apartment mates and I decided that the viewing of a very special movie was in order. From our tentative, "immediate-availability" pool of six movies (including Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, and The Graduate) we settled on Lolita, directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on Vladimir Nabokov's controversial 1955 novel of the same name. Nabokov himself penned the screenplay, and Kubrick moved to England to direct the movie that was destined to create a stir. His star power included James Mason as Humbert Humbert, Shelley Winters as Charlotte Haze, and Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty.
Although it was made to meet Production Code standards (still, of course, in effect in 1962), it was not exactly an overwhelming success, commercially (banned left and right, condemned by every "morality" group around, and restricted to audiences over the age of 18 in the United States), but the critics noticed and it was nominated for an Oscar and several Golden Globes (among other things). Kubrick went on the following year to make the enormously popular Dr. Strangelove, which Sellers also starred in, and . . . the sixties moved on, I guess.
Lolita, as you can probably tell from the 99% rating I gave it at right, was excellent. The movie was almost flawlessly made. The acting was perfect. The writing, as one would expect, was fantastic. Who would have thought that the story of a middle-aged British author's obsession with a sexually active twelve-year old girl (changed to fourteen in the movie, and played by a sixteen-year old actress) would turn out to be well worth watching?
Aside from the extremely high production value, the movie has a fascinating take on the effects of an all-consuming obsession without the mediating influence of a moral compass. Take care when feeding your appetites, the movie tells us, or your appetites will begin to feed on you. I think the movie's tagline from the original release sums it all up nicely (bizarre and disturbing subject matter, highly-complex source novel, Production Code difficulties and all): "How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?"
So, go exercise your freedom to watch an excellent, thought-provoking movie that hasn't had the life sanitized out of it by some Hollywood pencil pusher. Find a movie with some really edgy content . . . one you can get something out of. If you need any help getting started . . . Here, gimme a sec to glance around the room at the Ice Cave's DVD collection. Here are a few titles, with problematic content detailed by initials, which you might try (in addition to any of the movies already mentioned): Chicago (s, l), Garden State (s, l), The Godfather (n, l, v), Schindler's List (s, n, l, v), Traffic (s, l, v), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (s, l), Road to Perdition (l, v). That should be enough to get you started.
After own my research on the subject and general watching of movies, if I had everything on hand, the ideal PC-themed movie marathon would look something like this: Intolerance (1916, pre-code), Ecstasy (1932, banned by code), I'm No Angel (1933, caused stricter code), The Outlaw (1943, release delayed by code), Anatomy of a Murder (1959, ignored and helped weaken code), Lolita (1962, amazingly followed code . . . technically), Blow-Up (1966, ended code), The Graduate (1967, followed code).
Now go watch the right thing.
March 28, 2005
I accompanied the fledgling on-campus chapter of Sigma Tau Delta (The International English Honor Society) to Olive Garden this evening to consume a scrumptious supper and discuss activities and involvement for next semester. We also needed to elect officers for next year.
There were four offices to fill. There are currently four members of the LeTourneau Chapter who are not graduating in May.
Meet the new secretary. That's right . . . I get to take notes and type things up and send out important missives handed down to me by my roommate, errr . . . the president. Dr. Solganick seems to think that having a male secretary puts us on some sort of avant-garde cutting edge in comparison to other chapters.
As my first official act I will now go sulk in the corner.
March 27, 2005
A Very Shreveport Easter
Spring Break was closely followed by the weekend of Easter Sunday this year, granting us an additional three-day weekend after the week off . . . And there was much rejoicing on LeTourneau campus. I trekked to Shreveport in company with Rachel, Sarah, and Brian to spend the weekend with Sarah's family at her grandmother's house.
We had a grand time: watching movies (good, bad, and ugly) . . . playing Settlers of Catan . . . sleeping in . . . I had some additional time to read to Rachel (we're working our way through Harry Potter 1). There was much delicious food and dessert to be had as well, particularly for Sunday lunch, and copious amounts of delicious chocolate were distributed to all concerned parties on Easter morning.
Sarah's dad took Brian and me on a tour of the garage next to the house on Sunday afternoon . . . I had noticed that it was fairly large, but did not suspect that it contained, not one, not two, not even three, but four automobiles manufactured before 1925 and a profusion of spare parts and various other items of interest (old blacksmith tools, early gas pumps, and the like). 'Twas very cool indeed.
And, yes, never fear, I did attend a church service and spend some time reflecting on the true reason for Easter in the midst of enjoying some quality fellowship. All in all, I would definitely call my Easter weekend a success . . .
March 24, 2005
The Longest Intermission Ever
THE SC PLAYERS PRESENT:
The Man Who Came to Dinner by George S. Kaufman & Moss Hart
Scholl- Sheridan Whiteside
Rachel- Maggie Cutler, Sarah, Mrs. Dexter
Gallagher- Bert Jefferson, Richard Stanley, Mr. Stanley, Banjo
Myself- Dr. Bradley, John, Professor Metz, Beverly Carlton
Anna- Miss Preen, Mrs. Stanley, Harriet Stanley, Lorraine Sheldon
Ardith- June Stanley, Mrs. McCutcheon, Harriet Stanley, Lorraine Sheldon
Randy- Mr. Stanley, Sandy, Westcott
Wilson- Bert Jefferson
Well, in spite of the extreme hilarity and copious sly references to twenties, thirties, and forties pop culture contained in this play, we kinda stopped dead on the reading of it three Thursdays ago and only finished it tonight. Nevertheless, despite the long pause in the middle, I look forward more than ever to seeing this performed at the Longview Community Theater in a few weeks.
In this excellent play, Sheridan Whiteside, an internationally-known radio personality who runs in the highest of artistic circles slips on a patch of ice and breaks his leg while leaving the small-town home of the Stanleys where he has just eaten supper. As a result he is confined in their living room for several weeks as the holiday season kicks into full swing. "Sherry" is crusty, abrasive, and domineering, and he soon takes over the household entirely, winning over the servants (John and Sarah), constantly screaming at doctor (Bradley), nurse (Preen), and personal secretary (Maggie), encouraging the daughter and son of the house (June and Richard) to run away from home in pursuit of their own dreams and future plans, and receiving a steady stream of high-society visitors and odd, assorted gifts (from penguins to mummy cases) from celebrities around the globe.
After the doctor reveals the startling news that Sherry isn't actually injured after all he must maintain the ruse a bit longer as Maggie has fallen in love with a local reporter (Bert Jefferson) in the interim. Sherry is determined to put a stop to it for fear he will lose her. With this goal in mind, he calls in seductive stage actress Lorraine Sheldon with promises of a leading role in the play Bert has written . . . but Maggie isn't giving up so easily.
Sliding into despair after a number of attempts to subvert Lorraine's purpose have failed, Maggie resigns her secretarial position and prepares to leave. Sherry is finally forced to step in himself and rid the town of Lorraine with the aid of his ambiguously gay friend from Hollywood (Banjo, one of Gallagher's finer character performances) in the hilarious climax.
Really my only concern about the LCT production is that their portrayal of Banjo won't be nearly as side-splittingly flamboyant as our own Gallagher's was. We shall see . . . Kudos also to Scholl and Rachel in particular for good work that "made" more than one scene.
March 23, 2005
A Twisted, Tortured Industry
Today's assignment: If you are or have ever been in any way associated with the education of children, read this.
By the way, since, presumably, you were a child yourself once, and since, presumably, you are able to read this now, I think I can safely say that all of you should have followed the link and read the article.
I knew a lot of this already, but not all of it . . . and I really wasn't aware of the full extent of what the textbook industry has become. I mean, I knew that textbooks sucked as a general rule, and that "conscientious citizens" are more often than not the number one enemy of a well-rounded education of any value, but this is ridiculous! Be sure to note the reference to Longview in the article . . . I just stopped dead for almost a full minute when I read that. Somehow, though, I really wasn't surprised.
March 22, 2005
Move Over, Rigoberta
I'm not a Liberal. Really. But few people hack me off as much as Ann Coulter does. This week in Historiography we were examining opposing perspectives on post-Civil War Reconstruction, and as part of this exercise we were required to read an excerpt from The Tragic Era by Claude G. Bowers . . . a very special work indeed.
It was published in 1929, and basically it represents the dixie-centric view of Reconstruction which was dominant throughout the country until the 1960s. If you aren't sure which one I'm talking about, go read Gone With the Wind or watch the movie. Or you could watch Birth of a Nation. Either way, I'm talking about the myth of a maligned Southern aristocracy "literally being put to the torture" by unscrupulous carpetbaggers, traitorous scalawags, and ignorant freedmen in the years after the Civil War ended.
(Note: I don't contest that bad stuff went on during Reconstruction, I simply assert that Southerners understandably have a very skewed view of the period . . . but I don't really want to get into all that right now.)
At the end of class, Dr. Johnson asked for a show of hands from those in the class who claim a Southern heritage. He noted that we are not many generations removed from this perspective (I would say we aren't any generations removed, but I'll get to that in a moment) and for himself (as a Texan), he said he thanks God that he wasn't born earlier and didn't have to deal with being raised in that environment. I had to agree.
As near as I understand my family history, the ancestry runs something like this: My mother's side of the family arrived in New York (New Amsterdam at the time) from Norway sometime during the 1600s. On my dad's side, I have loads of ancestors from England who were in Virginia by the 1650s and following. Over the course of the next few centuries they migrated throughout the South: the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Both sides of my family have elements arriving in Texas as early as the brief window (1846-1861) between Texas statehood and Texas secession. They've been Southerners for centuries.
I'm very proud of my Southern heritage, and I'm proud of my looong American heritage, as well . . . both run pretty deep. However, I'm not carried away by either. I don't get all starry-eyed about America or the South. It's history, and therefore it's cool. That's all.
Anyway, (back on topic) I wasted a great deal of time wandering around the online reviews of The Tragic Era on amazon.com and then clicking around the infamous "Customers who bought this book also bought:" section. Three degrees of separation (through When in the Course of Human Events: Arguing the Case for Southern Secession and The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History) brought me directly to Coulter's latest bestselling sludgerag. Included with the book-related info were links to an interview amazon conducted with Ms. Coulter, and her answers to their "Life Quiz." They must be read to be believed.
Anyway, the online community at amazon.com (one of the largest booksellers in the country) allowed me to draw a very important ideological connection here: Yesterday's Southern white supremacists are today's militantly patriotic Conservatives. These are the people who used to take serious issue with interracial marriage and universal sufferage. Now they consider you a terrorist if you say the Pledge of Allegiance in Russian or malign their precious "Dubya." They used to think our schools and restaurants and public transportation ought to be segregated. Now they think gays are subhuman. They used to lynch blacks. Now they think we should torture A-rabs.
This wasn't exactly what I started out to say, but this is what it turned into: Don't be one of these people . . . don't even look like you might be one of these people. Please. If you do, future generations will hate you just as much as recent generations hate the KKK now.
March 20, 2005
Well, Excuse Me for Enjoying My Spring Break!
Land sakes alive . . . all this fuss and carrying on about my little Spring Break sabbatical . . .
I had a wonderful break, by the way. Nothing I did was something that I was required to do. The freedom was perfect and absolute. It was pure bliss, and I can now say that I spent one Spring Break doing exactly what I wanted to do. I am satisfied.
The run-down is pretty basic, and consequently dull. I watched over two dozen movies. Read some books. Bought Season One of Hogan's Heroes on DVD and watched the first eight episodes. Ate some incredibly delicious food cooked by the crew that stuck around (Rachel, Martinez, Uncle Doug). Oh . . . and I slept. Long, heavenly periods of complete unconsciousness, punctuated by brief, languid periods of half-consciousness while I rolled over and went back to the original phase.
I loved my Spring Break, and I hope the rest of you can say the same.
March 11, 2005
Hic Sunt Dracones
Yes, I know I went awhile without laying out a story again. I got distracted with various things, and then there was this one entry that I wanted to get done and it didn't get done, and between one thing and another . . . Well, here it is.
Anyway, during the Fall semester of my Sophomore year here at LeTourneau I took an Honors class which had a profound impact on my worldview by bringing a number of things into focus and giving direction to a number of latent interests. This class was Only Inklings taught by Drs. Woodring and Olson of the Bible and English departments respectively.
This story has only one thing to do with that class: It was an assignment. At one point we had to write a short faerie story or fantasy of some kind after learning about Tolkien's and Lewis's principles of mythopoeic subcreation and whatnot. I wrote the story that appears below the fold.
And that's really all you need to know, but for one thing that I'd like to mention. If the story (in particular the expository portion) seems a bit rushed or condensed . . . it is. I had an upper limit which I was not allowed to exceed, so that portion of the story in particular sounds more like the synopsis of a novel than anything else. That's just the way it goes. Enjoy.
Hic Sunt Dracones
With a loud snapping and cracking of the underbrush he finally broke through the tree line and gazed, a bit disgustedly, at the view spread out in front of him. The land was desolate as far as the eye could see, flat and charred. He kicked experimentally at the fine, gray ash and it rose in a thick cloud which dissipated immediately. He stepped back and sat on a fallen log which jutted out from the edge of the forest and gave a weary sigh. Next, he extracted an inkwell and a quill pen, the tools of his trade, from a leather pouch at his side, and selected a single, rolled-up parchment out of the several protruding from his rucksack.
The Cartographer unrolled his half-formed map across his knee and carefully added to it the latest information gleaned from his travels. He sprinkled a handful of sand across his work and then carefully poured the sand back into the small container it had come from and put it away. The map he rolled up again, gently returning it to his backpack before he put everything else away.
Rising to his feet again, he looked out across the waste ahead and wrinkled his nose with distaste. He was sorely tempted to leave this portion of the map blank and simply turn around and plunge back into the forest in search of another region to explore. As he debated this in his mind, he spotted an anomaly on the featureless plain somewhere off to the right and almost out of sight beyond the horizon. It was much too far away to make out any detail whatsoever, but his interest was piqued and his feet were already moving in that direction before he had consciously commanded them to do so. If there truly was anything of interest out here, it was his solemn duty to investigate it and record the results.
It was nearing twilight before he could get significantly closer, and he could tell by now that his destination was farther even than it had looked when he first started out. Now, with the sun about to set at his back, he knew it wouldn’t be long before he wouldn’t even be able to see which direction he was supposed to go. Cursing his earlier enthusiasm, he picked up his pace a notch or two. After nearly another hour of brisk walking, the objective seemed as far away as it had before, and he was beginning to despair. The prospect of a night spent here in the midst of this ash-covered expanse of open country did not appeal to him in the slightest, but he did not see how he could avoid it.
These were the thoughts that were running through his mind when a sudden bellowing roar erupted to his left. He whirled to face the source of the noise and his jaw went slack. Streaking towards him was a creature straight out of the myth-shrouded past. It was a great winged dragon, longer than a sailing ship and redder than a blacksmith’s furnace in full blaze. Smoke billowed from its huge nostrils and fire streamed forth from its open mouth, both of them cascading back behind it as immense leathery wings brought the monster shooting towards him with incredible speed. In the time it took for him to absorb these few details, the thing was practically on top of him. He was just beginning to realize that he was about to be incinerated, or devoured, or both, when something just as unexpected as the dragon’s sudden appearance happened instead.
A bolt of crackling blue electricity from the clear blue sky struck the dragon’s wings and a shockwave of energy came rumbling swiftly in from the creature’s left like an invisible fist, catching the huge behemoth across the side of the head and sending it spinning and tumbling wildly through the air for a brief second before it hit the ground with a reverberating thud that seemed to shake the earth. The dragon grunted in pain, stunned for the moment, but already attempting to struggle to its feet. A massive waterspout erupted directly onto the large, scaly body, and the dragon thrashed about wildly for a few seconds before collapsing into a heap with a last drawn-out groan.
The Cartographer could not immediately tear his eyes away from the smoldering body stretched out on the ground before him less than a hundred yards away. It was easily fifty feet long from snout to tail, and only now could he make out the wicked claws and teeth which until then had been eclipsed by the beast’s fire and smoke. Suddenly, a bit of movement at the corner of his eye broke the spell and caused him to wheel around, on the edge of panic once again, to face the new threat. Only it wasn’t a threat at all.
Four perfectly ordinary people dressed in simple clothes . . . he shook his head in disbelief and looked again. Four beings were approaching him, hovering several feet off the ground. They were each held aloft by four bright, clear, rapidly-fluttering wings, each with a span of about seven feet. They slowly dropped towards the ground, alighting a few feet away. Each landed on one foot, the other rapidly stepping forward into a brisk walk which slowed after a few short steps until they came to a stop just in front of him. Even as they came to a halt, their wings were folding in on themselves until suddenly they disappeared, leaving no sign that the four had ever had any.
There was a brief silence as they examined the Cartographer. It was a very diverse group. An elderly woman stood at the forefront of the group and seemed to be more-or-less in charge. Flanking her stood a man and a woman; the former looked to be in his fifties, the latter in her thirties. A young man, barely out of his teen years, if that, stood quietly behind the rest of them. The old woman’s hair was a brilliant white without a hint of color in it. Now that she was on the ground, she stooped just slightly and the Cartographer was surprised to notice she had a shawl around her shoulders and carried a cane to help her stand. Her green eyes were sharp and knowing, and they narrowed slightly as she gazed piercingly at him as if she were unsuccessfully trying to fathom the significance of his presence among them.
After a brief second she spoke to the others, keeping her eyes firmly fixed on his. “Get the creature back to the Vorpal Gate and find out where he got out.”
Apparently no further instructions were necessary for, with a curt nod from the other woman, the three spun about and moved towards the huge body. As they stepped away their wings were already unfolding and before they were ten feet away they had stepped up rather than forward and were aloft. This the Cartographer noticed on the edges of his vision as he found himself quite unable to tear his gaze away from the woman in front of him.
Then she too turned around and began to take off from the ground, gesturing slightly with her hands as she moved. A sudden, firm nudge at the back of the Cartographer’s knees shoved him into a sitting position on top of something solid and before he knew what had happened he was several feet off the ground himself, coasting along beside his escort. He couldn’t contain a yelp of surprise when he discovered that he wasn’t actually sitting on anything . . . at least, nothing he could see. If he closed his eyes, which he quickly proceeded to do as nausea tugged uncomfortably at his stomach, he could almost have imagined that he was sitting in a rather comfortable armchair if it hadn’t been for the breeze in his face and the unmistakable sensation of speed.
After a few seconds he managed to relocate his center of gravity and he ventured to open his eyes. He risked a quick glance back over his shoulder and gave a gasp of surprise. There was no sign of the other three people, and he could only just make out the enormous form of the dragon twisting and turning in the midst of a maelstrom of blowing sand. The entire churning mass was moving off, he couldn’t tell where, and picking up speed as it moved. The woman at his side gave no indication that she realized he was still there, and she certainly didn’t turn around to see what was happening behind them.
They had been picking up speed as well, and when he finally turned back around he spotted their destination just ahead. It was obviously the strange feature that he had been unable to identify when he first set out from the edge of the forest. Now, of course, he saw immediately that it was a small, simple village . . . an apparently insignificant grouping of thatched huts with a few larger buildings scattered here and there amidst the rest. Everything within the boundaries of the village clashed vividly with the surrounding waste. The walls of each hut were whitewashed neatly and each of them had doors and shutters painted in bright greens, blues, yellows and reds. Several of the huts boasted flower gardens, most had vegetable gardens, and all of them had a well-kept patch of grass somewhere at the very least.
There were trees here and there, none of them overly large, but all in full leaf and a few even in bloom. As they began to fly over the outermost edges of the town, he noticed that the ground sloped down at a slight angle and that the village was actually nestled into a hollow crater that appeared to be as low as thirty feet below the surrounding flatlands in some places. At one end of the village he could make out a natural spring of decent size bubbling merrily and a gaggle of various types of fowl, and at the other there was a small, lush meadow with a flock of sheep grazing peacefully.
As for actual human residents, the streets were not crowded with them, but neither were they deserted. A few isolated groups of children ran laughing here and there, and the sheep and poultry were obviously tended by a few older people. At this point the resemblance to a normal, quaint, self-sufficient village ceased to exist. No one older than adolescence was to be seen . . . on the ground, that is. There were quite a number of them flitting about over the village, going about what otherwise appeared to be fairly ordinary and everyday business.
The shadows were growing long indeed by this time, and it was obvious that everyone was on their way home. Women guided baskets full of produce through thin air, while men were flying in with their axes laid across their shoulders and small bundles of chopped wood bobbing merrily along behind with little or no visible means of support. The few who actually seemed to notice the Cartographer did little more than give him a strange look and fly on with a backward glance at the old woman. She gave no sign that she noticed them at all, but continued purposefully towards the opposite end of the village. At last they appeared to be descending. The Cartographer found that he was moving forward slightly, and landed just ahead of his companion.
“You’d best stand up,” she said briskly, but not unkindly, from behind him. “Your support won’t be there much longer.”
He was already climbing to his feet as she spoke and he felt a small puff of air ruffle his clothing. He gingerly took a short step backward and felt nothing there. Whatever he had been sitting on was gone.
“Hmmm . . . well, well,” this from the old woman. “What have we here?”
He felt her reach swiftly into his pack and extract one of the precious scrolls and he turned quickly to face her, intending to protest. The slightly amused expression on her face stopped him and he simply watched as she unrolled the parchment and glanced over it rapidly.
“I see,” she paused and looked up at him. “Been in the trade long?”
“M-my whole adult life,” he managed to stammer. The question had been unexpected, although he had no time to consider the full oddity of discussing his career choices with this person after the events which had just transpired. It was far too ordinary, and ordinary had ceased to happen well over two hours ago.
“Well known then, I suppose?”
“N-not really; No one pays attention to who drew the map, after all.”
“Very true, but do people buy them?”
“Oh, yes! The publisher is always very anxious to receive them whenever I come back from one of my expeditions. I fancy that I draw them well enough, but I expect it’s the embellishment he likes best.”
Her lips quirked slightly as she looked down at the map again, “Yes, I can see how he might. The drawings are quite good. Have you actually encountered everything you have pictured here?”
“Oh, heaven’s no! Why, look at some of those creatures! One might just as well claim that one had run into a dra” He cut off rather abruptly as he remembered the obvious.
At this she laughed and rolled up the parchment, stepping past him as she handed it back. “I wonder now . . . People have a tendency to believe that which is placed before them.” She trailed off, “Well, let’s not stand on the doorstep all day. Come inside; I’ll feed you a hot meal and we can talk this over.”
The Cartographer followed her inside and found her to be quite true to her word. The food was excellent, especially as he hadn’t tasted a properly prepared meal in quite some time. The talk, which didn’t truly begin until the meal had been finished and the table cleared, lasted for rather a long time indeed.
For hours the Cartographer sat, mesmerized, as the old woman told him a story which had begun decades earlier, when she herself had been very young. The first parts were entirely second-hand, a sweeping epic of two opposing forces (she called them Light and Darkness, at first) doing battle in a place utterly outside of our own. Darkness was being beaten rather badly, and had actually been routed utterly by the Light, until the merest chance discovery turned the tide.
Darkness found a portal into this world, a portal which was located just a few short miles from the village, and this became the rallying point. It was discovered that Darkness took on a form even more powerful in our world than in it had in its own. It became something very much like what we would recognize as dragons of immense strength and ferocity. Darkness also determined that it could draw energy from our world, carry it back through the portal into theirs and use it against Light.
Suddenly, Light was fighting for its very survival again. Meanwhile, the effect of Darkness drawing energy from our world was manifested by the ever-growing blight of ashy waste around the Vorpal Gate (as it came to be known). It wasn’t long before the villagers noticed this during their frequent trips into the forest around their homes. It soon seemed that the village would be swallowed whole by the destruction, and the villagers made ready to leave if it should become necessary. The dragons had not yet discovered the presence of any other beings within the world they were invading, but it was only a matter of time.
For a time it looked as if Darkness would win on both sides of the Vorpal Gate. And finally, Light found the gate. Light also took on a different form in this world, but their power was neither enhanced nor diminished. A poorly captured likeness of one of these beings with no attention to scale would have revealed something very like the beings we call fairies, or pixies. The reality, of course, was as different as an acorn to an oak tree.
They were tall, taller than almost any human, and well-built. Where our fairies are mischievous and a bit silly, the faeries were noble and more than passing fair to look upon. Their wings, quite different from the insectile things we patch onto our own fairies, were unlike anything that has ever been seen. As wispy and ethereal as gossamer, they were at the same time more durable than steel. Each facet of each wing caught and refracted light at a thousand different angles, sending brilliant beams of color in all directions, especially when they were in flight.
The lone scout that came forth discovered the nearby humans almost immediately, and this brought yet another factor into the Light’s councils of war. It too had the ability to drain energy from this world and use it in battle against Darkness, however to do so would annul the entire original purpose of the war. Knowing, as it did, that our world was inhabited, Light could not allow the wholesale devastation to continue.
A solution was reached, and it was at this point that the old woman and her fellow villagers truly entered the story. The faeries needed to bring the destruction of our world to a halt, or at least slow it down, in order to save us and to stop the flow of energy back into their universe so they could rally successfully against Darkness once and for all. Unfortunately, this very flow of energy prevented them from freeing up any of their own considerable resources to this side of the gate, all of their energies being required to hold Darkness at bay on their own side.
One faerie (which was still one more than they could safely spare) traveled back into our world and appeared to the villagers. He explained everything and offered the answer which Light had finally put forward. The faerie would grant a portion of their powers to the humans, and in return the humans would take on the task of keeping the dragons on the proper side of the Vorpal Gate. He made a very convincing case, the villagers agreed, and the faerie spent as much time as he could teaching them the use of their newfound powers.
The first thing he instructed them in was the formation of boundaries. The Vorpal Gate was immediately sealed off, and soon after the immediate area around the village was surrounded by a protective barrier. The blockade around the gate was sturdy and well-built, but it couldn’t be perfect. The dragons assaulted it constantly, testing for weaknesses, and whenever they found one they broke forth and had to be driven back through the Gate and the opening sealed off and reinforced.
The waste continued to grow, but slowly. Updates on the state of the war were infrequent at best, but Light was slowly regaining the upper hand as the humans continued to shore up the boundary on the gate and dragons had a harder time breaking through. When they did, there were always patrols roaming about the area, just waiting to pick a fight. Dragons couldn’t be killed on this side of the portal, but enough force could stun them and bring them to the ground long enough for their fires to be temporarily quenched so they could be transported back to their own world. The duty of the villagers demanded constant vigilance, but there was a steady flow of reinforcements as the children grew up and gained the powers which came with adulthood. The young man the Cartographer had seen in action that day had been on his first patrol.
“So you see,” the old woman finally concluded, “this is our purpose for going on as we do. It is our duty and privilege to protect and serve humanity and our own future generations until such time as it is no longer necessary. This can best be accomplished if the rest of the world stays ignorant. And until now, it has been. You were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . at least, that is what I thought at first.” She smiled knowingly, “Perhaps your stock in trade can be of more use than your silence.”
The Cartographer’s face brightened. “You are more than welcome to any aid which I have to offer.”
“Do you understand what I am asking of you? Are you willing to do what you can?”
In answer, the Cartographer drew forth a scroll and unrolled it on the table, unpacking his equipment and setting to work on the spot. An hour later, it was finished, and the old woman inspected it with a grateful smile.
“I suspect that you have been of greater use than you know. Come now, a good night’s rest will do you no harm, and in the morning we shall return you to the edge of the forest where you appeared.”
They both stood and she showed him the spare room and bade him good night. The map still lay unrolled on the table showing the forest and the lands the Cartographer had traveled from to reach it. Beyond the borders of the forest lay the blank portion yet to be completed . . . Blank except for a drawing and three words. What the drawing consisted of I shall leave entirely up to your imagination. Under the drawing, written in a fine, flowing hand, were the words “Here Be Dragons.”
March 07, 2005
I Have a Strong Aversion to Mondays
But I fully realize that nothing can be done to fix the problem. Any attempt to do away with Mondays would be akin to removing the 13th floor of a high-rise building. Sure, you can tell them they're on the 14th floor, but everybody knows . . .
Anyway, the last week or so has been pretty much a blur . . . Outside of the movies I've watched and classes I've attended, I really don't remember much . . . and I am now trying to slide gracefully down into Spring Break (which, for me, begins at 12:15 PM on Friday). I'm not too picky about the graceful part, and I'll probably wind up flopping clumsily into my well-earned, greatly-needed, much-desired vacation. I'll be spending my ten days on-campus this year, for various reasons. I plan to do nothing (for the most part) but eat, sleep, watch movies, and catch up on my reading. Rachel, Uncle Doug, and Martinez will all be here as well, and I look forward to a grand time with the three of them.
But I'm not there yet. I still have a short essay about differing perspectives on the French Revolution . . . Psych, American Lit, and Texas midterms . . . an extra credit essay on the Spanish expeditions into Texas . . . and 10 pages of Psych journals (well, technically about 8 now, I think). I've had worse workloads, but as I say, the 10 days of bliss are not upon me yet.
Here goes nothin' . . .
March 02, 2005
The story for the week appears a little late this time . . . hard on the heels of the current week's story, in fact. I had a few other posts in the works that I wanted to complete first and I had a bit of trouble getting them cranked out, and . . . Well, here we are.
Anyway, speaking of cranking things out, that's pretty much what I did with this story. During my first year here at LeTourneau, I roomed with a great guy named Bryan Durkin (his blog is linked at right: "El Marinero"). Bryan will be shipping off to join the Navy within about a week, but at the moment that's kinda beside the point. Bryan and I got along very well together because we both enjoyed reading (lots of the same books, too), we both loved computer games, similair types of music and movies, and writing. Bryan is an amazing writer and always puts me to shame (in fact, he's already been published in an anthology of short fantasy stories).
During our first semester, we were extremely bored one Saturday afternoon and decided that we would each sit at our computers and write a short story, then trade, edit, and comment on each other's work. Bryan wrote something that would have served as an excerpt of a larger work involving a chase scene on futuristic motorcycles. I wrote the story that appears below the fold. We had a pretty good time, and I often wish that we had written together more often, but it wasn't long before we found other ways to spend Saturday afternoons . . . *insert ominous chord here* . . .
Be that as it may, here is the story that I spat out over the course of a couple of hours. It's probably a bit rough, and almost certainly predictable, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope everyone enjoys reading it.
The wind whipped through the area wildly with nothing to impede its progress. Frustrated at finding nothing larger than a mesquite tree or livelier than a horny toad, it viciously began to throw dust devils high in the air. Metal glistened on the horizon and the wind died down once again as if waiting to see what was coming . . .
The black ribbon of highway stretched to the horizon. It seemed to shimmer and weave as light refracted off of the waves of rising heat. That was the only visible sign of the temperature for me, sitting in an air-conditioned car, (the AC was thankfully working for once) and doing at least 85. I hadn’t seen a sign of civilization for nearly an hour, barring telephone poles, connected by tendrils of spidery wire and stretching forever in both directions. The road ahead was as empty as the road behind.
My eyes fell reflexively on the road map at my side, but I tore my gaze away and watched the road. I wasn’t lost. Roads in Texas are supposed to be empty. I pressed the gas pedal in a little bit harder and held it there; time was of the essence. No cruise control, which was kind of a pain, but the foremost thought in my mind was my destination. A quick glance at the dashboard clock told me that it was almost 10:30 in the morning. It’s midmorning, February, and it’s already an oven outside. I shook my head wonderingly, glad that I lived in the Rockies instead of the arid Southwest.
My eyelids started to droop and I reached for the radio: nothing but country music and a whole lot of static. With nothing else to keep myself awake with, I re-reviewed the facts. I applied the word “facts” very loosely, of course. It had all started with this dream, this vivid dream. I’m not much of a dreamer, but night after night it came back to haunt what should have been a peaceful sleep. There was a certain sense of urgency to the dream, but that was hardly what made it stand out. Many dreams are like that. In fact, I couldn’t really understand exactly what caused it to fill my conscious thoughts as surely as it filled the subconscious. Perhaps there was the nagging feeling of truth to it. Every aspect, every detail, every nuance and thought and action was strikingly lifelike; certainly striking enough to spook me.
In my dream, I was running somewhat frantically down a street I had never seen before. This street was in a town I didn’t recognize, in what I felt like was an area I had never visited. I was holding a piece of paper in my hand and as I held it up to look at it I spotted the date and time on my watch: February 29th, 5:00 P.M. I suddenly became aware that the sun was, in fact, setting, and the light was beginning to fail. The piece of paper had a lot of writing on it, but only the words at the top stood out. They formed a name: Norman Viscle. Didn’t spot a surname like that every day. The rest of the words, I believe, were blurred out, but somehow I got the sense of directions or perhaps a number of addresses. As I ran like this, I began to feel two things: first, that I was approaching my destination. Second that I no longer had time to get there before . . . I didn’t know; something bad.
Sure enough, as I sailed around the corner I spotted a man who had apparently just stepped out of one of the doors to the shops and buildings along the street. He stood nearly the length of the entire block away from me, not far from the corner at the next intersection, but suddenly I knew that he was important. He was the key to whatever motivation had brought me here. Even as I watched, he stepped off of the curb, his attention fixed, either on me, or something directly behind me. It didn’t matter what, because whatever it was, it took his concentration off the street he was crossing. He didn’t even see the car that flew around the corner behind him and plowed into him.
Dreams are soundless, but I could easily imagine the tremendous screeching of brakes and squealing of tires that followed. Time slowed down to a tenth of its normal speed. Burnt rubber left angry black streaks in the car’s wake. I could almost hear bones shatter as the car hit the man and his body folded around the shape of the bumper and hood. And then the body was in the air, twisting in unnatural ways, turning over and over and over. It hit the ground loosely some ten feet away, like an odd-shaped, lifeless sack and didn’t move anymore. The car had already stopped and the door opened by the time the body landed. And, predictably (particularly after I had lived through this some dozen times), I woke up.
Dreams are often quite mysterious, usually exceptionally weird, and always nearly incomprehensible in some way or another. Many was the time that I had woken up, often unsure whether to simply chuckle or have myself examined, shaking my head at my latest forays into dream land. This one was no exception. I consider myself to be a levelheaded individual, and I wouldn’t ever let dreams bother me, or so I thought.
This one, however, did.
For two straight weeks I dreamed it. The first time was February 12th, and after nearly a week I realized that this was, in fact, Leap Year. My subconscious might easily have known that and inserted it into the dream, but at the same time, that became just one more unusual fact tugging at the back of my mind. After seeing that rare date approach closer and closer with every night that I dreamed my dream, I . . . wasn’t sure what to think. I became obsessive and preoccupied. I started to lose sleep and become stressed. Slowly, as that fateful day and hour approached, I became more and more convinced that a man would die unless I acted. I don’t believe in fate. I never have. But this . . .
And so I found myself driving down a lonely road somewhere in central Texas at almost 11:00 on Leap-day. The name on the paper had been unusual enough to investigate. There turned out to be only two Norman Viscles listed as living in the United States. Even finding that many surprised me. One lived in Vermont. I knew that, wherever the dream took place, it certainly wasn’t Vermont. Not in February. The other Norman Viscle lived in a small town in Texas. That had to be it. It had to be. If my dream was going to become a reality in just a few days, this would be the place where it happened.
I briefly considered a simple phone call. That idea didn’t last long. “Hello, Mr. Viscle,” I imagined myself saying. “You don’t know me. I’m calling you from Colorado to warn you that you’re going to be run over at 5:00 in the afternoon on Leap-day.” If he managed to trace the call, he’d have me committed or imprisoned. No, if I was serious about this, I would have to go myself. I “arranged” to be called in sick to work for the 29th and went to bed early. I was on the road by 3:00 the next morning. And that was how, eleven hours and two states later, I found myself driving into Abilene with three hours left to find Viscle and save his life.
I pulled out the piece of paper that had his name, phone number, and address written on it. Fortunately, Abilene isn’t huge. I explored most of it before I finally found his house an hour later. I drove down the shady, tree-lined street, wondering what I would say to him face to face. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to say anything. Maybe I would find him at home and make up some excuse for ringing his doorbell. Then I could return to my car and merely keep an eye on him for a few hours. I hoped it would be that simple.
I parked next to the curb right in front of the house. It was a small, yellow, wooden affair, which I suppose was taken care of fairly well . . . considering that its owner was single (an incidental piece of information that turned up in my search for him). There was no car in the driveway, but the door was closed. Not a good sign, not a bad sign. I tried to walk casually up the sidewalk and mostly succeeded. My mind whirred, thinking of something to say as I took the three steps to the porch in a quick double hop and took hold of the handle on the screen door.
I paused there for a second and let my brain take a step back and regard me critically. Was this man standing in Abilene, Texas, with his hand on the handle of a stranger’s screen door, really me? I nearly turned and walked away right there, but I hadn’t come this far to drive back without at least knowing. I pulled the door open. The squeaking and groaning of spring and hinges sounded like a shotgun blast in the heavy silence of the sultry afternoon. This was definitely prime siesta weather. I knocked, and waited. There was movement inside. Slow, shuffling steps approached the door. The knob turned, and the door grudgingly came open with a wrench, loosing little showers of dust all over the porch.
Whatever I may have been expecting of Norman Viscle, I hadn’t expected this. Long, wavy red hair that looked like a cheap dye job, fat bulging out around an apron, mop in one hand, feather duster in the other . . . he was a she? All of this was the first thought that leapt into my head, then reality took over, and so did Viscle’s cleaning lady.
“Norman ain’t here right now.” At least, I think that’s what she said. She spoke around a large wad of chewing gum and through a heavy accent, and most of the speech didn’t really make it out of her mouth. This particular scenario hadn’t occurred to me, for some reason. The thought that he might not be home hadn’t entered my calculations, but I realized that I was lucky that someone was home, at least.
“When will he be back?” I asked, crossing my fingers.
“Five-thirty, maybe six.”
Too late. “Where can I find him?”
“He’ll be getting off of work before long, I reckon.”
“Where does he work?”
“Listen, mister, I don’t believe I know your name. And I sure don’t know whether Norman knows ya. How’s about some I.D. or something?” She obviously enjoyed making the request. Suddenly a boring afternoon had become interesting. I didn’t really have time for her to give me the run-around, so I pulled out my driver’s license.
“Bailey . . . Fitzgerald,” she read haltingly, leaning into the card and squinting. Her eyes flicked suspiciously from the picture up to my face. “That you?”
I nearly rolled my eyes. This was ridiculous. Having Viscle’s cleaning lady play cops and robbers with me was getting old fast. I held my peace and nodded.
“D’you see the picture?”
“Yeah, I saw it. Don’t mean nothin’ though. You can have one o’them printed up fer ya if’n ya know where to go. I knew a feller once that”
“Look, I have important business with Mr. Viscle, and I really need to find him as soon as possible. Could you tell me where he works so I can go?”
Abruptly she seemed to grow tired of the whole thing. “He’ll be down to the Liberty High School, maybe grading papers or getting ready tomorrow’s lesson.”
“Great. Thanks.” I turned on my heel and headed back to my car. About halfway to the street I turned to thank her once more, but she had already retreated to her cleaning and, I had no doubt, soap operas.
The high school wasn’t far - nothing in Abilene is - and I had already seen it on my brief tour of the city. I didn’t have to look far for “him” either. There was his sign, right as I walked in the door: Norman Viscle, Vice-Principal. Fifteen minutes and one more encounter with a gum-chewing female later I emerged, having missed the man by about five minutes.
By now I was growing frustrated and desperate. The secretary knew that he was going to run errands, and no, she didn’t know where and wouldn’t have told me if she had. All of this was communicated in a slow, measured, and surly tone accompanied by a frigid glare. I had wasted precious time to no avail and the woman thought I was a loony and probably some kind of criminal to boot.
At this point I really did not know what I was going to do. It was 3:45 and Viscle was wandering loose and unprotected through town, small comfort to me that my fears were not unfounded after all. I clumped angrily over to the cluster of reserved parking spots to the side and stared at the empty space that had contained Vice-Principal Viscle’s car scant minutes before. I didn’t know what to do and suddenly I just didn’t care. I was a fool and at that moment I was all too painfully aware of it.
I turned to go, aiming a kick at the ground, and suddenly froze. A crumpled piece of paper skittered between my legs, pushed along by a light breeze and I dove for it. It was a list of errands. It didn’t have a name on it, but I knew . . .
I should have already foreseen the events of the next hour as I roared from place to place on the list, missing my quarry every single time. I couldn’t confirm it, but I was certain that I was missing him by a matter of seconds now. He had had a twenty-plus minute head start, but I had to be gaining. Anything else would be inconceivable.
In retrospect I am fully aware that I should have gone directly to the last place on the list and waited. Any thinking person would have done exactly that, but in my state of mind I couldn’t be classified as anything of the sort. I was just so certain at each stop that this one would be the place I found him. At ten to five I walked out of the next to last stop on his list empty-handed. I noticed that I was standing in shade that hadn’t been there when I entered the store . . . The sun was on its way down and I was well on my way to being too late for what, after all of my dreams, felt like the 15th and final time.
I sprinted for my car, started it, and roared out of the parking lot at a very unsafe speed. I could make it; I knew I could make it. And that was when it happened.
The car died. It just . . . died. The needle on the gas gauge was sitting several millimeters below empty. My first instinct was to slump over the steering wheel and start cursing, but I’m not a quitter. The street signs told me that my destination was a mere three blocks away.
I leaped out of the car and I was halfway down the block and picking up speed when a totally overwhelming sense of déjà vu hit me like a flying piano and froze me dead in the middle of the street. This was my dream. I don’t mean that I was dreaming (if only!), I mean that this, this was exactly what I had dreamed. I was running down an empty street. The sun was setting. My watch told me the date and that I had three minutes left. I had a piece of paper in my hand. Everything was falling into place and there was just nothing I could do about any of it.
The sound of the motor brought me back to reality. I only had time for one quick, informative glance to my right before instinct took over. I dashed up to the idling car, dove inside, and peeled out. I had one clear picture of a shocked man framed in the open door of the building, where he had gone in “just for a second.” Nothing was going to stop me now. Norman Viscle would be saved. The clock told me that I had a whole minute to spare! I was going to make it! I was actually going to make it!
Hope flooded through me like a warm mug of hot chocolate downed all at once, and brought with it a sense of relief and euphoria. Nothing would or could stop me. My watch beeped. The clock struck five. I pushed the pedal down farther. I took that last corner in a way that clearly said a life depended on my speed and driving ability.
And Norman Viscle exited the office supply store, stepped off of the sidewalk, and walked right in front of me . . .