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Life is a blend of good and bad, like a sweet-and-sour sauce. Usually the net effect is more to one pole or the other, and strive for the good side--sweet-and-sour sauces are very good tasting. But in cooking and in wines, the product is usually a result of blends that be quite complex, and much of the reward in consuming it is appreciating the blends of flavors and textures.

Sometimes the blends are extreme. It is said that some very exotic oriental dishes include ingredients that, taken alone, are poisonous. The rising sun was beautiful this morning, shining through the bright haze of the geoengineers' spraying. In both cases, while I may be able to detect the constituents of the whole, I'd rather there not be the poison to detect.

There are blends in my work, as there are in yours. The novel I'm working on is shaping up, but it's hard work done at the end of my "regular" job's day, when I'm not fresh. I have an "activist" story in mind (whether novel or novella; see my previous journal entry) that I much desire to do but find it hard to get to (and it will be a balance of inspiration and warning).

But the best blends are of desirable, positive ingredients, especially where there is the subtle ambiance of something special that instills a joyful inspiration to the whole--like the hint of French oak in Ca De Calle. In my work, that special hint comes from a love of storytelling and a desire for travel.

So what's the subtle flavor that lends joy to the whole in your life? What always provides a positive infusion to  your circumstances, even when they are bad? I urge you to find it. Develop the sensitivity of your palate to the point you can always detect that gentle, positive spice that flavors your life, and savor it.

Of course, sometimes we work to savor a good thing and it turns sour. That's life and we just have to carry on and do better next time. Dillon discovered that in regards to storing wine.


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Dillon's Pick – Spoiled Wine


In the time since my last post, I have learned the importance of keeping your wines in a dark, cool place the hard way. I had a nice lineup of wines to taste for my education, but I kept them on my desk which is close to a window. Well, the sun streaming through the glass panes turned my wines sour. A soured wine is a terrible thing to taste. They all finished so sour that I just had to pour them out.

So don't make my mistake; you've been warned. I will be getting a wine cooler as soon as I can afford it.

Temperature is an important factor when keeping wine. For the more full-bodied reds, it is best to serve them at 60-65 degrees. For the lighter reds, like a Burgundy red, you'll want to keep them at 57-60 degrees. White wines should be kept cooler. The optimal storage for white wines will be around 50-55 degrees.

I hope this helps you avoid accidents like mine.

 
 
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I've been reading Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls. I haven't done a review of it yet; I haven't finished it yet, but I'm enjoying the read and I see why it's a classic. There's much fodder for thought in it that I'll treat in future journal entries, and maybe Dillon can pair it with a good Spanish wine.

The book is set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and one theme in it is the role of courage among the partisans fighting the fascists (corporate powers who were the "rebels" in this war). In chapter 34 a partisan fighter, Andres, is musing over his own courage. He has taken on an assignment as messenger that he could use to avoid the upcoming battle. It reminds him of the times in his youth when he would be glad of seeing it rain so that his village's bull-baiting event would be canceled and he wouldn't have to participate in that dangerous "sport." In deciding whether to tarry in delivering his message, he considers how fate has placed him in this situation, where he must be brave and risk death, when he would rather be living a peaceful, normal life.

I've had similar thoughts and the conflict has kept me from getting too political or activist in this journal. After all, my desire is to write fiction--stories that excite emotions and imagination, and that inspire thoughtfulness. I've tried to do that in what I've put out and, so far, it's been well received. But taking a stand for anything, can be polarizing and risky.

In the last few weeks I've had some positive feedbacks that have been encouraging. The "Wine & Lit" journal entries I've done with my son, Dillon, have been well received and opened my "network" to new readers. I also expanded my network to people who liked Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty movie and who also liked my journal entry about it. All this has brought more visits to my website and more downloads of my stories. It has even led to all my stories on Barnes and Noble being rated and reviewed quite positively. I'm very grateful for all this and it encourages me to carry on with my other projects, especially the first Dentville novel.

These projects include a short story I have in mind, and a novella (possibly novel) that I really want to do. I want to revamp my website and do a newsletter of some sort. I want to continue the Wine & Lit journal entries and evolve them into something. But all this is not being done in a place of sunshine with unlimited potential. I work in a shadow, as we all do, that grows darker by the hour.

That darkness comes from the same evil that the partisans of the Spanish Civil War fought. In that time, the enemy was simply "the fascists," and we think of them as Franco and Hitler and Mussolini. But those were just agents of a larger evil that seeks to own the earth and every thing in it--from people to the smallest microbe and even the weather. To the larger evil, the cosmos is just a collection of commodities to be consumed to the final dregs. In the mid twentieth century, there were boundaries on this evil. You could get away from it and define life as your space and its space. If you wanted to fight the fascists, you had to go to Spain. Today, there are no such boundaries.

The struggle of the good against this great evil has come to our time as a final great battle called, Collapse. I mean by this the collapse of industrial civilization because it operates on principles that are self-destructive and unsustainable.  These principles include the idea of "infinite growth," hierarchy ("I'm the boss and therefore am better than you!"), privilege, materialism, militarism, and sheer greed. Evidence of the working out of these principles is seen in the endless push for more and greater wars, and in exploiting the natural world for profit to the point that our oceans are nearly lifeless and our planet's atmosphere is poisoned and shredded.

I see evidence of the latter every day. Aircraft are constantly plying the sky and leaving horizon-to-horizon trails of chemical death for the sake of weather control. There are no longer clear skies, only varying degrees of haze. Clouds are flattened, ragged, and nucleated with particulates to drop rain and snow when and where directed. This is geoengineering and it is NOT something "being considered" to fight global warming. It has been going on for years for the sake of using weather as a weapon, and it has been ramped up to a fury over the last year. The working of geoengineering is obvious (just observe the skies) and the evidence for what they are doing is solid.

So I cannot carry on without acknowledging this fight that is going on all around us. I cannot just live in the delusion that provides comfort to so many around me. If you understand what I'm saying and want to take the risk of stepping out-of-doors into reality, then I suggest you read the primer at this link. But I must warn you: this material is very, very hard to take, but I believe it to be true.

This fight tests our courage. It certainly tests mine and I would rather ignore it. I think Mr. Hemingway understood that. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, he says through his character, Andres:

I think that we are born into a time of great difficulty, he thought. I think any other time was probably easier...But it is a time of difficult decisions. The fascists attacked and made our decision for us. We fight to live.

I intend to carry on, to the best of my ability, with the literary work I've started here. It is my passion and I can't not do it. But in my work, I want also to raise the awareness of those who take interest in it, and fight the fight that is brought to us. Stopping geoengineering is the battle we must win, as partisans for the earth and humanity, or else no one will win anything, ever again.


 
 
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Finding something good when you weren't looking for it--that's the theme of this week's journal and wine pick. Dillon found a really good wine in the vintage he selected and he really wasn't expecting that. He also found an association in it with familial sharing (we were all tasting it late one night) that he liked. All this struck me as being sympathetic with Ann Patchett's novel, Run.

I bought Run after having enjoyed Patchett's novel, Bel Canto. I actually bought it for my wife after reading a good review of it. Still, it was an unknown quantity for me and it was some time before I got around to reading it myself. Though the book has its flaws that I point out in my review, it has strong points and images that are enjoyable and linger.

The overall ambiance of Run is "family." It shows a family, the Doyles, that is "made" rather than "born." Though disparate in a number of ways, the Doyles share a foundational love that keeps them together when circumstances and desires would pull them apart. Seeing that love prevail and promote the character's reconciliations and mutual supports as they weather their trials is the biggest joy of the novel. I could easily see them sitting before a fireplace during a New England snowstorm, talking about their days and ambitions, and enjoying glasses of Ca De Calle.

Run was a good read that I wasn't expecting, like an inexpensive wine that delivers levels of taste you didn't know were there.



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Dillon's Pick – Ca de Calle

I hadn't planned to write about this wine when I bought it, but I knew I had to when I tasted it. It is an Argentinian red blend called Ca de Calle. It was aged for 12 months in French oak. If you can't smell the oak very well at first, then smell the glass after you've finished it. I find that the oak smell is strongest in the drained glass.

The bouquet is kinda small, but it prompts pleasant memories, like good times when I'm with friends wine-tasting and eating. This would be a good wine with cheeses. The spices are kinda strong, but I find they give the wine its character. It is not very fruit forward (fruity), but I can taste a small amount of the grape varietals in it--mostly malbec with cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot. This is a great wine for sipping and nibbling, and sharing with friends.


 
 
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For the first of our Wine & Lit series of journal entries, Dillon has picked a Spanish wine, Cara Bassa 2012. In thinking about a complementary literary work for it, I did a little Internet research. I found that Cara Bassa is the name of a site in Sardina (island region of Italy) where there are a number of neolithic era "standing stones." These stones were carved into megalithic monuments by ancient peoples and often inscribed with mysterious symbols. The larger, more complex sites (i.e., Stonehenge) are associated with the Celts.

But that's an Italian connection. The only Spanish connection I could find was on a website that offers horseback riding trips in Spain (interesting idea). The site implies that there is a trail through the Pyrenees mountains called the Cara Bassa.

So themes of New Age and journeys led me to a book that has spoken to me over the years. It's The Camino by Shirley MacLaine, about her 500 mile trek over the ancient pilgrimage trail called the Santiago de Compostela Camino that stretches across northern Spain. It was a journey of spiritual discovery for her, as it has been for seekers over the centuries.

The Camino has a very New Age flavor to it, which is not a taste for everyone, but its ambiance of mystery, travel and exploration and even facing fears make it very palatable to the open-minded reader. It's one of my favorite books and it always prompts my old urge to travel and explore, and at the end of the day, to kick back with a glass of Cara Bassa and recount the day's journey with friends.

You can find my review of The Camino here.

And here's Dillon's Pick for the wine we can enjoy as we contemplate the mystery of the Santiago de Compostela Camino.


Dillon's Pick – Cara Bassa 2012

Hello fellow wine lovers, I am Dillon. I have recently begun my exploration of the world's wines, and will be sharing with you my experiences. So far, I find I prefer wines that are boldly fruity, with a slightly dry finish, but I'm sure my tastes will evolve as I go.

My first pick for Wine & Lit is a Spanish wine that was recommended by my boss (I work at a Wine and Spirits store). It was an amazing wine for the price. I believe it is about 8 dollars, but it tastes more expensive. It has a deep red color and an amazing bouquet. I detect blackberry and maybe some dark cherry in it. It was not aged in oak, though, and I usually prefer oak-aged, but this wine does well without it. The first taste is quite impressive. It's not sweet, and it starts with a slightly acidic mouth-feel with little fruit-forward. It finishes with some tannins so this isn't for someone who get headaches or prefers sweeter wines.

I'm impressed with Spanish wine, and Cara Bassa is a good one to start us on our long journey of wine discovery.


 
 
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There is a decided therapeutic value in savoring the good things of this life--love of family, fellowship of friends, a job well done, a meal well cooked, books, movies, plays, concerts, travel, coffee, and wine. This is just my partial list of things that make being here worthwhile. You have your own list, of course, and it's good to review it from time-to-time. Today, I want to concentrate on two items that I expect will appear on the personal lists of most followers of this journal: books and wine.

Books are great because they are an efficient way to use language and writing to convey information and inspiration widely. This conveyance is facilitated these days by electronic means--computers and the Internet--but it's still reading, and it's how Hemingway, and Dante, Arrian, and other voices, spread across time, speak to us. Their words are contained in books and we find those that speak best to us. We seek them out, and that makes us book-lovers.

I've written a lot of book reviews about books I've read that have especially touched me, both fiction and nonfiction. I've posted most of them on the Goodreads website (you can find them here; I've just opened an account on the Book Likes website and imported my reviews to it; look here). Writing a review is, for me, a way to savor what I've gotten from a book, especially fiction. It's how I appreciate its aroma, its texture and the nuances of its flavor. You know, it's a lot like appreciating wine.

I've long had a fondness for wine with an experiential appreciation for the differences among vintages, but nothing really deep. My sons, however, are much further along in attaining a connoisseur's appreciation. Having returned from the university, they are applying the knowledge gleaned from their biology studies to pursuing an education in the production, marketing, and appreciation of wine. Dillon has a job that is facilitating this education, and Thomas is helping him.

There are a lot of aspects to appreciating a wine. Subtle variations in aroma, texture, weight, mixture with other fruits, aging and storage, create a complexity of taste that is a challenge and joy to discover. It's like studying the themes and techniques of literature to the point that you can appreciate the works of Shakespeare, Laotze, Homer, and Cervantes. You hear the voices of these authors in a richness that you don't get from a surface reading, and they touch your soul at a deeper level. Similarly, an educational effort can take you from just tasting a wine, to experiencing it.

Considering the similarities between these two of our favorite things, I think it appropriate to give a greater voice to the wine side and pair it with the literary. From time-to-time, I'll do a journal entry inspired from a book (especially if I've written a review) and let Dillon add an accompanying entry on a wine that has a connection (Dillon's Picks). They synergy should be interesting and perhaps, enlightening.

Appreciating a really good wine is appreciating a moment. When enjoyed among friends or at an occasion, it can enhance the experience, enriching the memory of it. It should never be taken to excess; that's like reading to exhaustion. You want to read and reflect, sip and savor.

So as we continue our journey, seeking the inspiration and knowledge we need for navigation, let's indulge a bit in spirits for our spirit. It'll be fun.


 
 
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Writing a book is just a neat thing to do. It's hard work, especially for a novel-length story, but having a completed piece that speaks your intent gives you the artisan's reward. Like a painter depicting emotion through a landscape, or a woodworker making a fine roll-topped desk, or just the desired accomplishment in doing whatever it is you have taken upon yourself to do, it is satisfaction in the act of creation. Your child is born and you send her out into the world to speak.

That's writing a book. And as with all art, I see it in two main components: what you're expressing (the art), and how you go about expressing it (the tools). The first is art and the second is craft. You learn to use the tools of the craft in order to release the art.

There are reasons I try to write, and I'll do a journal entry about that in the future. Today I want to talk about the tools, though in truth, the topics do overlap.

Yesterday, I attended a one-day class on self-publishing that is a part of the Milsaps College Community Enrichment program. It was actually more of a 3-hour workshop in using CreateSpace to self-publish your book. In my quest to produce a novel, publish and distribute it, I've studied the publishing process from the traditional to the electronic (reading on computers, Kindles, iPads, etc). I've had some success in both for short stories and novellas and, all the while, I've been working on making my post-apocalypse novel, Dentville, a reality with one eye on how I would publish it.

Ten or so years ago, I would have gone the traditional publishing route without question, and that was indeed my thoughts then. But things have changed. Corporate publishing is in as much flux as everything else and the big houses work under the same "infinite growth" paradigm as the rest of the capitalist world. In publishing, that works out as "you gotta be Stephen King" to get their support, or even their attention. And then, you're still pretty much left to promote yourself.

So, as in so many other areas, the Internet and digital technology provide an alternative. Print On Demand (POD) publishing supported by the web and social media give a writer a means to produce quality books (materially anyway) made available through mass outlets (on the web) at a (potentially) reasonable cost. It has become more and more apparent to me that that is the way I should go (pretty much "forced" to go). Though self-publishing has its own trials, the traditional route is just too long and difficult if you're not already established. The odds are against you (as at a casino). In taking this class, I wanted to get a closer look at the process and hear from someone who has done it.

Most of the class was a demonstration of Createspace by the teacher. With the website projected at the front of the room, she stepped us through the process of creating a sample book (A Day in the Life) using the website. It was easily done and produced a book (though she didn't take it all the way to publication, of course) for no cost. There were points along the way where you could purchase professional services (like artwork and book design) and so would have incurred some costs comparable to the charges of other POD companies. Still, she demonstrated how it is possible to publish a book for free and have it distributed online through Amazon by making clever use of freely available tools on the Internet.

Actually, it's not completely free, Amazon will get their percentage when the book is published. There is a royalty schedule (I didn't note the specifics) and an author's discount (so you can order POD hard-copies for author sales). I saw that self-publishing can work, especially if your goals are well-defined. For instance, the class teacher is an English professor at a local university and she publishes her own textbook this way. Her students can purchase it online or she has placed it in the university's bookstore (I believe it sold out). So this works for her in her world.

Regarding quality, I have seen that Createspace can produce a quality product. My story, Davis and the Goth was published as part of the Createspace-published anthology, While the Morning Stars Sing and the book it produced is very nice.

But I have serious reservations about Amazon.com, the corp that is behind Createspace. Being the online publishing giant, they seem to want to rule the publishing world (infinite growth again--they can't just do well, they have to dominate the world). Their push for exclusive rights to e-books has earned them much enmity among bookstores to the point that many refuse to sell Amazon-published titles (see this article in Publisher's Weekly). Even the self-publishing teacher pointed out that selecting one of the Kindle options in Createspace will result in Amazon taking exclusive rights to your ebook edition and so prevent you from marketing it elsewhere. She recommended not doing that.

So I can pretty much guarantee that Dentville will not be published with Createspace. I do have other POD publishers in mind. But the class was very helpful in demonstrating the current mechanisms of online and POD publishing and how a person can do much with digital and Internet-based tools. And the teacher's love of her work and enthusiasm for books and writing was inspirational.

Speaking of tools, I think I mentioned that I'm using a software product called Writeway to write (actually, "build") my first Dentville novel. I've found it extremely helpful and it has enabled me to make much headway on the book. I'm working on it every day and the completion of it feels more real to me now than ever before. And then the self-publishing class gave me the feeling that the publishing of it is "doable."

I'll have much more to say in future entries about the development of Dentville. I won't talk about writing mechanics but about the evolution of the story, its themes, and the current trends and events I'm drawing from. My journal entries should reflect the story's development and I hope for this website to develop along with it.

And I hope you'll follow me as I write this book, and can find sympathy for what I'm trying to say with it (more on that coming) and inspiration when you finally read it. I think that would be pretty neat.


 
 
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The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

I ran across this quote by Henry David Thoreau last year and it struck me as so "right-on" to the theme I was trying to express in a short story, that I used it in the story and even derived the title from it (What I Call Life).

Thoreau was very much sympathetic to the life of common, working people and a lot of his writings concerned their quality of life. This theme was the impetus for his experiment of "living deliberately" at Walden Pond. And he was very critical of the idea of people working like slaves for the prospect of retirement at some point in the future when they can least enjoy it. I've been feeling that way for a long time and wanted to express it in fiction. I saw an opportunity to do that with the startup of MISSISSIPPI aesthetic magazine.

MISSISSIPPI aesthetic is a "quarterly journal of arts & culture" and their first issue featured several short stories. I was impressed with the magazine's quality and they seemed very open to publishing fiction so I decided to write my story with the aim of submitting it to them.

In What I Call Life, I wanted to express my thoughts on "What's a high salary worth in terms of life cost?", "At what point does a job become life or death?", and "What does it mean to chose life?" My fictional vehicle would be a burned-out IT contract worker wrestling with serious problems for a client for the umpteenth time in his career. In the midst of it all, a voice from beyond his contained life would come to him and offer him the choice of staying with the familiar (security but a heavy life cost), or launching into the unknown (loss of security but a potential for payoff in life really lived).

This idea is certainly not original with me, but I felt the urge to express my take on it in the terms and symbols familiar to me. This urge found expression in several of my journal entries last year starting with Timbuktu! and including Seeing Wonder in the Mundane (though it was pretty much in every journal entry to some degree).

I felt the story should be a long treatment written as a series of short pieces. But I couldn't know if I would write the whole series so this initial one had to be complete in itself. I accomplished that by having it cover the time where my protagonist, Matt Bell, reaches the end of his rope on the job, receives his "bolt from the blue" offer, and makes his decision.

At the highest level, I wanted the story to be a contrast between what Matt's live was in-fact (shown in the working of his job) and what it could be (shown in Clarence's description of the uncle's offer). I would make this contrast sharp by showing Matt's life to be the minutiae of IT work, and the offer of new life to be basically, jungle adventure. With these goals in mind, I would write the the story as compellingly as I could, seeking to draw the reader into Matt's pain, burnout, disgust, wonder, and hope, and end with a sense of satisfaction but a desire to know "what happens next."

So I dropped everything for about two months and wrote What I Call Life. I wanted it to be about 2000 words in length but it was a struggle to keep it to 3000. I finished the story and submitted it to MISSISSIPPI aesthetic.  I was delighted when Amile Wilson (Editor in Chief) saw fit to publish the first two-thirds of it in a very nice four-page spread in the printed magazine, and the whole of it on their website.

Did I accomplish my story goals? Well, you'll have to tell me, my friend. So far, I've gotten no feedback specific to the story, but I did have a significant bump in visits to my website corresponding to the time of the story's appearance. There was also an increase in the downloads of my other stories on Smashwords. I'm grateful for all that and take it to mean that What I Call Life prompted some interest in my work. So I'll keep it up and make my life payments to pursue a number of writing projects to share with you.

How much Life do you exchange for what you do? Day after day. Not just time, but Life. Is the exchange a satisfactory recompense? I expect it is not for most everyone, but that depends on your valuation of both. Saints and sinners will see it differently. The aware and the deluded will see it differently, as will all points of view within that scale. Your answer will depend on what you call life.


You can read What I Call Life on the MISSISSIPPI aesthetic website here.
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Unrealized potential may be the hardest thing for a person to face in this life.  If, as the Buddhists say, the root of life's sorrow is its impermanence, then reaching one's later years with no feeling of accomplishment can bring a profound sadness.  It is an unstamped passport, an empty travel journal, or a backpack never used.

All of those images are in Ben Stiller's adaptation of James Thurber's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  I saw the movie recently with my family and we all enjoyed it.  In fact, we saw it in a full theatre and I picked up on a positive energy from the entire audience.  There were a lot of communal laughs that I haven't heard at a movie in a long time.  It was like everyone was really into the show and just expressing their enjoyment without being aware of everyone around them.  I take that as a sign of a well-made movie and this one certainly was.

The character of Walter Mitty is so ingrained in popular thought that the name is a  metaphor for someone who is a dreamer in the sense of a "wannabe."  The common expression is "Walter Mitty type" when describing someone who fantasizes about being someone else, usually a more exciting persona.  The dreamer's desire is motivated by a wish to escape dull or otherwise unpleasant circumstances that he or she feels are imprisoning.  His ability to make his escape is all but nil, so there is an element of tragedy in that fantasies are all he has.  Don Quixote, on the other hand, at least acted on his dream in a concrete way, though it often earned him a beating.  He was not just dreaming the impossible dream, he was attempting to live it.

I think more of us identify with Walter Mitty than with Don Quixote.  We dream because that's all we can do.  We don't have the means or the freedom to truly live in earnest, so we keep quiet and leave our debt-financed Land Rover (or Lexus) in the parking garage while we spend the day in our cubicle.

Ben Stiller's movie starts with this more-tragic image, showing Mitty as a photo negative processor at Life magazine.  He's 42, works in the basement, is threatened with job loss when Life is taken over by new management, and he can't even work up the courage to send a e-harmony wink to a coworker he has the hots for (when he does, it doesn't go through).  His e-harmony profile is devoid of "things done."  These negatives prompt Mitty's escapist imaginings (with much high-tech embellishment) as he "zones out" in stressful situations.

But Stiller doesn't leave us with a trapped, disillusioned Walter Mitty.  For all his problems, Mitty has potential.  He is smart, resourceful, imaginative, and even a skilled skateboarder.  He just needs the courage and motivation to cross the line into a fulfilling life (don't we all believe that?).

This scenario is common in movies, where the bored and boring protagonist comes into his own by finding adventure, love, etc.  This is the essence of "coming of age" stories (re: Star Wars).  It can make for a predictable and sappy story, but Stiller doesn't fall into that trap.  He could have, had he made Mitty's "breakout" be a mission to save the world, or rescue the heroine from terrorists, or right some huge wrong.  But Mitty doesn't need to save the world, just himself.

So Stiller doesn't send him chasing the Holy Grail.  He goes looking for one of the magazine's photographers, Sean O'Connell (played by Sean Penn), as part of his search for a lost photo negative meant to be the cover for Life's final print issue.  His search takes him globetrotting and so he finally gets his passport stamped, fills his travel journal, and makes good use of his backpack.  More important, he experiences life and stops zoning-out.

I've identified with Walter Mitty ever since I read Thurber's story in High School.  I expect that's true of many people, just judging by the audience reaction in the movie theatre.  But though Walter Mitty or Don Quixote characters are enjoyed in stories, they are often condemned in life as aimless dreamers.  Yet the character persists in our entertainments.  I think that's because some of us realize that it's better to dream of an ideal, than live a delusion and believe it's real.

I consider The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to be Ben Stiller's best movie.  I like that he made Mitty's redeeming activity to be travel, rather than fighting aliens or saving the president or some such.  It makes Mitty's personal journey more relateable.  This is underscored by the realistic feel of the travel scenes (even when dealing with sharks and volcanoes; and they're funny--I especially liked the scene with the drunken helicopter pilot).

In the movie, Mitty is prompted to step outside his "box" by his need to track down O'Connell.  He is reluctant at first, because finding O'Connell will require some world travel, starting with his last known whereabouts, Greenland.  Life opens up to him when Mitty takes the plunge.  And I can relate, to a degree.  When Donna and I were talking about a trip to Mexico back in 2012 (Puerto Vallarta) I felt the inertia of fear and self-doubt about making such a trip.  But I bit the bullet and did it, and got my passport stamped for the first time.  When the trip was done and we were flying back, I was ready to keep going and see other places.  I think our sons had a similar experience with their trip to China.  So, like Mitty, I can find the courage to step out-of-doors, and even be taken by the wanderlust, if I can find the motivation and the material wherewithal.

I liked that Stiller cast Shirley MacLaine in the role of Walter Mitty's mother.  That casting embraces the movie's "travel broadens the mind" theme because MacLaine is a restless world traveler, experiencer, and author.  Those are things I would love to be as well, and I suppose many people feel the same.  A few people realize these activities and compose their identities from their experience of the wider world.  The rest of us just dream.


 
 
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I've had a really tough time with Christmas since my kids have grown up and I've gotten significantly older.  I mean tough in the sense of finding any joy in the season.  Of course, that tends to happen as people mature.  A large part of this season's magic comes from the innocence of youth.  When we were children, it was easy to suspend our disbelief and anticipate gifts, and food, and music, with most everyone around us being in glad spirits.  I remember happy associations from those earlier Christmases--cold days with snow flurries as we shopped, visiting family, decorating trees, partying; and pine smells from real trees in the house, the heat of candles and electric Christmas lights, baking pies, the indulgence of spice cakes and confections, the music of cantatas, light-hearted movies, reverent church services.  All are fond memories of everyone's favorite holiday.

But the crassness of current society is overwhelming to me and evidenced by the end-of-year holidays running into each other and connected by measures of commerce--how well did Wal-Mart do?  Are retail sales up from last year?  This materialism is not new, of course, but it is accelerated to the point where it seems there is nothing promoted about Christmas beyond selling.  That is, a lot of publicity is given to battles over plastic stuff on Black Friday, but I don't see anything comparable to The Homecoming: A Christmas Story being produced that speaks to us at a higher level.

And beyond the materialism, there seems to be an evil that is bent on the destruction of humankind and the natural world.  Corporations run governments and use them to drive populations to starvation.  Open-ended wars are waged among elite powers using guns, bombs, robots, radiation, mass-communications, lies, and food, all for the sake of profit and the ability to decide who lives and who dies.  This ponderous beast seems to be a hive creature--a collective of sociopathetic minds whose arrogance extends to attempts to engineer the very climate of the world to serve them, rather than abandoning the filthiest and most destructive practices for generating energy.

And so I despair because this is a dark and threatening world.  It is a fallen world.  How can anyone find "the Christmas spirit" in such a place, at such a time?

As the years have trudged on, it has become harder and harder to reclaim those early, happy associations.  Even Charlie Brown had trouble with it.  His problem was being so put off by the rampant commercialization of the holiday (even his dog entered a decorations contest) that he could not connect with the "reason for the season" until his friend, Linus, gave him a clue with a reading from the Gospel of Luke.

So I took my cue from Peanuts and considered the Christian origins of Christmas (while respecting that its nonChristian antecedents have their lessons too), hoping that, like Charlie Brown, I could find some inspiration.

Christianity appeared in the ancient world like a struck match flaring in a dark room.  Jesus' message of unconditional love from God, loving even our enemies, faith in the spiritual over the material, hope for a redeemed future, and his example of nonviolent action, resonated with people living oppressed and hopeless beneath the boot of a highly material, self-centered, hierarchical tyranny.  It was a spark that, in the following centuries, triumphed over that tyranny from which it finally gained acceptance and even promotion, though seldom with sincerity.

The Christian hope is salvation.  That is, salvation from evil and death through the mystery of God himself incarnating and offering his human life in sacrifice and propitiation of his own judgment.  People find a faith in this that shows them how to live seeking the "kingdom of heaven" inside themselves, rather than living for the material and trying to "gain the whole world."  This hope further promises eternal life in bliss beyond this one, removing death's sting.

The picture thus painted is of humanity beset by a lethal malevolence and in desperate need of escaping it.  Christian theology calls that malevolence, "sin," "rebellion against God," "Satan," or many other such expressions and supported by much intertwining doctrine.  I would call it "industrial civilization's collapse," "unrestrained capitalism," "geoengineering," "genetically modified food," "globalization," or even "peak oil."  In all instances, the idea is of a dark place we need to leave.

Christmas says the exit door was opened by the intervention of almighty God into history in the form of an infant.  It is a beautiful picture of infinite power incarnating into a finite vessel for the sake of saving entrapped humanity.  It stands in contrast to the current perverse economic picture of "infinite growth" in a finite world for the sake of a privileged few and keeping everyone else oppressed.  We are in desperate need of the beautiful depiction.

If we take the image of the Christ child's birth as a symbol of hope in our darkest hour, then perhaps we can find some inspiration in contemplating the nativity.

The scene centers on the baby Jesus, lying in soft hay in an animal's feeding trough made bright with Heaven's light.  He is haloed with the divinity that empowers the potential of the newborn on a mission for us all.  The benevolent power from beyond blesses this incarnation as a parent blesses a child, reaching down from the numinous through a brilliant star's pointed light, touching the infant and illuminating that sacred space.  Heavenly beings fly through the cold night and warm it with songs of praise at the wondrous sight below.  They are only seen by those with simple faith so they sing to shepherds who live close to the earth, and herald salvation's arrival.  Though the simple have found the divine hope first, they are followed by those counted wise and wealthy who have followed the star others ignored, until they found the miraculous and offered gifts.  And so hope arrived on the earth.

I will think on this picture of the nativity in my meditations over the holidays, drawing strength from its message of salvation and hope.  And doing so without the constraints of doctrine; just pondering the very ideas of what we need most: salvation, hope.  Perhaps you can do the same in your prayers, and as you attend mass.  Maybe just finding the joy in being with family, communing with them and friends over meals and holiday gatherings, listening to music or watching classic movies, singing, or enjoying a time of peace, will open a conduit of loving kindness that could potentially connect to all humankind.

And looking within, find the Kingdom of Heaven and let it fill you, until you feel the joy that prompts angels to sing.  It is a quiet joy that does not originate in physical conditions, but is the steady state of the universe that we can tap into, and is especially accessible at this time.  Reach out to it.

I hope your Christmas is blessed and happy, and that you find hope and joy to take into the new year.

Peace be with you.


 
 
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Our sons are in their last year at the University of Mississippi.  Their time there has given Donna and I occasion to travel to Oxford to visit them and see football games and such.  Ole Miss is an old university, founded before the Civil War, and one of the smallest campuses in the SEC.  It is a modern campus, complete with the modern mess of confusing, criss-crossing paved roads, massive parking lots (that still fill up too fast), and utilitarian buildings with no artistic sense at all.  And layered onto the physical trappings, are the depravities of the times that stem from a society that does not value education--cut funding leading to high tuition and living expenses, leading to usurious student loans, leading to a lifetime of debt slavery.  And the grandest insult is an "education" that has become little more than job training for jobs that are few and low-paid, or nonexistent.

Yet, it is possible to see beyond the dross to the older campus of beautiful antebellum and Victorian era buildings and imagine an atmosphere of studious, intimate, contemplation.  Deep in there, beyond the racist, checkered past, is something that inspired scientists and artists and earned Faulkner's devotion.

The Oxford town square evokes similar themes.  It is a space of old, renovated buildings amid a neighborhood of the same.  The central square is the hub of this small college town (that considers itself a "sister" to the Oxford college town in England) that trades on its notoriety with some expensive eating and dining places.  But, as with the university, you can detect the older part where some better spirit lies.

I thought a bit of that better spirit might lie in the Square Books bookstore on a corner off the town square.  I had noticed it in many of our trips up there but never went inside.  Then, recently, I ran across mention of it in some articles that indicated it was a well-known bookstore even outside of Mississippi, with Publishers Weekly naming it "Bookstore of the Year" for 2013.  So I decided I wanted to get a closer look at it on our next Oxford trip.

That trip happened last September on a glorious day of temperate weather with a rare blue sky free of chem-trails.  After bouncing around the square a bit, we entered Square Books.  The store is larger inside than it appears from the street, encompassing three levels.  It has the smell and feel of a regular, modern bookstore but it is an old, renovated building so you get that feel too.  The place was busy with people meandering among the shelves, browsing the current bestsellers, local interests books, and all the usual categories.  The clerks were working steadily at their big counter up front where the sun streamed through windows enlightening their activities.  Customers climbed the wooden staircase leading to a balcony containing more books, entrances to offices, and a few nooks and crannies.  This level provides an interesting view of the street-level expanse.  The staircase continues from there to a complete upper floor that feels older with its wooden flooring and bookcases, and its own nooks and sections.  It is a great place to wander.

All-in-all, Square Books embodies that same blend of old-and-new as Ole Miss and Oxford.  I can imagine it being a stimulating venue for "author events" as befitting a bookstore that is just down the street from William Faulkner's house.  It has that "sense of place" that struck me about Oxford from the start.  I think the same is true about the Oxford in England, though on a grander scale.  It's neat that the Mississippi Oxford emanates a small reflection of its bigger, older sister's spirit.

So I think Oxford lends itself as a setting for some kind of story.  No doubt, it has been the setting of a lot of local fiction, though none really outstanding that I'm aware of.  My thought is of Oxford as a destination, specifically, Faulkner's house--Rowan Oak.  I can imagine a compilation of short stories told by writer travelers on a literary pilgrimage to the Faulkner home.  Modeled after Canterbury Tales, perhaps it would be Rowan Oak Tales.  A neat idea, I think, should I ever get to a place where I could consider it as a project.

I've found Square Books and Oxford to be inspirations for me in my literary musings.  There are others, mentioned in this journal, that help keep me going as I work on my first Dentville novel.  I'm putting a lot of effort into that project, which is why my journal entries have slowed lately.  I don't know when it will be done.  The project has frustrated all my attempts at setting goal dates, so it will just have to set its own timing.  But I'm anxious to share it with you, my readers.

Since Donna and I moved into our new house (see A Perfect House) last year, we've been so busy we've not thought about new library cards until recent weeks.  So we finally got them and have been making use of them (especially Donna).  Public libraries are repositories of inspiration, knowledge, and potential, without the crassness of commercialism.  They are places where scholars of the 99% can go to do their research.  Their loss, would be a loss indeed--the modern equivalent of the Romans burning the library at Alexandria.

Square Books puts out a multipaged newsletter called, Dear Reader.  It provides extensive write-ups of the "author events" (book signings) that the bookstore hosts, including book and author overviews with pictures.  Being the object of one and having such an event there would be beyond cool (so long as it was supported by sincere readers).  Surely, on occasion, such an event draws the interest of spirits who were literarily inspired and inspiring in life, and so I can imagine that Mr. Faulkner, Ms Welty, Mr. Morris, and others, look on with approval.