Archive for July, 2012

I’m bloody tired of the question posed in the title. Every time I speak with a customer service representate, a nurse, a Nigerian prince, or similar, I get asked that.

The question is really asking for my social security number, but it’s failing. “Social” in this context is an adjective. Without a noun, it means nothing. In days gone by, a social was a party, but people don’t have socials much any more. Now, they gather in the virtual world.

This may sound like the carping of someone clinging to English as it once was, but there is a point here that’s deeper. A social security number is supposed to be only the number used by the Social Security Administration. The fact that it has become a number for general identification and has done so to the extent that many don’t even use its full name any more ought to worry us. “What’s your social?” is a sign of inane acceptance.

Language matters. It’s our way of thinking and of transmitting our thoughts. If we take the time to express ourselves fully, we’ll notice more when our thoughts have gang agley.

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It’s been a long time in coming, but Rush’s twentieth studio album, Clockwork Angels, is now out. It’s their first concept album since Hemispheres, the third in a trilogy, was released in 1978. There’s an allusion to that trilogy’s first album, 2112, in the cover art of a clock that reads 9:12. But Rush as a group and Neil Peart as a person have been through a lot since the seventies, and what hasn’t killed them has made their work deeper.

The story starts with a young man in a clockwork and steampunk world who seeks his place in the machinery. Everything works according to the plan of a Watchmaker, the creator of the best of all possible worlds. If that’s sounding familiar, you’re correct. Peart has layered a lot into the writing, especially the mechanistic view of Newtonian physics and Voltaire’s satirical novel, Candide. In the aforementioned trilogy, he presented a similar young man who struggled against an authoritarian society. This time, the journey is to find meaning in determinism. And yes, Peart has thought about that before, most notably in “Free Will” from Permanent Waves. His earlier studies were rebellious and youthful, the ideas and yearnings of someone who wants to be himself. Clockwork Angels comes to a different answer.

The narrator leaves his family’s farm and travels to the big city to get caught up in its chaos–an irony in an ordered world, but he was “brought up to believe” that everything has a reason. He takes a job with a carnival, gets mistaken for an anarchist, and escapes to the edge of his civilization and beyond to seek the mythical Cibola, the City of Gold. But the land is frozen, and he’s forced to turn back to the ordered world. He crosses the ocean, only to be shipwrecked in a storm.

The remaining four songs look back on the narrator’s life from old age. He declares that he would change nothing in his adventures “because I made them / the best I could / and that’s enough to say.” He finds that his old beliefs are no longer with him, that he must release his grudges and, in an allusion to Voltaire, tend to the small details of his life–referred to as his garden.

In the seventies, the hero of the three concept albums tears down his society and forces an apocalypse to bring about a new order. In Clockwork Angels, he seeks personal change and ends up learning that the most we can do is appreciate what we’re given. That mature perspective is a significant thematic change for Peart’s writing, something hinted at in “Faithless” and other songs in Snakes and Arrows.

“Headlong Flight,” the song that I quoted above, retains some measure of defiance. No, perhaps responsibility for himself is the better term. It’s a song that reminds me of “My Way,” made famous by Frank Sinatra. The hero tells us that he has learned to fight, love, feel, and steal, and wishes to “live it all again.”

Who is responsible for all? In the first part of “BU2B” (Brought Up to Believe), we learn the prevailing doctrine that it was the Watchmaker’s work. The second part of this tells us that the narrator has lost his belief in that, but the final song, “The Garden,” considers the question to be one that we can’t answer for certain. What we can know is summed up in the chorus:

The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect,
So hard to earn, so easily burned,
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.

We are told that “time is still the infinite jest.” Our freedom, then, is to choose to get the joke and laugh or be its subject.

* * *

Clockwork Angels will also be released as a novel by Kevin J. Anderson in September. Look for a discussion of it some time after that. To read more of what I have to say about Rush, have a look here.

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I’ve seen a measure of advice on the subject of whether an author should express opinions about politics, religion, and other such topics as a part of his own blog. The consensus, both from people that I respect and from some that I don’t, is that it’s best for said wordsmith to remain mum about things controversial. We don’t want to alienate potential buyers, now do we?

The trouble is that I have lots of opinions, and I’ve never learned to keep my mouth shut. I blunder or charge right on in to the thick of whatever “discussion” is going on. I love to argue. I love to stir up controversy. But more than that, I’m right (or so I think), and you should be made aware of that (or so I think).

What’s an author to do?

For you, I cannot speak. My own choice is to be myself. I set up this weblog to focus on the writing and reading life, among other related topics, but if you’re interested in my various and numerous opinions on politics, religion, and all those other things that may offend, you can find my articles here.

If you want to read what I write–and more than that, if you want to buy what I write–I hope that it’s because the text is interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, or whatever other good term you care to use. Who I am as a person really shouldn’t be relevant to the text. Yes, I follow the New Criticism school. The author’s intention is none of the reader’s concern or business. The text must speak for itself.

But if you’re curious about the author, do you want to learn about a bland, milquetoast, and soulless person whose one goal in writing and in life is to be inoffensive?

I didn’t think so. Or, at least, I hope not. To quote Popeye, I yam what I yam. Controversy is one of the things that makes life a pleasure for me. In a related vein, part of the writer’s job is to take on a point of view when writing fiction. When I inhabit a character, I have to be that person, so far as I am able. When I write nonfiction, I have to be myself. Even if you, Dear Reader, dislike one persona, there are others to get to know.

In seeking controversy, I not only have fun. I also learn things that I would never have known otherwise. I learn what others think and feel. That’s good for creating characters, and it’s good for functioning in a democracy. I learn about different ways of seeing a subject. That means that I may end up changing my mind. Therein, alas, lies the reason that some people won’t look at anything that isn’t in support of their own positions. But such people aren’t likely to read what I write, anyway.

You, Dear Reader, of course, are open and willing to explore. You’re curious about the universe. You’re also good looking and wise. (Enough flattery yet?) You are my audience.

I can’t write for anyone else.

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The news today (3 July 2012) has the report that Andy Griffith has died.

He was a part of my childhood. I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, and The Andy Griffith Show reflected my world. Yes, it was a simiplified view of the South, but the premise that country people had a fundamental goodness that carries them through is one that I’ve grown to appreciate. The same theme runs in Matlock, a show about an old lawyer whose country wisdom wins the case every time. And then there was Salvage 1, a show that didn’t succeed, but should have. It again was about a little guy–in this case, the owner of a salvage yard–that makes it big.

But one profound work doesn’t have the recognition that Griffith’s comedy has received. He was the star (with Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau) of the film, A Face in the Crowd, an exploration of the effects of fame and greed on the human soul. It’s a film that everyone should watch before voting or paying any attention to celebrities.

Today, I have to say goodbye to a fellow Tar Heel. Genius comes into this world and then leaves it, and the mark that it leaves behind betters us all.

Cross-posted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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