Sunday, December 23, 2007

Dzurlords Make Me Cry

Been re-reading Steven Brust's novels the past few weeks (the days of comfort reading are upon me) and, having worked my way backwards through the Vlad novels (should that be the Dalv novels, in this circumstance?), I am now proceeding through the Paarfi novels, but in the standard direction this time.

And I hit this passage in The Phoenix Guard:

"We can not all be Dzurlords."

"Ah, that is true, and truth be known, I think it would be a dull world if all were." Tazendra, who had drained her glass and filled another by this time, went on to say, "My mother, the Countess, used to say, 'Remember, we are only one part of this great body of Empire. And if we hold on to the valor, then others must needs take care of the rest.'"


And I choked up. I ALWAYS do. Every time I read that damned passage, I get a damned lump in my throat. From Tazendra, of all people. Why?

I'm now reading Five Hundred Years After, and I KNOW I'm going to hit this passage:

"Of course," said Sethra, "You are a Dzurlord, as was he. To the Dzur, there is a ritual to the sharpening of the sword — so warlike and yet so soothing; a preparation for the future, a defiance, a threat, and at the same time, it is rhythmical, and while so engaged, one is given to dream, and to think about the blade, its history and destiny; and to contemplate and wonder, above all, for what one strives — and always one finds answers to this question, for finding those answers is what it means to be a Dzur.

"Sometimes," she continued softly, "those of other Houses laugh, or call the Dzur foolish, stupid, or blind, and there is no good answer to such charges, for to kill for such an insult is often beneath the Dzurlord; yet there is always the sword, whose sharpening breathes of the future, and the glory which is not only in being remembered, but in knowing one has defied the entire world, and pitted oneself against the impossible, and proven, to all who are not Dzur, that there is value and glory in the battle, regardless of the outcome. All of these thoughts come to mind when the Dzurlord sharpens his sword, and looks upon some token of the past until he can feel the wind that blows to the future."

For some time, it seemed as if Sethra were speaking to herself, but at last she fell silent. "You understand," said Tazendra in a whisper.


Just reviewing it in order to type it up here got me feeling weepy. Why? Is it because, as Steph mentioned, I am so terribly unlike a Dzurlord? So unlikely to pit myself against the impossible, against the world, and that reading these passages brings up in me a sense of lacking in myself, a lack that I'm actually ashamed to admit even to myself?

I remember my heart stirring when I read Cyrano's declaration "Not to climb high, perchance, but climb alone!"

As a younger man perhaps I read that as license to reject any notion of working in concert with others, to keep solely my own counsel and to hoard my energies for myself, but nowadays, much more embracing of the notion of interdependence (ten happy years of marriage will do that to you), I understand Cyrano's point in a more sophisticated way — to refuse to seek advancement through RELATIONSHIPS, and rather solely through ACCOMPLISHMENTS. Accomplishments may depend on relationships; that's healthy and worthwhile. But advancement that comes through skill in flattery or in adjusting one's character to one's environment is hollow, because it is not based in the end on the actual delivery of value.

The problem being, of course, that it isn't always perfectly straightforward to demonstrate accomplishment. Especially if one is mistaken about the relationships around one.

I know many folks who are bad salespeople, especially of themselves. I'm one. A common thinking that bad salespeople carry is an unwillingness to convince others that they themselves are worth investing in. I believe the unspoken notion is that if the worth is not immediately evident, making an effort to display it is unseemly. Not to mention unlikely to succeed.

And yet, isn't it a worthwhile pursuit to make worth apparent to those who haven't yet perceived it? Isn't it honourable to help others see important truths? How do I tell when such an effort is worthwhile, and when it is only vainglorious and empty?

One lesson I always took from Cyrano is that doing the honourable thing does not reliably lead to gain. That doing the right thing often exposes one to, well, the weasels. I've paid the price a few times for doing what I considered the honourable thing. I don't know if I'd call myself valiant. I'm no Dzurlord.

But I do regularly get accused of being foolish, stupid, and blind. Maybe all that emotion I feel is actually relief. Relief that I'm not the only one.


In other news, Steven Brust posted my favourite haiku ever on his LJ the other day:

There was a young man of Honshu
Who tried limericks in haiku.
But


Kills. Me.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Stop Telling Us What To Do!

One of my pet theories (I use the term "pet theories" to refer to ideas I like that I would rather not subject to any actual analysis) is that the real lesson of the 20th century is that as attractive as centralization appears (especially to those doing the centralizing), it almost always less efficient, less effective and less maintainable than de-centralized approaches.

In politics, in manufacturing, and in commerce this lesson seems to keep coming up: putting all the decision-making power in one place never yields the desired results. Autocratic states collapse in on themselves. Decentralizing authority in factories improves productivity. Free markets continue to roll.

Oversight is required, of course, but choosing just the right levers to give the overseers is critical. Monopoly laws hold back one type of imbalance in the market system. Institutionalized lending rates prevent another. One person standing at the whiteboard with a pen does a similar thing in a very different environment.

Perhaps the 2000's will be the century of mass decentralization. Some folks think so. It's interesting to observe this phenomenon popping up in unexpected places.

Like traffic controls. Recently the Telegraph published an article on how REMOVING controls actually improved traffic flow and reduced accidents.

In his book The Intellectuals and the Masses, John Carey argued that the fear of the "mob" that we take for granted nowadays is a social construct engineered by the elites at the dawn of the modern age, as they insisted that masses of people could not be trusted. This idea is a vestige of classism and lies behind every authoritarian model of government produced. The idea is that common people are too stupid, too foolish and too short-sighted to be trusted with any sort of authority. They must be herded and guided. For their own good.

I reject this idea, and it's encouraging to see actual data that supports it. People are smart, and if they are granted space and time in which to make decisions, they generally do a pretty good job. Folks who try to keep power from the hands of "the masses" do so out of fear. Fear, in the end, that their decision-making ability is no better than anyone else's, and if that's true, how will they justify their elite position?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Just A Ski Instructor

Heck with the Zeppelin reunion; the show I'm agonizing over having missed is the new tour by Kid Creole and the Coconuts.

Here are three reasons to live in the UK:

I Love Girls


Endicott


Gina Gina

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The War With the Weasels


Long, long ago, I was complaining that a message board that I'd been frequenting for ages had of late become overrun with the, let us say, less entertaining types, and that I didn't see any way of reversing the trend. Chris commented in his droll fashion, "The munchkins always win."

I always thought that was a very wise observation, but the term "munchkin" is hard to explain to people who don't play RPGs. So I switched it with "weasel", having the right connotations of nastiness, cowardliness and patheticness.

I played around with the notion for a while and for some reason (this really was years ago, so cut me a little slack, here) I was looking at a photo of a lion sitting and looking all majestic and the idea of a lion fighting with a weasel came to me. And I realised that lions just don't fight weasels. They don't do it. Lions do not belong to the class of things that fight weasels.

Now I know which I'd rather be, between the choice of a lion or a weasel. And we're going strictly with the metaphorical notion of these creatures, so please refrain from confusing the issue with facts. Weasels = snivelling conniving cowards. Lions = majestic honourable lords.

And so, WANTING to be a lion, I am forced regularly to remind myself to never, ever, ever, fight with the weasels.

Because the weasels always win.

I've talked about this before. Not sure if I have so much to add to the notion this time other than an awfully pretty picture of a lion. Nice, isn't it? Mm.

But like I say, every so often I have to remind myself to remain a lion. To refuse to fight the weasel fight. Because to fight the weasels is to become a weasel yourself. Because lions don't fight weasels. To be a lion, you have to let the weasels win. When the weasels arrive, you have to recognize what has happened and move on.

Lions help weasels best by being lion-y: sitting out there on the savannah, being all majestic and shit. That's what lions are for. They remind us that dignity and honour are worth something, even if they don't help you to win. Winning is for weasels. But maybe, sometimes, IF the lion is being all majestic and shit, some random weasel will look up and think, "Hey, why isn't he down here fighting with the rest of us?"

And maybe sometimes a weasel can even BECOME a lion. Maybe. I don't know. But I am pretty sure that if there aren't any lions, then there's just a bunch of weasels, so somebody has to try and be a lion.

I guess I've been thinking about this lately.

Photo by Marco Deppe

Friday, December 7, 2007

Bodging, True20 Style

What's this? It's the Damage Conditions portion of the True20 Narrator's Screen, an indispensable aid for all True20 GMs, who have to refer to the complex damage conditions of the game nearly every combat round. Without this little chart, gameplay can slow to a crawl anytime somebody gets injured. Combat would be excruciating without this guy.

What's that you say? The True20 Narrator's Screen DOESN'T INCLUDE a Damage Conditions chart? Can it be true?

Why, yes. Yes, it is. The Green Ronin folks are obviously quite a bit more adept at this stuff than I am, since they apparently don't need to refer to the Damage Conditions every round the way I do. Which I'm sure is fine for them, but I just can't keep all that stuff straight in my little head, so I need some help.

And otherwise the Narrator's Screen is AWESOME. It's pretty, it's made of sturdy stuff and it has lots of useful info on it. But it doesn't have the Damage Conditions.

But never fear! We here at Scratch Factory are not the sorts to just throw our hands up and make the best of a bad situation. No sir. We'll make the WORST of a bad... Wait.

No. What I mean to say is:

Here's a replacement chart you can print off and affix to your Narrator's Screen. It replaces the "Concealing Items" portion of the existing chart, which I frankly feel I can do without. If you feel likewise, you're welcome.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Serpent, Winged


"First, Shaft is a sex machine for ALL the chicks. He didn't fall for no Five-Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, neither."
I remember (vaguely) when Q, The Winged Serpent came out. 1982, that was -- same year Knight Rider first aired. 1982 was a rough year. Apparently Conan the Barbarian and Joust stole all the "cool" in the world that year and so unfortunate second-raters like Q, The Winged Serpent had to make do with other qualities. Like "long". Or "set in New York".

IMDB's "Plot Keywords" list does a reasonable job of summing up this odd little picture, including as it does Giant Monster, Human Sacrifice, Decapitation, Female Nudity, Police, Blood, the Chrysler Building New York, Death, and Gore, but strangely there is no mention of either SHAFT or MIME.

See, while it's nominally a monster movie, and indeed several minutes of the film are devoted to a monster devouring assorted New Yorkers, after one hour and fifteen minutes, the audience is suddenly confronted with a MIME. Observe:



That is clearly a MIME in a car with SHAFT.

I know, you're startled. Maybe you didn't expect to see a MIME in a car with SHAFT. I don't blame you. But do not doubt your senses. Here it is again:



Notice how the MIME is ACTUALLY ACTING. He's looking over at SHAFT with that "curious" expression that lets you know the director told him to look curious. I tell you, actors are a rare funny breed.

What lies is that actor telling himself in order to go through with this scene? How is he structuring this in his imagination so that he believes he'll be able to get another part on the basis of this performance? And what is the director thinking? Most likely, I imagine, how he's going to spend the money he just won after betting Richard Roundtree he could get that new kid to dress up as a MIME.

Whoever that MIME is, I sure hope he has this blown up to poster size on his bedroom wall:



Words fail me.

Fortunately, ten minutes after he appears, the MIME vanishes from the script, never to be seen again. His presence is not explained (other than the fact that it's 1982 and Knight Rider is the most popular new show on television. We all share the blame for the 80's).

Perhaps you find it strange I begin a discussion of one of the last true B-grade giant monster movies with several hundred words on the subject of a mime, but it was scarring, I tell you. A man doesn't just walk away from something like that. It haunts him.

Oh, yeah, there's a monster in this picture. As these things go, it's by no means a terrible monster -- the design isn't much (it kind of resembles a winged prehensile penis), but it kills people bloodily and SCREEEES with gusto.

But really it's all the secondary weirdness that really makes this film. Michael Moriarity's bizarre performance as the cowardly wheelman who confronts the beast in its lair, and David Carradine going "Phew!" everytime they make another narrow escape (I'm not kidding, the guy literally says, "Phew!" like he's reading some 1950's Batman and Robin dialogue), combined with Roundtree's angry cop makes you wonder if all three of these guys think they're in different movies.

Or this guy:



Okay, you might have believed me about the MIME, but I know you're going to doubt me about this, but honestly. This dude pops up into the frame next to the sacrifical victim, looks down at the naked guy he's about to gut and says

Seriously, I'm not kidding about this. He says

God's Honest Truth, here, people. ACTUAL dialogue, here. Not a word of a lie. This dude says

"How are you?"


Man. I thought the dialogue in Live Free or Die Hard was uninspired. Again, what the heck is going through this actor's head? Because you know he's got himself convinced that THIS is the part. He's going to put that on his reel. He'll talk it up at his next audition. I'd love to hear that story.

But that's not all, folks. There's also the blonde doing push-ups:



1982 was a tough year for actors, obviously. That girl's really givin' her, though. You gotta award some points for grit.

Still, even in 1982 actors had their limits. Apparently there was a rumour that a sequel would be made:



Fortunately, it never came to that.

The Ones Nobody Knows: The Bandy Papers

I first encountered Bartholomew Bandy, Canadian hero of World War I and all-round dashing figure of the twentieth century, in the mid-eighties. I was reading a lot of military fiction then, and the cover, here, with biplanes and a promise of comedy and a Canadian perspective on the Great War was more than enough to pull me in. I found Three Cheers For Me in a used bookstore, of course, as the books had been out of print for a decade or so when I first got hooked, but I continued to prowl used bookstores across Calgary, searching for further tales of the redoubtable Bandy.

I believe Donald Jack is the man who introduced me to the word "redoubtable", actually. Not to mention "obviate", and probably "spifflicated", too. The over-the-top drinking binge parties Jack describes in these books have always been the standard I've held my own partying up to. Nobody's ever actually fired a handgun at copulating insects at one of our parties, however, so there's room to grow, there.

Interesting that Jack -- a Brit who emigrated to Canada after World War II -- should come to write a series with such a dedicatedly Canadian bent on history. Bandy considered Canadianess at length throughout these books, and while he may be somewhat atypical, there's no doubt he represents some of the fundamental qualities of the Canadian character.

And it's not all that flattering. Bandy is self-righteous, deceitful, annoyingly smug, and lacks the ability to see himself and his own foolishness clearly.

Oh sure, he's courageous enough, when physical danger nears, but he cowers in the face of the powerful and is as enthusiastic a bootlicker as one could imagine. He's quite thoroughly despicable at times.

Hm. Maybe the lack of popularity of these books isn't so hard to explain.

But no. There's thrilling aerial combat, romance, the great sweep of history, and some of the funniest stuff I've ever read in my entire life. It doesn't matter how many times I read the bit where Bandy tries to replace Louise's dress; I'm helpless with giggles every time. These books deserve a vast audience, inside or outside of Canada.

Of course, being Canadian, most Canadians will be suspicious of the idea that a story about Canadians would be entertaining. Canadian content, until very recently, was a "genre" that we imbibed of the same way one partakes of cod liver oil -- for good of one's long-term health, and possibly, to demonstrate one's strength of will. I don't remember enjoying a single episode of The Beachcombers, but my family dutifully watched it every weekend. I think perhaps that's why we weren't a very religious family -- my parents felt they'd discharged their spiritual duties by enduring another half-hour of Bruno Gerussi and Molly's Reach.

This attitude does seem to be changing. Slowly, of course, for we Canadians change nothing quickly, but recently the idea that Canadian television might have qualities beyond easing digestion seems less far-fetched. I recently got laughed at in a bar for suggesting that it might be ENTERTAINING, but still, there are signs of progress.

The Bandy Papers might one day be seen as an early salvo in the battle to establish the idea that Canadian stories can be entertaining. Jack might be seen as a visionary who, as early as 1962 dared to attempt writing an adventure novel about a Canadian. And succeeded, in point of fact.

Briefly: Bartholomew Bandy of Beamington, Ontario, goes off to fight in World War I, survives the trenches but infuriates his commanding officer so much that he is promoted to the Royal Flying Corps (where his life expectancy is only a few weeks), and promptly becomes one of the great aces of the war, simultaneously creating so many enemies among the military and political establishment that his career shifts are measured in hours. So many memorable characters are encountered in the course of these tales that it's something of an accomplishment that Bandy himself manages to stand out as he does.

Much hilarity ensues, and much savagery as well, for Jack is writing out of a profound anger towards the powerful who sacrificed so many lives for so little gain. As the books proceed, the shells Bandy inhabits in order to manage his internal fury get stripped away and yet the comedy never goes away. He never loses his wry sense of the absurdity of all this fuss and bother, even when he is helpless in his efforts to placate and soothe the worst of the fussers and the botherers.

As is typical in these sorts of historical satires, Bandy ends up in numerous historically significant events, including the Irish uprisings (due to a mistake in navigation), the German advance of 1918 (Bandy defeats two tanks with the help of a Bicycle Brigade), the Russian Revolution (he steals Trotsky's pastries), Prohibition, and the birth of modern cinema. He trades quips with Dorothy Parker and terrorizes William MacKenzie King (and is in fact responsible for the collapse of his government in 1925).

He seduces and is seduced, rejects and is rejected. There is little rhyme or reason to who ends up his allies and who his enemies; by no means is it clear that "sensible" people like him and fools do not. And yet he is deeply charismatic, especially to the reader. This is probably because of his honesty to us. While he is willing to fib outrageously to others, with his readers, Bandy shows a respect for the truth even when it is uncomfortable or unflattering -- and although he often undermines his own efforts at self-deprecation with a mock self-righteousness, Jack always seems to find just the right tone that will let us know that Bandy takes himself no more seriously than he takes anything else in the world.

These books were a huge influence on me. Jack's episodic storytelling, his delightfully droll tone and the notes of lunacy he throws in are all techniques I strive for in my own writing. I wish I had his knack for nutty, believable characters, but well, you've gotta have something to aim for, right?

Donald Jack died in 2003, at the age of 79. He wrote the final Bandy book, Stalin vs Me, in the last decade of his life, more than thirty years after he'd begun the saga of Bartholomew Bandy. I am immensely grateful to him for his efforts, as they have brought me more joy over the past twenty years than I could have expected from that aging, yellowed volume I first picked up in a Calgary used bookstore.