Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit -- Yehaw!

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Professor  Tolkien doodled these words in a blue book while grading an exam for his students at Oxford University. 

Maybe he thought this would be a good way to start one of his short stories. He certainly had no way of knowing that this sentence and the story to follow would grow and grow until it would take over most of his life. 

With those simple words, he took the first steps of a journey—and as he taught us, “The road goes ever on and on / down from the path where it began…”

Tolkien’s engaging description of hobbit holes and the folk who inhabit them began a delightful fantasy novel called The Hobbit, published in 1937. It featured Bilbo Baggins, who like all self-respecting hobbits preferred the comforts of home to those “nasty, uncomfortable things” called adventures. 

First Edition of The Hobbit

Yet after “an unexpected party,” Bilbo winds up on just such an adventure—with thirteen dwarves on a quest to reclaim their lost home and treasure. And just to mix it up, Professor Tolkien throws in a wizard, a dragon, and a magic ring. A perfect recipe for mythic mayhem.

The Hobbit was followed by The Lord of the Rings trilogy, published as a series of three books, although it is really one honking big epic story. The main character of LOTR is Frodo Baggins, Bilbo’s nephew, who is charged with a great quest to deal with the ring Bilbo found in The Hobbit

First edition of Book One of LOTR

The Lord of the Rings was written between 1937 and 1949, much of it during World War II—and published in 1954 and 1955. After his father’s death in 1973, Tolkien’s son Christopher published more myths, poetry, and background information from Tolkien’s story world, notably in The Silmarilion.  

Gandalf the Grey

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

Although Tolkien had already been working on some of the mythology of Arda and Middle-earth, that day when he doodled the first words of The Hobbit marked the beginning of his great adventure of bringing his world to our world.

The Misty Mountains

That simple declarative sentence has led to a literary empire of books, movies, and mega-merchandizing. In 2009, Forbes magazine ranked Tolkien as the fifth top-earning “dead celebrity” in the world—a designation that would probably make the professor laugh and shake his head. The Lord of the Rings is the second best-selling novel ever written, surpassed only by Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and The Hobbit ranks sixth on that awe-inspiring list. 

But more importantly, Tolkien gave the world one of the greatest literary works of the twentieth century, sparking a great resurgence of interest in high fantasy.

And most important of all, Tolkien told a rip-roaring good story that still captures our hearts. So butter the popcorn! I can’t wait to see Part 2 of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit—The Desolation of Smaug. Yehaw!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Happy Anniversary, Dr. Who!

This blog post has a sound track. Or if you know this famous theme song, you can just hum while you read. 

          Play music.

Dr. Who, the iconic British sci-fi series, first aired on November 23rd, 1963. Yes, the day after the John F. Kennedy assassination. The first episode, called "The Mutants," featured the Daleks, those rascally cyborgs with a mission statement of universe-al domination and--oh, yes--extermination. 

The title character is a Time Lord, a humanoid alien who frolics through time in his Tardis, righting wrongs and trying to help those primitive humans, so susceptible to having their minds and bodies controlled by evil aliens with limited vocabularies. ("Are you my Mummy?") The Tardis, which on the outside resembles a British police box, is actually a sentient space ship that is much bigger on the inside. And the Doctor is armed with a sonic screwdriver, presumably for fixing whatever's broken around the cosmos. (Wish he'd start at my house.) Are you tracking so far?

The original Doctor was played by William Hartnell. There have been eleven Doctors, and a twelfth is now emerging. For the Doctor has a special talent. When fatally injured (or perhaps tired of doing the show), he can regenerate, taking on a new body, a new age, a new personality, and a new actor in the role.

Dr. Who originally aired from 1962 to 1989. Sadly, some of those early shows were destroyed or taped over, but bootleg copies occasionally resurface from yard sales, eBay, or the lesser moons of Saturn. The series was relaunched in 2005, and will presumably run until Daleks exterminate the studio where it's filmed. Guiness lists Dr. Who as the longest-running sci-fi series in the world.

For me, the charm of the early Who was in the marvelous idea of a Time Lord and in the cheesiness of the production. You sort of had the feeling you could film a show like that in your basement, using your relatives as actors. And that is not a put down. It was a great deal of fun. In later years, the cheesiness has been replaced with higher production values and better developed characters and stories, but they have kept the fun. 

This November marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Who. The BBC celebrated with an anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor," featuring three of the Doctors. Unfortunately, the day it aired, we had to make a run to the ER. But thanks to the time-freezing capabilities of my DVR, I hope to watch it this weekend.

Who is your favorite Doctor? So far my faves are Tom Baker (Doctor #4) and Matt Smith (Dr. #11). But I have to confess that I haven't seen every season--so that opinion could change as I fill in the gaps. 

Meanwhile, if you've got time to kill on a Saturday night, why not explore the meaning of life, love, time travel, and extra-terrestrials by tuning into BBC or Netflix for an episode or a marathon of the incomparable Dr. Who?

Friday, November 22, 2013


I sat in a chair by the living room window, watching for my ride to a writers' meeting. 

Of course, if my friend had been able to sleep the night before, she wouldn't be running late. And if my husband's stupid car had just started that morning, I wouldn't have had to trouble her to give me a ride. And maybe my phone wouldn't have been chirping like a canary with incoming texts as the arrangements for a simple meeting developed more and more complications. 

In front of our house is a small dogwood tree, flanked on either side by towering sycamores, with wild, flailing arms that always seem poised to strangle the little tree. A couple of times we thought the poor tree had died.

While I waited, a bird flew into the dogwood. A bluebird.

Happy sigh. We live in a forested area, with a profusion of birds, but I don't see many bluebirds. I watched with interest, enjoying his blue and brown plumage. After all, I had a "bluebird of happiness" in my own little dogwood tree.

Soon he was joined by two more bluebirds. 

A trinity of bluebirds. Extraordinary.  

When I sat down, I had been "anxious about many things," like Martha in the Bible. Waiting for a ride had forced me to assume a Mary pose--just watching and listening. Just being.

Suddenly I saw that there was, in fact, a cloud of bluebirds--male and female--surrounding the little tree. Some lighted in the dogwood, some in the sycamore branches. 

It didn't even occur to me to grab a camera. It was a burning bush moment, and I didn't want to blink.

The bluebirds stayed for about ten minutes. By the time my ride came, they were gone--but captured in my heart forever. I can't seem to find the fancy name for a group of bluebirds (as in Congress of Crows, Exaltation of Larks), and so I have dubbed them a Blessing of Bluebirds.

In a long string of ordinary days, I may not see a single bluebird. Apparently, this day wasn't ordinary. I suspect that the birds came as a cloud of witnesses, messengers from the Creator.

The message? I think it was simply, "I'm still here. I still love you. Have a good day."

Not the off-handed way a grocery clerk might say, "Have a nice day." When God says "Have a good day," it's more like when Forrest Gump holds out a box of chocolates and offers you a piece. It means, "Here, have a good day. This one has your name on it."

And it was a lovely day. I had a great time with my friends at the restaurant and at the library. Due to another "complication," the library meeting room was occupied, and we met in the children's reading nook--a delightful space.

A window at the library--Photo by Jenny Kyrlach

And, as a special surprise, I found the librarians had made a display of books to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. And the centerpiece of the display was my article on the subject, clipped from the newspaper and framed.

I guess you'd have to be a writer to appreciate the smile that put on my heart. 

It took some complications that morning to help me to be still, to pay attention, to listen, to be aware that God wanted to be involved in my day. If my husband's "stupid car" had started that morning, I would have missed the Blessing of Bluebirds.

And that fleeting mythic moment remains a lovely, lasting reminder that this is the day the Lord has made. This day. Every day. He's still here. He still loves us. Let's accept the good day that is freely offered.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Thor and Loki. . .in Drag!

I will be forever grateful to my fourth grade teacher, Miss Jones. Whenever we had a bit of extra time at the end of the day, she told us stories from Norse mythology. And so we had a glimpse of the all-seeing, one-eyed Odin; of the thundering, hammer-wielding Thor; and of the mischievous trouble-maker Loki.

One of my favorite Norse stories is about how Thor lost and found his legendary hammer, Mjolnir. If you've seen Thor: The Dark World, you've seen Thor throwing his hammer to slay enemies in combat. And the coolest thing about Mjolnir is that it always comes back to its owner. Well, almost always.

Thor would reach for his hammer first thing every morning. But one morning, he reached and his hand came up empty. The hammer was gone. 

Gone! This was a disaster. The hammer was his weapon. His friend. His companion. His registered trademark. Without the hammer, he would need new business cards and letterhead. It would wreak havoc with merchandising.

He called for his blood-brother Loki. "My hammer has been stolen," whispered Thor. He didn't exactly want to share this information on speaker phone with all of Asgard and the Nine Realms. But he did trust his mother Freya with the news. She lent her falcon wings to Loki so that he could gather information quickly.

Thor really wants to keep his logo.

Loki flew to the realm of the Jotenheim (giants) and talked to a jotun named Thrym.

"Yeah, yeah. I stole the hammer while Thor slept." said Thrym. "And wowza, does that boy snore! I thought it was thunder."

"We want it back, Thrym."

"I have buried the hammer eight miles underground, and I will return it only if Freya agrees to be my bride."

Loki went home to Asgard and told Freya that she must put on her bridal veil at once and marry Thrym, so that Thor's hammer would be returned.

You can probably imagine the withering look that Freya gave Loki. That plan was so not happening.

Then Heimdall, god of light, had an idea. It was crazy. Ridiculous. Desperate.

And it was pretty much their only option. 

+ + + + +

A week later, Thrym heard the rumbling of Thor's goat-cart, riding across the clouds. "Prepare the way for my bride," he said with a broad smile.

Finally, the blushing bride emerged from the cart, resplendent in a bejeweled gown and a long veil, accompanied by her maid. Thrym's heart was pounding as he welcomed them to the wedding feast. 

Thrym's Wedding Feast

During dinner, he couldn't take his eyes off his bride-to-be. "She sure eats a lot," said Thrym, laughing. 

"It's been a long journey," said the maid. "Besides, she hasn't slept in eight nights, just thinking about you."

Now Thrym was really excited, and he didn't wait for dessert. "Let's proceed. Bring me Thor's hammer, and we'll make the exchange."

Thrym willingly placed the hammer on his bride's lap. "Let's take our wedding vows, my beloved Freya, and you will be mine forever." 

The bride stood up, and the veil fell back. Of course, the "bride" was Thor, now reunited with his hammer. To make matters worse, the "maid" was Loki.

Bride with a beard

With fire in his eyes, Thor threw his hammer and gave Thrym a splitting headache. And when Thor and Loki finished with the wedding hall, there was no way the groom's family were going to get their deposit back. You don't even want to know about the cake and the chuppah.

Thor brings down the house at Thrym's wedding.

Still dressed in women's clothing, Thor and Loki rode back to Asgard, thundering just for fun.

Thor in his chariot

The Stark Raving Mythopath heartily recommends Daulaire's Book of Norse Myths, with retellings of the stories and colorful, whimsical illustrations. Get one for yourself and one for a child in third grade on up! Preface by Michael Chabon.

And, in the spirit of Star Wars meets Bullfinch, you won't want to miss Marvel's Thor: the Dark World, with Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, now playing in theaters. High tech mythology and a fun romp through the Nine Realms.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The World in 1963

The Kennedy Assassination looms large on the landscape of 1963. But the times, they were a'changin' in many other ways. The Cold War hung over the world like a big gray cloud. Trouble was brewing in Vietnam, and race riots were breaking out on the home front. The world was ripe for peace marches and folk music. 

Peter, Paul & Mary at civil rights march, 1963

How many of these movies and tv shows do you remember? How many of these songs can you still hum? How many of these news events do you recall? Or if you're too young to remember, how many have you heard about?

MOVIES of 1963: The Birds; Cleopatra; The Great Escape; The Pink Panther; The Sword in the Stone; Bye, Bye, Birdie; Lilies of the Field; and The Nutty Professor. The Oscar that year was awarded to Lawrence of Arabia

TV in 1963: Some popular television shows were The Andy Griffith Show; Bonanza; The Fugitive; The Ed Sullivan Show; The Beverly Hillbillies; The Twilight Zone; My Three Sons; Gunsmoke; American Bandstand; and The Dick Van Dyke Show. General Hospital made its debut on April Fool's Day. On November 23rd, the day after the Kennedy assassination, Dr. Who was first broadcast in the UK. Johnny Carson was king of the night with Tonight Show. (He had assumed the throne in fall of 1962).

Barney, Opie, Andy, and Aunt Bea
The Andy Griffith Show

POP MUSIC of 1963: Some of the chart-toppers were "Sugar Shack"; "Surfin' USA"; "The End of the World"; "He's So Fine"; "Blue Velvet"; "My Boyfriend's Back"; "Puff the Magic Dragon"; "Blowin' in the Wind"; "Walk Like a Man"; "Mockingbird"; "I Will Follow Him"; and "Blame It on the Bossa Nova." On February 11th, the Beatles recorded Please Release Me (their debut album) at the Abbey Road Studios--in just one day! By the end of the year, Beatlemania was a highly contagious condition, affecting mainly teenage girls.

The British Invasion

BOOKS of 1963:  The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan; Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut; The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carre; The Shoes of the Fisherman, Morris West; Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak; The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath. Sadly, Plath committed suicide that same year.

FASHIONS, 1963: Jackie Kennedy was a great influence on women's clothing, with her pillbox hats and short boxy jackets. Capri trousers and stiletto heels were popular for women; corduroy slacks, wider ties, and brighter colors were coming in for men. Girls wore skirts or dresses to school. Hemlines covered the knee: mini skirts didn't arrive until the following year. As I recall, t-shirts were mainly men's underwear. And jeans? They were for farm boys.

IN THE NEWS, 1963:

George Wallace:
Jan. 14th -- George Wallace is sworn in as governor of Alabama. His chilling mantra: "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever." 

Feb. 8th -- President Kennedy restricts US trade with Cuba.

Mar. 17 -- A volcano erupts on Bali, killing about 1500 people.

Mar 31 -- NYC newspaper strike ends after 114 days

Apr 9 -- US nuclear submarine Thresher sinks -- all 129 aboard perish.

Thresher underway

Martin Luther King, Jr.
Apr 12 -- Martin Luther King, Jr. is arrested in Birmingham. The charge? "Parading without a permit."

Apr 16 -- King issues "Letter from Birmingham Jail."

May 15 -- Last Mercury Mission -- Atlas 9.

May 23 -- Castro visits the USSR.

June 4th -- Kennedy authorizes the Secretary of the Treasury to issue silver certificates.

Valentina Tareshkova,
first woman in space
June 12th -- African-American civil rights activist Medgar Evers is murdered in Mississippi, by a member of the White Citizen's Council. 

Jun 16 -- Space goes co-ed when cosmonaut Tareshkova leaves earth orbit. (Russia)

Jun 21 -- Pope Paul VI succeeds Pope John XXIII.

Jul 1 -- Zip codes introduced to US mail.

Aug. 5 -- US, UK, and USSR sign Partial Test Ban Treaty

Aug 18 -- James Meredith becomes the first African-American to graduate from U. of Miss.

Aug 28 -- King delivers "I Have a Dream" speech.

Oct. 2 -- Sandi Koufax, leftie pitcher for LA Dodgers, strikes out 15 Yankee batters in game one of the World Series, setting a new record.

Oct. 31 -- A gas explosion at the Indiana State Fair kills 74.

Nov. 2 -- Duong Van Minh stages a coup, taking over as leader of South Vietnam.

Nov 7 -- 11 German miners are rescued from cave-in, after being trapped for 14 days.

Nov 10 -- Malcolm X delivers his "Message to the Grass Roots" speech in Detroit.

Nov. 22 -- President Kennedy assassinated.

Nov. 29 -- President Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of JFK.

Dec 8  -- Pan Am Flight 214 is struck down by lightning, killing 81.

Chuck Yeager

Dec 10  --  Chuck Yeager miraculously parachutes to safety when the experimental aircraft he is testing goes out of control almost 21 miles above the earth. 

It was a year of turbulence and triumph, of mourning and celebration. A year when America was deeply wounded and yet survived. 

A year to remember. 1963.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Remembering JFK

November, 1963. The city of Dallas, Texas, was buzzing with excitement. John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, was coming for a weekend visit. The trip was a Democratic Party fund raiser and an unofficial jump-start on Kennedy's re-election campaign. Speeches were written; banners were hung. People took off work just to catch a glimpse of JFK as he passed by in a limousine. Secret service agents checked out every street and every stop on the President’s route.

Kennedy was a young President—only 43 when he took the Oath of Office. Yet he had already accomplished much in his three years as President by founding the Peace Corps, by encouraging the space program, by fighting for Civil Rights, and by taking a decisive stand in the Cuban Missile Crisis. We were all stirred by the call to action in his Inaugural Address: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

January, 1961:  Kennedy takes the Oath of Office

Finally, the day came. People lined the streets of Dallas and cheered as the motorcade passed. In the front seat of the open car were two secret servicemen.  In the second seat, Texas Governor Connally and his wife. In the back seat, John and Jacqueline Kennedy. 

Suddenly, a loud crackle, like a fire-cracker. And with that sound, it seemed as if the earth slowed on its axis and the world went into slow motion. 

Two more bangs echoed through the plaza. A Secret Service agent ran toward Kennedy. The President raised his hands to his face, then slumped over. Jackie Kennedy climbed onto the trunk of the car, though later she would not remember doing so. Connally cried out in pain as he was hit. Some people screamed, and some were dumb with shock. The motorcade rushed to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead in the Emergency Room. 

The caisson bearing Kennedy's casket

For days, the nation sat glued to their black and white television sets, watching. . . 

  • as Walter Cronkite relayed the news from Correspondent Dan Rather that the President was dead

  • as Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot Kennedy, was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, on live tv
Ruby steps forward to kill Oswald
photo by  Jack Beers Jr., Dallas Morning News 
  •  as Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President

  •  as an endless stream of people filed through the U. S. Capitol to pay their final respects at the guarded casket 
  •  as Kennedy’s grave was marked with “The Eternal Flame”  
  •  as Kennedy’s young son John-John turned to his father’s casket and gave a touching farewell salute.

There have been many theories about what happened that day in Dallas—many books written and movies made. But even now, much of the story remains a mystery. And perhaps the biggest question is simply "How could this happen?"

The Kennedy family leaving the Capitol

Kennedy wasn't the first President to be killed in office, but he was the first to be mourned by a nation watching history unfold before their eyes.

These events happened a long time ago--50 years ago this month. But for those of us who remember, those images are etched in our hearts and minds forever. November 22, 1963. A defining day and a part of the American mythos. My fifteenth birthday. A day I will never forget.