Monday, September 23, 2019

On the Coffee Table: March Book Three

Title: March: Book Three
Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
Image result for march 3 john lewis
via Goodreads
Book Three of John Lewis's March series opens in 1963 with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a white supremacist terrorist attack that killed Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11).  The murders were a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, contributing to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The third book is the most intensely political of the three books, both inside and outside the movement.  (Please read my reflections on Book One and Book Two.)  While there had always been some tension between the major groups, Lewis even admits to the mistrust of him within his own organization, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  After Kennedy's assassination, no one within the movement was quite sure what to expect from his Presidential successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson who had supported segregation in his time as a US Senator from Texas, a southern, Jim Crow state. 

Another thing I have learned more about from Congressman Lewis's books: the inspiration many American civil rights leaders took from similar, simultaneous efforts in Africa, most of that continent finally emerging from colonial rule.  Singer Harry Belafonte invited Lewis and other SNCC delegates along with him on a trip to Africa in, I believe, 1964.  It was the first visit for Lewis.  On that trip, Lewis ran into Malcolm X.  In fact, Lewis identifies it as the last time he saw Malcolm alive.  Malcolm X - just as polarizing a figure within the Civil Rights Movement as outside it - turns up a few times in the series but he definitely features most prominently in this last book. 

Included also, of course, is the march for which the series is named: not the March on Washington but the one from Selma to Washington in 1965, a story also told in the 2014 film Selma (read reflection here).

Overall, the series is outstanding, residing comfortably on the graphic novel Must Read shelf alongside Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (read here) and Art Spiegelman's Maus.  Forced to pick a favorite, I'd choose Book Two but truly, one should read all three.  The best books inspire me to read other books and I have already added several Movement histories to my wish list.  Lewis also has a sequel series in the works entitled Run.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Title: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Original Release: 1986
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek iv the voyage home
via Wikipedia
Admiral James T. Kirk and his usual motley crew are heading back to Earth, ready to face the music for the transgressions committed in The Search for Spock (see here).  Getting back is not as straightforward as they expected.  Earth appears to be under attack by a mysterious space probe.  The offending object is projecting whale songs, apparently hoping for a response from the planet's humpback whale population.  Sadly, by the 23rd century, the magnificent creatures are long extinct.

The solution is obvious: travel back in time, grab two whales out of the ocean and bring them back.  The Enterprise crew visits San Francisco of the 1980s, because obviously the Bay Area is the best place to find whales.  A costume drama in reverse ensues.

As written previously, I am not a fan of how Star Trek generally handles time travel and let's be honest, the premise for Voyage Home is even more contrived than usual.  That is not to say, however, that the time travel stories aren't still enjoyable.  Indeed, "The City on the Edge of Forever," arguably TOS's best episode, is a time travel narrative and its sequel "Yesteryear" is undeniably the best TAS episode.  Voyage Home's closest link to the legacy of the originals is "Tomorrow Is Yesterday" which also chronicles a visit to 20th-century Earth.  My post for that episode also includes my most thorough rant regarding Trek's time travel issues.

My basic problem: the writers tend to be careless about the contradictions that are the inherent peril with time travel.  If you're going to engage in time travel narrative, there have to be rules and you have to follow them.  I have no idea what the rules of time travel are for Trek.   My guess is there aren't any.  Thus my problem.

A specific offense from The Voyage Home: Scotty shares the secret of transparent aluminum technology with an engineer so it can be produced to transport the whales.  Scotty's justification: the engineer may well have been the man who invented it.  Convenient but careless.  Sure, one could argue that without this bending of the rules, the 23rd-century world could not be saved.  But at what cost?  None, apparently.  Lucky.

As a side note, the first patent for the process for producing polycrystalline cubic aluminum oxynitride was issued in 1980, before Scotty's visit.  This is the very stuff that has come to be called "transparent aluminum," because of the movie, naturally.  Whether it's actually the same substance used by Scotty for the whales, we may never know.

With all of my kvetching, I imagine you've assumed I don't like the movie.  Actually, I think it's pretty good.  In fact, if you'd asked me when I first saw it back in the day, I'd have claimed it as my favorite of the franchise so far.  I was an awfully romantic teenager and I found the whale story touching.  Now, I can see Khan is definitely the better film but Voyage Home is plenty good, even with my issues.

Is it better than Search for Spock?  The long-held conventional wisdom surrounding Star Trek films is that the even-numbered ones are superior to the odd-numbered ones before them.  2 is certainly better than 1 and I would say 4 is better than 3, though that's not as clear a choice for me as it once would have been.  Spock is better than I remember, Voyage Home hokier.  Voyage Home probably has the most appeal of the early movies for the general audience.  Good as Khan is - and it is the best - it's most meaningful for those who already know Star Trek.  I was not the only casual (at the time) Trek fan who was charmed by Voyage Home.

In addition to whale compassion, the writing offers genuine comedy:
Shore Patrolman: How's the patient, doctor?
Kirk: He's gonna make it.
Shore Patrolman: He? You came in with a she.
Kirk: One little mistake... 
That's almost Groucho-worthy!

While the comedy is a bit off-Trek (pun fully intended), it is a big part of the general appeal.  In fact, the comic plans were originally more ambitious.  The part of whale expert Dr. Taylor was initially written for... wait for it... Eddie Murphy!  Murphy was eager to be involved with a Trek movie and almost signed on for Voyage Home.  He chose The Golden Child instead - much to his own admitted long-term regret.  That might have been a bridge too far on the slapstick for me but it certainly wouldn't have hurt box office receipts.  Eddie Murphy was just about the closest thing there was to a sure thing at the time. 
Image result for eddie murphy golden child
via Wikipedia

Also, Dr. Taylor works well as a female character, especially since her relationship with Kirk never crosses past the line of platonic friendship.  Perhaps that's a carry over from the Murphy plan - the change too late to overhaul the story for romance.  So much the better, I think.  Love would have been predictable.

Trekkie treats
  • The big reveal of the new Enterprise ship at the end was genuinely goosebump-inducing for me.

Real world connections
  • The film opens with a dedication to the fallen crew of the Challenger space shuttle.  The shuttle exploded in January of 1986, killing all seven aboard.
  • In the movie, Chekov and Uhura sneak onto an aircraft carrier identified within the story as the USS Enterprise.  In truth, the USS Ranger was the vessel ("wessel" per Chekov) used in filming.  The Enterprise was at sea at the time and wouldn't have been available anyway as access to nuclear carriers was severely restricted.

Food notes
  • Kirk's reaction to beer is precious.  I would have suggested something other than Michelob.
Image result for star trek kirk drinks beer gif
via Tenor, mislabeled as McCoy on the site
 Literary notes
  • I am now curious about The Mutiny on the Bounty after Kirk renamed their stolen Klingon ship HMS Bounty.

Music notes
  • The score was composed by Leonard Rosenman, a friend of Leonard Nimoy's, after James Horner declined to return.  Rosenman had already won two Oscars and two Emmys.  The Voyage Home brought his fourth Oscar nomination.  

  • While on a city bus, Spock Vulcan-pinches a punk rocker when he refuses to turn down his music, much to the delight of the other bus occupants.  The song is called "I Hate You."  It was written overnight by Associate Producer Kirk Thatcher.  He formed a one-off punk band with a few production crew members called The Edge of Etiquette.

My ranking of the movies so far:
  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  3. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  4. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

On the Coffee Table: March Book Two

Title: March: Book Two
Writers: John Lewis and Andrew Aydin
Artist: Nate Powell
Image result for march book two
via Amazon
I first wrote of John Lewis's March in a post (gasp!) two years ago.  In October, Lewis is coming to the Flynn in Burlington to present the series and discuss his experiences in the Civil Rights Movement.  We have tickets to see him so obviously I need to get cracking reading the last two books!

The March series reminds me of how much I don't know about the Civil Rights Movement.  I learned all about Martin Luther King, Jr. way back in elementary school, even read a biography on my own initiative.  In the year's since, of course, I've learned that the King part of the story, while certainly important, is in many ways the safe, comfortable part of the story for White people, especially northern Whites.  The movement predated him.  That makes sense logically but I didn't know any of the names.  There were organizers other than King with philosophies that conflicted with his and with each other.

And the violence was brutal.  I didn't learn anything about lynchings until much later.  As for the violence faced by the movement itself, it was mentioned though with far less detail than is presented in March.  The buses of Freedom Riders were bombed and people died.  When fire hoses were turned on peaceful marches and policemen wielded truncheons, people died.  Activists were murdered in drive-by shootings.  Others were maimed and crippled.  National media only seemed to pay attention when the victims were White.  Southern state governors did nothing to stop the violence and the federal response was also frequently underwhelming.  Yes, in retrospect Jim Crow laws and the like seem absurd.  But it wasn't really that long ago and racial disparity is still all too real, and not just in the South, either.  If anyone doubts the genuine heroism of those involved in the movement, read these books!

I had learned much of this in the years since but the March series makes it plain: I still have a lot more to learn.

Specifically, Book Two introduced me to the Big Six: King, Lewis, James Farmer, A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young.  All were leaders of prominent civil rights organizations during the height of the movement and were instrumental in organizing 1963's March on Washington, also included in Book Two.  King and Lewis were, in fact, the youngest of the six.  I would now like to learn more about the other four.

I have already read Book Three.  Hoping to post a review soon!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Squid Mixes: Tom Collins

According to 3-Ingredient Cocktails by Robert Simonson, a Tom Collins combines gin, 1:1 simple syrup, lemon juice and soda water.  As noted in this post, the distinction between a Tom Collins and John Collins is fuzzy but Simonson's awfully persnickety so I'll trust him.

The resulting drink was quite pleasant, a sweeter version of a gin & tonic.  Simonson recommends a lemon wedge and a brandied cherry for garnish.  My wife didn't see any jarred brandied cherries at the store so we may need to look into making our own - such a hardship!  I used a regular maraschino cherry this time.

Happy, Healthy Squid

I'm down half a pound this week so the weight now stands at B-8 (baseline minus 8 lbs).  I'm actually rather surprised.  I was not so well-behaved this week, missing my exercise goals twice, once by accident, once through laziness.  I was half-expecting a spike.  Surprises abound.

From my walks:

Monday, September 16, 2019

On the Coffee Table: Better Than Carrots or Sticks

Title: Better Than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management
Authors: Dominique Smith, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey
Image result for better than carrots or sticks
via Amazon
Our faculty summer read was Better Than Carrots or Sticks.  There's a big push for restorative practices as a new approach to student behavior these days.  It is a philosophy born in the criminal justice system that has seen some success with meaningful implications for education.  Apparently, this traveling of ideas between prisons and schools happens a lot, in both directions.

Wikipedia defines restorative practices thusly: a social science that studies how to improve and repair relationships between people and communities. The purpose is to build healthy communities, increase social capital, decrease crime and antisocial behavior, repair harm and restore relationships.[1] It ties together research in a variety of social science fields, including education, psychology, social work, criminology, sociology, organizational development and leadership.

The book is well written and I appreciate the fact that the teachers are educators themselves who have put the principles into practice and found success.  Particularly meaningful, are the student reflections on the experience.  I am completely on board with the idea philosophically.  I will readily admit that it took me too long as a teacher to figure out that relationships are everything.  They are, in fact, far more important than content.  It's not even close.  The restorative work is not easy but, at least from what I've seen so far, it is worth the effort.

The problem in practice is that schools tend to move too fast.  They want to move from the old punitive model to the restorative with a single administrative directive and it doesn't work.  The shift involves glacial cultural change among all stakeholders.  Frustrations and setbacks are inevitable.  Patience on all sides can be severely tested.  The book, and many other resources on the subject, warn of this.   Districts heedlessly push on.  Again, I'm on board philosophically but the growing pains are considerable.

It's also a tough book to read in the summer.  I do my best to pretend I don't have a job in the summer.  In July, I mostly succeed.  In August, it's hard.  I can smell it coming.  A book about the most frustrating part of the job, especially, feels like an intrusion.  I know it's good for me.  But still.

If you're interested in the subject, Better Than Carrots or Sticks is a fine place to start.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Squid Flicks: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Title: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Director: Leonard Nimoy
Original Release: 1984
My Overall Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Image result for star trek the search for spock
via Wikipedia
With the third Star Trek feature film, the Project Genesis story arc continues.  The Enterprise crew returns to port with heavy hearts.  Their beloved comrade Spock is gone.  To make matters worse, something's wrong with Dr. McCoy.  It would seem that through a last-minute mind meld before his death, Spock managed to preserve his own living essence in Bones's brain and the effect on the good doctor is unsettling to say the least.  A visit from Sarek, Spock's father played by our old friend Mark Lenard, clarifies the course of action: retrieve Spock's body from the Genesis planet, then bring both Spock and McCoy to Vulcan in order to resolve the matter.  Starfleet won't approve the mission.  Wouldn't make for much of a movie if our friends let them stop them, now, would it?

Meanwhile, the Klingons have learned of Genesis and want the tech for themselves, craving its destructive power.  When Saavik (now played by Robin Curtis) and David Marcus descend to the Genesis planet in order to investigate animal life signs, they discover a resurrected Spock, now a small boy.  Unfortunately, all three are soon captured by the Klingons and David is killed.

As with The Motion Picture, I enjoyed The Search for Spock a lot more than I did when I first watched it back in the '80s.  However, in trying to correct the great injustices from The Wrath of Khan, the story generates as many new questions as answers.  I have two main issues with the story, one small, one enormous.  Let's tackle the small one first...

Kirk and his friends essentially commit mutiny when they steal the Enterprise out of dock to retrieve Spock.  To boot, Scotty sabotages the Excelsior, the Federation ship likely to run after them.  Obviously, we as the audience want our heroes to succeed but it feels icky ethically and, perhaps worse, anti-Trek.

Interestingly, there is precedent for this sort of behavior in the Star Trek canon.  In "The Menagerie," TOS's only 2-part story, Spock kidnaps Christopher Pike, his former commanding officer, hijacks the Enterprise and sets course for Talos IV, forbidden territory.  He risks not only court martial but execution.  By tale's end, he is found to have acted out of loyalty to Pike and is exonerated.  With one more movie to go in our current story arc, we don't yet know what consequences may be waiting for Kirk and company but we do know there is precedence for forgiveness.

The bigger issue is far more complicated: Spock's resurrection.  I can attest to the fact that at the time, the fans were happy to have him back.  Trek, at least at that point, was inconceivable without him.  30+ years on, with five spin-off series and counting plus movies and a mini-series without him as a principal character, we know the broader concept thrives beyond Spock.  But for the original cast of characters, he was essential.  That was the scary part of losing him at the end of Khan: was Star Trek finished?

Anyone who follows comic books, sci-fi, fantasy or soap operas is fully aware that you can never assume a character is permanently dead.  Even so, the "science" that brings back Spock is awfully sketchy.  I have less complaint over the Vulcan spiritual side of things.  Religion, after all, is the natural realm for such matters.  I suppose we can write off the science problems by stating that the full capacity of the Genesis tech was not fully understood - David suggests as much.  But why didn't Spock's rapid aging continue?  Were the Genesis affects lessened once Spock was off-planet or is Vulcan medicine just that good?  And why couldn't David's life be salvaged similarly?  Was it too late in the planet's own life cycle to be of any help?  What a shame that Saavik didn't think to mind meld with him in time!

It's fiction.  I can live with suspension of disbelief.  But it makes a guy think.

David's death and the destruction of the Enterprise - did I forget to mention that bit? - were intended as the big emotional impact moments for the movie.  David's death is certainly sad and Kirk takes it hard.  The effect on the audience would have been more profound, I think, with more development devoted to the character and his relationship with Kirk.

As for the ship, it just doesn't seem that big a deal now.  Mind you, it was startling at the time but hardly Spock-death shattering.  A ship is an inanimate object - important symbolically, sure, but ships can be rebuilt.  Obviously we know all these years later that there will be other, better Enterprise starships to come.  It's a moment with greater in-story impact than it has on the audience.

Trekkie treats
  • While The Search is not the best Trek movie, it does contain the saga's best Bones-Spock story.  The scene when Bones confesses his feelings of loss to an unconscious Spock is genuinely touching - perhaps the story's sweetest moment.
  • I appreciate the fact that the damage to the lift door on the bridge of the Enterprise was maintained from the end of Wrath of Khan - the smallest details can be the most meaningful.
  • There are Tribbles on a table at the bar on the spacedock! 

Real world topical notes
  • Kudos for taking on both scientific ethics and the weapons of mass destruction crisis in the Project Genesis story.

Actor notes
  • Kirstie Alley was not so enamored of Star Trek that she was willing to sign on as Saavik for the sequel.  She was worried about being typecast.  She was probably wise to see that her brighter future was in comedy.  Apparently, the woman is genuinely crazy funny.  Robin Curtis, another relative newcomer but one with a fortuitous friendship with the casting director at Paramount, won the role. 
Image result for robin curtis star trek
Robin Curtis via Memory Alpha
Image result for christopher lloyd star trek
Kruge via Memory Alpha
Image result for christopher lloyd back to the future
Doc Brown via Wikipedia
  • Two of the Klingons might seem familiar to television and sci-fi fans.  Christopher Lloyd won the part of Kruge, the leader of the Klingon band, over Nimoy's original choice, Edward James Olmos.  Already famous for his role on Taxi, Lloyd was still a year away from his career-cementing role: Doc Brown in Back to the Future.  Less well-known in 1984 was John Larroquette who played the part of Maltz, Kruge's right-hand man.  Night Court, on which Larroquette played the sleazy Dan Fielding, finished its first season the night before The Search for Spock opened in theaters.  Larroquette has since won five Emmys and a Tony.
Image result for john larroquette klingon
Maltz via Memory Alpha
Image result for john larroquette night court
Dan via Night Court Wiki

Music notes
  • James Horner returned for The Search for Spock.  The title theme, borrowing heavily from the Spock theme he had composed for Khan:

My ranking of the movies so far:
  1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  2. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
  3. Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Squid on the Vine

I didn't know much about wine before I met my wife, nearly 21 years ago now.  I enjoyed drinking wine, though I would have considered myself more of a beer drinker at the time.  Still would, in fact.  My wife knew a lot more as she did with nearly all things food.  She also enjoys it more than I do and if anything, her preference for grapes over barley and hops has increased over the years.  Wine certainly intrigues me - for its own sake, certainly, but also as a vehicle for knowing my wife better.  We have long intended to invest time in learning more about the fruit of the vine - together.  Recently, I have become a lot more purposeful in my own explorations. 

Mission #1 is learning more about what I like.  I know a lot about what I like in a beer: hoppy is good.  I have learned quite a lot recently about my cocktail preferences: a whiskey base is a good start.  With wine, I have some work to do, especially with whites and rosés.  In fact, I'm not sure how I feel about rosés at all, let alone which ones I like. 
Image result for chateau musar
via wine-searcher
With reds, I'm chasing an elusive ideal.  Many years ago, my wife introduced me to Château Musar, a Lebanese winery.  The flagship red is a blend including Cabernet Sauvignon grapes among others.  It was basically one of the most extraordinary substances I have ever ingested, warm, jammy and spicy all at once.  I have never tasted its like since though whenever I encounter a red that seems to be heading in the same direction, I get awfully excited.  Our red on Sunday night, for instance, a 2017 Domaine Bousquet Malbec from Argentina had the spiciness but not the jamminess - actually slightly bitter, interestingly. 

My preferences in white wine are nearly opposite.  While I love a big, full-bodied red, I like a clean, lighter white - pale in color, not too sweet, though not exactly dry either.  A white wine should pair nicely with raw oysters: refreshing, cleansing, not too strong.  Portuguese vinho verdes tend to catch my eye.
Image result for wine folly book
via Amazon
To help me in my own self-education, I have a book, Wine Folly by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, and the Delectable phone app for recording my explorations.  We've already taken one class, on Chablis, at Dedalus, our favorite wine shop in Burlington and we're eager to take more.  As much as I can, I will share what I learn here.