The Fabliaux (book review)

Aug 26 2013

The Fabiluax

The Fabiluax

The Fabliaux is an odd little book, which I bought on a whim because it’s an odd little book.

We’ve all heard of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, those saucy stories of pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Some know that Chaucer didn’t invent these stories; he cobbled them together from various stories floating around at the time. Common folk traded these profane little tales in taverns, forming the “reality TV” of its day. These were supposedly true stories, nearly always involving sex, scatology, and/or sinning priests.

In France, these were called fabliaux, and this beautiful hardback of the same name collects dozens of them that cross a wide range of experience. The translator put them into a simple, natural rhyming verse that mimics the French pattern.

(One side note: the translator chose vulgar terms for genitalia, mainly because there’s no English equivalent for the French words, and these are meant to be bawdy, shocking tales. So be ready for frequent uses of the ‘c’ word.)

The stories fascinate for two reasons. On the one hand, naughty stories always carry at least a small thrill, and it’s fascinating to see what was considered naughty six hundred years ago.

Secondly, The Fabliaux provides a window into common life in the Middle Ages. So much of what we know of that time comes from high literature: noble tales of knights and ladies, or official histories written by victors. We read of battles and courtly romance.

While that has its place, in The Fabliaux we see dusty, everyday life. Now this has its own sensationalism; these were stories meant to entertain, after all. I wouldn’t take the preponderance of extramarital sex in these stories as an indication it was that common in medieval times (any more than the family drama in a “reality TV” show is a complete accurate representation of life in America).

Those caveats aside, these stories are delightful romps in bourgeois drama: wives lusting over hot guys, battling spouses, and over-protective fathers.

And the stories are not without shock value. Indeed, the over-protective father has a young daughter whom he has carefully protected from every biological term, to protect her chastity. When he finds a boy her own age as a companion, and who expresses similar horror at such terms, the father leaves the two of them alone, presuming she is safe. She immediately asks the boy about the differences of the male body to the female, and they proceed to describe each others’ most intimate areas using only metaphor. Before long they shuck their clothes and screw with abandon.

Not so shocking, except that their metaphors make it very clear that they are both barely pubescent. Such were the realities of the times.

Other stories deal with bad priests–in fact, can’t recall a single righteous priest in the entire book–and a lot of scatological humor. I found this refreshing; we haven’t changed so much. We’ve always loved to skewer the powerful and joke about poo, for some reason.

Interestingly, the nobility in these stories are treated very much like the common folk: more wealthy, but not inherently evil. They deal with avenging spouses, rebellious children, and fickle friends just like everyone else. In general, they’re doing their best with what they have.

And they fart a lot.

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Happiness, Happiness, and Happiness

Aug 19 2013

'snow-globe' by Jenny Downing on Flickr

‘snow-globe’ by Jenny Downing on Flickr

As I learn to improve myself, I’ve been learning to unpack the idea of happiness. We use happiness in at least three ways: the emotion, the attitude, and the state.

When we’re in the state of happiness, we feel happy all the time. This is the dream world we’ll live in after we’ve won the lottery: a big home, a fast car or two, and lots of pleasurable activity. In this world, we fulfill every need. This is bliss.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this state exists for more than an hour. I don’t think anyone on this planet lives in a perpetual state of happiness, because everyone has to deal with rude people, the grimy sides of culture, and their own insecurities.

Moreover, humans recalibrate their baselines for contentment. Once you have food, you want flavorful food. And you want healthy food, because you want to live as long as possible, and you can afford it. Then you want food that’s healthy, flavorful, and an exact match to your current mood. Repeat for every other aspect of our lives.

The emotion of happiness often surprises us. We enter this state when we sit at a nice restaurant at the end of a fine meal, or as we walk around an amusement park on a thrill high. It’s that warm, expansive feeling we get when we realize we’re comfortable and content. C.S. Lewis chronicles this in his autobiography, and labels it joy. Buddhism encourages this feeling through prayer and exercises in mindfulness.

This emotion fades. While we can increase its frequency, it cannot turn into a state. It’s a burst of pleasure, like a mouthful of cheesecake, but we can’t eat cheesecake all day. Other emotions crowd in.

Then there’s the attitude of happiness. I had a co-worker who was always awake and attentive, with a ready smile to her face. She was quick to joke and ready to get down to work. I call this cheerfulness.

Cheerful people are occasionally stressed and sometimes sad. However, they separate their emotions from their attitude.

This relates to the topic of recovery. When someone wrongs you, how quickly do you return to normal? That return should not be instantaneous; feelings help us deal with the many facets of a situation. Neither should that return take so long that it robs us of other opportunities.

A cheerful person, upon feeling sadness or anger, learns to move away from those emotions towards happiness. A cheerful person seeks contentment and even joy throughout the day.

Which leads us down the road to the question: How do we build an attitude of happiness? One method I’ve been using lately is a daily reading of Just For Today, which was written by Sybil Partridge about a hundred years ago. I’ve placed this at the beginning of my daily journal, so I see it as I start every day:

  • Just for today I will be happy. This assumes what Abraham Lincoln said is true: “Most folks are about as happy as they make their mind up to be.” Happiness comes from within; it is not a matter of externals.
  • Just for today I will try to adjust myself to what is; not try to adjust everything to my own desires. I will take my family, my business, and my luck as they come and fit myself to them.
  • Just for today I will take care of my body. I will exercise it, care for it, nourish it, not abuse or neglect it, so that it will be a perfect machine for my bidding.
  • Just for today I will try to strengthen my mind. I will learn something useful. I will not be a mental loafer. I will read something that requires effort, thought, and concentration.
  • Just for today I will exercise my soul in three ways: I will do someone a good turn and not get found out. I will do at least two chores I don’t want to do, as William James suggests, just for exercise.
  • Just for today I will be agreeable. I will look as well as I can, speak diplomatically, act courteously, be liberal with praise, criticize not at all, nor find fault with anything, and not try to regulate or improve anyone.
  • Just for today I will try to live through this day only, not tackle my whole life problem at once. I can do things for twelve hours that would appall me if I had to keep them up for a lifetime.
  • Just for today I will have a program. I will write down what I expect to do every hour. I may not follow it exactly, but I will have it. It will eliminate two pests: hurrying and indecision.
  • Just for today I will have a quiet half hour by myself and relax. In this half hour sometimes I will think of God, so as to get a little more perspective into my life.
  • Just for today I will be unafraid. Particularly, I will be unafraid to be happy; to enjoy what is beautiful; to love; and to believe that those I love, love me.

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The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book

Aug 05 2013

Bachelor Brothers' B&B Pillow BookEvery often, you stumble upon a book that precisely fits your mood.

I bought this tartan-covered novel on impulse at a used book store while I was on vacation. I wanted a light book to read. This delivered.

In The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book, Bill Richardson describes a year in the life of two bachelor brothers who operate a small B&B for bibliophiles. Not only is the house stuffed with books; guests bring piles of their own on “reading vacations.” Book clubs schedule annual meetings here.

The B&B sits near a small town in Canada that’s filled with odd characters. These characters wander into the book’s story–more so, I gather, than in the first Bachelor Brothers’ book, of which this is the second.

The main story line is punctuated with “letters” from former guests, telling their own life stories. Some are simply heartwarming; some are unexpectedly sad. Many come with recipes which I’m now eager to attempt.

Comparisons with Garrison Keillor and Lake Wobegon are inevitable. Both authors chronicle a charming backwater peopled by quirky characters. The difference, I think, lies in attitude: Keillor maintains a sarcastic–nearly sardonic–distance from his characters, while Richardson paints them as lovable, if odd, human beings. It’s the basic human respect that comes from an episode of Community compared to the more sarcastic tone of Parks & Recreation.

As befits its characters, The Bachelor Brothers’ Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book is an odd thing that I’d have a hard time universally recommending. It’s a celebration of simplicity, reading, and the company of others. I read it in two days.

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AttrAction (Game Review)

Jul 29 2013

AttrActionThis cannot be a review of AttrAction, precisely, because AttrAction is so simple.

Imagine a handful of rare-Earth magnets, each a misshapen cube. Spread them out on a table. Now, play a sort of billiards with them: pick up a magnet and flick it towards other magnets. It will slide across the table, pulling other magnets into a chain. Grab the chain, then acquiesce to the next player. When your turn comes around again, pull a magnet off your chain and flick that towards the remaining magnets.

This seems simple, until you discover that the magnets’ unusual shape hides a strategic feature. Balanced vertically, they attract. Once a magnet falls over, though, it repels other magnets unless they carom in unpredictable patterns. As the game continues, collecting further magnets grows hard indeed.

That’s the entire game. The official rules suggest some minor variations, such as re-distributing stones each turn and scoring chain lengths across multiple turns. But in terms of mechanics, that’s it.

AttrAction is a fairly shallow game, but this belies its strength: it’s a perfect game to start people playing something. Pull out a bag of magnets and start fiddling with them, and people will crane their necks and ask questions. Then you can get a game going. Then maybe you can get other games going.

Moreover, you can come back to AttrAction often for a casual game. Break it out occasionally for a simple, easy-to-grasp contest suitable for just about any age (though note that AttrAction should not be played around dogs or very small children; the magnets are very dangerous if inside a stomach. Apologies for the grisly image.)

In any event, I enjoy AttrAction every time I bring it out. It’s an easy game that few refuse to play.

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Oz, the Great and Powerful (review)

Jul 22 2013

Oz movie screenshotA lot of people dislike this movie.

I suspect people came into the theater with inflated expectations. I would instead urge you to go back to the classic film: it told a simple story with a vivid palette of characters in a rich, colorful fantasy world. That is exactly what Oz, the Great and Powerful does.

You likely already know the premise: a young man is swept into the land of Oz, where he must fight a wicked witch.

More importantly, the movie centers on the hero’s choice. Our protagonist gets himself into trouble, then he has to decide what to do. He could turn his back on the whole situation at any time.

The actors admirably and accurately portray their intentionally one-dimensional characters. L. Frank Baum wrote simple characters; he created archetypes. That’s what you’ll get in the film.

The end of a film like this should include at least one moment where the viewer pumps a fist into the air and yells “Yeah!” That happened for me.

It’s a kid’s film, and a beautiful one.

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Cards Against Humanity (game review)

Jul 15 2013

Cards Against HumanityCards Against Humanity has an enviable reputation. Retailers can’t keep it in stock. People rave about it. It’s modular, easy to learn, and quick to play. It’s also very, very naughty.

It’s that last aspect that gives me pause. I don’t mind adult content in games, but Cards Against Humanity encourages the players towards depraved thinking for the entire game.

Quite simply: each player has a hand of cards, each of which contain a noun or noun phrase. Play goes in rounds; in each round, one player chooses a sentence cards that contains a Mad Libs-style sentence, such as “I was so relieved when I saw _____ come through the door.” The other players pass forward a card from their hands; the chooser reads each of them out, chooses a winner, and that player gets a point. Play continues until one player amasses a pre-determined number of points.

That’s the entire game. The fun lies in the nouns, which range from the wacky to the obscene. Pair those with a sentence like “Reaching into my ______, I pulled out ______” and you can imagine how dirty the game can be.

It’s a fun beer-and-pretzels game, only to be played with those not easily offended.

I must say: after playing it for about an hour, I felt my mind training itself to see the dirtiest and most bizarre interpretation of any given sentence. The game rewards depraved thought in a subtle but significant way. I felt vaguely dirty after playing it.

Still, for an evening’s entertainment, it’s hardly going to damage you, and it can be an uproarious good time.

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Forgotten Silver

Jul 08 2013

Forgotten SilverImagine a documentary about a little-known New Zealand filmmaker from the silent era. This is a man who invented the close-up and synchronized sound before anyone else…before his work was tragically forgotten. Imagine that his last work was an Biblical epic, its monstrous, life-size sets constructed deep in the New Zealand jungle.

Now imagine Peter Jackson decides to tell this man’s life.

Sounds amazing, right? A hidden gem, uncovered by Peter Jackson, who tracks through the jungle in search of an immense fantasy movie set. It’s almost too good to be true.

Because it is.

Forgotten Silver is a mockumentary by Peter Jackson himself, with cameos by Leonard Maltin, Sam Neill, and Harvey Weinstein (among others).

Its appeal lies greatly with how much you can appreciate the joke, and how much silent film footage you can take. It’s a masterful fake: all the silent film material really looks it. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie just for that aspect: imagining the creation of those fake film sequences.

And it’s wonderful to see Peter Jackson in full curator mode, talking excitedly to the camera about a passionate project. Now I know why he looks so comfortable in the Lord of the Rings behind-the-scenes videos; he brings to those the same grinning kid energy he has in Forgotten Silver.

The other people in the film echo Jackson’s intensity, which I suspect carried over into the film’s production. Everything about it feels absolutely real, from the acting in the silent movie footage to the artifacts to the celebrity interviews.

Forgotten Silver deserves to stand next to This is Spinal Tap and Best in Show as ideal examples of the mockumentary style.

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Fish and Chips, Middletown MD

Jul 06 2013


One advantage of being the only customer at a restaurant: my lunch came out in about 5 minutes.

Today, I’m wandering around Middletown, Maryland. It’s one of many Middletowns, this one nestled between two ridges. An important rest stop in the steady river of trade between Baltimore and the west during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it slid back into a sleepy backwater town as larger highways arose in the last hundred years.

Unfortunately, according to today’s experience, it now houses retirees that stand on their porches, staring sourly at passers-by. The Town Hall building stands derelict, weeds grown 2 feet high through the concrete. Of the 2 restaurants in town, 1 is closed.

So there’s not much to do here. A beautiful little garden squats in the shadow of the big church in town. The main street corner includes a curio shop, an old church converted into a jam space (“COME IN; OPEN MIC”), and a spa.

The one restaurant, fortunately, serves huge portions cooked perfectly. The fish above fell apart when I touched it, and the fries were crisp but not dry, bursting with salty potato flavor.

And then my server brought out a sweet cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries:


That was worth the trip.

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The Middle of my Media Fast

Jul 03 2013

'Running dog' by ali_gata1970 on Flickr

‘Running dog’ by ali_gata1970 on Flickr

I’m halfway through my yearly Media Fast, a week where I consume no mass media. That means no movies, no TV, no DVDs, no books, no newspapers, no magazines, no blogs, and no music.

As happens most years, I struggle most on the first day, the middle day, and the last day. I come home from work and, after making dinner and taking care of a few duties, I dive into some form of entertainment. Might be a DVD, or a podcast, or a a YouTube video.

Instead, I come home and I have a good 5 empty hours, which I can spend cooking, baking, gardening, writing, or just relaxing with a mug of tea.

When I get into the groove of my fast, I’m amazingly productive without hurrying. It feels great.

As happens most years, I’m now promising myself that I will continue in this spirit after my fast ends. Maybe I’ll give myself half an hour of entertainment for every hour of productivity.

Most years, I don’t keep it up.

Still. I wonder how much entertainment is a treadmill. Like so many things, it’s not bad in-and-of itself, but I wonder if we haven’t surrendered our time to it.

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The Apex of the Puppeteer’s Art

Jul 01 2013

StringsImagine a fantasy film about the misdirected prince of a dead king, sent out to get revenge against a neighboring nation. A movie of swords, enslavement, armies, and death.

Now imagine this is all done with stringed marionettes.

Moreover, imagine that these marionettes are aware of their strings.

Strings is an award-winning 2004 puppet movie, directed by Anders Rønnow Klarlund with puppeteering by Bernd Ogrodnik. It’s set in a fantasy kingdom of swords (very important for cutting strings) and monsters (cobbled together from leftover bodies).

The plot includes many twists, starting in the first few minutes, which I have no interest in spoiling. This is a dark story, dealing with slavery, child endangerment, mutilation (though it’s just unscrewing wooden limbs, it’s horrifying to the characters), and a few other squicky themes.

It’s also lavishly constructed and presented. The sets feel spacious and lived-in. Outdoor spaces feel like they’re actually outdoors.

The creators clearly thought through the consequences of their premise. The gate to the city is simply a bar raised over the gate. If your strings can’t get past it, neither can you.

Most importantly, only a few minutes into the film, I was completely entranced by it. These puppets act, despite no facial movement. A head dips slightly, or turns, and I could see the character thinking. Amazing.

Puppet theater has existed for many decades, of course, and Strings builds on a rich tradition filled with great skill. This is a film that showcases the apex of the puppeteer’s art.

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