Thursday, May 29, 2008

Go, Jim Dandy!

A couple of months ago, I was sitting in Rose's sister's CRV, while Rose, Pam (sister), and Justin (nephew) were in some store, doing some shopping. I was sitting there listening to Outlaw Country on the Sirius satellite radio, when I realized I was hearing a real classic: Black Oak Arkansas's "Jim Dandy," (a song named after the lead singer, if I'm not mistaken). It was, almost literally, a blast from the past.

Picture me, some twenty-five years earlier, trying in my own quietly desperate way to develop some sort of individual identity, living in a dormitory housing more freshman students than there were in my whole high school. Worse, I was attending an east coast Ivy League university where I first heard rap music (although I admit I'd have an almost equally powerful blast from the past if I listened to Grandmaster Flash's "White Line" about now). It was a world very foreign to me.

Now, I had a single dorm room (no roommate), and back in those days, one of the things you could do was play records on your turntable, and I had a whole collection of obscure rock lp ("long-playing," that is) records scavenged from yard sales all over Licking County (this collection is long since dispersed on account of my conviction that "vinyl records are the piano rolls of the future," meaning eventually unplayable and hence valueless: I gave Jim the Grateful Dead records, I believe). Among the records I had, and played (I'll admit it), was the self-titled (or is it eponymous?) Black Oak Arkansas record. (I just looked it up on Amazon, and every song title was like the familiar name of nasty, cantankerous, straight-shooting old neighbor, the kind you're glad you moved away from, but that you still miss somehow, mostly for the straight-shooting).

So, once in a while, when I was in a funk and wanted some real country roots rock, I'd put the old Black Oak on and crank it up, to the frustration, no doubt, of my dorm mates. I suppose the only thing worse would have been if I'd been listening to the Osborne Brothers. I'd never say it was a great record, and I'd never say it was ever really a great favorite of mine (I probably listened to Thomas Dolby's Golden Age of Wireless a whole lot more), but I could probably listen to it with pleasure again--but mostly out of nostalgia, I'm sure. Warning--before you download anything from the Black Oak album, be aware that it has none of the smooth sound of "Jim Dandy": but of course, it's the rawness that you want when you listen to Black Oak Arkansas.

I'm not a fan of country music, in the main, I have to say, but Outlaw Country, on Sirius, is worth a listen: not only for the occasional oddity like "Jim Dandy," but for a lot of other reasons, too.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More memories of going postal

Tom's post puts me in mind of the campus post office at Ohio State, which was also notoriously slow and staffed exclusively by grumpy "Randy"-type clerks.

The was one clerk, in fact, who was famously mean...those of you who visited the place probably remember him: a tall, rangy guy who looked like John Cullum, the actor who played Holling on Northern Exposure, but a bit younger (and way more hostile).

Anyway, during the long waits in line, "Buckeye Randy" could regularly be seen harassing international students, yelling at people who didn't know how they wanted to send their packages, and generally being a dick to whoever had the misfortune to appear before his window.

Remember back in high school when everyone had to read aloud in class, and you'd spend the whole time before your turn trying to figure out which part of the text you'd get stuck with? It was a little like that waiting in line at that post office. Would you get lucky and and get a different clerk this time? Or was it your turn for ritual humiliation?

Well, once I went to the post office shortly before Valentine's Day, planning to buy some "love" stamps to send cards to various folks. So, naturally, I got Buckeye Randy that day. Went up and said I wanted to buy some love stamps. Suddenly, he leans dramatically across the counter, arms outstretched, and says with a leer, "Do you want some LOOOOOOOOVE?"

Needless to say, I still have nightmares about that.

The Post Office

One of the most diverting aspects of moving across the country has centered on our respective local post offices. In our old town, the downtown post office was notorious: no matter how many people were in line when you arrived, it would always seem to take fifteen minutes to do whatever you went there to do. It was as if there was no such thing as a quick trip to the post office. A long wait in line was just part of the downtown post office experience. (Things were a bit better at the new-fangled post office out on the west side of town.)

The two clerks who most frequently worked the counter at the downtown branch, however, have come to seem archetypal to us. We'll call them "Andy" and "Randy." Andy, who always opened the office at 7:30, was cheerful, efficient, and friendly, always calling me and other frequent customers by name. When, during the course of one of our chats, I told him we were getting ready for a trip to Belgium, he brought in some of his vacation pictures from Bruges to show me the next time I came by. Randy, on the other hand (who was notorious for having asked a friend of Rose's for a date while processing a postal transaction), was something else entirely. No matter how busy or calm it was, no matter how many people there were in line, Randy had only one speed for all work, and it wasn't fast. And he always seemed grumpy, too--he certainly wasn't in the habit of calling me by name. He was the kind of guy who made the fact that he dressed in costume for Halloween seem more of a challenge than a statement of his fun-loving nature.

So when we moved to Morgantown, and I became a regular at the new downtown post office, I have to admit to feeling some surprise in finding two male clerks, one who is bright, efficient and pleasant (though he hasn't started calling me by name yet), and another who is grumpy and mono-velocital. We've taken to calling them "Morgantown Andy" and "Morgantown Randy" (not their actual names, by the way).

Entirely coincidental, I'm sure, but the whole effect of the parallels has served to make the postal experience here strangely familiar, almost homey. And every trip still seems to take about fifteen minutes.

I sure hope it isn't any kind of official post office policy.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

I hate evil

For someone who claims to not really like to read "medieval fantasy," I guess I've read my share of it. I've even taught courses in it, and I have planned another for this coming fall, so I guess I should probably admit that, in some small way, I'm actually a fan of the genre. But I've got to say, as I've read more and more fantasy, I've really started to hate evil.

So, when a colleague recently loaned me a copy of Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana, with her highest recommendations, I was compelled, once I finished it, to tell her with some trepidation that it really wasn't to my taste. As I described the plot to Rose, "plucky band of adventurers roam the countryside and ultimately overcome great evil." What could be worse than that? (And, yes, I realize I've just described the plot of Lord of the Rings, too).

It was somewhat of a disappointment, since I'd recently read Kay's Last Light of the Sun, set in the equivalent of Anglo-Saxon England (in Kay's two-moon alternate world), and it actually wasn't too bad. So, over the last few months, I've read most of Kay's other novels (A Song for Arbonne, The Sarantine Mosaic, and most recently, The Lions of Al-Rassan), and I've been delighted that these other books rarely if ever have a great evil that needs to be overcome.

In fact, they have precious little magic of any sort in them, for good or evil, to the point that they make me wonder whether it's magic I really hate, rather than evil. I suppose the reality is that the more a fantasy novel makes use of magic, the more likely it is that the plot involves that same magic being used for evil. And that evil, of course, needs to be overcome. But if the magic itself is structurally equivalent to the great evil in these plots, then the victory over evil really misses the point. Or, rather, it's no wonder that the plot of fantasy novels so often involves the disappearance of magic from the world, as that's really the only way to defeat the great evil: by removing the magic that causes it in the first place.

So, to read these other Kay novels has actually been an interesting and enjoyable experience, as they operate on a very different basis, with little enough magic to keep the "evil" in the books on a quite human level: power-seeking, simple malice, lust for revenge, intolerance and fear-mongering, and the like. I guess that's the kind of evil I can get behind--at least in the sense that I think it makes a better novel.

[And it wouldn't be right to post this blog without mentioning C J Cherryh's The Paladin, which is my favorite "Sword-and-Sorcery" novel where there isn't any sorcery: it's just a "Sword-novel."]

But anyway, if you hate evil like I do, you could do a lot worse than read these novels by Guy Gavriel Kay.

Monday, May 12, 2008


The powers of Google tell me that the proverbial expression "Nothing propinks like propinquity" derives from Ian Fleming's "Diamonds are Forever," which I never would have remembered on my own (though I have read it). But the proverb itself has been on my mind, recently, as I've been thinking about the action and effect of this "Romantoes" blog.

Rose and I, of course, spent a big chunk of time in sunny Colorado, and moved (almost a year ago now, though I can hardly believe it), back to this part of the world, where a lot of people we knew in our previous life still live, including the authors of several of the blogs linkable from this one. Some of these folks we still know in our current lives, but some I haven't laid my eyes upon for many years.

Strikingly, and perhaps even inexplicably, given the much-touted ability of the internet to "erase" distances in the "real world," I actually feel like being closer to Ohio and Pennsylvania makes reading blogs like Wordshed and alt-tedium more relevant to me than if I'd read them while I was living in Colorado. Nothing, of course, would have prohibited me from reading Wordshed, say, even from Colorado, but just knowing that Pennsylvania is just up the road actually seems to make a difference somehow.

Maybe that says more about me than about the internet, but I guess I also want to say, it's nice to be here.

I am not a dancer

Just got back from the big medieval congress in Kalamazoo (if you've been there, you know all about it; if you haven't, it's a kind of academic free-for-all on virtually all things medieval, complete with full professors sleeping in cinder-block dorm rooms, as if revisiting a vanished past of their very own). Although there are more monks and nuns at the Kalamazoo congress than at most academic conferences, it is otherwise pretty unremarkable in most ways. Unlike most academic conferences, however, the Kalamazoo conference is notorious for its dance.

I went to the dance this year, and over the years, it's become clear (to me and to others, I am sure), that there are three basic kinds of medievalists: those who don't go to the dance; those who go to the dance and do not dance; and those who both go and dance (any medievalists who do not go to Kalamazoo at all, I guess, simply don't count). Middle child to the core, I belong in the middle category, I guess: I go, but I do not dance.

In my own defense, I'll just say the dance is a good chance to have a beer or two and chat with old friends (because, of course, there's nowhere else in Kalamazoo to do those things!). And while I won't name any names, the other basic reason to go to the dance at Kalamazoo is also a draw: to see which of the three categories everyone else fits into.

To see famous medievalist X, for example, shaking his or her booty (or whatever else might be shaking) to "It's Raining Men" or (even more strangely) "Bohemian Rhapsody" is, in the end, really not to be missed. But then again, it can be just as revealing to see who is willing to drink the 50-cent keg beers from the traditional plastic cups--though maybe if you're sleeping in a cinder-block dorm room, that's what you really should be drinking, after all.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's that time of the semester

To illustrate just how low the entertainment bar is for me at the moment, when final papers have fried my ability to follow any train of thought longer than a paragraph (which is about how long my students seem to be able to sustain one, too)...I present the following, inspired by video of a sleepy kitten on an edition of the Daily Show earlier this week. Who knew that entering "sleepy kitten" in the search box on YouTube would yield so many results? Or that I would be so childishly delighted by nearly all of them?

Monday, May 5, 2008

A great big snootful of spring

I knew that two of the great joys of moving back east would be fall and spring. While Colorado is certainly a beautiful place, for much of the year the plains are brown, brown, brown.

I don't think I realized just how accustomed I'd gotten to that until spring started bustin' out all over around here. The sheer greenness of everything is astounding...not to mention combined effect of that intense green with the almost psychedelic pinks, purples, reds, yellows, golds...I'd forgotten how utterly saturated with color everything is this time of year.

And then there's the scent. I'm not talking about the almost overpowering aromas of lilac, viburnum, honeysuckle, hyacinth, and the like (though those are stop-in-your-tracks amazing, too): I'm talking about the moist, earthy smell of a spring morning. Honest to god, I'd forgotten how wonderful that smell is.