creature of habit

It’s summer and I’ve once again become a creature of habit. Saturday morning means the Downtown Farmer’s Market. Even if I don’t actually need to buy anything, I go to the DFM. I may pick up a fresh-baked loaf of jalapeno-cheese bread, or fresh asparagus, or a cinnamon roll the size of a toaster, or a free-range organic artisan t-shirt printed by Thai immigrants. Sometimes you don’t know what you need until you see it.

But mostly I go to the DFM just to wander around.

farmer's market1

I almost always stop at Breakfast Delights (one week I arrived late and the line was simply too long). They’re a little outfit from Corning, Iowa (population: 1635, located on Highway 34, about halfway between Creston and Red Oak; I’m told it’s the birthplace of Johnny Carson). Each Saturday the folks who own and operate Breakfast Delights drive about 95 miles to downtown Des Moines, set up their awning and grills, and serve up delicious breakfasts (including a sausage and egg croissant that ruins you for any other sausage and egg croissant). They also follow RAGBRAI every year.You have to love a small-town caterer that will trail along with a week-long bicycle ride that runs all the way across Iowa, from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.

farmer's market4

You smell the food cooking and hear the music at the Downtown Farmer’s Market before you actually get to it. The food ranges from classic Kansas City barbecue to authentic samosas (and lassi on ice), to spanakopita, to falafel, to handmade tamales, to almond chocolate ghoriba and stuffed Mejdool dates, to fresh spring rolls, to lamb or pork cevapi sold by recent Bosnian immigrants. There’s also, of course, fresh fruits and vendors serving wheatgrass shots, and a few gluten-free specialty booths.

There are half a dozen music venues scattered throughout the DFM. As you wander up and down the streets, you might hear old-school country-western, or a jazz-fusion trio, or a multi-pierced woman playing Emotional Rescue on an electric violin, or some sort of Brazilian afro-funk quartet, or a middle-aged white couple singing the ballads of John Denver, or some serious kick-ass and nasty Chicago blues, or maybe a very sincere young woman paying an autoharp and singing cheerful songs to groups of face-painted children. And somehow it all blends in together without becoming noise.

farmer's market2

And for the last two or three weeks — mimes. Seriously. A troupe of actual, no-shit, genuine, non-ironic mimes wandering through the crowd, posing with every damned child under the age of ten. I’d no idea mimes still existed. I thought they’d all been hunted down. But I have to say, there’s something oddly inspiring about their ability to sustain that level of enthusiasm.

after the market

After the Downtown Farmer’s Market, I usually walk along the river (the DFM is within an easy frisbie-toss of the Des Moines River). Down through the flood gates, along the refurbished riverwalk — the relative quiet of the river makes for a nice transition from the busy-ness of the market itself. There are usually other walkers, a steady stream of cyclists, some folks fishing, and I can report I’ve never seen a mime by the river.

You do, though, see folks napping. Sometimes the nappers are homeless folks; sometimes they’re just over-fed, exhausted market shoppers. On occasion I may have closed my eyes down there my ownself.

after the market nap

Yesterday the river was still probably six or seven feet above its normal level, but the flooding has receded quite a bit. A couple weeks ago only the tops of the balustrade were visible, and the upper level of the riverwalk was underwater in several places. The lower level of the riverwalk — the one that’s normally just a few inches above the river itself — hasn’t been visible for weeks.

after the market2

After walking along the river for a while, it’s back home and the continuation of Saturday. I’m usually back by noon or one o’clock — a bit foot-weary, a bit heavier (although a bit lighter in the pocket), and content. 

after the market3

Every Saturday, the river is both different and entirely the same as it was the preceding Saturday. Every Saturday, the Downtown Farmer’s market is different and entirely the same as the week before. Every Saturday, with few exceptions, I visit them both.

Considering that every other day of the week is largely unplanned and schedule-free, I guess I don’t mind being a creature of habit for three or four hours one day a week.

scalia got one thing right

I’ve written about Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before, and labeled him a judicial hypocrite. That hypocrisy was apparent in his opinions on two recent Supreme Court cases.

On Monday, Justice Scalia signed on to the Court’s majority decision to strike down some provisions of the Voting Rights Act. By ‘signed on’ I mean he didn’t write an individual opinion, he simply signed the ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts. Justices always have the right to write a concurring opinion (if they agree with the majority ruling, but for somewhat different legal reasons) or a dissenting opinion. Signing the majority opinion indicates agreement with the ruling and the legal reasoning underlying it.

Why is that important? Because in overturning sections of the Voting Rights Act, the Court was overruling an act of Congress passed in 1965 and re-authorized in 2006. Justice Scalia apparently had no problem with overturning legislation that’s been in effect for nearly half a century.

antonin scalia3

This is where the hypocrisy comes in. The very next day Scalia issued an excoriating dissent in the case that overturned elements of the Defense of Marriage Act. In his dissent, Scalia wrote:

“We have no power to decide this case. And even if we did, we have no power under the Constitution to invalidate this democratically adopted legislation […] That is jaw-dropping. It is an assertion of judicial supremacy over the people’s Representatives in Congress and the Executive.”

Got that? On Monday he essentially agreed the Court could assert judicial supremacy over Congress by kicking the Voting Rights Act to the curb. On Tuesday he argued the Court can’t assert that supremacy in regard to DOMA. And he apparently sees no inconsistency in those two positions. That would be shocking in any other Supreme Court Justice, but Scalia has always shown a willingness to ignore his previous judicial positions in order to attain the ideological outcome he believes is ‘correct.’

scalia2

I dislike Antonin Scalia as a judge and as a person — but there’s no denying he’s a brilliant rhetorician. In his bombastic and vitriolic dissent of the DOMA case, he made one prescient observation. He wrote:

“By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition…. No one should be fooled; it is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe.”

And he’s right. He’s an asshole about it, of course. He apparently fails to see any irony when he suggests the people who consider gay folks to be ‘enemies of human decency’ could be labeled the enemies of human decency. But he’s absolutely right. Proponents of marriage equality will challenge the law in every state that denies same-sex couples the ability to marry.

Scalia was equally right a decade ago in his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the Court struck down the sodomy law of Texas. That effectively invalidated sodomy laws in thirteen other states, thereby making same-sex sexual activity legal throughout the United States. In his dissent in Lawrence, Scalia wrote:

“If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’ for purposes of proscribing that conduct … what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising ‘[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution?'”

There you have Justice Antonin Scalia in a nutshell. He believes ‘moral disapprobation’ should be a determining factor in what behaviors are considered legal or illegal. He’s not burdened by consistency in his judicial opinions. He mocks the people who disagree with him. He’s exceedingly intelligent.

And he’s right — about this, at least. What justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples? None, Justice Scalia. There’s no justification at all.

neither shall he eat

Seriously, just what the hell is wrong with conservative Christian Republicans? Why are they so hostile and angry and mean-spirited?

It’s not because they’re conservative; I know people who are politically conservative, but who are also rational and thoughtful. It’s not because they’re Christian; I know a lot of Christians who are caring and loving and compassionate. And it’s not because they’re Republicans; I know many Republicans who understand that governing a nation as complex and diverse as the United States requires a certain amount of compromise.

But it seems when you combine conservatism, Christianity, and Republican ideology, some sort of toxic reaction occurs. It’s like Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk — if the Hulk was capable of hypocrisy.

Stephen Fincher - conservative Christian Republican

Stephen Fincher – conservative Christian Republican

This is Stephen Fincher, a conservative Christian Republican from Tennessee. In a speech arguing against providing the poor with food assistance, he recently recited the following from 2 Thessalonians:

He who does not work, neither shall he eat.

When Fincher refers to ‘He who does not work’ he’s talking about the poor. He’s apparently under the impression that if the poor are necessarily lazy. If they had more incentive to work — say, starvation, for example — then Fincher apparently feels they’d get off their indolent asses and get a job. If he’d taken the time to study the situation — if he’d done his own fucking job — Fincher might have understood that most of the people in the U.S. who receive food assistance do work. But because so many of those jobs are low-wage jobs (thanks to members of Congress like Fincher who fight against raising the minimum wage), and because so many of those low-wage jobs don’t include health care (thanks to members of Congress like Fincher who oppose universal health care), and because so many of those workers are single mothers who need affordable day care in order to work those low-wage jobs (and thanks to members of Congress like Fincher, affordable day care isn’t so affordable any more), because of all that, food assistance is necessary for a lot of people.

Vladimir Ilych Lenin - not a conservative Christian Republican

Vladimir Ilych Lenin – not a conservative Christian Republican

Fincher, by the way, isn’t the only politician to have used 2 Thessalonians to support his political ideology. So did Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. During the Russian famine of 1918 Lenin also recited that same Biblical verse. Lenin, however, was referring to the capitalists and the wealthy who live off of the labor of others. He argued that the early stages of a communist revolution required ‘He who does not work’ to shed his expensive suit and tie and pick up a shovel, and labor alongside the workers who made him rich.

To be fair to Stephen Fincher, he isn’t entirely against government assistance. He owns a farm (on which, by the way, other people do the work while he’s in DC doing the heavy lifting for Congress). Last year Fincher received more than US$70,000 in direct government subsidies. This is money given directly and automatically to farm owners, regardless of need, even if the farm isn’t producing crops that year. The subsidies go predominantly to the largest and most profitable farm operations, rather than to small family farms. Since 1999, Fincher has received about $3.5 million dollars in direct government subsidies.

Conservative Christian Republican

Conservative Christian Republican

Let me put that in perspective. The $70,500 that conservative Christian Republican Stephen Fincher received in 2012 is nearly double the median income of Tennessee households. The average annual food assistance grant to poor Tennesseans is just under $1,600. The government gave Fincher about 43 times that much money just for owning a fucking farm. And yet he feels $1,600 is too generous for the working poor.

Tell me, what’s conservative about that? What’s Christian about that? What’s Republican about that? I’d really like an answer to that question.

VICE, fashion, and what’s truly offensive

First, let me be clear about this: I’ve always liked VICE. I’m talking about the magazine here, not about…well, let’s not get into that. The magazine, originally from Canada, where it was The Voice of Montreal. That was in 1994. A couple years later they changed their name to VICE, and three years after that, they moved to New York City

VICE has published some serious journalism. VICE has also published remarkably trashy journalism. They’ve published amazing photographs and interesting works of serious fiction; and they’ve published photos just because they’re trendy, not to mention some really shitty fiction. But I like that. I like that they’re unpredictable, even when I don’t like what they publish.

vice - chang

I like VICE, but I don’t always like what they do. And I like that I don’t always like what they do. I like it when conventions are challenged. But over the last couple of years VICE seems to be pulling shit just for shock value. Shock value is almost always heavy on shock and light on value. An example? It was VICE that sent Dennis Rodman to North Korea. There’s nothing clever in that. Sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea is as clever as a twelve year old boy’s fart joke. It’s more about being able to say ‘fart’ out loud than anything else.

But that’s not why I’m pissed off at VICE.

The current issue of VICE is the fiction issue. But nobody is talking about the fiction in the fiction issue. Why? Because VICE also published a fashion spread. Of models depicting famous women writers. Who killed themselves. In the moment they killed themselves.

The caption of each photograph includes the name of the writer depicted, the date she was born, where she was born, the date she killed herself, where she killed herself, and how she killed herself. It also includes the fashion credits for what the model is wearing, in case you want to order the tights the model depicting novelist Sanmao is hanging herself with.

vice - plath

A lot of people are understandably upset and angry with VICE for this fashion spread. I’m one of them. A lot of people claim VICE is glorifying suicide. I don’t think they are, but I see their point. A lot of people are pissed off because the photographs all depict women writers, when far more male writers have killed themselves. They have a valid argument. Some people are irate because suicide isn’t a fashion statement. I agree. 

But those aren’t the reasons I’m pissed at VICE.

VICE has since pulled the fashion spread from their online magazine. They’ve issued the standard corporate non-apology apology:



The fashion spreads in VICE magazine are always unconventional and approached with an art-editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one. Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading.

“Last Words” was created in this tradition and focused on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands. We will no longer display “Last Words” on our website and apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended.

That’s bullshit, of course. I expect VICE to be transgressive. I expect the magazine to occasionally be deliberately offensive and tasteless. I expect VICE to do stupid shit just to shock people. I expect to be offended by some of what they publish. But I never expected to be offended by the policies of VICE.

vice - sanmaoWhat I don’t expect — and what pisses me off most — is for VICE to be offensive, tasteless, and shocking for commercial reasons. The fashion spread is called Last Words, but it doesn’t include the last words of these writers. It doesn’t mention anything they wrote. Because it’s not really about last words, or about what these women wrote. It’s not even about these women at all, or that they killed themselves.It’s about selling shit. It’s about advertising income. It’s about monetizing the VICE brand.

That’s why I’m pissed at VICE. They’ve shown themselves to be the same sort of corporate swine they like to mock. If VICE wants to include a photograph of a model pretending to be Sylvia Plath about to stick her head in the oven, yeah I’ll certainly be offended — but I’d defend it as trangressive art. If they want to show a model acting like Iris Chang about to eat a handgun, damn right I’ll be offended and angry (I met Iris Chang and liked her) — but I’d still defend VICE for making art. But if they want to pull that shit just to sell a scarf and some silk tights? If they do that just to make a buck and sell more advertising? Then fuck VICE. Fuck them in the neck.

wildfire, al-qaeda, and renaissance faire terrorists

The Black Forest wildfire is being described as the most destructive in Colorado’s history. Not the largest, not the most deadly–the most destructive. In Colorado, ‘destruction’ is apparently measured by the loss of property, not the loss of habitat or the loss of life (including animal life). Two people have been killed, more than 15,000 acres have been burned, nearly 500 homes have been destroyed–so far. Officials estimate the fire is only 65% contained. It’s still burning.

The most common cause of wildfire varies widely from region to region because of differences in climate, vegetation, topography, and weather patterns. In Colorado, for example, it’s estimated around two-thirds of the wildfires are caused by lightning, whereas lightning accounts for fewer than 5% of Michigan wildfires. Still, almost all wildfires in the continental United States are either naturally occurring events or are initiated through accidental/incidental human activities (like discarded cigarettes, sparks from equipment, power line arcs, and even residual coal seam fires).

colorado wildfire1On occasion, people deliberately start a wildfire. It’s pretty rare, but it happens. I mention this for a couple of reasons. First, there are indications that people caused the Black Forest fire. That doesn’t necessarily mean the fire was started intentionally; just that humans were the most likely source of origin. The other reason I mention this is because right wing conservative nutcases have decided this year’s wildfires are acts of terrorism.

Why do they think that? Well, for once there’s some small justification to their paranoia. There’s an online publication called Inspire, which is said to be published by al-Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula. About a year ago there was an article in Inspire entitled It Is of Your Freedom to Ignite a Firebomb. The article describes how to construct and ignite an ’ember bomb’ which, according to the magazine, would preferably set off in wooded middle class suburban areas, causing a wildfire that would destroy homes and businesses.

colorado wildfire2There’s nothing like the trace scent of Islamic terrorism to set the conspiracy-minded ‘patriots’ at FreeRepublic.com frothing at the mouth. Many of the site’s members belong to the school of thought that professes if an act possibly could be terrorism, then it absolutely must be terrorism — and President Obama must be behind it. Here are some actual quotes:

Just a small outcome of having an open-border society, with a welfare state (so that undocumented terrorists can get tax-payer funded cars, gas, matches, maps).

That is why the US Congress and Obama deliberately LEFT THE borders open.

Nobody in the commie media wants to even hint at this, yet we are bombarded by lowest-common-denominator PSAs on the radio quoting “Smokey Bear” who has said FOR YEARS that “nine out of ten wildfires are caused by humans.” But, no “news”casts ever claim this. Hmmmmm….

We should kill terrorists immediately and humiliate them whenever they threaten or do terrorist acts. Leave the average American citizen alone.

Granted, the Smokey Bear emphasis was on carelessness, not malice, however the point remains that, especially today, we have every reason to believe there are enemy agents behind some or even many of the wildfires.

Probably more of Obama’s al-queerda allies.

Have you noticed that local governments and Feds are not even speculating or mentioning anything about the cause of any fire anymore? Their silence is deafening and damning politically to the communist/Islamist rulers. This could be the mother of all covered-up scandals because of the physical damage of burning homes and killing citizens.

I believe it is the Occupy Wall Street (OWS). They travel with the Renaissance Festivals, and the fires start when they come to town and stop when they leave.

I’ve heard the terrorists are just very PATIENT and of course EVIL… and their desire to kill us is #1 priority. I believe they will be striking more often and soon – I feel the Storm coming.

All “news” are passed by the white hive to make sure a lot of people don’t know the collusion and/or incompetence is cleansed and responsibility is attributed to anyone but their ilk.

Is there any evidence that any forest fire in any part of the world has been started by one of these “ember bombs”? No, none. But the singular beauty of conspiracy theories is in their elasticity — their ability to stretch to fit any set of circumstance. They not only refuse to be bound by evidence, they often perceive the absence of evidence as evidence of a deliberate cover-up.

colorado wildfire3On the other hand, Inspire magazine also published an article entitled Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom. It described how to make an improvised explosive device out of a pressure cooker. So it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that somebody could start wildfires as an act of terrorism.

But here’s the thing about terrorism, and particularly political and religious terrorism: in order for it to work, the public has to be aware an act of terror took place. It wouldn’t be enough to simply start wildfires and cause destruction; in order to create terror, the public would have to be informed who committed the act and why it was done. Terrorism is about the publicity of mass disruption. And that just hasn’t happened. This is just another loopy conspiracy theory, no different than the conviction that the president is a Muslim Socialist born in Kenya, and was elected because ACORN and the IRS conspired to commit voter fraud in order to destroy America.

I admit it — I like FreeRepublic.com. The people there are mostly rabid gun-toting lunatics whose notions of governance are, in my opinion, profoundly wrong-headed. But I’m glad I live in a nation that allows folks like that to have a voice, and for that voice to be heard.

And hey, maybe the fires really were set by renegade Renne Fair dandies. Anybody who’d serve those appalling turkey legs is capable of almost any outrage.

llamas on parade

I was surprised to learn the Llama Futurity Association, in conjunction with the International Llama Registry, was having its 2013 World Championship Show & Sale this weekend. In fact, I was surprised to learn there was a Llama Futurity Association and an International Llama Registry. But they actually exist and they were having a llama show.

I’d never in my entire life been to a llama show before. Not once. This one promised to have pack trials (I still have no idea what llama pack trials are), costume classes (sadly, the costume event was held earlier — but c’mon, llamas in costume? It is to swoon), a llama cart pulling competition (which I assume involves llamas pulling a cart), and a live auction (in case you wanted to buy an extra llama while you’re there). Was there any way I was going to miss what might be my only chance to see an international and world llama event? Hell no.

Llamas all around

Llamas all around

When we arrived, there were two events underway. The main event was a sort of llama conformation judging. Like the Westminster Kennel Club, only for llamas. A man in a burgundy coat was examining groups of llamas with a critical eye. He had them stand, he had them walk in a circle, he had them…well, stand and walk in a circle. That was pretty much it. Then he’d frown a bit and point at one, then arrange them in some sort of order and everybody mostly seemed pleased.

I confess, I didn’t give much attention to the llama conformation event, though I’m sure it was fascinating. But somebody mentioned that at the same time, at the other end of the arena, was — and I swear I’m not making this up — a llama agility trial.

Llama standing on a square

Llama standing on a square

It was described to me as the llama equivalent of a dog agility trial. As it turned out, that was a rather generous description. There was certainly an agility course — a set of standard obstacles laid out — and the entrants were required to attempt the course while an impartial judge evaluated the animal’s success at each obstacle. And it was certainly a trial for many of the contestants, both human and camelid. But the concept of agility was stretched pretty thin.

Llama standing on a raised square

Llama standing on a raised square

The llamas were required to 1) walk under an object, requiring them to lower their heads a few inches, 2) stand on a square, requiring them to stand still with all four hooves on the square, 3) stand on a platform, which was basically a square elevated to a height of maybe six inches, 4) hop over a pair of jumps approximately a foot in height, 5) walk up a ramp, turn a corner, and walk down the ramp without falling, 6) walk backwards for about a meter, 7) walk sideways for about a meter, 8) walk through a puddle, and 9) walk through a short tunnel.

Llama walking on a ramp

Llama walking on a ramp

Now, this may sound silly. And in some sense it is — it really is. Unlike dogs, many of whom seem to really enjoy running agility obstacles (or at least enjoy the interaction with their handlers), the llamas clearly didn’t give a rat’s ass about the trial. They were mostly willing to be led through the obstacles, but it didn’t take a llamaologist to see that, given the chance, they’d have preferred to just be standing around looking dignified.

llama walking backwards

Llama walking backwards

I’m told llamas are intelligent animals, and I’ve no reason to doubt that. They have a sort of lofty poise, and carry themselves with solemn stateliness. But I’m not sure anybody could claim they’re particularly agile. Only one of the llamas I watched actually completed the course without incident. With that single exception, the llamas were entirely dismissive of the small jumps; most of them just strolled right through them, not even bothering to acknowledge their existence. It was as if they were too polite to point out that some ill-bred rascal had inadvertently cluttered up the area with some planks.

Llama walking sideways

Llama walking sideways

What kept this event from being completely comical was this: the love and affection felt by the handlers for their llamas. They wanted their animals to do well, to be sure, but mostly they just seemed to enjoy being actively engaged with them. It was rather sweet to watch them together, even when the animals appeared absolutely puzzled about why in the world this human expected them to walk sideways (if llamas had thought balloons, there would have been dozens that said I’m terribly sorry, but I just don’t understand the point of this.)

One of the things that surprised me (and there were a lot of things that surprised me) was that most of the llama handlers were women — primarily young women. In fact, women seemed to be in charge of almost every aspect of the entire llama-fest. There were men and boys there, of course, and a few of them participated in the activities (it also appeared that most of the judges were men), but everywhere I looked it was women who were making things happen and keeping things running smoothly.

A girl and her llama

A girl and her llama

There’s something wonderful about events like this. There’s no money in it; the only reward is the pleasure of participating. These people brought their llamas (and a handful of alpaca) from all over the U.S. simply out of passion. And that’s beautiful.

So sure, the notion of a llama agility trial is absurd. Who cares. These folks were having fun, and the llamas didn’t seem to object very much. I’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon.

the elves all burst into song

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to re-read The Lord of the Rings this summer. It’s been a long while since I’ve read the books. I first read them when I was eighteen years old and in Basic Training. We weren’t allowed to have any books during Basic (or any other personal belongings, for that matter), but somebody had smuggled in the paperback version of LoTR — and we’d chopped them up into something like chapter-sized chunks, easily hideable. About half of my unit, desperate to read anything, passed around the various chapters, sometimes out of order, and we’d discuss the story over chow or when we were out in the field.

I’ve re-read the books a couple of times since then, and I’ve seen the movies, of course. I’m not quite sure what sparked the decision to re-read them again. Maybe the current enthusiasm for HBO’s version of Game of Thrones (which I haven’t seen, though, again, I’ve read the books). But like I said, it was a whim — and I am weak to the whim.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien

I was surprised and delighted to discover LoTR was available as an e-book, and only for something like ten dollars. So I downloaded it (unlike the print versions, all three volumes and all six books are in one large file, which makes it easy.

The first thing I noticed was the deliberate pace of the writing. I don’t think you could accurately describe it as slowly-paced, but the pacing is very deliberately moderated. Tolkien clearly wanted his readers to settle into the story, to get nestled down into his Middle Earth. That sort of pacing would, I suspect, be a hard sell for a publisher these day. I’ve no doubt an awful lot of modern readers would find the pacing off-putting, but I think it suits the story.

I was reading comfortably along, enjoying the gradual increase in tension — the discovery that Bilbo’s ring was the One Ring, the unexplained tardiness of Gandalf, the sale of Bag End to the dreadful Sackville-Bagginses, the arrival of the wonderfully spooky Black Riders. Then Frodo and Sam and Pippin, making their way through the woods, stumble upon a troupe of wandering Elves.

LOTR elvesI’d always remembered this scene with particular fondness. In part, that’s because it’s Sam Gamgee’s very first experience with Elves, and so much is made of his desire to see them. But I suspect I’ve liked this scene in part because when I first read it I was living in a barracks with forty other troops. The tranquility of the scene and the ethereal quality of the encounter was so utterly unlike barracks life. So I was prepared to be charmed. Then I read this:

The Elves all burst into song. Suddenly under the trees a fire sprang up with a red light.

“Come!” the Elves called to the hobbits. “Come! Now is the time for speech and merriment!”

Several things occurred to me at that point. First, Elves can be pretty fucking annoying. I suppose you can excuse the fact that they just start singing en masse, without any warning because…well, Elves. But the tendency to speak in exclamation points is a tad over the top. Actually, when it’s a single Elf speaking it’s not so bad, but as a group they’re awfully exclamatory.

Second, speech and merriment? Okay, they’re Elves — you can’t expect them to say “Let’s hang out, talk, drink a bit, have some fun, whaddaya say?” I get that. But there’s something about the need to announce that it’s time to talk and have fun that sort of mutes the fun of talking. They announce everything, the Elves. “Earlier was the time for walking in green woods! Then came the time for impromptu acapella singing! Now is the time for speech and merriment!”

But as you continue to read the scene, you realize there’s a great deal of speech, but not much merriment at all. What did Frodo and the Elves speak about?

The tidings were mostly sad and ominous: of gathering darkness, the wars of Men, and the flight of the Elves.

That’s awfully merriment-deficient. I’m sure orcs would think that was a hoot, but we’re talking about High Elves here. Maybe they should stick to bursting into song.

Gildor

Gildor

The third thing that occurred to me was this: Tolkien, as a writer, gets away with a lot of shit we wouldn’t tolerate in a modern writer. He gets away with it because he’s Tolkien. He didn’t invent epic fantasy fiction, but he’s the guy who single-handedly revived the genre, and that makes him an unalloyed literary badass. Only a literary badass could write this and get away with it:

The merry voice of Pippin came to him. He was running on the green turf and singing.

If a student of mine wrote that, I’d bitch-slap him ’til Tuesday. The image of a small, furry-footed being larking about on the lawn and singing like Julie Andrews on an alp is singularly ridiculous. Dude, singing and running at the same time? Really?

But because it’s Tolkien, I not only tolerate it, I embrace it. Yes, his writing is creaky and his style is outmoded and archaic. I don’t care. Yes, his dialog is sometimes (well, often) embarrassing. I really don’t care. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien provides me with speech and merriment, so he gets a pass.

“Courage is found in unlikely places,” said Gildor. “Be of good hope! Sleep now!”

I’m almost certainly going to read other books as well this summer. I’ll take occasional short breaks from reading The Lord of the Rings and dip into something without Elves. But LoTR will be the book I read last before turning out the light. I am of good hope! I may burst into song!

But probably not.