Thursday, November 19, 2015

Crocodile Tears

In view of this past week's events in Paris, this seems like a good time to stop and reflect, as Americans and world citizens, on the actions we should take and the kind of world we want to live in. I was uncomfortably reminded the other night--when I heard of the calls for sending more troops to the Middle East--of some of the consequences unleashed by 9/11. Up until now, it seems that many of our interventions in the region have only created new problems, so I'm not sure how people can be so convinced we'd see better results this time, but they'll tell you they are.

To me it seems that many suggestions for fighting terror are "after the fact" remedies, whereas it would be more constructive to address the causes of terrorism at the root. In medicine, the principle for good health is "an ounce of prevention"--why shouldn't this apply to geopolitical conflicts as well? I've heard people well-versed in the politics of the region discuss such factors as global warming, joblessness, and sectarian divisions as having a role in much of the violence that's occurred in recent years. At the same time, many people are trying to understand the success jihadists have had in recruiting members from other countries, so it's obviously a multifaceted problem.

Unfortunately, it's my impression that some of our leaders, despite what they say, are not as committed as they ought to be to really eradicating terrorism. War profiteering is a real thing; there's a lot of money to be made in that arena, and some of the people responsible for decision-making in matters of security have conflicts of interest that make you wonder how they could possibly be the best judges of these things. This is not to say that war is never justified, only that some of the people making these life and death decisions for us don't have the purest basis for doing so.

I'm regularly put off by discussions in which people attempt to discredit someone's argument based solely on who he or she is: "What do you expect from a Democrat?" or "What do you expect from a Republican?" does nothing to touch on the logic of what's being said. But it's naive not to consider a person's motives when you're weighing positions he or she takes on high-stakes issues that are more a matter of conjecture or professional opinion than pure logic. Someone may sound quite reasonable when they speak of Middle East policies, but what are they leaving out? How is their position influenced by factors you're not aware of? In some cases, decisions may be shaped by nothing grander than self-interest and profit motives. That's why, when I hear the hand-wringing over the killings in France, I wonder at the disingenuousness of some of the actors involved; the phrase "crocodile tears" comes to mind, and it's only too apt, I'm afraid.

I think it's a good idea to take the long view of any solutions the United States considers, in concert with other nations, in response to terrorism. The solutions that seem more likely to result in lasting peace would likely require wisdom, time, patience, and a re-evaluation of some of our past policies. I've often wondered why more isn't done to eliminate the financing of terror groups, for instance, but I'm afraid the answer is that in some cases we haven't wanted to look too closely at the sources of their support because of what we might see.

The problem of terrorism reminds me of a Mobius strip; some of the efforts to "fight it" only feed into it, and this is according to many people more familiar with the situation than I am. It's a loop that doubles back into itself, all of a single piece, where terrorists and their would-be antagonists are, at times, indistinguishable. It's like one of those M.C. Escher pieces in which stairways lead crookedly in all sorts of wild directions except the true one, or like Jorge Luis Borges' Library of Babel, in which an entire universe of books, an infinite trove of them, leads to boundless searching, bottomless to-and-froing, and endless climbing up and down--but never ever, not once, to any meaningful answers.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

L.A. Sees a Shooting Star

A news item showed up this week about a strange light in the skies over Southern California last Saturday night. I almost didn't read the article (because when isn't something odd happening in Southern California), but the story came with an amusing video shot by some excitable kids as well as descriptions of a host of reactions from residents. There were anxious calls to authorities and theories about UFOs and meteors, but the reality turned out to be somewhat more, well, if not mundane, at least more terrestrial in nature.

A ballistic missile submarine conducting a test fired the unarmed missile from off the coast, creating a spectacular display that was apparently visible even across state lines. The submarine was the USS Kentucky, conducting a test that was routine but unannounced--hence all the nervous speculation from the public. Yes, the USS Kentucky, but don't go thinking I had anything to do with it. Do I look like I know how to drive a submarine? Besides, I was thousands of miles away, in actual Kentucky, exiting Starbucks to avoid some excessive and unconscionable oversharing at the next table, though this may have happened a little in advance of the missile test.

But I don't have to have been there to imagine it. Over on Melrose, conversations over organic salads and vegan sandwiches would have ground to a halt as trendy diners tried to figure out if this was part of a filming; some of the beachgoers in Santa Monica and Malibu may have wondered if California was under attack--up at the Getty Center, people may actually have ducked. Near the observatory, a shooting star might have seemed quite plausible, while in the line at Diddy Riese, the UCLA kids must have had a field day with their cell phones. I'm not sure how much time people in Beverly Hills spend on their lawns; if someone was having a party, there may have been speculation about it all being a stunt for their amusement. Up in Topanga Canyon, it might have seemed like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Maybe in Watts, someone had a glimmer of the truth.

If it had happened here, I'm sure there would have been, likewise, a variety of theories, but the Age of Aquarius probably wouldn't have been one of them; the Second Coming, maybe, but not the Age of Aquarius. We see the world through the lenses we're used to using, but I imagine explanations for what was happening would have run a similar gamut. Such an unexplained event is bound to turn into a Rorschach test of sorts.

The article didn't say whether the test made any noise or not, but if it didn't, I think it was a missed opportunity. A little sonic boom to shake up the cocktails on the rooftop bars and rattle the teacups at the Huntington Tea Room would have been just the thing for a full-on Night of Mystery. The video I saw featured no sound but that of a bunch of girls yelling as a radio played in the background, which was entertaining but provided little context.

When I read the article, to tell you the truth, I had a whimsical thought, which was that the whole thing reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter's song, "Halley Came to Jackson." It's a very sweet song about the effect of Halley's Comet on the inhabitants of a small town in 1910 Mississippi. For the people in Jackson, the coming of the comet is a visit from heaven, a time of celebration, awe, and wonder, as well as the occasion for a little well-placed wish-making. So Cal may not seem to have much in common with Mississippi, and perhaps it doesn't. (I can tell you, though, that even places as disparate as L.A. and Lexington KY are a lot more like each other than you might guess, and I know, because I've seen both of them.)

So I say that if you choose to "dream a little dream of a comet's charms," as Ms. Chapin Carpenter says, well, why not? A practical explanation may be perfectly true but doesn't rule out the phenomenology of the miraculous. Many of the people observing the mystery light experienced a sense of the marvelous, and who's to say they're wrong? Not I. My theory is that all proper wishes made on celestial objects on the supposition that they're shooting stars count. Unarmed missile, ball of gas and dust, what's the difference? I'm not being facetious--it's bound to beat anything you'll see on TV this week. I'm just glad someone else knows how to work the submarine.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Three or Four Views of Florence

I spent some time tonight looking up paintings by artists of the Italian Renaissance described by another writer in her memoir of Italy. Whether it was something in her descriptions that moved me or the power of the paintings themselves speaking through her (or both), I'm not sure--but I made a note last night to get online and look for digital versions of the works. Many of the frescoes, paintings, and statues she mentions are familiar to me from a long-ago art class as well as my own brief visit to Florence years ago, but I hadn't thought about them in a while.

One of my clearest memories from my visit is climbing Giotto's Tower on a sunny afternoon and seeing the hilly Tuscan countryside, already resident in my imagination from that undergraduate art class, unroll in full, three-dimensional life from horizon to horizon. I have been trying to think of the word that describes that experience--it wasn't surreal, or even hyperreal, though it was more than a little magical, like any experience in which something beautiful, imagined, and hoped for turns out actually to exist in the material world. Saying that I had a sense of shocked (delighted) recognition probably comes closest to the truth.

While looking tonight at online versions of Fra Angelico's frescoes in the monastery at San Marco, I started to think I was right about a suspicion I began forming last night that this monastery was also a place I'd visited on my trip. I recall being in an ancient and intensely cold thick-walled building, traipsing around from monk's cell to monk's cell with the tips of my fingertips practically blue, looking at some famous art. The author of the memoir I'm reading was obviously not there in November, since she said nothing about cold and was apparently at leisure to contemplate the paintings without brain freeze or actual frostbite entering the picture (in fact, I believe she was there in late spring). Tuscany was beautiful in the sunshine but also turned out to be surprisingly cold, especially in some of those venerable interiors.

I was only in Florence briefly but formed an impression of an elegant and severe beauty softened by the enfolding countryside. The author of the memoir, who knows Florence intimately, writes of the simple happiness she experienced sitting in public squares, visiting shops, observing architecture and people, and partaking in the rituals of daily life. She made me believe that many of the things I only glimpsed in my brief stay would be there waiting for me should I ever chance to make my way back. Dante, Giotto, cappuccino, gelato--what more could you possibly hope for?

It was only on the heels of reading an excellent crime novel set in Florence that I decided to revisit Ms. Harrison's (also beautifully written) memoir. I picked up the novel at the library a few weeks back, thinking it would be interesting to read something set in a city I had visited and found intriguing. I hardly recognized Florence in the novel, which was written from the point of view of an embittered ex-policeman turned private investigator. Though he obviously loved his city, it was a love without illusions, born of long experience as a police officer. He saw it with warts intact, cheap cafes and sketchy riverside districts included. I believe I imagined him as something of a latter-day Dante, with the poet's somewhat embittered love for a place that had turned its back on him.

Contrasting my memories with the points of view of a fictional Italian PI and an Italian-American memoirist has taught me several things: Florence is prone to devastating floods (I must have missed all those historical markers); there is a place called the Boboli Gardens that evidently didn't figure prominently in our guidebook; I didn't spend nearly enough time just sitting in piazzas; and if I ever go to Florence again, it will surely be in the spring. I hadn't even read Dante in a serious way the last time I was there, so that alone is reason to go back. I trust and believe that the Tuscan landscape is still as beautiful and inspiring as it was 26 years ago, and that my own eye, veteran of many more sunsets, sunrises, and hilltop views since then, will appreciate it even more.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


The fall colors are turning fiery, the autumn wind is blowing ("O, wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being"--Shelley), and my Halloween cookies are baked. This, then, is my Halloween post. I'm always bemused by Halloween. As a kid, all I had to do was dive in and enjoy it, which I did. Once you grow up, and going around asking people for candy (with every expectation that they'll give it to you) is no longer an option, your choices, in my opinion, are much less satisfying.

You can become the kind of adult who goes to costume parties cleverly attired as a zombie or a politician and stands around drinking spiked punch, or you can be the kind that sets out spooky and/or humorous yard displays and hands out candy to the kids. There's also a third set of options if you're like me and live in an apartment building that doesn't get pint-sized trick-or-treaters or offer any lawn decoration opportunities--in which case, you can either do nothing, watch a scary movie, set out a themed candle or candy dish, or bake cookies in Halloween shapes. Since your actual responsibilities are zilch, any degree of participation is up to you. 

I usually just think about how much I enjoyed Halloween as a kid, feel a bit nostalgic, and eat some cookies (I used to set out a "pumpkin" candle holder, but I think it's in the back of the cabinet somewhere). I'm guessing that most people with kids at home re-live their childhood memories by making Halloween fun for their own children, and that sounds to me like a reasonable way to approach things. 

Many people will disagree with me on this, but I'm not really a fan of adults dressing up as ghouls and things on Halloween. One of the things I remember about childhood Halloweens was that the fun was anchored in a sense of safety. You were wandering around outside after dark in a way you never would normally, dressed as someone you definitely were not, tripping over your hem and wearing a mask, and there was certainly something at large, a special Halloween spookiness. Then you'd knock on someone's door and a solid and ordinary-looking adult that you'd seen dozens of times would answer with a bag of Butterfingers or boxes of Milk Duds, reminding you that no matter how thin the membrane between ordinary reality and the otherworld on All Hallows Eve, you could reach out and touch normal reality at any time. When there are too many big people running around in masks, it starts to seem more like real pandemonium.

I have a prejudice against masks. I was thinking about this the other night and how much in the minority I may be on the issue when I happened to read, in a memoir, about someone else's distaste for masks in the context of her visit to Venice. I think my dislike stems from the knowledge that the human face itself is a mask par excellence, requiring much skill and patience to read. If the human countenance is already a disguise (and I admit that it may sometimes be a protective disguise--a necessary thing), adding additional layers of covering seems to complicate reality a bit too much. It's a little like Inception, the movie in which dream architects find a way to enter into and function in alternative layers of consciousness, making base-level reality difficult to ascertain after a while. Which face is really yours, this one or that one?

I'm not against costumes, though. Who doesn't like to dress up? My idea of fun would be to separate the adult festivities from the children's on All Hallows, so that the adults were there to supervise the kids on Halloween and then had their own parties on All Saint's or All Soul's day. I could see saying something like, "OK, the theme is the Eighteenth Century." Or possibly, "Come as your favorite character from either Shakespeare or Mark Twain. Interpret this any way you like--only no masks." I think the fun of seeing people caught in an out-of-context sartorial challenge would be much greater than trying to figure out who's behind what mask.

You'd always have to keep a few straw hats or jerkins on hand for people who showed up without one, and you'd have the burden of trying to figure out what kind of food to serve to people dressed up as Mozart or Martha Washington. But it would be worth it, wouldn't it?

Thursday, October 22, 2015


Last week, I didn't wax poetic about the beauties of autumn, so this week, I will. A lot of us have mixed feelings about fall, but it has its compensations. Why it is that I find myself wanting to write about it in rapturous tones every year might seem a bit mysterious, since it actually isn't my favorite season. I've thought about that, and here's what I think explains it: the movement of summer into fall is more momentous than anything else in the year other than the transition from winter into spring.

Around here, spring changes into summer almost imperceptibly, and there's not that much difference between a day in late autumn and an average winter day, at least to look at. All the bright colors of mid-autumn, the golden light, and the harvest festivals mark the culmination of the year and its fulfillment. It's a burst of exuberance before things settle down for the long sleep of winter. Underlying the celebration is the knowledge that the light and warmth of summer are going, and there's cold and snow and windshield-scraping somewhere ahead, but somehow you don't think about that on a beautiful Indian summer afternoon with leaves drifting lazily down and acorns crunching underfoot.

I seem to recall past times when fall colors were brighter than they have been in recent years--I may even have read something about climate change potentially affecting the vibrancy of autumn leaves--but I'm not sure I could reliably call it a trend. It does seem to me that both spring and autumn have been somewhat delayed in their arrivals of late. On the other hand, I remember a particular autumn day in college when a class held outside a few days before Thanksgiving had the benefit of a gorgeous blue sky and leaves of every riotous hue imaginable still on the trees. I usually think of October as the colorful month, but that's proof it isn't always the case.

You can be happy in any season. I've been elated on gloomy days and out-of-sorts on sunny ones and think it's best to let the seasons be the background to life, not the map to it. Still, it's never bad to enjoy the things that only happen at certain times of the year. Emerson said that "each moment of the year has its own beauty . . . a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again." Earlier this evening, for instance, when I took something to the recycling bin, I glanced toward the west and noticed, behind the trees, a sunset not particularly showy but unique in being a particular shade of orange I don't remember seeing in the sky before. I had to look at it for a minute to try to figure out what it was. Apricot? Peach? The color of a creamy orange sherbet, melted in a bowl? A quiet color, but a pretty one, framed by houses and subtly variegated foliage, and I bet I never see another sunset quite like it.

If there's any poet who captured the feeling of autumn successfully, it has to have been Keats. I think of his ode "To Autumn" every fall, and various lines about "mellow fruitfulness" and "ripening to the core" start running through my head round about September each year. There's his famous personification of autumn as a woman(?) winnowing her hair in a barn, a sort of late-in-the-year Botticelli or Pre-Raphaelite type, I would guess. A lovely image, and a poetic one, though I can't help thinking that if I had a barn and saw such a creature sitting in it, I'd have to ask her what she was doing there. It's my practical streak, at war with my aesthetic side. (You never know--she might be the Loathly Damsel.) Even poetry has its limits.

But enough of that . . . it's almost time to start baking gingerbread cookies for Halloween.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mythologizing the Election

Well, it's October in Kentucky, which may not be quite the same thing as Morning in America, but it's pleasant enough weather-wise. I could wax poetic about the golden afternoons, the bluebird I saw on my walk tonight, how pretty the sumacs are, or any of a number of other things, but it's also election season, with thoughts turning not just to this year's contest but to next year's presidential race. The debate season is now underway for both major parties, and the jockeying for attention will only get more intense as time goes on.

So what's a mythologist to do? My feeling that politics is a strange business remains undiminished and actually increases the more I see. It seems to me that there's a lot of "mythologizing" going on, which has probably always been the case but is something I'm more attuned to now. I wish these mythic plays were for the benefit and edification of all but it really seems to be just another way of manipulating perceptions. We were told, when I was in grad school, that politicians and other officials use mythologists and archetypal psychologists to help craft their messages, and even if I didn't know that, I'd suspect it. The one about it being time for the Great Mother to assume the reins of power has been getting especially heavy play.

I'm not a journalist (unless I'm an occasional mytho-journalist, which I guess could be a thing), and this isn't a place where you're likely to find political endorsements. I have more ideas on who shouldn't be elected than on who should be and am more convinced than ever that things are rarely what they seem in politics, where a lot of sleight of hand takes place. I watched the rise of Bernie Sanders this summer with interest, reading as much as I could to try to assess him, his background, and his policies. The word out among many of his followers was that he wasn't being treated by the media with the same seriousness as Hillary Clinton, and it's true that I would sometimes go straight from reading an article about a huge crowd he'd attracted to yet another headline talking about how unelectable he was.

It did seem that some of the coverage was slanted against Senator Sanders, though it got to such a point of ridiculousness after a while that I wondered if it wasn't actually helping him in some quarters by making him a more sympathetic candidate (and could that even have been the intention?). I know that sounds Machiavellian in the extreme, but if I were a novelist, I'd have no trouble coming up with a plot in which a political party hedges its bets by manipulating voter perceptions so that they believe they have a real choice when in fact all the flavors are actually vanilla. They just look different in the freezer.

I applaud most of Senator Sanders' political views, and I think he's absolutely right about the need for people to become more involved in their government. If he's elected, he won't be able to bring about the kind of changes he talks about without strong support from the electorate and the cooperation of other officials. I've been through the bread and roses talk of promising candidates before and have seen it come to nothing, though I do give him credit for consistency in his views. He has been saying the same things for a long time. And I was surprised at all of the criticism directed against him over the Black Lives Matter activists this summer, which seemed to me rather peculiar. Bernie Sanders, clueless on race? That seems like a stretcher. I honestly think if you're looking for someone who would work hard against institutional racism, it would be Sanders. When Mrs. Clinton met with BLM activists this summer, she came across as tense and almost hostile in the encounter but somehow received less criticism on this score than Mr. Sanders. Strange.

I am concerned about the admiration Senator Sanders expresses for not only President Obama but also Vice President Biden and Mrs. Clinton. I see all of them as mainstream, establishment politicians cut from the same cloth, part and parcel of some of the very problems Mr. Sanders wants to fix. I'm not running for president, and he is, and I suppose it's not politically savvy for someone who's only recently joined the Democratic Party to express anything but respect for its major players (aside from the fact that Sanders has said repeatedly that he doesn't want to run a negative campaign). I think sticking to the issues is commendable, but I hope it doesn't extend to a partisan "circling of the wagons" in the event, for example, that negative information does come to light from the Benghazi committee or some other source.

Many people are talking about the "people are tired of your damn emails" comment from Senator Sanders to Mrs. Clinton on the debate stage Tuesday night. Perhaps Mr. Sanders thinks it's better to steer clear of the topic until (and if) there's more "there" there, but I question his assertion that people "are tired" of the emails. Rather, it seems to me that people are actually concerned about some of Mrs. Clinton's practices as Secretary of State and that this has been reflected in the polls. While there has been some political theater around the Benghazi committee, I think the fact that Clinton's email practices became common knowledge in the course of its inquiries suggests that perhaps the prior investigations missed some things.

Senator Sanders qualified his comment after the debate by saying that he felt the investigative process needed to play itself out, which to me is different than saying it's not an important issue. I would have liked it better if he'd made this comment during the debate rather than afterwards and hope that neither Senator Sanders or anyone else will object if negative information comes out about the Obama administration or any other entity. Truth shouldn't be a partisan perception, as I think Mr. Sanders would agree, if he's the politician many people hope he is.

Well, to paraphrase Bette Davis in All About Eve, "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride"--as always, when it comes to politics. And I haven't even talked about the Republicans.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Congratulations--You're a Grail Author

When I started reading (or actually, finishing) a children's book series in July that dealt with British mythology, I didn't know I'd be spending a month's worth of blog posts writing my own version of the Grail story. It was completely unplanned, as my blog posts usually are. I found out, though, that I haven't been able to let go lately of what's sometimes called the Matter of Britain, a key part of which is the Grail literature. It's not all that surprising since I've never really gotten over my fascination with King Arthur, the Round Table, and the Grail that started around age eight. It only takes a little encouragement to reignite the spark.

From what I can tell, Arthurian studies is a subset of medieval studies (or possibly Celtic studies, depending on whom you ask), and Grail literature is a further subset of that, so it's sort of like that riddle wrapped in a secret rolled up in an enigma that you've heard about (apologies to Winston Churchill). My initial research into this area a few years ago showed me that there's a lot of controversy surrounding the "origins" of the Grail material. It's a fascinating subject, but the great thing about just trying to tell the story is that you don't really have to worry about who's right or wrong on all of that. There are many versions of the Grail story, and while there are common elements, there are so many differences between them that it's hard to say just what the "official" story actually is. There really isn't one, unless you consider Chretien de Troyes' version as a starting point (and he actually didn't finish his).

I really just thought it would be fun, considering all the different versions of the story that are out there, to put together my own narrative with all the parts I like and some bits of my own thrown in. Being completely ad hoc and spontaneous, it's certainly no more the cat's pajamas than any other version (and probably less so), but it did satisfy my yearning to tell a cohesive story, and more than that, to try to get at that most elusive idea of all--what is the Grail, exactly, and what does it mean?

What initially attracted me to the story as a child had something to do with this indeterminacy. Arthur's world, as I experienced it, had a mysterious quality that made it hard to pin down. While the setting had an ostensibly Christian background, there were supernatural elements that made it uncanny--wizardry, inanimate objects with a life of their own, strange beasts, magical occurrences, and an atmosphere both solemn and eerie. It didn't belong to the world of fairy tales exactly, but it seemed to hail from some long ago and far away iteration of medieval Britain, or at least a through-the-looking-glass version of it. There was nothing else like it.

Anyone familiar with the Grail story in any of its renditions would have recognized in mine such standard features as the Quest, the Grail Castle, the Maimed King, the Perilous Bed, the Chapel of the Black Hand, and the Loathly Damsel. I didn't necessarily order the elements in the same way or put them to the same use as other writers have done, being most concerned with just playing around and seeing what I could come up with within the broad outlines of convention. In other words, I did the same thing as everyone else and used artistic license.

To my own ear, my version picks up on some of the tragedy depicted in renderings such as Tennyson's, in which the Quest for the Grail, ostensibly begun as a high adventure, is actually the beginning of the unraveling of the Round Table. I initially thought Gawain's stay in the Grail Castle might be somewhat light-hearted, more in the spirit of Wolfram von Eschenbach's humorous telling, but as soon as Gawain encountered the lions in the vestibule, things started going in a different direction. I initially pictured the great hall of the Grail Castle as a more welcoming place, comfortable and luxurious, but then a monkey appeared on the candelabra and things took on a more haunted aspect. To be true to what I think of as the spirit of the stories, I had to adhere to a serious tone, though I found Gawain's (understandable) reactions to things to be sometimes humorous.

If you were expecting Perceval, Galahad, or Lancelot as the hero and wondered why Gawain is in there, that's easy. Gawain does appear in some of the traditional stories as a Grail knight, and I consciously settled on him because I wanted more of a workaday, everyman knight than a paragon. Given all the fantastic adventures he was about to encounter, I thought a more lucid, practical-minded character would be a better foil to the general strangeness than a saint would be. While Gawain is a fine knight, he is also a human one, and I wanted someone I could relate to, someone whose reactions I could understand. (This isn't necessarily the way I would have seen the story as a child, when all of the knights seemed much alike to me, but as an adult I tend to differentiate more.)

It was for that reason also that I left out the Siege Perilous, a motif that appears in some of the traditional stories in which the Chosen Knight, by reason of his superiority, is the only one who can occupy a certain seat in the King's Hall without coming to grief. I always liked the idea of this seat, which by some kind of magic is able to differentiate the true from the false (sort of like the Sword in the Stone can select the true king), and I thought about putting it in. I decided against it because in the end it seemed contrary to both the character of Gawain and the theme of my story, insofar as it has one.

Well, you might be saying, fine, but what about those things you didn't explain--like what did the running girl throw in front of the knight that caused the horse to stumble? What was all that about? (The answer is: I don't know, though maybe it'll come to me one night while I'm making dinner or mopping the floor. All I know is this was not a damsel who required rescuing.) Well, then, you ask, what about the Grail, huh? Did you, Wordplay, ever get around to saying exactly what that is?

As far as that goes, I'm not one of those who think a satisfying Grail story is a reductionist one. I will say that to me, the old myths and tales of the magical horn or cauldron of plenty seem to have a strong echo in the Grail, so that there is the idea of a mysterious source of abundance. It's obvious though, that this source of bounty, whatever it is, is tied to much more than just material plenty, seeming to be not only somewhat ambiguous in nature but also somewhat self-referential. If you're wondering how many times the Grail actually appeared in the story, and whether the cup in the Grail castle is the same Grail that appeared in Arthur's hall, I've got to say, those are some really good questions.

I thought I could tell the Grail story in one post, or at the most two, and was really surprised when it took four. I sat down to do each one feeling some enjoyment as the story unfolded but also the dread of someone who's taken on an ambitious project. It was dissertation time all over again! It seemed kind of brazen, to be honest, but I started it on the spur of a moment, and once started, it seemed best to go through with it, one of my motivations actually being to find out what was going to happen.

Somewhere along the way, I started thinking about the great Henry James, a writer whose labyrinthine prose both fascinated and infuriated me when I read him at an earlier stage of life. At the end of his novel The Wings of the Dove, one character says to another something to the effect of, "Well, let's just go back to the way we were before all this happened." And the other character says, quite simply, "We can never be as we were." I had that in mind as I wrote my ending, as something of that spirit of change seems to permeate the Grail story as I understand it.

As for Gawain, I hope he got a good dinner and a good night's sleep after his return, but whether he did or whether he didn't, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.