Tears of a Clown

A few words today about actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died yesterday in tragic circumstances. He was a fixture of my entertainment landscape since childhood, a mercurial clown who seemed to pop up everywhere with the right quip on the tip of his tongue, the funniest and smartest guy in whatever room he happened to occupy. I didn’t enjoy all his work, but when he was good, he was very, very good. He made me laugh, and he made me think, usually at the same time, just trying to keep up.

This is a moment I particularly enjoyed, from the film Dead Poets Society, in which Williams portrays a teacher with a singular talent for inspiration:


Robin Williams was a man blessed with a genius for assuming a thousand identities in rapid succession, at a moment’s notice, but it seemed to me as I watched him over the years that he was unmoored from his own identity—a brilliant chameleon struggling to remember the original color and pattern of his own skin. He battled addiction and depression, common hazards of his chosen profession.

Here’s another humorist who was battered by depression, and an image of how it might have felt:


masksComedians, in their private lives away from the spotlight, are often profoundly unhappy people. Not always, but often. Part of what gives comedy its satiric bite is a keen awareness of all that is fundamentally wrong with the state of mankind. The injustices. The petty indignities. Promises unkept and expectations unmet. Routine evil and casual horror. The savagery lurking beneath our thin veneer of civilization.

It’s no accident that the iconic symbol of the dramatic arts pairs comedy with tragedy.

Comics are the little child who, alone among the multitude, ridicules the naked emperor. They’re the Shakespearean fool who deals in snide, ugly insights the king’s advisors could never dream to utter. They’re the wild-eyed eccentric standing on the corner in tattered clothes, waving a dirty square of cardboard with a greasy black scrawl: Repent, for the End is Nigh.

They force us to confront that from which we turn away, covering our eyes. They dispense harsh realities in tiny, colorful pills, candy-coated with laughter. We’ll comprehend the bitter truth later, after a season of digestion, but it will do us good. The best comedians lift a measure of life’s burden from our shoulders for a moment, even as they open our minds and prick our consciences, and we love them for it.

But who bears their burden after the show’s over, after the crowd’s gone home and the floor’s swept, when they’re left alone in the darkness and the silence on an empty stage to contemplate this broken world they see all too clearly?

Who offers laughter to the clown?

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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in General, Opinion


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Random Randomness, 8/8/2014

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!” – Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This has been a grim couple of weeks, no matter how I stack it up. It’s hard to get excited about writing random little escapist fantasy stories or even generate the minimal wit required to frame a few clever anecdotes when there’s so much real life going on in the world right now. Take your pick: war, genocide, epidemic, storms, revelations of discord among the cast of Saved By the Bell…there’s no end to it.

However, I suppose this might be when we most need the frothy stories and a healthy appreciation of the absurd. On to the comic relief!

CAM00963Kids, Don’t Try This at Home—I’m a Professional: Speaking of disasters, this is what it looks like when you break a tablet.

In your driveway.

With a Jeep.

This was a textbook-worthy example of a seemingly-random chain of mundane events leading inevitably to a shattering mishap, facilitated by a dunderhead.

Dunderhead: airhead, birdbrain, blockhead, bonehead, bubblehead, chowderhead, chucklehead, clodpoll…

comet_CGSome Things are Best Appreciated From a Distance: One bright note in the news was the arrival of the ESA Rosetta probe at Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (try saying that three times fast) after a ten-year voyage that required some sophisticated gravitational slingshotting to match the comet’s velocity and put the spacecraft into a 100 km orbit around it. Rosetta is the first spacecraft to complete a rendezvous with a comet rather than fly by, and none have come closer to the nucleus. Rosetta will follow Churyumov-Gerasimenko on its journey around the sun and deploy a tiny lander in November to explore the comet’s surface and collect samples.

Unfortunately, Churyumov-Gerasimenko resembles some random oddment my dog hacked up, but let’s try not to think about that. Slate has posted a nice gallery of images collected by Rosetta.

sparkI Need a Hero(ine): There’s been a clarion call of late for more “kick-butt” heroines in literature, comics, videogames, and film, which has me scratching my head because I had no idea there was a shortage. I could offer a long list of my favorite posterior-smiting women of valor (hmm, that sounds wrong, somehow), but there wouldn’t be room left on the page for my deathless prose.

Anyhow, this comic seeking a Kickstart looks like fun—it’s called Spark, and it features 9-year old Lucia Marquez-Miller as the newest superhero on the block, taking down the bad guys and gals with her radical telekinetic gadgetry powers. And here’s another one for a slightly older audience, The Adventures of Superhero Girl, which just won an Eisner Award for Canadian artist Faith Erin Hicks. And yet a third, Rocket Girl, about a time-traveling teen cop, a tale very impressive in both artistry and storytelling—and which I would have reviewed in full by now if a random goof hadn’t run over the tablet where my review copy resides.

Not the goof I'm talking about, though there's an uncanny resemblance.

Not the goof I’m talking about, though there’s an uncanny resemblance.

Goof: dolt, ignoramus, knucklehead, lamebrain, meathead, moron, nimrod, nincompoop…









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Book Review – Escape, by T.M. Hunter and Lyndon Perry

escapeAfter Max McCannor’s father departs for California to seek new markets for his inventions, leaving Max in the care of his grandparents, a tragic accident lands Max in the New York Charitable Orphanage for Wayward Boys and Girls. This institution is even less hospitable than it sounds, and after several years of cruel abuse from its caretakers, Max plots an escape, planning to make his way to Chicago and the home of his Aunt Maggie, his only remaining relative, whom he hopes will provide safe haven and some clues to his father’s whereabouts.

Max and his friends break out of the orphanage and begin their desperate journey to find his long-lost father, dodging the local authorities and running afoul of a thug in the pay of the orphanage keepers along the way. A few narrow escapes later, they find themselves in an explosive showdown aboard a dirigible bound for Chicago. Will they make it to safety? Even if they survive, will they be captured and sent back to the orphanage? Is there any hope Max’s father is still alive?

Escapeby T.M. Hunter and Lyndon Perry, is the first book in their series, The Adventures of Max McCannor, where we meet Max, his friends, and his enemies, and are drawn into his quest. The story quickly sets the stage and drops a few hints that this isn’t quite the history of Victorian-era America we know. It moves at a brisk clip without minimizing the hardships Max and his friends endure at the orphanage, nor the greater dangers they face after their escape. Max quickly steps into the leadership role for his group, though not without a few challenges along the way—and his adventure has only just begun.

Some details of the technology are a little hazy—the orphans manage to accidentally start up a disused steam-powered generator without stoking a coal-fired boiler or other visible heat source, and there are some lift-to-weight problems inherent in using a steam engine to power an airship (not to mention the hazard of igniting the lifting gas). There have been small steam-driven airships in our world, so a larger one’s not unreasonable given some differences in physics or technology in this alternate Earth, and I expect more information will emerge in later episodes. Anyhow, part of a steampunk story’s fun is the plethora of rococo steam- and clockwork-powered gadgetry spawned by mad science somehow gone right, and paying too much attention to how it all might or might not work in real life isn’t really the point.

Escape is an exciting adventure written for young-adult / middle school readers, but anyone who enjoys a perilous romp through the Age of Steam will find it a fun read. Some parental guidance may be appropriate for younger readers—there are some potentially disturbing descriptions of abuse at the orphanage and a few other situations where children are threatened or injured.

Link to purchase Escape

T.M. Hunter’s webpage

Lyndon Perry’s webpage

>>This review is based upon a copy of the book provided to me free of charge by the publisher, a courtesy I appreciate, but which does not guarantee my recommendation. I strive to evaluate every book I review purely on its intrinsic merits.<<


Posted by on July 24, 2014 in Book Reviews


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Review – Manga Classics: Les Misérables

lesmiz2Though most of us by now have at least a passing familiarity with Victor Hugo’s epic multi-volume tale of post-Revolution France via the theater and cinema, or perhaps a few foggy memories from a week or two of high school literature class, far fewer can truthfully claim to have read the work cover-to-cover. That’s a shame. It’s a masterful study of perseverance through suffering—a searing image of the plight of the poor and the innocent victims of sweeping social strife. We witness the eternal tug-of-war between mercy and justice. Obsessive vengeance wrestles with unconditional forgiveness. Avarice mocks sacrifice. The heavy hand of past misdeeds overshadows the hope of redemption and transformation. Debts are incurred and debts are repaid—in triplicate. We meet characters who grow extravagant in their complexity as we journey with them: Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert, Bishop Myriel, Fantine, Thenardier, Eponine, Marius, Cosette, and many more.

jean valjeanHow can anyone condense such a vast story and hope to do it justice? The Broadway production and various movie adaptations have tackled it with varying degrees of success, using visuals and music as a shorthand for Hugo’s expansive narration. While this isn’t the first attempt to adapt Les Misérables into a comics format, I thought Stacy King, Crystal Silvermoon, and SunNeko Lee did a fine job of expressing this story in the distinctive Japanese manga style while preserving its essentials and communicating its powerful emotion. Manga Classics: Les Misérables is one of a forthcoming series of classic literary tales adapted to manga, and its publication debut will be accompanied by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

This version of Les Misérables is very accessible to its intended young adult / middle school audience, yet it skillfully avoids dumbing-down or sugarcoating the story, and adult readers can enjoy it as well. I did. It’s certainly not a substitute for the novel itself, but it can provide a stepping-stone for younger readers and anyone who would like a reader-friendly warmup. All the key moments are captured, and the story’s continuity is preserved without annoying jumps, gaps, or clumsy interpolations. Difficult episodes, like Fantine’s descent into prostitution, and the carnage at the barricade, are handled with careful reserve and consideration for young readers while faithfully depicting the characters’ desperation and horror.

fantine2The artwork is nicely done, with beautiful detail in the background environments and building interiors where appropriate, but the focus is always on the characters, and I liked the artist’s vision of them. Cosette is a bit prettified, but that’s typical of the manga style for heroines, and she gets a similar waif-ish treatment in the Broadway and movie posters, so not a huge gripe there. Most of the art is black-and-white, though there are a few color panels.

Something I especially enjoyed was the bonus material at the end, which included character development sketches and short articles from the scriptwriter and artist (also in manga form) that provided insight into their creative process and approach to this project. A couple of 4-panel “gag” comic strips offer a lighthearted perspective on scenes from the story. The book is printed in the traditional manga style, which reads right to left, opposite to the way western readers are used to handling a book. A helpful cartoon at the beginning shows how to do it, and after a few pages, it’s not a distraction.

Published by Udon Entertainment. 336 pages, hardcover and paperback, to be released later this year. Available for pre-order at

Here’s a link to the Facebook page for Manga Classics, where you’ll find more information about the series and additional sample pictures from both Les Misérables and Pride and Prejudice.

Review based on a limited-time-access advance digital review copy provided free of charge by the publisher via


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20 Feet From Stardom

20ftAs part of our recuperation from a long road trip to and from San Antonio this past week (and driving the freeways of that fair city alone was a battle of epic proportions), my Lovely Wife and I crashed on the sofa Sunday afternoon and watched a documentary about backup singers from the glory days of rock and roll. I thought it might be interesting, but it exceeded my expectations. If you have the chance, you should see it. It’s called 20 Feet From Stardom, and it won the 2014 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

At its heart, this film celebrated the power of sublimating personal ambition in the service of a greater goal. Backup vocals, performed mostly by people nobody ever heard of, have transformed good music into great music, and popular songs into chart-busting hits. Think about it—how many times when we’re humming along with the chorus of a song on the radio are we following the backup singers, not the star? Backup singing is a particular sort of talent, and its community is small and tight-knit. The same voices can be heard in the background of our most iconic pop music, over and over again. Many of these great singers are well into their golden years, and their voices are still mesmerizing.

Backup singers with all the right tools to launch solo careers often founder in the transition, and I thought it was interesting that most interviewees identified the root cause as a lack of ego. That “20 feet from stardom” is a very long walk indeed for people whose life has been devoted to a supporting role rather than the spotlight. Sometimes it’s the difference between being a brilliant musician and being a charismatic entertainer. One does not necessarily imply the other.

I was struck by the wealth of innovation and spiritual passion that flowed from Christian culture into rock and pop music during its most dynamic stage of development. The influence of musical patterns and themes from the black church community, in particular, was immense during the 1950’s and the two decades that followed. Early in the documentary, there’s a sort of roll call, asking the vocalists where they got their start: “…pastor’s daughter…church…pastor’s daughter…church choir…pastor’s daughter…” Soul and R&B often followed the “call and reply” pattern of a revival meeting, with the lead singer acting as the preacher, the backup singers as the choir, and the audience as the congregation. The only real difference, as someone said about one marquee performer, was that “…instead of singing about Jesus, ______ was singing about sex.” It was more than just adopting an arresting style and a catchy rhythm, though. The religious influence soaked deep into rock and roll and pop music and provided much of its vitality, and several stars acknowledged its importance: “If you try to bypass spirituality,” one said, “you’ve got nothing.”

The film portrayed a secular community eager to adopt elements of Christian musical culture that were exciting, creative and fresh, even if it failed to fully appreciate or understand their meaning and ultimate source. There was something genuine, powerful, and enduring about the sound wafting skyward from the churches and choirs of the inner cities and rural South, and the rock musicians wanted a piece of it.

Ironically, the roles are reversed now. We have a strange state of affairs where the Church has abandoned its historic role as a patron and wellspring of artistic creativity to become a consumer and mimic of the popular culture it disdains—all in a desperate effort to stay “relevant.” It’s like a talented backup singer who wants to be a headliner but isn’t suited for the job. The glitter of the spotlight, of what appears to be leadership, obscures the quiet yet profound power and long-term influence of the supporting role.

And that was the final lesson of 20 Feet From Stardom. The road to fulfillment is found, in part, by embracing who you are and the gifts God has given you, not by trying to conform to someone else’s picture of success.

20 Feet From Stardom is currently available on Netflix and iTunes, or via a variety of outlets on DVD.

Here’s a link to the official trailer.

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Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Faith, Media Reviews, Music


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Random Randomness, 7/14/2014

“Not as clumsy or as random as a blaster, but an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.” – Obi Wan Kenobi

Or maybe it’s just a collection of stuff with little point and less connection to any coherent meaning.

Have faith, dear Cosette.les-miserables-bwVive la France!  A happy Bastille Day to one and all. In honor of the revolution that sparked the messy and somewhat random Gallic transition from feudal tyranny to mob rule to Napoleonic empire to constitutional monarchy to democratic republic (and heavily influenced our own revolution on the other side of the Atlantic), I’m reading an advance copy of the Manga Classics edition of Les Misérables, adapted by Crystal Chen and Stacy King, and illustrated by Tsemei Lee.

So far, it’s a faithful and respectful abbreviated retelling of the Victor Hugo classic. It seems Manga Cosette has a better stylist than Broadway Poster Cosette, though both look wistfully misérable, in their respective fashion. Review to follow soon.

Baguette: French food that even a random, uncultured lout like me can appreciate. Quite possibly the perfect expression of bread.

Because All Office Work and No Play Makes Fred a Pale, Flabby Lump of Flesh: In my ongoing effort to keep up my general fitness and resist sliding into a sedentary abyss, I’ve spent more time of late in outdoor activities:

1. Long evening walks with my Lovely Wife, altogether pleasant and refreshing.

"Feed me!"2. Excursions with the Family Pack to the local Off-Leash Dog Park / Canine Muddy Water Absorption Area / Gateway to Chaos.

3. Pruning the noxious, spiny, toxic, flesh-eating vegetation our builder randomly selected and declared “ornamental shrubbery.”

4. Playing disc golf with my Eldest Son, an activity with all the quaint charm of the original Scottish activity once described by Mark Twain as a “good walk spoiled.” FYI, the fact that golf discs are cheaper than golf clubs does not compensate for the fact that they are much more expensive than golf balls and just as easy to lose in the briars to which they are attracted with an intensity approaching that of ferrous metal to a superconducting magnet.

5. Geocaching, a sport in which adults employ 21st-century satellite navigation to locate plastic boxes filled with children’s trinkets and concealed deep within tick-infested thickets of poison ivy.

Mulligan: A free shot sometimes given a golfer in informal play when the previous shot was poorly played or sucked into a random inter-dimensional vortex. See also: “do-over.”

This Just In From the FIFA World Cup: Thank heaven, it’s over. GGGGGOOOOOAAAAALLLLL!!!!!

Flop: In soccer, to aggressively exaggerate a foul or the appearance of a foul in order to manipulate officials into a favorable call. See also: “diving,” “faking,” “acting,” “lying,” “begging,” and “cheating.” According to this article, American players are notoriously bad at flopping due to some random cultural attachment to outdated principles like good sportsmanship, honesty, and fair play.

In the spirit of full disclosure, the flop is not unknown to American sports culture, and my otherwise ethically-impeccable high school basketball coach instructed our team in its rudiments. We weren’t very good at it either.


Sam, chilling with a slushie after a recent walk.

Speaking of Dogs: We added a new member at random to the Pack last week. This is what happens when the family stops by the local rescue shelter to “visit.” His name is Sam, and like Tigger, his bottom must be made out of springs because he has a vertical leap about three times his body length. Despite his athletic ability (or maybe because of it), he’s one of the most calm and even-tempered dogs I’ve ever encountered. He also walks well on the leash, which is helpful on those evening walks with my Lovely Wife.

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Posted by on July 14, 2014 in Family, General


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I Found a Cool Story the Other Day, #24


“…and I bet you didn’t know the brain is mostly cholesterol. I’m a MENSA-certified genius, baby.”

Sometimes, cool stories turn up when you’re not even looking for them.

While perusing Facebook today, I happened upon a discussion about the Fermi Paradox, which notes our strange failure to encounter other intelligent life in the universe, despite the statistical improbability that we should be alone in the immeasurable vastness of space. The recent Kepler surveys indicate there are many star systems near us with planets potentially capable of supporting life, which makes the apparent silence in our galactic neighborhood even more intriguing.

In the “related links” section that Facebook helpfully inserts whenever somebody shares an article elsewhere on the web, I noticed a link to a very cool short story I read years ago that takes a clever twist on the Fermi Paradox. It’s by Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Terry Bisson. He’s known best for his short story work, though he’s written a wide variety of novels, screenplays, and comic book adaptations. He also completed Walter M. Miller Jr’s sequel to A Canticle for Leibowitz, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

Maybe the problem isn’t a lack of other intelligent denizens of the cosmos, or their failure to notice us—maybe they simply can’t bear to acknowledge our intelligence. Bisson’s story is titled, aptly, “They’re Made Out of Meat.”

“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”

“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”

“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”

“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they’re made out of meat.”

You can read the whole thing here, courtesy of Mr. Bisson. It was originally published in Omni magazine in 1990.

In pondering the reaction of the story’s bigoted non-corporeal beings, I recalled that the Latin word for meat, caro, is also the root of our English word incarnation. When Christians say Jesus Christ is God “incarnate,” they’re saying the Creator of the universe took on flesh, or in other words, made Himself “into meat.” For us.

Maybe the universe isn’t such a cold and lonely place after all.

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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Writing


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