From the archives: October 2005

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Holding Hamlet’s mirror

Monday, 24 October 2005 — 9:36pm | Jazz, Literature, Music

Allow me to reflect.

I’m not a prolific writer by any means, on the web or in print. Part of it, by my intention or not, is that I’d rather read than write – a preference that I think should be a property of all writers irrespective of their level of seriousness or the prestige of the medium they call home.

Lately, I’ve neither read nor written to any nontrivial degree. I’ve been playing Scrabble. But there’s a common principle at work that applies to both activities: you can’t do something well if you don’t know what it means to do it well.

Writing without reading is bad writing, and to a discerning observer the deficit is as discordant as a karaoke regular who has never heard a real singer in his life. Then again, real singers are hard to come by for the modern layperson when record labels are actively engaged in marketing superstars on the basis of their being tone-deaf. It’s become a house style. And a world where Kenneth Gorelick making like a prehistoric glowworm and flopping his way around an ill-selected blues scale is enough to outsell every real jazz artist on the globe is a mad, mad, mad, mad world indeed.

The funniest thing I’ve read in the last little while comes from a controversy I thankfully slept through a few years ago, and have only discovered now. It seems that Mr. Kenny G decided to overdub a few of his trademark saxopharts over Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”. This prompted a reaction, I would call it, from none other than Pat Metheny himself (only the man who defined the sound of contemporary jazz guitar, if you don’t know who he is), who called the endeavour “musical necrophilia” and then some. Metheny’s talent for obloquy is as lyrical as his proficiency for the Ibanez electric. It even spawned a song.

(Permit me to make a brief and self-congratulatory pause as I admire, in the above paragraph, the best word I’ve coined in at least a fortnight. Google returns no hits for the word or a variant of it spelt with an F. This one’s mine, baby.)

Anyway, to return to the topic at hand: every time I think of writers who don’t read nearly enough, the one that comes to mind is Robert Jordan. When I was fetching the new Snicket at Chapters last week, I passed by another freshly-delivered penultimate volume of a more thickset build – Jordan’s Knife of Dreams, the eleventh of a projected twelve books in his popular series of sword-and-sorcery paperweights, The Wheel of Time. I quit the series after seven out of having better things to read, though I no longer sleep as well as I once did; Jordan’s prose was a panacea for all forty-two flavours of insomnia, and I recall missing at least one bus stop on its account.

Now that I’ve discovered a really schlocky bestselling writer, who is as terse as Jordan is grandiloquent, he doesn’t seem so bad. I still can’t justify resuming where I left off, of course, because I simply have better things on my shelf, and his common penchant for pluralizing gerunds could have a detrimental effect on my word study.

But I digress. (Almost as much as he does. Oh, snap!) I meant to bring up Robert Jordan in conjunction with the topic of how reading and writing interact, because I remember one particular interview with him where he comments on the same. I’ve dug up the relevant excerpt:

I had always said, “One day I will write.” Then when I was 30 I was walking back from a dry dock to my office, and I had a fall and tore up my knee very severely. There were complications in the surgery, I nearly died, I spent a month in the hospital, and I spent three and a half months recuperating before I could walk well enough to go back to the office. During that time I reached burnout in reading. I remember picking up a book by an author I knew I liked, reading a few paragraphs and tossing it across the room and saying, “Oh God, I could do better than that.” Then I thought, “All right son, it’s time to put up or shut up.”

And so I wrote my first novel. It has never been published although it’s been bought by two publishers, and a lot of good came out of it, including meeting my wife.

And you know, I respect that. It’s true that the extremity of consuming words in hopes of fueling the production of them is a life of consumption that produces very little. I think a lot of writerus blockitis comes from ambition and perfectionism. Robert Jordan has the good fortune of suffering neither.

He’s an odd example in the sense that he is, in a manner of speaking, a writer who reads. (We’ll ignore for now that according to Amazon’s “Significant Seven” interview, he names as his desert island book his own work-in-progress.) But judging from his own writing, if he thinks he can do better than the authors in which he was once so engrossed, either he’s not there yet, or his influences clearly weren’t very good.

It’s easy to tell when a writer is an overly selective reader – one who only reads in genre, or one who refuses to read in genre; one who only hits the pulps, or never hits the pulps. I find that writers who read develop a writer’s identity, or voice as some would call it, through a balance of controlled mimicry and improvisational distortion; and just as the most revered figures of the great improvisational art form, jazz, draw on influences from gospel to swing to stride to bebop to post-Romantic to chain-gang country blues, writers can only benefit from reading diversely.

Then you have the likes of Umberto Eco, who is so well-read that it makes his fiction impenetrable because of all its a priori dependencies. Predictably, his non-fiction critical discourse fares much better, but even in fiction he conceals a treasure trove of content, not fluff, behind a tattered verbal curtain. In Robert Jordan’s case, after some early books that are pleasurable for their escapist manoeuvres if not their style, the content is wholly subsumed by a textual torrent that begs for a stopper. One wishes the author spent more time reading the works of others instead of treading water in Narcissus’ swimming pool.

I hear that Knife of Dreams cleans up some of the muck, but considering how much of it must have accumulated in the interim (in addition to how much was floating about already), it sounds like a book for fans’ eyes only. I’ll not make judgments by covers, of course.

There is more to say about literacy that needs to be said, but I have midterms to swat.

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Bipartite blithering of the first kind

Monday, 24 October 2005 — 8:56pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

Edmonton: 9-5, +418. I’m a little disappointed; while I finished exactly as I was seeded (second in the eight-strong Division 2) and with another $60 in pocket money that made up for an overbudget weekend spent on Coltrane records and tickets to Elizabethtown and A History of Violence, the losses sustained were heavier than they should have been. As the only registrants in the top division were myself and U of A librarian Huguette Settle, a very strong player who has always hovered around my rating level for the past two years or so in spite of a more potent vocabulary than my own, we were moved down to the second division with a partial refund on our registration. The way the probabilistic Elo-style ratings work meant the two of us had to win practically all our games just to retain our positions in the NSA rat race.

Huguette did it in style and won the tournament with a 12-2 record, clinching the trophy three rounds before the end of the event. She went 2-0 against me, too – though she lost a turn challenging a particularly beautiful bingo of mine that I snuck in as part of an almost-comeback, ALIENEES down the O-column parallel to four other letters. She received a neat little trophy for her trouble, one that I thought would have looked nice on the mantlepiece next to Nemo and Mike Wazowski. Next time, Gadget, next time.

(Writing that, I was sure I’d honoured Dr. Claw in another post before now. I was right.)

Personal favourite play of the tournament: going out with aCQUIRER on a double word score for 90 points. I don’t think it was the highest-scoring play I made all weekend, but it was probably the coolest.

So not to obscure my other present thoughts with a surfeit of Scrabble-talk, I’ll make tonight’s update a two-parter.

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Triple-triple toil and trouble

Monday, 17 October 2005 — 10:28pm | Scrabble

It finally happened. After in excess of forty or fifty games in Edmonton and Sherwood Park, my undefeated record in the region fell off the rails tonight. I was hoping it would hold out at least until the tournament next weekend, but alas, it would not be so.

It wasn’t pretty. The wisdom that many a Scrabble-elder has passed me over the years is that if you fall way behind, open up the board. Too often, novice players get intimidated by an opponent who mounts an early lead, and succumb to the temptation to keep him or her from scoring; this is literally self-defeating, as doing it only keeps yourself from scoring. So the philosophy is to open the board, leave some gaps free, and set yourself up to plunk about thirty a turn with an occasional bingo for good measure.

There’s a very, very fine line between opening the board and being stupid, though, and it isn’t all that easy to discern between the two until all hundred tiles are out of the bag and the dust has settled. If it so happens that your opponent is the one drawing both blanks, two Ss, X, J and Z and capitalizes on every opening you were hoping to squat for yourself (as the gentleman across the table verily did tonight), then it may be some consolation to shrug and call it an unwinnable game where the tile gods screwed you for some karmic misconduct in a past life or tournament.

In the fashion of murdered spouse in a Cell Block Tango, I had it coming. I practically threw away a game on Thursday with a horrible play on my last rack that placed a Z on a triple line; it was a brain-fart of epic flatulence, and I only came back to win it because my opponent unwisely tried to play out with a phoney, which fed me an extra turn I didn’t deserve.

But as far as karmic imbalance goes, I did score a 550 that same night against an unfortunate newcomer, thanks to a last-minute ESQUIrE on a triple for 101 and a Z on his frozen rack. This is not my personal high – I once played a four-bingo 587 game, untimed, on a set that was missing an I – and my best tournament score remains 546, but this may be my new high score in club play. It was a casual sort of game also not under time constraints, so it only counts for so much, but oh well.

Aside from all that, I noticed – and you may have done the same – that I have been writing here less and less often. I’ve been busy, and telling the world how wonderful the Wallace & Gromit film was both times I saw it, and lamenting the tragedy of the Aardman warehouse fire that selfsame weekend (in my opinion, a neglected catastrophe), are among many relatively low-priority tasks that have been shunted aside in the face of more pressing issues. Some things are simply more important than others. Robert Bonfiglio is one such priority queue-jumper, as he is a master of his instrument outstanding beyond reach of all conceivable hyperbole, though I don’t have a CD to prove it because they sold out before I could get one.

The new Lemony Snicket is, contrary to my predictions, entitled The Penultimate Peril. Nobody knew this until less than a week ago, when it was leaked by a blogger who scored a copy early. (Don’t read the comments if you visit that post – they may contain spoilers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, and definitely don’t say she didn’t warn you.) It’s still not too great a failure in state secrets to keep a title hidden from the public for that long when other, more powerful beings in the book business can’t even keep a firm lid on plot specifics like wizened wizards tumbling from lightning-struck astronomy towers. I’ll be picking up a copy tomorrow.

I’m reluctant to discuss my Calgary Flames at this point in the season lest I come out judgmental along either pole of the precarious axis of faith, but man, that 3-0 felt good.

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A man of letters, peradventure

Sunday, 2 October 2005 — 8:04pm | Scrabble, Tournament logs

First of all, to those of you displeased with Telus – bugger off, buddy. It’s indirectly on their account that I have come by a pass to an advance screening of Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit 7pm Wednesday. Yes, giving me free stuff is sufficient absolution of questioned corporate social responsibility, unless your name is Michael Eisner, and he’s not a factor as of last Friday.

“Is it just me, or is it a little odd to be ordering at a McDonald’s beside Bill Kinsella?”

Shannon Burns, lunch after Round 15

This year’s Western Canadian Scrabble Championship was full of stories that non-tournament players should have no trouble appreciating, so I will relate some of them here lest they be trapped forever in the lore of the competitive circle.

In the upper reaches of Division 1 in the second of the two Early Bird tournaments that precede the main event, Albert Hahn and Jason Ubeika came within 11 points of shattering the world record for the highest-scoring game of Scrabble (that is, considering the aggregate scores of both players). Albert played five natural bingos and at one point held a seemingly insurmountable 200-point lead, but Jason fixed that with a quick 176-pointer, VARIANCE on a triple-triple – one of four bingos, assisted by drawing both blanks.

Nevertheless, Albert comes out just ahead, 566-531.

Then in the main WCSC tournament, again in the top division where the players are skilled enough to make good use of outrageously imbalanced entropic disturbances in the string-field called Luck, Mike Early played a triple-triple of his own – ANTEFIXA for 212 points, which vaulted him to the highest score ever recorded at a Calgary tournament, 647.

Calgary’s own Jesse Matthews, who vaulted right past me and landed in the expert zone in the span of only two or three years, took home the golden horse’s ass for the Most Outrageous Successful Phoney – and boy, did he ever deserve it. On the first day of the main event he opened with a 60-point play that can be called both a monstrosity and a panflute virtuoso: ZAMFIR*. (You might remember his work from the tail end of Kill Bill, Vol. 1.) Outrageous? Nay, I’d call it outstanding. What’s more, he snuck it right past Dean Saldanha – a former Canadian Championship finalist and one of the best players in the country, my age or otherwise – without so much as a hint of brow-furrowing suspicion.

My own performance at the WCSC was satisfactory, I’d say. For the second year in a row I was the bottom seed of twenty in Division 2, barely making it above the cutoff with a rating of 1204, a mere shadow of the 1399 that was dismantled piece by piece at New Orleans last year. Given my field of competition, I was statistically expected to win five games of seventeen, but I outperformed it with a record of 9-8 (-237) – well out of the prize money at tenth place, but respectable. My tournament rating is going to shoot back up to around the 1280 mark.

The negative point spread, in spite of a winning record, is courtesy of Michelle Davis from Texas, who obliterated me 542-262 thanks to four bingos of hers to none of mine. I had not the good fortune of doing likewise to anybody else, though my 300-287 victory over her husband Carl was also a story to remember, and not only because I won $20 for posting the lowest winning score in my group. In this one, I was forced to block off and outplay a substantially more potent rack at the end of the game, DEIOSZ?. No, he didn’t have room for DOZIESt, but I put him in a position where he only had one play that would guarantee a win (in an attempt to minimize what I thought would be my losses), and he missed it. We both went overtime.

I received another $20 for “Living on the Edge” and having the narrowest margin over three wins of all the players in the tournament – +2, +4, and +9 for a total of +15. I would have preferred to score some points instead of doodling around with meticulous endgame mathematics, but the money’s nice.

The 21 bingos of mine that stayed on the board included three yucky ones: AMOEBIA*, STHENIAE* and SENTRIED*. (NERDIEST, while semantically appropriate, did not hit the triple word score.)

Next tourney: right here in Edmonton, Alberta on the weekend of 22-23 October. I’ll be playing in Division 1, since the cutoff is only 1200; this tournament skews lower on the rating scale because of the clubs in the region consist primarily of newcomers who have never played in competition before. (That includes you, dear reader. If you have an interest in the game but fear that the jump from trouncing your mother in the living room is too steep, this is the one you want to hit. Start before all the other Edmontonians get really good.)

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