Two words that changed LBJ's life

Speech_balloonIn fables and myths, we find plenty of moments when magic words come into play. Not a magic spell -- just a simple statement that unlocks hidden possibilities for somebody who really needs help. Think of abracadabra, open sesame or valar morghulis ... to name a few.

In the case of Lyndon Johnson, 36th president of the United States, two heartbreaking words produced a transformation on the Texan Democrat that was nothing short of magical. That's what Robert Caro said last night.

I had the pleasure of listening to Caro deliver a talk at Claremont McKenna College about his research into The Passage of Power, the latest installment of his mammoth-sized, multi-volume biography "The Years of Lyndon Johnson."

There's nothing better than having a world-class historical biographer describe his research methods: how he studied secret memos and photographs, how he tracked down interviewees, how he dug deeply into historical moments that we all thought we knew.

Take, for example, the hours after the assassination of JFK in Dallas. We all know that the Kennedys scorned Johnson. They called him "Rufus Cornpone," Caro said, and they referred to Johnson and Lady Bird as "Uncle Cornpone and his little pork chop." Johnson stood off to the side, forgotten, while everyone waited news of Kennedy's condition.

Then, Caro said, someone approached Johnson and uttered two words to him that made the situation clear:

"Mr. President."

"In that instant, a change comes over him," Caro told the audience. "A moment of transformation" in which Johnson's stature immediately grows as he realizes what he has become.

I was struck by the magic quality of Caro's narration of that historic moment ... and I was heartened by the thought that words still possess magic.

It's easy to forget this in the constant barrage of twitter feeds, google alerts, etc. Words are cheapened, turned into fast food, discardable. But as Caro reminded me, and as I wish to remind you, my beloved friends, words still have the power to reach into the depths of myth.

Big expectations are a two-edged sword, er, wood chisel

Edge of a chisel blade, detail. Well, the Siren hasn't been calling over the past few days -- too much playing catch-up with tasks and goals for the new year.

I'm sure that plenty of you can relate to that (although you have been far more faithful to your blogs than I, my dear friends).

Yesterday, in the middle of a hectic day, I dropped everything and turned to David Esterly's book for some mental relief. I wrote about Esterly in my last post -- he's a carver who tackled some daunting restoration work and wrote about it in his lyrical semi-memoir "The Lost Carving."

I just needed a mental palate-cleanser, and this passage did the trick for me:

Now when I break something the wood is usually sending a different message: the problem here, it's saying, isn't your technique but your design. The composition you've drawn asks too much of wood, no matter how adept you may be with a chisel. You've persuaded yourself that a spray of leaves has to arch across the grain just so, because it answers to that other spray over there, or because it adds richness to effect, or simply because it's beautiful; but an aesthetic triumph can't change the temperament of wood. When writers use similar arguments to justify an unneeded beautiful sentence, editors famously tell them to "kill their darlings." If you're a carver, the wood sometimes kills your darlings for you.

The grace of such writing is its metaphysical quality. Sure, it's about a woodcarver's experience, but the lessons he's learned can apply to any of us.

There's a temperament to more than just limewood: This realization comes easily when you're in the midst of filling out a to-do list (as yours truly has discovered).

So, as you're planning out a busy 2013, and piling the work on your plate, just remember: Be reasonable.

That's my advice to you, my readers. Take it easy on yourself.

Tools of the trade: for the resolution-weary

A balance between soul and sense: David Esterly finds his in "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making." Most of us spend our days -- most of our lives, to be specific -- in an office where we execute projects we don't always enjoy because they pay the rent, right?

If you had a chance, over the holidays, to relax a little bit and consider your priorities for the new year, your resolutions might have included this one: "I want to be involved in work that's more meaningful."

My cherished set of readers, if that doesn't happen for you in 2013 -- please, you mustn't get discouraged. Such simple wishes sometimes require a long time to unfold (trust me, I know that for a fact).

While you wait, there are always books to teach you patience. Wonderful, glorious books, in which authors realize the dreams that we're still in the process of reaching.

Like author and sculptor David Esterly, whose occupation provides the ideal harmony between feeding the soul and feeding one's family: He's a carver of limewood.

As you work on your own dreams this year, I recommend that you treat yourself to Esterly's exhilarating memoir of the carver's trade, "The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making" (Viking Books).

lost-carvingEsterly describes his efforts to recreate the masterful marginal carvings of Grinling Gibbons destroyed in a fire at Henry VIII's Hampton Court in the 1980s. Gibbons' creations weren't centerpiece work like a Grecian maiden or warrior: No, he perfected the art of carving foliage -- vines and leaves, flowers -- that twisted and stretched along palace walls and seemed as real as what you find growing in a field or beside a sparkling brook.

That's why you can call the works "marginal" -- but it's not intended as a slight. Thanks to these wondrous works, Gibbons became recognized as a 17th century master.

Before Gibbons came along, carvers produced "inert flowers... in dully conventional swags and drops. Gibbons turned them into blossoms that seem to have the juice of real life in them, seem actually to be made of plant material..."

Esterly marvels at the artistry of Gibbons work. And so do we.

"[T]hose flowers would be modeled with all the attention a high European sculptor might give to the face of a saint," he writes.

And, inside Hampton Court, as he faces his task, Esterly's awe turns to humility.

"On the Hampton Court scaffolding I was a beginner again. This time the crack of wood taught me about the special frailty of Gibbons's carving that comes with its age," he reflects.

Esterly's quest in "The Lost Carving" is spiritual; his intimate knowledge of the carver's trade is fascinating.

You won't find a more satisfying story in 2013 ... I'll risk saying that right now, on Day 3 of the New Year.

And, what's more, you'll never again insult any task -- like one's dull work chores -- by using the word "marginal" ... not with the lesson of Gibbons and Esterly in your pocket!

Happy New Year, my friends.

'You can always see the truth': the wisdom of Jimmy Page

light-and-shade-jimmy-page-coverJimmy Page has been called elusive ... averse to media attention ... shy ... but the architect behind Led Zeppelin is hardly as quiet as a church mouse. As I'm getting settled in and ready to watch tonight's airing of The Kennedy Center Honors, which celebrates LZ along with David Letterman and Dustin Hoffman among others, I turn to a new book that gives us a talkative, insightful Page: "Light & Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page" by Brad Tolinski (Crown).

Tolinski's book covers Page's entire career -- pre-, mid- and post-Led Zep -- but what I want to call attention to here is Page's occult interest, which is often painted by plenty of writers (I'm sure you've read some of them, too) in sinister shades of gray and black.

His avoidance of talking too much about his study of magick (yes, with a "K") is given in practical terms: "There's no point in saying more about it," he says at one point in Tolinski's book, "because the more you discuss it, the more eccentric you appear to be."

That doesn't just apply to magick -- the same advice should be followed by any 40something fan of "Star Wars."

In regards to the fantasy scenes from the movie "The Song Remains the Same" featuring the figure of a hermit on a strange journey, here's Page's candid explanation:

"My segment [of the move's fantasy sequence] was supposed to be the aspirant going to the beacon of truth, which is represented by the hermit and his journey towards it. What I was trying to say, through the transformation, was that enlightenment can be achieved at any point in time; it just depends on when you want to access it. In other words, you can always see the truth, but do you recognize it when you see it or do you have to reflect back on it later?"

Page's message -- that we are all capable of making substantial changes in our lives at any time -- couldn't come at a better time as 2012 is slipping behind us and 2013 is just ahead.

So, in the new year, let's all resolve to seek some enlightenment for ourselves ... and keep listening to Page, Plant & Company (of course).

In case you missed the Call of the Siren during Christmas week

The 13th century's Stieg Larsson: new in bookstores

My geography is a bit off -- Stieg Larsson, the late author of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," was from Sweden; the early epic chronicler Snorri Sturluson, who wrote in the 13th century, hailed from Iceland.

Still, I think the comparison works. Both authors have created enormous public curiosity about the way people live in the windswept, icy lands of Scandinavia.

Larsson gave us the incredible, unforgettable heroine Lisbeth Salander; Sturluson gave us her fierce, warhammer-wielding ancestors (that must be where Lisbeth gets her skills with a broken chair leg -see Book #2).

In "Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths" (Palgrave Macmillan), Nancy Marie Brown chronicles his life and times, along with our continuing infatuation (and Brown's) of all things Norse. This is perfect reading for anytime of year, but especially now, on one of our (rare) chilly days in Southern California.

An open bottle of stout by your side, cigar smoldering in a dish ... you are ready.

Brown gives us Snorri's life -- the best that we can know it -- and it was an extraordinary one. He was a chieftain and a "lawspeaker," a rich man with a taste for beautiful women, as well as a poet who pieced together stories of his people's gods into a brilliant mosaic. He picked up a raven-feather quill and wrote down what he knew -- and added a few stories of his own invention. Even though Thor was popular in the Norse pantheon, for instance, Brown says Snorri was more interested in one-eyed Odin, and devoted much of his attention to him.

Brown's book is fascinating, especially as it shows how the "odd love lives and dysfunctional families" of the 13th century world were reflected in The Prose Edda, which is Snorri's synthesis of Norse myth. Loki's mischief, broken oaths, secret alliances, greed and lust -- it's all there, in the Icelandic world, and Snorri was brought down by it, too. Assassinated in 1241, Snorri was not only an important epic chronicler: His life could have belonged to the epic, too.

Brown describes the almost-magical influence of Snorri's work on many artists -- like William Morris and J.R.R. Tolkien -- and, in the process, I found an answer (at least one answer) for why the Scandinavian world interests so many of us and leads to the enormous bestselling success of authors like Stieg Larsson.

What is it?

Our concerns sometimes seem so ridiculous and unreasonable: We gripe about traffic congestion or a long line in the grocery store. The people of that region  had far more important things to worry about:

"Earth fire--lava--was just something Icelanders lived with," Brown writes, "like the glacial rivers that burst in raging floods, the sea ice that clogged the island's shores, the constant whining wind, and the winter's darkness."

The Norse were (are) an elemental people. And Snorri captured their essence, thank goodness, with ink and a raven-feather quill.