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River Rocks #4: "A Monster Calls," "Under Pressure," and Holus-bolus

I’ve enjoyed writing for many years. I'm dedicating more time to the craft in my retirement days.

River Rocks #4


Psychologist Barry Schwartz says that more choices are apt to make it less likely for us to take action and then, as the cherry on top, we are less happy with the decision we eventually do make. This choice paralysis, as Schwartz calls it, can be crippling, so to speak. Sometimes, though, just making a choice can lead to a more-than-satisfactory outcome, and can lead also to more and better choices. In other words, sometimes it's good to get started somewhere and then start navigating as you move along.

So, if you're looking for a way to winnow choices in our world’s myriad masses of all things media, River Rocks might be for you. Each installment features a tidbit each from the vast universes of literature and music. Sometimes included, too, is a researched word, term or expression you might not have heard before. Who knows? Maybe one of these choices is right for you...and who knows where it might lead?

This week's literature pick is a fantastic movie that I and my whole family loved and talked about for weeks. I've also got on the slate what I consider to be the perfect rock song, as well as a wonderfully useful word that's not often heard.

Literature: "A Monster Calls," the Movie


This movie is about death and dying, love and hate, art and the dark fantastic. It's also about love and living and learning to see that which not everyone else can see...that's sort of an artistic take on it anyway: beginnings, ends, invaluable life lessons.

A Monster Calls, based on the book of the same name by Patrick Ness, is also about a young boy having to deal with unimaginable troubles for someone of his quite young (grade school, perhaps, but not specified) age: his mom is dying of cancer, and he is pretty much a social outcast at school. Does that sound sad? Spoiler alert: it absolutely is. But it is also, ultimately, redeeming and heartwarming and thoroughly enjoyable. With the right guidance and perhaps a few explanations along the way, the movie is well suited for family fare.

Conor is the young boy at the heart of the story, and he has not only to deal with his mom's terminal illness—leading to outsized responsibilities at home—he also has to put up with the archetypal bully, and a grandmother who is on the surface something short of warm and loving.

There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.

— Patrick Ness, "A Monster Calls"

In effort to deal with his troubles, then, Conor turns to his love of art—a love he shares with and inherited from his mother—and imagination for comfort and outlet. In due course, he one evening encounters a massive-yew-tree-turned-monster (voiced by Liam Neeson...yay!). The monster says he will tell Conor three tales in return for a promise that Conor will eventually tell the tree monster a fourth of his own.

The proposition struck thusly, the movie then moves back and forth between the stories, the bullying, Conor's mom's illness and life. The monster, it seems, shows himself at the most opportune times to provide the tales. These are quite interesting in that none of them goes at all the way one might think they should. Indeed, this ends up being a large part of what makes them so riveting. In the end, of course, there is a lesson to be learned from each tale as well as their aggregate whole.

I'll not say more than that beyond this: after watching it, I recommended the movie to anyone and everyone I encountered for a couple weeks. It’s available on demand on Netflix (and it’s also on many other streaming services for a fee), which is where I watched it one night with my family as the feature film for our "Dinner and a Movie" night. Hope you have opportunity to do the same one day very soon!

Song: "Under Pressure," by Queen and David Bowie

When I ran into this song again in my YouTube feed one day a few short weeks ago, it kept running through my head all day long, like favorite songs do. We've all been there, I'm sure. What was different this time, though, was that hearing it play over and over in my brain got me to thinking that it was/is one of my all-time top favorites of any song. Ever. For me, that's a lot of songs and a lot of tall cotton to be standing in. And though I'm not a critic—remember, I'm here to essay, or assay, praise and provide recommendations rather than provide criticism—those thoughts running through my head reminded me of a magazine article I read a million years ago as a teenager.

The article talked about how Billy Joel’s song “Just the Way You Are” was "the perfect pop song." The author gave lots of reasons for that assessment, I'm sure, but I only remember one point (s)he specifically made: there is a part in the Joel song where the word “down” is sung on a note where the melody line moves down the scale at the very same time. This, in the critic's opinion, was one of the things that most significantly contributed to the song’s perfection.

It's the terror of knowing what this world is about

Watching some good friends screaming, 'Let me out'

— Queen and David Bowie, "Under Pressure"

I don’t think my own analysis of the song “Under Pressure” is anywhere near that sophisticated and precise, but I can say this: “Under Pressure” takes angst to a high, high level, works its way up there in both lyric and music. As the song nears its conclusion, there is this undeniable building, this buildup, an increase in pressure that's ready to boil over as Bowie puts these words out there with greater and greater and greater urgency after Freddie Mercury repeatedly asks the gazillion dollar question, "Why can't we give love one more chance?"

'Cause love's such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves

Under pressure
Under pressure

When, after all that, Bowie and Mercury finally get to the point where they say those two magic words—"under pressure"—it's like popping the top on a fully-shaken glass bottle of Coca-Cola. The resulting fizz is gratifying, satisfying, the perfect introduction to the fabulous outro featuring that classic bass line, the few clicks on the piano keys and the snapping fingers, and it's done. Fantastic. It's like them finally saying "under pressure" instantly relieves it, resolves the buildup, makes you feel so right and fulfilled that you yourself want to walk down the street dancing and snapping your fingers as you go. Music doesn't get much better than that.

Indeed, as pop and rock songs go, it's easily one of the best ever, and I'm not the only one who thinks so: "In November 2004, Stylus music critic Anthony Miccio commented that "Under Pressure" is "the best song of all time" and [also called it] Queen's opus." [1]

So, after all that, I encourage you to listen to this song for the first time all over again. I know you've heard it before, but listen to it with a kind of appreciation for it as a song of perfect construction, accentuation, attenuation, attention to grabbing attention, building suspense, then finally getting to that resolution point that is undeniably satisfying. Ahhhhhh.

Finger snap, finger snap, finger snap...

A Word You May Not Have Heard



Holus-bolus has three meanings, roughly all equivalent:

1. all at a gulp

2. all in a lump

3. all at once

The word likely originated as a mashup of the term whole bolus, but just saying that really begs the question: what's a bolus?

Well, there are three main, classic definitions for bolus:

1. A medicine of round shape adapted for swallowing, larger than an ordinary pill

1b. A single dose of a drug, contrast medium, etc., introduced rapidly into a blood vessel

2. A small rounded mass of any substance

3. A kind of clay

Over time, the term "whole bolus" evolved—it was perhaps at first mispronounced or maybe spoken for fun—into "holus-bolus," which was then eventually adopted outright as an accepted English word. At it is said the word was "first recorded in 1840–50 as a mock-Latin rhyming compound based on the phrase whole bolus, or possibly a Latinization of Greek hólos bôlos, which is “whole lump, clod of earth, nugget."” Today, holus-bolus is used in far more numerous contexts than just those relating to pills and Play-Doh. A few examples follow.

Holus-bolus Used in a Sentence:

"After a lull in my business, holus-bolus, I have all sorts of great opportunities."

"Instead, the eradication of stripping holus-bolus under the guise of feminism perpetuates, once again, a division between morally minded madonnas and falsely conscious whores—a short-sighted polarization that Bradley-Engen detonates on personal and sociological grounds. Resoundingly.“
— Mindy S. Bradley-Engen, "Naked Lives: Inside the Worlds of Exotic Dance"

"Even without that device, though, the film functions as a critique of our preference for passivity and delusions of security, in life as in cinema, when we holus-bolus buy into the myths and delimitations of our times."
— Maurice Yacowar, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Truman Show"


: all at once


Until We Meet Again

That's a wrap for River Rocks #4. When I come back next time, I'll have a literature recommendation for a podcast that's brought me a lot of joy and insight these past couple months during my morning walks with Jesse, my dog. There'll also be another great song that found me when I was a college student the 80s in Vermillion, South Dakota. I hope you'll enjoy every bit of it, holus-bolus.

Good week, everyone!

© 2021 greg cain

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