Monday, September 1, 2014

Until the Last Summer...

I am a big advocate of the idea that we can reason through our emotions. This is not meant to be a dismissal of the idea that some emotions creep up under the security systems of logic. Sometimes we just feel things; sometimes those things have no discernible origin. We wake up in a bad mood. We just go from feeling just okay to feeling melancholy.

Still, I would argue that these things don't happen for "no reason;" they simply happen for reasons that are not apparent to us, consciously. If we thought hard, we might be able to trace the reasons. But, sometimes, we are simply unable or unequipped to do so. Sometimes we seem to feel things for "no reason."

What's left is to reason our way through whatever we feel.

Here I sit, the week before starting another school year (I am a teacher and an academics vice principal) and I have "that feeling" -- the same one I have had the few days before school since I was a kid. It's the emotional equivalent of indigestion; there is a lingering melancholic ball at the pit of my soul. It's not quite sadness; it is more like a haunting of memory that just won't take full shape; more like the presence of groundless guilt -- a smudge on the window looking out to a bright day. Maybe it is a mood best illustrated by this Monet painting:

Monet: "Wheatstack (Sun in the Mist)"
I spend all summer in school, making schedules and planning for the upcoming year. I am there, already -- but that little kid feeling comes back anyway, unbidden and illogically real, like a curtain of gauze.

So what does logic tell me to do? Just get up and do it. It's not a big hurdle; it's not a serious problem. But is might be a tiny example of those emotions we feel but can't pinpoint. So, I teach my sons, when they express the feeling: "I don't want to go back to school, Dad. I don't want summer to end."

So I tell them, not unkindly, not sarcastically: "You and every other kid in the country, buddy. You just have to put your nose down and do it."

They feel what they feel. Should I invalidate it? No -- it's real, but it doesn't matter. School has to happen, and that's all there is to it. And, next thing you know, the holiday breaks will come as will summer after summer...

It's a microcosm for our lives, right? When I feel emotions that make me want to lie down and feel sorry for myself, the answer is usually: Just get up. What's the alternative? The alternative is always either quitting or hiding and neither one is ever acceptable.

So, we go back to school and we work and we get tired and we "re-create" ourselves over holidays and breaks. We look forward to sunbursts after rains; we resign ourselves to periods of grey, knowing they will end. We recognize cycles and we go on. What's the alternative? Is it acceptable? Of course it's not.

We "go back to school" and we live each summer as if it will be our last, because, the truth is, one day, the last summer will come. And that's okay. Who knows? We can all hope a better season than we can imagine comes after the last summer.

So, we grab our books and pencils and trudge through the school doors, no matter how we feel. The alternative is unacceptable.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

How Terrorism Ended (A Parable)

The year is 2093. Grandmother is sitting with her two grandchildren, the girl, aged nine and the boy, who is twelve. The twelve-year old is sitting with his Edu-device, reading about the turn of the 21st century. His brow is furrowed. Grandmother leans over to see what the boy is reading.

"Ah," says Grandmother, picking up the device. "Ah, yes -- ISIS; the Taliban. We learned about that in history class, as well. Horrible thing, was terrorism. I saw none of it, but my father watched it end. Odd that they are teaching you about terrorism in school again. I thought they had stopped that."

Grandfather, who is a Vidteacher, comes into the room and hands Grandmother a cup of coffee. "They did," he says. "But, the Curriculum Minister said it would be safe to put back in, now that all is well. Now that the Global Harmony has been in place for so long."

"Why did they take teaching about terrorism out of Vidschool?" asks the boy.

"Terrorism stopped," Grandmother said, "when the International Board of Journalists met one day in 2050 and came to an agreement. They decided to stop covering terrorism, altogether; no more stories on the Internet; no more video-coverage. Even independent video sites agreed to stop publishing amateur videos by or about terrorists. They went completely silent on the subject. Some say it was one of the most noble acts in history; the journalists gave up monetary reward in exchange for depriving terrorists of the very thing they desired: attention. Vidschools across the globe followed suit."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Ben-Hur: Why the MGM Lion Didn't Roar

This weekend, my family and I watched the classic film, Ben-Hur. My boys, who are supposed to be a part of the low-attention-span generation, sat through all (nearly) four hours of the movie and were never bored. I realized, watching this restored Blu-ray version of the film, what an outstanding cinematic achievement it is. It doesn't feel dated (with he exception of some of the acting) and it certainly qualifies for the old "they don't make 'em like they used to" moniker.

Besides the fact that it is an excellent film, what struck me at my first viewing of the movie since my twenties, is that it is an extremely respectful portrayal of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. On the DVD commentary, film historian T. Gene Hatcher mentions that Wyler, the director, used to joke that "It took a Jew to make the ultimate movie about Christ." I love that, but maybe the reality is that it took a Jew to make the ultimate movie about a Jew affected by the life of Christ and by the domination of Rome.

Be that as it may, the reverence of the film, for all faiths, struck me -- especially, I suppose, in light of the times in which we live. I find us in a constant state of irony: a world in which people are constantly trumpeting about "tolerance" but in which religion-driven hate and violence thrive.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Viral Morality vs. Changing our Children

Everything is external in our current culture. Everyone recognizes that, right?

If we want to combat racism, we set up think-tanks and we draft new policies. We demand investigations. We band together and have riots.

If we want to fight against drug use, we pass laws. We arrest people.

If we want kids to do better in school, we force them to meet homogenized standards on cookie-cutter tests.

Even the ALS challenge, thing...

Let me say this: it is working. People know, now, about the disease who never before did. The money raised has been astronomical, compared to years before. Practically, it is a wonderful thing. (For now; until the novelty dies off.)

It is interesting to me that things like this ice-bucket challenge are labeled "viral" because that is really what has happened. People have caught this "virus" that prompts them to donate -- or, at least, to pour water over their heads.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Chairs for Everyone

Boy, did I make a big mistake the other day. Someone posted an article that speculated about why fantasy literature has become so popular. I thought it was one of my Facebook friends who had posted it, because I was just moving too fast. I didn't even get a chance to read the article, but I commented (admitting this) about something I thought, thinking I was addressing my friend. I ended the post by saying I sometimes wish fantasy hadn't become so popular.

Which is better craft? This?
Turns out the person who posted it was a small press publisher and that my friend had only "liked" the post. The publisher responded to my little, nostalgic and half-serious final sentence by asking why I wanted to take food out of the mouths of writers. Popularity was good and it drives the business of publishing, etc., etc., etc. A bunch of other people chimed in, in his corner.

Despite my attempts to say I was just being nostalgic for the days when fantasy readers were "fringe" and when we had our little secret faves, I took some heat. It all sort of culminated in many of the commenters agreeing that "good" writing is in the eye of the beholder and that they (here comes the old standby from bitter former English majors:) didn't learn to appreciate good writing until they broke free of the chains of English departments.

I get it. English professors are sometimes snobs who seem to want to distill all plot out of literature. And I agree: Portrait of a Lady is a bore, but a brilliant bore that one should read and then feel free of. I once heard that Samuel Johnson [thanks to George, for the correction] said that "Paradise Lost is the greatest poem ever written in English, but no one ever wished it longer." I agree whole heartedly with that.