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.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Hug

Last night, after a day we spent the together, just the two of us, my twelve-year-old son walked over to me and put his arms around my neck. He hugged me. It wasn't the usual half-goofy, see-if-I-can-break-Dad's-spine hug. It was a real hug, his head, sideways, weighing warmly on my shoulder.

He's an intense kid who literally walked on tip-toes for the first few years of his life; he's a strung bow, this boy.

Last night, his heart and head were quiet. His bony shoulders were loose.

As he hugged me, he said, "I love you." Not, "Love ya." No silliness nor any casual tone of saying goodbye or goodnight. He said it because he felt it.

He crossed a room to hug me and to tell me he loved me.

What did this all cost me? Lunch, a movie and five hours of my time. (And 90% of my soul's energy, passion and worry during all of my waking hours -- which all becomes nothing at moments like this.)

This is life. I want for nothing. Nothing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams 2: "Teach your children well..."

In my last post, I talked a little about what I see as general misconceptions about depression and suicide. Mostly, I pointed out the danger of seeing the act of suicide as a normal choice -- it is a "choice" whose scale is tipped by the heavy thumb of chemical imbalance. It is neither an act of cowardice, in standard terms, nor a laudable exit. Robin Williams, having had a chance to clear his head of whatever chemicals (natural or otherwise) might have been clouding it, might have awakened with a desire to live his life, again. (I am not alleging that he was drunk or high; I have not seen any evidence that he was, but given his past, it is a possibility. *THIS JUST IN: Williams was sober when he died.)

With all of that said, let's not just write off depression as a chemical imbalance against which there is no defense. The first defense is logic. Pure, sweet, sound reasoning.

It is my humble opinion (which is purely based on observation, and not on any kind of official qualifications or certifications in psychology or counseling) that if we teach our children to reason through their moods, they will steadily become more equipped to deal with those moods. We don't do nearly enough to help kids deal with the storms of emotions, both positive and negative, that they will deal with in their lifetimes.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams: Neither Hero Nor Coward

I posted this on Facebook after I heard (and read) about Robin Williams's death:
"Now that Robin Williams is gone, might I request that people not post about how they don't understand why someone so beloved and so successful would 'do that kind of thing.' That's not the way depression works. When depression is severe, circumstances do not matter. That's why it is so horrible. Let's not imply that Williams was an idiot who didn't see how good he had it."
We need to get some things straight, though, I think -- beyond that.

Robin Williams did not "pass on." He killed himself. He hanged himself. This needs to be acknowledged. 

However, we also need to be careful about calling it a "choice" that he made. 

For years, in western culture, suicide has been called a "cowardly" act. Some still use the term. (Shepard Smith on Fox just got some flack for using the term in reference to Williams.) In Roman and Japanese cultures, in the past, suicide has been seen as an honorable way to end things. But, in modern times, suicide is neither cowardly nor laudable; it is a result of profound and all-consuming depression -- a depression from under which the sufferer cannot seem to crawl. 

I watched my dad suffer from depression. When he was at his worst, nothing helped, in terms of perspective. It was too late for logic. It was too late for, "Hey, look at your wonderful family and grand kids," etc. (Though, I have to say, and not much to my surprise, the one thing that gave him any pleasure seemed to be his dogs... God bless dogs, but even they were not enough to blow away the clouds.) My dad did not kill himself, but I witnessed the smothering blanket of depression and its effect on him. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Is Libel Still a Crime?

I was going to write this as a kind of Swiftian "modest proposal" but it occurred to me, the longer I thought about it, that I am actually more serious about this than I thought.

Libel is still illegal, right? Is there also a law against intentional dissemination of false information? What about irresponsible dissemination of bad information? There should be, if you ask me.

What I think is this: there should be a fine for anyone who either intentionally or irresponsibly posts information that is not true or that falsely attributes statements to particular people. The ripples one bad post can cause can be very damaging if related to serious issues. They can also invalidate decision making in terms of things like voting.

Sometimes, it is just a matter of a desire for faithfulness to history. Did Einstein really say what everyone wants to believe he did? It's too easy to put a quotation on a picture of the man and pass it off as truth.

But how often do we see memes of politicians with quotations under them (usually under an extremely unflattering picture) that they never said. The people that post these have no criteria other than the fact that they want to believe it because they already feel a certain way about the person in question.

Then ends do not justify the means when it comes to false attributions. I know it serves the purpose of a conservative to make us believe that a liberal said that he would vote for Karl Marx if he were alive; I know might bolster the liberal cause to make us believe that a conservative said that we should dig Burmese tiger traps to catch immigrant children and stop them from coming across the border, but, doing this is wrong. Period. It doesn't lead to discourse, it leads to brawling. It can even be seen as defamation in some cases, which is a crime.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

"Waking the Sun:" The Art of Family

I was kind of groping for something to write today. Thinking about it last night, I had a few ideas, but nothing that "knocked me out." Then, I woke up and Karen, my wife, was checking Facebook on her phone and she found a video had been posted of the song I wrote, arranged and produced with my friend Mark -- the one I shared some time ago, here. (Please believe me when I tell you we are working on working diligently on the next tune. It's been a busy summer...)

Of course, it delighted me. Mark made this video with his talented daughter, Cassie (who I am sure did the bulk of the artistic work).

Musicians are always chasing fame. But Mark and I made choices long ago: we wanted families and we our lives to have more dimensions than music, even though music has always, for both of us, been the other side of the every scale's balance in our worlds.

Fame? Meh. What is cooler than making a song, in your own home, with one of your best friends? What is cooler than a father and a daughter sitting down to interpret that song, together?

Nada, my friends.

Here is the video by Mark and his multi-talented daughter, Cassandra, for "Waking the Sun." If you don't like it, just clam up (he say, gently elbowing his dear reader in the ribs). Whatever you might have to say is hardly the point....

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Shining Sea Bike Trail

I usually try to post at least before five o'clock, but I also try to follow a rule: never let writing get in the way of life.

Today was given over to about a twenty-mile bike ride along the Shining Sea Bike Trail, (named in honor of Katherine Lee Bates [a local native of Falmouth, MA], who wrote "America The Beautiful" - which, if you ask me, should be our national anthem...) in Cape Cod. It is a beautiful stretch of trail through some of the most beautiful parts of Falmouth, MA and to Wood's Hole, home of the distinguished Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute. (For Jaws buffs: the institute that Matt Hooper worked for.)

We saw pretty stuff and I had a lot of time to think.

It was beautiful, but it was a physical challenge for me, a guy who doesn't keep in as good a shape as he should, but who is, by no means, too weak to take up the occasional physical challenge.

As I pedaled along, sometimes huffing with the uphill effort -- especially getting from our house to the trail itself --  I got thinking about the sort of wimpy culture we have created by having warnings from doctors and newscasters about effort and those over the age of, say, eighteen.

Every time is snows, for instance, some news caster tells people over forty not to shovel snow. Because of this, my own mom often says: "You shouldn't be out there shoveling! Let the boys do it."

Friday, August 1, 2014

Am I Writing My Last Novel?

I am writing a new novel. By "new," I am not implying that anyone cares that there are old ones - that an adoring public awaits it with baited breath -- only that this one is new for me. Not only is this a new one, for me, but I sort of regard it at "the one" -- the novel that will determine whether or not I can really write; whether "the world" really thinks I have anything to say.

My first one was a good fantasy novel. I'm proud of what I did in my twenties for a first attempt, but it is a little flat. My second one is more "literary" but when I wrote it, I was in my thirties. It is more mature, but my toolbox still lacked a few things. Now, at forty-six, I think I have the experience and the writerly "stuff" to write a really good one. If I don't; if this one doesn't get out there and make at least a little headway in the literary world (such as it is) I think I will be done. Not done writing, just done trying to be a novelist.