Friday, January 30, 2015

Reading the Stickers

Every morning, now, I get up at dark-thirty and I walk out into my sleeping neighborhood. One thing I have been noticing is the bumper stickers on parked cars and I think these stickers are helpful in diagnosing the minds of the typical, middle-class American. These people are, after all, the real tide-shifters of American culture, so it matters.

One car I pass, daily, has a "Coexist" sticker.
You've seen them:

On this car, the sticker is surrounded by other stickers you would expect find on the same car: faded Obama campaign stickers; NPR stickers; a sticker with he name of the band "The Black Keys;" etc.

Around the corner from this car, surrounding a "Semper Fi" sticker is and "3" sticker (in honour of Dale Earnhardt of NASCAR fame); a Luke Bryan sticker; an NRA sticker; a sticker of a deer's head; and a "Worst President Ever" sticker.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Hope for Geniuses: Fighting Stereotype

If their lives were
Exotic and strange,
They would likely have
Gladly exchanged them
For something a little more plain --
Maybe something a little more sane.
Neil Peart, "Mission." 
If you will indulge me, I will present you with another movie-inspired post. As always, not a proper review of a movie -- just thoughts inspired by it.

I thought The Imitation Game was a wonderful film, top to bottom. A scene at the end, however, rubbed me the wrong way because it contained a typical message that I think is damaging.

Alan Turing (inventor of the computer) sits, after all of the dust has cleared from his incredible intellectual victories, with his friend and colleague, Joan Clarke. They discuss how she has found, as Turing (a genius and an outsider in every conceivable way) points out, a "normal" life of marriage and career, etc. Joan chastises him for wishing to be "normal" and she points to an array of dials and wires in the next room (another prototype computer) and tells him "no one normal could have done that."

I disagree. I think someone "normal" could have done that. More of that in a minute.

Monday, January 26, 2015

American Sniper vs. the Sneetches

I don't want to be a doomsayer. (Well, yes I do -- who wouldn't? -- but that's not the point.) As I say, I don't want to be a doomsayer, but anyone who reads this knows that one of my greatest fears for world culture is that we are giving up our individuality under the stress of over-emphasis on "community." ("Community" is in quotes, because I feel we are a little free with the word: that any group is awarded the title of "community" when it should be a more of a high-quality group dynamic...)

Anyway, I have lost a few social media friends because of what I fear is this migration to groupthink. How, you ask? By professing an anti-war/pro-warrior philosophy. I've written about it here. In brief: war is a hard sell for me. I respect our warriors so much that I don't want them to be at the beck and call of those who might make commitments to war for the wrong reasons. (By the way, I use "warriors" to include all who do battle; soldiers, sailors, marines, etc.)

This sounds pretty reasonable, to me. Yet, I have has "patriots" actually stop talking to me because of this view. They apparently feel that if one doesn't support the war, one can't be a patriot. Sounds to me like a prescription for brainwashing.

The lives of individuals are always more important to me than group objectives, unless those group objectives are undeniably more important than individual life. (Stopping Hitler, for example.)

I just saw Eastwood's American Sniper. Bradley Cooper was brilliant; there were some fine scenes, but, overall, I found the film left me a little flat as Eastwoods films usually do. But I don't really do film reviews unless they have a larger purpose. Like this one:

Friday, January 23, 2015

First Words; Altered Silence

Every morning, I walk out into my cold, dark neighborhood at 5:30 AM. I think I have found the perfect way to start my day; the perfect step -- both literally and figuratively -- into the world for someone who is an introvert but whose career relies on being around large numbers of people.

The most prominent sound is my footsteps on the wet roads. Only a few cars are awake and purring in driveways, but that sound is peaceful. The dogs (even mine) are sleeping. The usual, faint ocean-sound of distant traffic is absent. The grass frost twinkles in the available light and I avoid stepping on it for fear of the noise it will make, even though the boy in me wants to stomp right over everyone's lawns. (In today's world, though, I'd probably go out the next morning to find police patrolling for the owner of the size-twelve-shoes that defiled the sanctity of so many suburban lawns.)

I walk head-down, hood-up, hands jammed into the pockets of my heavy coat. My thoughts unwind gently, the way accordion-crunched drinking straw wrappers uncurl after a drop of water: slowly and meanderingly. I see bedroom lights wink on in the periphery, here and there. The only other signs of life within houses is the occasional blue glow of televisions and that glow makes me glad my senses haven't yet been assaulted by the electronic storm that the day will become once I step into the doors of my school.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Parental Temptation: Forcing Joy

"No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is suppose that they are like himself." -- Steinbeck, from The Winter of our Discontent. 

A parental mistake?

When I was in fifth grade, I read Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea for the first (of many) times. I loved every word of it; hung on each of the old man's thoughts. Something in me immediately attached itself to the beauty of the work and to the quest of the old man to simply keep being who he was, despite his age; to his wise and humble inner pride; a pride that required (and would get) no external validation. I wouldn't have put it quite that way as a boy, but I understood on an instinctual level.

My sons have to read a book per month in school and do a quiz and a few projects on each book. I recommended it to my seventh-grader, who is both a reader and a thinker. I thought it would be right up his alley.

He didn't really like it. In fact, over the course of a month, he didn't manage to finish the ninety pages.

Part of my reasoning in recommending the book was that, even if he didn't like it as much as I had, he could easily polish off ninety pages. He has read 300 page books in that time allotment.

Apparently, he disliked it so much that he couldn't keep reading. He made an attempt to finish it the night before it was due, but, alas, fell short.

Am I disappointed? Yes. Not "in him" so much, but that a book that meant so much to me simply didn't mean much to my son. Which is okay. He's allowed not to like what I liked. And here is the parental crossroads between wanting my son to be happy and wanting him to be what I want him to be.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Gene Krupa vs. Martin Luther King Junior

I did a lot of complaining (on Facebook) last week about everyone ignoring the 2,000 people slaughtered in Africa and talking about the 17 people who died in Paris or even about Chipper Jones's selfie. It does kind of blow my mind.

Yet, today (as I write this) I became aware of Gene Krupa's (the great big-band and jazz drummer's) birthday and read a few articles on him. It was only hours later that I realized that it is Martin Luther King Jr's actual birthday. After all, the day off isn't until Monday...

We are really doomed to look at the world through our own lenses. If I am being honest and self-examining, I have to admit that when faced with the question of who is more important to me -- Dr. King or Gene Krupa -- the answer is Gene Krupa. But, if asked who is more important to the world, the answer is, hands-down, Dr. King.

Gene Krupa changed the face of drumming. His playing on Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" was one of the first things that got me excited about drums. Drums and music are, next to my family, the most important thing in my life. Therefore, in direct reference to my own life, Krupa was more important; he had more of an impact on my life than King did.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

This Is (Probably Not) about You

He was tough. He was clever. He fought for what was right, because all that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good people like him sit by and do nothing about it. (It never occurred to him that he might be wrong about something; urgency dictated that he needed to act.)

The thing that made him most proud was that he was good with words. His speaking and writing had layers. He could craft speeches and memos to sound as if he were being munificent and selfless, even while he was drawing attention to his own exceptional performances in professional and social circles.

He rarely ate lunch and he never ate at company parties, which made his co-workers wonder why he was so plump. This was another one of his clever moves. He was a player of chess who spoke of avoiding french fries while others indulged and then he stopped on the way home for various confections. Some speculated he had glandular issues. This was preferable.

He knew every motivational and aphoristic cliche ever written. So had his father. He would never go behind his father's sayings, because the wisdom was indisputable.  Timeless. Traditional.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Some Thoughts on Modern Satire

I have been thinking about satire -- the whole concept. Two things have, of course, kept me sort of mentally glued to the subject: The Interview and the Charlie Hebdot situations

Before I even get started, let me reiterate (I mentioned this in the last post): I do not, in any way, support what happened in the Charlie Hebdot offices, nor do I think it was "their fault," and I am a staunch supporter of free speech who wouldn't attempt to stop anyone from expressing his or her views or perspectives. But, since it is on my mind, I do have some an opinions about the concept of satire in modern practice. In short, I think "satirists" have lost focus.

For most, satire is defined as literature (or any art) that uses humor in order to expose (or even ridicule) stupidity or corrupt behavior in its area of attack.  So far, so good.

But, to what end? 

We have all had the lesson about the venerable origins of satire: One wanted to avoid getting in the sites of the tribe's satirist who would ruin your life over Woolly Mammoth steaks around the fire. Satire is a necessary limb on the body of mankind. 

It seems to me, though, that satire has always had a very pointed design: to effect change. To show us our flaws in a way that is just removed enough to give us a dignified chance to switch paths. Pure ridicule or pure incitement of anger is kind of a worthless enterprise for a satirist.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Êtes-vous Charlie? Vraiment?

Twelve people died in the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. They died at the hands of fanatics who do not represent the majority of believers in their Islamic religion. This is an act of evil, not of devoutness and, no matter what the writers or cartoonists of the paper published, they did not deserve to die for it and they deserve the support of the world as much as the murderers deserve the world's condemnation.

In a show of support, people around the planet are sharing the phrase Je suis Charlie (I am Charlie). This is a peaceful show of solidarity against the atrocity that was committed. It is also a show of support for freedom of expression and for the culturally-essential practice of satire.

It is also sort of an over-the top statement, as most adopted public rhetoric campaigns are.

But I ask: Êtes-vous Charlie? Vraiment? Wouldn't you have to know a lot about a publication to make that statement?

If you know all about Charlie Hebdo, okay. But it is one thing to show support for your unjustly murdered fellow humans; it's another to blindly support a publication you know nothing about. I find it hard to believe that everyone who has shared that phrase knows all about the paper. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Lifelong Role Model: Rocky Balboa

When I was eight, I saw the movie Rocky. Intellectuals like to trash the film, but the American Film Institute places it at number 57 on the list of the greatest movies of all time. I think it is a wonderful film, both on the intellectual and emotional levels. Sure, I am biased. I saw it when I was eight; I'm an Italian American; it was shot in Philadelphia, where I was born... But the more educated I get and the older I get, the more I like the movie and the more I see the beauty of Rocky Balboa, the character.

The metaphor is perfect. Rocky was never a movie about boxing. Rocky Balboa is all of us, "fighting" to prove one thing to ourselves: that we are worth something. But the real philosophical merit of the story is that Rocky never wants to be famous; he just wants to remain standing at the end of fifteen rounds with the heavyweight champion. And that's what happens. Rocky doesn't win the fight; he stays on his feet (with a little help, after the bell, from his beloved Adrian [which is perfect, too]).

Then came the middle movies: Rocky II, through V. Maybe not what you would call masterpieces -- not on the level of the first one -- but one thing never changes: Rocky refuses to quit and Rocky never stops being a good-hearted, vulnerable and passionate person. He fights people he has no prayer of beating and he beats them. It's a bullet-proof formula, even in what is maybe the weakest of the movies, Rocky V. They are all good popcorn movies, but, no matter the shell, Rocky Balboa manages to remain both a metaphor and a person.

I'm not going to try to "save face" through cynicism. I'm not going to equivocate about Rocky. There's no "but seriously" coming. Even the legendary Roger Ebert saw something in young Stallone, saying the young actor reminded him of a young Brando. (Ebert also gave Rocky 4/4 stars.) I think Stallone has proven he can be a great filmmaker, in his own right, and I think he was nothing short of brilliant in the last Rocky film, Rocky Balboa.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Living at the Lunch Table

I used to find myself enraged by the behavior of my fellow humans. Now I just tend to be embarrassed by it. What I find most embarrassing these days is the puerile use of metaphor by people with just enough education to think (erroneously) that they have something to say.

It wouldn’t be so bad if these rudimentary metaphors – ones used mostly in protest – weren’t dressed up as profound statements and if those making these pseudo-profound statements didn’t insist on prancing about during their little tantrums (or parties) of moral exhibitionism.

Lately, of course, these (“metaphoric “) “protests” have been occurring in the form of “die-ins” (very powerful affairs, especially when the participants are giggling and taking selfies on the ground) and police officers turning their backs on the Mayor of New York at funerals and hospitals and other formal functions during which the dignity of the occasion may just be more important than making an impotent point.

All of a sudden, the world is full of half-assed performance artists.

These issues are big. No doubt about it. But maybe they are deserving of intelligent, non-agenda-driven discourse and not stupid, middle-school theatrics.  It's like living at a seventh-grade lunch table.