Friday, May 29, 2015

Read this Genius Post -- What Happens Next Will Blow Your Mind! (LOL)

I'm not sure where it came from, but my distaste for visible and obvious trends is a powerful factor in my daily life.

I had a bout with trying to be trendy when I was a little kid. Somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, it was hip to carry a big, brightly-colored, plastic comb in one's back pocket. Both for boys and girls. For some reason, I wanted one, so I asked and I received. I brought it into school on Monday (What's that thing in my back pocket? Oh...); forgot about it on Tuesday; might have remembered on Wednesday (Why do I keep getting stuck on my chair...Oh...) and then left it on my dresser, probably for the rest of my adolescence.

That is about the only time I can remember having consciously attempted to be part of a trend. The benefits of a complete disinterest in participating in trends include not being totally embarrassed when looking at high school yearbook pictures. No "parachute pants" or "Z Cavaricis" for me. The high school me is either in jeans and T-shirts, button-downs or golf shirts. I mean, we are all limited by what is available during a time period, so there is no completely escaping trend unless you go to school dressed (literally) like a clown, but one can always avoid the trendiest of trends if one wants.

But my disinterest developed over the years into a real distaste. It makes me downright uncomfortable to see people following so methodically -- so minion-like -- every new trend. (I am glad, for that reason, that I work in a school with uniforms -- which do two things: 1) eliminate "trendy" dress and 2) [contrary to what one might expect] promote real individuality in kids: they must be individual as opposed to simply appearing to be. Our kids are originals. )

For me, language trends are the most grating of all, though. In the voice of my alter-ego (The Emperor) over at When Falls the Coliseum, I devote a lot of time to devising Dante-esque punishments for those who succumb to language trends.

Truth is, I just can't see how people can comfortably utter words and phrases like "life hack" and "shaming" and "lol" or how they can write blog title that include phrases like: "... what happened next gave me chills." I can't imagine ever using the word "genius" as an adjective -- a deed you can't escape if you spend two minutes in front of a TV.

It makes my skin crawl.  I really, physically recoil from trendy language.

Why, I wonder? Maybe it is because I am a sincerity addict. Your words should be your words. Nobody escapes trend completely, I suppose, and one could argue that cliche is the same thing (and I do use cliche sometimes -- I admit that) but maybe it is the stark obviousness of language trends that gets to me. It's like announcing, before you speak: "Hey! I have no expressive abilities of my own (lol!), so I'm going to use this genius phrase! When I first heard it, it gave me chills..."


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Why We Still Believe in Superman

Superman's first appearance. 
I once, some time ago, mentioned the fact that the MGM lion, in the introduction to the film Ben Hur, doesn't roar because the filmmakers did not want to seem irreverent. This is true. Sure, it may have been driven by MGM's fear of alienating ticket-buyers, but the perception that a roaring lion might be seen as irreverent in the intro to a religiously-based film was still something that came to mind in 1959.

Fast-forward to 2015. Over the last few weeks, I have seen both a killing and a rape in church. Not in real life, of course -- in media. The killing (committed, by the way by the game's hero) was in the game Assassin's Creed: Unity. The rape, in the decidedly mediocre (and historically clueless) TV series Salem.

The fact that these things appear in media of two kinds leads me to conclude that people are just not thinking the way we used to. Being irreverent is no longer a fear (nor is it, if we're being honest, all that exciting now that it has become so run-of-the-mill) in the minds of producers and designers. In short, in the modern film, TV and video game culture, nothing is sacred...

George Reeves, TV's Superman
...except one thing: Superman, who I happened to have encountered again, right after having seen the two pop culture desecrations I mentioned above. As far as I can see, Superman is the only thing American filmmakers still hold sacred.

The other night (behind the times as usual) my family and I watched the movie Man of Steel. (Contrary to what I heard from some of my friends, we thought it was very good.)

Christopher Reeve
Superman is the only comic hero I still have any interest in and his are the only comics I really read as a kid. I was of the perfect generation (ten, when the first came out)  for the Christopher Reeve films, so I have always loved them, as well. Now, my sons also watch them.

We all know about Superman: truth, justice and the (old-fashioned) American way. He's always been a force for ethics; a non-lethal evener of the odds for the downtrodden; a stand-up guy; good to the core.

And it would seem that in an age in which we are constantly barraged with half-baked "conflicted" anti-heroes, Superman is one of the only who is still allowed to be a good, old-fashioned good guy. This reverence is refreshing in a boringly irreverent world.

In my memory, Brandon Routh followed the good-guy mold in 2006's Superman Returns. In the latest incarnation (Henry Cavill -- who I thought was great) is not much different that Reeve or than the guy in the Action Comics issues of the thirties and forties. In fact, not only hasn't anyone dared to write Superman as an anti-hero, but they seem to keep implying (and it isn't hard to connect, what with the powerful guy coming from the sky thing) that he is a "Christ figure" in the literary sense. In the 1978 Richard Donner film, Marlin Brando's Jor-El sends this message to the baby genius Kal-El (Superman to-be):

"They [people of Earth] can be a great people, Kal-El; they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

In Man of Steel (2013) Clark/Superman, talking to his parish pastor, has a discussion about good and evil, each shot of Superman clearly backgrounded by an image of Jesus in the stained glass over his shoulder. 

And he makes things clear to his "captors"  in the military: 

"You're scared of me because you can't control me. You don't, and you never will. But that doesn't mean I'm your enemy."

Brandon Routh
And we know -- maybe we need to know -- that no one has anything to fear from Superman. (Do we always feel the same about Batman?)

There may be some comic collector out there who can point to an issue in which Superman cheats at cards or pinches Lois in a naughty place, but, in film, the man is still, well, Christ-like. His attraction is that he is "complicated" in that he is a good person who struggles with many of the things we all do (and many that we don't, like complete superiority on a physical and mental level), and not because he is, say, forced by circumstance to become a bookie to support his little daughter after the death of her mother at the hands of mobsters. Apparently, at least with Superman, it is okay for someone to have tremendous power and not abuse it.

Why, then, does Superman remain inviolate in an age in which no one seems to care much about literary desecration? Why does he seem to be safe from the ubiquitously irreverent pens of former English majors who think that the only way a character can be interesting is if he is "damaged"? Could it be that we need him?

Could it be that we need someone to look up to (literally and figuratively) now that we are, as a culture, turning away from religion? -- someone who, fictional or not, we can always trust to take care of us? We, as a culture, might fancy ourselves too hip for church, but our ongoing reverence for our most beloved mythic hero proves one thing to me: We still need to believe. We still want to look to the sky for a savior.

Henry Cavill
I have said this before, but, when I showed my sons the 1978 film, Superman: the Movie, for the first time, I actually had to fight back sobs when Reeve appeared on screen in his Superman outfit. Besides introducing my boys to part of my boyhood, I was happy that I was putting something in front of them that would teach them well; a model of a good man who could (as he does in the film) rescue a little girl's cat and also divert a nuclear weapon when he needs to -- a rocket that he diverts before diverting the one headed for his love Lois Lane. Why? Because he made a promise. If that doesn't choke you up a little...

Stay with us, Superman. We need you now more than ever.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Strange Case of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

As far as novels are concerned, I am sometimes alarmed by how little I remember about those that I have read.

A friend of mine just recently posted that she was excited about the release of a BBC program based on the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. She said it is one of her favorite books. I read that book, too -- I think, even, that it had been at her suggestion, quite a few years ago. I remember having enjoyed it very much at the time. Yet -- I couldn't tell you anything about it today. I'd actually completely forgotten about the book. It would seem to make no sense. I remember even recommending it to others, back then, having liked it as much as I did... Still, almost no recollection about the story.

I remember something about a girl and a white garment... That's about all. (Anyone know what that was? -- or am I nuts?)

So, how is it that I could have enjoyed that book and have, today, almost no memory of it?

An illustration fro the novel. 
Is it just passage of time? No -- I read Peter S. Beagle's The Folk of the Air some fifteen years before that, and I remember it very well, for some reason. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was ten and I read Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island at twelve and I've always remembered them vividly. So, it's not just a lapsing memory on my part...

One of the other books that has stryed with me since my first readong is Pride and Prejudice, so it is also not a question of "guy books" vs. "girl books" -- at least not for me. (Though I always have and probably always will despise Middlemarch. Blech. )

Is it that ....Strange and...Norell... is just not a good book; that it's a page-turner without enough depth to latch on to my haughty literary expectations? I am completely sure that's not the case. My friend is no dummy. She would not enjoy a book without substance; we studied literature in grad school together and she was one of the sharpest knives in the rack. There's no way we're talking about empty pop lit. here.

I suppose that puts us on old ground: art is subjective. Corny, but delightfully true. (Frustratingly true to the quantifiers and researchers and catagory-makers [may their databases burst into spontaneous flames].)

Literary quality does not necessarily equal literary enjoyment. Literary enjoyment does not necessarily preclude quality, nor does it prove quality. It's literary impression that matters.

For some reason, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell made an impression on my friend that it did not make on me, even though we both liked it. I'm sure there are other books we have mutually read that work in the opposite.

Thankfully, the complex maze of factors that comprise the sort of impression a book makes on a reader is well beyond my understanding. I don't want an answer; I just want the joy of that experience of a book "touching my heart" or of its really "getting into my head."

You never know when the lightning will strike. That's cool.

At any rate, having liked the book, I will certainly watch the BBC series of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell when it starts up.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Heavy Duty Impotence

Cute, is it not? 
Most of the car-ride in was the usual: a drive on a state road that is full of lights and side streets and shopping centers that is often like a video game in which the object is to avoid being T-boned by some schmo who is incapable of judging velocity and distance; who simply must pull out four seconds after you have deemed it impossible for him to be stupid enough to actually "try it."

With this in mind, I set my speed at around 55 MPH. It is a 50 MPH road.

About ten minutes from school, a bald guy, with dark glasses, in a shiny, absurdly clean, massive, black heavy-duty pickup truck with tinted windows and double tires in the back started riding my bumper.

(I won't get into my anatomical theories about guys who buy heavy duty trucks and don't use them for heavy duty; this is a family-friendly blog.)

He stayed there. I kept my speed. We were in the right lane. He could have passed, but I guess that would not have been as much fun.

We both turned onto the same rural road (speed limit of 50, dropping in increments to 45, 35 and then 25 as we neared the schools). He stayed on my bumper as I adjusted speed to about five over the posted limits, as I always do.

As we approached an intersection, he, disgusted with my mere existence, set his lips, shook his head and gave his heavy-duty pickup the heaviest duty it would see that day by whipping to his right, down a side road.

I hope he never finds out how little that head-shake meant to me. Oh, it would have angered me in the past, before I became actually able to feel what we all know to be true: that we shouldn't care about the opinions of random strangers. Twenty years ago, I would have gotten that stomach burn; that pre-fist-balling fight-or-flight impulse. Not anymore. That stuff makes me chuckle now.

I'd hate for his carefully (and monetarily) cultivated sense of superiority and masculinity to wind up being as impotent as his...nice, clean, useless heavy-duty truck.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Compass and Storm

A week-or-so ago (and I write this with full permission), I found myself angrier at my wife than I have been in years. It was in the top three of all the times I have ever been angry in my life, for sure.

I'm not going to tell the details, because that is not what this is about. This is not about what happened outside of me, but what happened inside. It's not about whether I was right or wrong, but about the weather inside of me (and in all of us) when the storm of emotion becomes a hurricane. 

Let it suffice to say, the thing happened and we exchanged words and I was livid. We sat, for a very long time, in silence. We were on a long trip, sitting next to each other. Neither of us was driving. 

Cliche or not, my teeth were grinding and I believe my nostrils were actually flaring. I felt Karen next to me, but was so angry I didn't even want to brush an elbow against her. It's not as if thinking stopped and emotion kicked in, but thinking happened in firework trajectories, all bursts and blasts and lightning flashes -- every line of reasoning electrified with currents of emotional persecution. I would glance over at her face, completely aware of how much I loved it, but love had become temporarily irrelevant. Not gone, by any stretch: just irrelevant.

Minutes passed and then twenty minutes and then an hour and the feeling remained, gripping like the soul's version of a kidney stone. Then I heard my own recurring theme, somewhere behind the wind and hail and the gut-squeezing anger: think. Everything can be handled with logic. Get out of yourself for a minute -- what is she thinking? What will fix this?

You might think she's wrong, but she probably thinks you are "giving her the silent treatment." Are you? No -- it's deeper than that. "The silent treatment" is not a valid way to solve a problem; you're too smart for that nonsense. You're not talking because you can't. Speaking is impossible right now. This is not a conscious choice. But if you think she is wrong, you have made that clear. What's on the inside is invisible to her. Now you are just torturing her -- being quiet. Giving her the worst thing in a relationship: nothing. You have to find a logical compass out of this storm because however angry you are, she does not deserve this. She knows you well, but she doesn't know how deep the strings she plucked are; she's innocent to that...

But there was no sign of a compass anywhere in the wind and deluge. I was aware of the struggle; of the difficulty in finding my way out of this. I could not open my mouth without being cruel. I knew it. 

We stopped to rest; we ordered food almost in silence; we sat and ate at an outdoor table, in thick heat, in silence. Then, she asked if we were going to spend the rest of the trip without talking. Now I spoke; now I said, more calmly, what I wanted to say. But it was like chewing on sand. It wasn't a moment of mending; it wasn't an "A-ha: all you have to do is talk about it and all is better." It was very difficult...

...but it was possible, in a way it had not been an hour before. It was, at least, within my capability. It was no longer dangerous to speak, even if speaking felt very much like growling.  

Nothing's simple. There's no "answer" in a situation like that. There's no clever sunset-picture meme or magic spell or self-help concept to get us through such anger. There's just control and a basic will to think one's self through and not make things worse than they need to be. 

She'd said she was sorry. Twice. The first time, it really hadn't mattered to me at all. The second time, I wanted to say it was okay (and I think I might even have grumbled that it was) but it was not -- not in the storm going on in my chest. Nothing was okay, then. She could have shared the most joyous news, ever, and it would have meant nothing. My heart, for a short while, was Teflon. 

Back on the road, the sun went deep and low. Our hands -- at some point -- found each other and it was done. Maybe that was the only real compass to find. But by that time, the storm was over. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Very Strange Bedtime Stories: Letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal

When I was a kid, President Reagan ordered a bombing in Libya in response to an attack on a dance club in Berlin.

That Sunday, I was in church and the priest -- and young and enthusiastic priest who played a mean game of half-court basketball -- started his homily by saying, "How 'bout that President Reagan!?" Clapping ensued. The priest then proceeded to make us all feel horrible. He reminded us of a small rule about what thou shouldst not do...

It was sobering. Intellectually, it made an impact, but the human heart has a hard time overlooking the urge for revenge -- or any strong feelings toward those who have done wrong. I got it, but I didn't feel it. (Of course, the point is supposed to be that it doesn't matter what I feel: what God says, goes. "Turn the other cheek" and all that...)

The guts and brains conflict can be tough.

Now, there is a teacher in New Jersey who has been fired for having her third-grade class write "get-well" letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is convicted of having killed a cop in 1981. (He is very sick with diabetes right now.)

What do you think?

Why him? They could, as one interviewee pointed out, have written to people in an old folks' home. The teacher says the kids asked to do this after she told them Abu-Jamal was very ill. The bottom line is, third graders only hear that a man is sick and their natural goodness prompts them to want to do the nice things they are conditioned to do.

So, we can be confident that she brought it up. Probably. But, again, why? Her own agenda of support for Abu-Jamal? Or was it an overheard conversation or some kind? In the former circumstance, she is out of bounds; in the latter, she is careless and unprofessional. Did she explain to the kids that he was in jail for being convicted of killing a policeman? Did she tell them she thought Abu-Jamal is innocent? Guilty? Either way, bad ideas for a teacher of children. And it is way out of the range of third-grade lesson planning.

Regardless of any of this, she found herself in this position: The kids wanted to write a letter to a sick man -- a man whose actions, either they were made to believe in or of whose actions they were unaware.

What could she have done?

For one thing, she could have easily side-stepped the whole thing: "I don't know if we have time, but maybe... Now open your spelling books." (These are third-graders; they would have forgotten by bedtime if not by lunch.) Or, she could have suggested the students ask their parents and write the letter at home and provide the postage, if they approved. That, of course, is if she had wanted to avoid it.

What she did do was give them time in the classroom to do this. Wrong call, professionally. Her job is not to encourage the kids to align with her beliefs on controversial issues -- especially such young kids who are at her intellectual mercy; who could have no understanding of the issue but what she gave them -- unless they had parents who read them very strange bedtime stories.

Her transgression is not what the click-bait headlines want you to get fired up about; it's not necessarily that the kids wrote to a convicted cop-killer. Her transgression is that she is abusing her considerable power as a teacher.

As with the bombing, my heart wants to be sick that kids are writing to a convicted killer. But, our priest made a powerful point that day. What would Jesus (religious or not, you have to admit the guy was brilliant) think of this letter-writing? I think He would smile on the children who wanted to be kind and I know His brow would furrow, regarding a teacher who feels she should mold kids not to think well, but to think what she does. But He sure would not have a problem with writing a letter to a sick man, however criminal his past might be.

Her best choice would have been to have avoided it, altogether. But I get the feeling she didn't want to avoid it. A good teacher leads her students to multiple doors from which to choose; she doesn't open one and push them through. She also delivers age-appropriate curriculum.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Fish and Seal

Fish swim as if they are at work.

Seals swim as if they are at play.

The Sage knows that each glides as he must and within the currents that he feels. 

The Sage knows that survival and doom loom at the end of each swim.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Potential (A Parable)

Once, there was a boy whose father took no crap. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was his favorite Bible quotation.

Father forbade Son to waste his time with video games and with television and with other empty boyish pursuits. The boy, at that young age, hated his father.

Father knew: "Someday, he will understand and appreciate what I have done."

Father "pushed" Son to achieve, and Son hated that and Son hated Father more with each post-game critique and with each drill and re-drill of sports skills.

Son hated that Father would force him to lift weights and to run. The boy had to run in grade school. He had to run in middle school. In high school, Father made the boy run before school and after practice -- even on game day; even after games.

In the car, Son never spoke. He just wore his earbuds and sent phone messages to his friends. But Father knew: "Some day, my son will understand."

Father "wanted more" for Son than Father had had as a child. One only achieves greatness through hard work;  you miss one-hundred percent of the shots you don't take; character is what you do when no one is watching; winners never quit and quitters never win. Son was simply too immature to see his father's wisdom.

For years, the boy hated Father for being so hard on him... For years, there were endless trips to "travel games" with not a word spoken -- until after the game, when they would argue about an at-bat or about a play or about a missed opportunity to pin an apponent.

"Some day," thought Father. "Some day he will realize and someday I will be proud."

Then, high school ended and, soon after, the boy graduated college.

Son was in great condition, but he had blown knees; he had no professional sports contract and he had earned a degree in business with no promise of a job, not to mention piles of student debt because he had gotten no significant sports scholarship. (Father knew this was because Son just didn't work hard enough -- neither of them had. This made Father feel ashamed.)

Then, one day, years later Son son thought about it as they say together at Thanksgiving dinner. He looked at Father, the wrinkled face still hard and determined-looking. Still the face of a competitor as Father stared down at the fork poking peas, one to each tine; four peas to a bite behind the leathery lips. Son thought of all those mornings running in the fog, Father pushing him to reach his full potential; all those days on the field and in the gym....

...and Son's expression changed; Father saw this and he looked at Son.  "Today," thought Father, anticipating, hopeful... "Today is the day... Thanksgiving."

And all these years later, Son finally realized it: He still hated his father. Son's face went dark.

Father looked down at his peas, halfo of them spilling their lighter green guts onto the plate.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Strange Debate Over Sexual Choice

I just heard a recurring story and it is as confusing as ever to me.

Republican (and, now, seeker of the office of President) Ben Carson, some time ago, was asked if he thinks homosexuality is a choice. He said yes. Later, he was compelled to apologize for saying this by those who found the statement offensive.

Fight of the century.
In the blue corner, Freud.
Apologize for what? For being uninformed? When one is uninformed and, as a result, misspeaks, isn't it customary to simply correct one's statement? Why apologize, in this case?

Apparently, seemingly well-meaning people are thinking, "How dare you say homosexuality is a choice? I want an apology."

If the issue of homosexuality and its personal origin in the individual is debatable (some think it is; some think it is not), why would it be so horrible for homosexuality to be a choice? Why are many gay people and advocates of their rights so against some people believing that homosexuality is a choice?

If those who think sexuality is a choice are wrong, then they are wrong; but, if that belief is offensive to those who support gay culture, doesn't that imply that these supporters believe that choosing a same sex life is somehow not okay to do? Seems paradoxical to me; a purpose and a belief out of sync.

I once saw a video in which a gay man cleverly asked straight people to explain exactly when they chose to be straight. Of course, they couldn't answer, so he made his point. But...why?

Monday, May 4, 2015

"In" and "Of"

I'm going to speak for you if you don't mind.

You have friends or family or a husband or a wife or a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a dog or...someone else you need to keep close to; someone else you need to care for; someone else you need to help to be happy; someone else you need to debate about life and laugh about life with. Every waking hour of your day is not enough to do enough to keep the dynamics between you and them strong; to maintain a connection that nourishes your collective souls, hearts and minds.

You live in a house or an apartment -- a world of your own, built by you and maintained by you. You need to clean the carpets and wipe the counters and replace the light bulbs, but you also need to perpetuate an atmosphere of positivity, partnership and love between those walls...the walls that you have to paint once in awhile. Castle or prison -- it's up to you. It's all up to you. So much is just up to you...

You have an auto-pilot muscle running your body, and that muscle is getting older, as are all of the other ones from toes to forehead.  You need to eat well, which requires shopping, planning and thinking. Then, cooking. You need to move so that when you are seventy, you won't be the tin man needing the oil can. After a certain age, gravity starts pulling you toward the grave and the fight is on. And time is needed. And time is running out. Time extended needs time spent.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Baltimore and Everything Else

Here's the solution:

People need to stop having babies. Just a total dead-stop on child production.

You people (by "you people" I mean those who jump onto teams as a result of what they hope is true or because of what they deem too horrible to allow to be true instead of what they actually have seen, evaluated and made a rational decision on -- i.e: probably not the kind of people who tolerate my annoying blog) are freaking crazy.

Maybe global warming is all part of a Higher Plan. Quick, someone build an ark before the polar ice caps melt.

Seriously. I wonder what the average salary of a hermit is these days...