Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Thousand Forgotten Influences

I’ve always felt fortunate to have kind and inspirational people around me, and yet never did I feel quite as inspired by them as I did through the various people I have never met. In fact, what I love best about the people I have known, it seems, is that they have introduced me to music, movies, and literature that has moved me more deeply than I can express. Perhaps it is that people can come and go, but their creations can remain forever. I loved my older brother Bob, but when he moved out and got married, the music that he had introduced me to remained. Rick and Tom were also older and did not always have that much time to share with an 8-year old boy, but their comics were always available to me.

Books, movies, music, those were my influences. Each wove stories for me, each brought me glimpses of lives and worlds far beyond my immediate surroundings.

I led a normal enough childhood. I spent many days playing baseball and football, and exploring whatever nature was to be found in my small part of the world. I spent my nights playing hide and seek, truth or dare, and even ding dong ditch (the game where you knock on someone’s door and run like hell). I played board games with friends when the weather kept us inside and made more than my share of prank calls. When on vacation I spent all the time I could at the beach or in a boat fishing.

And yet when I think back to my childhood, some of my most intense memories are of the basement of our home where the books, magazines, and records of my older siblings were stored. There I could adventure along with explorers of ancient civilizations and distant planets. There dwelt superheroes intent on defending justice, or monsters who sought vengeance on a world that had done them wrong. There were worlds under the sea and civilizations within the planet’s crust. There were giants and Lilliputians, sentient beings with many tentacles, and kind but misunderstood swamp creatures.

As I read through literally hundreds of horror magazines and comic books, I listened to the albums and 45’s that were part of my brothers’ collections. From such gems as Walk Away Renee and She’s Not There, I learned of love and caught glimpses of the mysteries that would be revealed to me when I achieved the mythic stature of a teenager. Motown and The British Invasion taught me of romantic love and through that, of a desire to be seen as noble and true in the eyes of another. I even managed to learn a little class consciousness through some of my favorite songs: Down in the Boondocks, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, and Tobacco Road.

Perhaps the world created for me by such stories did not grow more expansive as I aged—after all, how can the world ever be larger than our imagination—but the stories grew in depth. The books I started to read kept closer to reality but showed me how truly rich the real world can be. Gone were the days of creatures from outer space, and yet somehow I recognized that in such far-flung stories of superheroes and aliens I had also learned about nobility and relating to those we considered different from ourselves. Superheroes had super powers, yes, but they were also heroes. Their powers often failed them but even in their darkest moments they retained their moral code and their passion to do what was right. Mankind might have explored far distant galaxies but they still had to deal with the same questions we on Earth ask ourselves. And while they met many a menacing alien, there were as many more who were capable of teaching us a lesson about ourselves.

And so it was that I learned many of life’s important lessons from people I had never met. A thousand obscure authors and storytellers all but forgotten now by the world. It was more difficult to translate the lessons I learned on paper or in songs into real life—things were always so much more perfect and heroic in fiction. But in the end I learned that heroism and idealism were guiding forces. I feel a debt to each of those thousands, literally thousands, of strangers that brought me into their world of imagination and passion and made me see and feel and imagine things more deeply than I ever would have otherwise.

I want the world to remember their names. I want them to know that Jim Shooter, Michael Brown, James Warren, Robert Arthur, Gardner Fox, Jean Dutourd, Anthony Phillips, and so many more lived and created and inspired. I want to introduce such influences to a new generation so that they can experience the thrill I once felt, still feel when I cast my memory back to my youth. I want to keep alive all that was once so vital to me, and so I push on in that direction, hopefully making a bit of a name for myself so that I can reflect back on those who influenced me.

But even more than keeping alive the names of those who pushed me in the story-telling direction, I want to keep their spirit alive. I want to give to others what has been given to me. Not amusement and amazement only, but a sense of heroism and possibility as well. I write for adults, not for teens or children, but I feel it is important for everyone to keep alive ideals that we too often dismiss as na├»ve or impractical in our later years. Achieving a better world must first begin with perceiving and believing, and there is surely a better world possible than the one we’re currently constructing. I know that it is so, I have seen it in the work of a thousand nearly anonymous creators of wonder, and I will not let their inspiration fade away.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Whispers and Explosions

For a long time now I’ve had the habit of watching my television (on those occasions when I actually watch television) with remote control in hand. The reason I do this is to lessen the loud sounds and enhance the soft. More and more it appears to me that there is no in between, movies are either explosions or whispers.

Sure, you can blame it on my age. With each passing day that is the reason for much of what I do and how I perceive the outside world. But I’m really not that old yet (50), and besides, I’ve heard people far younger than myself say the same thing. So I imagine there is some truth in my observation. If this is so, then there is probably some reason for it being so, and since I love to dissect everything I observe to death, let me take a moment to ask why this is so.

A lot of it comes down to increases in technology. Advances in sound systems as well as production have enabled someone sitting at home to have a movie theater-like experience at home. Explosions played through a powerful bass unit played at proper level can literally get the windows shaking. And played at that level, well even the whispers can be clearly understood.

Movies and television didn’t have such options decades ago. Sound needed to be compressed in order that it would sound decent on the equipment available to them at the time. Heck, Purple Haze was recorded in a way that would make it sound good on a transistor radio.

But there is something more at work than technology, at least I like to entertain the possibility that there is. After all, every observation that floats into our consciousness gives us an opportunity to reflect on the world we live in and perhaps get to know it better as a result.

With that in mind, there may be cultural reasons for the louds being louder and the softs being softer. Perhaps actual words have become less important in the movies we watch today. Perhaps spectacle is a bigger part of our movies than ideas expressed through dialog. This might be an inevitable part of the improvement of technology, but it nevertheless alters the movie-going experience. To change that experience is to alter the nature of what we call film. Is it art or is it entertainment? Most any movie should be a mixture of some degree of the two, but increasing spectacle while decreasing the importance of dialog undeniably slides it away from art and towards entertainment. As Aristotle argued thousands of years ago, spectacle is the least important, least artistic aspect of drama.

Spectacle is playing a larger part in our drama today merely because the opportunities are so vast. We can now witness on the screen an army a hundred thousand strong lay siege to a city, using elephants and mythical creatures, as we did in Lord of the Rings. Of course, such spectacle is not cheap. And to acquire the needed investment for such special effects, investors want to lessen their exposure to risk. In other words, anything that might get in the way of profit, say a controversial idea or an actual message, must be trimmed or avoided. So if you want to compete with the big boys on special effects, you’re going to have to march to the beat of the investors. And the overall difference in the look and feel of a big studio and an indie film is going to grow wider, making ideas and messages riskier propositions.

But if we can perhaps explain why movies have grown louder, we have not yet addressed why movies have at the same time grown softer. Perhaps words and ideas have a lesser part to play in film nowadays, but that is no reason for the characters to not be intelligible. So why the whispering, why the softly-spoken lines?

Perhaps it is a wild assumption but there seems to be more intrigue in movies today. Nobody is direct anymore unless violence is imminent, in which case the whispers turn to yelling. Game of Thrones is all about the intrigue, all about the plotting behind other people’s backs.

John Wayne seldom whispered, nor did he often yell. He stated things plainly. He neither connived nor did he threaten. He was a man who spoke softly (that is to say at a normal level, not a whisper) and packed a punch. I don’t recall Humphrey Bogart ever whispering, nor Jimmy Stewart. Somehow they managed to pack a whole lot of personality into a rather limit decibel range. Clint Eastwood, that’s where it all started.

Tyrants rage and traitors whisper, but the honest man speaks in a normal tone. We seem to have lost track of the idea of the honest character as protagonist. Somewhere in the 70’s we were introduced to the flawed hero (Dirty Harry, for one), and it has only gotten worse since then. Before then you could tell who was who by the color of the hat they wore. That was obviously a simplistic way of viewing the world but it wasn’t all wrong. Good guys dressed like good guys because they wanted to display respect for others and for the law. Bad guys dressed like bad guys because they wanted to intimidate others and make them submit to force or threats. And that’s it: bullying calls for a raised voice while threats can be whispered in the ear of an intended victim. And the good guys who spoke plainly and in measured tones, well they’re not part of the narrative much these days.

Admittedly my observations are not backed with mountains of research and evidence. They are merely the observations of one man with an hour to waste on a Sunday afternoon. And yet I believe there is some truth to them. Movies are different today than they were a generation or more ago, and it goes beyond the technological changes that have occurred. Our society has embraced change like none other in history. Perhaps that is a good thing, but it is still important to note what changes occur and question why it is they have come to be. Let us not fall into the position that change is always for the better, lest we become no better than those who once believed that change was always to be repressed. We, each of us, have some degree of say in what changes do or do not occur in our society. We have a role to play, a part in the discussion of where our culture is headed. It’s what grownups do.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Gates Of Heaven Open Wide For My Dog Bella

Here's something I had written a few years back that I never posted here, a happy moment from the life of my dog Bella:

The Gates of Heaven Open Wide

This summer has not been kind to my beloved black lab, Bella. Let’s face it, a black fur coat is not the kind of thing you want to wear to the beach on a hot, sunny day. And this has been one hot, muggy summer. Furthermore, in her old age, she has developed a real fear of fireworks. It wouldn’t be so bad if the kids (and grown up kids) in the neighborhood would restrict themselves to the 4th of July, but the noise begins in mid June and gradually fizzles out sometime in late July. Poor Bella can be enjoying her day until a single firecracker will send her slinking into the basement to cringe under some piece of furniture. But perhaps the cruelest blow of all for Bella this year has been the loss of one of her most beloved enjoyments. We never really turn on the air conditioner for ourselves, we do it for Bella and Charlie, our guinea pig. And it is our great joy to watch Bella realize that the air has been turned on and see her plop herself upon the air vent. But several weeks ago, I walked into the house to discover the grating for the air vent not where it should have been but under the dining room table. I put the grate back but since that time, Bella will not go near it. Me and the Misses have put 2+2 together and made the following assumption: one day while enjoying the cool air coming from the register, Bella must have got her dog collar caught in the grate and lifted it out. Who knows how long she had to carry the heavy, cumbersome object around, but it is clear that she doesn’t want to risk doing so again.

But all is not bad in Bella‘s life. In fact there was one event that was so spectacular, it just may have made up for the rest.

One block down from us is a bakery, the old-fashioned family-owned kind that is closed on Sunday and for a week in the summer when the owners go on vacation. The kind of bakery that sends its tantalizing aroma down the block to my front porch, an aroma enticing enough to challenge any good intentions when it comes to dieting. For 11 years now, my wife and I have walked Bella past this bakery most every day. When we walk together, one of us occasionally will stop in while the other waits outside with Bella. While we sometimes get donuts or sweets for ourselves, we never leave without getting a dog cookie, baked fresh, for Bella. Upon leaving the store, we will hand the bag with the cookie in it to Bella and she will carry it home. When she was younger, she would carry the bag gently by the end in the same way Jackie Kennedy might have carried a handbag. Now that she is older, though, she seems less willing to take chances and carries it as tightly wedged into her mouth as she can get it. Either way, I walk her home and feel the same misplaced and slightly disturbing pride that a mother of a toddler beauty pageant contestant must feel. I have few vanities in life, but I love to see people driving down the road turn and look at my dog.

My wife was not with me on my last walk, but my dog was giving me the same hints she always does as we approached the bakery. Feeling sorry for her, I suddenly thought of just poking my head through the door and asking if they could bring a dog cookie to the door. I did so, and to my amazement, they told me to just bring her inside. Never in my life could I have imagined that someone would allow a dog into a bakery, it just doesn’t seem like a very smart thing to do. Dogs are notoriously lacking in manners as Bella was quick to demonstrate. I think it must have been the thrill of her life to enter this building that housed such gastronomical delights. She predictably behaved in a manner unmannerly, but with such genuine enthusiasm as to make it forgivable. I’m sure there were nose smears on the display windows that needed cleaning after we left, as Bella demanded a close view of every croissant, scone, cookie and pie that was on display. As it was, she left quite satisfied with her typical dog cookie, carrying it in a bag wedged far back in her mouth. 11 years of curiosity were finally satisfied for her, in what was surely one of the most momentous events of her life.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Monkey With His Hand In A Jar

There’s something about the company you keep that determines where your thoughts will go, and it’s hard to make use of your higher intellectual functions in the presence of a monkey. In fact, it’s often too great a task to simply keep your dignity. No great and lofty drama can be acted within a circus tent, nor will Chopin’s Preludes ever be played by an organ grinder.

And so those who study matters a little more seriously than some are prone to becoming easily vexed when a monkey arrives on the scene of a serious discussion. I’ve seen it time and time again where the person of greater learning is frustrated to the point of utter exasperation by the behavior of a creature with no sense of decorum. The serious and the high-minded can have their egos destroyed by their inability to understand that so many can prefer the actions of a monkey to their staid and measured pronouncements. Such is their folly that they are incapable of seeing that the monkey is appreciated precisely because he is capable of taking the starch out of the collars of those who attempt to sit so staid and complacently above the fray.

In short, a monkey has a knack for making monkeys of us all. And that is not totally a bad thing. A monkey in our midst is a good way of keeping our egos in check. It keeps our grandiose theories from flying too far away from reality. It takes us out of our comfort zone. The monkey keeps our feet on the ground, keeps us rooted, forces us to focus on how healthy our roots are while we’d prefer to be busily losing ourselves in sophistry and pretty but untested notions of how life should be.

A lot of people were feeling good about themselves for the last 8 years. We had elected an African-American president who was well spoken, photogenic, and relatively scandal-free. He spoke about hope and change but more than anything else he was the personification of hope and change because he was the embodiment of the mountaintop speech Martin Luther King Junior gave those many years back. Martin knew that he would never live to see the day but we as a nation had finally arrived.

Except that nothing is ever that simple and we never really arrive. Every mountain we climb merely gives us a brief glimpse of the road ahead that we need to traverse. We’ve forgotten that. We’ve foolishly believed that everything was right with the world during the reign of Barack Obama.

We were wrong. The monkey exposed our self-satisfied illusions about ourselves. Even now we don’t want to admit it but the monkey had a lot to work with. We made his job easy.

But here’s the thing. A monkey can’t make a decent human being look too bad for too long. A monkey will reveal the inner you, beyond the image you project to the world. Put a basically good person in the room and he’ll find a healthy way to interact with a monkey. But put a person with issues in the same room with a hyperactive simian and that person will blow his top.

That’s what I see happening now. The pat storyline of liberals everywhere is being put to the test and you’re not responding very well. The monkey is exposing your hypocrisy and it’s rattled you so much you’re no longer in charge of your own emotions. This amuses those who are watching, makes you look to be the butt of the monkey’s behavior in the eyes of the crowd, and everybody enjoys a circus where the monkey gets the best of the clowns. When the monkey gets you to act like a monkey yourself, the monkey wins.

You’re playing the monkey’s game. Instead of using your reason you have fallen into monkey behavior. You’re showing the world you’re no better than the monkey and it looks even worse on you, because the monkey never pretended to be something better than a monkey.

There’s an ancient story about how to catch a monkey. You place a piece of fruit in a jar with an opening just large enough for a monkey to get his hand in but not big enough for him to get his hand out while holding the fruit. The monkey wants that piece of fruit so bad, he doesn’t have enough sense to let it go even when he is about to be captured.

That is how I see much of the opposition to Trump right now. Your hatred is so intense you can’t let go of it, even though it’s hurting you to hold on. Your hatred for the monkey is such that he’s got you acting just like him. And there’s nothing the monkey enjoys more than having a partner in his monkey games. And the crowd looking on is mightily amused too.

It’s time to let go the anger, it’s time to regain your composure and stop letting the monkey dictate your behavior. You must be in charge, not the monkey, but in order to do that you must show the audience that you have the sort of integrity that cannot be sullied by a mere monkey.

It’s fun to watch a hypocrite squirm as the lie is put to him by the monkey. But it is no fun for the audience once they realize the victim of the monkey will not surrender his dignity.

It is up to you to elevate the drama that is being played out. You must appeal to the audience’s sympathies and logic, show by your actions that the causes you care for are noble causes. You must not stoop to monkey behavior, and you must be quick to call out those who do, even if they support the same causes as you. You must call out people who body shame the President of the United States of America, both because you respect the office and because you oppose body shaming in all incidences. You must call out those who imply a homosexual relationship between the monkey and foreign heads of state, both because it does not deal with the issues and especially because you would not tolerate trying to shame someone because of their sexuality if it were anyone else.

You’ve claimed the moral high ground, it is up to you to prove yourselves worthy of it. We already know the path the monkey has taken. I suggest you don’t try to follow him, he has had a lifetime of practice at it.