Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Countries, and One Very Outdated Amendment

Unfortunately, we have seen this before.  The horrific massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School represents only the escalation of gun violence in this country to a previously unimaginable level.  The faces of the teenage and young adult victims at Columbine and Virginia Tech have now been replaced by those of five and six year olds.  But the rest of it is all too familiar: families shattered, a school forever to be haunted by memories of the tragic day, a community left to pay for the sins of omission of an entire nation.

Once the spotlight of national media attention has faded from this most recent slaughter – probably five minutes after the last storyline has been exhaustingly explored – what will come from it all?  The National Rifle Association will emerge from its public relations moratorium and start spouting the same nonsense.  The Second Amendment will be hailed as sacred, once again.  The video game manufacturers will claim that there is no evidence their product desensitizes their customers to violence.  Some fool will stand in front of a television camera or sit behind a keyboard and spout the nonsense that “guns are tools”, that restricting the law-abiding public’s access to weapons will ensure that only the bad guys have them.

Well, unfortunately, there is a “case study” on all this. 

On March 13, 1996, a man named Thomas Hamilton walked into the Dunblane Primary School in Dunblane, Scotland.  He was armed with four hand guns, all legally purchased, and 743 rounds of ammunition.  When he was done with his lunacy, fifteen five and six year old children were dead, along with their teacher, along with Hamilton, whose last shot was directed at himself.  But, in the outrage that followed, enough political pressure was placed upon government officials that the next year the Conservative-controlled Parliament passed sweeping gun control laws that were soon thereafter made stricter by the newly elected Labour-controlled Parliament the very same year.  In other words, the United Kingdom’s equivalents of our Republican and Democratic parties had the courage to act on a controversial issue. 

The result?  In 2009, the U.K.’s per capita rate of homicides by handgun was less than one-fortieth that of the United States.  And no, that’s not a typo….less than 1/40th the rate of the United States.  We’re not talking about Bora Bora here, or even some old style police state.  We’re talking about the United Kingdom, our special friend and closest ally, the nation from whom we inherited our language and system of laws.  If there is one country we can most closely compare ourselves to, it is the U.K.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was born largely out of the English Bill of Rights and subsequent legislation that sought to preserve the citizenry’s right to bear arms.  Of course, the English origin of that right was a product of the tumultuous 17th century, when they were torn apart by a Civil War, by kings and nobility who sought to oppress either Catholics or Protestants, depending on their own religious beliefs. It has no pertinence to their present state, a fact they clearly recognized some fifteen years ago.

Similarly, the right to bear arms in the United States legal tradition was born out of the necessity of having an armed citizenry in the absence of any sort of standing army.  Read the wording of the actual amendment: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  That militia had been instrumental in defeating the British in the Revolutionary War.  It was a necessity in 1789, considering the powerful potential enemies poised on a fledgling nation’s doorstep.  In present times, the term militia can only signify the gravest of threats to the nation, the equivalent of terrorist sleeper cells within our own borders clinging to their guns and their paranoid delusions.

In other words, the second amendment is today as antiquated as the parchment paper upon which it was first printed.  And no amount of gun lobby propaganda can change the truth of that.

God bless the victims of Sandy Hook.  May we have the courage to make their deaths not have been in vain.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Five Influential Works

One of the great challenges in writing May the Road Rise Up to Meet You was to find the narrative voice and perspective of four quite diverse main characters.  I sought, to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, a “portal of discovery” into each of them, linking my own passion, heartbreak and triumph to theirs through great and small characteristics alike.  But even then, my own life’s experience could provide only so much insight, only so much inspiration.  Reading provided the invaluable bridge between my life and theirs, and these five works were particularly influential in the writing of May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, as well as in forming my own vision of the world.

1.        Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

This master work of fiction was profoundly influential to me in writing the character of Micah and I can think of no novel I have read in my life that was more of a revelation to me at the time I read it.  Mr. Ellison’s protagonist embarks on a journey from the segregated south to New York City, finding that, despite outward appearances, the inherent racism and exploitation in both worlds is essentially the same.  Similar to the unnamed narrator in Invisible Man, Micah would go through various stages in his search for liberation, first working “within the system” and through the proper channels afforded to him, then becoming broken, tamed, by the soul-crushing realities of slavery.  As he plots his own dash for freedom, his view of his fellow slaves and the complacency among them so cheaply bought by their slave masters is very much informed by Mr. Ellison’s main character.

2.       Trinity by Leon Uris

This epic novel was an awakening for me, an introduction into my Irish heritage that three generations of Americanization had diluted down to corned beef and cabbage every March 17.  Spanning the period from the Great Hunger to the Easter Uprising of 1916, the struggle and spirit of a people oppressed by colonial masters was brought to life in a way that made me feel like I had lost a dear friend when the story came to an end.  The intended psychological impact of an inherently unfair social and political system was not unlike that experienced by the main character in Invisible Man, and the seed of the relationship between Ethan and Micah was planted within me after having read these two novels.

3.       The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This wonderful novel was influential in writing the character of Mary both in terms of style and spirit.  The protagonist of The Color Purple, Celie, faces a childhood of separation and traumatizing abuse and, though beaten down by life, manages to endure through her correspondence with God and then her lost sister through letters she secretly writes.  Some of that experience is formative in Mary’s struggle, and her correspondence with Gertie, consisting of prayer-like whispers answered in the form of her dreams,  is similarly a source of relief and instruction.   

4.       Walden by Henry David Thoreau

I knew from the beginning that I would seek to write characters that were imbued with a sense of hard won self-reliance.  Indeed, all four of them are self-made in one way or another, defying stereotypes and the constraining roles that society would appoint them.  My own belief in our ability “to affect the quality of the day” was first planted by reading Thoreau’s Walden, a transcendentalist manual on living deeply and with purpose.  It is part epic poem, part philosophical guidebook, and as meaningful a read as I have ever known.

5.       i thank you God for most this amazing by  e e cummings

Each of the four main characters in May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is an artist in some way, possessing the unique ability to see life through a deeper and more meaningful prism than the “realists” surrounding them.   Indeed, the metaphor of the entire book, expressed in Gertie’s “frontsways” story in the prologue, speaks to the gift of seeing life for all that it represents, all the tragedy and beauty somehow stitched together in the final picture that will be all that was our lives and all that we will leave behind.  The poetry of e e cummings, and particularly “i thank you God for most this amazing” was inspirational and instructional in seeing not only my characters lives, but my own, through the eyes of gratitude.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Disco(urse) is Dead!

Pardon the pun in the title revealing where I stood on the 1970's music scene, even as a pre-teen. This is not an essay about music, after all, but politics. Really, it is not about politics either, because what passes for such in this age of elected officials, pundits, bloggers and even late night talk show hosts preaching to their own particular choirs is not politics so much as it is ratings-driven demagoguery.  This is, I suppose, little more than the rant of a modern-day lunatic…otherwise known as a true Independent.

By way of full disclosure I should reveal that I have both voted for and volunteered for Democrats and Republicans alike over the course of more than twenty five years as an eligible voter, so to some of you I may bear the Scarlet ‘D’ or ‘R’ depending on your affiliation.  See, I am one of those people both sides come courting every four years when they want to garner enough votes to get them elected.  They attempt to sway us with promises of change, then forget all about us when it comes to governing, running back to their “base” again, and assuring that folks like myself will never seriously consider changing our official party registration to anything other than ‘I’.  Four years later we get to do the same dance all over again.    
It would be easier if I just surrendered to one side or the other, focusing on those issues from their party line with which I agree and simply ignoring those with which I do not.  An old friend of mine, a self-proclaimed Independent as well, has been spouting his vehement support for one side in the coming election via social media.  It gets him a great deal of ‘likes’, I have seen.  And I am not a natural contrarian, you know.  I’d like to get lots of ‘likes’, too.  But the truth is, I’m still thinking.  I’m allowed to do that, am I not?  They haven’t moved the election up without telling me, have they? 
But you see, just a few days ago that same friend, whose opinion I have always valued, told me (in colloquial terms I will not use here) that until I picked a side in this election I essentially had no place in the political debate.  He used the phrase ‘Devil’s advocate’ as if it was a call for widespread anarchy rather than the path of true discernment.  And really, in this modern-day political climate, he almost has a point.

This is an age of forced conformity like none other we have known.  True debate has been replaced by attempts to simply shout down or outspend the opposition…or even to deny the opposition the right to their opinion, whether they can voice it or not.  The vitriol coming from the far Left and far Right has served to lower the bar of the public discourse to its lowest levels since the days of the Vietnam War.  And there is no Walter Cronkite to report the goings on either, but rather we are left with what amounts to “journalism” these days, with two major news networks so unabashedly partisan in their coverage of things political that they are just a few shades of objectivity from Al-Jazeera.
When the televised “debates” between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates are evaluated like prize fights - the commentary almost exclusively focused on who spoke louder, who spoke more firmly, who was the aggressor and who was not - something is terribly wrong.  When the prevalence of social media fills the airwaves with little more than zingers these days, it makes the days of sound-bites seem almost idyllic by comparison.  And when intelligent people begin to see no room at the political table for those who have not vowed allegiance to one side or the other, well…we’re in trouble folks.  
At any rate, I’m still thinking.  And I will continue to do so for some time yet.  So there.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Big Brother Isn't Just Watching Anymore

This just in from the Czar, er…Mayor of New York City, His Honor Michael Bloomberg:

The newly proposed program called “Latch On NYC” will require city health officials to keep tabs on the number of bottles of baby formula that participating hospitals stock and use.  While new mothers won’t be completely denied access to baby formula, it will be stored in “out-of-the-way secure storerooms or in locked boxes like those used to dispense and track medications,” the NY Post reports.  With each bottle a mother requests and receives, she’ll be lectured on why breastfeeding is a better choice, and hospital staff will be asked to cite a medical reason for the dispensation of formula.  And then what…the new mother will be branded with a Scarlet F?

This isn’t anything new for the Mayor of the largest city in the nation.  He’s working on making law a plan to ban the sale of sugary soft drinks in quantities greater than sixteen ounces. But it is not just Mayor Bloomberg pushing the envelope of bigger and more intrusive government.  In San Francisco, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission will be voting on whether to conduct a feasibility study on a tax on every mile people drive in their cars.  A GPS tracking device would be installed in each vehicle in order to assess the miles driven each tax period.    

We are well past the Orwellian days of Big Brother watching our every move.  For years now, there has hardly been a street corner or inch of public space in any decent-sized town or city that has not been covered by surveillance cameras.  We’ve grown accustomed to that in quick enough order.  Now government is moving past the realm of Big Brother.  Government is becoming Big Daddy.  And Daddy knows best.

The arguments in favor of these measures are all quite similar, and certainly not without merit.  Numerous studies have shown that breastfeeding a newborn is better for the child’s immune system than a formula-only diet.  The availability of forty ounce containers of sugar water certainly isn’t doing much for the health of the nation.  And global pollution and local traffic are worse than ever. 

But the real issue is actually none of these issues at all.  The real issue is how the vanguard of big government, under the guise of watching out for its citizens and society’s well being, has intruded deeper and deeper into our lives, our communities, our homes.  It is certainly not the first time government has taken on greater authority to be wielded under its own discretion.  Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.  F.D.R. pushed through Congress one massive spending project after another during the Depression, pushing the country closer to true Socialism than at any time in its history.  And the Patriot Act passed by Congress after September 11, 2001 certainly has wrung the Bill of Rights dry of some of its protective juice.  But the difference in each of these cases is that they occurred in times of grave national emergency.  Like them or not, they were (and are, in the case of the Patriot Act), reactive and intended to be temporary.

The measures proposed by Bloomberg and the San Francisco MTC are part of a proactive and far more permanent expansion of government, one that will surely be just the first step in greater and greater intrusions into our lives.  This is just the vanguard, after all, and the vanguard operates decades ahead of popular consensus.  Plain and simple, this is not social policy, but social engineering.

Want an idea of where it is all headed?  Look to New York City again, where just a few months ago the Department of Education published an expanded list of words to be banned from its periodic assessment tests.  This was not the usual politically correct fare.  It was, to quote a department spokesperson: "standard language that has been used by test publishers for many years".  Included in the list of banned words and references: birthdays (possibly offensive to Jehovah's Witnesses); dinosaurs (suggesting evolution); divorce; death; Halloween; crime; homes with swimming pools or computers (offensive/distracting to students without one); any reference to religious and cultural celebrations and holidays; any reference to politics; war; references to specific cultural foods such as pepperoni (possibly offensive to those who do not partake)...and so on.  The Department of Education later retreated from this official stance, but as the spokesperson said, this is a language ban that publishers have been using for years.  And we didn't even know it.

So what is the vanguard of bigger, more authoritative government pushing for at the most fundamental levels, instructing the next generations to march forward with as the lens through which they view society and the world?  It is not diversity and the acceptance of all cultures, races, religions, etc.  It is a world without cultures, races, religions.  At the end of that educational arc is not equality, but sameness.  Conformity.  The loss of individual identity.

With Big Daddy knowing what is best for us all.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Penn State: If it Was Really "All About the Victims"...

The airwaves of sports talk radio, ESPN, even the news oriented programming have been littered with commentary on the Penn State scandal of late. Again. Sports columnists, legal analysts, football coaches and ordinary citizens have voiced their opinions on the various issues connected with the scandal, most of them prefacing their comments with the obligatory, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims..." Again.

And then the debate/discussion begins. How best to handle the matter? How best to punish those involved in the cover-up without harming the innocent? What has this done to the legacy of those involved, particularly Joe Paterno?

Usually, I can listen to the banter for three or four minutes before I inevitably shake my head and change the station. I can count on one hand (and have fingers left over) the number of people who have, in my opinion, really struck at the heart of the matter.

"You have to perform at a consistently higher level than others. That's the mark of a true professional."

That is one of many Joe Paterno quotes that spoke to his players, his program, holding them to a higher standard than others. Winning the right way, with honor, and within the rules...that was the Penn State way, as scores of reporters in lockstep repeated the mantra. But now we know that the man whose statue has become a matter of great controversy sought to cover up and ignore the reality of the heinous crimes being committed by one of the standard bearers of his program. And as a result of his colossal failure to hold himself to the standard of a merely decent human being - let alone the higher standard he demanded of others - he became complicit in the irreversible scarring of other innocent boys. And while we don't know his specific thought process on the matter, and probably never will, we can safely presume that one of the primary motivating factors in the cover-up was the damage he knew it would do to his reputation and the reputation of Penn State football.

The things we men do in the name of sports glory. For shame. And I still believe that had there been just one woman in that cover-up chain of command, this would likely have been ended a long time ago.

But it is not just Paterno and the administration members who are responsible here. This is a campus, a town, a state, a society at large, run amok in the sort of "cult of personality" that comes with winning games. This was an atmosphere where grown men: a janitor, an assistant coach, an athletic director, administrators of a university, all deferred to the legend they'd helped create, if only by their compliance and their own inability to stand up and be simply decent human beings amidst the horrors of what was going on under their very noses.

Let's at least answer a few questions with unmitigated truth.

Why was Joe Paterno the most revered man in the state, let alone on campus?

Answer: Because we have our priorities all wrong.

Why did the students riot the night he was fired?

Answer: Because we have our priorities all wrong. Because we have raised the next generation to be as blind as we are to what really matters.

Why is it so hard for some people to imagine an institution of higher learning such as Penn State without a season's worth of football?

Answer: Because we have our priorities all wrong. Because we have raised the next generation to be as blind as we are to what really matters. Because of the money.

But if this was really "All about the victims..." the way so many commentators and critics would have us believe, then we would cut right to the chase. Truth be told, it is not unlike any other major institution that competes on the highest level of sports. This could have happened at dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other schools...quite possibly it already has. But Penn State has become the epicenter of the mess we've all created. And the chance to hit the reset button, in some small way, to spend an autumn's worth of Saturdays thinking about how such a culture could grow so great as to blind so many to what really matters.

That's what we'd all be calling for.

If this was REALLY, "All about the victims..."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Saw this the other day in line at the store. Two aisles over, phone rings, a woman, perhaps 75 or so, takes said phone out of her purse and looks at the screen as the phone continues ringing. "Which one do I press again?" she asks of her grandson, I imagine, a young man of maybe fifteen, or so. "Top left," he answers, not really disrespectfully (especially by today's standards), but with some attitude, let's just say. But the woman doesn't press the button in time and the ringing stops. Still she holds the phone to her ear and speaks into it.

Over the course of the next minute or two, her grandson tells her that the call went to voicemail, then explains what voicemail is, explains that the new sound she then hears is telling her that she has a voicemail and that no, it isn't another call, tells her to hit the center button to listen to the voicemail, then takes the phone from her when she stares at the front of it for too long (maybe five seconds), hits the center button, then presses in her password and places the phone to her ear saying (more attitude now), "Hear, listen." When the brief message is done and she asks what to do now, there is some rolling of eyes and pronounced exhaling and...well, you can imagine the scenario, I'm sure.

This is not a rant against the youth of today. This is not a rant against the tide of technological advancement. This is not a rant, but rather, an observation.

Somewhere in our not too distant past, we, as a society, came to despise age and glorify youth, and since "Never trust anyone over thirty," was something of the mantra of the Baby-Boomers of the Sixties, it's not too hard to pinpoint when that happened. The Boomers borrowed the notion (perhaps unwittingly) from Thoreau, who spoke of age as not being a better instructor than youth. Of course, Thoreau was only thirty himself at the time, and began from the standpoint that most men lived "lives of quiet desperation," so, even the great H.D.T. was more than a little biased when it came to this assertion.

At any rate, the problem is not in the sentiment that youthful enthusiasm and idealism offer something of value in the public discourse. Past thirty myself now, I still believe this to be true. But there is a problem with how this elevating of youth has manifest itself in modern society. The Boomers who once revered that youthful idealism now revere Botox. They reacted so strongly against the "Father Knows Best" culture that they helped create the "my kids are my best friends" culture. They don't just want to be part of their kids' world, they want to be their kids. And the march of technology hasn't helped matters at all, to be sure of it.

As soon as little Johnny becomes aware that Granddad has never sent an email, isn't on Facebook, thinks a tweet is Elmer Fudd's description of a candy bar, well, think there's any chance little Johnny will grow up thinking he's got a whole lot to learn from Granddad? Simply connect the dots from there.

Of course, there is no stopping technology...and in most cases, no reason to want to, reality T.V. aside. And Botox will only be replaced by something more effective, I'm sure. Someday soon there will be better tanning machines and new surgical procedures and we can all look like Joan Rivers or Bruce Jenner well into our eighties, if we choose.

Funny thing is, Thoreau was quite the rebel for his day. A century ahead of his time, you might say. But to be truly like Thoreau now would be to cast aside so much of what the last forty years has created in our culture, to value wisdom as much as vigor, knowledge as much as short, to age with grace. And to raise a generation that understands the difference between knowing how to use a cell phone and knowing what life is really all about.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

This is a Story About faith

There is this from the play “Our Town”, Thorton Wilder’s masterpiece:

EMILY:  "Does anyone ever realize life while they live it...every, every minute?"

STAGE MANAGER:  "No. Saints and poets maybe...they do some.”

So often in this journey of writing and now especially in promoting May the Road Rise Up to Meet You, I have asserted to people that it is a story about faith.  The book is written to be a metaphor of the idea contained in the prologue, that our lives are great embroideries that we see mostly only from the wrong side of it, the side where all the knots and tangles and the disparate, seemingly disconnected threads fall limply to the floor.   Imagine the young slave girl Mary watching her adoptive mother Gertie finishing an embroidery - a stitchin’ as she calls it - in their tiny cabin by the light of a dwindling fire.  From her perspective on the floor, Mary can see only the mess that is the back of it and complains, as we often do, that none of it seems to make any sense!  To which Gertie replies:

“You cain’t tell nothin’ ‘bout whachu seein’ when you layin’ over there,” she says. “Cain’t tell nothin’ ‘bout nothin’ in dis worl’ when all you seein’ is th’knots an’ tangles an’ ever’thin’ goin’ ever which way, lookin’ like a buncha mess.   How you gonna unnerstan’ when you layin’ dere seein’ jus’ th’messa it all, when th’mess only one parta it, no matta how it seem sometime?  Cain’t see how all dese little bitsa thread be connected togetha, jus’ like all th’bitsa yo’ life gonna be, cause you ain’ lookin’ at it the way it meant t’be seen.”

An’ then she smiles…an’ turns ‘round that stitchin’ she been workin’ on so you can see it straight off.  An’ it’s pretty as a picture ever was. 

“Dis here,” she says, “what aaaall dat mess look like…when you gets t’seein’ it frontsways.”

It is not the first time such thoughts have been uttered.  In fact, it is one of the great themes of the human endeavor…the search for meaning, the thirst for understanding, the desire to make some sense of it all.  It is the reason I created the characters I did and imbued them with that philosophical spirit, that spiritual inquisitives, and all the knots and tangles they would face along the way.  It’s the reason I gave them each their own style of prose, their own narrative voice, representing the strands that they each contribute to the stitchin’ that is the story as a whole. 

But in the sale of the book and the promotion of it, that message had been pushed to the rear, brushed aside in favor of marketing strategies and ways to most easily link the book to prospective audiences.  After all, we do not live in a spiritual society, and faith is often looked upon with great suspicion and even fear.  We live in the cultural age where virtually nothing is taboo anymore…except the matter of faith.  So we oversimplify the truly complex, finding supposed answers where there are only glorious mysteries. 

It has taken this winding road for me to see this.  Just recently I was fortunate enough to have a book signing at a Barnes and Noble just a few miles from the school at which I taught years ago.  It was virtually five years to the date since I took that leap of faith believing there was a book I was being called to write. (And no…not in the burning bush sort of way, but in the subtle, sometimes barely perceptible ways we are led from point A to point J without knowing there are points in between.)  It has been five years of doubt and uncertainty punctuated by moments of seeming inspiration, only to be awash again in the unknown.

And I find myself there again, as I write the second book in this now become trilogy.  But, as in any journey of faith, any voyage worth traveling, there are moments of clarity that confirm the importance of the belief in that which remains unseen, and the understanding that we are often closest to God when we are in mid-flight, whether after the great leaps or just the ordinary strides from one point to the next…but moving, active in our journeys, weaving the threads we are given into the brilliant stitchin’s we are called to create.  And amidst this (perhaps fleeting) moment of clarity, what can there be but gratitude?  And the comfort in knowing that yes, for my characters and for me, this most certainly is a story about faith.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Snooki Effect

Blame it on Snooki.
Yesterday I finally got to see the most recent Academy Award Best Picture, “The Artist,” but not before I had been sufficiently warned.  There on the box office window, typed in bold and ominous font, was a sign that read:


“The Artist” is a SILENT, BLACK and WHITE movie.

(And the surgeon general has determined that it may cause migraine headaches, cancer, leprosy...)

OK, I kid…they did not mention leprosy.  Of course, in order to cover their tracks, they might also have posted on that sign that the film contains symbolism and metaphor and only a very few of the words presumed to be spoken are actually printed on the screen. 
In truth, the film is miraculous...not because of its quality, but because of its very existence.  It is a very good movie, a true homage to early Hollywood and an entertaining, informative piece of art.  But what is miraculous about it is that it could ever have been made in the first place.  Of course it wasn’t made in Hollywood, but in France, and it was made on a very tight schedule with a budget that was less than what an A-List movie star would make for a single picture.  But it was made, so alas, there is hope.

Culturally speaking, what was once branded as elite and snobbish is now virtually extinct.  What was high quality and sometimes thought-provoking is now snobbish.  What was mediocre is now high quality.  And what was once idiotic is now PURE GOLD.

It is the Age of Snooki.  It is the Age of Cultural Junk Food, served super-sized at the drive-thru window, and we are eating it up like there’s no tomorrow.
I remember seeing a clip of the cast of The Jersey Shore when they first appeared on The Tonight Show.  Jay Leno did a skit with them on a mock quiz show and drew laughs from their lack of knowledge of even remedial facts.  It seemed like the show itself was a spoof, an over the top, let’s see how far we can go with this whole “reality T.V.” thing sort of goof.  Then they became superstars.  Now they sit on the couch at talk shows and are treated as serious cultural commodities, as, dare I say it…artists. 

Lower that bar, follow that dollar.
And why is this so?  There has always been entertainment and popular culture that hardly qualified as Shakespeare or Ibsen.  Most Vaudeville acts, indeed most early movies were anything but sophisticated.  But what is different today is the growing supremacy of the banal, the glorification of the downright moronic, and the unused brain cells that flitter away in their exhaust.

“Citizen Kane” wouldn’t get made today unless maybe George Clooney took it on and bankrolled most of it himself.  Today, Louis Armstrong would be stuck in a gig-to-gig existence playing 30 seat clubs for meal money.  Franz Kafka would be told to change the giant bug in “The Metamorphosis” to a vampire or a werewolf and to get rid of all the symbolism crap and put in some good fight scenes. 
I hear there are discussions of Snooki having her own show now that she’s pregnant.  Flash forward to September, 2013: “And the Emmy goes to…”

We reap what we sow. 
But that does not have to be the case.  There are oases of quality still to be found, not necessarily on the front pages or on AOL news feeds, but they are there.  It may require a little searching, sometimes away from the major television networks, sometimes to a movie theater twenty miles farther away than the local multiplex, sometimes past the usual suspects on the bookshelves or in the DVD displays or even on iTunes.  The quality is there, and now perhaps made all the more special by the search for it, by the rarity of it.

By the NEED for it.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


When I was 23 and living in Boulder, Colorado, I decided one autumn afternoon that I would drive back east to my college Homecoming/Reunion.  I spent a few hours swapping shifts at work and withdrawing almost all of the four hundred or so dollars I had in my savings account at the time, and by 9 o’clock that night I had reached Denver and turned east on Route 70 headed all the way to Washington, D.C.  It was not a thing I’d necessarily recommend to 23 year olds right now.  I guess I’ve gotten a little old…probably I’d utter things like, “Why would you do that in this economy?” or “Do you really think your 20 year old Volkswagen can make it there and back?”  (For the record, it did make it there…just not the back part, and I returned two weeks later via Greyhound.)

But I bring it up because one of the most special moments in my life occurred on that trip.  For two and a half days I drove for a few hours until the engine began to get too hot, then I’d pull over and read for a while, or sleep for a while - sometimes in an open field, sometimes in the car itself.  By the afternoon of the third day, I had reached the short rolling hills of eastern Kentucky, with the sun maybe an hour from setting almost directly behind me.  It was late October, but it was still warm enough to roll the windows down and breathe in the reflective glory as the sun’s light bounced off the autumn foliage all around.  I’d headed off to a smaller country highway and the traffic was so light that it lent an air of exclusivity to me and my fellow travelers, as if only we would be privileged enough to see all of this.  And to top it all off, I had John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to act as the soundtrack for a little more than an hour as the sun set and the gloaming gave way to darkness.  It was the last in a series of maybe three or four transcendent moments around that time in my life which would later act as a sort of spiritual, geometrical theorem providing me with all the proof I needed that God did indeed exist.  And I never was, before or since, as grateful to be alive.

Obviously I have never forgotten that moment.  But I think in the two decades that have followed, I have held on to it in mostly the wrong way.  I have searched for a repeat performance, wanting to be lifted up to such spiritually transforming heights, once again.  And I have been disappointed time after time in that pursuit.  Even getting my first novel published has not done the trick, instead yielding concerns of whether it will sell enough to allow the publishing of my second, and such.  It is reflective of how I have come to think, and, if I may stretch it beyond myself, how we as a society have come to think.

We are all imperfect people, broken in some way or another.  And we live in an imperfect world that is broken in many ways.  One need only turn on the television or thumb through a magazine to be reminded of our imperfections.  Pharmaceutical companies tell us to ask our doctors if we should be on their medications, there are ads to grow hair, remove unwanted hair, whiten our teeth, lose weight, look younger, get rid of acne, and on and on and on. 

Now, I’m not calling for an end to capitalism as we know it, just pointing out that it’s a greater challenge today, in this age of hyper-convenience, to actually feel good about ourselves, our friends and families, and the world around us.  What used to be a New Year’s tradition of making a resolution, has now grown into a year-round industry.  And we, as a result, are never given a minute just to be content, and truly grateful to be alive.
So in comes 2012, and time for resolutions to be made.  In thinking about it these last few days, I formulated the usual sorts of things.  But just yesterday my thoughts took me back to that drive from Colorado to D.C.  I thought about that magical hour through eastern Kentucky, and my resolution, my real resolution was formed.  I concede that I will never look, nor think, like that 23 year old again.  And I’m OK with that.  One time around is enough, if there is true growth involved, and gratitude.  I know I have grown as a person since then and will continue to do so.  Now, this first day of 2012, I resolve to be not as focused on the brokenness, the incompleteness.  Instead, I will try every day, to be truly grateful, for what I have, for the moments of clarity and confusion, for the perfect and imperfect alike.  And most of all, for the chance to enjoy the ride.