Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Toys that make noise

Some toys are supposed to make noise: clacking, whirring, popping, banging. That's to be expected, and it's as ancient as toys themselves. Equally ancient are parents screaming for their kids to play more quietly, and the urge to kill all the toy-makers who needlessly amplified their children.

When I was growing up, a new sort of noisy toy came on the scene: the electronic toy that made roars, shrieks and whistles. My favorite was the Star Wars blaster, a black plastic match for Han Solo's pistol. It made a buzz-saw-like shriek that was supposed to sound like a blaster, but really sounded like a dentist's drill underwater. It drove my mom nuts.

Now my kids have a number of electronic toys, but unlike anything I had growing up. These are toys that talk and play music. Now, talking and playing music is not that unusual; we had "Operation," talking Barbies and toy pianos in my day. But no one had yet to dream up completely superflous music and speech. If you told me, "Let's put an electronic speaker in this truck so it can have an engine sound and back-up beeper," I wouldn't have agreed but I could at least understand the urge. But if someone said, "Let's put an electronic speaker in this truck so it can play 20 seconds of electric guitar riffs and have some masculine voice holler 'Catepillar Power!' ", I would have been speechless. But such noise-for-noise's-sake is now so common-place it's hard to find a simple Big Wheel or Sit-n-Spin that is not equipped with its own prosthetic enthusiasm.

What's going on here? My guess is that such things are geared at getting the attention of toy-buyers, not the kids themselves. The toys lining the shelves thrash and scream, as if to say, "Buy me! Buy me!" And the confused adult, not really knowing what's cool or interesting to kids these days, will be easily swayed to grab the biggest, loudest, brightest item they can find.

Or, more depressingly, it may be that the toys are competing with other loud, bright, annoying things like, oh, say, the television set. Perhaps the average parent is not annoyed by these screaming music monstrosities, since they long ago learned to tune out the background noise of their TVs.

For our household, it is now a rule: all toys must be capable of quiet play. That doesn't mean the play will be quiet, of course, but at least all shrieks, explosions and roars are human-generated.


Friday, April 06, 2007

11th Commandment

When I was giving my "world religions quiz" to college students, we discussed whether the Ten Commandments were still relevant, and what if anything we would add or take away from them. Some students made some half-hearted calls to strike the first commandment ("No Gods before me" and, depending on how you count them, "No graven images") and the fourth ("Keep the Sabbath"), but with only a modest liberality of interpretation we immediately made good cases for keeping them. While literal idolotry is not a big concern in our culture today (I can't remember the last time I saw a golden calf), we do see lots of people putting things other than God at the center of their lives. The Sabbath was not voted off the island, either, once people decided to interpret it as "dedicate specific time to thinking about spiritual things." Everything else -- the prohibitions against lying, stealing, murdering, screwing around -- were still seen as self-evidently good.

Very few people had anything to add to the commandments, which speaks well of the original ten, I suppose. Jesus' summation of the Law ("Love God, love thy neighbor as thyself") was included, but in a Christian nation that's a gimme anyway. Some attempts were made to enshrine liberal values ("Don't hurt others" or "take care of the earth"), but those generally fell apart as people realized they were so vague as to be almost useless.

I could only think of two that I thought deserved to make the list. I don't think the ancient Jews ever felt the lack, because these principles were so engrained in their world view that they hardly needed saying:
  1. Keep your promises.
  2. Honor and love your children.

"Keep your promises" didn't make the list because it was embedded in the Law from the very beginning. The Law itself was a covenant, a commitment, between God and man. But today the world needs a very explicit reminder that everything in our society hangs on our ability to commit ourselves to good things and then keep those commitments.

Loving, protecting, and forwarding the interests of your children is not only obvious, it's even built into the stereotype of the Jewish mother. But again, it seems like the world needs reminding. We've had generation upon generation of people growing up both loving and hating their parents, spending half their lives (if not more) trying to transcend the physical, psychological or sexual abuse they endured. How much evil could be removed from the world, if people understood and kept the commandment, "Thou shalt not fuck up thy children?"


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Superman Returns

For Valentine's Day my wife gave me Superheroes and Philosophy, a nice collection of thoughtful essays on the philosophic questions and implications explored in the superhero genre. Since the world has seen rise to "Buffy Studies" and mountains of thoughtful discussion online about fantasy-driven pop culture, the book seemed about as square as Clark Kent. But it still managed to give me new appreciation for Superman, which led me to throw Superman Returns into the Netflix queue. (Warning: spoilers follow.)

I was tempted to call this post "Superjesus," were it not for the Australian band by the same name. Of course you need a little Christ imagery for a Superman movie . . . what self-respecting movie doesn't have a little Christ imagery? But this movie made it a full-time job, outstripping even The Matrix Revolutions in its blunt persistence to push the savior theme, almost to the point of sacrilege. I suppose its a credit to the film that it made the otherworldly awesomeness of Superman's power quite real; we can't help regard him, not as a turbo-charged man, but as a kind of god.

Thankfully, the new installment to the franchise was extremely careful not to tinker with the Superman mythology, lest they anger the fans for whom he really is a god. They kept the original music score, without the least attempt to dress it up: just clear honest horns and strings. Superman's look is scrupulously returned, with only tiny modifications to the texture (is that a leather cape?) Clark Kent as superdork is also preserved, maybe even more convincingly than before.

And, the liberties they do take feel a little off. Kate Bosworth looks like Lois Lane, but with almost all the sweetness and innocence extracted and replaced with worldly cynicism. It's dramatically useful, proving that god-like powers are not enough to keep a woman happy, but in the end we, the audience, do not fall in love with Lois, which is critical for making the whole thing work.

I was also somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of Superman as SuperCuckolder. How can the man who "never lies" participate in the ultimate deception, letting another man believe he is the father of your child?

The real hero of the movie is Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, who brings every positive evolution imaginable to the role, and a welcome relief to the pristine uprightness of Superman. Villains always get to have the most fun.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Catch that Confluence

Occasionally, you meet someone new that you really like, and come to realize that they are friends with a lot of your friends, and you never even realized it. The network of shared likes and dislikes and mutual acquaintences creates an instant friendship that feels fated, even though it should come as no surprise that in a six-degrees world, such clusters of connections would exist.

I’ve had the cultural equivalent of that experience listening to Dan Zanes. With my cultural critic hat on, I should refer to him as “Zanes” for the rest of the post, but it seems almost impossible to call him anything but “Dan,” as he exudes such a friendly approachableness. I first thought of Dan as a niche folk singer, as I first heard him a couple years ago when my wife bought me his recording of Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag. I’m a huge fan of Carl Sandburg’s poetry, and his dedication to preserving folk music was a strong influence that lead me to an appreciation of the whole genre of folk.

That was connection #1. Anyone who likes Carl Sandberg is ok in my book. And when I listened to the album, I discovered a really enlightened, eclectic music collection, almost like the soundtrack of “O Brother Where Art Thou” in its depth and breadth. Many artists, as great as they may be, sound too much like themselves, song after song, so that you can barely get through a whole album without hitting Shuffle. But Dan, tapping into an artery of traditional music without any pretense of old-timey-ness, has an inexhaustible variety.

I thought, “He’s really good, he’s the kinda guy you’d expect to here on Back Porch Music.” And darned if I didn’t start hearing his songs on the WUNC radio show. (Maybe he was there all along I just started to recognize him.) Connection #2. And then one day I was wandering through the cultural desolation that is the toy section in Wal-Mart, and I found Dan Zanes name emblazoned on a CD in the (tiny) kids music bin. Ahh, I thought, he’s just like “They Might Be Giants,” a musical act of genuine talent and originality that has found a niche playing to young people. So I got it for my son’s birthday.

And then I listened to Catch That Train myself, and I had more shocks of recognition. Hey, that’s Natalie Merchant! Hey, the Kronos Quartet! How is it that someone I barely knew is playing with artists that I’ve known and loved for years? And then I check out his bio online as I’m writing this post, and more shocking connections. Suzanne Vega! Aimee Mann! This is spooky. By modern iTunes standards, my exposure to music is tiny, and this guy is working with all my favorites. I had a similar experience when I listened to Sandra Boynton’s Dog Train, another kid’s hit that pulled together name-brand talent.

I can see now a trend, hopefully a good one: music for kids used to be a barren, almost empty landscape dominated by a few Raffis and the occasional Free to Be You and Me collections. But modern artists are discovering that what kids like to listen to is (gasp) just good music. Remove sex and violence and heartbreak and cynicism, and just play good music: that is the new formula.


Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Service (with or without the smile)

When he spoke to the SKS last week, Fleet Maull had said that "service work is an essential part of a spiritual path -- not just a good idea, not just a by-product, but an essential part of the path." I think most spiritual practicioners would agree . . . in theory. But the only question is: what qualifies as "sevice work"?

Say "service work" to the average American college student and their minds jump to one of three or four categories of charitable activity: soup kitchens, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity, and maybe hospice. They think Mother Theresa: helping people at the absolute bottom of the heap. And why not? Isn't it just, that our impulse is to serve "the least of these?" And the people working in those realms, the Mother Theresas and Fleet Maulls of the world, have testified to the powerful experience of making a human connection to people radically different from oneself. When you serve those who you aren't even especially likeable, you discover both the unity of the human condition, and the divinity of love that transcends mere preference.

But I can't help but notice that so much of the charitable service that has sprung up in the world is not about serving people far removed from our circumstance. It's usually just the opposite: we spontaneously want to serve those who are most like ourselves. If (God forbid) my son was killed by a drunk driver, I will feel instant solidarity with anyone and everyone else who has lost a child, and spontaneously want to help them in their need. No medical charity ever sprang into existence without someone's child or spouse falling gravely ill. The recovering alcoholics reach out to other alcoholics. We can't help ourselves: once we see ourselves in other people, those are the ones we want to help.

If you are serving others, and transcending your own egocentric perspective in the process, then I suppose that's spiritual. Fleet would certainly agree that mindfulness and compassion should be manifesting in your everyday life, and changing the way you relate to your spouse, your kids, your coworkers. But is it really spiritual to "serve your own?" If you're kind and helpful to to the people who surround you . . . is that enough? Complacency could so easily creep in . . . I sense that its called service work for a reason: it ought to be stretch, going beyond the bounds you normally live in.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

The Scooter Effect

The current brouhaha over the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys seems to be another politicizing of legal process, in almost exactly the same vein as the prosecution of Scooter Libby for perjury in the Plame affair. In both cases, you have a supposed "crime" that gets downgraded to an "outrage", once everyone figures out that nobody has broken any laws. There is absolutely nothing illegal about the firings; the U.S. Attorneys are political appointees, hired and fired at the President's will. However, just like in the Plame case, there is the appearance of misconduct, or at least political hardball; once again the Administration appears to be punishing people who cross their path or don't do their bidding.

Now, the Democrats have no problem with the notion of political payback: witness the abuse that Senator John Kerry heaped upon ambassadorial nominee Sam Fox for having the temerity to fund opposition to his presidential bid. Everyone is used to that sort of thing as just a part of the game. So why should we be shocked, shocked to find that the hiring and firing of U.S. Attorneys is somehow linked to political concerns?

In the Plame affair, the underlings dutifully obfuscated the role of the higher-ups in the political non-crimes. Scooter Libby was rewarded with a perjury conviction. Now it looks like the underlings have gotten the message; covering for your boss can put you in hot water, regardless of the legality of the underlying matter. So aides like Michael Battle and Monica Goodling are either invoking the Fifth Amendment or letting the blame roll right back uphill.

It's interesting to note that hardly anyone, either Republican or Democrat, is talking about the particular reasons these U.S. Attorneys are being let go. The real underlying political reasons for the dismissals are related to indictments of lawmakers; evidently these attorneys didn't pursue prosecution of certain Democrats when they could, or went ahead with prosecution of Republicans that perhaps they could have let slide. Perhaps they don't talk about it because it's complicated and involved and doesn't make for good sound bites. Or, more likely, they really don't want the public to witness how lawmakers abuse power themselves, and then use their power to deflect prosecution for their crimes. If the public really understood that, they would not be able to sustain any moral outrage. It's one thing when justice is undone by politics; but when we see that it's not a question of justice at all, but just a legal and political knife-fight between two parties, we tune out.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Mise en Scene

My brother Gene and I just did a little test video call via Skype yesterday -- we've been wanting to give our kids a way to get together more often than just our once-a-year visits over the holidays. Now that I've done these calls with a few different people (Fleet Maull, Harry, and now Gene), I'm starting to notice something about the media. It does make your communication with the person seem more real and in-person . . . but that effect has only a little to do with seeing the other person. It has just as much to do with seeing that other person in their environment. The little office, the stacks of papers and CDs cases by the desk, the light of the window, the O'Reilly book covers in the background . . . in short, another place, as well as another person.

I tend to unconsciously dismiss the importance of place. Somehow, in my mental categorization of the world, place is arbitrary, merely the scene and staging for the people who are in it. And yet, when I have a chance to talk to those people, I'm spending my time looking at everything else besides their face. I feel like a know Fleet a little better, just for the sake of seeing his handsome and uncomplicated study, with the recognizable clutter of desk used for real and varied work.

I used to think that TV reporters doing their "live-on-the-scene" monologues with streets and buildings behind them was hopelessly contrived, a sort of visual "look-Ma-I'm-really-here-in-Russia" validation of their authenticity. But now I'm starting to realize that the placement in the scene has a lot less to do with "I'm really here" and more to do with, "We take you there." The reporter does not need to be standing in front of the White House in order to do a credible story about the President's new policy, but we need to see the White House back there to really put ourselves in the Capitol. Maybe I'm a little more sensitive to that sort of thing since I use audio media (phone and radio) vastly more than I use visual media like TV or, well, actually being there.

And what a relief, knowing that I don't need to clean up anything or worry what my office looks like for these video calls. Far from distracting from the call, all those random things in the background are actually giving the other person a sense of place, a sense of what it's like to be me.

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