Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lessons From a Comic Book: A Civil Man's Handshake

Art by Gary Frank
Back in 2000, DC Comics ran a storyline in which Lex Luthor, Superman's arch-enemy, ran for and successfully won the presidency of the United States of America.  This incarnation of Luthor was a corrupt, manipulative, and follicley-challenged business tycoon who hornswoggles the American public with big promises of change just to fuel his inflated ego and insatiable quest for power.

Only in a comic book, right?  Sigh.

Throughout the story of Luthor's campaign, Superman remains relatively silent, confident that the American people will see Luthor for the charlatan that he is.  Much to the Man of Steel's surprise, Luthor wins in a fair and decisive election.  And, Superman is faced with the reality of seeing his biggest and most persistent adversary ascend to the highest office in the land.

What does Superman do, you ask?  How does the greatest superhero ever created, the first among firsts, react to the unbelievable news that someone he knows to be completely unfit and undeserving has successfully become leader of one of the most powerful countries on Earth?

Very simply, he flies down to the victory rally in Metropolis while Luthor is giving his acceptance speech.  When he lands on the stage where Luthor stands at a podium, the crowd goes silent, waiting to see what Superman will do.  Without hesitation, Superman extends a hand to Luthor and congratulates him on his win.

However, it doesn't end there.  Superman didn't just fly off into the night, resigned to the fact that such a horrible man was president of his country.  Instead, he opted to accept Luthor as president in order to preserve the integrity of our system of government but with the determination that he would keep a close eye (in his case, an X-ray eye) on President Luthor and take appropriate and necessary action to keep him from causing harm.

One of the biggest WTF covers in the history of comics
Superman didn't disrupt the flow of our government with violence or force, although he was more than capable of it.  And, he didn't just pack up and move to the Fortress of Solitude out of frustration over an American public swayed by a man he knew to be rotten to the core.  But, he did act.  He did keep working to make people safe and protect them from those who did not have their best interests at heart.  He didn't stop being Superman.

Reflecting on this and drawing the obvious parallels to our current real world situation, I endeavor to be Superman.  I endeavor to believe in our system of government, which permits peaceful protest but doesn't bow to violent acts or hateful rhetoric.  I endeavor to speak out against injustice even when it makes me and those around me uncomfortable to hear the truth and possibly face our own fears and prejudices.  I endeavor to protect and support those who need it.

I endeavor to be Superman.

Even though my inclination is to go straight-up Batman and use my words like razor-edged batarangs, I will endeavor to be Superman.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Unending Joke - Examining the Over-Extended Significance of a Good Comic Book Story


It needs to be said right off the bat (no pun intended) that Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a work of superb craftsmanship and storytelling.  No one can reasonably argue against the book's artistic merit or the fact that it has had a far-reaching influence on the Batman mythology since its publication in 1988.  However, it is also a nasty, mean-spirited story that seeks to deconstruct and undermine what it means to be a hero, and that same far-reaching influence has perpetuated a fairly one-sided view in both fans and creators of Batman and his family of characters ever since. 

Without a doubt, Batman has always been a darker character of varying degrees over the decades since his debut, but Moore added a different dimension to this aspect by telling a story in which Batman's sanity and integrity as a hero are brought into question.  Fans latched onto this concept, which made Batman soar in popularity.  Subsequent writers, influenced by Moore as well as Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, carried those ideas into the mainstream books.  For all intents and purposes, Batman slowly evolved into a borderline sociopath as his dark psychology became the focus instead of his role as a hero.

In this assessment, only the monthly comic books are included and to some extent the first film series (although they eventually fizzled out into fetishized camp).  The 1990s animated series remained immune from this narrative leaning, probably because the showrunners, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, had children in mind as the show's core audience and therefore had to strike a balance between the dark and light aspects of the character in order for it to be deemed acceptable for broadcast.  However, the monthly comics through a deluge of writers and artists with an older audience in mind and a far-too-healthy reverence for Moore's (and Miller's) work did not always strike that necessary balance, and the Batman's power as a character has suffered as a result.


Before explaining further, it is also important to note that this darker trend was not unique to the Batman books.  The rise of grittier, more violent versions of some characters cropped up in the late 80s/early 90s and increased the industry's movement away from younger, naive readers towards older, but not necessarily more discerning readers.  This was an audience that looked to Moore's work (particularly Watchmen and The Killing Joke) as a standard for content rather than quality.  Essentially, they wanted more of the grit and violence, regardless of how it may tarnish or atrophy other qualities inherent in the characters.

The attack on Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl)

The problem has been and continues to be that this complete misunderstanding of what Moore was accomplishing with The Killing Joke and its inappropriate use as a benchmark have limited what writers have been able to do with Batman and his related characters for decades.  And, although Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns cannot be discounted for its influence on the Batman mythology, it is Moore's story that has had the most direct and longest lasting effects on the mainstream books.


In considering The Killing Joke specifically, it becomes clear that the story not only escalates the violent nature of the Joker but also deconstructs Batman's standing as a hero.  While the Joker's violent actions are front and center in the narrative, the story can also be viewed as a series of failures on the part of Batman to do what a hero is supposed to do: protect the innocent.  In the opening scenes, Batman fails to realize the Joker has escaped from Arkham Asylum.  That failure leads to the next, which is his not stopping the brutal attack on Barbara Gordon and the kidnapping of Commissioner Gordon.  Ultimately Batman's final and biggest failure is the Joker's rejection of his efforts to reach out and end their conflict, potentially sparing future innocents.

Batman reacts to the Joker's "joke."

The most telling part of this deconstruction is Batman's reaction to this last failure.  In the now famous and much discussed final scene of the story, the Joker tells a joke that is an allegory for the relationship between him and Batman.  Lost in the absurdity of their doomed association, the Joker begins to laugh.  Typically, it would be at this moment that the hero would handcuff the villain or deliver a knockout punch or simply walk away as the police rush in to make the arrest.  Instead, Batman begins to laugh as well, seemingly in agreement with the absurd view of their situation. 

The central discussion about this final scene has always been whether or not the rendered art depicts Batman killing the Joker.  This is certainly a valid point to discuss as compelling evidence is available for either side of the issue.  But, those who get too wrapped up in that debate have missed the significance of Batman's laughter.  This peculiar reaction to everything that the Joker has done as well as Batman's failures to stop any of it completes the dismantling of Batman as a hero.  He has given up on his trademark stoic demeanor - a symbol of his heroic perseverance - and gives in to insanity by laughing.  Even if one says it is laughter through tears, an effort to stave off complete despair, the oddity of his laughter and its close association with the Joker cannot be denied.
The Joker's Sympathetic Life

A far less obvious and more clever component of the deconstruction is the depiction of an origin for the Joker.  In giving the Joker a detailed background laced with tragedy, Moore introduces a level sympathy the character has never had previously and, as some might argue, does not rightfully deserve.  The result is that the reader identifies with the Joker in such a way as to make him the protagonist of the story, at least on an emotional level.  This effect renders the Joker's actions in a new light - he is tragically driven insane by the loss of his wife and unborn child, so his wanting to inflict pain on others is understood, if not justified.


Without question, The Killing Joke brings depth and multiple layers of characterization to the Batman universe.  In a very real sense, Moore wrote a Batman story for adults and levied onto the characters a sense of psychological realism that dismantles all previous notions about them.  Batman isn't a hero - he's a lunatic vigilante who dresses up as a bat and beats up criminals; the Joker may be a homicidal maniac, but there is a level of humanity in him.


All of it is extremely compelling...to adults.  But, child readers do not need the same level of psychological complexity.  For them, it is enough to know that young Bruce Wayne watched his parents get murdered and, as a result, was inspired to fight crime to protect innocent lives.  The Joker is one of the crazy bad guys who Batman has to stop.  End of story.  Unfortunately, in elevating the influence of this one story, comic book writers and artists forgot about Batman's role as a hero in the eyes of these young readers and have since lost much of the character's ability to be a morally good inspiration.


The 1990s animated series kept this idea intact, and the finished work produced some of the best Batman stories ever, ones that capture a timeless quality by keeping Batman first and foremost a hero.  The Christopher Nolan films walk that tightrope as well, although they skew a bit more to an adult sensibility, by accentuating Batman's heroic qualities.


But, the comics have by and large kept Batman dark and the Joker even darker.  In recent years, Batman has become cold, calculating, and even manipulative of those closest to him.  He has shown outright disdain for characters with heroic qualities and distrusts their sincerity. And the Joker, in an escalating series of one-upmanship among writers and artists, has gone from one heinous act to the next, culminating in him slicing off his own face to make himself even more frightening.


No one should argue that comics are just for kids and kids alone and that adults should not have stories geared towards them.  But, why is so much of that necessary?  Especially when there are proven examples of Batman stories that do not always have to venture over that edge.  And, "adult" stories do not have to equal dark tone and nihilistic attitudes  At best, such narrow approaches to the character serve a niche audience and keep him from reaching broader audiences on a deeper level, children and adults alike.  The Batman audiences got in the Batman V. Superman, for instance, looked the most like the dark and gritty Batman of the comics than any other cinematic version thus far, and the movie sank under the weight of its own ponderous lack of heroism and goodwill.


Batman needs to be dark, to have an edge.  It is how the character was conceived and how he works best.  But, Batman also needs to be a hero in his mainstream setting.  He needs to be on the side of good unwaveringly.  Such qualities may not seem like obvious companions, but they can co-exist and have kept the character interesting and relevant since his first appearance.


Note: This was pretty much an off-the-cuff assessment of what I believe has been wrong with the character of Batman for a very long time.  Although I know other trends and circumstances have had an influence, I think most fans would agree that KJ was a turning point in how the character was depicted in his main family of books more so, I would argue, than even Frank Miller's work.


At some point, I would like to properly research what I've said here and support it with more concrete examples, examples I know are out there because I remember reading them.



Walk To End Alzheimer's - Why I'm Doing It

Back in the spring of 2006, I was living in New Jersey with a woman I had been with for a long time.  The relationship was falling apart for many reasons, not least of which was my despondency over not being able to find a teaching job in New Jersey and my general unhappiness at living in that miserable state.  It is no exaggeration when I say that the two and a half years I spent existing in New Jersey are among the worst of my life.

Out of desperation, I started applying for teaching positions in Delaware.  Within weeks, my hopes were raised as I was being called in for interviews at various schools in the southern Delaware area, and I was beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel regarding getting a job to start a career I had been working towards for several years.

Around this time, the health of my maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Vincent, started to deteriorate rapidly.  The previous winter, my mother had responded to a call from a neighbor that Mom-mom was outside in the snow walking around in her nightgown.  She had been outside for so long that she had minor frostbite on her feet, which were bare.  My grandmother spent a few days at my mother's home recuperating.

From there her periods of confusion and disorientation increased.  It soon became very clear that my grandmother was going to need fairly consistent, round-the-clock care.  And, my mother and her brothers knew that was going to mean a major battle with Mom-mom, who was fiercely independent, afraid of nursing homes, and lucid enough at times to know what was going on around her to protest what was happening, even if it was all being done with her best interests in mind.

She was clearly suffering from some form of dementia, most likely Alzheimer's as many of the classic symptoms of the disease were present: loss of short-term memory, sudden confusion and irritability, obsessively repetitive behavior, among others.  Specifically, Mom-mom's dementia also manifested itself in outbursts of paranoia and antagonistic behavior towards her children, particularly my mother, who had taken on the primary role in Mom-mom's care.  In her confusion and fear, Mom-mom was convinced my mother was out to get her in some way or put her in a nursing home or worse.

One small glimmer of light in this ordeal, I suppose, was the fact that Mom-mom remained "normal" with her grandchildren, so none of us felt the brunt of her rage that my mother and uncles experienced.  It was unsettling at times to watch her change like a light switch being turned on and off.  To see her go from spouting some hatefulness at my mother and then look at me and be all sweet and doting the way she had always been towards me, sometimes in a matter of seconds.

As such I could talk to her and reason with her to some extent.  I could get her to calm down, to eat a meal, or drink some coffee.  I could also get her talking about something other than her current health situation, which I believe was good for her, although it meant a lot of repeated conversations that necessitated my playing along as though I had never heard them before.

I guess this coupled with the fact that I was traveling back and forth between New Jersey and Delaware for interviews prompted my mother to ask if I would stay with Mom-mom when I was in town to help look after her.  The days I would be there would give my mother some respite and Mom-mom some peace of mind as she seemed to enjoy my visits.  However, it all meant I got to witness my grandmother's deterioration first hand.

It was a pretty brief experience when all was said and done, only a little over a month between my starting to help care for my grandmother to her passing.  As is often the case, other health concerns come to the fore which caused Mom-mom to begin failing physically as well as mentally.  She spent the last few days of her life bedridden and largely unresponsive.

My last real interaction with my grandmother, one in which there was true recognition and responsiveness in her towards me, came about week before she died.  I awoke to hearing a lot of shuffling in her bedroom.  When I went in to check on her, I found she had kicked the sheets and blankets off the bed and had wet the mattress.  I got her attention and told her I would help her to the bathroom.  She mumbled something that I think was, "Bathroom," although I not sure.  

So, I helped her stand and walked her to the bathroom adjacent to her bedroom.  When I got her to the bathroom door, she put her left hand on my face and lightly patted it, a very tender, loving touch.  She had a slight smile on her own face and looked me directly in the eyes.  She then went into the bathroom.

Knowing this episode meant a severe decline for Mom-mom and that she would more than likely need help a grandson was ill-equipped to handle, I called my mother for help.  She arrived, and together we got Mom-mom cleaned up and settled back into bed.  


I have never mentioned Mom-mom touching my cheek to anyone, not even to my mother, until now.  I think it's because it was such an intensely private moment between the two of us that talking about it seemed wrong.  Even now, I doubt I could have very much to say about it outside of what I've written just now.  Some might believe she was saying a good-bye to me, that maybe she was beginning to accept or understand that she was failing and chose to reach out to me one last time.  That's a nice thought, and it could very well be true.  But, whether or not it is, I do know it was an act of love, one of great affection from her to me, and that's really all I need it to be.

It was this experience and, in particular, that last memory more than anything that prompted me to volunteer for the Alzheimer's Association Walk when the opportunity presented itself to me last year. I set a modest goal for myself and reached it.  This year, I went a little bigger.  Although I find it a little distasteful to end this blog entry with a plea for money, here it is nonetheless.  If you feel so inclined to support my walk, click on the link below.  It would mean a lot to me and the memory of my grandmother.

My Walk Page

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Going By the Chapel...

St. George's Chapel in Harbeson, DE - I pass it on my
way to and from work.
On my way home from school yesterday afternoon, I had a strange encounter. As I was passing St. George's Chapel on Beaver Dam Road, I saw a young man sprawled on the brick walkway that leads into the graveyard on the Chapel's west side. Now, I don't mean he was stretched out on the ground, relaxing and getting some sun - no, he looked like he fallen over from being shot in a drive-by and was waiting for the coroner to show up and draw a chalk line around his body. So, needless to say, the image stuck out to me amidst the surrounding greenery and brick. But, before I could fully realize what I had seen, I had driven maybe 200 yards past him. As quick as I could, I turned around and headed back to where he lay.

When I got back to him, I rolled down the passenger-side window and called out to him, asking if he was alright. He popped up, looking dazed and disoriented. He said he had been out walking for two hours and asked if I had any water. I gave him the bottle of water I had and he began chugging it. Before I could ask him if he needed any help, he said a buddy of his was on the way to pick him up. And then the friend pulled up behind me.

The young man gave me back the bottled water, thanked me, and got into his friend's car and drove off. As they pulled around me, he had his friend beep the horn while he waved. I turned back around and headed towards home.

As I got on my way, I couldn't help but wonder what was going on for that young man that would leave him stranded and nearly passed out on the side of the road. Two hours out in the heat was all it took to make him pass out? I hardly think so. Maybe if he was 80-years-old. So, there must have been more to that story. And, yes, I did consider that maybe it was some sort of con or set up, especially when his friend pulled up so suddenly, but I had an overall sense that I wasn't in any danger. And, if that was the intent, something made them change their minds about robbing me. Maybe my hulking physique? My Clint-Eastwood-like intimidation factor?

Regardless, I wouldn't have wanted that to stop me from attempting to help him. As ludicrous as this may sound, I'd rather get robbed knowing I was trying to the right thing than go home and hear on the news how that person died because no one intervened to help.

There isn't much more to the story than that. Just that I am now left with a strong curiosity as to what was going on with that young man and whether or not he finally got the help he needed. I hope I was able to help in some small way at least.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Before Sunrise (1995)

I have some history with this film.  When I first saw it when it came out in 1995, I was in college at the University of Delaware, and I was at a prime age to relate to everything the characters are saying and doing.  As time has gone on, my understanding of what is actually happening in the film has deepened, but my appreciation of it has remained strong.

Before Sunrise stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine, two college-aged vacationers.  They meet on a train traveling through Europe and strike up a conversation.  When the train stops in Vienna, they decide to continue the conversation rather than part ways.  They then begin a trek around the city, sharing experiences, learning about each other, and slowly falling in love.  At sunrise, the two part ways (hence the title) to go back to their respective lives - hers in France, his in America.

What I love about this film and what makes it such a gem is that the story is focused solely on who these two people are and the connection they form with each other.  The plot, such as it is, unravels slowly and naturally as the two characters walk around Vienna, stopping here and there as the fancy strikes them.

The naturalness of their time together as well as the conversations the two have stem from the film being shot on location in Vienna and largely improvised over the course of shooting.  One of Richard Linklater's first films, Before Sunrise has shades of his masterwork, Boyhood, in how it tries to give an unadorned depiction of real life as it happens.

As for Jesse and Celine, they are flawed, likable characters, displaying all the fear, excitement, and arrogance that are part of being twenty-something.  They like each other but are unsure of what it is they are experiencing and struggle between being pragmatic about their situation and their own romantic leanings.  The real beauty of the film comes in the small moments where they reveal their feelings for each other with a stolen glance or shift in body language.  Case in point: watch for the scene in a record store.  It is a brilliant example of subtlety in acting and direction.

Linklater made two sequels with Hawke and Delpy that follow the same premise but pick up with the characters at different stages of their lives.  They are exceptional films as well, but Before Sunrise is the heart of the series.  And, while I appreciate the story Linklater tells with these characters over the course of the three films, I am partial to the ambiguous ending of Before Sunrise and the discussion of possibilities (and probabilities) it inspires.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Untitled

Very much a work in progress. I know what I want to express, but I'm having trouble keeping it from becoming trite and banal. Probably putting it out there and getting away from it for a while will prove to be helpful. We'll see.

What is life
But the wind through the tree of our bodies
Rustling and shaking our limbs
Out of isolated immobility to brief and vibrant
Animation
Feeling tall in the summer sky
What is life
But a transport for our withering leaves and seeded fruit
In a twirl of fear and happiness and excitement
To other locations
Coming to rest - Finality - and finding a root to begin again
And so Life, emotion in motion, begets more Life

Here and Now

I find the present when near you
The past curls up and wrinkles like tissue paper
The future whispers away into a meaningless mist of ideas, unformed and unimagined
And I exist in the here and now
Savoring some morsel
Delighting in some spectacle
Found in the simple act of watching you cross a room

There is a touch of gold, a glowing haze
That heightens the moment
Bringing into relief true relief
The calm of assurance
The freedom of a worriless here and a fearless now

Do I give you this?
Do you look at me and find something reassuring and real?
See in me that which makes you shimmer to life
And I will feel like I’ve been worthwhile

A Car Without an Engine

This is a poem that metaphorically explains why I left the Seaford School District.

A Car Without an Engine

You're trying to drive a car without an engine
And now you've let the wheels fall off.
The body looks good, all shininess and gleam,

Your friends like it, they flatter you and tell you how good it looks,
You even marvel at your reflection on the hood.
But other cars are whizzing by,
And you are falling far behind.

Get someone with some know-how,
A skillful team to get you running.
No? You'd rather sit there, trying to look good,
Like a child on a Big Wheel,
Pretending to go somewhere?

Cars run on combustion and gas,
On skilled maintenance and care.
What makes you think pettiness and sycophantic need
Will move so much metal, plastic, and rubber?

Fine.

Close your eyes and cling to the facade of movement.
But, just so you know
That wind rushing through your hair,
That roar of motion and speed,
Comes from all the cars racing by,
Leaving you behind.

Love Poems

Love Poems
These are poems I wrote trying to capture the torrent of emotions a man feels when he falls in love with that first truly special woman.

*****
For E

A Dessert Delight

Delicious curves, twisting and winding
Over a landscape of cloth-covered flesh
Lines like frosting spread thinly, evenly
Through multi layers and down imperceptible depths

The mouth waters
The tongue touches the lips
A hunger grows for the womanly fullness
Of you

And that popcorn laughter
Going off suddenly, delightfully
Each sound colored by the faintest hint of caramel

And accompanied by a smile
The first cut section of a succulent cake
An invitation to have another piece

---

Second Date Thoughts

Five hours to go
Quick, quick!
Licketysplit
The place needs to be presentable
Running Rushing
Second date
Dinner here
Eat what?
Something simple, something good

Don’t stress
When you’re a man, you have some latitude
You get points for cooking

But not for a messy apartment

A flurry of dust and dirt and towels
Vacuum whirls and growls
Cat freaks out, runs away
Heh!
Living room almost done
Check the cushions
Move the papers
Fluff the pillows
Cat hair everywhere
Pfft! Pfft! Pfft!

Is there any porn sitting out?
Find it, get it, stash it away

Living room is done.

Four hours to go
Kitchen next
Bing Bang Bong
Pots shoved onto the drying wrack
Squish Squack Squash
Mop glides over linoleum
Damned stain won’t budge
Whatever
Leave it

And so it goes
Room to room
Corner to corner
Five four three two hours left
And the place
This place
is clean…
Too clean…
So clean it looks like…

the     lair     of     a     serial     killer
oragayman

damn

She’s gonna think you’re either Dexter (at worst)
or Will (at best)
And she is not Rita and definitely not Grace
So, put back some dirt - mess up the place
But, not too much
She’ll be afraid to sit down
Just lived-in dirty
Lived-in relaxed
Lay the papers back out
Unfluff the pillows
Roll the cat on the carpet

What about a pair of shoes by the door?
Nah.

Look like you made an effort
But not too much of one
Be cool
Be cool

Phew! Place is done
Better now

Onto dinner…

---

Your Strength

I know when your strength appears
The voice deepens
The eyes flame green
And your spirit becomes a river whose current rushes with finished tears

Your strength is born from past weakness
And it remains steady
Like falling snow endless and deep
Covering all around it evenly and equally in forthright kindness

You show me your strength and my own heart expands
It lifts me
It carries me away
It leaves me wrapped in your warmth, your smile, and your hands

Your strength is a happily discovered treasure
For those yet to know you
For those yet to benefit
It makes the journey towards you an immeasurable, indescribable pleasure

The Quiet Train

I was inspired to write this as I traveled by train quite a bit during November 2009: back and forth from Wilmington to NYC, the subway system in NYC, and back and forth from my friends' house in Newtown, PA into Philly. Specifically, the idea popped into my head when my friend, Leon, and I accidentally sat in the quiet car on our way into NYC. Hope you enjoy!

The Quiet Train

I sit on the quiet train and learn
The value of silence
It creeps up on me, unsettles me

At first

I feel I must say something
To the friend seated next to me
Like stirring the air with my soundwaves,
My noise, will support and sustain

My connection
To him, to the cute girl I see reading a paperback, to the old man snoozing in the seat behind me

But, the quiet train has its rules
And, I don’t want to be “that guy”
So, wordlessly, I sit

Then, slowly, surely
I realize there is something in the silence
Something that beckons…reawakens
A thought, a feeling

A realization

Like passengers on the Quiet Train
We are all one in our silent agreement
We are connected by our willingness
Good or bad

Cycle On Crying

Parents gush stupidly
Over that first word
And, it only a random selection
Born from the unformed mind
Trying to figure out some weird mechanism
By trial and error
With no instructions

More joyous and more important though is that First Sound
From out of the darkness, blinded by new, ferocious light
Nose and throat sucked and cleaned
That intake of cold, burning air
Unused lungs working by instinct

And, then it happens
A primal scream if ever there was one
Saying I’m hungry, I’m scared, I’m angry, I’m cold
I’m alive


***
Cry and boyfriends will say, “Aw, baby, I’m sorry”
Cry and fathers will say, “Here you go, sweetheart”
Cry and you will be free from that ticket, that reprimand, that bad grade
Cry and someone else will do the heavy life lifting

Tears, better than any shield
They keep away
Hurt and pain
Criticism and judgment
Responsibility and independence

Cry and you won’t need a voice
Cry and determination will be a moot point
Cry and you can maim an enemy, destroy a life, get your way.

Who needs sugar and spice?


***
They whisper
Take mom home, she doesn’t need to see this
They coax
Do you want some lunch, we’re going down there anyway?

She says
Here is where I am
She gives no response to the offer of lunch

They ask
Who’s gonna stay with mom, she’s never been alone
They worry
What will happen to mom when dad finally –

She thinks
I will move on like I always have
Like I did through one child’s incarceration
Another’s infidelities
The drunkenness of my youngest
The insecurities of my oldest
The false piety of my fourth
This is one more thing
It’s not easy, but it’s here

They notice
The one lone tear moving strongly, smoothly down her cheek
They say
Mom, take this tissue, you’re crying

She says
Thank you and holds the tissue in her hand
She thinks
He would want to wear his gray flannel suit

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Your Mother Is a Vase (Poem)

Your mother is a vase
Apparently
So you yell and scream when you see it in pieces on the floor
And you go through the mourning motions
Histrionics and drama you didn’t feel at the funeral

As you pick up the pieces of your mother,
“Clumsy” and “Stupid” and “How could you” spit off your tongue
Chipping pieces off the daughter in front of you
The way your mother broke pieces off you
Over a dish that was her mother

What item will you be
To this chipped daughter?
And will it be big enough to both
Patch the hole you’re leaving
And also withstand a future clumsy-stupid-how could you touch?

Thursday, July 7, 2016

What You Are Really Saying When You Say, "All Lives Matter"

According to the Huffington Post in an article dated today (Thursday, July 7, 2016), there have been 136 reported deaths of African Americans at the hands of police so far this year.  Of those deaths, several have made headlines for the alleged needless use of excessive and lethal force by the officers involved in the incidents.  Yes, I know it can't be reasonably argued that these cops should be considered representative of all law enforcement individuals.  And, yes, I know this topic has become a hot button issue so the media is perhaps focused on these stories more than it has been in the past.

But, here's the thing: These incidents perpetuate the air of mistrust of cops in general because, frankly, they should.  And, the media should be finding and covering these stories because otherwise there is little to no chance of anything getting done about them.

Without going too far away from the main point I wish to make here, I want to say that I respect the job that law enforcement is expected to do.  It is hard, often thankless, and sometimes dangerous.  Those who do it and do it well have my utmost respect.  But, law enforcement, like any institution, will have those who mishandle and abuse the power and authority given to them.  The problem is that often this abuse means lives are seriously affected and sometimes lost as a result.

Not to be corny, but you need to look no further than a Spider-man comic to know what the problem is here.  Spidey's credo is "With great power comes great responsibility."  Law enforcement agencies quite literally have the legal authority to use force to control and contain those breaking the law or endangering others.  That is an awful lot of power for one institution to have, and it means that there has to be an equal amount of responsibility taken in how that power is used, ranging from hiring and training procedures to consequences for abuses.  And, unfortunately, history doesn't paint a favorable picture of law enforcement on these fronts.

However, I fear I stray too far away from what I want to say here.  I don't want to make an argument on the problems endemic in many law enforcement institutions.  That's a topic far too big to get into in a simple blog.  Instead, I want to focus on the tagline: "All Lives Matter" and what it really means when people use it in response to "Black Lives Matter."

To put it simply, it is passive aggressive racism.  It allows individuals to imply a racist intent without using blatantly racist language by attempting to devalue and undermine the meaning of "Black Lives Matter."  It is retaliatory cross-burning through semantic word play.  Those who pass along the motto need to seriously reflect on their own motivations for doing so because those motivations are undoubtedly rooted in racial prejudices.

And, here's the thing about racism that so many people don't get: you can totally have racist feelings and motivations and not realize you have them.  That's the insidiousness of institutionalized racism.  Does it mean you're evil to the core and offer nothing of value in life?  Not at all.  But, white people in the United States have an obligation to do some extensive self-reflection on the institutionalization of racism and the role we need to play in ending it.  And, part of that role is acknowledging when racial abuses are happening and not undercutting efforts to address those abuses with accusations of "reverse racism" (which, by the way, doesn't exist) or by attempts to circumvent the message with one that inappropriately blankets all as being affected by the problem in the same way.

Even if you believe, as I do, that the vast majority of cops working today are good, decent people trying to do a hard job to the best of their ability, you have to understand that a retaliatory slogan like that stops dialogue at a time when dialogue is sorely needed.  If you are going to the discussion table already making it clear that you don't value what the other side has to say then there is no way trust can be formed and certainly no way for clear-headed thinking to prevail.

Yes, all lives matter.  I believe that with all my being as so many do.  But, our belief in that means we need to honestly and clearly acknowledge when certain lives aren't mattering the way they should.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Spotlight (2015)

With Spotlight, I have once again chosen a film that is hardly obscure as it was one of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2015.  However, I felt compelled to focus on it here in my blog because it is a film that pays tribute to two things that are near and dear to my heart: critical thinking and the written word.

Spotlight is about the eponymous team of investigative reporters for The Boston Globe who crack open the widespread and systemic cover-up of child abuse within the Catholic church.  Turned onto the case by a new editor they are all wary of, the team begins a systematic and comprehensive investigation into how and why accusations of child abuse by Catholic priests never seem to go very far in the criminal system.

What the team finds is a multi-layered and byzantine effort to silence and cover-up any public acknowledgment of wrongdoing.  Their efforts toward getting at the truth are met with silence, rebukes, and thinly veiled threats.  But, eventually, through their dogged pursuit of the truth and evidence to support it, the Spotlight team is able to uncover the lies and deceit to figure out who knew about the abuse and what was done to keep it all quiet.

And, when they decide to print the truth they have unearthed, it changes things.  Victims get some vindication, the Catholic church is shaken to its very core, and the power of words, when communicating truth backed by critical thinking, are shown to inspire people to act.  I don't know how accurate the movie portrays the sequence of events of the investigation, but I remember when the story broke.  And, I remember it being the first time allegations of child sexual abuse within the Catholic church were presented as undeniable fact and not just the punchline of some joke.  Spotlight shows how all that could have come about.

This is an ensemble film cast with incredibly good actors all led by Michael Keaton, who seems to have a new head-of-steam on his career and is better than he has ever been.  The other actors create believable, quirky characters who are good at what they do and easily create the at-ease feeling of office co-workers.  These characters, based on the real journalists who worked the story, are each able to contribute pieces to the puzzle and, in so doing, break open one of the biggest news stories so far this century.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

To My Father...

My father used to be a yard stick
By which I measured manhood
And myself
Often unrealistically
Always unfavorably

Through his eyes, I projected my own weakness
Assumed his judgment in his silence
And shirked away, afraid of the false evidence
I wrongly perceived in his every word and gesture

Then, one time and then another, he said, "Me, too"
He said I am what you are
I have been where you have been
And the difference it made was slow and infinite
As my mind and spirit grew to understand the vastness
Of his love

So my father was no longer a yard stick and instead he became
A cement mixer
Not with a large rotating cylinder on the back of some ponderous truck
But a personal, manageable barrel
Sturdy and strong
From which his manhood was mixed, poured, and leveled
All by his hand
And made into a walking path for his life
After it was earned
Once it was filled
With hard work
Personal strength
Integrity
Independence
Straight-forward speech
And a gentle steadiness that embraces everything but yields to nothing

And while the barrel needs to be filled
Up to the highest line marked by my father before me and his before him,
I know from him that I am free to mix it
With my own contents in my own way
With my own hard work
As long as it is hard work
My own personal strength
Because another's strength won't hold
My own integrity
Born out of honest choices I alone make
Then with independence and true speech and steadiness
Like stones sprinkled in for texture and color
But, always in the amounts and in the order that work for me

My father's mixture is his own and cannot be mine
Should not be mine

But, he gave me the barrel to use and showed me how to fill it.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What-To-Watch Wednesday - A Girl Like Her (2015)

The first thing one needs to know about A Girl Like Me is that in order to get anything out of the film one must accept a premise that is at times pretty far-fetched.  It uses the documentary format to help unfold its narrative.  And, while the approach is generally effective and ultimately allows for a powerful climax, it bends the "rules" usually associated with a documentary by giving the viewer access to situations a true documentary wouldn't have been able to provide.  If you get hung up on these narrative sidesteps, you will miss the bigger points the film is trying to make.

A Girl Like Me tackles one of the hot button issues of the day: bullying.  A teenage girl, Jessica Burns, is relentlessly bullied at school and finally attempts suicide to escape her fear and pain.  Her chief tormentor, Avery Keller, comes across as the typical popular mean girl whose taunts and harassment take the form of direct hallway confrontations and social media assaults.

Given this description, the film sounds little better than a Lifetime movie-of-the-week.  What elevates it though are two very good central performances by the lead actresses and how the narrative technique eventually allows the director, Amy S. Weber, to make some very powerful points about the origins and ramifications of high school bullying.  These two qualities allow the film to avoid becoming just an issue movie full of empty sentiment and no point of view to offer.

I can't say too much about the latter without ruining the film, but I can say that Weber uses the documentary format to show a potential way of dealing with the bullying crisis, one that might actually work in ways that school policies and rhetoric have failed.  She doesn't so much offer a prescribed method of solution as she illuminates an approach to the problem that refuses to reduce either party to a stereotype or two-dimensional figure.  How that is accomplished in the film is one of the most powerful parts of its story, so I will say no more about it.

As for the performances, Lexi Ainsworth and Hunter King as Jessica and Avery respectively portray their characters with an emotional authenticity that one wouldn't necessarily expect from actresses so young.  Although slightly older than their characters, both actresses embody real teenagers, the kind I feel like could be in my classroom and probably have been.  At no point does either performance have a false note or a moment that doesn't quite work, and you are drawn in by them as the story unfolds in the choppy, rough cut documentary format.

I found this movie, like I have so many others, by chance on Netflix.  At a running time of about 91 minutes, it's a quick viewing, but I have been thinking about it all day.  I am curious to know what other people think, so I hope you watch it and feel inclined to comment.


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Idiocracy (2006)

What does it mean when reality starts to reflect in alarmingly accurate detail a satirical film full of exaggeration and biting commentary on where civilization is headed? As the current presidential race has progressed and Donald Trump has emerged as the Republican candidate, Mike Judge's Idiocracy has sprung to mind more than once. But, elements of the film that were once amusing are now not so funny anymore as I see them being brought to life one by one by the current political climate.

The film is about soldier Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) who is selected for a suspended animation experiment along with a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph). Inevitably, something goes wrong with the experiment, and both Joe and Rita wake up 500 years later to a society that is run by corporations and a population that is laughably stupid.

This is a world where the president is a loud-mouthed, pro-wrestler type TV star named President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, who flaunts his ignorance like a badge of honor and openly mocks people for their intelligence and skill.


Making any connections yet?

In one scene after another, Joe is called "fag" and "queer" because he displays average intelligence and can speak in complete sentences. This is a society that disdains any hint of intellectualism. Of course, what makes this all the more humorous, at least at first, is that Joe shows no particular intellectual gifts outside of normal common sense and courtesy. It's only that he is surrounded by those so mentally stunted that these traits make him seem like an abnormality.

Of course, the plot involves Joe and Rita trying to get back to their right time and maybe prevent what has happened to society from occurring. The humor comes about in that Joe and Rita are able to use common sense and average reasoning skills as though they were Jedi mind tricks on the populace in order to escape capture and other dangers. There are also efforts to improve the state of things, including one funny sequence where Joe reveals that plants need water to grow, not energy sodas. In one scene after another, modern trends are taken to their extremes to highlight how ridiculous and harmful they are. The fact that the movie makes you laugh while doing it makes it all the more brilliant.

However, in considering the film and comparing it to today's world just ten years after it was released, I cringe more than I laugh because we are moving closer to the "idiocracy" featured in the movie. We are a nation in which a significant portion of the population are blinded by their emotions because they are too dumb and lazy to pick up a book and fill their minds with something other than their personal beliefs and prejudices. We are a nation that is coming alarmingly close to electing what is essentially our first pro-wrestler as president.

The only real flaw in Idiocracy, as far as I can see, is that Mike Judge sets it 500 years in the future and therefore did not realize just how close to the present the film actually is.




Note: I was inspired to write this W2WW when I read that Mike Judge was re-teaming with Terry Crews (who played President Camacho) to make a series of anti-Trump ads.  I assume that Crews will be in character as Camacho, and I eagerly anticipate what response these two have to Trump's inexplicable candidacy.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What-to-Watch Wednesday - That Thing You Do (1996)

Since watching the entire series of CNN's The Sixties, this small film from megastar Tom Hanks kept coming to mind, particularly when music became a focal point in the series.  That Thing You Do! is by no means a great picture.  In fact, it has barely registered in my thoughts since I first saw it back in the 1990s.  But, it does capture a sweet, innocent tone that we have come to associate with the early 60s, before the counter-culture movement got into full swing and before darker, grittier attitudes started to emerge on the social and political scene.

That isn't to say the film is nothing but nostalgia and light-hearted whimsy.  The story, about a small town band, the Wonders, that strikes it big with one hit song, takes a cold hard look at the flash-in-the-pan insignificance that many music groups of that era faced once their songs left the charts.  Where the movie finds its heart is by making us care about the four group members and the people who surround them so that we get caught up right along with them in the excitement and the joy.

One scene in particular captures this joy as they hear their song played on the radio for the first time.  It's done in a nonstop moving shot as first one character hears the song and then runs to the next to share the news and then the next and the next.  By the end of the scene, they are ecstatic and jumping around gleefully in the middle of a local store.  It is moments like this that make us like the Wonders and route for them to succeed.

That Thing You Do! was written and directed by Tom Hanks, his first directing effort.  His direction is sure-footed and shows a real love for the time period.  Also, he wisely cast the film with then-unknown actors, including Liv Tyler and Charlize Theron in early film roles.  These unknown, likable actors, more than anything, are what invest the audience in the story.  The kooky, young guys who make up the Wonders are believably blindsided by their sudden success and aren't quite sure what it means or what to do with it.  Through it all, they crack jokes, they fight, all without realizing just how fleeting their success will prove to be.

And, finally, there's the title song, the one that launches the Wonders into their sudden success.  Written by Fountains of Wayne bassist, Adam Schlesinger, the song does the nifty trick of actually sounding like a 1960s hit without becoming a cloying irritation from its repeated playings throughout the movie.  On top of that, the song also connects to two of the characters in the story.  It is one of the most masterfully written songs for a film.

Like I said before, That Thing You Do! isn't a cinematic masterpiece, but it is an enjoyable and well-meaning film.  A good, solid film from start to finish.



Wednesday, May 25, 2016

What-To-Watch Wednesday - The Retrieval (2014)

If I haven't said it before, I'm going to say it now: Netflix is a total blessing to a film enthusiast like me.  Again and again via streaming or DVD, the service has given me access to movies I would have otherwise not been able to see.  And, the latest of those many discoveries is an independent gem called The Retrieval.

The story focuses on often ignored aspects of the American slave trade.  Namely the recapture of escaped slaves and how African Americans were used against each other in the process.

The opening scene sets this up very pointedly when a young black boy knocks on the door of a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and asks for shelter and safe passage north.  He is taken to where other runaway slaves are hidden and given something to eat and a place to sleep.  A few hours later, he sneaks out to let a slave bounty hunter know where the runaways are hiding.

The boy, Will, seems oddly unconflicted about his actions, probably because his choices stem from a desire to help his uncle, who is in a debt of service to the bounty hunter.  The uncle appears to be the only family Will has, and so his motivations become sympathetic if not altogether justifiable.  This uncle, however, soon proves to be completely unworthy of Will's loyalty and puts great demands on him as they go about their business of finding runaway slaves.

The bounty hunter assigns the two a particularly difficult mission.  They are to travel into northern territory to find and lure back a runaway slave named Nate, so the bounty hunter can kill him to collect the reward for his dead body.  Heading into free territory, Will and his uncle eventually find Nate.  Then through a series of events, Will ends up traveling alone with Nate back south.

The two begin to bond on their journey, and Will finds in Nate an honorable father figure at long last.  He also discovers a conscience he didn't know he had as he becomes wrought with guilt for the deception he has helped perpetrate on Nate.

And, this is where The Retrieval finds its real storytelling power as the veil of institutionalized slavery begins to lift from Will's eyes, and he makes a connection to another human being that isn't controlled by outside forces.  He is torn between his fear of the bounty hunter and his affection for Nate, and the most intense moments come when Will tries to reconcile one with the other and slowly realizes he can't and must make a choice.

This is a film that moves along with a quiet strength with characters that exist in a world where only hard choices exist when they exist at all.  And, moments of honest care and affection shine all the more brilliantly as a result.  A truly remarkable film.



Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Truth of Death

Death is sad.  Death is tragic.  Death is something to be mourned.

These are the messages we are given from very early on about one of the most enigmatic and inevitable experiences of human existence.  Death is an emotional path that requires an expression of grief, some kind of outlet for the torrent of feeling that results when we walk through it.  That, at least, is what we mean whenever we talk about death, usually in hushed voices with solemn looks on our faces.  

But, we never talk about or, perhaps more accurately, never realize that our perception of death is completely informed by our experiences in life.  Death only derives meaning from the knowledge and memories we bring to bear on it.  This is why we don't universally mourn every death we experience in the exact same way.  Death isn't necessarily something that is sad or tragic, and it certainly isn't always a cause to mourn.

Let me give you an example that runs the risk of making me look like a resentful jerk but best illustrates the point I'm trying to make.

Years ago, when I was in between colleges and preparing to go back to school to earn my teaching degree, I worked at a local store I will not reveal owned by a woman I will not name.  I am being deliberately vague because I did not like this woman, but she has passed on and still has family in the area.  Although I intend to be as honest and accurate as I can in this blog post, I have no wish to disrespect their good memories of her just because mine are not.

My experience working for her was a series of belittling events in which she insulted my intelligence, my then-current life/career choices, and even members of my family.  She was never overtly mean and nasty, but her approach was a subtle needling here, a snide comment there, none of which she could ever be called out on without her being able to do some back-peddling and all of which created an atmosphere of unease and discomfort whenever I was at work.

The interesting thing is that she was like this to many people, not just me, and she earned a reputation for being a rather nasty sort.

My time working for her ended when she called me up at home to ream me out for having rung up some items incorrectly on the cash register.  I was at fault - it was certainly a stupid, careless mistake - and, as owner of the business, she was well within her right to hold me accountable for it.  However, calling me at home, interrupting my private life with her rantings and accusations, was completely uncalled for.  

It was then I decided to end my employment with her and move on.  I went to the business that day to see her.  In one if my then-rare moments of diplomacy, I said to her, "I feel like I'm not doing the kind of job you need me to do, so I think it best that I resign before you feel forced to take action of your own."

The thing is, I knew she would never take action of her own because it felt like she enjoyed kicking me around too much.  So, I turned in my key and business shirt and never looked back.

I found another job and went back to school full time.  On the last occasion I saw her, she continued her needling by asking me, "Why aren't you done school yet?"  I answered her like I always did in the most unaffected way I could muster so as to not give her the pleasure of knowing she was bothering me.  Years later, long after I had finished college, I learned her business had gone under from circumstances beyond her control.  Then I heard that she had gotten really sick and eventually died from her illness.

And, at the news of her death, I felt...nothing.  No sadness for someone I once knew no longer being alive.  No emotional quaver causing me to reflect that maybe she wasn't as bad as my memory made her out to be.  There was no personal feeling on my part except complete indifference.

Now, that isn't to say I was totally heartless about the matter.  I certainly hadn't wished her any harm, and the family she left behind had my deepest sympathies for having lost a loved one.  But, I was personally unaffected by the news.  A person who had been in my life regularly for nearly a year, and I felt nothing whatsoever about her passing.

The reason for my indifference was simply because this individual had been a consistently nasty presence in my life.  Some might say I should be magnanimous and realize she was perhaps dealing with her own issues that caused her to act that way.  That I should follow the example of Atticus Finch and try to see things from her point of view, to understand her perspective, and maybe find the good deep down inside her.

Well, I have done that.  It is what has allowed me to not be resentful towards her and kept me from feeling any bitterness.  I realize there was indeed another side to her that I didn't see.  I'm sure there were family and friends who were enriched by her presence in their lives.  So, I don't hate her - I find it a shame that she got sick and died, and I felt and still feel a deep sympathy for her family.  However, I was not able to honestly mourn her passing as I could not conjure any personal warm memories of this woman.

An old saying, often attributed to Maya Angelou, states that people will always remember how you made them feel.  This is true enough, but I would add to it that a person's memory of feeling becomes his/her basis on how he/she remembers you, on what kind of a person you become inside the living memories of other people.  This is why I was able to actually mourn the passing of celebrities like Christopher Reeve and Princess Diana, two people I had never met and didn't know, because I was able to associate them with positive feelings and memories.  Obviously, the same is true for any of my family or friends who have passed on.  But, in the brief time I knew this woman, she was, purposefully or not, a negative presence in my life.  That is how I remember her, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend otherwise.

What I take from this is the reinforcement of truths I've known for a long time but continue to fall short on:  Always treat people with respect.  Always be kind.  And, always bring positivity to any situation.  To do otherwise for any of these ideals runs the risk of you becoming someone a person can't bring themselves to mourn when you pass away.  There are fewer things more tragic than a person examining their memories of you and finding nothing that makes them miss your presence in their lives or at least feel a twinge of sadness at the thought.  As much as I can help it, I don't want to be the cause of someone's negative feelings.

The Unending Joke - Examining the Over-Extended Significance of a Good Comic Book Story

It needs to be said right off the bat (no pun intended) that Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a work of superb craft...