Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Some Thoughts on Politics and TV

For the last month or so, I’ve been trying very hard not to say something that would offend anyone politically. I got back my student evaluations, and some of my students didn’t like a few of the jokes I made about politics and politicians. So though I didn’t think I was that bad, I’ve been more quiet lately. I've kept quiet about what I've been observing. I don't want friends to get the wrong idea. Because of this, I’ve hesitated to talk about a program that had a profound affect on me recently. I don’t want to give the impression that I am “one of them,” whoever “them” is. 

So I will get to the show, eventually, in another paragraph, but first, I need to say something about the main concern of this blog.

I’ve been thinking about grace. It's simple, and it often preoccupies me. What happens to the word in our midst says something about our culture. Given the prevailing doxa, it too quickly breaks apart into paradox. Some people get a hold of one part of it—the unearned, freely given part of grace—what is said of God. Others can’t quite grasp this and move toward the other doxa, the work idea. Hence the very notion gets pulled apart into the usual fare, which is not much of either. So grace becomes little more than a wet rag, or it becomes a two-by-four we have to saw into thirds.

This is the usual fare, where we live. 

The other night, I watched the last episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale. I will just say this up front, in this paragraph. I remember when Margaret Atwood’s novel appeared in the 1980s, and I thought then what I still think now, that the story is a work of literature and as such it is really about something more deeply felt than any passing presidential administration, right or left. The new show has been pretty compelling as a thoroughly American story (though Atwood herself is a Canadian writer). Its harsh, stripped narrative reminds me a great deal of the near allegorical writing of Hawthorne and Scarlett letters, though as I've said, I know that many people want to point to a more contemporary referent for its current relevance.

But this production runs deeper than that. It doesn't lead me to think about current events, though the show captures two concerns of immediate and compelling worry: female identity and sexuality in a repressive patriarchy; and the deadness of repressive, religious practice. Both of these concerns came together in the final episode the other night in such a powerful, New Testament way, that it has helped my understanding a little.

First, the repressive patriarchy. Most compelling and chilling is that the patriarchy in Atwood's tale uses women to enslave and entrap other women, who are not individuals and are only valued and only treated with the slightest kindness when they are apparently with child. 

So the moment comes in this setting when the handmaids are lined up by the women lording over them and ordered to stone one of their own.

What happens instead is an act of emotional empathy right out of the New Testament. Stones are dropped. The handmaid who first refuses to throw a stone leads the moment in which grace breaks out into this religiously barren winter world and changes it--for herself and perhaps for others, permanently.

Just let me say that this is one of the reasons I continue to read literature, of all kinds, not just the sanctioned kinds, not just the party lines. I love to read a story written honestly by someone who has no interest in writing about religion, and then be around when that story is broken open by God's grace. It tells me something about the world we are living in and how everyone is trying to see.

What I think the word grace should mean now, what I think it does mean now, outside of our frail cultural doxa, is this. Grace is that power that can break into a situation, not always through speech, but through some action that has the power to change everyone and everything. It changes people, it changes situations, it changes our relationship to power. 

This is what grace is. 

Nothing is ever the same afterword. Some people are freed. Christ got sent to the cross. Offred, the handmaid who dropped the stone, was last seen being led away in a wagon with armed guards. But even here, when grace came, everything stopped being what it was.

That’s what I’ve been thinking about. Grace is something very different from anything else, alcohol, drugs, where we stay the same.

And we don’t manufacture it. It comes from beyond us. 

I hope you will not write on my evaluation that I've been too political. Stay in touch.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

On Memory: A Memorial Day Reflection

It is interesting, on Memorial Day, to contrast the many famous writers who write from personal experience with the way we do not allow high school and college students to draw on that same source for their own writing most of the time.

Hemingway, to note one famous example, wrote of the importance of remembering places, streets, and names of regiments rather than slogans* when thinking about the loss of people in the first Great War. All of his writing life, he worked quickly from personal experiences, as his critics noted. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, he wrote after coming back from a Fiesta in Spain.

Some have argued that the electro-shock therapy he received late in life to treat his depression robbed him of his main source for writing—his short term memory of his experiences.

Except for creative writing classes, we don’t generally have assignments for students to practice writing from experiences and to practice short or long term memory. They are taught to write from sources and to avoid personal opinion. It would seem that a full, vibrant writing program would draw on all forms of writing, not just research.

Of course, to write from experience is to draw on memory, which we understand is not reliable. It is important to provide support. 

A Series of Gaps
Recently, I was writing about a road trip I took with friends after college in 1979. As I remembered it, three of us traveled together. But then, after finishing a second draft, I found picture from that trip in a drawer. In the picture I had taken when we stopped at a rest area in North Dakota, there on the hood of my friend’s car was her German Shepard.

I had forgotten we had traveled with the dog. I had forgotten about the unwashed fur and dog breath as it panted and licked my hand and leaned against my knee when I had my turn in the back seat.

Hemingway, in writing his first novel, of course, left his wife out of the story. Hadley, his first wife, had been with him to the Fiesta and bull fights. He was, of course, writing fiction.

An even more recent example of the unreliability of my own memory concerns a TV show. Recently, my wife and I were trying to remember if we had watched the second season of a series on Netflix. I thought we had and were waiting for the third season to be posted. But she went ahead and started watching the second season, and it turned out I was wrong. I had somehow forgotten that we had only seen the first season.

I don’t remember phone numbers either. I remember my best friend's phone number from 1967, but I only remember my own cell phone number because I have written it down so much. Writing seems to be one way to remember things. Sometimes I will, like Hemingway, try to write things down soon after they happen. I do this in my journal. 
Aids to Memory
Communities, cultures, nations, of course, seek to honor and retain events they feel important for the collective memory. Holocaust memorials exist to help us remember. We argue over whether or not Confederate monuments should be kept up, while there are no monuments in Tianamen Square to mark the 1989 student demonstrations for democracy. According to an Atlantic Monthly article, government cameras keep a constant vigil over the square to prevent any outbreaks of commemoration, though candlelight vigils are held in Hong Kong to honor the pro-democracy event.

The ancient Greeks compared memory to impressions made in wax. Sigmund Freud wrote that writing was one way to support and “guarantee” memory. I marvel at this when I page through journal entries I wrote thirty-five years ago and realize that I have written the names of people and our conversations, but I no longer remember who “Sally” was.

Freud also praised a technology he called the ‘mystic writing pad,” which I recognize as a toy I played with in elementary school. Freud’s mystic pad consisted of a black, wax-like board, over which were layered a white-gray plastic sheet, and then a transparent plastic sheet. I remember writing—etching into—the sheets over the black board and creating words or pictures. When I grew bored with this, I would pull the sheets away from the board, and doing this would clear the sheets—presto, like erasing a board.

The thing I noticed when I did that, though, was what interested Freud. There, on the black board, were the marks of my etchings, layered over other etchings from other times of writing. The etchings over this black board was what Freud saw as consciousness—the traces left on the surface as memories, crossed over with newer memories etched in later.

Technologies of Memory
Memory has been compared to many technologies. I remember during the 1970s, when we would talk about memory tapes. It was as though somewhere deep in our brains there was a tape recorder technology recording everything. Hypnotize us, and the unvarnished, uncorrupted true tape of our lives could be revealed. This is a little too much like the ancient idea of memory and wax. 

More recently, we refer to downloading files of memory. Computers provide fine metaphors. 

But that “mystic writing pad” Freud liked, I think, best captures the precious, fragile, and fragmented nature of human memory.

And to support that humanity, having a public day to remember those we've lost to war is a fitting way to keep those we've lost near us and in mind. 

*This is a bad paraphrase from his novel about World War I, A Farewell to Arms.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A Post-Birthday Reflection: Why I can Never Think about Gardening Again.

The older I get, the more it seems true: Some hobbies I used to imagine doing once I had the time for them now begin to look suspiciously like resignation.

Once, I thought I might like to garden, later on in life, when I had the time. In a time of rush and stress, pulling weeds and running a sprinkler seemed almost sane. We always think that way in the present moment. Some other, very different moment will be better than this one. Long ago, in a moment now far, far away, one I can no longer recreate or even understand, gardening seemed an image of relaxation.

Now, I don’t see it this way. Now, just a few years from turning 64, gardening has started to look too much like I’ve given up.

There are pictures we hold, perhaps collectively, perhaps individually, of life’s seasons. These un-verbalized images guide us in terms of what we envision to be appropriate for us for each stage—childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. Each season, as I see them, has a tree caught in a certain season—childhood shows the tree budding, for example—while the figures in the picture are those we don’t quite recognize as individuals, though they appear vaguely like relatives or neighbors. Old age shows the barren tree in winter, with golden light and blankets. 

The path to that picture, in my mind, starts with those late middle age, early retirement hobbies.

There at the start, the path begins with gardening.

Better Advertising Campaigns
This is not to say that I won’t relax or do relaxing things.

It’s the representation that I object to now. It is the image of fussing around on a plot of land and having no connection with the larger world that I find not just unappealing, but unsettling.

Representation is the issue here, the, if you will, the advertising. It may be behind why others refuse to take up other occupations. For me, gardening advertises old age and retirement as mere piddle-paddle.

That’s the way we see the elderly, I suppose. We see them like we see salad. After a great steak dinner, I might think about balance and having a salad later in the week. 

But that is really going to all depend on how that salad is presented. And tofu is out.

Talk of salads returns us to gardening, about which I am not completely in the dark. Once, when I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I started a garden in our back yard. I grew tomatoes and some corn. I wanted to see what it had felt like for my father to work on a farm.

But that was a long time ago. I was experimenting with being in the world.

Four Seasons
I think that all of us want to stay in contact with the larger world. The one thing I can promise on that score, however, is this: I promise I will not run for president. We have now had our latest senior moments with an elderly president. There is no reason to do that again. 

At any rate, the representation on that one is not going to work very well by the time I get there. I will say no more about this, other than to note that there are increasing numbers of voters who, if they don't already, will probably start to wish that gardening had been represented better to our current resident of the White House. 

Monday, February 27, 2017

Nodding at the Oscars

Lots of people I talked to this year weren’t going to watch the Oscars. Most of them cited objections to the political leanings of the celebrities as their reasons for not tuning in. 

I admit that I’ve seen more of the Academy Awards in recent years than I’ve seen minutes of recent Super Bowls—another February event. This is not because I think them brilliant or I agree with everything that they stand for. I've seen more of the Oscars because my wife and I get invited to my sister-in-law’s Oscar party every year--always a lot of fun because of the people we meet there who are witty and engaging. We don’t have to only focus on the Oscar production itself, which, if everyone were honest, doesn’t show our celebrity/entertainment class at their best. Sure, they're well-dressed and beautiful. But then--and I don't mean for this to sound snarky--they have to talk. 

Let’s be honest
Lots of people complain about how political—left wing—these celebrities have become, but really, is that the worst that happens?

In the LA Times in the days that follow the show, there are always plenty of “post-mortums,” rundowns on what was done right and what was done wrong on the show. There is always speculation about the host and how a different one might have performed. This year, there may be more to say about how the Best Picture, the last category, was handled. But really, what do we expect from an awards show?

More to the point, what do we expect from a parade of actors talking without scripts? Sure, there are always the few planned skits—which are first takes, of course. Last night's running joke between the host and Matt Damon held up pretty well—again, as a series of first takes. But otherwise, the ceremony was the usual parade of well-dressed celebrities saying something general about life or art, or life and art, or art or life, and then announcing the finalists. And then announcing the winners. And then the winners would generate excitement and ramble until the music plays. 

No matter how well dressed these movie stars are, the Academy Awards do not show them at their best. They were at their best, we should know by now, in their twentieth take of a shot they’d rehearsed of a line someone more clever called a writer fed them.

Being Natural
This is what we should understand by now. And we should stop thinking otherwise. Complain as we might about Meryl Streep; at least she's been to so many of these productions at this point in her career that she is a professional about it. She knows better than to show up without something planned out on a small piece of paper. 

She knows that, at the Oscars, the actors are left to their own resources. Those who come with planned political statements have at least planned their comments. We might not like them. We might rightly think, “Well I don’t need the cast and crew of Zootopia to tell me how to think about the economy,” or anything else, for that matter. But at least they’ve prepared. They aren’t just rambling. They aren’t faking a meltdown to cover for the fact that, like my first-year students who think that just writing their first thoughts on paper is going to be authentic and profound, they didn’t prepare.

Nine times out of ten, that is all that is going on with the winners. The brilliance, the flash of inspiration, just doesn’t happen. We may think that looking great or at least cute is going to be enough. But talk and unplanned writing are pretty much the same.

We shouldn’t expect much of them either way.

If Hollywood really wanted to improve the show that is the annual Academy Awards, they could start here. They could do worse that require that the finalists for all of the major categories—I’m talking about actors now—hire writers to give them the brilliance they are used to having on set.

That’s just  entertainment. 

Monday, January 30, 2017

"Listening to You": Revisiting an Oldie But Goodie

Recently, I listened to a favorite recording again from the early 1970s, the rock opera Tommy, by The Who, a favorite band from that era. I'm not talking about the movie version with Jack Nicholson, Ann Margret, and Elton John, which I've never really liked. No, it was the original Who recording, which I hadn't listened to in its entirety since  1972. I haven't owned a copy since the late '70s, when my copy of it was stolen from a theatre house I was staying at at the end of my college years.

Listening to Tommy again recently, however, I realized how deeply spiritual its message is. In many ways, it is a statement of its time, a commentary on the spiritual trends of the late 1960s. I think it also speaks to why there is so much hardness toward spiritual thinking today. Peter Townshend first composed the music, telling the story of a boy who becomes deaf and blind after witnessing the murder of his father, who is returning from war. In the ensuing years, Tommy's mother seeks cure after snake-oil cure. When Tommy is suddenly healed, he becomes a sensation, followed by millions who want to be improved by his ministrations. Finally, though, he exploits his followers with his new-found power and is revealed as another flawed, broken human being, as he lapses again into a kind of spiritual blindness, in need of the help of others again--like all of us.

The late 1960s were a time of spiritual searching. Jesus was often quoted and often had songs sung about him. Many young people were leaving traditional religions and traditional ways of looking at religion to try to find their way, to find themselves, to be authentic. Many were the gurus. Many were the followers who gave up an old life to imitate someone else on a commune somewhere where people chanted and smoked weed. And many were the frauds.

Tommy offers a commentary on the guru trends at the end of the '60s, and a bit of light humor. At the height of his fame, as Tommy begins to express his freedom from his blindness, his followers ask how they can follow. Tommy's answer is blindfolding them, putting corks in their mouths, and stuffing their ears so that they resemble his former state. And then he puts them in front of pinball machines.

This is a parody of religious imitation, but it is more accurately abuse and exploitation of people's trust. This is how we tend to look at religion today. In many ways, this is the side of our natures that Tommy still speaks to today, the side made cynical by watching all of the frauds, the Jimmy Joneses, the Charles Mansons, and the Jim and Tammy Bakkers of the world. Today we are not going to be exploited and made out as fools. Yet we are all asking and saying, however subconsciously, the same things that the blind, deaf, and dumb boy Tommy is saying throughout most of the piece.

I don't think that Peter Townshend was making light of spiritual needs as much as he was exposing some of the "answers" people sought out. And this is important. But I still think that we do well to certainly continue to question a lifestyle that is about little more than consuming goods and entertainment. What about purpose and how to love our neighbor? We are not in the 1960s any longer, but these questions remain important. They do not come from catalogues or TV shows. They come from the church I attend every weekend and from the conversations I have with others who are convinced that their lives are more than just a fortunate collision of random chemicals.

Today, listening to this piece of classic rock (a rock opera, nonetheless), I reflect that I should not let distrust of others, especially distrust of spiritual leaders who will prove eventually to be hypocrites,  keep me from seeking answers.

"Tommy can you hear me?"

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

It Can't be 1980 All Over Again

Change is coming.

I sense it as uneasiness.

Not all change is good. But it does always require adjustment.

This is not me trying to be coy or to pretend that I have prophetic powers. I don't. But we will soon have a new president, or precedent, depending on how you chose to spell it. The transition since the election has been anything but easy. About one-fourth of the American population seems happy about the change--the group that supported and voted for the new president. The rest, about 75% of the population, did not vote for him. Many of them are mad because of what he said to get himself into office.

I remember the winter of 1980, the period after Reagan won his first term. I remember people wondering how it could happen. They referred to the Gipper, a star of B movies, taking on his "greatest role, as President of the U.S." Of course, many were elated that we were finally going to have a conservative in office. I didn't know what to think. I hadn't voted for him either. We all adjusted, though. Soon enough, I was wearing docksiders and an occasional polo shirt with an alligator on it. That was about 1983. It took me three years. My hair, though, was still parted down the middle.

Today, though I'm much older and not about to change the style of clothes I wear, I'm not just wondering about what is about to happen, though I do. A reality TV star has won the election. He's got a brand and name recognition. But I think I'm uneasy because it is now possible to wonder if we will have news outlets and media that will give us fair coverage of what is going on. We might not. We might have a press that keeps going for ratings. And not only that. I'm also concerned that we will have an electorate of people who actually care about getting that news.

Too many people I talk with today don't care to hear the news. They don't have details. They have an alternate view. Everyone has his or her talking points taken from favorite columnists and TV shows.

It may turn out okay. Or it may turn out that we will just be subjected to frequent tweets and ads that make major, over-the-top claims about the new leader. Without a free press, will the new man in office be held responsible for his actions and words? He hasn't been so far. He won his office doing what no one before him has done. Others saw their candidacies sink in the mire of their bad behavior caught on tape or reported. Not our leader-elect.

So what is ahead? Some say we get the leaders we deserve.

Change is ahead. It is coming.

You can expect some adjustments. 

Monday, November 28, 2016

Getting Started Early with Holiday Re-reading

I decided this year to get an early start on my holiday reading. I think I was challenged to do this when I learned that this year, Black Friday was actually starting on Thursday afternoon—3 pm on Thanksgiving Day. It occurred to me that if the stores could do this, so could I.

I was also a bit driven to start reading my holiday fare after seeing Arrival, a movie that is as much about linguistics as it is about aliens. After I saw it, I found my oldest copy of Lewis’s first book in his space trilogy, which also concerns a linguist and some fun passages about learning a language that is from another world. The rest—with early Black Friday and the allure of an old, folded book cover—seemed natural.

Holiday Re-reading
I started reading Out of the Silent Planet while on Thanksgiving break. This is what I do during the holidays. I read fantasy and science fiction, genres I don’t seem to be able to read the rest of the year. But during the holidays, I can. I reread books in a genre I used to love before I turned 18.Next on my list is Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

I don’t know why I can stay with these science fiction and fantasy books when I can't the rest of the year. I wonder if there is something wrong with me. I know that C.S. Lewis would say there is. One of the problems I’ve found with reading science fiction the rest of the year has to do with the fact that I can sense that the writer is more fascinated with the invention of the story than on character development. Mostly, as with many stories in other popular genres, the characters are secondary to the plot, the new world or worlds being explored, or some fantasy element that is innovative.

Normally, I like to read stories where characters surprise me. The relentless degenerate has a moment of sadness and sudden wonder at the world around him. The callous old man remembers something that draws him to humanity. This also feels like something very real. People surprise us. Most important to me, this suggests possibilities. People are like that—deeper than we think we know. We interact with them mostly on a day to day basis, and we rarely see the inner states they—and we—might be protecting.

Re-Reading is the Draw
Part of the draw in all of this is that I love rereading books. I see technique in old things—what I didn’t see during the first reading because I was just trying to figure out the plot. Seeing technique helps me as a writer. Also, I see things I didn't see before in the characters and their situations.

This time around with Lewis’s book, I’ve been noticing what other critics have sometimes said before about his adult characters: They really aren’t so developed as the worlds he is creating. In fact, they seem a bit unchangeable. They are either the good guys, aware of the beauty and wonder around them, which has drawn them to God, or they are the bad guys, who see the worlds they’ve entered as grounds to exploit, as they move forward, bent on world conquest.

There’s something good in this, of course, something I used to like about it. Out of the Silent Planet, a book I've read perhaps seven or eight times, has a distinctly satirical feel to it, and the bad guys who appear in it might, in another book, appear as the good guys—empire builders, fighters for humanity, world conquerors. In Lewis’s hands, they are exposed for the shrunken-souled megalomaniacs they really are. There is a spiritual quality to their being. In re-reading about them, I can hear his criticisms of empire builders on Earth, including those who settled the American continent.

The rest of the year, I might miss this. But now, there are some things I can see in Lewis, things he grasped almost 80 years ago that people around me are still not always clear about. T

To think I have the early consumerist glow of the stores and their demands nostalgia and spending to thank for this. It apparently is possible, if rarely, to make good come from bad. Reading. It is my way of battling creeping consumerism.