Thursday, December 23, 2010

Plastic Grace

In a recent report from the National Retail Federation (otherwise heretofore conveniently known as NRF), numbers were supposed to rise this year for projected spending on holiday gift cards. You know what I'm talking about: those incredibly close-at-hand, pocket-sized, credit-card style rectangles of plastic with a magnetic stripe running across their back. Gift cards are the gift just within easy reach in the checkout lane--the last-minute, "oh-my-gosh-I-almost-forgot," "my-cart-is-full-but-I-have-to-get-him/her-something," "I-don't-know-what-sort-of-things-kids-want-these-days," "I-don't-care-what-sort-of-things-kids-want-these-days," "what-do-you-get-for-someone-who-has-everything-anyway?" "I-was-thinking-about-you-in-the-checkout-line" kind of gift.

It's the gift which--quite literally--has come to define that age-old cliche': "It's the thought that counts."

According to this year's survey by the NRF, however, the unassuming little gift card remains the most popular, most requested item this holiday season, with 57% of adults reporting that they prefer to receive it, and 77.3% of shoppers supposedly being willing to support that desire by falling under the spell of the wire slip-rack in the front of the store and buying at least one of the miniature plastic presents for at least one of the lucky people on their to-buy-for list. (

Forget about your flatscreen TVs, your Playstations, your iPads, your iPhones, and any other bit of techno-gadgetry that has an over-abundance of lowercase-i's in its name.

Behold the gift card.

Something is going on here. Exactly what, though, I'm not quite sure. American holiday consuming has now gotten to the point, it seems, where it isn't so much about what we buy, it's simply about buying something--anything--and scratching yet another name off our lists. It's about ease, and speed, and convenience. It's about crunching numbers and good "business sense"--meeting our required shopping quota while expending the least amount of mental and physical energy doing so. It's about shopping made simple. It's about avoiding long lines and crushing crowds at both the Layaway and Customer Service desks. It's about cutting expenses where expenses can be cut--which would certainly include postal fees of boxing up, and wrapping with paper and ribbon and bow, only to be boxed again, and then weighed, and then shipped halfway across the country only to be torn into, and ripped open, and discarded.

*[Aside: I would say, "Imagine how much simpler (and cheaper) all of this would be if, instead, we just dropped a gift card in an envelope, licked it, stamped it, addressed it, and sent it on its way," except I don't have to say that since--if we are to believe the annual numbers being put out from the NRF--most of us are doing that very thing anyway. Including me--as it turns out--in all of my knee-jerk, hypocritical moaning about what something like this surely must mean. I have been known, in recent years, to rely more heavily on resorting to buying gift cards during the holidays. Why do I do it? Probably for the same reasons everyone else seems to be doing it: Because it's easy, and it's quick, and it's convenient. These days, more often than not, I find myself being that person I described earlier who finds himself near the store's entrance, falling under the lure of the wire slip-rack that bulges with thousands of dollars of intangible "gifts," hanging in neat little plastic rectangular rows, waiting to be bought. These days, as well, more often than not, I am also that person--now to be included in the 57% of us, I guess--who, when asked what I would like for Christmas, thinks about it for approximately ten seconds, shrugs, and then responds as casually and noncommitedly as possible: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess."]

Ten words: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess." That's a pretty subtle summation of whatever it is that's going on in our consumer culture these days. What do we mean when we respond in such a way? On the surface, of course, it sounds so casual and nocommittal of us. It makes us sound so selfless and almost zen in our elimination of desire. Nothing as trivial as wanting--and asking--for a specific little something on Christmas could possibly trip us up in our journey of spiritual purification.

All of which, of course--for most of us, anyway--is total bullshit.

Of course we want things. We want lots of things, more than likely. But we've gotten to the point in our society where there is almost an unspoken stigma that goes along with asking for something that you either: 1.) need, 2.) want, or 3.) feel in some ridiculous core of your being that you can't live without. And if you're asking for it, then more than likely that means you don't already have it, (unless you are a hoarder, or a collector, or some other sort of bizarre fetishist for which there is no name yet--all of which is well and good, I suppose, but must remain as another topic for another time, perhaps....) In a culture of affluence such as ours--a culture of big TVs nestled inside big homes with big cars parked out front--there is almost a sad sense of shame in asking for something that you don't already have--even at Christmastime, as it turns out! It's an odd mixture of: 1.) cultural guilt, and 2.) an admission of that guilt, and finally 3.) a way to seek refuge and redemption from that guilt.

*[Aside: Of course another reason that we take the 5th when asked during the holidays what it is we would most need or like (choosing instead the easier, quicker, and more convenient path-of-least-resistance in the gift card) is that we are, in essence, lazier than hell. As it turns out, we're too lazy these days to even give added effort to coming up with a halfway respectable wish-list. When and how did all of this happen? Is there a time and place in our collective contemporary history that we could point to as a hinge, of sorts, a time that led us to where we are now in our habits as fully westernized consumers--a nation of professional wanters and desirers? Think back to when you were a child and of the days and weeks and months leading up--in time-numbingly slow anticipation--to Christmas Eve, and to Santa Claus, and to selfish, shameless abundance and greed. Do you remember the thrill of looking through the toy section in the J.C. Penneys or Sears catalogs--the feel of the slick pages beneath your fingers, the addictive smell of the binding glue, the weight of the book spread out upon your thin lap, holding you down to the couch, keeping you from jumping up for joy (but just barely!) at the turn of each page? Can you remember the thrill and sheer exultation of being a kid at Christmastime, and of how you couldn't believe--you SIMPLY COULD NOT BELIEVE--that all you had to do was ask for something, and you just might find it wrapped in bright, glossy red and green paper and ribbon and bow beneath the twinkling Christmas tree on Christmas morning? And of how difficult it was--painful to the bone, in fact--to be reminded that you couldn't get everything you wanted, and to choose your words carefully when sitting on Santa's lap in the mall, and to be a prudent and mindful editor when writing your yearly wish-list to the North Pole? How, oh how, would you ever be able to narrow your desires down that much? to today. Can you imagine that child of yesterday looking over your shoulder, listening in on a recent conversation as you whine about your adult worries and complaints of the rushed and harried holiday season, moaning about "not enough time in the day," and "just look how fast the year has gone," and "I can't believe how soon the stores start advertising for Christmas, earlier and earlier every year?" And the coup-de-grace', of course, coming when asked what you would like for the holidays this year: "I don't care. Just get a gift card, I guess." That little child--the younger self you used to be--watching and listening to you carry on in such a way, would more than likely turn and walk off in utter contempt and disgust and confusion over just how far away you've drifted from the person you used to be. Your better self, undoubtedly. Your truer self, perhaps.]

Don't worry, this isn't going to turn into some maudlin eulogy bemoaning the loss of our youth. I won't bore you with yet another overly-romanticized nostalgic trip down Memory Lane, wistfully looking over our communal shoulders like Lot's wife at the city she so loved before turning into a giant salt-lick.

Because we all know the obvious, anyway: Christmas is a magical time when you're a child. (And by "magical," I mean, quite literally of course, magical.) And we are equally aware of the obvious opposite end of the spectrum: Christmas is a lot less "magical" and much more "real" with the passage of time. (That's not to say that the much heralded "Christmas spirit" can't still be found and enjoyed as an adult. Of course it can. I'm simply saying that as I've gotten older, and as the bills pile up in my mailbox faster than the Christmas cards from long-distance friends and family--those same long-distance people who eagerly await the box of gifts I was supposed to have dropped in the mail the other day--I find that the mythic "Christmas spirit" is more elusive than ever. The magic of the season isn't gone, necessarily. It's just decided to take a holiday of its own, it seems, and decides to leave in its absence a tangled mess of head games and heartburn knotted in a tighter ball than those stupid Christmas lights that I dig out each year. Just how in the hell those things get knotted in their 11-month hibernation, I'll never know...)

Which brings me back--in an admittedly roundabout way--to the gift card.

Are they really such a bad thing, after all? I mean, in theory, hasn't the idea of "the gift card" been around for a long time anyway? Isn't this little 2" X 3" rectangle of plastic just the evolved version of the old-fashioned "gift certificate"--printed on old-fashioned card stock--that existed in the business world since time immemorial? Doesn't the gift card--as did its predecessor--provide a unique service for the consuming public? It has, within its narrow dimensions, the amazing capacity to make you happy. To fulfill a desire. To reaffirm that it's okay to want something, even if it's simply money in the disguise of a plastic rectangle. To remind you (in a sly, subconscious way, perhaps) of the joy and exultation of selfishness and greed you used to feel this time of year when you were younger. And to be all right with that. And to recognize that deep down inside--in the part that makes us most human and most in need of something like happiness, and hope, and grace--there's nothing wrong with feeling like that, if only for a short time each year.

"You're worth it," this little card seems to say. "Now go out there and buy what you want. When you want. Online or in-store...however you want to do it."

There's something incredibly freeing about all of that, something quite magical in its own way. Hidden within the thin, gray borders of that magnetic stripe running along the card's backside is a promise of fulfillment, and of forgiveness for the year's past wrongs, and of hope for happiness in your new purchase.

The merchants aren't joking, I guess, when they say that it's wisest to gather up the gift cards you received over the holidays and to go shopping for yourself as soon as possible. Redeem the cards for what they're worth. Don't wait, in other words, and let them gather dust and run the risk of expiring. Who would want to risk something like that?

Come to find out, it's all about redemption, after all.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Good Stuff

A funny thing happened recently at New York City's 92 Street Y. Or, I guess to be more accurate, a funny thing didn't happen recently at New York City's 92 Street Y.

Which was the problem.

It seems Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) was in the middle of a discussion promoting his recent novel, An Object of Beauty, at the well-known Manhattan venue (which, incidentally, has a long history of hosting writers and filmmakers and musicians and artists of all walks) when New York Times columnist, Deborah Solomon--who was hosting the evening's conversation--was handed a slip of paper advising her to move the conversation along to funnier, more light-hearted matters. Martin (who is himself an avowed art collecter and whose recent novel presumably deals with the contemporary art world) was supposedly in an involved conversation with his interviewer about--what else?--art.

Imagine that.

As it turns out, however (despite the venue and its legendary history, and the fact that Martin was there to talk about his latest novel--which is about the artworld, of all things--which also, incidentally, just happens to be something of more than just a passing interest of Martin's), art was the last thing on the audience's mind that night.

*[Aside: To quote Capt. Willard, as he rides aboard PBR Streetgang in the heat of Vietnam's jungle, wiping sweat from his nose and reading even-voiced from the dossier spread out on his lap of the tortured and troubled military history of Col. Walter E. Kurtz, who--on one particular instance--pissed off a league of military upper echelon: "It seems they didn't dig what he had to tell them..."]

What Martin didn't seem to know was that the management at the Y was taking real-time email requests from its audience members (oh, you've gotta love the magic of hand-held computers/cameras disguised as phones these days), and those requests more than indicated an audience that was growing increasingly disgruntled, dissatisfied, and disenchanted with the interview's "artsy" turn.

In short, the audience was bored out of its collective mind and demanded to take charge of the interview. They didn't want to hear a long, drawn-out dissertation on art, after all, from a gifted writer (essayist, playwright, and novelist as Martin has proven himself to be). No, what they were there for, as it turns out, was the good stuff. They wanted the old Steve Martin. They wanted the "fake-arrow-through-the-head-and-banjo-playing" stand-up comedian of 30 and 40 years ago, the genius who stumbled onto the comedic stage with a breathtakingly iconoclastic "anti-comedy" act that deconstructed and reinvented the whole notion of stand-up comedy forever. They wanted The Jerk. The Man With Two Brains. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. They wanted the Steve Martin who--over Saturday Night Live's long-running career--has guest-hosted more than any other star. They wanted to hear from Martin the funny man, the "wild and crazy guy" of yesterday. The Y's (wise) audience that night, in other words, wanted to laugh.

*[Aside: I'm guessing such stringent demands from the audience in what can now, infamously, only be called "the Y interview" would have invariably overlooked certain stages in Martin's checkered career, then. With such an opinionated live audience as the Y seems to attract--an audience short on patience and with a taste for all things humorous--I shudder to think what they would have done to Martin had the conversation moved into a discussion of the comedic cornucopia examplified by "Cheaper By the Dozen" and "The Pink Panther"--Parts I and II for both, respectively. Oh...the horror! The horror!]

It was as if--in these days of communal empowerment--the Y's (wise) audience decided to rise up, and to breathe a sigh of disgusted frustration, and to scrunch its forehead and narrow its eyes with simplified focus and determination, and to mutter in rebellious, pent-up rage: "Let's roll."

And in the end, they demanded nothing less than a full refund. And the Y acquiesced. (After all, I guess, the customer really does know best.) But be that as it may, the angry audience members got their money back for that afternoon's failed talk. And Martin was left speechless. Literally. (Well, that is until after the interview, anyway, when he was able to get his own hands on his own cellular device and start tweeting and emailing opinions of his own of how the whole affair went down.) In the days following, it seems, Martin has calmed down somewhat from the Kafkaesque ridiculousness of the whole situation; in the ensuing days his own angry tone has softened somewhat. Some of this may be due to his background as a philosophy major in college and to his familiarity with existential absurdity in our daily lives. Some of this may be due, as well, to his years as a stand-up comedian and to his impeccable entertainer's intuition to know that--like it or not--the audience will have the last word. Some of this also may be attributed to a public-relations spin team, earning its paycheck from Martin to keep him out of the headlines as much as possible.

I don't know.

But what I do know--for better or worse--is that this incident seems to serve as a very specific social and cultural landmark, indicating (to me, anyway) a particular trend in these times we live in. As Americans, we celebrate our "Americaness" at every turn. Yes, we're a free society (on paper and in our cultural mythology, anyway). And yes, we celebrate liberties not enjoyed by other countries around the world (again, at least on paper and in our cultural mythology). But this "freedom" and this "liberty" has led us--over time--to arrogantly assume that we are free to take liberty with whomever and whatever we happen to disagree at any given moment.

Our cultural mantra--in these millenial days of ours--seems to have evolved into an uber-simplistic: "If you don't like something, change it." (Which, of course, can be reduced to even fewer words to synonymously--and possibly even more effectively--say: "Get 'er done!")

It's the reality-show mentality. The "Survivor syndrome," for want of a better phrase. If you don't like someone, vote them off the island and be done with them. Or the "American Idol syndrome," if you prefer, where--to fully emphasize the word "American" in the show's title--the audience (that would be the members in the studio as well as the millions watching their TVs, with access to a computer or a cellular device) can cast their votes and have a voice in selecting the show's winner. True democracy in action. The spirit of America, after all. What the hell has happened to us? The old, fitting phrase, "the Ugly American," used to simply refer to an American attitude of arrogance and self-entitlement when away from the friendly confines of American shores. But now it seems to have shifted somewhat so that the Ugly American has nested closer to home. It has nested at home, to be more exact. We have become a country of unsightly patriots, it would seem. And if something doesn't suit us--say, a President, or a celebrity interview--we get up in arms (because, after all, it's our 2nd Amendment right, don't you know?)--and we demand recompense. We demand our God-given right to give voice to our dissatisfaction. We demand to be taken seriously. And to be heard. And to be listened to. And to be taken seriously.

We demand, finally, that things be the way we want them to be.

And if they're not...then we demand that things change. We demand to be happy. And we demand it right now. "Get 'er done," in other words.

You can see this attitude in the whole idea behind the current "Tea Party" movement which is all the rage. And the "Birthers" movement, as well. (I could even be mean and lump the Klu Klux Klan movement in this category, I suppose, but...well, I wouldn't want to be mean...) We have steadily become a country of whiners. And of pathetically unaware conformists bragging--all the while--of our distinctly American trait of nonconformity.

When did this happen, exactly? Has it always been this way? Were our American forebears--whom this new brand of "patriots" so quickly and proudly hoist upon the nearest pedastal--the same way as we are today? Or is it only for expediency's sake that we make them so? Does it make us feel better--for convenience and for our natonal conscience--to believe this is so?

What has happened to America? Seriously. I mean...after W.W. II, for example, we were the world's heroes. We could do no wrong. (In a more blunt way of putting it, I suppose, at that time in history, if you were an American, then it was guaranteed you could get laid. Period. Anytme. Anywhere. No questions asked. That's what it meant to be from the good ol' U.S.A.)

Something has changed, though. Since that time, we've become incredibly self-absorbed. We are overwhelmingly concerned with ourselves, it seems--isolationist in the micro- and the macrocosm. If it doesn't involve us, then we don't have the time (quite literally) to worry about it. And if it does involve us, then look out. We might just run a little "shock-and-awe" bombing campaign on you. Or we might run a campaign of a different sort, to "take our ___________ back" from the evildoers who so diligently and tirelessly want to steal our ______________ away from us.

*[Aside: And for the sake of argument, please feel free to fill in the above blanks with any word that seems fitting. In case you're drawing a blank in regards to the above blanks, here are some thoughts: country, little-league baseball team, Girl Scout/Boy Scout troop, country, church, book club, local school board, country, public library, downtown business district, celebrity interview, country, etc.]

What happened to the good, old-fashioned, "gentlemanly" notion of playing fair and of awaiting our turn? What happened to the outdated idea of sitting out the rough patches and of patiently, devotedly, and faithfully awaiting the turning of fate? Whatever happened to decency, and to respect, and to be willing to take the bad times along with the good? Now it seems we're only in it for the good. The good stuff is all we're worried about. To hell with anything else. We're all about immediate gratification. We want what we want, and we want it now. We don't want to have to wait. And we don't want to be disappointed. And we don't want our time to be wasted. Or our money, for what it's worth. And if anyone disagrees with us--or dares to point out the faulty logic in our nature--we want them gone. And we want it now.

Ironically, we've lost our sense of humor at the very same time we've lost all sense of seriousness. (Leave it to one of the great ironic comedians of our time to point this out to us.) It doesn't make any sense. And it's no laughing matter.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Holiday of Metaphors: The Thanksgiving Thing

I never really noticed before just how dramatic the week surrounding Thanksgiving has become. The Wednesday before is known as "Black Wednesday" in certain circles (those "circles" being, of course, the local bars, pubs, and dives where people hole up in the hopes of drinking themselves into an unconscious stupor so they can prepare to deal as graciously as possible with the family members they don't have to deal with the other 364 days of the year.)

And of course--as we all know by now--the infamous day following the holiday: "Black Friday," the busiest shopping day of the year (or so I'm told). Actually, though, I think the whole notion of "Black Friday" being such a consumer-conscious event is a bit misleading. I think the whole idea of people trampling one another, stampeding down store-aisles, and pushing each other out of the way to be the first to grab the "Hot Buy" of the year can be attributed to at least three competing factors: 1.) we all have pent-up energy brought on by the quantities of food and sleep from the day before, 2.) we're all just basically greedy assholes, and 3.) we'd all rather do anything--even if it means fighting traffic, crowds, headaches, and indigestion--other than sit one more minute in the house with those family members we normally don't have to deal with the other 364 days of the year.

And not to be outdone--now, in this glorious computerized age we find ourselves in--we have what has cleverly come to be called "Cyber Monday," a day supposedly devoted to giving the online shoppers and vendors their due. This is a day presumably when everyone--and I guess we're really supposed to believe everyone--is stealing time at work (if in fact we go in to work at all) to sneak a peek at our favorite online shopping sites. The whole notion behind such a day is ludicrous, but my biggest problem with the day has nothing to do with the philosophical challenges it poses. No, my biggest beef comes with the unfortunate choice of name it has won.

Cyber Monday.

Don't you know the OCDers among us are squriming and fidgeting nervously. There must have been a shortage of crayon boxes on the day that name was created; that's all I can figure. As a result, the brainstorming list for meaningful colors must have been disastrously short. But the most obvious question I have about the whole "Cyber Monday" name-thing goes back to the age-old cliche: Why fix something that ain't broken? Was "Black Monday" already taken?

*[Aside: After trying to build up that joke to a somewhat satisfying climax, I thought I'd actually go online myself and do a little "cyber sleuthing" to see, in fact, if the term "Black Monday" has already been taken. It has. Going all the way back to 1987, actually--the year Pat Cash (who?) and Martina Navratilova won the men's and women's Wimbledon championships, respectively; the year the Edmonton Oilers took home the Stanley Cup; the year in movies that gave us our first (and God knows not last) Predator and Lethal Weapon; the year that U2 gloriously snagged the golden rings with The Joshua Tree--it turns out that was the year the world stock markets took a collective nosedive into the collective toilet. And on a Monday, of all days. Talk about pouring salt on a fresh wound. And hence the name "Black Monday" was born. Which just goes to show, I guess, that one way or another the stock market can always be blamed.]

Which brings me back to my original observation of this holiday we call Thanksgiving existing as some sort of proverbial "island of calm" amidst a flurry of days given over to greed, and selfishness, and avarice, and marketing one-upsmanship. Yes, I know the day's ridiculous mythology of gray-flanneled Pilgrims with tall, rectangular hats and shiny gold buckles on their shoes sharing a feast of corn, and venison, and squash, and turkey, (and liquor) with their new-found red-skinned friends has worn a little thin these days. I know. And I also know that today the holiday we call Thanksgiving is primarily a day given over to football on TV, and food, on TV. But it was no less a prescient mind as Abraham Lincoln's who, in 1863, amidst the danger and drama of the Civil War, first saw the need for establishing a national day like Thanksgiving--this island of a day in which we are reminded to stop for a moment, and to catch our breath, and to look around us and say, "Yeah...okay. This is good. It could be so much worse."

And chances are, the stock market will prove you right anyway. So why not give thanks while you can, I guess? Buy into the myths of the day, and smile, and enjoy the relative "island of calm" while you can (a veritable light in the darkness sandwiched, as it is, between black days--kind of like an Oreo cookie, come to think of it), and sneak yourself another glass of wine to help you deal with those family members whom you wouldn't want to deal with even if you knew how, and let the legendary tryptophan begin to work its magic spell on you...

You're going to need your energy to deal with the days ahead.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Pete Townshend Seemed to Get Wrong About Dying and Growing Old

My kids are Star Wars fans. Now, that may be a fairly innocuous and seemingly unimportant bit of trivia to most, but not to me anyway. To me, I think it's kind of cool. And I have to admit it makes me smile.

Let me back up a bit. Like...oh, I don't know...say 33 years ago, circa 1977, when Star Wars ("Episode IV: A New Hope"...whatever the fuck that meant at the time) first came out. At that time, I was a fairly run-of-the-mill 10-year-old boy. When the original Star Wars movie was released to great confusion and even greater fanfare in May, 1977, I--like most of the country, it seemed--went to see it at the local cinemaplex. And--again, like most of the country at that time, it seemed--I loved it. I had never seen anything quite like it. For its two-hour running time, I was completely immersed and lost in the world of George Lucas' imagination. I bought into the movie and its mythology completely.

In other words, I've been a Star Wars fan since way back. Since the beginning. Back when it was considered cool and hip to be a Star Wars fan.

*[Aside: Okay...okay...maybe I'm getting a little carried away with myself here. After all, I'm not entirely sure that it was ever "cool" or "hip" to declare yourself a Star Wars fan, or to wear your favorite faded T-shirt with the gold Star Wars logo stretched across your ten-year old belly, or to go around quoting such Jedi-inspired koans as "May the force be with you," or to cart your plastic Star Wars "action figures" (read that as "dolls for boys") to and from school, or to swagger with mercinarial indifference whenever you walked anywhere, as if to declare to a world which personally didn't care one way or another that, yes, in fact, you were cooler than the rest because your favorite character in the whole mess was Han Solo (since you were sure--just absolutely positive--that Solo's swagger came from his getting laid at every spaceport he stopped at, and that if you did your best monotone Harrison Ford impersonation--lip curl, blank stare, slight smartass smile turned up at the corner of your mouth--you too could enjoy the same intergalactic wonders) or to...well, get the idea.]

It's not an easy task, really, being a Star Wars afficionado. But in many ways it's probably easier than it used to be, I'm guessing. Back in the day--back when it was just simply "old school Star Wars," without all of the digital trickery of the newer trilogy, and the video games, and the books, and the animated spinoffs--you hung the focus of your adulation on a slim thread of images that were released every three years without the benefit, even, of owning it yet on video to watch (and rewatch ad infinitum) at your own leisure.

But now my daughters have taken up the mantle of watching the films--old and new--and of playing the Lego video games, and of watching the cartoon TV series, The Clone Wars, etc. And I am happy that they seem to enjoy it, and that they like watching the movies, and that they have fun talking about them, and talking to me about them, and asking me questions about the logic of the storyline ("...ummmmm, yeah well, you see..."), and eagerly awaiting my reply as if I were some seasoned sage, ready to dispense my wisdom in hard-won nuggets of convoluted Yoda-speak.

But the simple fact is, as much as I enjoy that they enjoy something like Star Wars, and as much as I enjoy enjoying it with them, it's different for me these days. The whole Star Wars phenomenon, that is. In many ways, I feel like that old saying regarding a ship that has already sailed. There are times I wonder if I've outgrown it--"it" being Star Wars, of course, but also maybe "it" as the whole media-saturated/pop-culture/blockbuster mentality that came into vogue during my youth and has decidedly stayed, evolved, morphed, and become the fulcrum by which the entertainment industry is balanced today. That's not to say that I don't still love the Star Wars films--the Star Wars story, to be more exact, I suppose--because I do still enjoy them and have a great fondness for them. But that "love" and that feeling of "fondness" has maybe shifted somewhat over time. There are times, in fact, when I wonder if I still love them the way I profess. There are times I wonder if I still can love them the same way. Is that even possible after all this time? Do we ever love anything the same way--with the same hot, blind, passionate intensity--for all time? Can we? Is that how we're wired? How do we take into account, then, the fact that change occurs naturally? Obviously there is the passing of time, of course, and the accumulation of years. But change in other ways, too. Ways that perhaps aren't quite so easy to see at first, but are still as much a part of who we are today as are the deepening lines and wrinkles around our eyes whenever we break into a smile.

When I watch the Star Wars films today with my daughters, I have a good time. But I find myself often wondering if I'm having the same kind of good time watching the films now as I used to when watching them as a young boy or even as a young man, twenty years ago. Am I enjoying the movies for the sheer entertainment that they are, or am I now possibly enjoying a "ghost version" of them, in a way? When I sit down on the couch with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn nestled between me and my girls and we turn on Star Wars: Episode IV, does my heart still race and my skin still goosebump at the crashing chords of the opening fanfare, and the iconic STAR WARS emblazoned in gold, rushing headlong away from us, pulling its now-famous "prologue" quickly along with it (just as it pulls its audience into an explosion of plot and action), to disappear forever in the timeless distance of space? Or could it be that nowadays when I watch the films I'm simply enjoying them vicariously? Is the "love" that I feel for the old movies the same kind of "love" that I used to experience back in the old days, or is it instead, now, the transferred love that I feel for my daughters, and for their shared experience of watching the movies and for enjoying them and for having them--now and forever--as a part of their own mythologized youth? When I experience something like Star Wars these days, I wonder, am I simply experiencing my memories of it, reliving--in an imperceptibly dimishing way--my initial enthusiastic love for the memory of it, and for my youth--real or imagined--as being somehow better and more golden than it actually was?

*[Aside: Let me pause for a moment here, if I may, and get a little more specific with my examples. Let's take, for instance, the six movies that make up what is known as the Star Wars Saga (told in their intended order, I guess). As pieces of pop-culture pheonomona, they are collectively and individually timeless. They will outlive us all, probably, with each new generation discovering the films and embracing the story as its own. But as works of art...well...that's another story entirely. As an adult with an adult sensibility, try watching Star Wars (that would be the original one, the circa 1977 one, the "Episode IV" one) with a straight face today and see how long that lasts. You can't do it. When viewed through eyes that have perhaps--over time--grown a bit more cynical and/or critical, the original film is a bit of a mess, to put it nicely. The acting is on-par with a mediocre high school stage production of Our Town. The dialogue is...well, it's by George Lucas. (Enough said, perhaps.) And the logical "holes" in the story's script are large enough to swallow a herd of banthas. But be that as it may, the movie still works--faults and all. (And here's the weird thing, the magical thing, the thing that Lucas seemed to understand intutitively...the original movie works--hell, the entire series of movies works--precisely because of the clunky, schticky, ridiculously amateurish faults. That's part of it. That may be the largest part of it, in fact. It's supposed to be that way, which is obviously not something a ten-year-old is going to pick up on. That comes with time, maybe, and with age, and with the magical special effect of growing older and maybe even a little bit wiser.) Still in all, I have to admit that there is a glowing exception to the whole saga, and that would be in its excellent 5th installment, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. I will always have a special place in my heart for this film and will forever use it to take exception even to my own jaded criticisims of the film series. This movie stands out, in my opinion, as being something a little bit more than its counterparts. This movie--Episode V, as it is known in the canon, or simply as the abbreviated Empire in the lingo of Lucas' faithfully devoted fanbase of nerds --"raised the bar," in many ways, and elevated the series into something more than just a schlocky B-movie enterprise. In the hands of director Irvin Kershner, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds in ways the other films could never quite match in that: 1.) it has an excellent, tightly-woven script that pushes the original story and its characters forward in new and surprising ways, 2.) it has beautiful art direction and cinematography, 3.) it has an intuitive understanding of the classical theatrical function of the Second Act in a Three-Act play--with its darker, shadowed color scheme, its more serious approach to the storyline, and its ballsy, flat-out impressive unwillingness to fade to black with a stereotypical happy Hollywood ending. Quite simply, I think it's brilliant. Even in hindsight. The other films in the series, however...well, despite their each having high moments of their own, I don't think they come off quite so well, I guess. In fact, to be quite honest, if I never see again or hear again an Ewok or Jar-Jar Binks (for the sweet love of God...), that would be fine. I could live with that.]

Of course--as I'm sure you're already aware, but I'll state the obvious anyway--for the purposes of this essay, Star Wars is just a particular example, an extended metaphor, one idea substituting for another. Because my larger question, obviously, is to wonder if we do this all the time. With everything. Do we, in fact, continue to love the things that we held on to so dearly when we were younger--thoughts of home, a favorite pet, a cherished blanket, our revered football team, our first crush, our first broken heart, our lifelong sweetheart, our bride of 60 years--or is it instead this "ghost version" of love that I mentioned earlier, a love for the memory of the love that we used to have?

I don't know the answer to any of this. But just for the sake of argument, I'm going to guess yes. And so what if that's true? What is so wrong with admitting to something like that? Does that automatically mean that our "love" is any less authentic or any less genuine? Or is "love" simply "love?" Does it matter that the destination of that love--the object or idea receiving our love--differs from what we profess or demonstrate? Or is it all, instead, in the intention, in the act of loving itself, in the will to desire and to care for someone or something else simply because we always have, and because we know we should, and because it makes us feel good, comfortable, and complete? Is that maybe--at its heart--what all love is?

Again, I don't know. But so what if it is? So what if we love the memory of love? I would argue that we do it all the time. In a favorite book or a favorite piece of music. And in a favorite old car that we used to own. And in a painting that we once saw hanging on a wall in a gallery in Chicago. And in a meal that we once ate, at a restaurant that we can't forget. And in things--non-tangible, material things, even--like snowy Christmas mornings when we were a kid, a memorable vacation we took when were in high school, a transforming conversation we once fell into at a coffeshop, a college course we took with a professor--now dead--whom we will never forget. Ever.

We do this all the time. And nowhere does it say that we can't call this "love." Even though we've moved on, and grown older, and gathered experiences, and changed, we can still love what we used to love, simply because at one time in our lives we remember having loved it beyond all measure.

I would argue that there is great value in this. I would even go so far as to argue that there is an essential quality to our being human in doing this. We love because we can, not just because we should. And the things we love or profess to love remain objects of our affection long after we feel the initial feeling of "love," primarily because our memories associated with that feeling are so strong and so defining that they pull us deeper in the direction that we were perhaps always meant to go.

Like the image that I mentioned earlier of that "ship that has already passed," it's as if we have a chartered passage on board and are sailing further away from the shore with each year. In one way of thinking--the established "round-earth theory," of course--our ship sinks below the horizon, out of sight for only a while, but never really gone, simply because of the curvature of the earth. And in time--under the obvious strictures of such a theory--our ship's masts will once again rise into view over the opposite horizon, returning from its voyage.

The familiar old adage, in other words: "What is past is prologue." Which is fine, of course. And quite obviously true.

Except what if it isn't? What if it works the other way, in fact? What if the past is simply...the past? What if--after something happens--it is gone, living only in our memory? What if--at the end of it all--our experiences add up to only the collected recollection of our experiences? Does that make our experiences--and our "love" of those experiences--any less important, any less valid, any less real? What if that proverbial ship we are sailing on does not--as is commonly accepted--simply round the earth and dip below the horizon in anticipation of its return, but is, instead, gone once beyond our field of vision, fallen off some disastrous precipice, and never seen from again? What then? Does that ship exist? Did it ever? And was it real? And does it matter?

I find, though--underneath the weight of all the questions and the uncertainties about love and its esoteric and malleable nature within the passage of time--that no matter how complex I try to make the issue, the answers are really pretty simple. All it takes, usually, is a quiet look (a glance, really) at my daughters, and I am reminded all over again that most of the time love is not that hard to figure out. It's pretty obvious, actually. What we loved yesterday we will equally love today, and tomorrow, and for all the days to come. Because that's the way it should be. And because that's the way it is.

"Dad," my daughters asked me again the latest time Star Wars came on, with its familiar opening crash of chords, its glittering starfield, its introductory crawl of confusing backstory. "Why did they start in the middle with all the movies? Why not start at the beginning? Why begin with 'Episode IV?'"

"Sshh..." I said again, sitting down next to them, watching as their smiles grew bigger and their eyes glazed over and they fell under the trance that I remember so well. I pushed the VOL button on the remote control and let the classic opening scenes wash over me. Over all of us. Again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. "The movie..." I motioned to the beloved images of Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio shambling (again) along a glittering, sterile, white corridor, sprawled across my widescreen TV. "...Starting it is."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Essay About Sturgeon Spawn, Cassava Starch, and Drive-Thru

Recently, my 8-year-old daughter--while riding along in contemplative silence in the backseat of the car, her weekend gymnastics practice once again behind her--broke the quiet and asked me what caviar was.

"Well," I began (my mind racing to quickly catch up with her line of thinking and to set aside whatever it was I had settled my mind to think about on the drive home and to concentrate, instead, on the mysterious world of fish roe), "caviar is a food that costs a lot of money," I told her. "It's raw fish eggs, and you eat it on a certain cracker, or sometimes you spread it on bread, or sometimes you can eat it by itself. Only if you do, you're supposed to eat it with a small, wooden spoon. The kind of tiny spoon that you sometimes get with ice cream samples..."

"Caviar is fish eggs?" she asked, getting right to the point--after all--and cutting off my ridiculous soliloquy (which was, more than obviously, an attempt to mask just how little I really knew about caviar).

"Yes, honey. It's fish eggs. Raw fish eggs."

"Ewwwww! That's so gross!"

"Yes, well..."

"That's disgusting! Who would eat raw fish eggs?"

"Well, actually a lot of people, as it turns out. But to be honest, I think most of the time it's probably for show. It's very expensive--good caviar is, anyway--and only people with a lot of money can afford it. So sometimes I think people order caviar at restaurants just to show they can afford it."

She obviously didn't care for my Marxist deconstruction of the class-consciousness permeating something as seemingly innocuous as ordering a dish of raw fish eggs. All she knew was that it sounded absolutely crazy.

"That's crazy," she said.

"Yes, well..."

"What's it taste like?"

It was here I coughed, I believe. "Ummmm...I can't really tell you what it tastes like, hun, because I've never had it. But I've seen it, and I know it looks sort of like a jelly, only with very small eggs in it. Caviar has the texture, in a way, of tapioca pudding."

She softened somewhat. She likes tapioca pudding. "So, it's sort of lumpy like that?"

"Yeah, lumpy...kind of like tapioca." (And as I listened to the sound of my voice droning on and on about something I knew little to nothing about, I realized--with a sinking realization--that if she turned the conversation now to tapioca, I knew even less about that. Just what the fuck is tapioca, anyway?...)

"Caviar still sounds gross," she declared with a sense of finality to the conversation. A satisfactory summing-up--in her 8-year-old mind, anyway--of all that made sense in the world and all that didn't. "Who would eat something like that? That's crazy."

I sighed, and smiled, and had to agree. Then I asked her if she was hungry, following her rigorous morning workout on the balance beam and the uneven bars and the tumbling mat. She paused for just a moment and then realized that, yes, in fact, she was hungry. Oddly enough, too, with all the talk about food I consequently knew nothing about, I had to agree that I was a little hungry also. So I pulled into a drive-thru lane at the nearest McDonald's. (After all, time was of the essence. Who has time these days--particularly following a rigorous gymnastics workout--for something as needlessly time-numbing as the delicate harvesting and consuming of raw fish eggs?) Once at the drive-thru, she ordered a Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal (a 6-piece, I believe, since--as it turns out--she was really quite hungry). I ordered a Big Mac for myself, with french fries and a medium Coke. And it was good. In truth, it was very good. Delivered in its recycled, biodegradable cardboard, it was a proletariat feast that would have made even Tolstoy proud, what with its complete denial of the self, its celebration of simplicity, and its renunciation of something as ill-suited as noblesse oblige.

"So, how was that?" I asked her, dabbing with a recycled, biodegradable napkin at a blotch of grease and "special sauce" staining my shirt. "Did you get enough to eat?"

"Yeah," she said, her voice growing quiet again in the backseat. Her stomach now full. Weariness settling in. The lulling comfort of the road taking hold. Her eyes growing heavy. Contentment. A satisfactory summing-up of all that makes sense in the world and all that doesn't. And all under $10. And with time to spare. And with no questions asked.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It's Not the Size of the Book That Matters, It's What You Do With The Book That Counts

Currently, I'm on page 548 of Jonathan Franzen's latest novel, Freedom, which--at last count--comes in at a total of 562 pages. (And even though I've never been accused of being a savant--"idiot" or otherwise--I think I can even do the math on this one enough to know that, at long last, I am nearing the end of the book.)

Franzen, as one of the "young," meteoric writers in the American literary sky at the moment, is seemingly enwrapped in a love/hate relationship with his sudden claim to fame as the supposed spokesperson of his generation. Freedom hit the shelves this past fall with much anticipation following his heralded previous novel, 2001's The Corrections (not to mention that novel's media oversaturation, including--if not, in fact, highlighted by--the author's outright rejection of Oprah Winfrey's nod to include it as one of her Book Club's selections.) The more I read of him, in fact--and notice I said "of him," as a person, much like me, maybe--the more I am convinced that Franzen is a bit of a wingnut. But I don't really care so much about that. After all, I'm not asking to be his friend, I'm just choosing to be a reader of his. I'm simply choosing, as we always do anytime we open a book and turn to page 1 and start at the beginning, to be in the company of someone who is--by all intents and purposes--a complete stranger. And for as long as the book lasts, we are willing and hoping and indeed banking on the fact that the author will prove to be good company. Will, indirectly, be a friend, I suppose.

For at least as many pages as the book holds, anyway.

And if such a hypothetical book holds--oh, let's say 562 pages--then we assume said book's author to "hold" us (metaphorically speaking, of course) for 562 pages. And if not entirely hold us, at least keep us in his/her embrace long enough and meaningfully enough so that when we feel that embrace perhaps start to loosen--like, say, around page 281--we at least trust the author enough or remember enough the hold he/she had on us up to that point that we can feel ourselves hanging on to get us through the times when it's not so easy to make it through to the end.

And maybe that's not so difficult to do if in the world of Raymond Carver's or Amy Hempel's famously minimalist short stories. Or perhaps in the Salinas Valley of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Or Albert Camus' Algerian beach of The Stranger. (All of which, of course--in one way or another--can hold you in the course of one sitting.)

But what about the dense, uber-detailed worlds created--for example--by the 19th-century masters of literary Realism--writers like Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Dreiser, James, Dickens? (All of whom, by the way, Franzen can maybe try to dismiss in a typically hip, ironic, postmodern wave of the hand as being influences on him, but he would fail miserably in such an attempt; for after all, what is he writing in his typically hip, ironic, postmodern kind of way but a "19th-century" type of novel for the 21st-century?)

Some stories, as we all know (or should), are better suited for particular formats. The emotional power of George and Lennie's plight would not have been improved had Steinbeck doubled the count of pages in their book. By the same token, the story of the Joads' mythic displaced journey west would not have had the same social and psychological impact had Steinbeck halved their book's page-count. Like Louis Sullivan's famous 20th-century architectural credo, "Form follows function," the literature of any age is shaped--along with the historical and social milieau--solely by the story the writer is trying to tell. That and nothing else.

It is our willingness as readers--or unwillingness, whatever the case may be--to follow a writer wherever he/she takes us. And whether that journey takes 2 pages or 562 pages, it doesn't matter. What matters is the story and its ability to embrace us. That and nothing else.

*[Aside: Let me interrupt myself for a moment here, if I may. Please don't misunderstand me and jump to the conclusion that anything a writer puts down on page--no matter how short or long it may end up being--is all to the service of the best story told. That is most clearly not the case. As evidence, I offer Exhibit A: Stephen King's novel, The Stand. As originally published in 1978, what would eventually turn out to be known as the "edited version" of his novel still weighed in at a whopping 823 pages. Again, I'm not a math whiz by any stretch of the imagination, but even I can push the pencil to see that King's early novel still managed to leave Franzen's Freedom in the dust by an impressive difference of 261 pages. No small feat. But never one to be outdone by another writer (even when that other writer is himself...), King returned to his "edited" apocalyptic opus and rereleased the book 12 years later with nothing less than an extra 330 pages restored to the text, bringing it to a total of 1,153 pages. That's a lot of words. And did all that extra "restored" verbiage illuminate the text? Did it shed light on the original version? Did it improve the story and the characters and the overall "hold" that said story and characters had on readers back in 1978? Of course, each reader can answer that for him/herself. But this reader prefers the earlier version of The Stand. I find it to be much tighter--if an 823-page tome can be called a "tight" narrative--and much more focused and powerful in its overall effect. The restored 1.200-page monstrosity suffers from what much of King's later work also suffers from--a sprawling egomaniacal talent run amok, desperately in need of a stalwart editor brave enough to hit the "DELETE" key and say, "You know what, Stephen...the old adage 'Sometimes less is more' is an old adage for a reason."]

Franzen is a writer of some supposed importance in the early part of the 21st-century. Whether he is deserving of such attention will play out in the years to come, of course. But one thing is certain: as an American novelist practicing an art form which has seen dramatic changes in its accepted form and style over time, Franzen is daring enough to fly in the face of postmodern "less-is-more" conventions. In an age of the quick sound-byte, and "text-novel," and audiobook, and e-reader, Franzen is writing old-fashioned, dense, character-driven, word-laden novels. He is a fiction writer of long fictions. Would his writing be better served if it were shorter? I don't know. But I don't think so. Maybe his next work will be a novella. Or perhaps a play. Or a collection of short stories. Time will tell.

The long and short of it, of course, is that in the end it doesn't matter if a narrative is long or short. What matters is if the story works. What matters is if--by the time you reach the words "THE END" on the story's last page--you feel justifiably rewarded for spending time in the presence of the story's characters and in the hold of an author who--whether you like him/her or not--compels you, in a strange turn of events, to turn back to page 1 and start all over again.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Profile Status on a Stone Wall

So, as one of my first posts on my new blog, I wracked my brain to come up with something that would be worthy of space and words. Something of great social import and significance to mark the occasion. Something that would speak of our specific place in history. Something that would merit the time, effort, and will it takes to contribute to the "great conversation" taking place within the bigger culture today.

Unfortunately, this is all I've got so far...

But the more I thought about what could possibly be important enough to "blog" about, the more I began to consider the whole idea of blogging in the first place. What is it--this incomparable urge to express ourselves, to reach out, and to communicate with someone, anyone else--that drives us to think that the ideas flitting through our minds are worthy of some anonymous reader's delicate attention? It's the Facebook/Twitter syndrome, to be sure, this inherently human impulse to assume that what we have to say is not only 1.) important enough to be put into words, but also 2.) important enough to be shared, and finally 3.) important enough to be read. We are, all of us, members of an incredibly solipsistic culture of navel-gazing. We live as if in a house of mirrors these days, surrounded by images of ourselves that stare back at us and show us what we are most familiar with and also what we most want to see. We are Masters of our Own Universe, in a way, enamored with our own reflection, and with our own voice echoing somewhere deep in our inner ear--our own personal playlist triggered for perpetual repeat, reaffirming that what we like and what we believe is what is most worth liking and believing.

I wonder in some way if this is what our prehistoric grandparents felt as they huddled in the cold and the damp of the caves in what is now Lascaux, France. Peering through the faint light of the flickering torches propped in place, throwing shadows on the nearest wall of the artist's head, and there a shoulder blade, and there an arm, and over there a hand moving the ancient "brush" along the stone canvas, painting his Paleolithic world the only way he knew how. Do I flatter myself that this Computerlithic world I live in is in any way comparable? That the motivations and desires that moved his hand are the same motivations and desires that move my hands now across the keyboard? The same motivations and desires that move us all, whether we are aware of it or not, everytime we log on and update our facebook status, or tweet our current state of mind, or--perhaps--write a blog...

"I am here," we are saying. "I am here. And you are here. And that matters."

Monday, October 4, 2010

Slow Drivers Ahead

Is it just me, or does it seem like everyone--and please keep in mind that when I say "everyone" I mean absolutely every last driver on the road except me--is driving slower these days? It's true, and you know that it's true, so don't deny it.

Now, keep in mind I've never considered myself a driver with an overtly heavy foot. Sure, when out on an open and unobstructed road, I've been known to drive a little over the posted speed limits. Maybe just a little, anyway. But I've never been one to be obnoxious about driving fast. After all, I guess it's never been as important to me to arrive someplace first as it has been to simply arrive. This truism became even more true as soon as I became a father, I noticed.

But be that as it may, of course there are times when I'm in a hurry--or times at least when I feel I'm in a hurry. (And during such times, really, what's the difference?) And at the end of the day, even though it may not be my top priority to get where I'm going quicker than the next person, neither is it my goal to be the last one to get where I'm going.

I think you get my point.

Which brings me to my real point, after all. What is the deal with the growing number of people driving so slowly these days? It can't be just me who notices this, is it? Time and again, I find myself stuck behind an interminably slow vehicle. Of course this isn't a new phenomena. "Slow drivers" have always been associated with "old drivers." You know the kind of person I mean. It used to be that if you got stuck behind a car going 10, 15, or 20 mph slower than you and everybody else around you, it was a fair and safe bet--once you were finally able to find enough room to work your way around them and leave them in your dust--the sloop-shouldered driver behind the wheel would be sporting a head full of hair as white as the knuckles gripping the wheel.

Not so any more.

There is no such thing as a fair and safe bet along those lines today. In fact, I've noticed that most of the drivers I get stuck behind now are my age or younger. 

*[Aside: And yes, I'm fully aware that the label "old driver" is entirely relative. Stay with me here...]

Which of course leads to the overtly obvious conclusion in all of this: If the people driving so slowly on the roads today are younger than they used to be, then it could be that I'm just getting older and my perceptions are changing. And this is true, I suppose. But that still doesn't account for why younger people are driving so much slower than they used to. I mean, according to the stereotyped tradition, shouldn't I be the one in the way of all these younger drivers? Shouldn't I be the "slow driver" in all of this? Am I driving faster than I used to? Are my expectations set too high? Am I impatient? Intolerant? Impossible to please?

Well, yes probably. But that's missing the larger issue.

Something else must have happened recently in our larger culture to account for this evolutionary slide in driving habits. And it can only be attributed, in my mind, to the mercurial advent of hand-held technology (i.e., ipods, cellphones, GPS devices, etc....) This has got to be the culprit. We're all so busy programming our satellite feeds, or searching for our favorite songs, or typing a text, or punching in a phone number, or browsing the internet, or checking our email, that we've forgotten something else very important.

We're driving!

And while there are some who would applaud our newly-honed abilities to multitask, I for one am alarmed and annoyed. If you really want to impress me by showing off your ability to play with your digital equipment with one hand while steering your car with the other, then here's an idea: Do it while driving the posted speed limit, at the very least. And if you're too afraid to do that, or if the thought of that maybe makes you pause.... Well, then, maybe it should.