Thursday, May 29, 2008

Grads


The seniors, with their water based paints on the sides of their cars, and on the back windows and trunks. "Class of 2008!!!" , "Look Out!", "Free, Free At Last!!!". The tassels in school colors hanging from the windows. The optimism, the naivite, the excitement. The uncompromising expectations. The sense of stepping off a cliff into the unknown and the urgency of youth.

Graduation week is here. I stood before a group of graduates last night, delivering a speech that will be forgotten this morning, hoping instead to impress memories with tone and excited gestures. The students were enthusiastic, trying to savor a fleeting moment, trying to understand the signficance of this moment of passage, if it possessed any at all.

As I spoke, I studied the faces of the adults in the audience. The parents. The grandparents. The aunts and uncles. Their expressions were more telling. Satisfaction. Pride. Envy. Regret. Wistful thoughts about people who exist in memory only, the world having morphed them into something else, into someone unrecognizable.

"Stewart," someone said, as I moved through the guests, meeting relatives and friends. "Will you remember me?"

I paused...and at the same time, lied and told the truth.



I

Monday, May 26, 2008

Dead Old White Guys


A female author, a middle aged woman who claims to have been the victim of discrimination, and who waves a feminist flag with bitterness and bile, made numerous statements about diversity and feminism. Yes, the corporate world is dominated by white males over the age of forty. Yes, the United States government is also dominated by males. I do not for a moment dispute these statements. I consider myself a feminist and believe in equality and work toward it each day.

However...one comment this woman made troubled me enormously. I come back now to address it. She said, in her typical vitriolic way: "Thank God the curriculum in schools has changed. We have more women writers being studied, as well as African American authors and authors from other minorities. We are no longer being forced to study the work of dead old white men."

Dead Old White Men. Sounds like a blues song, doesn't it? Maybe the opening of an advertisement for the likes of Viagra or some male enhancement product.

My issue here is that a culture stands on the shoulders of those who came before. Surely there is a way to appreciate these earlier artists and pioneers without throwing those people under the wheels of the bus. Do we forsake Shakespeare? Yeats? Poe? Hardy? Dickens? Lewis? Does Mark Twain no longer have value?

What about the ideas of Rousseau, Locke, or Hobbs? Maybe we don't read the original any longer, but their ideas have helped ferment a revolution and brought forth a constitution which is a living document that has thus far lasted at least two hundred years.

I know this woman author is a sensationalist. But her flippant comment is one to consider. Cultures change. The work of contemporaries is important. Vital. In our culture we should also acknowledge the contributions and ideas of those outside our culture, from other pasts from other countries.

However, failure to pay attention to our past, to create and maintain a shared culture, is a disservice to our children and to future generations.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Make Them Stop

In the last few weeks, I have been subjected to several people who have written from the POV (point of view) of an inanimate object. What the hell???? Is this a new trend I should know about? If it is, what do I need to do to stop it while it's in its infancy? Is it some sort of evil political thing meant to destroy the world of modern literature? Could it be that too many people have grown up reading "Readers Digest", specifically articles titled: "I Am Joe's Kidney" or "I am Pete's Anus."?

I understand from Chuck Zaglanis that Lovecraft wrote a story from an inanimate object's point of view. And according to Chuck, it was unreadable.

The two stories I read recently were so bad, so wretched, so unreadable that I almost admire the authors' their ability to sink to that level of vileness.

The first story was about a knothole in a wood fence. What? That's right. A knothole was the main character. The story talked about a yard from the knothole's point of view. Keep in mind that we aren't talking about children's literature here. We're discussing the desperate scratchings of a middle aged man who pointedly stated: "I just write stuff down. I leave it to other people to edit and correct the spelling and such."

Another individual, a large, bellicose man with a blocky face and skin the texture of oatmeal, wrote a story from a street's point of view. Ah...paragraphs about cars, bits of paper, and peoples' feet. This same individual proclaimed with pride: "I don't read fiction." Yes, well, if you're planning on writing fiction, why should you? Hell, go sit with the guy who wants other people to proof and rewrite his work, the two of you should have a helluva lot to talk about!!!

Neither of these tales were actually tales. The men involved didn't understand plot, character, theme, or any other of the elements of fiction. They give them lip-service, but don't want to put forward the work to actually become competent at executing them.

Some writers want to write. Some people want to be thought of as writers. Some people are just idiots and need to be put out of my misery.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Little Skepticism


I am always stunned when people read something and accept it as fact. If it's written, after all, it must be true. I've seen this phenomena among my students, and unfortunately among my friends and family.
"Where did you hear that?" I ask.

"I read it."

"Where?"

"Paper."

"Did you check it?"

Well no, of course not. That might mean reading other articles, doing a little fact finding, seeing if quotes are taken out of context or if recounting of events are being skewed. I know it takes a lot of time. It's worth it though. There's nothing like reading a story, spreading it around, and then finding out later that you've been the dupe of someone's (left or right) political agenda.

I practice the same caution when reading history books. As I pour through a text, I want to know the sources. I check the footnotes and occasionally try and glean where the information was gathered and whether or not such information may have a bias or be reliable.

What about a book like "John Adams" by McCollough? These non-fiction texts present a challenge. The author will take a series of events and pad them. The intent of the author isn't to change history or influence a reader, but rather to make the narrative flow more easily. To give it life. I have no problem with this if, as in McCollough's case, it is done artfully and scholarly.

What rankles me though is something I call bubblegum history texts or current affair texts. You've seen these. The New York Times bestsellers that are churned out by the likes of Ann Coulter or Bill O Reilly. Or on the left Bill Press or Al Franken. These texts all claim factual integrity. And the facts cited are usually accurate---to a point. It's that point that makes all the difference. Too often what is left out is anything that could be used to counter an argument or which might give a perspective that is different from the one that drives the agenda.

These books are fun sometimes, but worthless from an intellectual perspective.

It always stuns me when this information is then spewed by a reader as fact. Because...let's say it together...they read it somewhere. I tell you, if Mark Twain were around today, he would have made John McCafferty (the crotchety old guy on CNN) look like a naive and funloving cad.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Wedding

I am going to a wedding tonight.

The first wedding I ever attended was back when I was five, and apparently I was not a hit. At one point, so I am told, my brother (the groom) was seen choking me and my mother had to intercede. "He can't breathe," she said. "That's the idea," he responded.

Apparently, standing on the altar and mocking a rabbi isn't a good idea. Nor is climbing along the railing during the services. Being loud and obnoxious at hushed religious moments aren't considered kosher, either. However, I will maintain to this day that while I remember little about my conduct at that affair, one thing I do remember is the sound of chuckling. It was God. I think God had put me up to it, maybe to remind people not to take things so seriously. Maybe to enjoy the absurdity of a moment. Maybe to warn the bride and groom against having children of their own. Or perhaps, just His way of saying to my brother: "...there, now take that."

And strangely, though I am now fifty three, members of the family still throw the behavior of that five year old in my face. In fact, I received a letter from President Bush recently warning me from attending the wedding of his daughter.

So, tonight, I am off to another wedding. I will go and smile, sit quietly as the bride and groom are wed, and do what all other guests do...save their inappropriate and obnoxious behavior for the reception. And friends, I plan on being extremely obnoxious. Somewhere inside of me, a five year old boy is rubbing his sticky little hands together in sublime anticipation.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Reviewing Rudolph


Every so often, I go back to pulp. Pulp fiction, a term which comes from the early part of the 1900's when most magazines were printed on cheap, pulpy paper, refers to those stories where the characters were often quickly drawn (they didn't have to be detailed; they often pulled from our identifications with archetypes), the action was fast, the locations often fanciful. Plots: good v. evil. And even if the main character was ambivalent, he was at least true to his own moral code.

Tarzan, Doc Savage, The Phantom...all pulp. Louis Lamour, Mickey Spillane. Dare I say Charles Gramlich and the Talera Cycle? And William Jones and "The Strange Cases of Rudolph Pearson".

This last book, just released by Chaosium, is set in the age of pulp and its character, Pearson, is classic. A thin, awkward professor at Columbia University who stumbles into several supernatural experiences, Pearson is an intellectual with little understanding of the opposite sex. He's a loner, a reluctant adventurer trying to overcome a traumatic experience suffered in the War To End All Wars. He's Cary Grant from "Bringing Up Baby". He's Jimmy Stewart.

The stories form an arc and toward the middle of the book, are cohesive enough to be considered a novel. Actually, reading this, I wished the book had been written as a novel. Still, the stories work in this format and offer tremendous fun. If I wanted to be obnoxious and pedantic, I could say that the story is about class struggle, with the main villain representing the corrupt decadence of inherited wealth and the main protagonists representing the best in working class American culture (self determination, humility, sacrifice, industry). But I've never been known to be long-winded or obnoxious, so I'll leave off this sort of analysis and suffice it to say that Jones' book is just good old fashioned Saturday afternoon fun, but the sort that is best read under the covers with a flash light while a storm is caterwauling outside.

One last point...while this book is from Chaosium and while it is definitely Lovecraftian in nature, it is wisely not weighted down by this. A person needs not be a tad familiar with the Mythos in order to enjoy the writing.