Category Archives: Life, The Universe and Everything

42, or posts to make you go “hmm.”

People, Not Property

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Something horrible happened a little while ago in a place with the deceptively idyllic-sounding name of Isla Vista.  In the aftermath and the weeks since we’ve tried to process it, to assign a specific and preventable cause to the motivations of the perpetrator in the hopes to avert a similar future occurrence, and solutions vary, predictably, according to the broad swath of the ideological spectrum.  If we are each to weigh in, as the current state of our discourse seems to demand, what can I say that’s different?  What can I contribute to actually make things better, instead of just bouncing around the echo chamber – scoring accolades from admirers and suffering barbs (or worse) from the other side – before the storm dies down and we return to talking about box office grosses?  It seems that at times we’ve become a civilization whose talents are geared largely towards commenting rather than fostering true progress, and I struggle with this in the composition of this entry.  Truly, my words won’t bring the victims back.  They are but shouting into the wind and the rain for the briefest of moments.  But I’m going to shout anyway.

Reading the tweets shared under the #YesAllWomen hashtag was heartbreaking, and sobering.  The shiny, bauble-bedecked veneer of First World existence blinds one to the deeply ugly undercurrents of our nature, the river of misogyny that touches each aspect of interaction between the genders.  This idea that men have been sold – yes, sold, because so much of what is wrong with how we behave can be traced back to the concept of one person convincing another to buy something they don’t need – that women are a commodity men have a divine right to possess, instead of independent human spirits meriting respect and the freedom to determine their own futures, is stomach-churning when laid bare, but laced so insidiously into our culture that we are happily swallowing the lie several times a day without even realizing it.  The woman is always positioned as a prize at the end of the quest, something to win.  Any time a man is tasked with self-improvement, be it in the form of career, health, spiritual fulfillment or putting on a superhero costume and going out to fight crime, the implicit reward is getting laid, and any other end is mere frivolity.  It’s all meaningless, the zeitgeist conspires to tell him, unless you’ve got that “perfect ten” hanging off your arm at the gala premiere.  Elliot Rodger certainly thought so, and his self-perceived inability to live up to this ridiculous standard led him to lash out and take six innocent lives with him.

It’s deplorable that as a result, women should be forced to be ever vigilant, but as the #YesAllWomen tweets prove, it’s an attitude born of a shared experience, and one to which men cannot really relate.  In this metaphor, men are the customers, not the goods, and we can’t understand what it’s like to be thought of as property to be acquired until we are ourselves put up for sale.  When I’m out for my morning run, and I see a woman further up the sidewalk on her morning run heading towards me, my first thought is not going to be, this is a potential assailant, maybe I should cross the street.  It’s never been suggested that I should tone down how I dress or do my hair differently lest I not be taken seriously by my work colleagues, or receive unwanted advances from strangers.  I’ve never had someone try to grope at my crotch on a crowded streetcar, I’ve never been screamed at because I refused to give a woman my phone number, and I’ve never had to worry about leaving my drink alone at the bar lest someone slip roofies into it and I wake up bleeding on a filthy bathroom floor.  And these are just a very small sampling of some of the stories that were shared online.  There are thousands more, and to our shame, an equal number of sarcastic, sneering responses fired back.  As was pointed out elsewhere, these types were seemingly angrier that the stream of stories was gumming up their precious home feeds than at the fact that these things were actually happening to women everywhere.  When you can’t refute the argument with logic or reason, just tell the woman to shut up, and go back to watching the game.

Words may sometimes be lost on the wind in the storm, but often they’re the only thing we have.  In and of itself, a hashtag isn’t going to change the world, but the camaraderie those shared stories can engender – pun intended – is a step toward creating the empathy we need to help make the storm stop.  To help fathers teach their sons that women are not property to be coveted and acquired like the mindless deluge of merchandise that flashes across our Internet browsers, assuring us that the void in our souls can be filled with the simplicity of a single click and a valid credit card number.  Respecting women unconditionally; judging them by their principles, their accomplishments and the many facets of their personalities, instead of how they look in a bikini and how willing they are to jump into bed with you; casting forever aside the juvenile notion that a woman owes you a single thing by mere virtue of your passing interest in her; recognizing that fundamentally, misogyny comes from a place of deep dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of oneself as a man, and that those shortcomings can only ever be remedied by one person – the man in question – that is how things begin to improve.

None of us are property.  None of us are each other’s property.  And the human soul is not something to be traded on the free market; its value is far greater than that.

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Taming the Rage Monster

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The Troggs had it wrong:  love is not all around, rage is.  At least that’s what it seems when dialing into any form of media of late.  We’re a perpetual powder keg, frothing at our keyboards to spew a storm of digitized incendiary rhetoric into the nearest available outlet given the merest hint of provocation.  It’s about as ludicrous as that old Simpsons gag where a guy taps another on the shoulder and says “Hey you, let’s fight,” and the other replies “Them’s fightin’ words” and takes a swing at him.  We seem to be spoiling for it in our interactions, seeking out opinions (or venturing them) designed to raise blood pressures and elicit profanities and threats of bodily harm.  And yet it’s not as though you’re seeing fistfights break out in shopping malls on a regular basis, or a global “Red Hour” – if you remember the Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” – where the collective agrees on a time and place where they may just as collectively lose their shit.  Day-to-day society proceeds apace, unencumbered by the simmering monster apparently lurking under everyone’s skin ready to Hulk out at the slightest shift in the breeze.

Why are we so angry all the time?  One of the most intriguing arguments is that popular culture, the glamorization of “fame” and the gradual dumbing-down of the education system are to blame for creating a perpetual sense of false expectations amidst the great majority of the world’s population who are fated to live quiet and largely unrecognized lives (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Our concepts of “success” and “failure” have been altered to a state where they barely resemble the truth of what they once were.  We’ve seen failure removed almost entirely from schools lest the fragile feelings of the precious snowflakes inside be hurt.  (As a parent, I don’t mind when my kid flunks a test, because I’d rather he learn that he needs to try much harder to pass rather than know that no matter how little effort he puts in, he’ll always get by.)  Consequently you have a generation of children believing for the first eighteen years of their lives that they are perfect and infallible, and when adulthood arrives and they don’t ace that first job interview, or they come up against any task that is beyond them, they implode, as reliably as a calculator attempting to divide by zero.  Failure does not compute.

Success, on the other hand, is defined again and again, in a manner resembling brainwashing, in terms frankly unachievable by 99.9999999% percent of the population:  seven-figure salaries, a constant stream of supermodel companions, jetting to the Riviera for the weekend to win the Formula One while top-lining the latest blockbuster action movie.  You are invited constantly to compare the dregs of your life with the riches and wonders of the lucky few and find yourself forever wanting, while being indoctrinated with the lie that the only thing you need is belief in your dreams (that doesn’t hurt, but it is most definitely NOT the only ingredient).  How many people were in that record-retweeted Oscar selfie, versus how many millions more were only wishing that they could have been standing to Bradley Cooper’s right?  Is it realistic to think that we can all be movie stars and sports heroes and retire to Malibu mansions overlooking the sea?  Yet ask any kid what they want to be when they grow up and the number one answer is “famous.”  The purveyors of celebrity gossip have become rich themselves convincing the rest of us that we’re just a happenstance discovery away from the big time.  We don’t actually have to do anything to merit it; we’re owed it.

Yet that golden ticket is not going to arrive, and millions grow increasingly impatient for it.  And to paraphrase Yoda, impatience turns to anger, anger turns to hate.

Once again, the boys seem to be the greater offenders here.  Given that we are prone to insecurity as it is and the media’s far-fetched depiction of what constitutes “manhood,” it is unsurprising to see that fireball into unrestrained fury.  I was made aware of a hashtag that circulated Twitter a few days ago, that blissfully I missed out on, #LiesToldByFemales.  Basically, a venue for a cabal of misogynists (who would not dare say any of these things to a real-life woman, naturally) to whine about the endless ways women had done them wrong, either in actual fact or perception (I chance to assume the latter).  It hearkens back to the redefinition of a successful relationship for a man by countless movies, music videos and men’s magazine articles as:  scoring a smokin’ hot chick who will do whatever he wants and subsume her will and personality to his desires, only as long as he deigns to keep her around.  A prurient fantasy, which of course does not exist in the real world, but doesn’t stop men from wanting it anyway.  They’re entitled to it, the magazines have told them, and the movies have shown, in any number of stories where the beautiful goddess eventually succumbs to the persistent charms of the unwashed, inadequate nerd.  Fade to credits before the inevitable consequences of such an ill-gotten romance take hold.  But no matter, the lie has been pre-packaged and sold, and the men who fail to replicate it in their own lives have a perfect justification to assist in brewing their lifelong resentment of reality.  The perceived “safety” of anonymous online posting of same then entitles them to let it out, so the like-minded can holler “Right on!” and retweet and feel vindicated for harboring the same sentiments.  Regardless of how much damage it may do – and how little in fact their lives will change for the better.

That’s the saddest part of this.  Where is all the rage getting us?  You have a tremendous irony in that profound dissatisfaction with the status quo has fired some of the most expansive changes in our history, and yet, 21st Century rage is an end unto itself.  We are furious, yet benumbed.  We’re not starting riots in malls.  It is enough now to be angry for the sake of being angry, to make a few heated comments on a message board, and go back to the drudgery of the day.  We’re addicted to indignation, seeking it out like junkies who can’t abide the space between the highs.  The result?  A climate where everyone is on edge at every moment of the day, a perpetual chill where many are afraid to speak up because it’s like lighting a match to see how much gas is left in the tank.  Reading highlights from the CPAC conference (for the enviably uninitiated, it’s an annual gripe-fest for conservative politicians and celebrities to blame the world’s woes on liberals and their Kenyan Islamofascisocialist president) I can’t help but be reminded of Woody Allen’s character in the 1967 Casino Royale, whose master plan was to detonate a bomb that would render all women beautiful while simultaneously killing all men over four-foot-eleven.  I don’t know what pipe dream of a regulation-free, rootin’-gun-totin’ right-wing utopia where anyone with less than a billion bucks in the bank is deported to Mexico drives these folks, but they seem awfully pissed off that they don’t have it, and that they’re getting no closer to it no matter how many veins they burst in their forehead while they rail about Benghazi at the podium.  Sponsors are raking in advertising revenue from the anger that Fox News foments, but those in whom it is fomented are no further ahead.  In fact, the stress they’re accumulating is shortening the remaining days they have to get angry in.

So much misdirected energy out there.  Just imagine what we could do with it if we could find a way to direct it somewhere else.

As always, dear reader, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.  So we need to take a page from the Serenity Prayer – accept the things we cannot change.  We need to let go of this idea that we have a divine right to sit at Brangelina’s table, and that Gisele Bündchen only stays married to Tom Brady because she hasn’t met us yet.  We need to cement in our minds the idea that a relationship with a real person is infinitely more rewarding than empty fantasies about surgically-sculpted, spray-tanned hot bods.  We need to stop thinking that we deserve jobs, fortunes or even people that we haven’t gone out and earned.  We need to remember Captain Picard’s one-time advice to Data:  “It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose.  That is not a failing; that is life.”  So yes, we need to accept that by virtue of birth, talent or plain old dumb luck there will always be those individuals who have things better than we do, and that choosing to resent them for having it is truly like that old saw about drinking poison (or ingesting gamma radiation) and expecting the other person to die.  They won’t, no matter how many times we swear on Twitter about it.

What if we tried living life to our own standards instead of what is foisted on us by marketing reps who are trying to sell us things?  If we were able to take the energy misspent on rage and resentment, pull it out of those bottomless pits and refocus it like a laser in furtherance of working on ourselves and our lives, we’d find the reasons for those feelings diminished.  We wouldn’t envy Tom Brady because we’d know what an incredible partner we have standing right next to us and holding our hand at each step.  We would not need to be on movie screens entertaining anonymous masses because the people we know, closest to us, would never question how much we value them.  We would find ourselves replenished with accomplishment and joy – the kind of deep inner assurance that cannot be bestowed by thousands of screaming fans.  Let’s not forget the cautionary tales of those who seemingly “have it all” yet drown and lose themselves in drink and drugs because standing ovations can’t fix pain.  No matter where you go, there are you are.  Instead, change how you feel about yourself and realize you could have a pretty amazing life if you just started living the one you have and not the imagined one that everything you read and see is telling you that you deserve.

Endless rage will never get us what we really want in life – namely, to stop feeling so angry.  It is the very definition of self-defeat.  So no, Hulk no need to smash.  Hulk need to calm down, be nicer to wife and kid, plant tree and take up productive hobby.  Hulk might find he happier and other stuff not bother him so much.  And everyone get along better.

Long live the Queen

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Amy Good kicks off today’s musings with her thoughtful post about the challenge in writing supernaturally empowered characters.  While it’s important reading for anyone crafting a story that includes such elements (guilty), it got me thinking again about Frozen and what a pivotal moment for the cinematic portrayal of women the character of Queen Elsa actually is.  You’ll forgive the inklings of hyperbole creeping into that statement, but I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.  (For additional insightful reading on Frozen and its depiction of women, be sure to check out Emmie Mears’ take at Searching For SuperwomenDebbie Vega’s at Moon in Gemini and Liz Hawksworth’s at The Stretch for Something Beautiful.)  I touched on this briefly in my original take on the movie, written the evening after I saw it, but as the movie has sloshed around my subconscious for the last several weeks, and I’ve listened to “Let It Go” more times than should be healthy, I’ve realized that there’s a lot more here worth exploring in greater detail, and some of these other great posts have crystallized – pardon the obvious pun – my thinking on the subject.

To delve more deeply into this character, we have to go back to her long-simmering genesis.  Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen has been around since 1845, and Walt Disney himself had long wanted to give the classic tale the animated treatment.  The stumbling block was always the title character, how to create a compelling version of her that would give modern audiences something to sink their teeth into, and several attempts fell by the wayside and were abandoned.  Even as the movie finally got underway in the latter half of the 2000’s, the story team still couldn’t crack the Queen.  The first stroke of inspiration involved making her the sister of the protagonist, Anna.  The second, and indeed the masterstroke, was in stripping Elsa of her villainy.  If you look at some of the original character concepts (just Google it, there are too many hyperlinks in this post already), Elsa was going to be your tired and typical wicked witch, with Anna presumably forced to fight and ruefully defeat her.  And then, so the legend has it, the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez brought a draft of Elsa’s anthem “Let It Go” to the producers – planned originally as a “look how eeeeevil I am” strut in the vein of similar ditties belted out by Disney villains past.  Of course, that’s not what the Lopezes delivered.  “Let It Go” is a triumphant refrain of self-realization, not something you’d hear from the lips of Ursula, Gaston, Jafar, Scar or any of the Disney baddies that had come before.  Surely, then, Elsa could remain a good person, grappling with her own fears of who she’s become, and figuring out a way to integrate all the parts of her soul into a complete and confident being.  And to give that arc to a woman with magical powers is a blast of fresh Arctic air.  Full marks to screenwriter/co-director Jennifer Lee.

The wicked witch is one of the most regrettable archetypes in literature, because it originates from a fundamental place of (male) discomfort with the idea of powerful women.  We dudes have to face it and deal – women are always going to have powers that we don’t.  They can bear children, i.e. create life; short of bad Arnold Schwarzenegger comedies we’re forever out of luck on that one.  To be completely candid and even a little NC-17, women can arouse us physically in a way we can’t really reciprocate.  And even more to the point, we will never figure them out, no matter how long we spend in their company, how many writings of theirs we read, how many times we beat our heads against the wall when they do something completely unexpected and seemingly out of character.  They’re piercingly right with that old refrain – we just don’t understand.  We won’t.  And everyone knows what the typical human reaction is to something we don’t understand.

I recall reading once that the biggest driver of the persecution of witches in medieval Europe was that era’s version of the American Medical Association, that is, the assorted doctors of the time who were peeved that women were doing better at healing the sick with herbs and other natural lore than they were with the presumably university-endorsed “leech and bleed” treatment.  Invoking a mistranslated Bible verse and calling every second woman a witch was, to them, simply an effective way of eliminating the competition in the medical field.  To say nothing of how many other men probably hurled the charge when an innocent woman failed to return their romantic advances.  The witch became a catchall for everything men didn’t like about the opposite gender, and slithered her way into the darkest pages of the fairy tales that endure to this day.  Always out to cause mischief and throw up barriers to true love and occasionally eat a child or two.

To be fair, Disney’s earliest animated efforts did little to dispel this archetype.  Snow White had the Evil Queen, Sleeping Beauty had Maleficent, both characters of tremendous power, beauty and irredeemable evil (noteworthy that Maleficent’s name comes from the Latin maleficium, which means “wrongdoing.”)  We also had the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz, and a long, verging on infinite line of fantasy films both sumptuous and cheap featuring scantily-clad and/or hideous magical ladies waylaying our heroes with a combination of spells and wiles and cackling laughter, leading up to Tilda Swinton’s White Witch in the Narnia series, Charlize Theron’s Queen Ravenna in Snow White and the Huntsman, and Mila Kunis’ Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s Evanora in Oz: The Great and Powerful.  Such an easy path to tread for screenwriters half-assing their way through a script assignment.  What is the usual fate of these legions of empowered women?  Death.  Depowering and humiliation from time to time, but usually death.  It’s what they get for stepping outside the natural order, for interfering with the cause of love and freedom, baby.  When it’s at the hands of a man with a sword, the metaphor becomes even more painfully obvious.  Man conquering the unremitting darkness that is woman with his you-know-what.  Cue the Viagra ads.

In Frozen, Elsa’s cryokinetic powers are vast, verging on goddess-level.  We’re not just talking a blast of ice cubes here and there.  She blankets an entire kingdom in an eternal winter.  In the “Let It Go” sequence, she builds a stunning palace of ice with a few waves of her hand and stamps of her feet.  She can defend herself easily against a squad of armed men, and most importantly, she can create life.  With a mere flicker of her magic she conjures Olaf the snowman, an autonomous being with his own unique personality, and also her hulking hench-monster Marshmallow (who, if you stayed till the end of the credits, proves he has a softer side as well.)  To my recollection, the last time a female character as powerful as Elsa appeared on screen was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand.  Like Elsa, Jean Grey in that movie was a woman born with incredible abilities she couldn’t control, and also like Elsa, attempted to live within constraints placed upon her by men, until her powers eventually exploded and injured those she cared most about.  Of course, how did that all work out?  Predictably, Jean turned evil, disintegrated a bunch of people, and had to be put out of her misery by a man with metal claws (more below-the-belt symbolism), after she begged him to kill her.  Impaled through the cold, dark heart just like the wicked witch deserves.

Frozen does not end with Elsa being saved or murdered by a man, or losing her powers.  It ends, ironically, with Elsa becoming even more powerful – gaining strength from her sister’s love and learning to thaw what she has frozen.  Achieving a balance and serenity within herself.  One of the most delightful little moments from the end of the movie is watching Elsa create a skating rink for her subjects and them having fun with it, because it signifies that she hasn’t had to sacrifice what makes her special to find acceptance from the outside world.  In her review, Debbie mentioned that some critics of the movie have suggested that Elsa should have had a love interest.  I can’t think of anything that would have so wrecked the essential message.  A woman’s journey to realizing her power is one she has to take on her own, without some barrel-chested dingus patting her hand and telling her “there, there.”  Ultimately, Anna’s sacrifice was about showing Elsa she needed to love herself, and that she could, because her sister would always have her back.  I can’t see that having worked as well or resonated as deeply if Anna was Andy.

What is Frozen telling us menfolk, then?  That a powerful woman isn’t someone we should fear, or try to cage.  That she isn’t someone we need to conquer or subdue in any way.  That we do best to help her figure out who she is and the extent of what she can do by staying the @#$@ out of her way.  And that the greatest thing we can do when she uses that power is cheer.

Save the father, save the world

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“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

First uttered on screen by Dick Van Dyke in 1964, those words are whispered again by the unlikely voice of Colin Farrell as Saving Mr. Banks begins, over vistas of turn-of-the-last-century Australia and the dream-lost face of the young Helen Goff, who will grow up to become author P.L. Travers and the creator of Mary Poppins.  In short order we leap forward from the idyll to early 1960’s England, where the adult Travers (Emma Thompson) remains, after 20 years of attempts by Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) to purchase the film rights from her, stubborn in her determination to avoid having her beloved creation bowdlerized by uncouth Americans who don’t seem to understand what the story is about, or, more importantly, what it means to her.  Drawn in for the moment by the allure of some much-needed funds, Travers agrees to fly to Los Angeles to work with the creative team on the screenplay for Mary Poppins – “work with” meaning shoot down almost every single idea – while resisting Disney’s personal charm offensive.   The unstoppable force meets the immovable object, and as the movie proceeds along two time-separated narratives, we see the girl trying to save her treasured father from his deterioration, and the woman fighting to preserve his memory from people she thinks are only interested in exploiting it for the sake of a mediocre cartoon.

Much like the movie whose conception it depicts, there are no villains in Saving Mr. Banks; only goodhearted people attempting to do the right thing, whether it is Farrell as Travers’ father reacting to every setback with a twinkle in his eye and spring in his step, or the increasingly exasperated but always smiling screenwriter Don DaGradi (Bradley Whitford) and composers Robert and Richard Sherman (B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman) struggling to meet the impossible conditions put forth by the uncooperative Travers during interminable meetings.  Particularly touching is the relationship that develops between Travers and her sunny limo driver Ralph (Paul Giamatti); while first treating him as an ill-informed Yankee, she comes to see him as a true friend, and is inspired to pass along to Ralph’s physically challenged daughter the proof that disabilities are not the same thing as limitations.  But misunderstandings abound, naturally, and this is probably the first screenplay in the history of Hollywood where the crisis point at the end of the second act involves whether or not penguins are to be animated.  (As an aside, it’s also the first screenplay to my knowledge where a character utters my last name:  checking into her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel only to find it’s been filled with Disney stuffed animals as welcome gifts, Travers shoves aside a Winnie the Pooh and grumbles “Ugh, A.A. Milne.”  I – what’s the expression – fangirl squeed?)

I’m a sucker for movies about Hollywood, particularly old Hollywood, and the attention to detail in recreating the feel of the Disney production offices (and Disneyland itself) of the early 60’s is impeccable.  The performances, especially Thompson’s, are elegant, the cinematography is lush, and the score is full of life and hope.  Magic exudes from each frame.  But despite the central conflict between Travers’ obstinacy and Disney’s persistence that is the focus of the trailers, the movie is about fathers, and the complex relationships we continue to have with them long after they are gone.  That is where Saving Mr. Banks packs its most powerful emotional punch.  Like Hamlet, the ghost of the father looms in every scene – Travers Goff, the man who helped the young “Ginty” unlock her imagination and set her on the path to becoming a storyteller, honored posthumously in her choice of surname for her writing career.  Befuddled by the author’s seemingly irrelevant demands on the script, articulated by frustrated Bob Sherman who pointedly queries, “What does it matter?”, Walt Disney initially misses the mark, thinking that Mary Poppins comes to save the children.  We have the benefit of hindsight, having watched, dozens of times, David Tomlinson as George Banks evolve from curmudgeonly drone to a man full of life and wonder and joy.  The children don’t even say goodbye to Mary Poppins when she leaves, but they don’t have to, as her spirit has found a new home in their own dear father.  Late in Saving Mr. Banks, Disney relates to Travers a tale of his own upbringing in wintry Missouri and of his difficult relationship with his hard-driving father Elias, and the two creative forces finally find their connection – a shared desire to redeem the old man.

Being someone’s child is taking on the responsibility of their legacy, willing or not.  In the movie, Ginty cannot understand why her beloved father is falling apart before her eyes, and she struggles to help him preserve his happiness and his dignity, even where her efforts are unintentionally harmful.  In creating the character of George Banks, P.L. Travers wanted (the movie posits, at least) to give her father the happy ending he could never find for himself.  When she sees him depicted on screen, and when she experiences the joy of the audience in watching him triumph, she weeps.  My father died when I was 11, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that a significant portion of why I do what I do is trying to ensure that his name is regarded in perpetuity as highly as I think it should be – the same name (though different family) P.L. Travers mouths onscreen.  He was the person I experienced stories with.  Reading to me, and with me, taking me to the movies, kindling a lifelong love of narrative and of imagination and promise lying within pages and celluloid.  He used to let me borrow his handheld dictaphone so I could record my own imaginary episodes of The A-Team (don’t ask).  He’d let me fill LP-sized floppy disks from his office computer full of chapters of an unfinished attempted novel about a boy and his racehorse.   And though he died long before I ever began to take writing seriously, every time I sit down at the keyboard I’m hoping that it will turn out to be something he would have liked, that he would have boasted to his friends and colleagues about.  (Knowing him, he’d boast about it even if it was an illiterate pile of tripe.)  And perhaps, beneath the veil of different characters in settings far removed from that available to a small-town attorney, I’m trying to give him his happy ending too.  In the theater, I felt in my soul that primal need of Travers to do right by her dad.  To save him.  And a tear escaped my eye as it did hers.

For too short a time, they’re our whole world.  Eventually, our chances to talk with them are gone, to ask them questions that never would have occurred to us while they were alive, questions we thought we’d have time for someday.  When we were sharing a beer after staining the back deck together on a hot Sunday afternoon.  When we were tossing the football back and forth between three generations upon park grass touched with the first autumn frost.  Those scenarios aren’t possible now, so we try to replicate them in fiction.  We forge characters who ask the questions we can’t, and let them seek their answers, secure as we type that they will reach their destination and achieve the closure that eludes us.  When the stake is so personal, we comprehend why P.L. Travers did not want to give Mary Poppins up.  Mary wasn’t a character, she was a mission.  So was Mickey Mouse for Walt Disney.  It’s not easy to abdicate such a soulful responsibility, to hand over a legacy.  I wouldn’t be the first to volunteer for that, would you?  However, there may come a time when I’m willing to let go, to share the father I knew with a world that deserves to know him the way I did.  I can only hope that it’s in a manner as befitting as Mary Poppins, or Saving Mr. Banks.

“Winds in the east, mist coming in, like something is brewin’, about to begin… Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, but I fear what’s to happen, all happened before.”

What to get yourself for Christmas

picardchristmas

A cynic has no easier target than Christmas.  As November wanes and December waxes, garlands rise incrementally around the malls, Fox renews its annual War on Christmas™ coverage and the radio stations shuffle over to endless repeats of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the holiday season reboots with all the originality and fervor of the latest superhero remake.  As the ornamented train shambles into the station, it brings with it the usual trappings of tinsel, spiked eggnog, impossible toy wish lists tailored by marketers and advertisers, hour-long quests for parking spots and harried photographers trying to capture the split second between tantrums as the toddler squirms on the lap of the weird bearded guy in the fuzzy red suit.  Movie studios roll out their usual December double act of just-in-time-for-awards-consideration artsy pieces and cheaply-cobbled- usually-starring-someone-from-a-failed-sitcom holiday fare for our consumption along with the millions of slain turkeys, pigs and tofu sloths we will burn for five hours and set amidst the plastic paraphernalia of our impeccably adorned dining room tables.  We will then gather the clan of people we’d ignore on the street if they weren’t related to us and consume our approximate body weight in shortbread and stuffing while hoping we don’t have to be subjected to yet another lecture about kids these days from the annoying uncle who dips too deeply into the punch bowl.

I nearly succumbed to this attitude the other night, while propelling our otherwise efficient and modestly economic vehicle at a funereal pace over gray sludge-strewn streets behind a throng of other roving metal boxes bent on the same destination.  Patience burned away to embers, and if not for the presence of my son in the back seat I have no doubt a few choice profanities would have splattered across the inside of my windshield.  Other than the exhaustion brought on by the end of the work day fused with sub-zero temperature and the (excuse the hyperbole) sheer inhumanity of total darkness at 5 p.m., there was no reason for it.  But for that brief moment, my Christmas spirit was absent, as though I’d left it in my other pants.  It is, I realized, a challenge to keep it.  No wonder Scrooge needed three scary-ass poltergeists to get him back into shape.

Christmas, as we’ve come to know it now, practically dares you to hate it.  It dares you to throw your hands up in resignation at the consumerism, the kitsch, the frequently awful music, the endless toys demanded from Santa that will be forgotten by February and the obsessive desire of some to recreate a neo-Dickensian display of forced family unity.  The pursuit of the “perfect Christmas” can be more of an exercise in stagecraft, as in designing the ideal movie set to permit the spontaneous eruption of merriment.  The “spirit” of Christmas is codified in a series of boxes to be ticked off:  tree, lights, cards, food, brown paper packages tied up with string.  I’m an atheist as you well know, but I sympathize sometimes with the Christians who put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs up out on their lawns alongside the backlit nativity scenes.  What are we celebrating, really?  The desperation of retailers to make up for months-long dry spells with one orgiastic year-end blow-out?  The ritual removal of millions of trees from the ecosystem to spend a few weeks inside living rooms before they are ground up for mulch?  Nerves frayed to the point of splitting in ensuring that everything goes exactly as planned and the turkey doesn’t catch fire?

To me, Christmas is best enjoyed broken down into small moments that form a series of triggers of positive emotions, both in connections to Christmases past and the forging of new memories to be cherished in the future.  The indelible scent of pine caught in the faintest whiff as you stroll into the kitchen for breakfast.  The adorable hand-crafted googly-eyed gingerbread man ornament smiling with a red felt mouth from within the branches.  The glow of candles and garland lights saturating the house with warmth as banks of frozen white pile up outside the windows.  The glint of those lights reflecting off the shiny wrap of the piles of gifts crowding the base of the tree.  Snowmen standing valiant guard outside.  The taste of cranberry, of red wine, of orange and of chocolate, popped into one’s mouth when no one is looking.  The scratches and pops on an old vinyl recording of a favorite holiday tune performed by a long-deceased crooner.  The telltale rattle of Lego in an unopened gift.  Fighting drowsy eyes to watch the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the thirtieth time while clad snug in brand new pj’s.  The silence of a house asleep, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Claus.  The face of the exuberant child beholding the bounty for the first time as cracks of sunlight spill through the windows and yawns escape lips.  The hug exchanged following the reveal of that most treasured item on the list that justifies in a heartbeat the hours spent combing the stores to find it.  And at the end of everything, sitting back on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, spouse curled up alongside, reflecting on a year of significant ups and dreary downs and thinking about the promise of new days to come.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but like the song says, these are a few of my favorite things.

You have to look for these little slices of wonder, be aware when they manifest and relish them before they disappear.  It’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the pressure cooker that can often be the holiday experience and the overall dread of the inevitable January credit card bill.  But even the most notorious of failed Christmases will have its sublime moments hidden amidst the veil of falling snowflakes.  So grab a few this year and put them in your stocking.  They’re the best gift you can give yourself.

What are yours going to be?

Slán, mo chara beag

sleeptight

When I was single, friends and family would often suggest that I should get a cat.  My answer was always no.  Not enough room in my one-bedroom apartment, I was in and out too often, there was no place to put the litter box and I had no interest in cleaning up furry messes every day.  The truth beneath those pat excuses was rather more revealing:  I didn’t want the responsibility.  I fancied myself a free-wheeler (even if most nights were spent at home on the couch or on the computer) and couldn’t abide the idea of having a feline anchor demanding constant attention and care.  The other, more appealing half of the equation never entered into my mind.  Truly, until you’ve had a pet, it doesn’t compute, and I grew up in a house without animals.  I’m not exactly sure why we never had a pet – I can’t even recall discussing the idea of one.  It seemed to be tacitly understood that animals weren’t an option, and that was that.

We flash forward then, to the time I met the woman who would become my wife.  And her cat, Muffins.

Muffins was a gray tortoiseshell born in 1992 who had belonged to another family for the first ten years of her life.  For whatever reason those people gave her up to the local humane society – abandoned her, as it were, to fifteen months hard time in a cage before her fateful encounter with my lady-to-be.  As the story goes, my wife was merely accompanying my sister-in-law who was interested in volunteering there, and while waiting for her to fill in the forms, wandered into the cat room.  It was replete with amiable felines in need of families, some of whom hopped about eagerly for attention while others curled up in resigned croissants and paid no heed to the human visitor.  Muffins, however, made her way to the front of her cage, sat back on her haunches and reached her little paws out through the bars to grasp my wife’s cheek – like an old soul recognizing its long-absent mate from a life lived in another time and place.  Their bond was sealed.  My wife adopted her on the spot.  A few hours later, Muffins took only a few moments to examine her new surroundings for the first time before curling up and going to sleep in my wife’s lap, purring, content, at ease.  She had come home, to her true forever home, at long last.

My own bond with Muffins wasn’t the touching moment related above, it was more of a gradual acceptance on her part that this tall, loud thing that spent an awful lot of time in her territory wasn’t going anywhere.  I was house-sitting for my wife shortly after we were first dating, dropping in for a few hours every night to ensure Muffins was fed and had some company.  So I was lying on the couch, channel-surfing, when I noticed this furry, adorable face on the floor looking up at me.  We stared at each other for a few moments, sizing each other up.  I patted my thigh in what seems to be the universal signal for hey cat, come up here and make yourself comfortable.  And up she leaped, to my shock and awe.  She stood there, pawing at the unfamiliar terrain, trying to figure out how best to position herself for maximum relaxation potential.  Of course I wasn’t used to how to deal with cats, so I was petting her relentlessly, probably a bit too hard, and she responded with an angry hiss and a swift departure, flicking her tail in my face as she went.  It would be a couple of months before she’d dare try again, this time when my wife was on a girls’ weekend away.  That time, I knew enough to keep my hands to myself – and she settled in for a cozy nap.

Game on.

It would take an entirely separate blog, I would think, to chronicle all of Muffins’ most endearing traits and quirks, but a few stand out more than most.  When we were first living together, Muffins used to tuck my wife and I in for bed at the end of the night.  She’d stay while we sat up and talked, read or did a crossword puzzle, but when she knew we were getting close to turning out the light, she’d leave – as if she was a nanny sending her charges off to sleep and retiring for the evening, her job done, until the morning when she heard us talking and would hop up on the bed to say hello again, it’s a new day, get your rears in gear.  As the years wore on and we relocated dwellings a few times, she began staying through the night, particularly in some bitter winters, where my legs became the bed of choice, and I’d have to find ever more contorting ways to slide myself down so I could go to sleep without waking her up.  We would joke, too, that whenever you put something soft like a blanket or a cushion down for more than a few minutes, it would become a cat bed – Muffins’ predatory instinct when it came to sleeping spots was unparalleled.  Even the little pink igloo we purchased for her went rarely used, her preference wherever a sunbeam fell through the windows.  It was not uncommon either to find a stuffed animal knocked over if it was in the way of a designated snooze spot; her usual targets were an Eeyore we kept on our spare bed or the snowmen in our annual “stuffy Christmas” display.  Of course, a few summers ago she abandoned her old habit of letting us sleep through the night and began announcing her arrival loudly at one or two a.m., repeating that inimitable wail until we awoke and attended to her whims.  For a short time I kept a plastic water gun on my bedside table to shoo her away.

Though meant to be an indoor cat, she loved roaming our various backyards, rolling around on and eating the grass, investigating nooks and crannies for potential mouse habitats and avenues of escape, defending with stubborn honor against the intrusion of other wayward cats, sleeping under this hideous tree in the back corner for hours at a time – yet never failing to return and wait patiently at the door for us to let her back inside.  On a particularly memorable occasion we had chosen to leave the back door open a crack to let her come and go as she pleased – that policy lasted a whole two days as on the second afternoon I looked up to see her trotting in merrily with a dead mouse in her mouth.  By the book you’re supposed to thank the cat and dispose of the corpse quietly (it’s their way of thanking you for feeding them by “getting the groceries” themselves) but my behavior was a little more along the lines of bellowing some unprintable oaths and smacking her on the nose to make her let go of the vile thing.  Then of course was this last summer when we forgot she was out back until well after the sun went down and we suddenly noticed a pungent smell wafting in through the windows.  We raced to the door and Muffins stumbled in, sneezing, drooling and dripping snot, having just been sprayed by a passing skunk.  One emergency run to the 24-hour grocery store for hydrogen peroxide and a few baths later, this shriveled, wet, ratty-looking thing wandered shaken through our contaminated house, trying to regain her composure.  We wanted to laugh but felt so bad for her.  She looked so embarrassed.

I’ve met a lot of other people’s cats who have fit the stereotype of the aloof, uncaring feline who treats you as staff instead of family.  Muffins, by contrast, never failed to be friendly even with complete strangers walking through the door for the first time.  She was a well-mannered hostess, dropping by to greet newcomers and offering little kitty kisses to let them know they were welcome, instead of fleeing from caresses, hiding in the closet and waiting for the interlopers to leave.  Of course she was getting something out of the deal, namely, the affection she vacuumed up like an overclocked Hoover, but she seemed to understand the importance of treating guests like family, letting them know that our home was a warm and safe and happy place.  In her own way, Muffins was a reminder even in the darkest moments of how truly wondrous this world can be.  The melancholy of the worst of days at the office, or the inevitable clashes between stressed spouses, was soothed instantly by an unjudging look from her enormous eyes, a touch of her gentle paws, the incomparable purr, the sight of her fast asleep on your lap or tucked behind a stuffed animal knocked askew.  Even the meow from some distant room elsewhere in the house, assuring you she was around.  It’s okay, mommy & daddy, I’m here.  What she asked in return was merely a scratch behind her ears and the occasional (okay, daily, truth be told) slice of deli honey maple turkey.

She infused herself into our vernacular as well – my wife’s original nickname for her was “boo boo,” hence shorthand references to Muffins became “the boo,” and boo became a prefix for anything related to her.  Dry food was boo bits, wet food was boo-goo, the litter pan was the boo box, the occasional coughed-up hairball was boo barf, even the aforementioned ignored cat bed became the boo-gloo.  Additional nicknames for Miss Boo herself became too numerous to count, as did silly songs we’d make up for her.  To the tune of Mary Poppins’ “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”:

Let’s take Boo to bed,

She is a sleepyhead,

Let’s take Boo to bed and hear her purring

Up to the second floor

Then through the bedroom door

Oh, let’s take Boo to bed!

One might think such devotion the exclusive bailiwick of the crazy cat lady, but she was our only baby for years, through failed attempts to conceive a child of our own, when it seemed parenthood was a path we would never walk.  Interestingly enough, when we met the boy who would become our adopted son, the first question he asked us was about Muffins (as I recall, he was disappointed that she was fixed and couldn’t have kittens.)  Of course, she came to accept him, though he was even louder than the last male to intrude upon her pleasant solitude.  We were in the kitchen, I think, and my wife whispered for me to look over into the family room where she was nestled on top of him for the first time.  Giving us her blessing, I suppose, that this kid was a keeper, regardless of his inability to sit still for longer than a minute at a time.

There is no interest, I suspect, nor any desire on my part to chronicle her decline in great detail, suffice it to say that age excepts none.  Over the past year her weight had begun to dwindle and visits to the vet became more frequent and more expensive.  To our credit, I suppose, we never questioned the need to give her the best care regardless of cost.  If it had been one of us who’d been suffering, we would not hesitate to pay whatever was required; so too would it be with our boo.  It was the responsibility part.  Oddly enough, maintaining her dignity was foremost on Muffins’ mind these last few months – much like a golden-aged human being fighting to hold onto what slips ever further from their grasp with each passing year, what it seemed would always be there.  The vet had suggested moving her litter from our basement to the main floor to ease the strain on her legs.  Well, didn’t the impossibly stubborn little lady simply refuse to go for two days until we put it back where she was used to having it.  I’ll just say there’s a reason why female cats are called queens.  Her Majesty Muffins was determined to remain so.  Yet despite her brave, ever-purring face, sober realization crept into our minds that her remaining days were dwindling – and at some point, a decision would have to be made.  A terrible, horrible, no good, awful and goddamned necessary decision.

Two Thursdays ago, Muffins wasn’t eating or drinking.  She was lying listless on her side, struggling to be comfortable.  We’d received the results of a recent blood test letting us know her kidneys were failing.  There were treatment options available, but no cure – it would be putting her through frightening medical procedures to extend her life only for a couple of weeks.  That Thursday night we said good night to her in the family room, afraid she wouldn’t make it through the night.  Friday morning we found that she had struggled her way up the stairs to crawl into a box in our bedroom – she didn’t want to be alone.  I went off to work allowing myself to hope that “Lady Bounce-Back” – our diminutive for her habit of recovering nicely from seemingly mortal ailments – would rule the day once more.  When my wife contacted me in tears later that morning, I realized that wouldn’t be the case this time.

The vet gave us a few moments alone to consider our options.  I made myself verbalize what we were both feeling.  If we put her through the ordeal of hospitalization, who were we doing it for – her, or ourselves?  So I said it.  We needed to put selfish concerns aside.  We needed to let her go.  My wife said she thought I was right.  Clenching at a rising lump in my throat I said I didn’t want to be right.

We both took a turn holding Muffins one last time.  She was angry – she didn’t like the vet’s office, never had.  Defiant to the last, the queen holding court and meowing and hissing her displeasure.  But we both knew that she was tired, and she was ready to go.  She was almost 22 years old – in human terms, nearing 140 – and she’d made the most of her time here.  The vet told us that it was a testament to how well she was looked after that she lived as long as she did.

I thought back to what my wife had told me about when she and Muffins found each other.  She went to sleep now just as she first had, in my wife’s lap – comfortable and content, surrounded by love and leaving now for that place without pain, to run and chase mice in an endless meadow beneath eternal sunshine.

We all want to deny the responsibility that goes with love.  We want no part of it.  We want the ice cream and not the brussel sprouts.  When we’re admiring the curve of a young woman’s perfect breasts or the sinew of her tanned legs, or losing ourselves in the depth of her soulful eyes, we don’t want to consider the idea that someday we’ll be changing her adult diaper or cringing at her inability to remember our name, or worse, watching her waste away in a hospital bed, hooked up to fluids and monitors and catheters as some microscopic, malevolent clump of cells eats her from the inside out.  Commitment terrifies us because like all sumptuous meals, eventually we know we’ll be handed the bill and asked to leave the restaurant.  Better to just walk on by that four-star place and purchase the Happy Meal instead, right?  Easier.  Quicker.  More seductive.

Hardly the most nutritious option.  To extend the food metaphor past its limit, it’s a recipe for loneliness.  To shy from that responsibility is to deny the greatest thing you can ever ask for.  If you can open your heart, you may find a gentle little being curling up inside it and starting to purr.

George Carlin once said that adopting a pet is essentially purchasing a small tragedy, unless you’re 80 and you get a turtle.  What he didn’t say was how despite that, adopting a pet is accepting unconditional love.  Muffins ended the question for me of whether or not animals have souls.  They are proof of the essential goodness of life, of its capacity to embrace and give and forgive, of life’s evolution towards a utopia dancing just ever so slightly out of reach.  Cruelty and malevolence are artificial constructs forced upon us by our unwillingness to share and to accept the responsibility of love, to treat living things as more valuable than things.  Muffins did not earn a salary or spend money:  her only currency was love, in which she was a billionaire many times over, and she lavished it upon us at every opportunity, without thought of reward.  She understood her responsibility.  She had it figured out, better than any of us.  The impatient meows were like tiny admonishments that we didn’t grasp the obvious.  Silly humans.

I thank whatever guides this universe for winding our paths towards one another, and even an atheist can dream about a far future day when he gets to cradle his beloved pet in his arms again, in some unfathomable form.

Until then, I miss her very much, and I thank her, and I say goodbye, my little friend.  I love you always.

See you on Rainbow Bridge, little lion

goodbye

My heart’s a bit raw right now.  So I’ll let this anonymous author say it for me.

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge.
There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together.
There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor; those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by.

The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. Her bright eyes are intent; Her eager body quivers. Suddenly she begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, her legs carrying her faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….

You can’t handle the tooth

cj

Going to the dentist is one of those necessary life rituals that causes an irrational explosion of anxiety in otherwise sane, stable people.  The ear-slicing whine of the tiny drill as it scrapes at enamel inspires more revulsion than that of a vegan served a slab of porterhouse, more terror than the prospect of a Rob Ford sex tape.  Finding out today that I need a root canal, my mind is cast to the image of C.J. Cregg on The West Wing episode “Celestial Navigation,” wailing “I had woot canaww!!” and advising that the pwesident needs to be bwiefed immediatewy.  Yet my dentist assures me that I can go straight back to work, it’s not like the days I needed off from school when I had my wisdom teeth out so many moons ago.  They numb you up, drill inside the tooth, extract the pulp – which you don’t need anyway once the tooth is fully formed – and cap it with a sealant.  Easy peasy, really.  But that won’t stop dental work from being a reliable source of dread on TV shows and the like until the medium itself expires.

There are hundreds of things that the entertainment industry has convinced us to wet our pants at the mere thought of that are in reality quite benign.  Sharks and air travel are the two that spring to mind right away.  Up until 1975, shark attacks were the rarest of the rare, with beachgoers more likely to suffer a nibble from a petulant sea turtle.  Then Jaws drops and nobody wants to go in the water, and the fear of the shark is so indelibly etched into our collective consciousness (accompanied by John Williams’ foreboding theme music) that almost forty years later we’re still using them as stock monsters for our schlockiest of movies, only now they’re flying out of tornadoes.  They’re reduced to mindless predators driven into a frenzy for human flesh by the slightest whiff of blood, the standard pet of every supervillain, sometimes even with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.  The documentary Sharkwater had to be produced to try to restore the reputation of these fatally misunderstood creatures – murdered by the thousands every year – and yet, the Mayor’s cautionary words from Jaws still ring in everyone’s ears:  “you yell ‘shark,’ and you’ve got a panic on the Fourth of July.”  Whether you realize it or not, you too scan the horizon for the telltale fin when you go swimming at a tropical beach.  The primal fear is that entrenched.

And then there’s the terrors in the sky.  Airplanes, and indeed air travel, are almost never shown in movies or TV unless something bad is going to happen mid-flight.  The plane is going to be hijacked, or run out of fuel, or hit a deadly storm, or the crew will be incapacitated, resulting in the massive jet needing to be landed by the plucky kid who loves flight simulation games on his XBox.  Look at Lost, the show whose entire premise revolved around the aftermath of a plane crash on a deserted island.  The first episode began with an unnamed survivor opening his eyes and staggering around the plane’s debris field, and witnessing some poor schmuck get sucked into the still-firing engine – an airliner so lethal it was still killing people after having gone down.  The media doesn’t help, shunting real-life crashes to the front of any broadcast.  I’ll never forget the day in 2005 when that Air France flight skidded off the runway after landing at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer sounded crestfallen that there were no fatalities to report.  How often do planes crash in real life, though?  Once every six months or so?  Sounds like a lot until you consider that in entire world, there are on average 7,000 flights daily.  That’s every single day of the year.  So yeah, your odds of ending up dodging the black smoke monster on that time-traveling island are pretty much on par with having a sharknado drop on top of your house before you finish reading this sentence.

I feel for dentists, I really do.  Just as airlines and sharks never get a positive portrayal in the movies, neither do dentists.  (For a double whammy, check out Cast Away where Tom Hanks’ plane crashes before he can make a dentist appointment for an abscessed tooth.)  They’re all drawn from the Little Shop of Horrors or Marathon Man mold, depicted as sadistic, domineering and utterly inconsiderate of the sheer agony they’re about to inflict on their squirming patient.  All the better for us to laugh at, I suppose.  And yet their real-life counterparts have to overcome this stereotype each time a new victim – er, client walks through the door, to say nothing of the years of training and certification required to be able to do the job in the first place.  A job that requires them to stick their fingers into some pretty disgusting, halitosis-wracked mouths every day.  I suppose the message in all of this is that we shouldn’t rely on the movies to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be afraid of – and that we need to remember to floss.

The lesson of the Pumpkin Snowman

Happy Back to Standard Time Day!  It’s been a productive, decorative day on this side of the pond – installing curtain rods, acquiring Christmas accouterments and saying goodbye to the Halloween tchatchkes.  On the subject of the latter, I regret to announce that the otherwise brilliant and crisp morning delivered an unhappy surprise.  A few weeks ago my better half came up with the delightful idea of making a pumpkin snowman – three gourds stacked atop one another, clad with a scarf, belt and gloves.  We used thin bamboo sticks to anchor the pumpkins together and branches for arms with tiny leaf-stuffed mittens on the end, so he could wave hello to the trick-or-treating kids.  It turned out great and lots of compliments were to be had from visitors.  This morning, however, we discovered that a misanthropic type or types had decapitated him and smashed his head across the street.  We haven’t had the greatest of luck with our outside decorations; last Christmas a light-up doe was stolen from our front yard and never recovered.  But even though Halloween was over, even though we didn’t have to go out and purchase a replacement, this particular act of vandalism really set me off.  Unfortunately, smashing pumpkins isn’t just the name of a crummy 90’s emo band, it’s a deplorable Halloween “tradition.”  Certain folk seem to acquire an endorphin rush by destroying every pumpkin they can find, and our innocent, happy little guy was just the latest victim.

Warning:  Gruesome images follow.

Our pumpkin snowman in happier times, and this morning's crime scene.
Our pumpkin snowman in happier times, and this morning’s crime scene.

The sheer futility of the exercise is staggering.  Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter – their job done, the pumpkins would have all gone in the garbage on the next collection day.  But to take the time to trespass onto someone else’s property to destroy something cute for what – because it was there?  All smug in its cute pumpkin-ness?  Joy in destruction is a concept that continues to elude me.  It certainly speaks to the character, or lack thereof, of the pedestrian minds that spotted our pumpkin snowman and decided to strike.  Not that I’m bitter or anything.  Little @#$!ers.

In everything there are those who build and those who tear down.  A while back a Chinese tourist in Egypt decided that what a 5000-year-old hieroglyphic really needed was his name scratched onto it.  You may remember as well the story about the ancient Buddhas carved into hillsides in Afghanistan that were destroyed by the Taliban with rocket launchers.  I’m not in any way suggesting that a little headless pumpkin snowman compares even remotely to such significant acts of cultural vandalism, but it’s a minuscule part of this larger trend that sees a portion of humanity dedicated to destroying what the rest of it is creating.  You could even extrapolate this argument further and point to corporate entities that ravage landscapes in pursuit of profit, and strangle any attempt to legally prohibit them from doing it.  It doesn’t even have to be corporations – look at the photos of what’s left of the Amazon rainforest, a bleak, yellowed, poisoned wasteland, now that enterprising gold prospectors have decided to set up shop.  Far too many of us have chosen to be irredeemable Wreck-It Ralphs.

How do you swim against the tide?  We can all probably remember a time in our childhood when we spent what seemed like hours carefully crafting a fortress of sand only to have a sibling stomp through it out of sheer petulance.  There was little choice then but to begin the painstaking effort of rebuilding, grain by grain.  So too must it be in later life.  You can’t let yourself be intimidated out of creation by the fear that someone may come along and smash it to bits.  Someone very well may.  But the fact that we’re all still here, alive and continuing to thrive, leads me to believe that there are far more builders than wreckers in the world.  There is a philosophical choice to be made, whether to believe that people are basically good or basically evil.  I’ve always fallen into the former camp, despite my faith in such having been tested on numerous occasions.  Fundamentally, the kids who thought it would be hilarious to smash our pumpkin snowman – as much as (a very small) part of me would enjoy seeing them flogged – aren’t psychopathic miscreants or agents of chaos.  They weren’t out to cause me or my family any grievous harm.  They’re just kids driven by hormones making a bad call.  And I’m sure at some point in their lives someone has destroyed something they created, and they know how rotten it can feel.  So I’m choosing to forgive, and vowing to make our Christmas exterior display even better.  Gotta keep building that sandcastle, no matter how many times somebody kicks it down.

Unless our deer gets stolen again.  Then I’m out for blood.

Theories of relativity

earth

Thanks to the modern miracle of wi-fi, I’m writing this in a Starbucks, where the scents of burnt coffee blend in an orgiastic melange with subliminal jazz and the tinny patois of the three teenage girls sitting to my left, cajoling one another with tales of romantic woes with such frequent interjections of the word “like” it might as well be in, like, a completely different language.  I gather an acquaintance was at a young lad’s house overnight and the former somebody is obsessed with the latter, and another someone is totally getting engaged in Utah, omigod, make of it what you will.  Shards of October are littered across the deep sienna tile in the form of fragments of leaves hitching rides in from the street on clumsy boots, and yet, November is in full swing inside, pumpkin spice abandoned for peppermint, gingerbread and hot apple cider, menus and cups transformed to holiday red.

The espresso machine whirs and spits milk foam, and the girls are on to complaining about work now, and while to each his own, I can’t help but smile a bit at the relativity of personal problems – what seems disastrous to one person is laughable to someone else.  I guess the whole “First World Problems” meme is the perfect example of that; how dare we privileged few whine that our latte is weak when someone in the deserts of Sudan is crawling haggardly across the sand in search of a drop of water.  I read a statistic a while back that if all seven billion human beings lived at the same standard as we do in the northwestern hemisphere, we would need four earths worth of resources to sustain everyone.  I haven’t checked the star charts lately, but barring some unforeseen discovery I’m pretty sure this is it.  Kinda makes it difficult to justify getting mad at an inadequate supply of chocolate shavings on a peppermint mocha.

This week has seen some interesting developments in the political sphere, particularly as it concerns two gentlemen whose continuing success seems the embodiment of global unfairness.  First, Dick Cheney decided to cancel his trip to Toronto, where he was scheduled to give a speech to an economic forum, claiming that Canada was “too dangerous.”  This followed a report that a group of lawyers had sent a letter to the Attorney General of Ontario demanding that Cheney be arrested on war crimes charges the moment he landed.  Dodging small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades on the way to this cafe, as I often do, I wondered what on earth would possess anyone to want to go see a speech by Dick Cheney in the first place.  Really, what was he going to tell the group of too-rich-for-their-own-good muckety-mucks ponying up for the ticket – how awesome it is to be wealthy and how the only way to become more wealthy is to screw the poor into the dirt even harder?  There, I saved ol’ Six Heart Attacks the bother of the trip.  But had he chosen to tread upon these allegedly too hazardous shores, he would have found his appearance swallowed up in the news by the Rob Fordpocalypse.  The two men are truly a pair of poison kings:  unrepentant bullies who always get away with everything because karma’s apparently asleep at the wheel.  Confronted by the revelation that the Toronto police have the infamous “crack video” in their possession, and facing calls by all four major Canadian newspapers to step down and attend to his personal problems, Ford is pulling the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and bleating “na-na-na-na-I-can’t-hear-you.”  We’ll see in the coming days and weeks whether he’s able to hang on to his office, but if and when he does go, it won’t be voluntarily, no matter what consequences Toronto suffers in the meantime.  The man’s CN Tower-sized ego simply won’t permit him to express those magical little words, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.”  Ultimately, that’s what the opponents of both men want.  It isn’t to see them flayed or doing the perp walk in irons (though to be fair, in Cheney’s case that image would be particularly satisfying.)  It’s wanting them to feel guilt and regret and shame and desperate wishes that they could somehow atone – you know, wanting them to be human.  Cheney is probably too far gone, but Ford may have a semblance of a soul left.  One can only live in hope that he will ultimately do the right thing, but I’m not a betting man.  (At least not if his serial-enabling brother Doug has anything to do with it.)

And yet, what happens to Rob Ford and Dick Cheney affects my life as little as what the girls at the next table decide to do about their next shift at the restaurant, or about the girl who’s apparently getting engaged in Utah, omigod – so why worry about it?  I remember an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation involving a telepathic guest character who was so overwhelmed by the emotions and thoughts of others that it drove him to near madness.  You can be paralyzed if you let all that stuff get to you.  Yes, it’s awful that Dick Cheney will probably live out the rest of his life in ease and affluence after ruining the world for everyone else, but there’s no sense in shortening our own time on this troubled planet by stressing out about it.  Nor is there much to be gained by spitting blood over the escapades of RoFo and DoFo.  They’re certainly not up late worrying about us.

At the end of Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa that the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.  Perhaps, but when you’re neck deep in beans that hill feels insurmountable – even if a stranger would look at you and scoff, wondering what the heck the big issue is.  Much as how while I might feel that what these three girls are obsessing over is utterly trivial, so too would they think I’m an idiot for wasting my hour writing about the travails of the former U.S. Vice President and the Mayor of Toronto, two men I have never met and will likely never meet.  At least they’re talking about people they know, people who matter to them, smiling and laughing and having a great time.  I’m the solitary soul typing away in dour silence about strangers.  Who’s better off?  We are all our own little universe, after all, we define the shape of that cosmos with our individual hopes and dreams and fears, and it is not anyone’s place to say that universe doesn’t matter.  That way lies the death of empathy and of compassion, of seeing others as human.

I eye the clock, drain the last of my lukewarm beverage, click save and shut down and slip the laptop back into the bag.  And as I head for the door I wonder if by some quirk of fate one of those young women ends up reading the post their conversation inspired.  Unlikely, of course, but you just never know.  Cold air touches my face, and I step onward into the street and disappear.