Tag Archives: hope

The Fourth is With Us Again

saga

When I reflect on the state of Star Wars on May the 4th of two years ago, the word that springs foremost to mind is nervous.  We knew that Episode VII was in production, we’d read the rumors and seen that first black and white picture of the cast at the table read, we knew the original heroes were coming back – but we still couldn’t shake the jitters.  Too many unknowns in play.  Despite the scorn dumped on George Lucas for the wobbly prequel trilogy, the idea of a new Star Wars movie without any involvement from him whatsoever still set many stomachs ill at ease.  Would it turn out to be an empty exercise in fanservice (from a filmmaker with something of a reputation for leaping headfirst into that well-cratered minefield) or would it catching Force lightning in the proverbial bottle and gift us with the wonder we first felt at the theatres in 1977 (or with our videocassette copies in the early 80’s, depending on our respective ages)?  Would we be leaping up and cheering and racing back to the kiosk to buy another ticket or would we be shuffling for the exits with the sour faces we wore as the Revenge of the Sith credits rolled?

Fast forward to May the 4th, 2016, and we know the answer to that.  Against expectations, we have entered the Star Wars Renaissance.  Star Wars is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been, since, well, longer than I can remember.  The Force Awakens was one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, and its highly anticipated sequel is filming presently and due to hit our collective consciousness in a little over a year and a half.  Daisy Ridley has become an instant movie superstar.  This December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story promises to unspool the never-told-but-oft-alluded-to tale of how the Rebel Alliance acquired the infamous Death Star schematics (with another compelling lead female role, essayed by Felicity Jones.)  Plans for Han Solo and Boba Fett spinoffs are also in the works, to say nothing of the eventual saga-concluding epic Episode IX in 2019.  Literary tie-ins bulge off shelves with novels like Aftermath and Bloodline.  Oh, and yes, the Walt Disney Company is building two massive Star Wars lands at its American theme parks.  Toys and pop culture references abound and kids are throwing on Jedi robes and running around swinging plastic lightsabers again, pretending to be Rey and Finn and Kylo Ren just like we used to pretend to be Luke, Han, Leia and Darth Vader.

It’s a great time to be a Star Wars fan.

A week or so ago I was trolled on Twitter by an – let’s say interesting individual who, according to his timeline, goes around latching on to people who’ve said unkind things about the prequel trilogy and then spams them with memes and rants about the wonderfulness of Episodes I, II and III before blocking them in what is presumably a masturbatory fit of self-satisfied pique.  You can’t please everyone, I suppose.  Contrary to what this fellow presumes, I never said I hated the prequels.  There are plenty of things about them to like:  John Williams’ score, some of the lightsaber fights, the depth of the worldbuilding among many others.  What they get wrong, however, is that they lack the key ingredient that makes Star Wars resonate with its fans, and that is the sense of hope.

The prequels were always going to be a tragedy, and despite the whiz-bang-whee moments of adventure supplied generously throughout, the ominous, inevitable sense that this is all going to go wrong in the end casts a dark pallor over the seven-hours worth of narrative.  It doesn’t matter that you know IV, V and VI are going to set it right.  Taken on their own, the prequels are just simply not a very happy experience.  Art always mirrors its creators’ mindsets, and the young, eager, starry-eyed neophyte George Lucas who made the first trilogy is not the cynical, fearful, age-embittered auteur who cobbled together the second after spending decades as a billionaire CEO shuffled daily from meeting to meeting – a man increasingly worried about the world awaiting his three children.  Lucas thought America had learned the lessons of Richard Nixon and then watched helplessly as it turned around and anointed George W. Bush.  He couldn’t have made a film with the optimism and hope of The Force Awakens because it’s simply not who he is anymore.  But that didn’t have to mean that the hope dwelling at the heart of his slumbering creation could not have awakened as it did.  We should thank Lucas for the wisdom to bequeath his legacy to the custody of Kathleen Kennedy who recognized more than anyone what Star Wars had been and what it could be again.

Yes, bad stuff happens in Star Wars.  Entire worlds are obliterated at the whims of very bad people craving absolute power.  And unlike in its other more sci-fi oriented cousin Star Trek, you can’t save the galaxy far, far away by reconfiguring the deflector dish to emit a phased tetryon stream and realizing the true meaning of “Darmok and Jalad at Tenagra.”  In Star Wars you have to pick up a blaster, or a lightsaber, or climb into an X-Wing.  Set aside your fears and stand up against the bad guys trying to set everything you hold dear aflame.  Each one of us dreams that in our inevitable moment of crisis, we will summon the courage to awaken our inner force, and that through the brave, extraordinary efforts of ordinary people, and despite the power of the dark side, we too will be able to change the world for the better.  There were some tremendously sad moments in The Force Awakens, but was there anybody who didn’t watch that final scene of Rey offering the lightsaber to Luke and feel that kind of optimism, that things were going to be all right in the end, both for the characters and for us?  The metaphor of the generational handover in the movie was not subtle, but it was indeed apt, and proven by how the new generation of fans has responded.  Kids who weren’t even around when Revenge of the Sith came out are asking to have their hair styled like Rey for Star Wars Day.  We old sods are back too, and we’ve let Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 into our crusty, guarded hearts with the same welcome we extended their predecessors.

They are, at long last, the New Hope.

I’ve written extensively about the implications of and reactions to The Force Awakens since before and after its release, but it occurred to me that through these many thousands of words I haven’t actually said what I thought of the movie.  And I can think of no more suitable judgment than this:  I didn’t want it to end.  I knew, as I watched Rey ascend those stony steps, that the credits were imminent, but a very young, long since quiet part of me hoped that somehow the story would go on.  And I’m contented knowing that it will – in more than just a collection of movies.

Because the Force is with us.  Always.

Advertisements

The last good fight

“Well sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world” – Bruce Springsteen, “Nebraska”

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’  I agree with the second part.” – William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), Seven

“Nothing baffles the schemes of evil people so much as the calm composure of great souls”Comte de Mirabeau

Warren Kinsella is a former advisor to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and continues to assist the Liberal Party of Ontario during its election campaigns – to put him in West Wing terms, he’s a wartime consigliere.  I read his blog frequently and don’t always agree with him (not to sound like the Dos Equis guy here) but respect him for several reasons:  one of which is that he says liberals should always be full-throated go-for-the-gut liberals, and another is that he believes in the nobility of always fighting for what is important.  (He is the lone liberal voice on Canada’s pathetic Fox News clone Sun News Network, which gives you a sense of his willingness to take the fight to the enemy’s turf.)  The other day he posited that he thought the human race was evil and beyond redemption.  He cited the examples of the Syrian massacre and a particular website which offers video of disturbing violent acts (which I’m not going to link to for obvious reasons).  Clearly, if you want to go down that route, there are thousands of examples more.  It’s one of those arguments that you’ll always find more evidence to support if you need it – like “politicians are corrupt,” “democracy doesn’t work” or “Jersey Shore is a blight on society.”

I don’t subscribe to this thinking, because it’s the easy way out.  (And in fairness to the usually spunky Warren, he could have just been having a bad day or been thinking about the world his kids are growing up in.)  To me, it’s throwing up your hands and surrendering before you even strap on the first shin pad.  It’s saying that principles do not matter, values are not important and attempting to live a civilized, moral life is futile.  It’s looking at the world’s douchebags living high off the hog and wondering why the hell we’re trying so hard not to be them, with the idea that our way is better for the soul, when we’re getting screwed by the universe anyway while they reap the rewards.  Like the worker ant who dutifully and nobly carries food back to the colony day after day only to be scorched to death one sunny afternoon by a smirking brat with a magnifying glass.  But it’s ground that I don’t believe the human race as a whole can afford to concede.  It’s not a world I want to live in.  Indeed, it’s not a world that would live very long.

On Star Trek and its successors, you’d often find the crew visiting planets where everyone wore the same outfit and shared the same opinion.  Absent was the dichotomy that defines humanity – the extremes of light and dark and good and evil that share contradictory space inside the soul.  The same heart that loves one hates another; the same species that cherishes beauty creates ugliness.  But it’s important not to forget that despite the increasing societal obsession with what is worst about us (fostered by media companies trying to scare you into buying things you don’t need), we have truly done some remarkable things in our relatively short time in the cosmos.  We have forged incredible works of art, literature, music.  We have crafted a society of laws and good governance.  We have cured devastating illnesses and been able to shift the focus of our existence from mere survival to the enrichment of our spirit and of our collective consciousness.  We have even taken the tiniest of baby steps away from our world into the endless realm of possibility that lies beyond.  Why, when looking at this evidence, should we continue to base our opinion of ourselves on the abysses rather than the apexes?  Are we really no better than the very worst of us?  Are we all hovering forever on a tipping point of evil, just one fragile breath away from unleashing our inner Hitler?

No goddamn way.  Call it what you will – even dare to call it faith.  But to say humanity is evil and beyond redemption is to admit I am evil and beyond redemption.  And I am better than that.  I know I am.  I know we all are.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece criticizing the conservative moguls funding attack ads against the President of the United States.  I submitted it to The Huffington Post and was surprised that they liked it enough to feature it prominently on their Politics page.  The response was quite staggering, with what I’d say was probably a 3 to 1 ratio of comments supporting what I had to say versus condemning it.  And the ones who condemned it certainly didn’t mince words.  But I don’t regret writing the piece.  It was something that I felt needed to be said, and a lot of people agreed with me.  (Interestingly enough, not that I can claim any responsibility, an article subsequently appeared in Politico where these right-wing sugar daddies are now complaining that they are being picked on, apparently forgetting that one of the tenets of free speech is the right of everyone else to tell you you’re being a dick when you say something they don’t like.)  I’ve accepted that I’ll never be a billionaire or wield the kind of influence over the masses that some really awful people do.  But my voice will always be my own, and that is something that cannot be purchased from anybody else.  And I will continue to use it to advocate the world I want to see, the world I know we can attain, with every single breath, until I can no longer speak.  It’s like that wonderful poem from The Grey:  “Once more into the fray, into the last good fight I’ll ever know.”

The bastards will not grind me down.

To be or not to be… hopeful

“If my critics saw me walking over the Thames they would say it was because I couldn’t swim.” – Margaret Thatcher (great line regardless of whether you supported her or not)

We have a conscious choice to make when we start writing anything, whether to be positive or negative.  Given the near infinite flexibility of words to create a specific tonality, even one phrase out of place, one ill-timed sarcastic barb, can radically alter the message we are trying to send.  If one tends toward the cynical, toward an overwhelming frustration with the way of the world and humanity’s seeming unwillingness to get its collective act together, keeping an upbeat theme is that much harder.  Throwing up one’s hands and then crapping phonetically over everything that rubs you the wrong way is the escape valve for the bitter, the apathetic and the cowardly.  One can liken optimism somewhat to the idea of faith, in the steadfast committal to believe in something in spite of physical evidence to the contrary.  Human beings are tremendously flawed creatures capable of doing terrible, unspeakable things to each other, but do I want to live my entire life resigned to accepting the limits of our collective potential being defined by the worst of us?  Must we always be forced to play in the dirt by those who choose to wallow there?

Criticism is a word with almost universally negative connotations, because in the age of the Internet, where “coolguy69” can dump polemics of visceral hatred (usually not phrased or even spelled as eloquently) on websites and message boards around the world and skulk back to his mother’s basement free of the responsibility of standing behind his words, we’ve forgotten that the point of criticism is, fundamentally, to offer suggestions for improvement.  Snark gets noticed – when dealing with attention spans so overwhelmed by sheer volume of input they’ve been reduced to microseconds, the quick jab with the blade garners the headline and the retweet, instead of the drawn-out approach of reason and thoughtful consideration and counterpoint.  We then pat ourselves on the back for what clever smartasses we are, forgetting in our momentary endorphin glow as the clicks and likes add up, that we are contributing nothing, advancing nothing, signifying nothing.  It is as Shakespeare so cannily observed 400 years ago, a tale told by an idiot – and deserving of no further consideration.

I don’t want to be that guy.  I don’t want to be the hipster loudmouth at the party who sips his appletini while he pontificates upon the downfall of Western civilization, throwing in handy Cliffs Notes references to Albert Camus and the collected works of Francois Truffaut while he constructs a dizzying, grand unifying thesis of how the human obsession with reality television and Facebook is merely foreshadowing the zombie apocalypse.  Instead, I want to be the optimist.  And that’s easier than you might think, because the evidence is everywhere.  For every Joseph Kony in the world there are a hundred million good, decent, honest people, working hard, raising families, treating friends, neighbors and strangers alike with the respect and tolerance we should all merit by the mere fact of our existence.  Not easy to remember when the Konys suck up all the news coverage, which is why sniping at the big bad universe is always the quicker, more seductive path – the dark side of the op-ed.  When discourse has become so polarized, left and right so implacably divorced and compromise an archaic concession of the ideologically weak, is it not morally better to try and calm the waters – to try and point towards better days ahead – instead of stirring them further?  Sighing and sneering won’t get us to the future that I continue to hope for in moments when I behold the wonders of nature, the possibilities of human achievement, and the smile of a child.

I don’t have a problem putting my name and photograph alongside my words, because I’m of the belief that if you wouldn’t carve it in concrete on your front porch, you shouldn’t publish it online.  I can do that comfortably because I am proud that I have chosen, as the old song says, to accentuate the positive, and if I’m to be criticized for what I’ve written, I can take it, secure in the knowledge that I’ve given my best.  It’s difficult at times; I get frustrated, even downright pissed off at a lot of what goes on out there, and many first drafts full of ugly vitriol have gone into the digital bin when I have stopped, taken a breath and asked myself what good it would do.  That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.  Are we doing any good with our words?  If not, then why are we bothering to write them?

Han

"It's a state of mind. Of soul, really."

Overwhelmed is a good way to describe myself after yesterday, and yet, even that somewhat hyperbolic word seems strangely inadequate.  I am so deeply moved and touched by the response to my post about my father – some of the comments left by friends and strangers quite literally brought forth tears.  And that is all my Dad, proving that what I said yesterday is true, that even twenty-five years gone he retains the ability to move and inspire everyone he touches.

Some of you shared your own inspiring stories of your parents, and of your own losses.  I think it’s important to remember in times like these that which connects us all as members of the human race; our emotions.  In our darkest and our brightest moments, we all feel the same way.  We can look at someone who is suffering and understand the depth of their pain.  More than that, we can share in our joy and celebrate mutual triumphs.  We can feel so alone in this vast universe, and yet we never are.  We have each other.  We will always have each other.  A man who was equal parts president and philosopher, John F. Kennedy, said that “we all inhabit this small planet; we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”  The possibility of our greatness is tied to our capacity for empathy, the knowledge of and the desire to do good, not out of a wish for personal gain, but because we know that it is right, and that the mere doing of good makes us all better.

There is a Korean word, han, which first came to my attention when it was used on an episode of The West Wing.  There is no English translation, but it was described on the show as “A sadness so deep no tears will come, and yet still there’s hope.”  I’m not sure if I’m using it here exactly in the way a native Korean would, but for my own purposes, it captures my state of mind this morning in a way that overwhelmed does not.  I still mourn my late father, but I am lifted, given great hope indeed, by the supportive thoughts of friends, family and strangers; the great tapestry of emotional connection that binds us all in a universal truth.  Maybe that’s a lesson to take from this experience, is that even in the depths of despair, there is always hope.  And we need not look far to find it.  It’s in me; it’s in you.  It’s in us.  It is us.

Twenty Five

Nothing can prepare you for the news that your father is gone.  It doesn’t matter if it’s expected, the inevitable conclusion of a long terminal illness, or sudden, like the turn of a page.  You are spending the afternoon in the snow with your friends when someone comes to you and tells you to be brave.  And then they lead you to a room where your mother is sitting, her face the picture of devastation.  There is no easy way to tell you, but she tries to ease into it as smoothly as she can – mindful of the fragile heart of an eleven-year-old boy.  The fateful words come.  “I’m afraid he died.”  The rest of the moment is lost in a torrent of sudden tears wailed into her arms.  It can’t be, you think in the spaces between the sobs.  Not him.  Not my dad.

That boy was me, twenty-five years ago this afternoon.  More than any other day, February 12th, 1987 has shaped who I have become, because it was the day I lost my best friend in the world, the man I admired above all others.  He was everything I ever wanted to be, a legacy to which I still aspire, and if I live another sixty years and achieve half of what he did I can leave this life content with how I’ve used my precious time on this little rock.  Was he a famous man, an influential man, a man of letters or worldwide renown?  Google his name if you want; you won’t get any hits.  But that doesn’t matter to me.  My father remains the ideal of what it means to be a man.  Without his guidance this past quarter-century I have looked to other mentors from time to time and each has come up a distant second (and occasionally further back even than that) through no fault of their own.  They’re just not and will never be my father.  Growing up without your dad is a bit like trying to canoe on your own against a heavy wind.  Without him in the stern guiding you with his steady paddle, you’re often blown far off course and will struggle to find your way back – perhaps never.

My father never judged me.  He never forced me in a direction I didn’t want to go.  When I was abjectly miserable following my first-ever hockey practice, humiliated by kids who were bigger and better at it, he told me I didn’t have to go back.  And yet he wasn’t a coddler or a helicopter father.  In the junior soccer league in which I played, it was something of a running joke that it was customary for the coach’s son to win the Most Valuable Player Award every year – predictable nepotism from showbiz dads convinced their kid was the next Beckham (or Pele, if we’re using a decade-appropriate reference).  But not the year my dad coached my team.  He wasn’t going to give me something I hadn’t earned.  I got Most Improved Player – because despite my total lack of athletic skill, I worked incredibly hard, suffering skinned knees and bruised shins, for him.  (Most Injured Player would have been more apt.)  Making him proud was more than enough for me.  An interesting aside to this story is, that year our team lost every single game except the three my father wasn’t able to attend.  My teammates begged him not to come to the championships.  He did regardless – and we won the whole blessed thing.  I still have the trophy.

Dad taught me baseball, he taught me to ski, he taught me to love the Beatles.  Where other kids recited “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” I sang “Norwegian Wood” to perplexed relatives and he beamed.  I laughed at his inability to decipher song lyrics and the comical nonsense words he came up with instead.  I watched my cousin tear up on her sixteenth birthday as she listened to the playlist of 50’s jukebox classics he had assembled for her big day.  I watched his delight at the smile on my face as I tore open the newest box of space Lego.  I watched him shrug off with a smile the time I embarrassed him in front of our entire church congregation.  He had a rare capability to spread joy, and he did so whenever the opportunity arose.  He could befriend complete strangers in minutes.  You could not walk down the main street of our home town with him without running into someone he knew.  And you always got the sense that everyone he did know, whether casually or intimately, cared deeply about him as well.  He had that effect on people.  When I was struggling with bullies or simply trying to figure out my place in the world, his arm around my shoulder assured me that everything was going to be okay, because he had my back.  No matter how dark the night, the voice of my father was the light.  One of his last gifts to me was in the early stages of my figuring out that I wanted to write.  On weekends, or in the summer, he’d take me to his office and park me in front of the old Xerox computer with its floppy discs the size of pizza boxes and encourage me to type and just dream.

The last time I saw him, he wasn’t feeling well.  He’d taken the morning off and was still in bed as I got ready to head off to an overnight stay with my weekly enrichment class at a nature park a few hours north of us.  I went into the bedroom to say goodbye, never imagining this would be our last moment together.  I gave him a kiss on the forehead and said I would see him in a few days.  When I saw him those few days later he was lying silent and cold on a table in the funeral home.  And I still expected him to open his eyes and look at me and smile, and tell me that it would be all right.  It felt like we had so much left to do together.  The Blue Jays were going to be starting a new season in a few months and there was a new Bond movie coming out in July that he’d promised me he’d take me to see.  Wake up, Dad.  I still need you.

For twenty-five years there has been a father-shaped hole in my life; I have lived far longer without him than I did with him.  I am only five years younger now than he was when he died, and not a day passes that I don’t think of him, and miss him.  I reflect on some of the disastrous decisions I’ve made in my life and think if he had been here, maybe he could have steered me away from those rocks and shoals.  Age has made me look more like him too; there are moments when I see pictures of myself now and shiver a little at the uncanny resemblance.  I have felt for much of my life like a mere echo of his voice, my path ever uncertain, every step of the way wondering what he would think of the choices I’ve made, if I have lived up to the example he laid down in his too-brief journey.  I am not really a spiritual person, but I feel the same longing to be able to ask the absent Father if I am all that I am meant to be.  If I am worthy of his name and of his love.  I feel it so acutely of late, like a needle twisting in my heart, and today most of all.  I want to hear him say he’s proud of me.  That’s all I’ve ever asked.  It is all the validation I’ll ever need.

After my mother passed away several years later, we had a small ceremony to place her ashes with his.  As we left the cemetery, a pair of geese from a nearby hill took off and soared away into the sky.  The timing was eerily serendipitous; it was almost as if they were together again now, reunited in a new life and heading off to adventures bold.  One could even imagine that they were bidding me a last goodbye, secure that they had done all they could and were letting me go now to face the challenges of the future with the strength and the values they had instilled in me.  Values of kindness, respect, compassion, empathy and love.  Everything I am I owe to them, and through the sadness, I feel gratitude.  I wish I could tell them that.  I wish I could toss the ball around in the backyard with Dad and complain about the lack of depth in the Jays’ pitching staff and ask him what he thinks of Daniel Craig as James Bond.  I wish I could introduce him to my beautiful wife and listen to them sing together – they’d sound terrific, I’m sure.  As amazing as my wedding was, Dad leading the guests in a round of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” with half the words wrong would have made it even more memorable.

There is an old saying that a candle that burns half as long burns twice as bright; I have to believe that in the eleven short years I had with my father we burned brightly indeed, and that we loved each other as much as a father and son could.  Perhaps I don’t have his counsel anymore, or his arm around my shoulder on those darkest days, but I have the life he gave me, and the road ahead that is his greatest possible bequest.  I don’t think I’ll ever stop missing my dad, but when I get up tomorrow and start my twenty-sixth year without him I will try to carry the best parts of who he was through all the rest of my days, and live the life he would have wanted for me.  And I hope that’s tribute enough.

I love you, Dad.

Blain William Milne

1945-1987

Of Dickens and dancing

One is known for penetrating insight into the human condition, the other for a sublime figure and captivating dance moves. If you think you know which is which, you obviously never saw Dickens do a tango.

February 7, 2012, is the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  The best of times, or the worst of times?  One wonders if Dickens, who died thirty years before the turn of the 20th Century, would be pleased to know that his stories and characters are remembered well into an era he could not have conceived, yet arguably might have found a home in.  You don’t have to have read his entire catalogue, or even a single volume of his works to know names like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, the Artful Dodger, Miss Havisham, Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, and perhaps most notably, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge.  As I’ve observed before, how we celebrate Christmas today is largely the result of how Dickens portrayed it.  Dickensian is a familiar adjective that conjures immediately an idealized image of the grand old city of London, his everlasting muse.  Stylistically, Dickens was a master of character, an expert wielder of the cliffhanger.  Socially, he was a champion of the poor, an advocate of justice and a relentless believer in the capability of good to triumph over evil.  Story was his sword, and with it he carved himself a legacy still seen in the most popular fiction of today – particularly that which celebrates the underdog and his fight against overwhelming odds.

The romanticism of the Dickensian tale resonates to this day, I believe, because he recognized that we all crave that same heightened sense of adventure in our own lives.  Edyta Śliwińska of Dancing with the Stars fame, in discussing the various failed relationships that had sprung up between celebrities and partners during the course of the show, cannily observed their failure to know the difference between intense attraction and a lasting emotional connection – the mistaking, as it were, of movie love for real love.  Fictional romances, whether on the screen or in printed pages, are a powerful narcotic because of their savvy manipulation of the universality of emotions.  We want to be swept off our feet in slow motion to the swell of orchestral strings and walk into the sunset of the happily ever after.  It is not that our real lives are less interesting – far from it when closely examined – but we are drawn in by the heightened and artificial reality of the story.  The natural ebbs and flows of relationships are compressed into 90 minutes, the sweet moments escalated into diabetic fits of ecstasy.  In the story you don’t see the sitting up at three a.m. worrying while your partner squats noisily on the toilet, and any screaming matches usually only happen in the last third of the second act; once the screen goes to black and the credits roll, all is right in the world forever and evermore.  Real love is messy, and angry, and hurtful, even hateful at times.  But it is real, and unlike the movie, it is lasting.

Why then, do we still want the storybook version?  It is perhaps a gut reaction to the madness of the world outside, an existential search for meaning in the face of suffering.  I choose to see it as a case for optimism about the nature of humanity.  Like all of nature’s creatures we are designed for survival at all costs, often by the cruellest methods available to us.  Yet paradoxically we are still drawn toward the positive, the sense of anticipation of the prosperous future.  We hunger for the reassurance of the triumph of good against evil no matter what the stakes, or the cost.  Charles Dickens knew it, and could translate that longing into characters and tales into which we could invest ourselves.  That, I think is the key to Dickens’ lasting appeal – the nurturing of that tiny flame which continues to burn in every human heart, no matter how downtrodden, how wracked with despair at seemingly unending misery.  The longing for the light.  The everlasting sense of hope.

And I’m told he had great legs too.

God save Sam Seaborn

In the absence of compelling summer television and a firm disinterest in whomever The Bachelorette picks, we are engaged in a repeat viewing of the entire seven seasons of The West Wing.  Assaulted by news feeds of corporate-backed Tea Party lunacy and the fiscal axe falling on libraries, it’s good to step away for an hour or two each night into Aaron Sorkin’s erudite exploration of the virtues of public service and the triumph of liberalism.  When TWW was originally airing during the height of the Bush administration it was a welcome salve for wounded progressive hearts and a source of hope for better days ahead – showing what it could be like when the reins were held by people who genuinely believed in government as a meaningful force for good rather than some nebulous beast to be starved lest they not be able to buy another yacht.

No character better exemplified this than the Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, played by Rob Lowe in an arguably career-defining role as a fast-talking, pure-hearted and paradoxically handsome nerd, able to translate his unassailable convictions into elegant turns of phrase for the President to deliver just as smoothly.  Where Toby Ziegler was the moral conscience of the senior staff, and Josh Lyman was the warrior determined to win at all costs, Sam was the idealist, the dreamer, a bottomless well of hope never tempered by politics as usual.  Originally intended to be the focus of the show – he was the first character to be introduced in the pilot episode – Sam began to fall off the radar as the seasons progressed, usurped at the center of the series’ main plots by Josh and Toby.  As a writer, it’s not difficult to see why this may have occurred for Sorkin – a character of such upstanding value and with so few apparent flaws as Sam is very hard to write.  Usually the approach is to test the limits of their values and morality by challenging it from every angle, daring the character to retain their hope against the creeping ennui of human failings.

We saw this articulated in Sam’s best episode, Somebody’s Going to Emergency, Somebody’s Going to Jail.  Sam is struggling with the revelation that his father has been cheating on his mother for 28 years when he is asked to look into a pardon request for a man who had been accused of espionage for the Soviets during the Second World War.  Determined at the start to reverse what he feels is a mockery of justice, Sam ultimately discovers that his pet cause was, in fact, a traitor, the revelation of which combined with his father’s infidelities nearly crushes him.  In a touching scene where he breaks down in front of Donna Moss (Janel Moloney), he confesses the need he feels for certainties in life on which to hang his hope, like “longitude and latitude.”  And yet at the end Sam makes a difficult phone call to try and begin reconciliation with his father.  He has found his certainty – and his hope – again in the faces of his friends.

One always got the sense that Sam was driven to prove that hope could triumph cynicism.  After a soul-flattening career using his intelligence and skill with the law to protect oil companies from litigation, working at the White House was his chance to redeem those mistakes.  It would have been nice to see the hinted-at wounded part of his character explored in greater depth had he stayed a few seasons more.

Rob Lowe’s and Aaron Sorkin’s respective early departures from the series after its fourth season left a huge question in what the plans for Sam Seaborn ultimately would have been.  Yet a tease was dropped in the third-season episode Hartsfield’s Landing.  Discussing the intricacies of a standoff with the Chinese over a game of chess, President Bartlet comments to a stunned Sam, “You’re going to run for President one day.  Don’t be scared, you can do it.”  A flicker of reaction crosses Sam’s face, both sheer terror at an incredible notion that he might not have ever considered, replaced swiftly by a quiet confidence that if he has inspired that kind of hope in someone he admires so deeply, he might just succeed.  The currency of hope remains potent, and we are grateful that it is – making one agree with Toby’s final line to Sam as he walks out of the series in the fourth season episode Red Haven’s On Fire – “God save the United States of America… and Sam Seaborn.”

In Peace for All Mankind

Today is July 20, 2011.  42 years ago, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.  Forty-two freakin’ years.  My generation wasn’t even the proverbial glimmer in its father’s eye when the last guy (Eugene Cernan – I saved you a trip to Wikipedia) left the moon in 1972.  Your smartphone is infinitely more complex and powerful than the computer that guided the Apollo spacecraft to the surface of the moon and back.  Heck, even your wristwatch is probably more sophisticated.  So forty-two years ago we landed on the moon and forty-two years later we’re getting ready for the last space shuttle flight to come back to earth with the space program on fiscal life support and seemingly no clear direction as to where it’s going next – certainly not in terms of manned missions.  And far from being glued to their screens listening to Walter Cronkite describe Neil Armstrong’s descent from Eagle, people are likely more inclined these days to ask, “there’s still a space program?”

Public perception of NASA’s budget in the United States is that it accounts for as much as 20% of the total federal expenditure, when in fact it’s closer to 0.5%.  You have the country that arguably led the way into the heavens spending $600 billion a year on ways to kill people (which is always guaranteed to win lots of public support) when the entire Apollo program cost a total of $22 billion over ten years to put men on another world.  Thing is, if the people wanted more focus on outer space and voted accordingly, it would happen in a heartbeat.  So why don’t we?  When you think about the thousands of years of history that preceded July 20, 1969, the generations of civilizations looking up at the stars and wondering what was up there without the technological capability to see for themselves, the idea that human beings could ever look upon space with as much interest as they might have in a seven-year-old tax return is stomach-turning.  It’s a betrayal of the promise of who we are, and the worst form of cynicism.  Yet it happened.  Landing on the moon was cool once, became routine and then stopped altogether.  I’m at a loss to explain it, because I don’t see how you can look at those images the astronauts are tweeting from Atlantis and not be enraptured by the beauty, the fragility and the necessity of it all.

Opponents of the space program love to drag out the old cost-benefit rationale.  “What do our tax dollars get us?”  Certainly not a house in the Hamptons or a bridge in Brooklyn.  The greatest benefit of space exploration is not measurable by accountants, because it is in enriching the spirit.  It’s in asking questions of existence, faith and the human soul as much as any religion (which, by the way, gets numerous tax breaks without any demonstrable fiscal return).  It’s in expanding us beyond the confines of our tiny planet and imagining the possibilities of an entire universe – where human trifles that consume our thoughts and our fears today are reduced to the insignificance of sand grains in favour of something far greater.  Exploration united us on July 20, 1969 as Armstrong took that first step.  It can do so again – what is required is commitment, courage and above all else, curiosity.  And that is worth it.

Read it, don’t read it, it’s entirely up to you

Journalists and bloggers have been making plenty of noise since the verdict was handed down on whether or not Casey Anthony will get a book deal.  Naturally there’s been lots of accompanying outrage and moral indignation over the thought of this person raking in seven figures to spend a few hours chatting with a ghostwriter who’ll shape her verbiage into a tearful missive.  Frankly, I expect this as inevitable.  I suppose it’s no more egregious than any one of a hundred true crime authors who’ll be cashing in on the Casey Anthony media frenzy.  I could launch into a screed on how this is symbolic of the downfall of our culture and our preoccupation with all things celebrity, but I won’t, because I have hope.  And that hope has oddly come in the form of Snooki.

When it was announced early this year that the  Jersey Shore “star,” who had boasted of only ever reading one book in her entire life, had landed a deal with Simon & Schuster to write a novel, thousands of unpublished authors across North America (myself included) bashed their heads against the wall in unison.  Why, with such a glut of undiscovered talent out there busting their asses for the slightest bit of attention from mainstream publishers, were the big houses continuing to write big cheques to D-list celebs with no discernible writing talent whatsoever?  It reminds me of the fourth-rate movie production houses who regularly churn out zero-budget dreck like Snakes on a Train, apparently banking on that precious and heretofore-unexploited demographic of Snakes on a Plane fans afflicted with glaucoma.  Somewhere in an accountant’s backroom, the great gods of publishing have decided that a piece of crap written by a quasi-somebody will stand a better chance of selling than a potentially brilliant story written by a nobody.  So thousands of query letters go in the trash and semi-literate Snooki goes out on a massive publicity tour to pimp her opus A Shore Thing, hitting just about every morning and evening talk show on television (and the cover of Rolling Stone, much to the chagrin of Dr. Hook).  My personal favorite was her interview on Today, with a clearly embarrassed Matt Lauer asking her, “What’s a badonk?” – to which she replied with the William F. Buckley-esque “Your badonk is your butt.”  Yep, somewhere Hemingway was rolling over in his grave and reaching for another drink.

But then the book dropped.  And the heavens parted and a great light shone through from above and nobody bought it.  The more inclined of you can look it up, but I believe it moved about 10,000 copies worldwide.  Hardly “runaway bestseller” territory.  Those thousands of unpublished authors could now remove their heads from the wall and resume bashing it against their keyboards.

The sharp rise and crashing fall of Nicole Polizzi’s writing career proves to the more jaded of us that there still exists some semblance of taste in the appetite of the public.  Yes, Glenn Beck is still there ranting against all things Obama and Sarah Palin continues the world’s longest c***-tease of a possible presidential campaign.  And The Huffington Post still runs “Kim Kardashian Shows Off Her Curves” stories twice a week.  But dammit, we dashed Snooki’s pursuit of a Pulitzer!  And we did it in the easiest way imaginable – we just ignored her.  Which is what anyone who objects to a Casey Anthony book deal should do.

I say, let Casey Anthony’s book come out.  And let it sit on the shelves yellowing and collecting dust.  Ignore it the way you do Batboy and the latest “Who’s Gay in Hollywood!” in the aisle at the grocery checkout counter.  Eventually, publishers will get the message and maybe go back to that slush pile of queries – because the next somebody (who hasn’t been accused of murdering her daughter, or, acted stupid, drunk and skanky on television) with a great story is just waiting to be found.  It’s up to us to make that happen.

Or, buy the damn book.  But then don’t get indignant when the next reality show troglodyte rakes in a cool million for his thesis on boogers and how to use them to get laid.  It’s entirely up to you.  And I’m blaming you accordingly.