Tag Archives: Jimmy Carter

With a Song in My Heart: I is for…

“Imagine” – John Lennon, 1971.

I doubt there is a soul reading this entry who’s followed my work and finds this choice surprising.  You could even argue that it’s the safe choice, the obvious choice.  Lennon again.  A few more fawning paragraphs about his immortal brilliance, as if I haven’t said enough about him already.  I do find myself growing a bit self-conscious whenever I drop in a Lennon reference, no matter how oblique, but the fact of the matter is that he and his music linger each day at the edge of perception, seeping into actions, words and deeds like an ethos that informs every moral choice.  I can’t point to a single event in my life that “Imagine” evokes because it’s always been there, like a continuous score for a movie whose running time is 38 years and counting.  Like the lyric says, I’m not the only one who thinks so.  President Jimmy Carter once said that in the many countries he’s visited, he has heard it being used equally with national anthems – imagine there’s no countries indeed.  (Given that a majority of the world’s national anthems are about war, it seems only right to have a dovish counterargument.)  So I suspect there’s meager appetite for a critical dissection of the chord structure, the history of the composition and the words; more scholarly scribes have covered this territory with far more accomplished diction.  We’ll go another way.

Isn’t it a bit ironic, the question might be asked, for a person who has lost so many of the important people in his life – some at a very early age, no less – to embrace a song whose first line is “imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try”?  The simple answer is yeah, people are walking contradictions.  The deeper answer goes more to the essence of faith and belief and whether or not one’s ability to grieve demands a contrived Judeo-Christian image of departed relatives lounging on clouds and strumming harps.  Baptized Anglican, my gradual disillusionment with religion was like the disintegration of a finely woven tapestry, its threads pulled away one at a time by doubt and dissatisfaction with pat answers to lingering spiritual questions.  I didn’t care for bromides like “your dad’s in a better place now.”  No he bloody well isn’t, the better place is here with his wife and his children.  When my frail grandmother died almost a decade later, the weak sauce offered at the funeral was “your grandmother has been made young and strong in the embrace of the Lord.”  Like a salesman telling his mark exactly what they wanted to hear, to close the deal.  And I wasn’t in the mood to buy.  With age I understand now why those lines are delivered in those moments, but back then they did nothing but stoke anger and resentment at the whole enterprise.  I rejected attempts at comfort or counselling because I quite honestly thought the whole world was full of shit.  It was quite easy to imagine there was no heaven.  I didn’t even have to try.  Lennon got it, though.  He dared us to imagine living for today because there weren’t nothin’ waiting round the next bend.

When Pat Tillman died, a bunch of famous politicians showed up at his funeral and spouted the usual script about Tillman being taken to the Lord’s side.  Tillman’s brother took the dais and called them out on it, asking them to keep their religion to themselves and reminding them that Pat had been an atheist and that as far as Pat’s beliefs were concerned, “he’s f—in’ dead.”  There is this tendency for human beings to handle loss by pretending that it isn’t really a loss after all.  That the deceased have merely changed lodging arrangements.  They’re just living one universe over, but there’s no reliable wi-fi between there and here.  We don’t really seem capable of being able to process the concept that something can be present in one minute and utterly vanished from existence in the next.  Instead we imagine an otherworldy waystation, and that some day we’ll catch up to those who’ve gone ahead.  The better we behave while we’re here, the better our chances of a good seat in the great beyond.

John Lennon says no, this is all there is.  While one might initially be inclined to think of that in a negative connotation, I choose to see it as quite hopeful.  Here, in this life, we have everything we’ll need.  Because it contains everything that ever was and ever will be.  The cosmos is the greatest recycler – new worlds are born from the deaths of the old.  Every atom in your body and in the chair you’re sitting in and the air you’re breathing and even the words you’re reading right now came from a supernovaed star and will still be here long after they have ceased to exist in their present state.  People die and are transformed.  Physicality becomes memory, and the impact of action becomes imprinted in history.  The music remains embedded in the record even after the needle has been removed.  Footprints on the soft, malleable continuum of time are immune to the wash of the tide.

So can you imagine there’s no heaven and still consider yourself a spiritual person?  Maybe that’s one contradiction too many for some, but it’s what I’ve considered myself to be.  There is a magnificence to the universe that moves me.  Throughout the chaos, patterns emerge, and their perfection is, for lack of a less obvious term, musical.  My mind grows restless at the idea of settling on an answer provided for me by thousands of years of dogma; I would rather search out my own, and spend life imagining possibilities and connecting with those who fancy the notion of life as this ongoing quest, with all the supplies we require laid out before us in a limitless bounty.  Living for today, and in peace.

I hope someday you’ll join me.

Lego minifigures, why so serious?

spaceman

This fascinating article from last week illuminated an otherwise unnoticed fact – that over the last few decades, the faces printed on Lego minifigures have been getting steadily more angry and intense.  Those cute little plastic guys, population 4 billion and rising, who for a long time faced the world with a uniform array of sweet smiles have succumbed to the creeping angst of a 21st Century obsessed with dystopia and inner turmoil.  Is nothing sacred?  Is there no refuge from the seeming relentless push towards “dark and edgy” as the only virtues in our entertainment, no matter its form?

My first Lego set came my way when Jimmy Carter was still President; it was a Space set featuring a tiny wedge-shaped ship, controlled by a steering wheel, mounted on a launch vehicle, and it included a single red-suited spaceman, happy at the prospect of the adventures he was certain to have with me.  Shortly thereafter Lego became my toy of choice – forget Transformers, G.I. Joes or whatever else, if that wrapped Christmas present didn’t manifest the trademark rattle when shaken it was bound to be disappointment on the morning of December 25th.  With birthdays and other special occasions my armada grew to include astronauts in white and yellow, and eventually (once the line expanded) blue and black.  And darn it if those little guys weren’t always cheerful.  Even when Lego went a step further and introduced the first “bad guys” of Lego Space – Blacktron – beneath those ominous dark-shielded helmets could be found the same delightful grin.  The same went for the Town and Castle lines.

Kids grow up, of course, and Lego falls by the wayside… until 1998 and Lego Freakin’ Star Wars drops.  By then I’m handling my own discretionary spending and so set after set gets snapped up to the detriment of my income but to the benefit of recapturing childhood glee.  But the minifigures have changed.  Their faces have been customized to better suit the Star Wars characters.  Leia has eyelashes and lipstick, Han has a little wry smirk.  Luke Skywalker looks rather dour with a very even, mature expression more suited to the way Mark Hamill looks now than his A New Hope variant.  As the line prospers, pieces are refined and more and more sets are released, with the minifigures continuing to evolve alongside them, finally trading in their trademark yellow hue for tones borrowed from the actors who played the characters.  And many of them are downright grumpy.  A few of the nameless officers still sport the crescent-moon grin, as though working for the Galactic Empire or the Rebellion respectively is the most awesomest job ever, but the more famous characters are all pretty darned serious.  And this is only Star Wars – this isn’t considering Batman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter or the Lego City lines or innumerable others where often, minifigures look pissed off, as if someone has completely ruined their wonderful little plastic day.  (We won’t get into the replacement of megaphones with blaster pistols for the Stormtroopers’ weapons, that’s another conversation).

So, is Lego driving this trend or is it merely responding to the downward (emotionally speaking, that is) trend in popular taste?  Whenever you hear about a new movie or television series being pitched, the makers’ first comment is usually that it’s “dark and edgy,” almost as a reflex response.  It’s what’s in – presumably, a “bright and sunny” film would be laughed out of the room.  We have seen countless remakes and reimaginings where otherwise optimistic tales are “darkened” for public consumption.  And yet, there is obviously an appetite for optimism that is desperate to be satisfied, growing ever hungrier every time “dark and edgy” sighs its way onto our screens again.  We saw evidence of this appetite in recent years with the brony phenomenon coming out of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, where otherwise-angst-consumed teens and adults embraced a colorful children’s cartoon that emphasized the importance of kindness in all things.  We want to feel happy, yet our entertainment producers keep shoving melancholy down our throats, and we swallow it willingly, trying to ignore the sting of the razor blade as it rattles its way down into our stomachs.

Lego is hedging their bets somewhat, as it often prints Janus-like heads with two different expressions, one serene and one more intense, that can be rotated depending on the mood of play.  Part of what made the original smiling minifigure so endearing, however, was that no matter what horrific fate might befall him – usually bisection in a spaceship crash, if we’re going by my experience – he came through it with unflappable joy and spunk, ready to be reassembled for more.  No matter what kind of day you’d had, if you’d flunked a test or been shoved into the locker again by that mean kid twice your size, when you shuffled back into your room your Lego men were always smiling at you and standing ever ready to help you explore the very limits of your imagination.  Maybe there are limits to what a bunch of little plastic guys can teach a kid, but the attitude of the classic minifigure – embracing challenge with positivity no matter what the circumstance – is worth preserving and passing along.  Let’s save the angst until high school at least.

In search of lost leaders

I paraphrased that from Marcel Proust – a name any candidate for office drops at his or her own peril, lest they be labeled an out-of-touch, latte-sipping elitist and snob.  I haven’t read A la recherche du temps perdu – my experience of Proust is confined to multiple viewings of the “All-England Summarize Proust Competition” from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  I did however slog my way through James Joyce’s Ulysses earlier this year.  (Spoiler alert:  the last word is “yes.”)  I didn’t read it so I could say I did whilst peering down my nose at the teenage girl devouring her dog-eared copy of Twilight.  I read it out of a sense of curiosity and wanting to enrich myself, and as a writer, wanting to learn from one of the masters.  Will it have any discernible impact on my own writing?  Can’t really say.  But the point wasn’t to reach a definitive goal.  It was to simply add another ingredient to the bubbling stew of my intellect – a concoction of memory, schooling, experience and opinion from which (hopefully) pours forth something of value.

Pardon me as I pause for another sip of my venti decaf mocha hazelnut frappucino.  I mention this as I watch the unfolding of two election campaigns with the memory of a third only a few months old, and bemoan the race to the bottom that each has become.  If there is a singular thread that runs through my handful of postings here, it is a profound belief in the capability of human beings at their best, and an equally profound disappointment at humanity’s choice not to exert its potential.  It’s a bit like watching Superman choose to sit on his porch with a beer just because he doesn’t feel like doing anything today.  Except instead of today it’s been the last 30 years.

Jimmy Carter was crushed in his bid for re-election by a guy who galvanized America with a bold, inspiring message.  The message wasn’t about the incredible things that America had done when it pulled together and shared sacrifice, like winning the Second World War or landing men on the moon.  No, it was that their government sucked.  (It remains frustrating to me that anyone can win election to office by decrying the office itself, but there you go.)  Ronald Reagan preached that government needed to be reined in, cut off at the knees, drowned in the bathtub.  This message resonated so deeply, coupled with the other side’s failure to articulate a decent rebuttal, that it has informed the political discourse in the U.S. ever since.  It’s disappointing to see even President Barack Obama buy into Reagan’s fallacy as he describes his battles with a Congress full of people who literally hate his guts.  The debate has moved so far to the right that those of us on the other side feel like we’re a yard from our own end zone with 15 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter.

The rebuttal should be that government works when the right people (pardon the uncomfortable pun) are running it.  And that is, subliminally, something that most people do agree with.  People want leadership.  “Strong leader” is one of the most important factors when pollsters take the temperature of the electorate’s attitude towards candidates.  Yet the atmosphere has become so trying that truly great leaders won’t even make the ballot, let alone win.  Television and 24/7 media scrutiny played on endless repeat with panel discussions, five-day-long specials and exclusive interviews has made it so that only the blandest folks can survive the onslaught.  An email used to circulate a few years ago where you were given three biographies and asked to pick which you thought would make the best leader – only after you’d picked were you given the names.  I don’t remember the exact details, but basically, the first was a drunk, the second was a cripple and the third was a squeaky-clean vegetarian customs clerk.  Based on the bios you always went for the clerk, only to discover that it was Hitler – while the former were Churchill and FDR respectively.

We’ve seen plenty of prospective leaders undone by the smallest gaffes.  Howard Dean, the progressive governor of Vermont who was leading in the early 2004 Democratic presidential race, was finished off by media overreaction to an exuberant scream he gave during a rally-the-troops speech to his supporters.  Not a sex scandal, illegal nanny or even a misfiled income tax return.  A scream.  Michael Ignatieff, the highly-regarded writer, educator and public intellectual, led Canada’s Liberal Party to its worst-ever defeat after being hounded in attack ads and the press for having lived several years abroad.  Again, he hadn’t fathered a kid with the maid or been caught snorting cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  He was attacked for having lived outside the country.  No one can say what kind of leaders these guys would have been had they won.  But the circumstances of their undoing merely reinforced the meme that safe and bland is a winning strategy.  In fact, you don’t have to be a strong leader at all – you just have to say you are over and over again and people will start to believe it, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, or lack of any evidence of leadership qualities at all.

If we are defined by our mistakes, and our character shaped by our reactions to them, what can be said of people who don’t make any?  How is someone who grew up in comfort and was parachuted into his career by his country club father, someone who has never had to take risks and has never experienced the ache and disappointment of loss and personal failings ever supposed to empathize with the plight of drug addicts or the homeless, or the simple working man who has to scratch for every dime to feed his family?  How is that person supposed to unite the differing interests of a vast country and guide them into a new and better era?  When you occasion to wonder why we haven’t gone back to the moon, or to Mars, or really progressed very much further in our evolution, you have only to look at the mediocrities we’ve entrusted to lead us – people with no imagination, no soul, no capability of looking beyond the end of the spreadsheet.  Politicians cruise to landslide victories on promises of nothing more than tax cuts.  We then act surprised when they don’t deliver anything else.

If someone is capable, if they are intelligent, if they are curious, if they have lived a learned and compassionate life, if they have a sense of humor, if they have experienced the world beyond their borders, if they believe in the ability of government to unite and do good, if they are driven to challenge and enrich themselves, and if the cruelties of regret have forged the gravitas of statesmen, then quite frankly, I don’t care if they have snorted cocaine off a bikini model’s boobs.  I’m more likely to admire them for admitting that and making light of it rather than succumbing to the papal-like finger-pointing of the media and the opposing party.  We need to remember that the best of us are broken in some way, and that by demanding perfection in candidates we won’t get leaders, we’ll only get managers – those guys who in the private sector become terrific assistant vice-presidents but never really impact anybody’s life but their own.  I hope to be more than that, and I hope we are one day again led by someone who is more than that.

So maybe I will pick up that copy of Proust after all.  And hopefully, a future leader is doing so right now as well.