Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Frowning Man

He just stands there.

Most days, I take the same route to work. Most days, I am in the midst of the morning rush. Most days, I’m cranking my iPod and wishing it could go to 11. Most days at the start of the school year, I’m playing music in the hopes of drowning out the legion of warring internal voices, the too-many demands for too-little time. I arrive at work clinging to my enthusiasm, but always with the rabid dogs of negativity baying in the distance and approaching fast.

Every day, roughly half a mile from my destination, I pass a man standing on the side of the road.

He just stands there. The Frowning Man.

It’s a busy road. Thousands of cars every morning. Maybe I pass that spot at 7:30 a.m., or maybe it’s closer to 8:00. Once in a while, I’m late. It doesn’t matter to The Frowning Man. He stands. He (sort of) watches the cars pass by. He frowns.

If you remember the Burgermeister Meisterburger character from Santa Claus is Coming to Town, that’s what The Frowning Man looks like. The frown has established seemingly permanent residence into his drawn-down visage.

He will watch one car pass, and then stare after it, long after it has disappeared. That’s all I can ever see in the few seconds he’s in my line of sight.

A more sensitive soul would pass The Frowning Man every day and wonder about his life. Does he have some kind of illness? Is he struggling with Alzheimer’s, or heavy depression, or a mental deficiency? Does he know what he’s doing, or does he think he knows what he’s doing, just standing there, in the same spot, frowning as cars whiz past him some 10 yards away? Or is he in another place in his mind, and his surroundings are no more consequential or meaningful to him than Mars, or Hawaii?

I guess I’m too selfish, too religious, too much an English major to worry about these things. The Frowning Man is a signpost. He is a symbol. He is a metaphor. For something. And my only obligation as I pass him every day is not to help The Frowning Man, or to dig into his business, but rather to ponder what he means.

Didn’t we do this more in earlier times, encounter strange or inexplicable moments and interpret them as portents, omens, signs? A flood was not due to heavy rain, but rather to the wrath of God. A rainbow was a promise. A cawing crow brings dark words with its dark wings. Lightning is a sign of pending danger. Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.

Humanity feeds off its symbols. We seek them out. We force them into our lives, even when they are square pegs or do us more harm than good. Because we need them. Like dreams, signs help us in some way to make sense of our worlds. They force our minds to wrestle with shadows and light, to wrangle the wild idea stallions running through our thoughts.

One day, The Frowning Man is me. He is watching the world move too quickly past him and cannot keep up with it all. He frowns for the day ahead. He disapproves of the hand this day has dealt him. He is paralysis by analysis.

The next day, The Frowning Man is Ferguson. He is race. He is watching the world pass him by every morning, unwilling to stop or alter its tragic path. One minute we’re upset, the next we’re moving on to conversations about what Sophia Vegara wore to the Emmys.

One day, The Frowning Man is lost love, and time has left him alone on the grass, wondering how everyone has the energy to keep moving while he stands there, barely noticed and utterly abandoned.

Another day, The Frowning Man is God. He is appalled at our indifference. He wonders what it would take to shake our foundations enough to break us from our daily humdrum routine, our perfectly-scheduled start times and coffee runs.

The Frowning Man is a real man, with a real life and a real history. He is no symbol. He stands for nothing. Or, more likely, he stands for things we will never be able to understand, things we will never make the time to uncover, much less examine.

He stares.

We drive on.

Else we would be late… for something or other.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

He Came For You, Too, Malachi

“Children of the Corn” is a shuckin’ great movie.

The 1984 movie, for all of its dozens of flaws and dated special effects, dares to make the viewer think about a number of issues that we in 2014 have decided are too sacrosanct (or too insignificant, or both) to question in meaningful ways. Arguably, the movie was a cautionary tale our entire country heeded, causing a course correction that, has resulted in entirely different kinds of horror movies.

For those unfamiliar with the plot, the setting is Gatlin, Nebraska. The middle of nowhere in the middle of America. The movie begins with a boy sitting with his dad in the town’s diner. The boy explains that the teenagers have all been acting weird lately. They’ve all been disappearing together in the cornfields, following a kid named Isaac.

The whole town seems steeped in the kind of rural fundamentalism that gripped many a stereotypical Midwestern or Southern hamlet circa 1983.

Next thing you know, the teens have ambushed the adults and slaughter them in ways that would make Jigsaw get a bit queasy. And they thrive as a sort of Lord of the Nebraska Flies, undisturbed and isolated, for three years.

Then, one day, a kid tries to escape. Malachi, the human version of Chucky, slits his throat with a sicle and leaves the kid to bleed out standing in the middle of the road (hint: Malachi isn’t the brightest bulb in Wal-mart), where Peter Horton and Linda Hamilton run over him with their car. Peter is a young doctor who will soon become an English professor on thirtysomething, and Linda is his loyal loving gal until she leaves him for John Connor and learns that the fate of the earth is in her hands.

Peter is unlike any man these Nebraska brats have ever seen. He’s cocky, certain, and intelligent. He has studied science but also has some measurable competence about the Life and Times of Jesus H. Christ. Peter is, in short, the big older brother none of these kids had, with an edjumakashun none of them had.

Linda, not yet trained by Michael Biehn to be a badass, mostly exists to remind you how cool and hot Peter Horton is.

These kids chase Peter. They hunt him like a dog. Hell, one brassy gal who’s clearly sleeping with Malachi even stabs the guy, but Peter is a better man. He shoves the kids a lot, and he constantly tells them what morons they are. But he only even hurts two teens the entire movie, and both of them really really deserve a good whuppin’.

It's just a flesh wound.
It didn't go in. It just impacted on the surface.
In the end, Peter and his young rebel buddy Job work together to destroy the demon in the cornfield and rescue everyone but Isaac and Malachi, because everyone watching the movie wanted to see those two bite it, and you can sense even He Who Walks the Rows enjoyed offing them.

The movie is meant to attack two things: (1) the dangers of indoctrinating kids into fundamental religion without providing them with greater, deeper knowledge and understanding of the world around them; and (2) the dangers of parental indifference.

The cloistered kids are perfect targets for a demon who can pervert the religion they were raised not to question into something horrifying because these kids don’t have enough depth of understanding -- of anything, it seems -- to differentiate the false idol from the real McCoy. The devil was quite gifted at quoting the Bible, even in the damn Bible, but these kids have their own version of Santa Muerta.

The parental indifference provided the time and opportunity necessary to mutate something that began as a dangerous seed and grew into something nuclear.

Of all the remakes we've seen Hollywood lazy enough to consider, why haven't we seen a remake of "Children of the Corn"? Because most of today’s teens are rarely left alone long enough to French kiss, much less plot the destruction of an entire town.

Or, perhaps Columbine and the dozens upon dozens of similar real-life horror movies, where teens use automatic and semi-automatic weapons instead of sicles and machetes, have brought the concept of this film a little too close to home.

The only thing that’s certain is the world could always use more adults like Peter Horton, who can be surrounded by a dozen teens with sharp weapons and bloodlust, yet still keep his cool, his deserved adult condescension, and his ability to wake up the brats to what they’ve become.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Soaked and Left Feeling Cold

I was given 24 hours to take the ALS Ice Water Bucket Challenge. And I didn’t do it.

How does one criticize a movement without criticizing those swept up in it? How dare I get pissy and party-pooperish about a movement that has helped raise raise more than $13,000,000 for ALS research? Why did every additional video I watched of a friend or acquaintance having a lot of fun and dousing themselves -- or letting themselves be doused -- leave me feeling queasier, more uncomfortable, more uncertain to the aim and purpose of the newest viral charity craze?

For many of us, this concept jumped the shark at roughly the fourth time we saw someone post it on social media, but it will continue to find legs on our social media streams.

Whoever at the ALS thought of this gimmick -- and let’s be very clear: it’s a gimmick, albeit a brilliant one -- has hit the viral one-hit wonder of his or her lifetime. ALS should put a statue of this person on their front lawn, the fundraising version of Nick Saban.

If you did this challenge, if you doused yourself, and filmed it, and challenged your friends, and gave money to ALS, then I mean no disrespect to you. When I claim I don’t care for Vera Bradley or GM vehicles, it’s not intended as a judgment of those who do. I love sweater vests, but someone can disapprove or even detest sweater vests without it being an attack on me personally.

But this whole challenge has left me feeling… icky. It reminds me of the emails everyone sent around trying to get the cookie recipe, or the one about Bill Gates sharing his fortune, or the one promising trips to Disney World. It’s only a few degrees away from an email from Nigeria, or Sally Struthers telling me that my dollar a day will feed this child I see on my screen.

The Ice Water Bucket Challenge is, at its core, Chain Mail Meets Charity for the Selfie Generation. All you have to do is pay a charity $25 to clear your conscience for all of the self-indulgent filmmaking. Look at me! Look at me! I’m totes doing something good for a bigger cause, or else I wouldn’t ever demand that you look at me! (At least not until my next selfie!)

I’m half surprised I didn’t get a challenge that threatened me: those who fail to do the challenge within 24 hours die of Ebola! An angel dies every time someone fails to take the challenge!

What’s worse than being a curmudgeon about a seismically-successful concept for charitable giving? Is there anything in the world, short of kicking babies or circumcising puppies, that is more assholish than griping about a gimmick that broke fundraising records? Maybe not. But I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. I either participate -- not because I believe it’s a good idea or the charity to which I really prefer giving my limited charitable funds, but solely from peer pressure; or I don’t, at which point I’m an insensitive, no-fun schlub.

And that, dear reader, is precisely why I am against the Ice Water Bucket Challenge. I don't like putting people in either/or win/lose scenarios "for a good cause." It’s an altar call that puts the uncertain 14-year-old girl in that most awkward of places when the rest of the congregation rushes up for the healing touch of the preacher. It’s the bong passed around at the high school party. It's branding fraternity letters into flesh.

As a kid, adults drowned us in lessons about being mindful of peer pressure, that it was dangerous and powerful, that we had to think for ourselves. Yet here we are, a huge portion of our entire culture, jumping on an ice water bandwagon, either for the chance to make everyone watch us get wet, or for the sole purpose of not knowing how to say “No Thanks, Not Interested.” Either way, it seems sort of sketchy.

A part of me fears and envisions that breast cancer research will soon run an Ice Water Bucket Challenge that doubles as a wet T-shirt contest. “Douse the Ta-tas 2 Save the Ta-tas” or something equally prurient disguised as “for the greater good.”

I feel certain a race to the bottom has only just begun in the world of charities. How much can we charge people that will give them sufficient excuse and motivation to post their own Fear Factor moments on Facebook or Instagram?

Eat a live worm and only pay United Way $15 instead of $40!
Roll down a hill in your underwear and only pay PETA $23 instead of $50!
Swallow 30 hardboiled eggs and only pay The Innocence Project $100 instead of $400!
(They'll call that last one The Cool Hand Luke Challenge, natch.)

We regularly brag that the US is the most generous country in the world, but that is misleading. Measured per capita, we are #14. If I believed gimmicks like the Ice Water Bucket Challenge were the secret to moving us into the Top 10, I’d be all about it, but there’s plenty of reason to fear that such gimmicks will not help, and in fact might hurt, what, how and why we give.

Go ahead. Get wet. I will laugh with you and try to celebrate your kindness. But please respect my need to be a conscientious objector. I’ll stay dry this time around, thanks.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Epiphany #57: A Healthy Distrust

I have grown up with a distrust of the police--a mixture of emotions that doubts both their motives and actions, combined with fear and danger.

Admittedly, that is not necessarily their fault.  Having begun my teenage years at the end of the 60's, my encounters my encounter with police were rare and unpleasant, often for reasons aimed directly at me or my friends.

I remember the time Craig and I were walking along a road and a police car drove past and Craig muttered "Pig" under his breath, but apparently loud enough to be heard, because the car slammed to a stop and he was subjected to a chewing out by the officer.  I remember times when the appearance of police patrol cars caused heart-pounding fear, but only because we were carrying something we shouldn't have been carrying or because we were in a city park doing what we weren't supposed to.

But I also remember the times.  Everyone knows that the Vietnam War was on television, but so was the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, and the harsh response to those protests, and others before and after, has always stayed with me when I see a police uniform.

In 1980, when I was in Santa Cruz and my friend disappeared, likely to commit suicide, the belittling nonchalance of the Santa Cruz cops who though they had seen and knew everything in return told me everything I needed to know between the divide between jaded law enforcement and my own naïveté.

Even though police have come to my assistance several times since then (and I have publicly thanked them for it), I can't shake my ongoing impression that, for the most part, they are a necessary evil who do a job that may sometimes help.

The irony of my enjoyment of cop shows, cop novels, cop movies, does not escape, although I can also explain that pretty easily:  in fictitious settings, police act like people.  In real cities like mine, they stop black drivers on streets and highways an overwhelming percentage of the time, in my anecdotal experience, an observation backed by an number of studies and specifics.

For someone like me who has his own issues with authority, the problems with the police are fairly obvious.  That may not click with the populace in general, but here goes.

First, The police have been given too much power.  At least since the days of Nixon, police have gained ever-expanding abilities to engage in collateral behaviors that enhance their main purpose at any given moment.  Do you think they could always search your car just on a suspicion?  Do you think that they could always prosecute crimes in the wrong house that they burst into by mistake?  There's a cavalier attitude that results from that.  Especially if you might be guilty of "Driving While Black."

Second, I fear that police engage in "objective bias" (my term).  They hide behind the law to justify their actions, but enforce the law at their own whim.  So any law can and, in their minds, should be enforced, but it isn't enforced in the same way for everyone, and for some it may not be enforced at all.  In a broader perspective,this means that some laws, like the responses to the Civil Rights movement in the South, get enforced whether they are moral or not.  See Thoreau.

Finally, many of them are burned out.  When you see what you think is the same thing time after time, you will develop a standard, jaded response to it.  Like what I once experienced in a California town full of runaways and Deadheads.  And when your response becomes compartmentalized and departmentalized, your sense of humanity falls away.  And what happened in Ferguson can happen.

Now, do I blame the police for all of this?  Well, not really.  Or, at least, not entirely.  I can't imagine a more difficult job with less impressive pay and more confusing standards.  Post-60's and post-9/11, we as a society have handed our police some of the keys to the kingdom.  And we seem surprised that they want to open so many doors without supervision.   Now, it seems that we have also handed them a bunch of military toys, and again, we are shocked that they want to use them.

I'm afraid it is a societal problem.  I condemn the individual behaviors of individual policemen and departments as much as anyone, and maybe more, but I also think they have been dealt a bad hand to try to deal with people who may well have an even worse hand.  I'm scared about what we have allowed them to become.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

To See Them Trapped

The hummingbird’s wing was caught in a sliver of wood on the steps in our garage. The tiny bird was not moving.

I’d gone into the garage last night because my wife said a hummingbird had been in there since she got home, and she was afraid it couldn’t find its way out. Perhaps it was our garage lights. Or the smell of bottles and cans of sugary drinks and beer and wine in our collection of recycling. Whatever drew the bird in, it didn’t understand that escaping would require flying toward darkness.

I’m no hummingbird expert, but I know they eat. Like, a lot. All the time, basically. And I knew if it had been in our garage for hours without sustenance, the poor thing didn’t have long before its energy stores were burned through. I either had to let it die and locate it by the stench in a few days, or go and try to help it.

When I found the bird and walked toward it, the bird ducked behind our recycling, and then attempted to fly away, but its left wing, moving at patented hummingbird warp speed, somehow knifed into one of the untreated wooden steps leading up to our door to our kitchen. And it just stopped.

I found some gardening gloves and freed its wing, and it flew away… but not out. After several attempts to encourage it in the direction of “out,”, it once again disappeared behind a pile of my tools. This time, I’m not sure if it was trapped or had simply given up. Eventually I got the bird between my gloved palms and carried it to the yard, where it flew away. Whether it would survive the night was no longer in my hands. But at least it had a chance.

Before this moment, I hadn’t known hummingbirds could squeak. Or chirp. Or scream. Whatever noise they make when one fears for its life. But this little hummingbird chirped in serious panic.

Soon after, I got into bed, and a sort of serene self-satisfaction washed over me, not because I’d done anything heroic, but because something about hummingbirds make me feel overwhelmed with optimism. They work so damn hard, and they make it look so damn effortless. They don’t deserve to die merely because they took a wrong turn into some man-made monstrosity. Everything dies, baby, that’s a fact, but that hummingbird wasn’t going to die in my garage without me trying to do something about it.

Fourteen hours later, I was standing at my desk at work when I heard what sounded like two cats fighting, emitting those plaintive wails reminiscent of screaming babies. I couldn’t see anything outside my office window, but I knew it must be close by. Emboldened by my previous evening’s rescue efforts, I went outside and encountered an unforgettable sight.

A sedan was stuck, its back two-thirds stuck up on a curb, inclined sharply on a hill. The front third jutting onto the pavement. In a million years you would never expect to see a car in this position, nose down but unmoving, in this particular location, at my place of work. First, because how did it get in this position. Second, because how was it frozen there, ignoring gravity? Third, why was it screaming?

I then saw a girl. Writhing. Wailing. Her leg was trapped between the front wheel and the front section of chassis and bumper. Another girl standing nearby was screaming in terror, the vocal expression of abject helplessness.

Several others showed up shortly after me. Combined efforts helped extract her from underneath the vehicle. After hours of inspection on the scene and then in the emergency room, it was determined her injuries were only minor. No broken bones. No internal injuries.

The odds of a hummingbird’s wing getting trapped by a sliver of wood. The odds of a girl falling down and being run over by a car, yet walking out of the hospital hours later. Blessings, both, but one so immeasurably bigger.

So… why did the latter situation leave me shaken? What does it say, that the hummingbird encounter left me feeling happy while the story of a young girl who also walked away left me and others who witnessed it nauseated and restless for hours if not days?

I can’t help but wonder if it’s because we know this young girl was, simply, lucky. The event could have unfolded dozens of different ways. Only one of them would have ended up with her suffering minor bruises and abrasions. The others would have ended from Much Worse to Gruesome, and that thought buckles the knees.

Why are we haunted by what could have been? Why is it hard to be grateful for good luck? Why can I still hear her screaming?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Itty Bitty Living Space

Robin Williams was more genie than human. He had phenomenal cosmic powers of humor crammed into an itty bitty living space that was his human shell. I wonder if he felt trapped, or if he merely felt forgotten.

While he will go down as one of the greatest comedians our country has ever known, Robin Williams meant the most to me as an actor when he portrayed heavy roles with a light heart. John Keating, Sean Maguire, Daniel Hillard, Dr. Malcolm Sayer, Joey the car salesman (in the very underrated "Cadillac Man"). And, in what was his most ambitious and most phenomenal role, as Parry in Terry Gilliam's "The Fisher King."

In the scene that gives the movie its namesake, Parry and Jack (Jeff Bridges) are naked, face up in the grass, and "cloudbursting," when Parry shares with Jack the fable of The Fisher King. In Parry's version, the king is called to keep and protect the magical Holy Grail, but his lust for power leaves him injured and broken, "sick with experience." The king is rescued through the kindness of a fool.



One of the brilliant turns of this film is that Jack and Parry both play kings and fools in it. Jack is the fool whose brash selfishness initially ruins Parry's life but whose struggle to find his own kindness eventually rescues Parry. And Parry is very much the fool whose kindness reawakens Jack from his self-indulgent brokenness.

What is equally interesting is the fact that Parry's story of the Fisher King is very little like the original legend of yore, beyond reference to a king and the Grail. In the original, the king is physically, sexually, impotent. He is unable to provide an heir to his kingdom, and his kingdom suffers along with him.

I can't help but wonder if Robin Williams had become a Fisher King, if he felt impotent by a fading career, by a kingdom he worried was thriving while he faded away. Or maybe he always felt impotent, from before even the first day he was told to pretend he was from Ork, before even the first moment he created the word "Shazbot." Maybe he was always seeking some Holy Grail to soothe his pain, and he could never find the right fool or knight who could quench his thirst.

Surely, though, he knew he served as a healing balm to millions of people he never met. Surely he had enough of a sense of this power that, even in the midst of his own unknown struggles, it kept him walking through the dark hours of his internal night.

Surely it's foolish to work too hard to inject the characters actors portray into the actors' lives. How can we not in moments like these, when someone we don't know but feel like we do, someone we can't love in a normal way because we never actually met him, has created a chasm in our hearts that can't be easily explained? Our hearts are broken by the loss of a man we don't know, but we know he was brilliant, and hilarious, and uniquely entertaining.

Surely he understood his influence enough that he lived 63 years instead of 23, or 43, before seeking an escape from the tiny fleshy genie lamp that bottle up his immeasurable genius. All we can do, we who never really knew him, we who only siphoned joy and love from the two-dimensional inventions he brought before our eyes, is be grateful for the part he played.

He was a genie and a fool, and he quenched millions of thirsts before taking his last breath.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Epiphany #56: The Social Experiment

As part of an unplanned social experiment yesterday, I was off the grid for over four hours, as in no access to my cell phone.  I could not tell you the last time I have been separated from it for that length of time.  Even for one fourth of that time.

The reason why is both unimportant and disappointing, worthy of another post perhaps.  I was helping some friends with their trivia team.  They had made it to the finals of the city, and thirty teams were gathering at The Honest Pint for the 10-round showdown to determine which teams would move on to the regions.  Big implications for the ability to answer silly questions. Which leads to the disappointment--in order to make their tournament work, the organizers felt like they had to ban every phone from even coming in the door, regardless of whether or not it was a smart phone, or if it was turned on, or if it was on display or merely stored away in a pocket.  I will leave it to you to figure out why.

So my daughter and I, who were subbing in, put our phones in the glove compartment and entered the fray.

First, the physiological phone issues:

1.  I reached for it even though it wasn't there.
2.  I felt it in my pocket, even vibrating sometimes.
3.  I lost all sense of time.
4.  I felt trapped.

We had taken precautions before we left, of course, told my wife and other daughter that we would be unreachable and where they needed to drive to in case of emergency.  But let's be realistic; it isn't like we were heading into the Amazon rain forest.  We were going to a pub in downtown Chattanooga.

But that's part of the mindset we've developed, isn't it?  That feeling that if we are cut off from cellular contact, we will need a backup plan, even if we are in close physical proximity to whomever we might need to contact.

My wife says that cell phones are completely worth the trade-off of privacy for instant communication.  That is a mother's instinct, and a father's as well, though perhaps not quite as much. Certainly, I have bought into the trade-off myself.

Yesterday, I was not pining for a world of no cell phones.  I was not yearning for that mythical camping trip away from civilization out of the reach of anyone.  Instead, I was a bit disoriented.

But then, I am a person who probably checks email (by phone) ten or more times a day.  I'll deal with work business at any hour of any day.  In fact. I even get miffed when people won't contact me while I'm on vacation.  I want to be in the know.  And I get irritated with my father at least once a week when he turns off his phone while sleeping, because I know that very few people besides my brother and I call him, and I know what time of the week my brother calls.

Rather than romanticize a world that no longer exists, at least in this country, I find it really cool that, for example, I am in Key West and you are in Wyoming or Colorado, we can trade, in an instant, locations or photos or great experiences.  I like sharing the world, not cutting it off.

And so, I was sad that a need to win so powerful that Googling for an answer under a table or in a bathroom could be more satisfying than a group of otherwise-sane wracking their brains together to try to come up with a 6-letter name of a German candy company that is an acronym of the inventor's first name, last name, and home town.  Privacy rights are one thing, but what about honesty rights?