The Ghosts of Columbine

by Shawn St.Jean

Commenting to the press on the assassination of President John Kennedy in late 1962, Malcolm X cold-bloodedly called the event a case of “the chickens coming home to roost.” Many would have preferred something a little more mournful and respectful. But over the years, I’ve come to see that this was what the occasion called for, amidst what X later clarified as “a climate of hate.” Because when you sow violence abroad and at home, as America does, it should be no shock when you, in turn, reap it.

These were among my reflections when, twenty years ago, I stood outside Columbine High School on a hot August day. I happened to be in the Littleton area, and I meant to visit whatever memorial had been erected to the thirteen shooting victims from 1999. Instead, I found a lonely building locked up tight for summer, surrounded by dried, pale grass of the drought season, and not a single living soul. Perhaps, I thought, there’s a plaque inside—for we dare not forget—and so I was alone with my thoughts.

Nearly ten years earlier than that, when I eneterd the graduate program at Kent State University (early 1990s,) I naturally assumed this would be the prevailing wind there, concerning the shootings of thirteen students there ( four deaths) in 1970, during a Vietnam War protest. To some extent, it was—though there are many there who opined “Let it go!” Which is a tribute, in one way, to a country where free speech is among the human rights guaranteed by our Constitution. At least, when stupidity gets voiced, we know what we’re up against.

Because there are a great many whose love for their own guns and 10,000 rounds of personally stockpiled ammo mean more than the lives of a few hundred Americans, each year. And there are others whose love for money, or privilege, or power, or plain old violence are greater. And there are many who just don’t give a shit.

Ask yourself, among everything we’ve been conjured to forget: How often does a rich guy like Kennedy get hit? Ask most poor people when they think the mass shootings, like the one at Michigan State University this past Monday, will cease—or at least, subside, because the federal government finally did something about it. (Bear in mind, this latest site of violence is not exactly a seat of the ivy league. It’s where those who are willing to sign tens of thousands of dollars in student loans go.) The answer is not too difficult: When some wealthy senator or congressman’s child is killed, that’s when. THEN you’ll see the real tears, hear the speeches, that mean action. Then you’ll see bills with teeth, that threaten to take assault weapons off the streets. But not before, sadly. Because despite the doleful addresses of the President and guardians of whatever building the latest incident occurred in, one truth rings as clear as a shot: Rich people, the vast majority of them—don’t really give a shit about poor people. Not in coal mines or railroad and bread lines, and modern toxic workplaces, not in natural disasters, not in other countries be they our so-called allies or enemies, not in Wal-mart or the public elementary schools, not in the U.S. military. Yeah, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez aside, and a few others. Only most of them. They cry on their sleeves, and reach back and feel for their wallets.

The politicians will say it’s hard: an uphill battle, against the two-party, obstructionist system which has crippled our republic. It’s difficult even to figure out what the bill might say, in the face of the Constitutional guarantee to “keep and bear arms” by the citizenry. A nearly 250-year-old provision written by men who could no more conceive of the one-shot flintlock evolving into the AR-15, than you or I believe in instantaneous transport to Mars. And change is built into that document—because they were wise enough to know, we’d need it.

Of course, it’s hard. That’s their job. To sit in that room and argue, debate the possibilities, cut deals–whatever it takes to protect the country. There’s never been much of a hard time rescinding our other rights under the Patriot Act, or dropping bombs on other nations, or authorizing HALF of the latest mammoth Omnibus appropriation for weapons of war. Violence is easy, apparently. Try Peace. Try doing your jobs.

So, in the spirit of Malcolm X, I say, let that unlucky Rich Person’s son or daughter bleed to death of a gunshot wound, as soon as possible—the sooner, the better. That poor soul will not have died in vain. It’s no longer a time for short-lived remembrance and long-term amnesia, or reflection, or mourning and healing, or holding hands and bowing our heads for the national anthem and flags at half-mast, or even John Oliver’s editorials, or especially more bullshit condolence speeches. It’s a time for anger and perhaps counter-violence, of a sort. One hesitates to fight fire with fire—but when water evaporates, and the very ground beneath your feet burns, you gotta use something. We’re long overdue for action.

Lest anyone think I mean arm yourselves, arm teachers, hire more cops. . .NO. That’s stupid. Guns are the problem. You think that moron could have attempted to murder eight people yesterday, with a deer rifle? So no, I don’t mean ban firearms either. Equally stupid. Any thinking person knows there’s a middle ground there, somewhere, and at this point, it’s clear: pretending otherwise is contributing to the next set of murders.

People always hesitate at where to start. That IS the hardest part of any action. So I’ll offer my suggestion—not in expectation that people will take it, but as a challenge to consider where YOU will start.

We’ve already got politicians declaring to run in the next big election. Fine. And we know we’re going to hear a lot of promises. Fine. Challenge them. Offer them a show of the kind of violence they understand. Because they need the incentive. Offer to end their career for them: What are you doing to end gun violence? I want to see your ACTION, Mr or Ms President or Whatever Wannabe, before the election; NOT promises, ACTION—on gun control. And if I don’t see it, you will not get my vote. And I’ll make sure I use all the power of the internet to persuade people that you should not get their vote, either.

This kind of action sure beats the alternative. Either way, we—the poor—are in the crosshairs. Not them. Us.

Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Raiders and Defenders

by Shawn StJean

There exists no shortage of archetypal masterplots for postmodern writers to draw from, pay homage to, and outright pilfer, for new stories. Old wine in new bottles. One of the more popular involves what I call the “Seven Samurai” plot (a reference to Kurosawa’s great 1954 film, which was directly converted into a Hollywood western by John Sturges in 1960, The Magnificent Seven.)

The bones of it are that an isolated village, attacked regularly by raiders and stripped of their crop, at their wit’s end, send emissaries to enlist professional, mercenary fighters (samurai, gunfighters, pirates, etc.) to protect them.

Most recently, the Star Wars universe (and Sci-fi in general) has adopted the plot several times. It was seen most recently, and explicitly, in The Mandalorian, and glimpsed in Andor. In fact, it was the very first “original” Marvel Comics story, following its adaptation of the original movie, in 1978 (Marvel’s Star Wars issues #7-9.) In this century, Joss Whedon’s Firefly was a natural to pick it up (with several genre conventions turned on their heads, in “Heart of Gold.”) It can easily be converted for use, into a single episode.

Several ancillary details, and a few vital ones, generally accompany the recycled story. In Kurosawa’s narrative, the samurai are ronin, that is, warriors without a master (“out of work”). With the advent of gunpowder, in fact, their existence has become effectively obsolete, and the contract breathes new life, however temporary, into it. Normally, such a job would be beneath the dignity (and skill level) of such warriors, but the entire country is, by definition, undergoing change for the worse. As one of the seven (Charles Bronson) realizes this in Sturges’ film, he admits “Twenty dollars? Right now, that’s a lot.” What’s important to recognize here is that external change requires internal change, and adaptation. And an existential threat requires ego annihilation (recall Odysseus transformed into a beggar by Athena.) The village itself must change. New walls, plowshares converted to swords, and farmers training to become fighters.

Technology, always advancing without regard for implication, drives such a change. In short, it’s at bottom a transformation-of-the-community story. Related closely, then, to the scapegoat myth, a threat to the existence of the community must, in the end, be met by the community itself; the defenders are only the instruments of that change, just as the raiders are the catalyst.

But it is possible to examine those catalysts in a bit more detail. Are they evil? Unlike the mindless monster of the scapegoat myth, these are humans (and in better-done versions, are faced by a leader such as Eli Wallach.) Actually, they’re starving. No less than farmers and swordsmen/gunfighters, they suffer the effects of the global economy. Business as an outlaw, too, is bad. Speaking of the local church, Sturges’ bandit chief Calvera laments “Almost nothing in the poorbox.” “We took it anyway,” one of his men reminds him, thereby reminding us that this contingent functions parasitically upon the community, taking, but giving nothing in return. Such a relationship might have persisted in fatter times, but at this point the host is reduced to stavation-level subsistence, and can no longer tolerate the regular siphoning of its energy. Is a parasite evil? Or is it part of the ecosystem, serving some greater purpose?

Given a warning, then, to “Ride On,” (the raiders, according to the ethical code of the defenders, must be given a chance to withdraw,) the bandits really see little choice, but to attack, as usual. This time, of course, they meet resistance by both villagers and defenders. Typically, the plot dictates an initial attack, during which the raiders are driven off, their ranks thinned. As they return for the climactic third act, they give as well as they get, and numbers are decimated, on both sides. Only the community survives, now transformed into a self-sufficient entity. Its children, for example (there are always women and children in a settlement,) not only witness combat, but internalize something of that martial spirit which their fathers may have lacked.

It might prove instructive to see the formula imported to unfamiliar contexts, or inverted (say, if a village in Vietnam were defended by Vietcong against French or American invaders.) Euripides regularly wrote in this mode, the POV of the Other. This would enable us to explore the microcosm of motivations that drive the various pirates; usually this type of personality parsing is reserved for the “good guys.” There’s always a grizzled, all-too-experienced leader, weary of battle (Whedon’s Mal,) a young, aspiring acolyte (Kurosawa’s Katsushiro,) and a devoted friend (Steve McQueen, in Sturges.) Furthermore, such contemplation requires us to ask if the formula is essentially jingoistic—that is, propagandist. Are young boys (in the audience) being encouraged to become fighters, rather than farmers?

I don’t think so. Local contexts vary, but the advantage of an archetypal survey allows us to step back. The “Everybody dies” resolution seems to preclude jingoism. Disney aside (there are only two defenders in The Mandalorian, and both survive. To be fair, it’s a half-hour show,) most incarnations explicitly warn against the life which has, again, become outmoded. Bronson’s advice to the three village boys is much more articulate than any of Kurosawa’s characters: “You think I am brave because I carry a gun? I say your fathers are much braver, because they carry responsibility. For you, your mothers, your sisters, and your brothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. . .I have never had this kind of courage.” It’s a strong endorsement, then, not for farming as a lifestyle, but for family and rooted community, as contrasted to individualism and isolation. (In The Mandalorian, a much more extended argument for family is made by the protagonist’s relationship with his original bounty captive, “The Kid.”)

It is precisely this sense of responsibility that the Raider not only lacks, but is virtually unaware of. To them, it’s a deterministic universe (“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”) The strong take from the weak; they neither defend, nor protect them. Certainly they do not raise them, any more than one would tend crops. In this sense, the mercenary gunfighters are little better.

The plot, then, seems to operate as counter-argument to the usual genre rules: the Western, for example, generally prefers the perspective of the loner, fleeing the advance of civilization, with all of its network connections, rules, and responsibility. Its hero is often not much better than a vagrant outlaw himself—though the distance between say, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood often gapes large—with an ethical code which separates him from garden-variety brigandage by a mere hair’s breadth. And he is still a killer. Perhaps it is this very requirement to band together with others, against the greater, collective threat, that undercuts the protagonist’s commitment to individuality.

At heart, the masterplot is conservative: “Only the farmers won.” The community survives, changes, grows. The individual perishes, like stalks from last years’ harvest. Or is subsumed. Not because he cannot adapt, but because nothing outside the collective, in the new world, exists.

Clotho’s Loom Blog turns 10! ; Comics Master Illustrator Neal Adams Passes, at Age 80

Today (May 7) marks the ten-year anniversary of my launch and first post to this weblog, Clotho’s Loom. Suffice to say that, what began as a mere promotional device for a novel, later morphed into a venue for interests as diverse as film reviews, teaching resources, political rants, pop-culture analysis, band promotion, and indie author/publisher support. Even a few poems. I have you, my readers, to thank. And, of course, WordPress: an outfit that somehow manages to be the Anti-YouTube, and still stays afloat, so that the lass-flashy and loud thoughts can be heard and read–without being buried under an intrusive smokescreen of stuff you already bought, political postions you already hold, and “news stories” that contain nothing new, and no story.

But rather than dilate on that, I cannot think of a better way to mark this day, than to pay tribute to a great man, whose death will be felt by creators everywhere: Neal Adams. Without question, one of the all-time best in his field, which happened to be comic-book illustration.

Adams lived eighty-years, a short enough time on this planet, but he made much of it. An extended professional obituary appears on the website of The Comics Journal. Here, I’ll confine myself to my own experience with Adams’ work, from the late ’60s forward, offering a few modest observations, on aspects of his paternity that may not be emphasized elsewhere.

In order from least to most important, these are: his underappreciated influence on Hollywood; his work ethic; and his advocacy for human rights. In these senses, he functioned as a role model for many, including myself. Not only kids who loved his work, but younger pros in his field of endeavor.

Inasmuch as comic books are non-auterial–the products of collaboration—films are vastly more so. Adams only made one film, which is nearly impossible to find. But although not immediately apparent, Adams’ influence on Hollywood comics-based movies is probably as profound as that of Stan Lee. The impact is not at the level of character invention and plots, but rather character refinement and atmospheric style, both visual and mythological.

Though most today would likely point to Frank Miller as the main comics influence over the DCEU (film universe) today, it is hard to imagine Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy without Neal Adams, in the deep background. The unfilmable villain Ra’s al Ghul features, but this is really the least of Adams’ legacy. Going back over two decades, in Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, he even created the plot device for de-powering Superman, thereby emphasizing the heroism of his human half, used for Superman II. And so on. All that on the surface. But in the global sense, Adams went further than anyone in creating the environment in which superheroes could be taken more seriously, than in the 1960s TV series, Batman (admittedly brilliant, in its own way). Batman is, foundationally, a revenge-driven psychotic whose sanity balances on the precipice only by virtue of his disciplined, analytical mind—a detective in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin and Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. And the Dennis O’Neil/ Adams team returned him to that place. As for Marvel and the MCU, Adams’ and Roy Thomas’ run on X-Men likely saved the series from cancellation in the late 1960s, long before Byrne and Claremont took it over. In fact, the Kree/Skrull War from the pages of Avengers (a 1970s political allegory for the American invasion of Vietnam; now, the War on Terror) glimpsed in Captain Marvel will undoubtedly be writ large, if Feige and associates have any clue.

Adam’ art consistently showcases his imaginative work ethic. At a time where some writers and illustrators—nameless here– were grabbing more assignments than they could responsibly handle, and phoning them in, Neal Adams continued to push the boundaries. Literally. His unconventional, geometrically irreverent layout lines could not contain the strivings of his oft-foreshortened figures; and their emotional anguish jumped off the page. The aforementioned Ali book is an exemplar of the real world and the comic world coming together. More than one younger artist has related how Neal pushed them to improve their work—in not always the kindest terms, perhaps. He demanded the best from himself; why should those who would seek his guidance, do less? Even in his less memorable work for his own studio, Continuity, the creative mind intent on busting his ass to get it right surfaces through the pages. He was to comics, what Bruce Springsteen is, to the music industry.

Rather than take on more work, he seemed intent on being treated fairly for what he had done—crusading for the rights of comics creators, in many well-known venues. In this, he may have come ahead of his time. According to TCJ, neither the Academy of Comic Book Arts (co-founders with Adams included Stan Lee,) nor the Comic Book Creators Guild, went the distance. But Siegel and Shuster, thanks to him, Jerry Robinson, and others, did get their Superman rights, at last. Human rights and environmental issues were in the background of much of Neal’s work, most notably in the legendary Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76-89 run. Many have proposed that social criticism and “pop art” do not mix well, aesthetically. They have not experienced the O-Neil/Adams synergy. Even that ever-volatile American subject, race relations, was tackled explicitly by the pair, resulting in the creation of a black guardian for the pantheon: John Stewart. The later, underappreciated Ms. Mystic put an environmental concern for the Earth at the forefront of the saga, featuring a witch-goddess, for the ’80s. Again, fact and fiction converged.

A glass of pure spring water, then, raised high…to Neal Adams!

Guest Post: How to Know When Your Prose Is Getting Too Purple

by Savannah Cordova

Every author’s secret fear is that their most impassioned writing is actually “purple prose” — unnecessarily ornate, flowery language that readers will perceive as pretentious, grammatically tortured, contextually inappropriate, or simply unappealing.
It’s not just off-putting for aesthetic reasons, though. Purple prose is problematic because it forces the reader to divert their attention away from the progression of a story (or piece of nonfiction) and toward the prose style itself. To some extent, pausing to admire the language can be a good thing! But when it’s standing between the reader and the information conveyed, you know your sentence-level prose needs closer attention — and often some simplification.
But how do you know when you’re veering too close to the purple-prose boundary? Here are four questions to ask yourself (and a real-world example), in order to assess your own writing honestly.

  1. Can you read it aloud with a straight face?
    Is there a particular passage you suspect of being too purple? Read it out loud, and see how it sounds. Especially if you’re working on dialogue that should read as natural, ask yourself if you can picture someone you know speaking that way. It’s extra-tough to judge this for historical fiction stories where characters may speak in more archaic language, but put yourself in the character’s shoes and decide whether the way they’re expressing themselves is too poetic or lyrical to sound like real, spontaneous conversation.
    It’s true that certain people are eloquent speakers, but they still don’t exclusively utter literary gems — sometimes they just say “Could you pass me the salt?” not “My dearest Elizabeth, fair holder of your name, would your kind countenance shine upon me by bringing the salt into my reach.” I exaggerate, but still! Sometimes writers get so caught up in capturing the “voice” of a character that they forget that each conversation is shaped not just by the speaker, but also by the conditions of the interaction. The food is getting cold, they’re hungry, and they need that salt!
    Remember that dialogue is purpose-driven communication, so it is particularly important to keep it to the point and free of unnecessary flourishes. If you do like a little stylistic decoration, save it for your descriptions, not your dialogue.
  2. How often do you use complex words?
    We all have words we’re especially fond of slipping into our writing — I know my heart does a little dance when I get to use the word “vertiginous.” Part of a writer’s skillset, after all, is to have a heightened sensitivity to language, and to be able to put it to good use through their extended vocabulary.
    That said, it’s not a particularly immersive experience for readers to put a book down every two minutes to look up a new word in the dictionary. I’m delighted to learn new words, but when it happens so often that I can’t make out what’s happening, I tend to get frustrated. When you’re debating whether to use a particular word or not, consider how commonly known it is, and ask yourself whether it helps or hinders your meaning.
    One important factor to help you decide this is the genre you’re writing in, because that tells you something about who your reader might be, and how much patience they might have for more ornate language. Literary and historical fiction readers may be more tolerant of complex language, for example, than thriller or horror readers.
  3. Is it sincere?
    Be honest, now. Are you using that fancy word because you love it and its meaning, or did you get there by looking up synonyms for another word you’d already used? Readers can sense insincere language; it simply feels strange, sitting uncomfortably among the rest of your writing.
    If you’re using some words purely to show off, rather than out of genuine feeling or with a pointed aesthetic reasoning, you risk alienating your readers. Do you really mean that the moment was “trembling with effervescence,” or are you just trying to say someone was nervous, in an overly fancy way? Only you know whether something is true to your story, but to be sincere with your readers, you have to be sincere with yourself first.
  4. Is this the most efficient way to convey your meaning?
    Certain forms and genres demand more brevity than others: flash fiction, poetry, short stories, crime and mystery all require some economy of expression that isn’t as crucial in other forms of writing. Still, efficiency and concision should not be underestimated in any context, whether you’re writing a novella, or a thousand-page epic.
    Purple prose stands in the way of effectively communicating what you’re trying to say. To identify sticky areas, ask yourself if a particular passage is ultimately efficient. Do you spend an extraordinary amount of time describing a door handle that is of no consequence to the story? Does every sentence contain a metaphor that might be difficult to parse? If you were to cut down on the poetic thoughts or images, would your message instantly become stronger?
    You don’t always have to be efficient, but bearing efficiency in mind will help you spot pacing issues and overly purple passages, which will help you become a better writer in the long run.
  5. Editing purple prose: a quick example
    Having covered these four clarifying questions, let’s try putting them into action. Below is a passage of purple prose from the widely panned Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff:
    Though Annie was by any man’s measure an exquisite aquiline Sheila, it was in the absence of disturbance that beauty was defined for Bob. It had begun that very day, after strolling to her house from the park. They sat silently on his comfort couch. A look between them. Off came the clothing and on came their effortless ease of communication where vagaries landed literally, and silences as voluminous volumes.
    This passage checks all our purple prose boxes: almost comically unreadable, chock full of 50-cent words, inefficient, and seemingly insincere (as in, more concerned with showing off than conveying meaning). Even setting aside the discomfort of reading about a sexual encounter between these characters — the surrounding passages are even cringier — I don’t think anyone would appreciate coming across this passage while trying to read for pleasure.
    Bob Honey is loaded with prose like this; it was one of the most heavily criticized elements in reviews. Curious readers should feel free to Google it, and use the rest for editing practice! But just for a concrete example, here’s how I would de-purplify that passage:
    Though Annie was attractive by any man’s measure, it was the natural ease between them that Bob found most beautiful of all. It had begun that very day, after strolling to her house from the park. They sat on the couch, exchanged a look — and off came their clothing, while on came the effortless communication of two perfectly attuned people.
    As you can see, making purple prose more palatable doesn’t have to mean changing everything. In fact, a balanced edit should retain the voice, and even some quirks of the original — here, I’ve kept the phrases “by any man’s measure” and “off came their clothing,” and barely changed the middle sentences either. But by eliminating the overwhelmingly purple phrases like “exquisite aquiline Sheila” and the whole last part about communication, the passage still becomes clearer and more effective.
    I hope all this has given you some practical approaches to spotting purple prose in your own work! If you’re still struggling, it may be time to enlist the help of writer friends — or even better, to find an editor who will be able to say for certain when your writing needs a bit of tightening up. That way, once you’re ready to publish, you can be confident that readers will never complain of purple — or even lilac — prose in your work. Best of luck!

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories, and tries her best to take her own writing advice.

Clotho’s Loom encourages writers, emerging and established, to submit their work by contacting the editor. Guest posts on teaching, writing, and publishing issues are especially welcome; we also showcase new talent and content in the pop culture, via review essays.

Fascism and the 21st-Century University: Review Essay of Netflix’s The Chair

by Shawn StJean

During an institutional, “dire crisis” of decreasing enrollments at Pembroke University–its name hinting at the financial and mechanical failure, it’s broke(n)—viewers witness willingness to fire a 25-year, tenured English professor because of a momentary scandal over a faux pas in a classroom (he makes the Nazi Sieg Heil salute during a lecture on Modernism, suggesting a source of Hitler’s initial appeal. It’s not the best choice, and none of the students comprehend it.) Captured on cell-phone video and doctored by a mischievous class member, the moment is distributed via social media, precipitating the plot complication: loss of “reputation,” so vital to colleges in the marketplace. The instructor, Dobson, recently a widower, exhibits a self-destructive personality and aggravates an incident he refuses to take seriously, much to the exasperation of his department Chair. And he never does apologize—at least to the satisfaction of the student body. The series further devotes attention to Professors Kim and Dobson’s personal lives: raising an adopted Latina daughter on her own, while continuing to keep an eye on her elderly Korean father, for example. These are welcome, thematic accessories to the issue of diversity The Chair grapples with; however, as I’ll explain, the time might have been better spent elsewise.

The main character, Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, is caught between her duty to serve two masters: the institution, and the members of her department, which features 9 aging white males and 4 women, of various ages. Minor characters include: a woman Chaucer scholar, Professor Joan Hambling, who bridges the ranks of the old guard of patriarchs and new; a paternal Melville scholar, Rentz (I knew this person in real life;) an IT technician; a T/A; and various supporting undergrads. Also featuring is a satisfying cameo by David Duchovny, complete with the actor’s perennial willingness to parody himself, here as a foil. He takes a deal that parallels that of co-protagonist Bill Dobson, who refuses the same.

The series invites several comparisons to Arthur Hiller’s little-known and excellent feature film, Teachers (1984,) which I won’t pursue here except by implication. I mention it because credit is due to the Netflix creators, when the very subject of teaching in secondary and post-secondary education in this country is broached so seldom, with a serious effort.

As with Hiller, the series is strongest in its comedic mode: everything from slapstick physical humor, to verbal jousting, to wry social satire. Like most works of social criticism, the coverage is far-ranging: political correctness, pay inequity for women, diversity, cell-phone addiction, the generation gap, educational irrelevance and student debt. Of course, it begs more questions than it answers; to some of these, I will return.

All this to the good. I certainly recommend it to anyone with an interest in academic politics, and tolerance for irreverent parody. Readers of Richard Russo’s Straight Man should seek it out.

Now, as an educator, something troubled me, while it intrigued me. While the nominal role of villain is taken by the vapid Dean Paul Larson (administrators being a usual target of such works,) the series pulls a fast one by casting Pembroke’s students, as a collective, as major antagonist. This constitutes a vital flaw; especially given the specialized audience, and the infrequency with which the pop culture investigates the teaching profession. The students are characterized here, hardly without exception, as bright, but over-privileged, mindless drones of the liberal, political correctness movement (one interrupts a lecture to demand, “Are we going to discuss the fact that Melville was a wife-beater?”)

Having taught for more than twenty years myself—a good part of them at a research university known for its legacy of protest, Kent State–the portrait of young people here becomes so reductive that it cannot be matched even by the likes of Animal House or Grease (both 1978). In the vast majority of American comedy of the past fifty years, it is the adults who are presented as grotesqueries, or at least caricatures, yet The Chair reverses this dynamic—which is not only unnecessary, but damages the integrity of its message.

One would have to search far and wide in American pop culture for a worse misrepresentation of a student body, alternately bored and apathetic, and then willing to stifle free speech, knee-jerk quick, in the name of liberalism, taking up causes for people who never asked for defenders. Certainly we must look past the likes of the recent, delightful A.P. Bio, nor stopping with Welcome Back, Kotter, for a more impatient, whiny, and disaffected bunch. They turn, en masse, on one of the most popular professors on campus, demanding an apology but not really wanting one, and then on the Chair and the department itself. And the stakes get high, ruining careers. In my experience, students are more likely to rally around a faculty member under duress (Netflix’s do so only for professors of color.) Certainly I’ve not witnessed active head-hunting, as displayed here.

Because this main conflict of the narrative is the rudder steering the plot (“Ship metaphors!”)–to invoke that old, worn out Aristotelian model—and plot dictating everything else—the invented, indeed false, nature of the antagonist tends to cripple the whole. In the end, despite the romantic resolution to which even the best works of realism can devolve, the whole thing holds less water than the Pequod, going down.

Certainly one can see, in the level of detail, the hand of a writer with academic experience: one hardly hears of pre- and post-tenure issues, spousal hires, teaching assessments, canon revision, etc., from a layperson. Conspicuously absent, I thought, were adjunct professors in Pembroke’s department—without which the vast majority of colleges don’t run. Admittedly, this might be a quibble, but that omission points toward the greater issue of time management, in the brief run of just over 150 minutes, total. Had the series been trimmed to five episodes, we might have had an organically unified, Shakespearean structure, devoid of any frills. If it had Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan’s larger scope, we might have had a cast of dozens. Instead, we get something in the middle.

Subplots concerning Ji-Yoon’s Korean heritage and her daughter’s Latina cultural background serve to buttress the overall emphasis on blended family culture—the old American myth of the melting pot–and these are charming, but might that energy be better harnessed?

One cannot fail to acknowledge that a niche series like this, enjoyable overall, exists because the Netflix original content model allows it to, whereas the old network system certainly would not. However, nothing is without disadvantage. The budget here must have been quite lean (though it doesn’t really show on the surface,) especially compared to the likes of The Witcher, notably in the limitation of the six-episode run. If the number had been even eight, the writing team would have had scope to create some actual student characters beyond one individual grad student, and one undergraduate. The others want to “produce content,” rather than learn, and they’d rather rap about Moby-Dick than read it. This appalls Rentz, a self-acknowledged dinosaur, but Professor Yazmin McKay (young, hotshot new hire, herself a millennial,) revels in it. Unfortunately, they are all sacrificed to, not an efficient plot device, but something of a character device—many people with one characterization–ironically, in a text for which diversity is crucial. The result is self-deconstruction embedded into the series.

Now, tugging on that thread, larger cultural issues, to my mind, haunt the series as a legitimate debate, greatly increasing its value after the set is powered down: The emerging generation of millennials have been sent a clear message: they have not only a human right to, but they “deserve” an education; but what is to be the nature of that education? It seems to be pitched almost by way of apology, to those coming into the world, for what a mess it has been left in. And someone ought to be held accountable. Certainly, those committing infractions now, should pay. None of these things, however, will they ever really get; rather, they will have to suffer and sacrifice like every other generation, if they want to be free. And someone telling you “it’s all so unfair” is probably doing you more of a disservice, than someone who says: “This is going to hurt. If you don’t like it, do something constructive about it.”. What good will come of burying the past, and equating certain words and gestures with obscenities, that must not be uttered, as if they would summon the devil? Or squashing offense and protest, as if reasonable conflict and debate were not desirable in a sanctuary of higher learning? And if not, shall we give those conflicts poor substitutes, scapegoats: will we proceed by sanitizing American History for the purpose of instruction, by removing the word “nigger” from Mark Twain—or eliminating Twain entirely—by tearing down statues of historically suspect people, by renaming sports teams? By pretending that we have evolved over people of the past, while lynching those who retain their values? How far will that take us, and will erasing the problem, solve it?

Consider. The Supreme Court has upheld the right to burn the American flag, as an act of protest. This is obviously a provoking gesture, designed to elicit a response, and perilously close to hate speech, which is not protected. What is the proper response?: punish the protester, for what on one level is a harmless act, a gesture; or inquire into the source of the complaint? When NFL football players made the equivalent gesture of kneeling during the national anthem, a few years ago—in support of the Black Lives Matter movement—they were largely reviled by the mainstream citizenry. Few thought to inquire into Why? And this is the evolutionary step we Americans must make, what education must teach: to look beyond the Fuck You symbols and the Peace symbols alike, to the Why? behind the words and gestures. No one asked Professor Dobson what he meant. . .and they ignored his attempt to clarify. . .

Is the wave of political correctness that has overtaken our country become a force more fascistic than the oppressions it seeks to redress? Can a crime ever be redressed, can ghosts ever be satisfied, by an official and insincere apology? Frederick Douglass didn’t believe so; Dr. King didn’t; nor Alice Walker, nor Spike Lee. Only by putting the harshest, stark light upon the wrong itself–not the weak people who committed it–can justice do more than incarnate as cheap revenge. It can arise as true justice, because the wrong will be exposed in its truest, ugly nature, and have ceased to happen to new human beings. Not as mere words or symbols or gestures, but as acts.

I suspect—hope might be a better word—that our culture is in a transitional phase, teething its way through to a sometimes irritating, sometimes painful, eruption. It is an undeniable fact: Racism is built into the very fabric of American society, from the moment the founding fathers removed the charge against slavery from the Declaration of Independence. And the term “founding fathers” suggests that sexism is, too, along with a host of other prejudices. 250 or so years later, we’ve arrived at the turn of the tide, to reappropriate the Moby-Dick motif. This historical moment involves discomfort, conflict, violence. Young people know what they want to tear down; but their sense of what they want to build in its place—or how—is not as keen. The first is far easier than the second. And not everyone agrees on goals and methods, which slows things down considerably. Among the older folks, and especially those tasked with education, we need to cautiously consider what usable guidance to offer. For myself—and I think also for the creators of The Chair—an addition to a line from Speilberg’s great Amistad (1997) may serve, in summation: “Who we are is who we were.” . . .but it does not dictate who we will be. We need not deny the past, in order to serve the present. Our species was created weak, selfish, fearful. We still are. Real adults do not disavow their childhood folly; they use it to create wiser versions of themselves. And if we really are all one person in different bodies, as the students of The Chair seem to be–as Tom Joad suggested, also– then improvement of the self will lead to the improvement of everyone else.

How shall reparations be made to people who have suffered in the past, other than by actively changing the future in meaningful ways? Only then—a la Dia de Los Muertos— can their souls find us, the living.


You Had to Be There–Class of 2020


To return, or not to return.  For most, this August and September, there is no real choice; only between the lesser of two evils.    School calls.

Young children will have to abide by the decisions their parents make; many teens will be asked their opinions, and face various sorts of pressure: from family, the school, friends.  Most will end up doing what the crowd does.  And when the crowd turns, they’ll turn, as surely as with a flock of birds in flight.

But for those who graduated among the class of 2020, seniors only scant months ago, whose school year was cut short right about when the fun begins–you do have a choice.  College looms, in one form or another, but there exists a third alternative.  Some people would love for you not to realize that, but it’s there.

You can take a gap year.

And if there was ever a group of 18-year olds who had a good excuse to do it, in these days when college has become somehow mandatory for those who can “afford it” (are willing to go deep into debt,) it’s you, the class of 2020.  “I’m afraid you’ll never get back into school.”  “Your financial aid will be affected.”  “You’ll fall behind.”  Those voices won’t even articulate some of their deeper fears–these statements are only on the surface.

So, do you risk your health, and the health of everyone you come in contact with, over the next several months, OR do you sit at home on the computer, making some attempt to learn what previous graduates went to an actual building on an actual campus with actual professors, among actual friends, to learn?

It’s one of the hardest decisions you will ever face.  But as someone who taught at the university level for over two decades, and has seen a lot of freshmen come and go (and sat across a table one-on-one with countless undergrads along the way,) I have a suggestion to offer.


Consider this:  many of you really didn’t want to rush into more schooling, anyway.  Be honest.  Twelve straight years was enough, for now.

And while we’re being honest: you don’t learn much on a computer.  Some will resist learning in whatever form it takes.  Even if they had a professor all to themselves and tailored private lessons, they’d fail.  But most of you are willing, I know that.  I’ve been there with you.  But this “online instruction”–c’mon, all BS aside, it’s nothing but a way for schools to make more money off you.  In the past decade, I’ve never heard one good thing uttered about any online class by someone who actually took one, beyond “I didn’t have to get in a car and drive there.”  In other words, no one does it willingly.  They have their reasons–but maximum effectiveness is not among them.

Why not?  Well, older folks like myself might be intrigued by the idea, for its novelty.  But you, who never grew up without a computer, are too familiar with digital devices not to know they have an appeal which eventually wears off.  I’ve written extensively elsewhere about the differences between Digital and Analog experiences.

Here’s an interesting example.  See that advertisement above?  That’s Pete Townshend of The Who.  He and his bandmates, in the 1960s, began a trend of smashing their instruments at the end of a performance.  To a lot of outside people, this didn’t make any sense.  Hard to blame them: hearing about it, or just seeing a recording, or the poster, isn’t enough to explain.  “Can’t Explain,” chanted the refrain of one song.

But the sense of it is not logical; it’s experiential; it’s visceral.  You have to be there.  WHEN YOU ARE THERE, Pete Townshend smashing his guitar to useless junk makes sense.  I’m not just talking about an emotional connection to the band, the crowd.  I’m not just talking about being caught in a moment, although all those are true.

I’m talking about an ANALOG EXPERIENCE.  Are You Experienced? asked Jimi Hendrix.

Most of you have been to see a live band.  The performance may have its downside.  That is, it may be dark, crowded, smelly, sticky, distorted, unrehearsed, and the tickets you got may not have gotten you close enough.  But on the upside: unlike a recording, you’re present for a unique happening, untransmitted and with no intermediary, unlike any other that ever was, or ever will be.  Oh, it may be similar in its contours, but that band played that night FOR YOU.  Everything they could do, was for you, and those with you.  And the smashing of the instruments was a direct message–these will never play another note for anyone else BUT YOU.  It’s a compliment, a gift really–mixed, as with all things rock n’ roll, with drugs, alcohol, sweat,  deafness, and the rest–but still, a high compliment.  We all lived together, brief though it be, in the HERE and NOW.

You may never have thought of it that way before, but all those teachers–the vast majority of them for whom teaching is a calling, not a gig–they come in, month-in and month-out, and offer that same gift.  An experience.  Maybe not quite so theatrical. . .but take it from me, something gets sacrificed. . .and a splinter of its essence goes out to each and every student.  Some accept it; others don’t.

I don’t recommend you try to immerse yourself in that experience, in your crucial first year of college, through a digitized internet connection.  It won’t all get through.  Something will be missing.

Of course, I’m neither recommending you risk COVID.  I’m saying, don’t add to the loss of half your high school senior year by layering an inauthentic college freshman year on top of it.

Consider the third alternative: Go to work.  Hike the Appalachian trail.  Shovel snow.  Write poems.  Keep running.  Take some hard knocks.  Play so hard and long that your fingers blister, and bleed.  Whatever–just keep doing analog.  You won’t ever be 18 again, that I can guarantee.  Sometimes a guitar is just a guitar; but sometimes, it’s more.  In the greater sense, we all have only seconds to live.  The time is too precious to spend it behind a shield, be it cotton, plastic, or electronic.

As another rock band put it:

The universal dream
For those who wish to seem;
Those who wish to be
Must put aside the alienation
Get on with the fascination
The real relation
The underlying theme


“What’s wrong with people?” Hearing the Difference–and the Sameness


Seems to me that a few years back, a fella knelt during the playing of the national anthem at football games, and he had a reason–he was trying to say something, though to many, inarticulately–to do it.  He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t violent.  His disobedience was, as a wise man once called such acts, civil.

How many thought to demand: why?  I wonder if he wasn’t hearing the same song as the rest of us?  Or possibly it was the same, only interpreted differently: “the home of the Brave” as a challenge to contribute more than touchdowns?  Yet, who asked?

It was much easier to call him a son of a bitch, a nigger, a bum, a loser, and to call for his job.  After all, what did refusing to respect the flag have to do with racial injustice in this country?

Today, and for the past three days, many of these same attackers are wondering–or pretending to wonder–what a race riot in Boston or LA has to do with a murder in Minneapolis.  And what looting a Target store has to do with political protest.

I might answer: the connection is about as clear as how “To Protect and Serve” relates to carrying a badge and gun, while kneeling on a handcuffed man’s neck, until he dies.

The connection is emotional, not logical.  But no wants to hear about a man’s dread, his fear, and his certainty that when talk fails, violence will come.

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable,” warned Martin Luther King, referring to the protests in the era of the Vietnam War.

Maybe the guy stealing a TV from out of a busted store window, or spray-painting a wall near a police barracks, or throwing a rock, isn’t just crazy.  There most certainly is something wrong, something past eating at him.  Maybe he feels, deep down, that something has been taken from him, when another black man can be conspicuously humiliated, denied the rights of all American citizens, and tried by judge, jury, and execution in the span of eight minutes, and in public–once again.

Maybe that guy wants to take something–anything–back, from those who did it.  And maybe he doesn’t recognize any difference anymore between a white cop in Minneapolis and a white storeowner in Boston.  Some voice, through his red rage, whispers: They’re all the same.  Imagine that.

A group of people assembles to protest something.  They do it because they don’t have an individual pulpit or a TV broadcast or a press podium to speak from, as some do.  The U.S. Constitution guarantees them the right to do it–peaceably.  A company of cops or soldiers is sent in to make sure they stay that way.  Armed, of course.  And uniformed (because Pigs are all the same.)

If the crowd is a thousand strong, someone will yell something, someone will throw something, someone will ignite something, because of the anonymity the crowd gives them.  Yet this triggers the bullhorn response to disperse the entire crowd, lawfully.  (Because Protesters and Looters and Losers are all the same.)

Violence is an amplifying cycle.  It begins quietly, maybe even silently.  It doesn’t end that way.

We can either admit, in 2020, that King and Kaepernick, each in his own way, had something worth listening to–at least worth considering–or we can continue to close our national ears.  We can ignore Joe Biden’s allusion to racism as “the original sin of this country,” and Bernie Sanders’ more explicit charge of “systemic racism.”  We can boycott Spike Lee’s movies.   Turn a deaf ear to George Floyd’s pitiful refrain from the grave:  “I can’t breathe.”  Perhaps Don Lemon put it most plainly: “. . .as a black man, my actions, my thoughts, whatever I do [i]s being seen as more aggressive, or somehow sinister, just because of this shell that I am in.  I am sick of it. . .”  Hell, we can tune him out, too.  Blah, blah.

Yet it is not so easy to ignore sirens in cities not so far from our own homes.  We can, of course. . .apparently we are capable of ignoring anything. . .hoping they’ll go away.

But don’t be surprised when the next noises are louder, closer to home.

Like gunshots. . .


Say It Ain’t So, Bernie


What a grave tactical error.

Senator Bernie Sanders suspends his campaign today.  His conscience tells him his campaign “cannot win” at this point, and that to continue would interfere with the work of getting our society past the viral outbreak that threatens everyone.

In other words, his dropping out of the presidential race is a practical decision.

But as arch-progressive (in fact, Abolitionist) American Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, The most ideal position is the most practical.

We don’t fight because, or only when, we are sure to win.  Even when we are sure of losing, often we must fight.  In fact, when we cannot win may be the most important time of all to fight.  Otherwise, the Trumps of the world are sure they can roll right in, in bloodless victory.

And he will.

It is difficult for me to question the dictates of any person’s conscience.  But in this case, I believe Mr. Sanders may be overscrupling.  There is, after all, an alternative path for him:


If you, who are reading this, have not read the Federalist Papers, it should not be necessary–in fact, by now, it should be common sense–to see for yourselves that our two-party system is broken, and has been for a long time.  The Founding Fathers, the authors of the U.S. Constitution, intended that a multi-party system be the norm in the new United States of America, in order to prevent, as Alexander Hamilton warned, the dangers of “faction” (partisanship).  For a long time, we had such a system, but in our lifetime, it has degenerated into a choice of the lesser of two evils.

So he won’t be the Democratic nominee.  This is hardly dishonorable, these days, nor any more a disqualification for a potential president than a failure to make the Republican ticket.  It’s a little like saying you don’t want to be a major league baseball player because you can’t be on either the New York Yankees, or the Boston Red Sox.

Perhaps Mr. Sanders believes, as many do, that a progressive third party will only “split the vote” and ensure victory for the conservatives.  This is the most pernicious political lie of the modern age,and an insult to thinking people.  And if there were the least shred of truth to it, still I would say: Take the most practical position of all; TRY IT AND SEE.  Because all failures of logic are exposed in the trial of them.

Think about it, Mr. Sanders.  The best hope of defeating Trump was to mobilize hundreds of thousands of voters to come out of their homes (literally and figuratively, ) those previously cynical or indifferent–rightly so–to the political process. Now, especially now, with the pandemic, getting them out will be even more challenging.  They need a reason–a person–to motivate them to do so.  Is Joe Biden that man?  Do you really think you are going to steal votes from a man whom most real liberals, and for that matter conservatives too, will consider either an Obama clone, or no less “business as usual” than Hillary Clinton (who lost to both Obama and Trump in succession)?

Be an Independent Man, Senator.  For all our sakes.  Raise a third party and kill the diseases that threaten our country as surely as does the Corona Virus: partisanship, obstructionism, and the lie that somehow there’s a difference between Coke and Pepsi.  It’s all sugar and water, and the color can be seen, unchanged, in the toilet bowl.




Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: The Figure of Death

Cft0R_vWQAQrH5d (1)Here lies a subject that it would take a large book to survey, let alone a blog post.  So I’ll necessarily confine myself to one small phenomenon, far more limited even than the katabasis (mythological journey into the Underworld): the anthropomorphic figure of Death (that is, Death given a human shape and characteristics.)  Not all mythologies do this.  For example, in a Boethian universe (one in which evil does not exist as a force, but rather as an absence,) Death is not considered evil, but more often incarnates as the end of a cycle–like winter ends our calendar year.  If you’re a Buddhist, it might not even signal an ending–but the beginning of a next life, during one’s journey in Samsara (the cycle of reincarnations, culminating hopefully in Nirvana).

So to further narrow our topic:  Death is, contrarily, personified frequently in a Manichaean view of evil (as a force, it exists in tension and constant conflict with Good /God.)  For us, this would mean, most familiarly, a Western, Christian-based universe.  Death is the ultimate manifestation of Evil, from the mortal perspective.  A paradox, of course, since one must traverse the barrier of Death to reach Paradise; but of course, one risks a descent of the Soul to eternal Hell.

So, at least on the surface, because God appears in Western art in the figure of an Old Man (famously in Michaelangelo’s Sistine Chapel tableau, creating Adam) it makes simple sense to present Death, also, in human(oid) form.  And yet, rarely are the two dramatized in direct conflict, and when a physical adversary is needed, a serpent often stands in.  Milton, of course, famously poeticized a centerpiece of Satan’s host being thrown down by St.Michael.  Which may provide a clue.

Unlike the perfection attributed to Creator figures in this type of world (and also contra many Native American mythologies,) one might consider the theory that anthropomorphized Death–especially thus visually presented–signals an association with humanity.  Specifically, the flaws.  The potential error, imperfect knowledge, and mistakes.  Philosophically, this suggests that Death can be cheated.  An archetypal fantasy.  Cheated, not necessarily in service of eternal life, but perhaps only temporary reprieve.

Consider Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a knight of the Crusades (Max Von Sydow, pictured) meets Death’s arrival with a challenge to play chess.  Asked why, he responds with a bargain to be let go, if he should win the game.  If not, he will submit willingly.  Death, perhaps bored with power, accepts.  Only gradually do we realize the knight cannot (but privately has no least intention to) win.  Death smiles at his ignorance, but Block’s character is in fact playing only for time, to allow several of the minor characters of the film–all archetypes–to avoid the plague which would otherwise take their lives.  Because Death has no experience with such selfless sacrifice, he is fooled by the gambit, for a time–though the inevitable outcome must come.  Still, by the end of Bergman’s poignant allegory, Life has had its hour.

Death is also sometimes portrayed as a Joker, himself (usually male, notice.)  Hermes, in Greek mythology, the Trickster God, had among his duties the conducting of fallen souls to the Underworld, either directly, or to be passed to the custody of Charon, whose boat ferried shades across the river Styx, into the domain of Hades.  The defining trait of mortality, perhaps, is the ultimate joke upon humans, by deathless gods.  This Hermes/Charon/Hades trio would seem an analogue to Christianity, the triumvarate Father/Son/Holy Spirit.

A far cry from Milton, but in modern pop culture, an example of untrustworthy Charon can be found in Chris De Burgh’s 80’s hit:

In the rolling mist, then he gets on board,
Now there’ll be no turning back,
Beware that Hooded Omen at the rudder,
And then the lightning flashed, and the thunder roared,
And people calling out his name,
And dancing bones that jabbered and moaned
On the water.
And then the ferryman said,
“There is trouble ahead,
So you must pay me now, “
Don’t do it!
“You must pay me now, “
Don’t do it!
And still that voice came from beyond,
Whatever you do,
Don’t pay the ferryman,
Don’t even fix a price,
Don’t pay the ferryman,
Until he gets you to the other side. . .
Difficult to imagine a more human characteristic than the desire to get paid, as Ishmael explains in the opening chapters of Moby-Dick.  We might legitimately wonder, what could be Charon’s motive; why the desire for money, in the Underworld?  And one level deeper, why the warning?  Why the demand for payment at signs of trouble?  Will he betray the bargain?  Is the ferryman not as powerful an authority as he may seem?
Or–and in my mind, more likely–is this a trick, a test, to divide the Worthy from the Unworthy passengers?
Let’s go deeper.
It is common in mythologies for a guardian to demand payment for passage (your state government, an ogre at a bridge).  It is equally common to demand a test of wisdom or knowledge (famously parodied in the Monty Python film about the Quest for the Grail.)  Cannot these two possibilities amount to the same thing–two sides of a coin?
Not all tricksters work against the best interests of humanity.  They are chaotic; meaning they are as likely to do so, as not.  Death has persisted in being often presented as a helper (Charon as ferryman, of course, down to the holding of the lifeless hero in his arms on the cover of the first modern graphic novel, “The Death of Captain Marvel,” a visual echo not just of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, but of the famed song by Blue Oyster Cult, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Beware.  (Be Wary.)  Meaning Be careful.  This is not a command to Fear.
“Beware the Hooded Omen at the rudder.”  Whether in a voluntary katabasis, as Odysseus or Aeneas or Heracles journeying to the Underworld with the intention of returning later, or involuntary fall, as  “so many heroic souls” lamented in the opening lines of the Iliad, it is the concept of the rudder that interests me.  Just as in modern times, when we board an airplane for example, we voluntarily surrender our power, completely, over our transition to the next phase of the journey.    The song conjures the protagonist–and by extension, the listener–to resist the demands of Death to assume control.  (Here I would remind my reader that Christinianity, as glossed at length in Dante’s Inferno, considered suicide, the voluntary taking of one’s own life, a mortal sin of despair.)  De Burgh is advocating heresy here (cf. Dylan Thomas’ “Rage, against the dying of the light!”)  A Romantic would consider such rebellion the act of a hero, a la Prometheus; a Realist, the act of a fool.  Can Death be resisted?
Probably the master theme of Homer’s Odyssey is the tension between when to submit to Fate, and when to resist the fear, stubbornness, greed, or folly of one’s own nature.  Almost as if in co-conspiracy with the forces of Death, Circe, “dire beauty and divine,” (of dual nature) tells the hero, “Home you may not go/Unless you take a strange way round and come/to the cold homes of Death and pale Persephone.”  Fitzgerald’s translation of the Greek into “strange” means foreign / unfamiliar.  The Unknown–the ultimate human fear.  And Odysseus is afraid: “moaning” in acts of “despair.”  But he submits, and goes.
Not all tests come in the form of a riddle.  Circe gives exact instructions (as does the voice–conscience, maybe?)–in De Burgh’s song.  The test is one of nerve.  What makes a hero?  Lack of fear–certainly not.  That would not be human.  Rather: Superiority to fear, when it rises.
“Lead us not into temptation; deliver us from evil.”
“Baby take my hand /don’t fear the reaper / We’ll be able to fly. . .”
DeBerg’s song lacks a third, climactic verse following its complication, quoted above.  Thus the listener is left to interpret, based on the evidence provided.  To me, this overwhelmingly points to Charon as a true compatriot of Hermes (and Satan,) tempting his passenger to abandon a bargain, abandon courage, and abandon faith.  To tempt (test the free will) is not evil; but the resulting choice may be.  The passage into the next plane of existence is not free, but the coin is only symbolic.  The real cost is one of integrity, even beyond the passing of the physical body.  Thus the true motive of Charon, in demanding early payment, becomes immaterial.  Whether the “trouble ahead” is real, or merely invented, also immaterial.  The only reality is whether the passenger earns her passage across, to the next stage of existence, by accepting the inevitable; or wanders the near shore (purgatory, see elder Hamlet’s ghost,) for bailing out.
This pop-cultural manifestation, then, is a sort of Buddhist interpretation of Christian Death, returned to abstract form: Ultimate, not temporary, Surcease of Sorrow (borrowing from Poe) must be earned, just as life must be earned, by courage.  Death, in human form, delivers that opportunity and challenge.



All You Zombies: Gun Violence Must Become the #1 Election Issue of 2020


Now another century nearly gone,
What are we gonna leave for the young?
What we couldn’t do, what we wouldn’t do,
It’s a crime, but does it matter?
Does it matter much, does it matter much to you?
Does it ever really matter?
Yes, it really, really matters.

-The Kinks, 1984

Hey, did you catch yourself forgetting to think about gun control for a week or two now–because there hasn’t been a mass shooting on the news, lately.  Yeah, that’s exactly what you’re supposed to do.  Forget.  Because solving this epidemic is gonna mean a whole lot of people who are used to blaming other people for the nation’s problems are going to have to buckle down, and do something resembling work.

Non-Partisan Wake-Up Call 

All you Conservatives: Stop pretending that the least mention of Gun Control is a conspiracy to take your shotgun away from you, leave your home defenseless, and force you to hunt with a bow and arrow.  Just because you saw a “Ban Assault Weapons” poster, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to “keep and bear arms”; you invented that straw-man position.  Your God-given human rights are not under threat.  So cut the crap.

All you Liberals: Stop pretending that because you don’t own a gun and abhor violence that this problem of Mass Shootings is going away, or if it doesn’t go away you can’t do anything about it, and your neighbor who owns a gun is dumber than you are, and he’s responsible and part of the problem, but you aren’t.  We are all responsible, because we all have a part to play in the solution.  So cut the crap.

All you Zombies:  Stop pretending that you’ve thought this through for yourself, and have done the least bit of research outside of listening to someone else’s rant on television or radio, telling you what to think.  Have you ever held a copy of the U.S. Constitution?  Was it engraved on granite–or was it on paper?   You do realize it was meant, by the people who wrote it, to be changed in the future, as needed?  Or did you miss that day in 5th grade?  Cut the crap.



You’d go to the wall, if invaders came to our shores, wouldn’t you?  To defend all of our lives?  Wouldn’t you?  Every person reading this would.  And yet, because the war is inside any wall we could build around our country, you’re just gonna sit around on your hands, and hope for the damn best??

Recently, I was preparing to sit down and fill this space with a movie review of John Wick 3, the thesis of which would have been that such a film needs to be rated X for Violence (NC-17, today.)  In other words, children should not be allowed to see it.  At all.

Which is ironic, of course, because never did a movie follow the formula of a video game so closely: the gathering of gold coins and a slow, monotonous killing spree intercut by confrontations with various bosses (enemy characters with actual names and faces,) with a minor change of mission after each movement, until you simply run out of enemies to kill.  To compare it to a musical suite–some critics have– would be to overdignify a series of acts characterized by having to shoot ever-more-powerful-adversaries multiple times in the face, as the ordeal drags on.

Something, however, kept me from it.  Perhaps I had some inkling of what was happening in Virginia Beach, in the real world; a place I used to live.  I have friends and neighbors there, and hundreds of former students.

Mass shooting.  That’s what was happening.

Of course, my first reaction was to find out if everyone I knew is okay.  As far as I was able to determine at the time, they were.  Okay.  And then the whole cycle resumes: shock, disbelief, relief, outrage, depression. . .amnesia.

Amnesia.  It’s human.  “It happened to someone else, somewhere else.  Not me.  I’m okay.”  It’s cultural.  Like “We live in a society of trade-offs.  Guns are part of our freedom.”

And it’s crap.

The depression that sends us back to sleep after these mass shootings is a by-product of anger mixed with a feeling of utter helplessness.  We don’t seem to have a solution.  We hope it’s finally over.

Only trouble is: it ain’t over.  Seventeen years ago, I walked the perimeter of Columbine High School, while on a summer visit to Colorado.  As lonely and desolate as any abandoned desert prison. I thought the clear air might have something to teach me.  And whatever it was, has haunted me through the intervening years, as seemingly, like clockwork, this disease we cannot rid ourselves of has moved throughout the nation, on an ill wind, taking lives wherever it will.

If the daughter of a Supreme Court justice or senior senator were vacationing in Virginia, and happened to be paying a ticket at the facility at the corner of Princess Anne and the    Parkway, we would now be seeing the beginning of the end of this epidemic.  Because when it happens to you, apparently, is a language we humans seem to understand.  It’s why we didn’t enter World War II until Pearl Harbor.

And that’s crap too.  Because somebody knew the 12 people who died on that day.  They’re all somebody’s wife, daughter, mother, sister, father, brother, son.  Friend, neighbor.  Peter Baelish had a few wise things to say: “Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend.”  They’re not somebody else; they’re us.  And, damn it, it’s tragic because this problem can be solved.

The folks we elect need to do their jobs.  They’d rather argue about whether an abortion law the Supreme Court decided sixty years ago needs to be revised.  About whether a newly fertilized egg, a fetus, deserves life–when undoubtedly living human beings are being murdered regularly, systematically, and predictably now, in cold blood, and the laws that could save those lives are not even being discussed with any seriousness.  

Yeah, it’s hard.  It’s a lot of damn work.  Those people on the hill have to argue and decide: IF access to firearms should be restricted further than it is; HOW it can be restricted by laws, and enforced; and WHAT sort of firearms we are talking about.

This business about stricter background checks (“WHO””) is a distraction.  The WHO is everybody.  It’s everybody’s problem, because everybody is at risk–and so everybody has to give up something.

The WHAT is far more pertinent.

Don’t pretend there can’t be a limit on “arms,” as (not) specified in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  There already is.  As a private citizen, you can’t own an M1-Abrams tank.  You can’t own a functional 50-caliber machine gun.  Do you really think you have a good reason to own a semi-automatic, concealable weapon capable of killing or wounding 30 people in 30 seconds?  Do you?  Cause if you’re afraid the National Guard might someday come to your house, I got news for you: your little cache of AR-15s and 10,000 rounds of 5.56mm aren’t going to defeat the National Guard.  You ain’t John Wick.

By now, the answer to “IF” should be painfully clear to anyone without an investment in a gun collection and several thousand rounds (most of my former neighbors in Virginia Beach, for example.)  It’s really just a matter of wrangling out HOW.

These so-called pre-election “issues” are crap too–to the extent that they are far less immediate, and distract from immediate dangers.  Instead of solving the real problems of our society: institutionalized racism disguised as “border security,” employment statistics manipulated to disguise the fact that real, full-time jobs have been replaced by pseudo-jobs, and exploitation is the New Normal; an entire generation of kids being sold into debt and wage slavery; farmers and small businesses being starved out, to name a few–politicians get us looking the other way.  It’s sleight-of-hand.  The oldest trick in the book.  And they do it, not because they aren’t smart enough to do the real work–but because it’s too damn hard.  Especially if you’re safe: you’ve got the Secret Service, or something like it, and security at home and fences and metal detectors and ADT and a reputation and a big lawn and money between you and the problem.  Then you’ve got no motivation to solve the problem; because you tell yourself the lie that it’s not your problem, or that it’s too big of a problem.

“But if you restrict guns by law, only the criminals will have them.”  You’d have to be 5 freakin’ years old to fall for this stupid line.  Examine a law–ANY law.  Just because some people break laws, does that mean you just give up and not make laws?  Is this how you raise your children?  By this logic, because some people insist on driving drunk, we shouldn’t bother making it illegal, or enforcing it, or punishing offenders.  Brilliant.

Post 9/11 especially, we have given up so much freedom already, in the name of security.  It should count for something we can point to, and say: For this, we made a sacrifice.  We all chose to willingly give up a little something, so that everyone else could have their fair share.  We already do it every time we stop at a traffic light, and wait for the other guy to, as the Declaration of Independence names it, “pursue [his] happiness.”  It’s not total freedom.  It’s what the Founders who wrote the U.S. Constitution–yes, the same ones who called it a human right to bear arms–called Liberty.  A restriction on freedom, to protect the greater good.   When people–regular people–say “Freedom isn’t free,” what they really mean is that, by its nature, liberty isn’t free.  You earn it.  WE earn it.  By deciding what’s really most important, and letting the rest go.

You wanna Choose Life for another person?  Turn off the BS screens and the rhetoric and the class-loyalty and race-loyalty and party-loyalty long enough to realize that choosing bullets is not even close to Choosing Life.

Call to Action: What can we do?

I’d like to lay it at all at the feet of the lawmakers, but I don’t have the heart to do it anymore.  They’re clearly not able.  They need our help.  Not just Democrats, not just Republicans, or Indies, or non-party members.  ALL OF US.

We need to hold Congress accountable.  To do their jobs.  To represent us.

We need to reconsider what’s more important: loyalty, or life.

I swear I will go out and change my party affiliation for this.  Because crap is crap, no matter what name it calls itself by.

As election time approaches, and politicians start sending mailings and shaking hands and kissing babies, you wait, because someone is going to come to you for a vote, from Dog Catcher to President.  Liberal or Conservative, shake their hand in a gesture of peace, and then challenge them with a direct question:

What are you DOING about gun violence? At your level?  NOW?

No promises, no plans or visions.  ACTION.

Any equivocation should be met with a single response:  You will not have my vote on election day without a clear ACTION LIST, not a PROMISE, for what you are contributing to the elimination of gun violence in America.  And if your opponent, of whatever party–Republican, Democrat, Indie, Green, Blue or Pink–has one that’s better, s/he WILL get my vote.

Then watch something happen. . .because, as a wise American once wrote, No matter how small the beginning, something once well-done, is done forever.