“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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Memorial Day 2015–May We Continue to Earn the Freedom Others Have Sacrificed For

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It’s been a few years since I posted any material from the novel that gives this blog its name, but I thought today would be fitting to include this bit, as we remember the men and women who have defended our freedom.  Here, a lawyer who is eighty years old and more remembers his younger days.

Excerpt from Clotho’s Loom (2012):

“You see, this is not my first time around the

block. The firm wasn’t always so fortunate or selective

in its clientele, especially in the early days. My father

didn’t want to see me drafted into Germany or Italy. He

lost his own father and two brothers in the Great War,

and had to do things himself he wouldn’t talk to me

about. I know that poison gas burned his lungs, in the

trenches: it crippled, and eventually killed him–fifty

years later, true, but he should have lived longer.  He

was ten years younger than I am now.”  He stared out

past the immediate vicinity of blocks and buildings for a

moment, something catching in his throat, and Nexus

recognized that pause–for she had a husband who also

had a father in a veteran’s cemetery, out there

somewhere. “Whenever I studied his ravaged face, and

the face of every man like him, I knew for each and

every one, there were three dead men I couldn’t see

standing behind, and that I owed my very way of life to

them. I always felt restless in that Cambridge library,

while other men my own age defended me against the

new fascists, but Father wouldn’t hear of me seeking a

commission. I took my degree, I came here. To the

homefront, he said. ‘To fight on the homefront.’”

He returned his gaze to the more shallow

tableau before him—just another day, many would have

thought. Much had changed, naturally. But Wright had

the faculty of perceiving the town much as an old man

sees his wife of many years—still that young bride he

married, years before.

“In Mr. Domino I found—or assumed, I

suppose—a kindred spirit. Oh, we’re temperamentally

at odds, I admit. He escaped dreadful devastation as a

lad, and it wasn’t his lot to serve in Vietnam. I was

happy for him—my adopted brother, in a way. As his

last act, Father got him out of it somehow–I never

inquired. Never insisted. What right had I to? But I

could see him, even as a young man, fighting a war

every day. His fire. I could harness that. Later, he took

it out on the corporations, and in those days that was a

good thing. We did volume: had a lot of blue-collar

work come through, class-action and even some anti-

trust stuff. Us versus Them, we used to say.  It was

smashing to be young.  We could even afford pro bono

cases, a few: got money for disabled GIs. All together,

lucrative enough to keep us going, and still on the right

side. Domino ran our little army: he was a soldier like I

could never be.” Wright seemed at the point of finishing,

as if the series of recollections wearied him.

“I just pick the wars, but he fights them. And

now, you,” he added, turning toward her again with

hope, or as much hope as anyone who has seen the

better part of a century can have.

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United Artists in Turmoil: Teachers (1984) BluRay Review/Analysis

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Directed by Arthur Hiller.   Released TODAY.

Notable Soundtrack featuring .38 Special, Bob Seger, Night Ranger

United Artists, originally begun as a creative and financial alternative to the Hollywood studio system before films even had sound, by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths, and several partners, struggled successfully with that vision through the 1950s and ’60s, eventually backing what might be called a series of “anti-blockbuster” releases in the 1970s, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the original Rocky.  We can give them their fair share of credit for what remains of intelligent, risk-taking and watchable film in America today.  The 1980s were a particular turbulent decade for the outfit, including a merger with MGM and brief acquisition by Ted Turner.

Eclipsed today by lightweight efforts in the James Bond franchise and the increasingly overblown Rocky sequels, a film like Teachers (1984) came and went into obscurity, undeservedly so.  It’s not as significant as Apocalypse Now, of course, but it’s no Trail of the Pink Panther either.  The studio delved into all genres: Westerns, Sci-Fi, Horror, High Drama, screwball comedy.  Hiller’s piece can be termed Romantic Comedy, in the old, Hawthornian sense of the word “Romantic”: an exaggerated version, satirical in this case, of what we all go through every day.

Set in the middle of a snowy winter rather than the early Autumn or late Spring typical of high-school stories, Hiller’s film immediately warns of its darker tone.  .38 Special’s title-song lyrics, “And for all the things you taught me, only time will tell If I’ll be able to survive” and reference to a “jungle, ” along with a security guard muttering “animals” as he unchains the doors, hint at naturalistic themes.  For those who might object that too much cynicism is packed into a running time shy of two hours, understand that a real-world time frame of many months can be inferred–it’s a convention of the genre.

Characters are lead by bleary-eyed teaching vet, Alex Jurell (Nick Nolte,) whose awards are fifteen years in the past  but who still sees more value in saving individual students who might slip through the cracks than in propping up a corrupt, mass-production system, championed by his friend, sell-out administrator Roger Rubell (Judd Hirsch): “You’re job is to get them through this school and keep ’em out of trouble–that’s it.”  Their similar surnames alert us to the fact that every educator faces a crossroads in career paths, and not all choose an idealistic one.

But it’s an ensemble piece, minor characters sometimes stealing the show, like an escaped mental patient recruited as a substitute Social Studies instructor, Herbert Gower (Richard Mulligan).  He’s a showman, of course, but he knows that keeping his students awake is prerequisite to them learning anything, unlike his colleague ‘Ditto’ Stiles (Royal Dano).

Morgan Freeman, not long after his stint as Easy Reader on PBS’s The Electric Company, fills a wonderfully ironic role as a corrupt lawyer helping to sweep illiteracy under the rug.  He and Lee Grant (as Superintendent Dr. Donna Burke) function as major villains, trying to keep the doors open and willing to skin Jurell alive if need be.

The vast majority of teaching ever represented in the American cinema portrays teachers as either devastatingly boring, or a cranky, if not insane lot.  But one would never know that anything were ever taught or learned within the confines of a school building, because scenes in most films are “saved by the bell” (classes lasting, apparently, an average of 8-10 minutes in America).  Whenever possible, of course, a sexual element gets thrown in for good measure (see the late Transformers 2 film for a regrettable example).  No, we actually see and hear Jurell trying to teach, and his students struggling with and against him.

Teachers doesn’t sign off early–one can’t help wondering if a few honest-to-goodness educators served as consultants.  Nolte fails to engage his students with the textbook material, notably Eddie Pilikian (Ralph Macchio,) and he’s most effective as a reluctant role model with the lifestyle of a broken-down loser, but with the advanced ethics of a disillusioned campaigner.  His unstated theory–we sense he’s tried them all–seems to be that if he can reach the worst kid, the better ones will all come along.  It’s worth a try.  One fiasco involves him being drafted by Eddie and Diane (Laura Dern) into a mini-drama to terminate her unwanted pregnancy, similar to the one that lent some gravity to Cameron Crowe’s lighter, contemporaneous Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It’s still timely stuff, but speaking as one who sojourned through high school in the mid-’80s myself, Hiller also offers an authentic period piece here.  Nolte doesn’t have a smart-board or computer–he has all he can do to keep the radiator in his classroom working.  The kids aren’t driving 6-year-old cars as in Linklater’s often-brilliant Dazed and Confused, or ordering pizzas in class a la Fast Times, or staging detention-be-damned production numbers as in Hughes’ The Breakfast Club.  At one point, during a parent-teacher conference, Macchio gets slapped across the smart-mouth by his father. It’s a sobering moment, for all of us, a reminder of how much has changed.

Hiller pulls off a rare trick in not polarizing the cast–neither the kids nor the adults escape his satire, or forfeit his sympathy.  Eddie probably deserves the reminder, and his Dad also deserves collaring by Jurell.

Nolte’s major conflict with the system–whether to compromise standards to such a degree that his job becomes meaningless–resonates today as well as it did thirty years ago.    Teachers haven’t gotten much respect in this country since the time of Ichabod Crane, and so the incentives to die for principle defending any particular hill or trench come mighty infrequently.  Lisa Hammond (JoBeth Williams) functions in the role of Hiller’s mouthpiece, a former student who appears just in time to remind Nolte that he has made a difference, and herein the film falls prey to that charge against all works of social criticism: it’s too heavy-handed at times.  “We’re not talking about business here, we’re talking about the future!” cries lawyer Hammond to her boss, ordering her to squash a lawsuit against the school.  She regroups, in one of the more memorable nude scenes on screen, and it’s a bit over-the-top for a work that functions with a sustained aesthetic of realist detail to buttress its romantic elements.  This isn’t helped by the semblance of a happy ending, which comes abruptly and can mistakenly leave the impression that integrity must triumph over corrupt unions and The Man.  But it’s really a conclusion to a third act in the tradition of existentialist drama like Two-Lane Blacktop and even The Magnificent Seven: the Jurells and Gowers and Hammonds and especially Palikians can’t win, but it’s better for all of us that they were there, than otherwise.

In that vein, the film itself can’t be updated to HD quality no matter how much remastering/digitizing goes on, but that would be as questionable a move as updating the edgy soundtrack to a set of 21st century songs.  The new Blu-Ray is short on special features, but as Hiller’s film was unavailable except in VHS for many years, it may be that you don’t own the DVD anyway.  It’s well worth the screening–and if you’re an educator or librarian, or know one–the acquisition.

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Weight, Warmth, and Writing: Return of the Analog

 

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By Shawn Stjean

If only that were true; but the signs are there.  Signs that a few people yearn for a more authentic, true, immediate, and visceral experience, and that the shadows and echoes we’re being served don’t quite satisfy us.  I mean, why struggle through Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey, or The Grapes of Wrath when you can get the Wiki-version, or better yet catch a Simpsons‘ parody?  When was the last time a movie gave you joy?  Follow-up: Good for you.  How much CGI did it have?

Somehow, people still wear faced wristwatches–not because they are in a hurry, but because the object emanates beauty: through design, precision, aesthetic qualities.  They still search the night sky, with their naked eyes.  A few even read, in their best if flawed voices, to their children.

Let’s not forget that both analog and digital are recording technologies–rather than see and hear a live performance (a play, concert, reading, interview, and so on) we get the convenience of having it to experience, not live, but at our leisure.   This usually means, of course, that we’ll be doing it alone rather than among a crowd–or with far fewer people around, at any rate.  I will never forget attending a screening of  Eastwood’s Unforgiven at Red Rocks Amphitheater on a hot July night in Colorado, along with three thousand other people, under an open canopy of stars.  That experience ranks second only to my eleven-year-old self seeing the original Star Wars in the local theater–never has a film received a standing ovation and cheering, in my memory, by an audience of adults, reliving their childhood enthusiasm for right over might.  However, these experiences pale in comparison to getting one’s chest thumped at a Bachman Turner Overdrive or Blue Oyster Cult show in a small club and amusement park, respectively–those were rehearsed and orchestrated, of course–but they sure weren’t Memorex.  They were live, baby.

And I have held pen-and-ink manuscripts more than one-hundred years old in my own hands, at the risk of them falling apart, to study the past, and pass on what I discovered.  I could not be present at the crucifixion of Christ, but I have the Pieta and the New Testament.

I won’t wax nostalgic about analog recording, which is being brought back most recently in the form of 180g vinyl LPs of many popular, classic albums.  Yes, there was tape hiss–hell, there was tape breakage.  Records are delicate, and they scratch.  Film gets exposed, or deteriorates.  Paint chips; sculptures erode; and readings fade into memory.  But you have to realize that digital recordings, even more so, are from the moment of creation MISSING SOMETHING.  The dynamic range is clipped off at the edges, compressed–the warmth goes away, and portability doesn’t come free: we trade away what used to be called “Hi Fidelity”–and fidelity, in its primary definition, means Truth.  It can be experienced authentically as a thump in your chest–but today, what is absent in the sound wave is substituted for/covered up by more power and volume.

This phenomenon is not confined to music and movies (they used to be called “films.”)  Your money has been digitized: what was once a barter of labor or product for something of like value, was substituted for precious metal, later non-precious metal, then paper, and now a bunch of ones and zeroes in a computer database.  It earns interest at perhaps one-quarter of the inflation rate, which means it’s shrinking all the time.  Furthermore, this compression and convenience has resulted in the fact that one man can hold a billion times more money units than his neighbors (this could never happen under a barter system.)  And you can now spend your whole roll from your chair, at places like Amazon.  Your friendships have been digitized: so much so that many of us prefer a text message to a phone conversation, which is a bastardized version of a visit.  Don’t even mention writing letters.  Your very identity is in the process of being digitized–don’t think it isn’t.  You, the sum total of tens of thousands of years of human evolution, can be represented by a bar code.  You’re being tracked and profiled by traffic cameras, GPS chips, your phone, advertisers, and the IRS.  And you are either a one or a zero: dangerous or harmless, a lead or not a lead, worthy of further scrutiny, or not.

Digital means two choices only, no gray:  Black or white.  One or zero.  The TV reception is either there, or it’s not.  You’re wise, or a fool.  Female, or male.  Rich, or poor.  Good, or evil.  Successful, or a bum.  See the limitation?  Analog may mean static, inefficiency, gradual loss, getting old, warped, dirty, wrinkled.  But you’re still there.

When we turn off the television, in our moments of sanity, and insist on HANDWRITING a note and READING a paper book, PAINTING and DRAWING, shooting PICTURES, conversing on the PHONE, we’re doing analog, one step closer to revealing how much we’d prefer to be TALKING, ARGUING, STEERING, WRESTLING ON THE GRASS, THINKING FOR OURSELVES, PLAYING BALL, HAVING SEX, USING INSTRUMENTS or otherwise PERFORMING and LAUGHING (a.k.a. living.)

analog-digital 1We need to hold on to the analog.  It has its ups and downs, literally, but at least there’s more than two choices.

Otherwise, it’s which are you?  Harmless, or dangerous?

 

Sniper-Think, Killer Narratives, and The Loss of Presence

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By Shawn Stjean

No cultural phenomenon could better support the U.S. government’s interminable “War on Terror” than the current wave of sniper hagiographies on screens and in bookstores in 2015.  It’s not surprising, given a public forced to accept drone strikes as some kind of moral and even righteous activity.  But I say, hey, let some of those shooter-turned-writers cash in on their experiences–they earned it better than the guys who sent them into harm’s way.  But it’s all killing from a distance, isn’t it–presidents have been doing it since long before the Mexican and Indian Wars of the 19th century.  And now the average guy can do it vicariously from his armchair, raising a glass to “Reaper” or the next one, as he flips the page on yet another patriot claiming to be “the one” who got Bin Laden.

Partially because I was a Marine long ago, and knew several snipers, and received a fair amount of long-distance weapons training myself, I devoted a good portion of my novel Clotho’s Loom to a sniper narrative, in order to show its dehumanizing effect on the shooter.  Hey, these guys have red blood like the rest of us: some are as decent as anyone you’ll ever meet, some are relentless fools.  But let’s not kid each other–what they do is not heroic, and not anything a mother or father should want sons and daughters to aspire to.  Thirty-three confirmed kills may sound cool on your video game board at 17 years old.  If you’re older than that, it should start to bother you.  At best, it’s a necessary battle tactic; at worst, murder.  It sure ain’t fighting fires.

But I’m not really here to talk politics.  Like a submarine story, there’s no denying the inherent suspense in writing about military adventurism on the ground.  And a novel ought to present the story, and let the reader judge.  The problem is, biographies and pseudo-biographies and autobiographies like the present ones aren’t confined by that limitation. So by definition, the “pro” position gets articulated, while the rest of us with hesitations stand mute.

No, then, I’m really here to point out the underlying lack-of-thought process that is echoes in our everyday lives by the sniper mentality, which is: Get More Distance.  And how to do that?  Simple: Better Technology.

Wait! you might say, what about skill, discipline, commitment? True, but the rest of us are living a diluted version.  We have the distance, in spades.  The rest?

Think about it.  We have: headphones with artificial rhythms insulating us from the natural rhythms of our respiration, LCD screens blocking us from our views of the world and each other, mirrors distorting our sense of self-worth, drugs and alcohol deflecting the pain, noise between us and the silence or our own thoughts, texts saving us from lengthy telephone conversations, telephones saving us from inconvenient visits to friends and family, two tons of steel, glass and airbags between us and the next driver, navigation systems telling us which way to steer, calculators doing the math for us, Google searching for us, virtual dating and break-up by text, contact lists remembering numbers and even names for us, long-distance college classrooms taught by God-knows-who, kevlar and rubber cushioning our feet from the grass, an average 38-minute commute between home and job.  Cameras digitize our faces to keep our loved ones apprised of our appearances.  Tattoos and piercings take the place of scars.   We do our best trash-talking online [ahem].

And 7000 miles between us and the wars.  So many that we don’t think about them for days at a time.

From my list above, half of the items did not exist a generation ago.  A century ago, almost none.  In 1915, you visited with your people if you could, wrote them letters if you couldn’t.  And you wrote “I miss you,” because you really did–no technology dulled the pain for you, because that kind of pain is normal, it’s healthy, and it’s designed into us at the genetic level in order to help us keep our priorities straight.  And in those days, if you wanted the land or the resources or the lives of another country, you had to send tens of thousands of your own husbands and fathers and sons, with a very real probability you’d never see them again, over there to either take those things, OR decide they weren’t worth the risk and violence after all, and come home or stay in the first place.

We’re all snipers now.  Most, risk-free.  Are we heroic?

You’ll be a better hero to your kids if you hug them when they need it, and scold them or grab them by the shirt-collar when they deserve it, and put up with the discomfort-level, either way.  A text and emoticon just keeps you too far away.

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Issues for Indie Authors: Revising The Script, one Strong Verb at a Time

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By Shawn Stjean

Ever catch yourself substituting a wrong word for the right one, on purpose?  Dumbing your language down?  No?

Liar.  (As Emerson once opined, sometimes only one word works.  Like “Damn.”)

The collapse and convergence or shrinking of our language should be apparent to anyone who’s listening and reading: just observe how the word “way” (original meaning: path) has begun to permanently replace at least three other words in modern English: much, far, very.

“It’s way too easy” / “Mine’s way better”

“We go way back”/ “This happens way too often”

“That skirt’s way cool”

These in addition to its now-standard colloquial uses: “There’s no way I’m going there.” [slang for “possibility”]

We, as a literate culture, have somehow managed to lose our way [ahem.]

No, it isn’t just kids.  Watch your own language.  Authors and editors of published books and even what’s left of our newspapers have accepted such sentences as correct for twenty years.  But there’s something not so obvious here, like a complicating infection from an original illness.  And what we do once on purpose–to fit in, to seem up-to-date, for verisimilitude in dialogue, and so on, we repeat out of habit.

It’s all about verbs–weak ones–like the one in this sentence.  Go ahead–I’ll wait while you seek it.

You unearthed the problem, apprehended it, discovered it.   You found it.  Got it.  Yeah, my bad.

The verb IS (infinitive “to be” conjugated further as “was,” “were,” “are,” “being,”) lurking underneath those apostrophes and contractions, stands low as the base of a problematic pyramid, but the issue goes very deep, to the base foundations of illiteracy.  “To be,” as the weakest verb in our language, gets the most use.  It serves slave-duty.  Other third-tier infinitives: “To go” “To do.” “To say.” “To see.”

Next come hundreds of second-tier verbs, and even people who read frequently can get mired at this level, for their entire lives.   “I see what you mean.”  “I get it.” “I said so.”  “I went there.”

Crucial point: I remind my students, ad nauseum, that we don’t just desire better sounding verbs–we require more efficient verbs–ones that do more work.  “Attempt” may work no better than “try,” depending on context.  This advice runs counter to everything they assume–because everybody knows, the longer your essay, and the fancier the vocabulary, the higher the grade, right? (or the more pages in the book, the more money you can charge.)

One-dimensionality needs vigilant guarding against.

Now, among young folks I often like to point to pop culture for my examples, along with occasional pedantic references to Shakespeare and Milton.  Pop music functions well–great, thoughtful artists struggle right alongside horribly mediocre ones. Take:

Rush–the band’s name itself is a multi-signifying verb–though it’s also a noun.  Like the members themselves, the name works hard.  Check them out–and pay attention to the lyrics.

But let’s examine a more current example.  As I attended high school sporting events and practices this summer, I heard much motivational music blaring from loudspeakers:  here’s a YouTube link for the uninitiated, to the The Script’s excellent video for “Hall of Fame”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mk48xRzuNvA

The music video reaches a potential that the song itself does not.  As good and catchy and emotionally stirring as this tune featuring will.i.am is, and as genuinely great as it aspires to be, it ironically relies on some of the weakest language available in English.  And remember, student-athletes hearing it are absorbed in the act, at that very moment, of pushing themselves to become better.

Be students
Be teachers
Be politicians
Be preachers

There’s a certain limited value in the repetition, or parallelism here.   And there’s the musical issue–the stanza requires one-syllable verbs.  HOWEVER, take a look at what just a little more thought can accomplish:

VS.

Be students
Seek teachers
Hear politicians
Heed preachers

The revision emphasizes the process of becoming over the state of being, as every kid jock (not all deaf ballerinas or scrawny boxers) in the grind of rehearsal, workout, or practice knows at a gut level–you have to work hard at it.  And real students–of life–require more than simple classroom attendance, or book learning.  One must venture out and interact with others–listen, try, do, fail, succeed, fail again, try again, work harder.  I’d argue that a great deal of resonance has been added by these revisions: rather than substituting meaning, they multiply it.

Third tier verbs function merely as connectors (“Jack was happy.”)  Second tier [vague and nondescriptive] verbs communicate the basic idea and no more (“I said it,”) and First tier [the best word for the job] verbs ennoble us: make us think, challenge us, inspire us, reward our effort.

Here’s a better verse from the same song:

You can move a mountain
You can break rocks
You can be a master
Don’t wait for luck
Dedicate yourself and you can find yourself

“Way” better.  And it so happens that a one-syllable word like “wait” can be the exact, perfect one.

POST-TEST.  Some might object that pop music makes an easy target.  Fair enough.  For you writers out there, here’s another example of how commercial success does not require anything like the higher standards I’ve described above.  Tune in on that frequency as you read.  Perhaps these opening paragraphs of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could be improved?

It happened every year, was almost a ritual. And this was his eighty-second birthday. When, as usual, the flower was delivered, he took off the wrapping paper and then picked up the telephone to call Detective Superintendent Morell who, when he retired, had moved to Lake Siljan in Dalarna. They were not only the same age, they had been born on the same day—which was something of an irony under the circumstances. The old policeman was sitting with his coffee, waiting, expecting the call.

“It arrived.”

“What is it this year?”

“I don’t know what kind it is. I’ll have to get someone to tell me what it is. It’s white.”

“No letter, I suppose.”

“Just the flower. The frame is the same kind as last year. One of those do-it-yourself ones.”

“Postmark?”

“Stockholm.”

“Handwriting?”

“Same as always, all in capitals. Upright, neat lettering.”

With that, the subject was exhausted, and not another word was exchanged for almost a minute. The retired policeman leaned back in his kitchen chair and drew on his pipe. He knew he was no longer expected to come up with a pithy comment or any sharp question which would shed a new light on the case. Those days had long since passed, and the exchange between the two men seemed like a ritual attaching to a mystery which no-one else in the whole world had the least interest in unravelling.

The Latin name was Leptospermum (Myrtaceae) rubinette. It was a plant about four inches high with small, heather-like foliage and a white flower with five petals about one inch across. The plant was native to the Australian bush and uplands, where it was to be found among tussocks of grass. There it was called Desert Snow. . .

Now, in America we all seem to believe that one can’t argue with success.  Yet, if this remains the best we professionals can do, I’m a little concerned about the future of the amateurs.  Because let us not forget: reading and writing remain the best activities for promoting critical thinking and growing the human brain.  Students have been taught to write in the passive voice (sentences have no actor in them, as this one.  Who taught the students to do it?,) which solves a few problems (overuse of “I”) but the cure becomes worse than the disease.  It leads to cliche’d and passive thinking.

I have no opinion on the plotting, characterization, attention-getting ability, expositional effectiveness, or any other aspect of Larssen’s work here.  He may well be a genius beyond my ken.  My example only applies to his use of language, which, by the standards described in this article, scores “mediocre” at best.  His characters certainly should be forgiven for their terseness and inarticulateness, designed in by the author as part of a shorthand between intimates.  In fact, in many ways, they speak better than the narrator (who, in two cases, uses “to be” forms three times in one sentence.)  This may sound pompous of me and hopelessly outmoded, but I would never let one of my own students get away with that.

Now lest anyone object that these can’t be improved–that sometimes one must use a lesser word–you are correct.  It’s true.  But, most of the time, it only takes another pass.  And some sweat of the brow.

REVISION:

The plant, native to the Australian bush and uplands, grew [hid, nestled, waited discovery] among tussocks of grass.

Much more efficient–AND the emphasis shifts to the important element under discussion–the plant itself.  But then again, not the best way to get paid by the word, fill up more pages, consume people’s time, or, much like the rare flower of the book, encourage the growth of readers, among stagnant masses.

Perhaps the world does know Larsson’s name–for the moment–and I’m sure he’s made his money.  Will he, or The Script and will.i.am, ever share company with that other famous William, of the 16th century, master of i.am.bic pentameter?  I wonder: After all, no one ever rode into the Hall of Fame on their third- and second-best.

Most sink to the master standard of our time–“Good enough”–or tread water as the Good many were born with.  Only the few rise to Greatness.  Because they’re willing to earn it.  Learn.  Sweat.  Think.  Work harder, smarter, and better.

But hey, as the Most like to say: it is what it is.

Right?

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Colors On the Street: Red, White and Blue

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By Shawn Stjean

This may seem like I’m simply nostalgic over the past, but believe me, I’m not.  So bear with me.

When the snow-plows only take a single, half-hearted pass down most of the side streets, but make the main roads whistle clean, it’s hard not to notice what’s on them.  By main roads I mean not just highways, but streets occupied by one thing, predominantly: stores.

When I was a kid, my hometown didn’t support more merchants than the average American small city:  a few markets, toy store, library, newsstands, jeweler, cobbler, pharmacy.  Most of our citizens worked in the factories scattered along the river.  Those jobs and businesses have all but bled out now, or moved first to Mexico and later to China, but the ghosts of the old buildings remain today.  Not all bad news: ‘cuz back in the ’80s, along with cable TV, we got a big, shiny new mall and some big-box stores.

Somewhere along the way, one of the elementary schools was closed, and burned down after remaining vacant for about a year.  The lot was cleared.  It might have seemed slightly perverse in those days (Sunday night television, for example, featured Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney) to directly replace a school with the liquor store that stands there currently.  After all, we already had a couple of them on the strip.  So the rebuilt building functioned as a Chinese restaurant, for awhile.

During that era, the local hardware store succumbed to the competition from the new Home Depot a couple of miles to the south, and the Lowe’s to the north.  Today, it’s a liquor store.  Not far away, the pharmacy where I bought my comics from the husband of my 5th grade English teacher, transformed into a bank for about a decade, is now. . .a liquor store.  Mid-sized mom and pop supermarket: a liquor store.

Just lately, as I was forced to avoid the back roads and use the snow-cleared main artery, I passed what I expected to be one of the few bookstores in the region.  A large nationwide chain, that recently closed its doors.  I’m sure you remember it.  The building?  You guessed it: now a cavernous liquor store.

Meanwhile, the new LED road signs warn us all to “Drive Sobah,” conjuring images of cops who will run you down, if they haven’t already towed you away or ticketed you for parking on the street in front of your own house, that won’t get cleared anyway.   (Where is that revenue going, anyway, if not to the snow removal budget?)  I’d have thought that the local government controlling, through licensing, the number of outlets that sell spirits would have helped a bit–the same way the blue laws used to prohibit sales on Sunday–but it’s a free country, you can’t stop progress.

Notice some patterns here?  What’s the message, accumulating like unshoveled drifts, year after year, in Small Town, USA?  After surviving a childhood in overcrowded classrooms with underpaid teachers: take your compromised education down the street to work a non-union retail job selling cell phones, computers, packaged food; then drive home, if you can get there; turn on the boob tube;  by all means do not read a book;  watch kittie videos on the internet; and most importantly. . .keep drinking.  But, as you return to that job–which is probably much more of a commute than you’d like, though, hey, you have a new car (and five years of payments to go with it,) right?–stop by, spend some money, and always drive sober.

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