Life et al Popular Culture

Are we allowed to like Rocky Horror anymore?

Are we allowed to like Rocky Horror anymore?

It can be a little hard to tell these days.

I thought Buffy was still okay, but apparently it depends on to whom you are talking… or, more troublingly, who is listening twice removed.

Lauding Gloria Steinem and the feminists of the 70s can get you in similar hot water. And be sure to duck after you mention Jefferson, Washington, Adams, or any Founding Father other than Hamilton.

The hopefulness we got from Star Trek? Scratch that. That idyllic future was problematic on multiple levels, not the least of which was Kirk’s treatment of women of all colors. (And I do mean all.)

I get trounced for waxing the least bit nostalgic about Pete Rose, but it’s nowhere near as vitriolic as the choir of disdain I’ve often joined directed towards anyone who says it’s okay to play Michael Jackson songs or watch a Woody Allen movie.

Please understand: I’m not defending any of the particular wrongs that apply here. Evil is still evil, and inhumanity and immorality are never excused or even mitigated by good works.

Karma is a bitch, baby. (Wait, can we even say that anymore? I can’t see “Karma is a genderless but ironically nasty agent, person who I am not intending to demean” becoming anybody’s go-to bit of wisdom.)

Nor am I arguing some version of “ignorance is bliss.” Merely that while everyone is busy making sure their point of view is heard, their frame of reference respected, and their history told honestly by those who knew it and not as revised by the victors, we don’t lose sight of our shared humanity, our shared lack of access to the full objective truth, our shared imperfections, and our shared right to personal growth and change.

Rather than reject things for their imperfections, isn’t it more in line with inclusionary thinking to appreciate them for what they are, accept them, sins and all, but with our eyes, our hearts, and our minds open but wary?

For instance, take the much-maligned The New York Times. Have they made mistakes? Of course. Find me a news outlet that has never made a mistake – no, really, find me one, I will happily subscribe. But rejecting them utterly as fake news is dangerous, misguided, and, frankly, as intellectually lazy as mindlessly accepting everything they report. We all need to assess every piece of data we get, from every source, or we risk outsourcing our rationality and our personal responsibility.

Marvel did some seriously nasty stuff to a strange assortment of amazing female characters who never would have tolerated that crap in real life, but it also made a woman of color the leader of the most popular team of superheroes in the history of comics. (Actually, Storm holds both those distinctions, one dubious, the other inspiring.) Some of my most socially conscious friends are huge Marvel fans, in spite of the misogyny and frequent use of rape and abuse for character development, or of the lame treatment of female Avengers in Endgame. They have clearly figured out a way to love what they love while opposing what they oppose and still remain fans.

Finally, there’s science. We are well past our expiration date when it comes to some of the more apocalyptic environmental predictions of the 70s, and SARS didn’t kill as many people as we feared it might. (The jury is unfortunately out on Coronavirus, but it’s beginning to look like the predictions weren’t harsh enough to get self-centered college students to stop spring breaking or religious extremists to stop gathering for weddings or services.) Scientists use data and history to project results into systems that are for more complicated than we can ever possible fully model. (Can you say hurricanes?) That doesn’t mean that scientists are spouting mumbo jumbo. In fact, responsible scientists are the first to change their hypotheses when data proves them wrong. It’s kind of how they’re wired.

One of my favorite John Cusack movies is Grosse Pointe Blank. (The “Under Pressure” baby scene is second only to Say Anything’s iconic boom box scene in top JC moments.) The last line of the movie is delivered by Debi, played by Minnie Driver in one of my favorite roles of hers: “Some people say forgive and forget…I say forget about forgiving and just accept. And…get the hell out of town.”

Acceptance. What an interesting concept. (It’s why I remain friends with people who support the traitor who has currently taken our country hostage. Acceptance. And a strong hope that they’ll wake up someday.)

It’s certainly easier than cancelling anything and everything that crosses any particular line you have.

Because if we start cancelling everything that’s not perfect, where does that end?

Who would want to live in that world?

More importantly, who would be allowed to live in that world?

Can someone please explain to me when, and perhaps more importantly why, it became okay for some rational people, who are themselves not perfect, to turn anyone else’s transgression, regardless of intention or historical context, into a one-way trip to Coventry?

(If you don’t know what it means to be sent to Coventry, look it up. And I promise I won’t ostracize you forever for not knowing what it means.)

Life et al Social Media Value for Value

Was you ever bit by a dog?

Eddie:  Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?… I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.
Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?

In the light of recent events, I can’t help but thinking that this exchange between Eddie, played by Walter Brennan, and Slim, played by Lauren Bacall, in the classic film “To Have and Have Not”*, casts an interesting light on the litigious society in which we live. Permit me to explain…

You see, a couple of weeks ago, I was bitten by a dog.

Yes, me. Someone who had never met a dog that didn’t like me, and has had a couple of my own. Someone who has been referred to by my wife as big old shaggy dog as she has watched me happily roll around on the ground with slobbery newfound friends.

In this instance, my wife and I were walking in NYC and met a dog owner with a beautiful 2-year old female Newfoundland (my favorite breed). We did the standard NY thing, and asked if it was okay to pet the dog. The owner said, “Yes, she’s friendly and she loves being petted.” As I reached down to pet the dog, she lunged, tearing open my lip and my hand in an instant.

After much shock, blood, and a couple of cab rides we ended up at Beth Israel’s emergency room, where the staff and an on-call plastic surgeon did an amazing job of repair. (Even with 20 stitches, you can barely see the scar, although the shock of being bitten by a dog is still resonating through my soul, as I give dogs on the street a wide berth and contemplate a shift in my own personal alignment with the universe.)

Before we headed off to the emergency room, though, we reassured the owner, who was shocked at her dog’s unprecedented actions, and no doubt terrified that we would report the dog, that we would not in fact report the dog. My wife and I are both animal lovers, as well as vegetarians (okay, pescatarians), and wouldn’t want our actions to cause a dog to be put to sleep. And yes, if the dog ends up attacking someone else, we know we bear some responsibility for that.

But in my mind, had we not stopped to pet the dog, the attack would never have happened. Who knows why it decided to attack me when it had never attacked anyone else? Maybe it thought it was protecting her. The owner is covering all medical expenses, bought a muzzle for her dog the next morning, and is getting the dog behavioral training. There was no chance of rabies or other complications, as the dog had had its shots literally less than 2 weeks earlier, which she proved by emailing us copies of the records that weekend.

Other than the attack itself, what surprised me most was the response from my friends and business associates, who overwhelmingly thought we should not only have reported the dog, but sued the owner. And while only a few of them brought up the notion of future victims, most felt it was a lost financial opportunity.

I’m not knocking them, by the way. We hear it all the time, that we live in a litigious society. People have the right to use a system the way it advertises it should be used.

In an interesting, coincidental confluence of legal events, I also recently had the chance to opt out of signing a contract which might have cost me the ownership of a book I’ve written. Thanks to the advice of a close friend, combined with the opinion of an Intellectual Property attorney, I chose not to sign the contract.

But what stuck with me most was something the IP attorney said. He said that many contracts are just as bad, and that frequently the creator has no leg to stand on in negotiating a better contract, because the people on the other side of the equation have the power. As he said, if you have another option, take it.

Thankfully, these days, the little guy has many other options.

First of all, self-publishing is a much more valid solution than ever before. From Radiohead’s self-released, pay-what-you-want album In Rainbows, which changed the music paradigm and still made money, to self-published authors like Amanda Hocking, who made over two million dollars on her own before eventually being picked up by a major publishing house, the keys to the kingdom are no longer exclusively held in the hands of the self-proclaimed kings.

Second of all, social media is coming into its own in a big way in terms of raising public awareness. And if you don’t think so, look at the impact of social media from Twitter to YouTube to Facebook in three stories currently in the news:

  • The 85 million plus views of KONY 2012, the YouTube video about indicted Ugandan war criminal Joseph Kony, where according to CNN journalist Anderson Cooper, mainstream media’s coverage of Kony over the years was unable to gain any traction at all.
  • The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, whose family, along with their supporters, used social media to fan the otherwise dying flames of attention into a Federal Justice Department investigation and nationwide coverage.
  • The “Etch-a-Sketch comment by Mitt Romney’s campaign staffer, which only really became an issue for the mainstream media after rising as a trending topic on Twitter, according to CNN’s Howard Kurtz, host of the CNN program Reliable Sources, which focuses on the news media.

But back to the issue at hand.

The current personal crisis of faith I’m going through as a result of both being bitten in the face by a dog that loved people and narrowly missing being bitten in the ass by people I thought had my best interests at heart is more about my own complacency than anything else.

My favorite quote from Thomas Jefferson is, “Our own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable for, not the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision.”

We are the only ones responsible for our own lives and our own actions. The day we entrust that responsibility only to contracts and laws and those who manipulate them, the day we decide to play along and get what we can rather than what we should, is the day we cede control of our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred honor to systems that not only have no honor, but shouldn’t be expected to.

I know why those systems want to obscure that fact and encourage us to play along. But can somebody please explain to me why we silence our inner voices when they try to remind us of the truth we know in our hearts?

* If you’ve never seen To Have and Have Not, you’re really missing a great movie. It’s based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway, with a script by William Faulkner, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Walter Brennan, and the dialogue is some of the best ever. Here’s the full exchange:

Eddie: Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?

Beauclerc: I have no memory of ever being bit by any kind of bee.

Slim: (interjecting) Were you?

Eddie: You’re alright, lady. You and Harry’s the only one that ever…

Morgan: Don’t forget Frenchie.

Eddie: That’s right. You and Harry and Frenchie. You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you’re goin’ around barefooted, ’cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive, especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed. I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.

Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?

Eddie: That’s what Harry always says. But I ain’t got no stinger.

Branding Life et al Value for Value

The Lego Epiphany

I’ve heard old timers talk about how when they were kids they didn’t have TV to deaden their imaginations. They had radio, and their minds needed to fill in the spaces between the words with a world of their own imagining.

I could never really understand their objections. After all, I had TV, but I also had books, shelves upon shelves of books, and I was used to filling in the spaces.

But I finally have my own “when I was knee high to a grasshopper, things were different” speech. Which is good, because I was worried I wasn’t going to turn out to be a grumpy old curmudgeon, but now I can rest easy.

When I was young, we had this toy called Lego. Now before you rush in to say, “We’ve got that now” I’m gonna stop you right there. The Lego you’ve got isn’t the same Lego we had. You’ve got prefabricated, pre-digested, specially formulated snap together reusable plastic model kits.

Now I’m not knocking plastic kits. I built more than my share. When I wanted to build a Boeing B-17G or a ’57 Chevy Bel Air, I bought a model of it. But when I wanted to let my imagination soar, I reached for my Legos and built whatever I could dream up. My “men” were the little single peg pieces, and we didn’t get that many of them. In terms of purpose-built pieces, my Lego had ‘em, too: wheels, with removable tires so the wheels could be pulleys. And none of that stopped me from building space ships and airplanes and bridges and buildings.

Please don’t get me wrong: I would have sold my sister or my dog to get one of the Death Star or Millennium Falcon Lego sets they make now, or the Lego people with arms that move and hands that can hold things. But I couldn’t possibly have realized then what I’ve long since come to understand: give a kid a set of instructions and he learns to assemble, but force a kid to imagine and he learns to create.

And the thing I am most passionately proud of about myself is my ability to create.

Can someone please explain to me what we are teaching our children when all their toys are branded, with back stories and personalities, when we’ve replaced their imaginary landscapes with realistic fantasies played out in pixels on ever-present screens, and when even their Lego comes with instructions and pieces that can only ever fit in one, rather limited, way?

Life et al polls

What would the 17-year old you think of the you you are now?

I was writing some inner monologue for Max for ” Life In The Whirlwind,” the third book of my teen cyberpunk trilogy, and she was wondering what she’d be like when she got older. Which got me thinking about how we all turn out, compared to what we dreamed we would be. (And my 6-year old daughter’s plans for her own future had nothing to do with that. Really.)

For me, it’s pretty clear. I’m happy to own my choices, even the ones that didn’t turn out the way I like. Every once in a while I read an old poem of mine and think, “That guy wouldn’t recognize this guy” but mostly because that guy didn’t understand all the issues yet. He wouldn’t disown me, he’d just figure I took a different road than I thought I would. (Can you guess which choice I picked in the poll?)

How about you? Can you please explain to me, via this poll, which allows you to enter your own responses too, what the 17-year old you would think of the you you are now?