God, the Devil, and a Literary Agent Walk Into a Bar

After watching a Darren Aronofsky movie I often feel the need to scrub with a loofah, sit in the corner of the room holding my knees to my chest, weeping and rocking back and forth. Requiem for a Dream was one of those, and I came away from it feeling grateful for my ordinary, uneventful existence. (I mean, I’m not a hermit, but, you know.) My suburban drudgery notwithstanding, I find some guilty pleasure in the dark and the bleak. I like the show “Black Mirror” on Netflix, although some of the episodes are not so dark.

Recently, I saw Mother!, starring Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence. I have to say I was prepared going in, having read about the symbolism and allegory. I approached it as a moral play, of sorts. The movie takes place all within the confines of the large, solitary house in the middle of nowhere. Bardem is the husband, with Lawrence as his young wife. A series of misadventures and tragedies befall the couple, and the house, all corollaries of creation, life, sin and much more. At times the imagery was pretty heavy-handed, like the blatant disregard the guests have for the couple’s home. Lawrence’s character is constantly being forced to retreat into her inner sanctum, which is nevertheless violated as well. Over and over again, the mistress is intruded upon, succumbing to bouts unidentified illness only to be remedied by drinking some mysterious sunshine-in-a-glass concoction.

Bardem’s character is not very attentive to his wife, instead turning his attention to his adoring public. His “writings” are cherished by passionate sycophants, who begin to “interpret” them and quickly break off into factions. Allegorical figures with names like “Philanderer” and “Bumbler” enter and leave, returning and reappearing as the scene spirals out of control into madness and chaos. Lawrence’s character is continually mistreated, all the while Bardem and his worshipful yet disturbingly misguided agent (played by Kristen Wiig) float in and out of view. Eventually, Lawrence’s mother earth figure will get her revenge. And it’s not pretty.

Many people hated this film. I think they might have been better prepared if they had read a few works beforehand: Genesis through Deuteronomy and Luke, Paradise Lost, Cosmos, The Divine Comedy, and A Short History of Nearly Everything. To be perfectly honest, I did fine only having read part of the Divine Comedy, and only part of Milton’s magnum opus. You should be okay.

In all seriousness, the film is entirely metaphorical. None of the scenes should be perceived as literal depictions of anything. What starts out as a seemingly innocent visit of passers-by quickly turns into a hideous bacchanal, then a catastrophic breakdown of civilization. The allegorical figures of the Zealot and the Defiler make their appearance. Many, many others soon follow. Chaos ensues, and it gets ugly soon after.

I like dark things. Dark chocolate. Dark beer. Dark roast coffee. And I like the darkness in Aronofsky’s works. I probably won’t watch this one again, however. Not that I didn’t like it. I have only seen Avatar once. Meanwhile, I’ll watch Die Hard anytime. Go figure.

Now to finish reading Frankenstein.

 

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Flawless

For most of us, practically all our lives, we’ve been told repeatedly how imperfect we are. We may have been admonished for being flawed, shamed for being mere humans. Teachers and pastors surely reminded us that nobody’s perfect. Countless times, to be sure, everyone has been reminded that we are anything but perfect. They may have even gone so far as to tell us that we are unredeemable piles of human refuse. This is at least the impression I got from adults when I was young. We were told that no one was perfect except God. Who could argue with that? God, who made the universe and all its atrocities. God, who created smallpox and puff adders. God, who caused the great flood because, “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth…I will wipe from the earth the human race…”

When I was a kid, and I went to Sunday school to clear my mind of all the evil worldly thoughts filling my head, I began to question certain principles. Namely, that no one could be perfect. Believing oneself to be perfect was aligned with the sin of pride. How dare we claim this for ourselves? At the same time, it was impressed upon me the absolute necessity for me to strive for perfection. Grading systems were designed with an ideal to be made manifest. There is a “perfect” GPA. Baseball has a perfect game. A perfect storm. A perfect day. While we’ve been told there is no such thing as perfection, we certainly throw that word around a lot.

With all this shit swirling around like so many toilet bowls, it’s easy to assume that our teachers, parents, middle school bullies, swim coaches, and youth pastors were all right when they emphasized how we are all imperfect. Most of us were told to obey authority; and, therefore there was no reason to assume everyone was wrong. But they were. Not only is it possible to achieve perfection, I believe each that of us is already a perfect being. Before you start enumerating my many flaws, let’s first deal with that pesky issue of defining perfection. What does perfect actually mean?

The Greek philosopher Plato maintained that not only is our world imperfect, but it may not even exist. Plato held that the constantly changing world was only a copy of the ideal, the perfect and constant vision only attainable in human thought. A perfect circle, for example, might be conceptualized, but could never be physically produced. Indeed, even modern machines can render a near-perfect circle, but our even more advanced measuring equipment may now detect the smallest imperfections. And so it continues. In our minds, we can identify the ideal, but is that ideal based on something we were taught, or is it a universal, collective vision of perfection?

snowflake

For many of us, we have an idea of what perfection means. For example, we like to point to snowflakes as perfect units. But notice something about these? They’re all different. In fact, every snowflake is unique, each one different from the next. If a snowflake is perfect, then all of them are. But any difference, according to Plato, would in essence be an imperfection. But what is the ideal snowflake? How could there be just one perfect one? How could all copies of the ideal be considered less than perfect? In the world where we live, we are not afforded the opportunity to contemplate the ideal, the snowflake Form; we only have the real, the physical. All snowflakes, therefore, are perfect. And so is every potato, for that matter.

As for me, I know I am more complicated an organism than a potato. But I see wonders every time I check in on things around the world. For instance, there are sea creatures that do everything from change color to emit light, to name a few. Human beings might appear less significant in the grand scheme of things, if we’re going for existential despondency. I mean, we’re more than just animals, even though we are classified as primates who have simply evolved. The very act of my writing this indicates that there’s something more going on. Therefore, here we are, each of us, contemplating our existence and our place in the universe. Meanwhile, we’re still basically controlled by our basic urges and needs: sleep, eat, fuck, survive.

Now that I’ve established that I am ordinary, it makes my perfection argument a little easier. If we were as simple as dogs or grasshoppers or potatoes, how could anyone dispute that any of us were anything less than perfect? Naturally, there are those who might judge. The Westminster Kennel Club holds an annual event to decide which dog breed is superior to the rest. This is highly subjective, and the results should never be construed as to mean there is any one dog that is perfect. Really, aren’t they all?

The thing about perfection – a human preoccupation – is that there really is no such thing. What I mean by that is there is no one ideal of any item, person, or situation in our plane of existence. That “perfect storm” we keep hearing about is actually a confluence of forces or elements crossing a threshold, arbitrary perhaps, where conditions may be just right for the worst case scenario. This term is almost always used as a metaphor to describe some social or work situation where things go horribly wrong. Shit happens, but I wouldn’t call this perfection.

Perfection is kind of an illusion. Except that here I am trying to convince you that we are all perfect beings. What makes this impossible to accept is that we’ve been told how imperfect we are our entire lives. But I maintain that we are all perfect and essential. We’re like cogs in the intricate machinery of the universe, to use a hyperbole here for a moment (if Plato can do it, well…) Perhaps we are perfect in that we are precisely where we need to be for the cosmic algorithm to function. What if we are all exactly where we’re supposed to be? Can’t we be perfect in the place we find ourselves?

I admit, my previous notions of perfection were rooted in that latent Catholic school guilt and self loathing, where we lesser things cannot possibly approach perfection. One of my instructors was wrong about many things; it stands to reason he was wrong about this, too. Maybe I am perfect. I’m not without fault, but my perfection may lie in the niche I fill. For my wife, I am exactly what she needs, or so she tells me sometimes. Am I the perfect husband? Perhaps for her. I might be the perfect employee for certain needs of my company. I might have been the perfect student, not because I made A’s, but perhaps because I made my teachers think or because I made them work harder. I may never know. But my point is that I believe we are all perfect beings.

In a sense, we are more than all the cells and plasma and elements in our bodies, the electrical impulses between our nerve endings, or the chemistry in our brains. We’re beyond the body and the physiology of the human animal. There’s no proof that we have souls or spirits, but there’s a lot we have not discovered about ourselves. There might be something perfect within all of us. Maybe our struggle, our suffering, is simply our souls colliding with our human instincts and emotional pressures. Is music a transport vessel for the soul? Is art another? What about acting or stand-up comedy? Or writing?

In claiming my perfection I am not placing myself above other people. On the contrary, I make no statement to that effect. I am not better than anyone else. But that’s not what I mean by perfection. I don’t mean to say I am flawless. But as Confucius said, it is better to be a diamond with a flaw than to be a pebble without one. In other words, being perfect may not be what it’s cracked up to be. Perfection might equal banality in that scenario where the world is populated with pebbles, or potatoes, or snowflakes. One’s  perfect state might be typified by his or her nonconformity or eccentricity. Where there is a “perfect” field of snow, the perfection we possess might be the footprint that provides dimension. What was seen as a flaw is now perceived as absolutely essential. In a word, it’s perfect.

 

But I’m a Cheerleader

Okay, this is kind of bothering me. I got this great idea to write one letter per week to Donald Trump (I’m still getting used to calling him President). It seemed like a good idea at the time. But like Natasha Lyonne’s character in the movie, I’m not quite sure what the rest of society expects from me. I live in a country that is so deeply divided (race relations, political camps, gender issues, and so on), it is quite impossible to stay away from controversial topics. When I visit family – and that happens less frequently these days – we are forced to offer small talk and other useless bullshit so no one gets offended. Invariably, someone does, and merry Christmas!

I wrestled with this for some time. Do I say something? Or do I just show pictures of kittens playing? So I finally decided that I would get involved. But I would attempt to stay neutral and keep it very civil, almost formal. Afterall, I am talking to the President of the United States, the office, if not the man. It’s an important distinction, because the office demands respect. If we do not respect that, our republic may start to crumble. Oh, look, it already has (here are supposed to be some relevant links to various news stories about police brutality or fake news or wage inequality or – oh my GOD, there is just so much that is wrong!)

Therefore, I have started it. I published two letters so far. And I know there are people with strong opinions on both sides, those who fervently support Trump, and those who are incredulous that he is the President. I just could not stand by and not say anything, especially now. But this is truly important. To those who think I’m being too polite: we’ll see how this goes. To those who believe I am a left-wing, candy-ass, libtard crybaby (those are from my family): I am being respectful but honest.

Politics is a dirty, messy business that leaves a bad taste in your mouth if you’ve done it right. God help you if you ever serve in public office. Politics tends to bring out the worst in some people, and yet in brings out the best in others. It may be unfortunate that I’ve turned this once mundane blog into now a gripe-fest. I hope I don’t come across as bitter and cynical, but I am getting older. Thankfully, I have never gotten into politics. I just don’t have the temperament for it. But that doesn’t seem to stop people.

I suppose no one knows what they’re supposed to be until the right time. Well, the time seems to be right, now. If you feel strongly about something, you can do the same. Why am I publishing these letters? Maybe I just wanted to let others know that they can be part of democracy, such as it is. Everyone was supposed to have a voice and take part. Everyone should. I think our world would be better off if everyone did just a small thing. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or life-changing. But when you find it,  you might be surprised by how much it has changed your life, and the world.

An Explanation

Dear Readers,

Let me start by expressing my appreciation to all of you for indulging me in my occasional monologue. My posts in the past have been somewhat eclectic, with topics ranging from my dislike of turkey bacon to heredity to climate change. I enjoy writing, and I believe it’s important for me to use my talent as a service to mankind. Now that we’ve all had a good laugh, I’ll continue.

Last Friday I penned a letter to our new leader, Donald Trump, and I posted it on this blog. Whether or not you support him, I think most people would agree that he needs some help adjusting to his new position. My mission is to, by way of a bona fide miracle, civilize the man, transforming him into someone we can all accept. My quixotic campaign is planned to cover four years. This is not to assume he would not be reelected; I’m just not sure I want it to go that far.

I have in the past struggled to keep politics out of my writings. It’s such a sore point between the two disparate camps within our fractured society. And I earnestly wished to keep politics out of these letters, but there is just so much that needs to be said, and said in as civil a tone as I can muster. I think this is missing from both the President and the media covering him. I realize it’s early, but he has already come out of his corner swinging.

It’s actually very unlikely that my letters will be read by Trump, or even opened by anyone in the White House. And It’s even more impossible that he will read my blog (he hasn’t responded to my Tweets). Anyway, wish me luck. I hope I don’t offend anyone. But I guess I’m not afraid to ruffle the feathers on the top perch.

Thank you

What I Learned from Yoda

Someone I know told me a few weeks ago how they had tried calling me one night. I think it went, “I tried calling, but you I couldn’t reach you.” What, is it 1988? I check my voicemail all the time. And I carry my phone with me nearly everywhere (I actually don’t take my phone inside church, and sometimes I turn it off when we go out.)

But I am more reachable than most people, even here in the 21st century. If someone were to try to call me, I’m confident I would answer. I think what that person meant to say was, “I didn’t call you, but I meant to.” To say that you tried to do something strongly implies that you made every effort. At least you could infer that some effort was made. Some fans of “Star Wars” will recognize the reference to Episode V, “The Empire Strikes Back” where we first encounter Yoda. During Luke Skywalker’s Jedi training, he tells Yoda that he will try to lift a spaceship from the swamp, or something like that. Yoda retorts, “Do or do not; there is no try.” In its simple elegance, Yoda’s statement instructs young Skywalker that he must put his heart into anything he wishes to succeed in. Luke fails, but he at least made an effort. I think his teacher was thoroughly disappointed in him, which inspires me to talk about parents and children. That will be the subject for another post.

I used to catch myself saying “I’ll try” many times. I’m reminded of this scene in the movie every time. I think it has changed the way I speak, but also I look at problems differently, too. It’s not just Yoda’s philosophy that I credit for this shift. I can also point to Emily Post, among others, including some teachers and a priest. The message is, again, pretty simple: If you want to succeed in something, make every effort. Do the things that you expect it would take to accomplish it, including practice, study, and rest.

I told my wife that I considered moving to Denmark. She appeared to perceive it as a joke, but I think she suspected I was serious deep down. I have various reasons, notably the fact that I am allergic to many plants where we live, and there are more restrictions in Europe to what may be added to food, and we are both sensitive to these things. Also, we have friends there, so we would not be entirely alone. So I looked up immigration requirements for Denmark. One big one was the requirement to speak Danish. Long story short, Jeg lærer Dansk. I’m just in the beginning lessons, but it’s my fifth language to study, so I’m optimistic.

Like I said, I work at not saying “I’m trying to learn Danish”. Instead, I say that I am learning to speak the language. According to Yoda’s epistemology, I would either be successful or I would not. Actually, as long as I’m working toward a goal, how could I fail unless I stopped? I guess you could say that trying is working toward achieving success. But I like to think Yoda is right. Try has a connotation that implies that a person can withhold effort, leading to a strong possibility of failure. Whereas, working indicates that you intend not to fail.

Now, I often say to myself that I want to be a successful writer. What this might look like is not clear to me, but I imagine the fundamental aspect that I would earn a decent living based on things I write and publish. Would those be novels or magazine articles? Short stories? Or could I earn enough from writing blog posts? Some people do it, so it’s possible. I don’t know if magazines get enough circulation, and I think print journalism is dying anyway. (That’s probably as much my fault as anyone else’s.) But let’s say my dream is to be a novelist. I think I know what that would take. And I am confident I am not willing to do those things, at least not now. My point is that if I really wanted to do it, I would not rest until I found the answer. Perhaps that’s not what I really want to do. Maybe the timing is off.

I think I am like many people. I have big dreams, but I’m kind of lazy. I was with my dad in a modern art museum a few years ago when he noticed a painting that was nothing more than a canvas with one half painted black and the other half painted red. My dad looked at it for a minute without saying a word. Then he stretched his hand out toward the painting and turned to look at me saying, “I could do that!”

I said, “I bet you could, Dad, but you didn’t. Someone beat you to it.”

Success is whatever you want it to be, within reason. I can’t say I am a successful basketball player by any measure, even though I have played, and I can make baskets from the three-point line. But I can’t do it when someone is doing their best to prevent me from making the shot. And being 170 cm, I am not very effective on the court. But I can say that I play basketball. I don’t try. I just do.

I will not say that I’ll try to publish. I can’t actually say that I’ve even made an attempt. But when I decide that I want to, I will put forth my best effort. I think I really will. I will also have to make a decision about how I will accomplish that with my current schedule. But my friend, who is publishing his first novel, has managed to do it, sequestering himself for weeks at a time. If that’s what it takes, then I have some major adjustments to make. If I am going to put my whole heart into something, I will need a lot of extra time.

Okay, Master Yoda, how do I create spare time out of thin air? Tell me that.

 

Morphology

Words are important. Context is even more so. Words can have multiple meanings in the same sentence, like “The man who hunts ducks out on weekends.” In this case, “ducks” is a verb, but because it follows “hunts”, we first assume it is the object of the hunt, the animal. The sentence would be better understood by inserting another word and adding a comma, “The man who hunts animals, ducks out on weekends.”

But sometimes a word starts to take on a new meaning, and it becomes less ambiguous. The original meaning is morphed. This is why we call every facial tissue a Kleenex, using a specific brand name. Or why people often say “literally” to describe something with emphasis, when in fact, they are misusing the word. Saying “I literally died laughing,” is a completely inaccurate statement unless you were resuscitated after laughing so hard that your heart stopped.

I studied language and linguistics, so I am a bit of a stickler when it comes to choosing the right word. I am by no means as rigid about language as so many lawyers, but I believe it’s important to be accurate. For example, people often say, “whatever” when they can’t think of the right word or when they’re simply being lazy. I heard two people coming out of a store talking about where they would go next. One woman in the group said, “we’ll go to Bed, Bath, and whatever,” as if “whatever” was easier to say than “Beyond.” My wife and I joke about this, and whenever we need to go shopping, I say, “we need some ‘whatever’.”

Laziness might be less to blame for the emergence of textspeak. The need to be succinct because of the cost of mobile data usage, and the 140 character limit of Twitter, not to mention our lower attention spans, have all contributed to abandoning of proper grammar and spelling. “You’re” is now “UR”, and “that’s hilarious” or “very funny” are now “LOL”. This is probably the beginning of persistent changes to language as we have known it, and indeed English has changed dramatically over the past 200 years. New words have entered our lexicon, and older, lesser-used, words have become extinct. Some have taken on new meaning. Case in point, we don’t use “gay” to mean happy anymore.

Some things are slow to change. A mobile intensive care unit (MICU) may still be referred to as an ambulance, even though it doesn’t resemble that antiquated vehicle much. Also, we have abandoned the word “pianoforte” for the modern “piano”, and the list continues. Things change, and sometimes change is pretty fast. As people live longer they will no doubt witness more changes in their lifetime. The late grandmother of one of my friends reportedly remembered arriving in California in a covered wagon as a little girl, and she lived long enough to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon. A lot of radical changes happened in the meantime, as you might imagine.

I expect many things will change in my lifetime. I have already witnessed dramatic changes to the English language, and I am split. On one hand, I lament the disappearance of the language I grew up with, but on the other, it is not good to remain in the past. I think I will always insist on proper 20th century American English when I communicate here or in business. I dare not elevate my language when texting or on Twitter. There’s no room, and there is no call for it. I say “lol”. But I say “you are” or “you’re” as opposed to “UR”. That’s just my brain’s unwillingness to cut off pathways to the memorized portions of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s hard to let go. Kind of like trying to breathe while submerged.

Change will happen whether we like it or not. Just like people don’t ride around by horse-and-buggy, some things aren’t meant to stick around. That said, I say “toodle-oo”, as the old folks say. (God, I’m glad that’s no longer a thing.)

untitled

 

A-ha! “untitled” indeed. Alright, this is about as amusing as the old fake answering machine message where the person sounds like they’ve answered the phone, but about 30 seconds into it, you realize you’re talking to a machine, and you feel both embarrassed and frustrated, which presents itself in the recorded message that you end up leaving. Well, few people have answering machines anymore, so it’s not likely you would run into that particular comic gem. Likewise, the “untitled” post is probably reminiscent to the vaudevillian stage, no longer relevant and altogether unoriginal.

Originality might be overrated; it’s refreshing sometimes to hear someone’s interpretation of an old song or a reimagining of a classic movie. But after a while it does get old. I mean really old. Take, for instance, the film “Ben-Hur”, currently in theaters, which is a remake of the 1959 classic starring Charlton Heston in the titular role. Only, that was a remake of the silent 1925 film “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ“, starring Ramon Novarro. I found it on Youtube, but I won’t link it here because it’s likely to be taken down. But, since this film is over 90 old, it could be considered in the public domain. Both the 1925 and the 1959 films were monumental achievements, especially considering the astounding number of extras, horses and other animals, not to mention the massive sets, the chariot races, as well as all the costumes and other scenery. Nowadays, many movies incorporate CGI – computer-generated imagery – to produce the effect of crowded streets or a naval battle. Back then, you had to hire hundreds of people and build ships, or at least model ships.

Stories like that of Judah Ben-Hur, or Dorothy Gale and the Wizard are bound to be retold, and retold. Sometimes people are not even aware they are watching a remake. In fact, the original “Ben-Hur” was filmed in 1907. That film is surreal in that it seems to have been filmed with a single stationary camera, and there were no closeups or cut-aways. Early days. Even with all these remakes, and all the repackaging of other iconic figures, like Beau Geste or Figaro, lack of originality is rarely mentioned. It appears to be predicated on the staying power of the original. I guess that’s why so many films have been made from Bible stories or Greek mythology. (How many times are they going to remake “Clash of the Titans”?)

I’ll admit, being original is very difficult. Even John Williams, composer of film scores for movies like “Star Wars”, “ET”, “Schindler’s List”, and “Superman”, has been criticized for being derivative. But truly innovative composers are like rare gems. That’s why people remember names like Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt. Even Johannes Brahms “lifted” a bit of Haydn’s original work, but he did it with authenticity. His “Variations on a Theme” is actually pretty inventive and full of surprises. (Well, there I go linking to Youtube).

I guess you don’t have to be original all the time. You do have to be genuine, and people will always be able to tell when you’re trying to be someone or something you’re not. But like wearing a mask at Carnivàle, or doing cosplay at a convention, or whatever at Burning Man, you can make it your own.

Ilia attacks Shocktopus - Burning Man 2013

Photo by Kristina Reed/Flickr.com