The Mind and the Matter

When I was a small child, my bedroom transformed itself every night. Or at least I thought it did. With no sunlight streaming through the window over my toy chest, the night light perched on a shelf was there to give me a sense of comfort and security. The little illumination it emitted was supposed to soften the darkness. It didn’t.

Instead it emitted a sinister ray that made my room look like the inside of a museum of the damned. In the weird glow, every object threw a jagged shadow up against the pale walls. If I woke up around midnight, I would find myself surrounded by bizarre shapes that appeared to be almost alive.

And it was all in my five year-old head. It was the way I chose to see things. In Carol S. Dweck’s book, Mindset, she discusses two basic outlooks. The first is the fixed mindset. A person becomes locked into a certain way of seeing things. This perception is immune to any facts that contradict it. The second point of view is the growth mindset. This outlook sees what is there, but also picks up on possibilities. In other words, if life looks bad at the moment, it isn’t necessarily a permanent situation. Life is not static.

None of this is new; we’ve all heard about the importance of having a positive outlook. We’ve heard it to death actually. How many times have we suffered through Annie’s impossibly hopeful “The sun’ll come out tomorrow”?

But this is the Age of Cynicism. Being optimistic right now looks about as hip as wearing bib overalls at the Academy Awards. It’s cool to be cynical, to probe the dark side of things, to stay up most of the night and sleep well into the day. It’s cool to be tired constantly. Not to be disillusioned is to be in a way, defective.

Could it be time to ask where our angsty fixed mindset is getting us? No matter how much some of us may like to wear the doom cloak, we don’t really way down deep inside want to be doomed (Even if it is cool.) Think for a moment about the kids who went through the Great Depression. This wasn’t a party. If you were in your teens and you got a job, your paycheck went to your parents to support the household. Fun, huh? Then at the end you got a big reward: World War II. Your classmates were blown away on foreign battlefields or you died there yourself.

Yet this is the same generation that fueled the economic boom of the 1950’s. And that wasn’t the only boom they fueled. There was the housing boom and of course the baby boom. These survivors of extremely crappy times had a lot of reasons for fixed mindset thinking. Instead, they mostly went for the growth mindset, the viewpoint of possibilities. That generation had things to be really down about. Global economic crisis and world war before the age of twenty. What’s our problem?

Discussing mindsets can become simplistic to the point of absurdity. We are complex beings. We are light and dark, up and down, and in and out almost simultaneously. And too often we construct our own reality from what we choose to see. We envision the walls squeezing in and the shadows sharpening. Perhaps it’s time to turn out the night light so we can really see.
Weird Glasses
It isn’t what you see as much as it is the way in which you see it.


They Came from Outer Space!

Have you noticed that there seems to be a big increase in strange people doing strange things?  The “News of the Weird” is now just the news.  Because only I seem to understand what’s really going on, I will attempt to convey the truth of our perilous situation before they discover me.

     “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Before you read further, think carefully about this famous thought written in 1890 by Arthur Conan Doyle in the voice of his celebrated character, master detective Sherlock Holmes.  We need to heed these words in confronting the seeming madness of modern times.

     It’s the only means for understanding how a tribe of Druids has suddenly appeared to oppose archaeologists who want to exhibit human remains in a lavish new visitor center at Stonehenge.  Denying any educational value in studying ancient bones, the so-called Druids want the remains reburied.  Their leader is a man who calls himself Arthur Pendragon.  Does that name sound familiar?  It should; Pendragon says he’s the reincarnation of King Arthur.

     The only way of comprehending such weirdness is to employ the Conan Doyle formula.  First, the Druids were a pagan Celtic tribe of the B.C. era.  Julius Caesar claimed they practiced elaborate human sacrifice rituals.  Apparently the Romans didn’t like the Druids (maybe because their brand of barbarism differed too much from Roman-style barbarism).  Roman conquerors did a lot to make the Druids as extinct as T-Rex.  So the group now claiming to be Druids aren’t.  The real Druids are long gone.  Anciently gone.  As for Pendragon, think Elvis impersonator gone horribly wrong. 

     So what’s left?  No matter how improbable it appears on the surface, these characters must be alien invaders.  Haven’t people always wondered how Stonehenge could have been built with the primitive technology that was available at the time?  Visitors from outer space have been frequently discussed in connection with this mysterious construction.  It must be about turf protection.  The aliens are shielding their ancestors.  Maybe those bones only look human.  And we know that real people simply aren’t this bizarre.

     Still not convinced that aliens walk among us?  What about the Boy Scout leader who toppled an ancient rock formation in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park?  The toppler and his cohorts preserved their act on video, high fiving each other all the way. (Perhaps an alien method for transferring physical strength?) Anyone who’s read even a little of The Martian Chronicles can recognize the extra-terrestrial element here.  When have you ever heard of a human being knocking over a famous (and huge) rock formation?  Exactly. 

     Once you allow for Conan Doyle’s idea, everything becomes starkly obvious.  Invaders from the beyond always seek to destabilize the systems of the places they attack.  This is made clear in Rod Serling’s immortal Twilight Zone tale “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”  The rock formations in question are an important part of our American West.  John Wayne thundered past these formations on horseback in several memorable cinematic moments.  And notice how the venerable Boy Scouts are brought to shame by having one of their own (clearly an alien imposter) destroy an iconic landmark?  Two figurative birds have been felled with a single er, stone. “Whatever remains, however improbable. . .”

     There are definitely strange rangers in our midst.  Identifying them and learning the nature of their mission is essential to our survival.  Think about it.  Where did Duck Dynasty come from?  Do these men seem like humans to you?  Does anyone over thirteen years of age honestly believe that Justin Bieber isn’t something sent from outer space? (however improbable. . .)  There is so much that starts to make sense in the light of Conan Doyle.  The Kardashians and Miley Cyrus.  The body paint you see in the stands during televised football games.  Could these oddly decorated creatures have originated in this solar system?  I think not.  One obvious invader showed up at the Superbowl attired in Skittles! His pre-invasion research must have been deficient.

     The cultural infiltration is deep indeed!  So beware.  The 1950’s film classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t just a movie.  Nobody believed the protagonist when he warned about aliens replacing people.  But not too many years later he was proven chillingly right.  By 1967 the world was awash with wild hair styles and bizarre clothing in screaming colors.  The fabric from which these never-before-seen styles were made revealed their outer space origin.  Humans had always worn wools, cottons, and linens.  The invader clothing was made out of something called polyester.     Anyone who remembers that period knows that entities not of Earth must have been responsible. 

     And the threat has only grown in the intervening years. The first invaders practiced by taking over college campuses, supposedly in protest of the Vietnam War.  Now they’re taking everything over.  Ask Arthur Pendragon or the rock tumbler where they really came from, and watch those ray guns come out!

     Why do we currently have not one but two television programs dedicated to portraying the adventures of Sherlock Holmes?  We’re being warned by the shrinking remnant of humans to sharpen our deductive reasoning. Only then will we be able to see Candy Crush for what it is, a distraction transmitted by a mother ship to keep us from noticing the takeover.  I must submit this now; the mother ship is already attempting to disrupt my connection.  The lights are beginning to flicker.

Superbowl Madness
Superbowl 2014: Can there be any doubt that this came from an unknown realm of outer space?

An Argument for Innocence

Shirley Temple has died.  The Good Ship Lollipop (the subject of one of Miss Temple’s iconic musical numbers) will sail no more.  It is a part of the psychological scrap yard of ideas we have left behind. To understand the phenomenon that Shirley Temple was all those decades ago, one must first understand the people that Americans once were. A child star during the Depression years, Miss Temple radiated everything we now dismiss.  Uncool, Gag Me stuff.  She sang and danced and warmed hearts through movie after movie. She smiled from theater screens at people having a very tough time.  She symbolized an innocent hope for better things ahead.  President Roosevelt said that “for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.  As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be all right.”  

     But Shirley Temple wasn’t the cause; she was an effect.  An effect of a certain naiveté characterizing the public of the time.   This was the America of Norman Rockwell.  It had a lot of problems and injustices, but it saw itself through Rockwell’s eyes.  Imagine a President in a wheel chair whom press photographers respectfully refrained from ever photographing that way.  A hit song titled “Juke Box Saturday Night” made light of the fact that average teenagers didn’t have any leisure money.  It was okay because they could make “one Coke last us ‘till it’s time to scram” and have fun by “lettin’ the other guy feed that juke box Saturday night.”  Orson Welles caused a national panic on the Halloween night of 1938 with his “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast that caused thousands of people to think we were being invaded by Martians.  Charlie McCarthy became a huge star, regaling audiences with his comically amorous aspirations toward the ladies and his witty observations.  This may not seem strange until you take into account the fact that Charlie was only a dummy operated by Chicago-born ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.  We were fiercely patriotic, rarely suspecting that our government was operated by anything less than the most sincere and dedicated men (sorry women; there weren’t many of you in charge of anything then – one of those afore-mentioned problems).

     So when little Shirley Temple appeared with her curly hair and her glistening eyes and her trademark dimples she was like a minister preaching to the choir.  We didn’t need to be persuaded.  We wanted to believe her.  We were simpler then.  We wanted to think that tomorrow will be better than today.  When we saw her dancing with Bill “Bo Jangles” Robinson up and down the steps of a Southern mansion set, we were too naïve to get the whole picture.  We didn’t stop to think that white dancers like Fred Astaire routinely glided through glamorous numbers such as “Dancing in the Dark” while African-American performers played slaves or train porters. 

     But there were some rights among the wrongs of that day.  We believed in each other’s goodness a little more easily then.  We tended to value honesty a bit more, and we didn’t usually blame our misdeeds or those of our children on others.  Maybe Shirley Temple is a better symbol of her time than we know.  Her well-meaning father squandered most of her money on bad investments, and she experienced some unspoken abuses working among the movers and shakers of 1930’s Hollywood.  Her smiles often covered inner pain.  The sun that shone so brightly in her hair was after all, only a studio spotlight.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt us so badly to borrow some of the good things about that faraway age in which men often called each other “hey brother.”  Maybe we can be realistic without being cynical.  What’s wrong with having a little of that child-like sense of wonder?  Often, it isn’t our situation that afflicts us as much as the way we view it.  Or as Miss Temple put it, “There’s billions worth of silver moonbeams.  Enough for everyone I guess.  What’s a million more or less? Come and get your happiness.”  Goodbye Miss Temple.  Thanks for smiling (even when you didn’t feel like it).

Shirley Temple
“Baby, Take a Bow”

Walk Don’t Run

Rod Serling, in his Twilight Zone story “Walking Distance,” wrote about a New York MadMan by the name of Martin Sloan.  Dissatisfied with the trappings of success, Sloan longed to go back through all the years of his life “to find the one in which he was eleven.”  He didn’t want the five star restaurants or the Park Avenue penthouse; he wanted another ride on the neighborhood carousel, a chocolate soda with an extra scoop of ice cream, the caress of a summer night’s lazy breeze.   He wanted life to slow down.

     A few years later, this longing for simplicity manifested itself in several television programs that are now looked at as incomprehensible examples of entertainment kitsch.  Green Acres was a sitcom about a wealthy New York attorney who insisted that he and his luxury-loving wife move to a remote hamlet by the name of Hooterville to become farmers.  Another sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies, was the story of Jed Clampett who accidentally became an oil millionaire and then moved his family to Beverly Hills.  The Clampetts never understood the glitzy goings on around them; they remained blissfully impervious to the lure of “swimmin’ pools” and “movie stars.” And there was a third locale for TV viewers looking for a gentler pace: Petticoat Junction.  This place was so naively primitive that its citizens thought nothing of three young women taking a bath in the water tower every week.

     But we can’t afford to dismiss these shows as mere cultural oddities.  The rate of change that took place in the Twentieth Century was greater than the combined progress of all centuries preceding it.  A generation that had been born into a world in which technology consisted of the radio, the ice box, and the ringer washer found itself faced with The Bomb, The Pill, and The Computer. 

     And things aren’t exactly slowing down, are they?  We are increasingly a busy society.  Busyness has become so entrenched in our thinking, that if we aren’t busy, we feel the need to look busy.  Kate Pickert, in her recent Time article entitled “The Art of Being Mindful” discusses what a challenge it is to power down from our iPhones, our Blackberrys, our desktops and laptops, our iPads.  She warns that “There are no signs that the forces splitting our attention into ever smaller slices will abate.  To the contrary, they’re getting stronger. (Now arriving: smart watches and eyeglasses that will constantly beam notifications onto the periphery of our vision.)” 

     Pickert is taking classes in mindfulness as a tool for coping with what she terms “the daily onslaught.”  Mindfulness involves concentration exercises such as the one that has participants study a raisin in the palm of their hands. She contends that “The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st Century.”

Each of us must construct our own response to the “daily onslaught.” Martin Sloan learned that he couldn’t go backward, that he had to look for calm places in the here and now. Whether one pursues mindfulness or another avenue, the important thing is that each of us gets there. We each need that waft of summer breeze, that ability to, as the old verse goes, keep our heads while all about us are losing theirs. Maybe Jed Clampett wasn’t such a hick after all. Let’s stop running, and walk for a while – even if it’s a little while.      
Walking Distance
Blast from the Past: Martin’s long-deceased father tells him that “maybe there are merry-go-rounds and band concerts where you are and summer nights too. Maybe you haven’t looked in the right place.”

What Makes Our Heroes Heroic

Another Pacific dawn bathes the deck of the USS Reluctant in glowing hues of orange and pink and gold.  Lt. J.G. Douglas Roberts, tall and thin, stands alone, gazing through binoculars at a line of destroyers making their way to the final battles of the war.  He is a hero who thinks he’s been held back from heroism.  While others have fought valiantly in spectacular confrontations with the enemy, Mister Roberts has been stranded on a navy cargo ship on which the crew sails monotonously from “tedium to apathy and back again.” 

     But it turns out that Roberts is the best kind of hero in a different kind of war. He stands up to the tyrannical captain who would otherwise succeed in crushing the spirit of every man on board.  He is a voice for the voiceless.  He is a role model for understated courage.  Every sailor on the Reluctant looks up to Mister Roberts.  Maybe part of their admiration comes from the way they can connect with him.  We all have things we long for.  Those things are part of what makes us human.  The fact that Roberts wants so badly to be on one of those destroyers that he has seen passing him by puts him on our level because of the things we want that seem so wistfully elusive.  He’s larger and higher than we are, and yet at the same time, he’s the guy sitting next to us. 

     Mister Roberts was a hero conceived by novelist Thomas Heggen for a work of fiction that quickly became a successful Broadway play and ultimately a hit movie.  The reason behind the story’s success matches the reason why audiences can’t get enough of Superman, Batman, and the various other heroes of fiction, super and otherwise.  We most admire heroes who are somehow reachable, and what characteristic makes a hero more reachable than a point of vulnerability?  Kids in the 1950’s sat mesmerized before their black and white TV sets (or their open comic books) basking in the adventures of Superman.  He could “bend steel in his bare hands” and “run faster than a speeding locomotive.”  But he was also an orphan whose home planet had exploded with his parents on it.  Beyond that, he couldn’t do the normal things that ordinary people do because he was well, Superman.  He had to maintain that secret identity, and Lois Lane was always one step away from outing him.  He was a man on the run, a man with a sense of longing for things that could never be.  Today, the grandchildren of those ‘50’s kids are just as fascinated by the Man of Steel.  Like their grandparents, Superman’s contemporary fans know he isn’t steel inside.

     He’s like Bruce Wayne, orphaned millionaire, who became a super hero to avenge his murdered parents.  Even in his brightest and lightest portrayals in venues such as the campy 1960’s Batman TV show, the Caped Crusader is a haunted man.  He is afflicted with that relentless sense of yearning, the same yearning that afflicts all of our most memorable heroes. 

If we go back to the man who may be the first hero of recorded fiction, Odysseus, we have the model.  Odysseus was larger than life and far smarter than the average bear.  Yet he suffered twenty years away from his beloved wife and son.  Somehow we know that even when he finally arrives home and conquers the last of the bad guys, he’s going to be haunted by the years of yearning. 

     Whether your hero is Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games, Harry Potter of the novels bearing his name, or even James Bond (the Bond of author Ian Fleming, not the cartoonish movie Bond) vulnerability, a sense of longing, underline the protagonist’s personality.  Perhaps our attraction to vulnerable heroes is the knowledge that we will never be super heroes or secret agents, or wizards.  Most of us will never even be able to handle a bow and arrow.  But as long as our heroes share certain aspects of our weaknesses, there is a way in which we are not so ordinary after all.

A vulnerable hero trying to see into a world well beyond his reach