He’s Back! And it’s your fault!

Okay, you had to do it. I’m talking to you, media people. There weren’t enough weird things happening in the world; you found it necessary to sic a ghost on us. And not just a ghost, an ANGRY ghost. I can already hear him storming back into the world he so peacefully departed a few years ago. His dark, tailor-made suit has been pressed for the occasion. His conservative silk tie rests carefully on a white, spread-collared dress shirt. Elegant cufflinks shimmer in the dim light as he walks. The polished cap toed shoes glisten with authority. Walter Cronkite is back, and he’s not happy.

If you’re on the younger side, you might take this announcement lightly. Big deal, you may mutter disrespectfully under your contemptuous breath. It’s not Kurt Cobain. Go ahead. Make that mistake. This ghost is one to be reckoned with. When you look into his deep-set eyes, blazing beneath those bushy white brows, you’ll know what I mean. And if that were not enough, there’s the schoolmaster mustache and the flowing white hair. He seems to have been painted by Michelangelo.

The physical appearance harmonizes with the voice. It is gruff and somewhat clipped, as tough as Mark Twain’s Missouri, his home state. The first thing that voice is going to ask is “Now just who is this Jay Z fellow?” The reason for his asking this is the Elevator Affair that recently dominated what now passes for network news. Mr. Cronkite has returned to avenge his craft; he was America’s “most trusted” newsman for most of the 20th century. He wants to know why a tiff between celebrities in a posh hotel was given wall to wall coverage for days. And days. And days.

You see, Mr. Cronkite is accustomed to real news. The only time he gave stories extended coverage, the topic was something like the assassination of President Kennedy or the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Beyonce’s sister Solange flailing at her brother-in-law, Jay Z, during an elevator ride doesn’t compute with Mr. Cronkite. He wants some answers as to who’s responsible for giving such drivel a level of attention equivalent to the first moon landing. And more broadly, he’s trying to find out what’s happened to the news in general.

We were once made of sterner stuff. In Mr. Cronkite’s day we took it for granted that the news would be news. Pushed aside in favor of celebrity gossip have been the hordes of children (and adults) living in Internal Displaced Persons camps in Uganda. Did you know these people survive in part on fried rats? These people need intervention. They need an international outcry and international pressure brought to bear. Mr. Cronkite always paid attention to things like that.

Perhaps the reason we don’t have a Walter Cronkite today is that we have changed. We settle for less now, much less. Events that are shaping the world in which we live take a backseat to the latest celebrity snafu. Did you hear that Rihanna accidentally dropped the cell phone of an LAPD officer while snapping a selfie? Mr. Cronkite hasn’t. During the Vietnam War, Mr. Cronkite donned the type of combat gear he’d worn as a correspondent in World War II, and plodded into the jungles to tell us what was really going on. There he was, helmet firmly planted on head, giving us the real news from the place where it was happening. Now he’s waiting, arms folded expectantly over elegant jacket lapels. Who wants to tell him he’s just a faded blast from the past, a quaint antique from a bygone era? Who will step forward to put old Walter wise on how his kind of news isn’t cool? No one? Maybe those hip members of the modern media are all off covering a celebrity bash somewhere. While life transforms around us, we’re preoccupied with the latest development on Dancing with the Stars. Our whole concept of news is defined by TMZ. And sadly, that’s – to paraphrase the closing line of every one of Mr. Cronkite’s classic newscasts – the way it is.
Walter Cronkite
I wouldn’t keep him waiting if I were you.

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Dear Mr. Skygack,

I know it’s been a long time since you’ve been here. We didn’t have space travel. We didn’t even have air travel (other than the Wright Brothers’ few airborne minutes). We don’t know much about you Mr. Skygack, only that you came from Mars to document life on Earth. Most people never spotted you, but one person created drawings of your observations. He must have been a satirist because he always drew you comically misunderstanding everything you saw. But that was more than a century ago, and you’ll find it hard to believe what’s happened here since.

Mr. Skygack
Here’s how you were shown during your Earthly visitation, Mr. Skygack

You started something we Earthlings call ‘a social phenomenon.’ And it gets bigger every year. It’s called cosplaying (They probably should have labeled it ‘Skygacking,’ but life’s true innovators rarely get credit for their creations). This phenomenon has to do with people dressing up to look like characters from science fiction and fantasy. Thousands of people are doing this costume playing, and you were the first one they imitated.

Before going on, I should explain what science fiction and fantasy are here. When you observed Earth, nobody used these names much. Now, everybody knows them. If a story is about human-like robots or people going into outer space, it’s called science fiction. Even though we can now really go into space, we still call stories about space exploration science fiction. We’re quirky that way. If a story is about dragons or strange beings with wings, it’s called fantasy. I know what you’re thinking; you’re a space traveler, and there’s nothing fictitious about being from Mars. But most Earth people aren’t very enlightened.

Now let me describe how you initiated the phenomenon I mentioned. It started with a few people dressing up like you (or like the you they had seen in that artist’s cartoons). They wore their Mr. Skygack costumes to parties. They were such a hit that over the years, other costumes started to appear. One of the most often seen is Superman. You may have heard of him. Superman appeared on earth thirty years after your departure. He came from the planet Krypton, and because Earth has a yellow sun instead of the red sun his native world had, he developed super powers (like running faster than a speeding locomotive and being able to leap tall buildings in a single bound). Like you, Superman is thought to be a fictional character. But any man who was ever a boy knows Superman is real.

You may have crisscrossed in space with the Starship Enterprise a few times. A lot of costume players like to dress as Mr. Spock, the ship’s science officer. He’s from Vulcan. You’ve no doubt visited there more than once. You can imagine how intriguing the pointed ears are to bland-looking Earth people. Besides, now there are two Spocks to imitate, the old Spock and the young Spock. Have your travels taken you to the Klingon world? Earthlings are fascinated by the lumpy, overhanging Klingon foreheads. A number of Klingon cosplayers have even learned the language. It isn’t real cosplaying unless you can voice your character.

And that’s the point. Cosplaying isn’t just about wearing costumes, Mr. Skygack. It’s about something much more. Cosplaying is the creation of another dimension of being. If only for an afternoon, its practitioners get to step out of their daily lives, and in a sense explore aspects of their own personalities by seeming to become someone or something else. They play the roles of larger-than-life heroes and villains. They are Spiderman, Hulk, Joker, Batman, Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, and even Chewbacca. Many play the role of a famous British time traveler by the name of Dr. Who. (I know these names are unfamiliar to you; they’ve all popped onto our cultural landscape since your visit). By assuming the personality of a character, cosplayers create a world within a world, one inhabited by colorfully surprising and varied elements. Cosplaying allows not so much an escape from reality as a means of brightening its more pale aspects. Personal imagination and creativity flourish in a unique way. Why should the wonder of pretending end with childhood? Remember the things we learned about life by that pretending?

So Mr. Skygack, if you ever decide to come back here don’t say you weren’t warned. Remember you started it. Take your usual copious notes because there is much to be learned from the alien-looking species called cosplayers. When you see the robots, the space creatures, the super heroes, the sorcerers and sorceresses streaming into a big city convention center, you’re really just seeing humans looking for ways of enriching the human experience.
Cosplay Super Heroes
Here are some superhero cosplayers for your examination, Mr. Skygack
Comiket
Above, are cosplayers at an event titled Comiket in Japan
Lucille Ball as Charlie Chaplin
The famous American comedienne Lucille Ball once cosplayed Charlie Chaplin
The Great Dictator
And Charlie Chaplin learned the hard way that not every character is an appropriate cosplay choice
Elvis Impersonator
Mr. Skygack, this cosplay character is farther beyond the standard reaches of reality than most

Pumped Prom Syndrome

As the lights began to flicker on my high school years, one important experience remained. The football games, the annual bonfire, the dances were all behind me. But the social El Dorado remained, the Dance of dances, the Prom. My friend’s mother insisted that he secure a date for the Grand Occasion, even though he had never before had a date. She made him get on the phone in front of her, and call at least ten girls. They all said no. Well actually, the dial tone said no. He had a way of pretending to dial a number, and then faking the conversation.

“May I speak to Amanda?” he would politely intone, “Hi, Amanda, this is Frank. I was wondering if you might like to go to prom with me. . .”

The one-sided conversation unfolded with the earpiece pressed firmly to his head to muffle sound. His mother worked placidly on the family dinner, satisfied that her son was at least trying. He had determined the final score before starting: four girls would already be going with someone else, three girls wouldn’t be going at all due to family conflicts, and three girls would have pending invitations. The variety of fictional responses gave the charade an illusion of reality. By the tenth faux call he was off the hook.

I was another prom dropout; my imagination had made the event seem too gigantic to deal with. The prom of my mind was a towering Goliath. I retreated from its looming shadow to the false comfort of familiar distractions. Prom – as I viewed it – wasn’t for the humble likes of me. The others in my small circle of friends chose to see it the same way. If high school had been a movie, we would have cast ourselves as extras, faceless figures filling in the background for the stars. Frank talked to the dial tone because he feared the sound of a real “no.” We shared his fear. The sidelines of isolationist obscurity were a boring but safe alternative.

Our unfounded fears had an irony; prom really wasn’t that big a big deal in those days. It was basically just a dance with some extra trimmings. You picked up your date in the family car. The venue was the school gym. Other than the formal wear and corsage, there were no expenses. You got home well before midnight.

Now the exaggerated prom perspective my friends and I once entertained has gone viral. Prom is a mouse that’s roaring. Nothing about the modern prom can be called simple. The modest chiffon dresses of the past have been replaced by gaudy lookalikes of what saloon girls wear in TV westerns. Prom couples now cruise in limos. Five star dining precedes the event, and an expensive overnight excursion (post-prom) is the follow up.

The prom invitation is no longer a two-minute conversation between classes or over the phone. Elements that were once reserved for movie musicals are routine. Excess is the new norm: a large supporting cast of smiling well-wishers, splashes of flowers, perhaps a billboard, maybe some fireworks. Think Glee in overdrive, and you’ve got the idea. One enterprising young man painted his invite in gigantic letters on his prospective date’s street. Naturally, her driveway was lined with flowers and other ornamentation. The old fashioned, mere asking of the question seems as extinct as Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Prom has become a tornado of fantastic expectations. It’s a glistening, self-validating, overwhelming summit. It’s an existential leap of faith. It’s a one-item bucket list.

Consequently, the stakes are ever escalating. No level of big seems big enough.

Case in point: A young man in Pennsylvania is stopped by a school administrator on his way into an assembly where Miss America is slated to speak. He is warned that word has gotten around of his plans to ask Miss America to be his date at the prom. The administrator tells him that such a question on his part will be seen as a disruption, and will result in disciplinary action. But according to the young man, he’s “already in the zone,” so he goes ahead and makes his proposal during the question-answer part of the presentation – and immediately steps into a zone far different than the one in which he imagines himself to be situated.

Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” descends with a crash, kicking off with a three day suspension for having ignored the warning. Miss America has politely declined, citing her busy travel schedule. She does however issue a statement requesting that the suspension be rescinded. It isn’t. Next, potential prom dates start crawling out of the woodwork. Women of the social media world (one hundred light years north of Mars) express their wish to accompany him. The Bunny Ranch Brothel in Nevada offers to send two dates. The young man says no thank you (Apparently at least a few boundaries remain, in this case his mother.) Finally, Khloe Kardashian offers to go with him (presumably bringing her camera crew). The young man wisely takes a pass on that option as well. But what opened this weird floodgate? If prom is truly the path to self-validation, a celebrity date is almost mandatory.

Paralleling the Miss America fiasco is another celebrity prom story, this one from Philadelphia. The country club prom of an elite girls academy was shaken up when Olympic gold medalist (and rock band member) Shaun White showed up at the invitation of one Carly Monzo, a student and avid fan. Ms. Monzo had recorded an invitational video, “GoProM?” which she placed online. Naturally, she used Mr. White’s music in her production. He immediately saw the video, and decided to pop in at the Huge Happening with his band. One can only imagine the existential energy that must have charged through the teenager when her idol made his appearance. In classic teen talk, Ms. Monzo expressed her elation: “All of my friends were crying for me and I was like ‘Carly, don’t lose it,'” she gushed.

The oversized concept of prom and its social/spiritual significance can lead to some frightening excesses. A sixteen year-old Connecticut girl was stabbed to death at school this prom season for turning down an invitation. In olden days, such a rejection might have caused a guy to hit the soda shop to drown his fleeting sorrows in a thick chocolate malt. He might even have indulged in one of the heartbreak hits like The Beach Boys’ timeless “Warmth of the Sun:” “. . . I cried when she said ‘I don’t feel the same way.’ Still I have the warmth of the sun within me tonight. . .” The theme of such songs was that you get over life’s little hurts – without turning into Jack the Ripper. But a prom magnified beyond reasonable proportions – like any other distorted mindset – can lead to unpredictable – and sometimes dangerous – places.

Prom is of course only a small example of the ways in which we often see things the way we choose to see them. Not the way they actually are. This perspective can result in stunning letdowns. When we don’t get the validating Zing we seek, when the fantasy coach that would whisk us into our highest visions turns out to be just a pumpkin, we end up as squashed as a jack-o-lantern on Halloween night. Isn’t it healthier to open ourselves to seeing the real world? In that way, we can find and develop our place in it. A warning to existential divers: there’s no water in that pool.

Promenade in the School Gymn
The Promenade (Prom) in pre-existential days

A Study in Boundaries

One of the more searing Twilight Zone episodes begins with a birthday party.  Dr. Bill Stockton is being honored by his neighbors who appear to be quite fond of him and of each other.  One of the neighbors gives a little speech, gently poking fun at the doctor for the noise he made while building a bomb shelter in his basement.  Everyone laughs at the doctor’s endearing eccentricity in constructing such a thing – until a warning comes over the radio.  Unidentified objects have been spotted heading in fast.  They might be Russian planes armed with nuclear weaponry.  Chaos ensues as each neighbor flees to prepare for the impending attack.  The boundaries of civility disintegrate as the neighbors return to demand entry into the shelter.  The fact that it can only hold three – the doctor, his wife, and his son – doesn’t matter.  The stampede of former partiers breaks up the doctor’s dining room. They turn against each other in ugly ways.  One neighbor calls another a “semi-American” for being Hispanic.  He punctuates his point with a sock to the jaw.  Just as the madness reaches a frightening crescendo, the radio announces that the incoming objects are only birds.  Embarrassed by their descent into barbarism, the neighbors try to climb out of the abyss by discussing ways of repairing the damage.  Almost stumbling up the stairs, Dr. Stockton turns around with a dazed expression, and observes that more destruction has occurred than any bomb could have wrought.  Boundaries have been demolished that can’t be rebuilt. 

     We think we don’t like limits, but we really do.  Children become annoyed when their parents impose restrictions.  But how would they like it if their parents suddenly stopped caring?  Why don’t we enjoy news footage of riot scenes?  It’s because we understand too well what the burning store fronts, overturned cars, and battered people signify.  The boundaries have been torn down, allowing the less appealing aspects of human nature to run wild. 

     The fictional experience of Dr. Stockton is regularly mirrored in the real world.  Not long ago a man in his thirties left his wife and children behind for an 18-year prison stretch.  His offence was an outburst of road rage that had caused an elderly man’s death.  One can safely assume that this man will soon learn the art of living within boundaries – in the extreme.  And what about the New Jersey woman who has confessed to killing her neighbor’s dog by throwing it into traffic.  She broke into the neighbor’s home, grabbed the dog, a 2 year-old Shih Tzu, and heaved it out into the path of an oncoming truck.  What could have been the motivation for such an act?  Surely it must have been something enormous to drive a person to do something so horrific.  Did she believe the dog to be the carrier of a disease capable of killing off the neighborhood?  No, it wasn’t anything that urgent.  It seems there was an argument over a parking space.  Let’s repeat that: there – was – an – argument – over – a – parking – space.

     What has happened to us?  How have the social norms that held us together for decades, even centuries, fallen apart?  Is it the obsession with self?  This is the age of the I-phone, the I-pad. We’re awash in I-oriented merchandising.  With the exultation of the I is there a tendency to slump into ourselves, to become disinterested in the effects our actions have on others?  At the conclusion of his drama about the bomb shelter, Rod Serling uttered an important thought: “For civilization to survive, the human race must remain civilized.” This observation, or as Mr. Serling called it, this “small exercise in logic,” bears a truth that extends far beyond the borders of The Twilight Zone. 

The Shelter TZ
Storming the Shelter (and destroying the boundaries)