The Case of the Co-Opted Crisis

Not long ago the media was abuzz with commentary about the Confederate flag and why it should be banned from flying in southern state capitols. Many media voices insisted that this symbol of the defunct Confederacy is actually a racist banner. Others say that it represents the states’ rights v. federal government debate, and that it honors the young men who fell on those bloody battlefields long ago.

The catalyst for the commentary was the Charleston church shooting. The butcher who executed people at the conclusion of a routine meeting in their historic place of worship had apparently once posed with the Confederate flag. His connection with the ‘stars and bars’ brought about its banishment from public display.

But there is more to the story. There are people who see a crisis as an opportunity to accomplish long-held goals. This was certainly true of the Charleston story. Those who had wanted the flag to be gone for a long time, moved in quickly to take full advantage of the tragic shooting. One might call them crisis carpetbaggers. They changed the focus of the story from the victims and their families to their anti-flag quest.

And this is unfortunate. Let the Confederate flag fly into history with the ragged gray uniforms and the invalid currency. Confine it to some obscure museum as the critics demand. But in the case of the Charleston shooting, the wall-to-wall flag focus co-opted what was really a story about a community, the terrible thing that happened there, the people who lost their lives, and the families who needed attention, attention that was instead directed to a controversial piece of fabric.

Confederate Flag

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.

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
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)

From Bitburg to Bieber: Beware the idea Merchants

Twenty-nine years ago President Ronald Reagan was caught up in a horrific storm of controversy over his ceremonial visit to a certain cemetery in Germany.  The idea of the visit was to acknowledge the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (V-E Day) by laying a wreath in recognition of the soldiers of both sides who lost their lives in battle.  World media outlets let it rip with a ‘blitzkrieg’ of oppositional reporting.  Several SS men were buried in the cemetery, a fact that was exploited to keep the story steaming.  The theme of the occasion was – in Reagan’s words – “We can and must pledge: never again.” It would not seem possible therefore to mistake what took place as in any way honoring Nazis.  Nevertheless, that’s how the media chose to play it.  Not coincidentally, press coverage of all Reagan statements and actions tended to be generally negative.  Bitburg, the name of the cemetery’s location, became a huge political black eye for the Reagan Administration as its second term began.  Those in control of what average people read and heard saw to that. 

     Perception is more powerful than reality – unfortunately.  How we choose to see a situation often overrides the facts.  A development that to one person is a devastating setback is to someone else an adventure.  In our highly politicized culture, we have chosen to see most of life in terms of stereotypes.  The candidate of the opposing political party is nearly always either stupid or evil or a combination of both.  We don’t take the time to develop any meaningful understanding of the nuances; it’s so much easier to snap up the grab-and-go version. 

     But while we content ourselves with mere cartoons of situations and events, let us be mindful of what our intellectual laziness costs us. When we don’t think for ourselves, we end up being told what to think by others.  We let the bias of the news reporter or the commentator become our bias.  Our perception of what is and is not a big deal ends up being shaped by others. 

     An outstanding case in point is the recent media-manufactured big deal concerning Justin Bieber.  Normally, I would not take the time to notice let alone comment on the activities of an individual whom I regard to be a symbol of the sad shallowness to which pop music has descended.  Brian Wilson’s “Good Vibrations” and Paul Simon’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” prove that we were once made of sterner stuff.  But enough is enough; the latest anti-Bieber “news” story is so far beyond the pale it demands a response.

     Bieber was recently forced to apologize, not for what he’s done to music, but for his alleged offense against the sensitivities of peace-loving people everywhere.  It seems that Justin made the mistake of visiting Japan’s Yasukami war shrine in Tokyo, a Shinto memorial to 2.5 million war dead. The shrine’s roll includes fourteen convicted war criminals.  Bieber says he was cruising along, saw the shrine, and asked his driver to stop.  He had himself photographed in a praying pose (of course) and standing with a Shinto priest.  This insignificant stop somehow invoked torrents of rage from the likes of China and South Korea who see it as an unforgiveable endorsement of “Japan’s past militarism.”  “I was misled to think the Shrines were only a place of prayer,” Bieber said in his apology, “To anyone I have offended I am extremely sorry.”

     Now let’s try to acknowledge reality, if only for a moment.  This is Justin Bieber. Again, this – is – Justin – BIEBER!  Do not allow yourself to take the mental shortcut here.  If a pop star’s visit to a Shinto shrine can provoke an international incident, there is something very wrong. Let’s closely examine the perception-over-reality approach that catapulted Bitburg and has now propelled Bieber into the ranks of infamy.  In fact, let’s take it to its logical extreme. 

     Several years ago I visited a certain cemetery in Chicago with a friend who wanted to pay his respects to the family members buried there.  The cemetery happened to be right along the route we were taking to another destination, so it seemed reasonable to make the stop. While walking among the graves, I started to notice some familiar names.  Like Capone.  And Giancana.  And O’Banion.  Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti rests there.  And so does Machine Gun Jack McGurn, one of the gunmen of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  The cemetery’s headstones constitute a crime hall of fame.

     If we use the Bitburg-Bieber formula this means that I personally support prostitution, drugs, gambling, and wanton slaughter.  It constitutes a buddying up with some very bad guys.  If a reporter chose to spin it the right way, I could be condemned for applauding organized crime!  The pain and suffering these characters caused can be painted all over me. All because I went to a cemetery where my friend’s family is buried. 

     We are daily assaulted with throngs of what we might call idea merchants, people attempting to sell a point of view.  Often a narrative is picked up by a number of idea merchants, and gains credibility through mere repetition.  We hear it all over; we see it all over; we believe it.  And the world becomes a little darker, a little smaller.  So the next time you find yourself condemning something, make sure it’s really condemnable.  Let’s shrug off the mental manipulators, and start taking the time to inform ourselves enough to filter all the relentless messaging.  When the commentators start commenting remember that things are not always as they seem (or are made to seem).

Eye of the Beholder Shot
Is this man protecting the women behind him from some looming danger or is he a deranged criminal holding them hostage? Don’t let your verdict depend on the interpretation of an idea merchant.

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.”