Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Dryad of the playground

We don't usually hang out at the park like so many other caretaker/kid combos in my four year old's age bracket, as we have quite an adequate yard and do plenty of adventuring as a family, but a quirk in our routine gave us half an hour to kill downtown so rather than driving home, we went to the park.  It is a really nice park, considering that we have no trees in this part of the world save at this particular park.  There are several huge cottonwoods giving enough shade to mimic a forest while some elderly but charismatic cedars, twisted into peculiar shapes, are frozen in mid-dance upon a carpet of thick green grass (another oddity), seemingly ignorant of the requisite 'safe' playground equipment standing in precise military formation not a stone's throw away.  Whilst the child sported on the ergonomically approved paraphernalia, I held tryst with the trees.  It was wet and cool and sunny and might almost have been a morning of early spring rather than the very end of summer, such was the fineness of the morning.  I crept about, barefoot of course, on the wet grass and watched the dancing sunlight and shadows, remembering my own childhood, for these indeed were the very companions of my youth: sunlight and shadows, dew and mist, and the cool of the morning.

It was a quite a contrast to the brightly colored but highly ordered, governmentally approved play area; the former is most certainly poetry whereas the playground equipment is not only prose, but the prosiest prose, perhaps an instruction manual for assembling something large, bulky, and consisting of innumerable small parts.  Then I marveled at and pitied the children whose sole knowledge of the natural world must indeed be just such brightly colored behemoths, garish and sweltering in the full sun, knowing nothing of the wind in the leaves, the whimsical play of light and shadow and wind, the rich smell of damp earth and growing things, who have never had the chance to wonder at the deepest mysteries of this peculiar and achingly beautiful thing we call life.

Playgrounds are not bad, neither are safety precautions, but when taken too far, when childhood is reduced, as it so commonly is in our modern world, to a list of can'ts and don'ts, an ever broadening expanse of rules and regulations, warnings and cautions, no wonder our children think the world flat and dull, preferring to escape into some virtual reality where they can be or do anything, explore and learn, without a glaring yellow caution sign taking all the joy and spontaneity and wonder out of the moment.  I should have understood what I was getting into from the first, from the warnings printed all over the infant carseat, destroying the cute pattern of blue and grey forest animals with garish yellow and orange patches informing me that my child would probably die if I used the car seat and would certainly die if I didn't.  That is what modern sensibilities have done to our whole world.

We can't have a book without a trigger warning.  We can't have a speaker on campus who might say something offensive to somebody, therefore they daren't say anything at all, which makes the whole speech pointless.  We can't even say that the child adding two and two and getting three is wrong, because it might hurt his burgeoning self esteem, rather we pat him on the back for effort and send him smilingly on his way to graduation where he still can't add two and two, but he sure thinks he can and that is almost the same thing, probably better!  Does anybody else ever think they are living in a parody movie, that they are going to wake up and discover that it was all a silly dream at any moment?

To be ruled by feelings, by the fear of everything, is not living, nay it is hardly existing.  The world is dangerous and messy, it isn't easy or simple, it cannot be controlled, as much as we like to pretend that it can, but it is also mysterious and wonderful and splendid and breathtaking, at least if we can forget to take selfies for a few moments to actually gaze upon it.  To paraphrase a certain Beaver, 'it isn't safe, but it is good,' it was once pronounced to be 'very good,' and though we've managed to mess it up dreadfully since those words were spoken, it still remains a source of awe and inspiration to this day, if only we have eyes to see it and nerve to risk it.  Will you watch the fairies dance or perhaps bespy a unicorn some misty morn; will you watch the skies for a dragon or simply marvel at moon and star?  Life is ever so much more interesting if you believe in fairies, but most people are either too practical or distracted to even consider the possibility, but then I doubt fairies believe in warning labels either; if one must be a myth, I'd rather have fairies!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Of an unhappy ending and great literature

Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books, but I am gaining a new appreciation (and adoration?) for Jane Austen and her various works, from her hysterical and fabulous 'Love and Friendship' written in her late teen years with the timeless advice to 'run mad as often as you wish, but do not faint!' to the much maligned (by modern critics) practical, sweet but timid Fanny (note to self, never name a heroine Fanny!) and the patient, long-suffering, but faithful Anne and the ruthless Lady Susan (I really want to see the new movie, titled 'Love and Friendship' but based on the 'Lady Susan' book).  I need to delve back into 'Emma' and 'Sense and Sensibility' yet, not to mention 'Northanger Abby,' but I've recently perused 'Mansfield Park' and 'Persuasion' again with a much better appreciation of both book and author.

There is no argument that Miss Austen is a literary genius, but there is something far more beautiful hidden in her words than her sheer brilliance, which makes each work a timeless and beloved treasure, proved by the fact that she is still a household name 200 years after her death and her works are some of the most adapted to and beloved of cinematic productions.  I once watched the movie 'Becoming Jane,' which is supposed to be based on Miss Austen's life and disappointing romance, which made for a rather unhappy ending, as all Austen movies must end with a happily ever after, but this one obviously didn't, but if Miss Austen had had her happily ever after, would we have had ours through all her beautiful and thoughtful writings?  She manages to delve deep into the very heart of love and sorrow and suffering and unfulfilled longings and hopes deferred or dashed.  Her heroines are flawed, they suffer, but ever they do the right thing, clinging to virtue though it seems like to be the end of all joy, only to realize it was but a stormy twilight before a glorious dawn.

But Jane's tale did not end with a kiss and a roll of the credits, rather she died at a fairly young age and never knew the romantic bliss her heroines enjoyed, but had they been real daughters many hearts?  I do not think so, though books have the advantage of being and remaining the creatures the writer births, whereas people have a tendency to make their own decisions and assert their own wills, to grow and change throughout life, whereas Miss Austen's words are still the same as those she set to paper two centuries ago.  She has not only captured what it is to be human, with all our innate foibles and follies, virtues and evils, but what it is to be a virtuous woman in a jaded, cynical, materialistic world, to remain staunch and firm in the face of loneliness, rejection, betrayal, misunderstanding, and scorn, to stick by your guns when all the world thinks you foolish or mad, refreshing indeed in the age of social media!

I do not wish for anyone to suffer, but it is an innate part of our existence and a vital part of our growth and character development, the question is how do we face it?  Do we grow angry and bitter, blaming fate or others for our circumstances (whether they are due to our actions or not), or do we accept them as graciously as we can, letting them mold and shape our characters, improving what we can, enduring what we can't.  Had Miss Austen not been trifled with by her own Wickham, would her writings resound with so many to this very day, probably not, had she grown angry and bitter and cynical, they likewise might have perished rather than leaving a lovely legacy to console and inspire countless thousands of young woman into the distant future.  While in her lifetime her writing did not accrue their deserved fame or devotion, what came after would astonish her completely, I think.  Though she died barren and a spinster, of little renown or fame or wealth and of little account as the world has it, I think her legacy far greater than that of a host of forgotten kings or rich men now moldering in crumbling tombs.  No matter how the world defines success at this moment, it gives one pause to wonder what our own legacy will be, will we be faithful and constant, brave and patient in our own trials and suffering, and what will come of it after we are gone?

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

An Excellent Article

If you are reading merely for the sake of your bucket list, or because you think you ought to, or to impress your nerdy friends, here's a great article on reading for the story's sake:


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

As go the stories

I don't usually do too much on the pop culture front, save an occasional movie review, but as it is the modern form of storytelling, I can't completely ignore it on a blog devoted to just that.  I ran across this article with a theory as to why Star Wars seems to be beating out Star Trek in not only fiscal rewards but in fan devotion as well, and it is an interesting point, but I think it goes a little deeper even than people getting tired of being lectured at by what should be a rollicking story.  Story isn't just a diversion, it is the very essence of what it is to be human, a way of communicating and understanding, hoping and remembering, wishing and regretting, wondering and fearing; it transcends culture, race, time, nation, gender, age, religion, politics, and everything else that separates us.  Like music and laughter, while we may not have the same taste, it is something that unites us and speaks to everyone of the human persuasion.  Thus a good story is innately human: it laughs and cries, there is doubt and hope, fear and regret, darkness and light, good and evil, life and death, love and sorrow, it explores some deep crevice of the human soul: of what it means to be human and alive, to live and breath, ultimately what it means to be.

I was something of a scholar of both franchises in my youth, before both sagas rewrote the tale.  It was something of a blow to learn that everything that happened before the launch of the new Star Trek movies was actually an alternate reality and with the relaunch of Star Wars, apparently all those books I read never happened either.  But they are both interesting 'worlds,' with a vast array of characters and plot lines to explore and both succeeded often enough in telling a good tale that people were hooked and thirsted after more, but both also had their sore thumbs and awkward teenager stage that we'd all like to forget as well.  Personally, I prefer Star Wars to Star Trek, especially after the reboots of both, but I was hardcore for both 'back in the day,' but now simply revisit the sagas from time to time as I might drop by on some former friend of my youth when I am in town but think little of otherwise.

What Star Wars does well and Star Trek only occasionally succeeds at is the pursuit of the mysterious, it has a mythos and a reality beyond what we can see, feel, or smell, there is a Something there that gives meaning and purpose to the story and characters, rather than being a mere fable suggesting how we ought to live but giving us no inclination as to why.  Whether the viewer is religious or not, whether they think there is such a thing as the 'supernatural,' they are still human and have an innate sense of 'something more,' a thirst for meaning and purpose and that their life too is a story of significance with a rational arc, any story that fails to recognize that innate quality is inevitably doomed to die for it will not resonate with its consumers.

The Star Wars prequels failed because they got so focused on the sociopolitical/bureaucratic maneuverings of the Republic and Jedi and Sith that they failed utterly to realistically portray the struggles and fall from grace of the pivotal character, which formed only a poorly acted subplot to all the battles and action and political schemes.  In a good story, no one cares much for nations or organizations or factions, we care for the characters and what comes of them.  That is one reason modern movies aren't drawing the attention or interest that they used to: there are no good stories or characters any more, there is just more and more action or a more 'cutting edge' social or political statement.  There is much 'entertainment' and very little enlightenment.  It may be the same reason I prefer old books to anything of modern advent.  There's no core, no heart, no meaning or purpose; there's no point.

Star Trek always did best when it wrestled with some aspect of what it is to be human, when there was some purpose or quest for which the characters must risk themselves for the benefit of others, rather than growing preachy and politically correct and stodgy and curmudgeony and stiff and inflexible, telling us how to live rather than why.  Star Trek V is probably one of the worst movies ever made, yet I love it, not just because it has great corny dialogue, but because it has heart, it isn't afraid to wrestle with the big questions, and the main character has so much charisma and enthusiasm you can't help but be drawn in despite the ridiculous plot and awful effects.  When they forget about the Prime Directive and trying to make a political or social statement, they do well, otherwise it is just another episode of 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood' set in outer space.

It is the contrast we see between the incarnations of Tolkien's signature works brought to cinematic life: The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit both had their movie trilogy, produced by the same team.  The former was beloved and esteemed while the latter was a joke.  And it was not for lack of talent, as was the downfall of the Star Wars prequels' Anakin Skywalker, for they had some excellent actors who were never allowed to act.  While the original story (in my opinion) was weaker in The Hobbit, there was still plenty to work with.  But they focused so much on action and adventure and frenetic activity that it made absolutely no sense and we had no time to come to care a fig about any of the characters or their quest.

Even in literature, a great saga can fall flat on its face when it takes itself too seriously and forgets what a true story is actually about.  There are several extensive and popular book series that I never finished, though I was engrossed at the beginning, because they became too weighted down with their own importance or got lost in a morass of meaningless detail or had no coherence when it came to their own particular worldview, and I am one of those readers that would stay up until nearly dawn (with a full class schedule the next day) to find out what happens next if it was a good book.

Every great saga will have its successes and its blunders, but perhaps the scariest thing of all is that we, as individuals and a society, seem to be losing our ability to appreciate a good story, that we take the pablum out of Hollywood or on TV and think it is all there is or can ever be.  We forget the tales of old, that were tales indeed, and rather sit down with bleary eyes in front of the fifteenth reincarnation of a particular series and think nothing of it, for we do not think at all, we are merely receptacles for information, and whatever is poured into our hearts and heads is quickly replaced by the sixteenth and seventeenth incarnation of something else.  We no longer taste and digest and linger over a good tale, rather we are just a pipe, a conduit for mediocre entertainment, glancing at it momentarily as it rushes by, already intent on the next 'great' thing to come flowing past with all the speed of modern data.  We fear the stories are losing their humanity, but I fear the tales have lost their humanity because we are losing our own.  Ware lest the salt lose its savor!

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The world's greatest paradox

There is a scene in C.S. Lewis's 'Voyage of the Dawn Treader' where a nasty little boy becomes a dragon (the scene in the movie is also well done) and must eventually shed his 'dragonish skin' to become not only a boy again but his true self, but no matter how hard he tries, how many nasty skins he sheds, he just can't do it on his own, he needs the Lion's help.  It is an excellent metaphor (Lewis's intention?) for 'dying to self,' or 'taking up your cross' as it were.  We take what we think is our life, and nail it to the cross daily, only to find that it wasn't our true self, but rather an imagined, twisted, writhing thing of slime and ash, and finally we slay the vile creature only to find another, nearly the same, just beneath it.  We hate that false self yet we love it, much like Tolkien's Gollum, twisted and miserable from years of keeping the One ring.

We must fight that false self, we must endure the shame, the misery, the sorrow, until it lies dead at our feet, but we can't do it ourselves, we need to let Him slay the beast, and then and only then, can we discover that He loves us through it all, even at our worst, for the ugliness of Calvary is found in every quivering soul, but so too can its glory be ours, but only by enduring the cross, only then will the words, 'to gain your life you must lose it,' make sense, only then our we truly free.  'His yoke is easy, His burden light,' but it is a yoke and a burden still, but one far lighter and less grim than any the world has put upon us, but we must set ours down to pick His up.