Exploring where life and story meet!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

One word at a time

The piano is a far easier instrument to learn than the guitar, even the clarinet is a breeze by comparison, at least you seem to be making progress far earlier: at least the sounds you are making somewhat resemble music, at least in its most rudimentary form.  With the guitar you spend weeks just trying to make the basic chords sound right, not to mention trying to convince your hands, that yes indeed they can bend into that shape and yes, in theory, your fingertips will eventually quit hurting.  Once you can finally play the chords, then you have to try and play them in a certain order and fast enough that a single song doesn't take half an hour or longer.  But it is also strangely rewarding, even if you are lightyears from even playing a simple song, though you can probably play a simple ditty on the piano after the first lesson.  When you finally master that awful F major, you actually feel like you've accomplished something, what, you're still not certain, but you've accomplished something!

Life's kind of like that, regardless of what you are trying to accomplish (or aren't).  Five minutes here, ten there, day in and day out, those little habits soon become instinct and rule our behavior and decisions, whether we are aware of it or not; turning the rudder slightly can send the ship veering miles off course, so it is with our lives.  That's why each thought, each word, each action or inaction, are so important: they become the very stuff of which our lives are made.  The good news is we can drastically change our stories, one word, one thought at a time, and if we are persistent, we will soon have accomplished something, even if it is small at first.  But so too can we sink ourselves by making bad choices or refusing to take action or police our thoughts or habits or activities.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The best of villains

I can't wait to see the movie 'Love and Friendship,' based on Jane Austen's 'Lady Susan' novel, featuring a woman you'll love to hate.  Then I look at my favorite movies: 'Ever After,' and Disney's animated 'Beauty and the Beast,' and I begin to see a pattern: why are all the best villains narcissists? Is it just me or are there villains suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder peppering our favorite stories old and new?  Jane Austen has one in almost every book (Lady Catherine De Bourgh anyone?).  The Bronte sisters aren't immune (Jane Eyre's aunt and the husband in 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall').  Am I just attracted to such personages because of my own history or is there something so captivating and astonishing about such personalities that they have mystified storytellers and their audiences for years beyond count?  I will argue it is the latter, as the villains that are portrayed are fascinating in the extreme, drawing us in, before revealing their true colors and causing us to flinch back in loathing, but still a little regretful when at last the hero is triumphant and justice is served.  Why be just evil when you can be a narcissist?

They are captivating, fascinating, and eerily familiar.  We love them yet we loathe them all at the same time.  Even if they take the official diagnosis out of the Manual of Psychological Disorders (or whatever it is called), the condition is ancient and will continue on into the foreseeable future, whether modern psychologists choose to recognize it or not.  But if you want a truly memorable villain, afflict them with a little narcissism and see what happens.  Take the Star Wars villains for example.  While the mask clad Darth Vader is unarguably cool, most of the others, including the young Anakin, are pretty much not worth mentioning, but Emperor Palpatine endures while various of his minions last for half a movie and then we forget them; there is a reason this guy made it through six movies, a feat rivaled only by a certain odd couple of comedic droids.

The stepmother in 'Ever After' is my mother and Gaston from 'Beauty and the Beast' might be my father.  The writers of those characters did it to perfection, and the portrayal of each I consider some of the best acting I've ever seen.  Rather than just a cookie cutter 'evil villain,' the narcissist is complex, charming, and utterly reprehensible.  Why can't the new Star Wars villain be like that?  Emo-whiner boy really annoys me (just like grandpappy!), but then he is just another minion, we don't know much about the new Palpatine-esque figure (besides that he looks like Gollum); could he somehow have acquired the One Ring?  With all these alternative reality/parallel universe things going on, it just might happen.  Now there's a fan-fiction crossover novel worth reading!

Even Tolkien's Dark Lord (the one villain in all of literature whom we never really meet) is of that persuasion.  How else would Sauron fascinate us so, though we never get to meet the guy?  Now that is master storytelling.  So with all these literary narcissistic villains, I begin to think we all must be aware of the condition and even understand it, even if we haven't had much personal experience: it is strangely familiar, even if we've never personally encountered it or thought much of it.  It is wired into us, from the very first Story, 'ye can be gods,' it is just some of us take it far more seriously than others.  For it is the true narcissist that says, 'can be?  I am!'  Which is the very heart of villainy, and why it tempts and fascinates and repels all at the same time, for at our deepest level, it calls to each of us.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Not of this world

No matter which side of the American political spectrum you are on, today is probably something of a shock.  And that is all I will say about politics.  The only solace in the whole mess, at least for a certain obscure branch of thought, is that 'our Kingdom is not of this world.'  It doesn't matter who wins or loses, which nations rise or fall, as C.S. Lewis so nicely put it:

"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors."

The vast majority of humanity thinks nations and kingdoms are the important thing, but a backwards little sect from Roman occupied Jerusalem, composed originally of uneducated fishermen, came to a rather astonishing conclusion: it is the people that last forever and are therefore important, not the Kingdom or those who run it.

That's something American Christians often confuse: America is nothing in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't matter who sits in the White House, God will work out His plans regardless of our hopes or fears.  But it isn't just the modern American Evangelical who gets a bit confused.  Jesus's original followers were equally blind, thinking He had come to oust the Romans and restore Israel as a glorious nation, but He had bigger plans, He had a whole world to save.  We need to look outside our own little neighborhood, life, country, and even world, and rather ask, 'what is God's great plan?' rather than dreading what the election or loss of so-and-so will mean.  America and her politics are not at the heart of God's great scheme, rather the turning point came two millennia ago in an unfashionable part of a shabby little suburb of Jerusalem and culminated on a blood soaked hill just outside it.  Even then, God was in the politics, using men's schemes for His own glory and the good of all men.

There is great comfort in that thought: that whoever wins the election and however they rule, it is not outside God's knowledge or keeping.  Our ridiculous little country is not responsible for the fate of the world or the universe, in fact we already know the end of that particular story, no matter that the election turned out in so surprising a manner, there need be no surprises when we finally get to the end of history.  The only question is, have we put our faith in an idol: a political figure, a country, a lifestyle, an ideology that will one day come to naught, or have we put our faith in the One who wrote the Book and the only One who can salvage each and every character from meaninglessness and obscurity?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On meeting the Author

My father lived out the modern American dream: complete and utter devotion to self, pursuing all his own dreams and desires, satisfying all his cravings and lusts.  And he was miserable.  He made everyone else miserable too.  He wasn't an evil man, in fact he was very charming, fascinating, and intelligent, and I wonder what he might have done had he used his gifts for the benefit of others rather than spending his entire life circling the drain of his own ego.  He died recently, giving me a painful glimpse into the bankrupt tale that was his legacy: a grim reminder that each of us has our own tale, and that ours too might come to naught if we live only for our own advancement or amusement.

Our culture doesn't like death, doesn't like to think about it, prepare for it, or even let its shadow touch our lives.  But it is as natural as birth and breathing, we mortal creatures cannot escape its shadow, except by going through it.  We like to think that science or medicine or technology will allow us to escape that grim specter somehow, or we amuse ourselves with thoughts of immortality on this earth, escaping into fantasies like Highlander or the recent infatuation with zombies, vampires, and werewolves or we imagine Heaven as some sort of hippy paradise, the ultimate commune, wherein life just continues on as ever it has.  We write sanitized, 'happy' obituaries, leaving out the cause of decease and any negative or disappointing facts pertaining to the dead, for undoubtedly the person was perfect and wonderful and a veritable saint and now dwells contentedly in that impeccable commune in the sky.

Yet we demand 'authenticity' in everything else, even our food must be 'pure' and 'natural' and 'simple.' But death, that great enemy of all we know and love, is something to be ignored, avoided, or swathed in benign euphemisms.  But it isn't pretty, nor is it going away.  Life is messy, so why do we pretend that death isn't?  I am not saying we should fear it, nor that we routinely speak ill of the dead, but this pretending that death is somehow pleasant or avoidable or simply an inconvenience or that it rights all wrongs and makes all sinners saints, is ridiculous.  Rather let us address it as it is, prepare for it, live in anticipation of one day having to endure it.  We study for tests, we dress according to the weather, we plan for a baby or a wedding, we have insurance for various 'what ifs,' we save for retirement or a house, we strive to lose weight or get in shape for a marathon, so why is this any different?

It is something of the 'final exam,' after all.  We don't write up nice little summations of someone's excuses for not studying for a test and call everything good, rather they must live with the consequences of their actions and either retake the course or drop out of it entirely.  It is the same with death: we must face the consequences of our actions, no matter how nicely our survivors word the obituary, it will have no impact on our own reality.  Every story will end, we have no say in the matter once we come to the final page, but we still have a chance to change things, we need not fear that grim specter when it comes, rather we can close the book with a wistful tear and at last meet the Author and discover what 'happily ever after,' really means.