Handling the tricky stuff

Handling the tricky stuff

Sunday, December 20, 2015

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 10

10: Miracle on 34th Street

This was a popular, and accurate meme this year.

 Halloween has passed, which now means that it is Christmas! (I’m giving it some necessary re-branding -- apologies to Jeb! ™.) 

Christmas! ™ is now a really familiar product of the American consciousness, with many fine brand features, including these:

1.     Hysterical shopping/mass consumption/credit maximizing events, generally involving really inconvenient/unpleasant store hours, mass hysteria and irrational behavior that spreads through the population faster than fear of Ebola; limited product availability similar to what you find during natural disasters; counter-intuitive use of the word “Black” as an apparently attractive descriptor (rather than the accepted “Red and Green” brand colors).

2.     New, strange dietary rules that require seasoning everything from coffee and beer to milk shakes, pizza and burritos with artificial flavorings mimicking a mix of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, mysteriously labeled “pumpkin,” after a vegetable that doesn’t contain those flavors and that is no longer sold in stores.

3.     A creative re-invention of a perennial political theme known as “The War on Christmas” (no relation to “War of the Worlds”), where use of the word “holidays” (derived from the phrase “holy days”) is suddenly interpreted as an extreme form of religious blasphemy  and some strange (apparently random) cultural artifact (this year it is paper coffee cups) is used to demonstrate a fictional political conspiracy and persecution apparently equivalent to genocide.  This is generally fantastic in its extreme use of imaginative inventiveness and popularity. HG Wells, eat your heart out.

4.     The seasonal emergence (starting in August, when the summer heat has just slid past its maximum)  of 24/7 “Christmas Music” radio stations, a strange kind of auditory mushroom bloom that features music about “joy” and “happiness,” that is always in the minor key of dirges, sung by someone who seems to have finally drained their liquor cabinet.  If it’s in a major key, it’s by the Beach Boys and it’s about how Santa likes girls in bikinis and the Bop.

5.     The resurrection and re-broadcast of popular films that were considered stale, stiff  and uninteresting when they were first released, now re-branded as “Kristmas Klassics ™” and listened to/viewed with the kind of religious awe that people used to reserve for the finger bones of saints. Generally, these iconic artworks have very little to do with Christianity or religion (with the exception of the new feast of “Christmikah”) but do often contain cryptic references to ancient cultural artifacts like “horse-drawn sleighs,” “chestnuts,” “parsons” and “winter.” These are usually broadcast in 24-hour back-to-back repeats, so people whose sleep medications are ineffective have something to “cheer up” their November nights.

This last item, in particular, is something that I would like to talk about, in part as counterpoint to my last essay, which some of you may have found, um, a wee bit negative and over-the-top depressing. I see the Kristmas Klassics ™ feature of Christmas! ™ as a sign of hope. Yes, this too is counter-intuitive, kind of the way the appearance of a worm-eating bird is a counter-intuitive sign of the reduction of your heating bill: “when that red, red robin comes a bob, bob, bobbin’ along.” (I recognize that this is a cultural icon only meaningful to those born pre-Global Warming ™.)

In particular, I’m particularly fascinated by Christmas! ™ movies, which, like every Red-Blooded American ™ I look forward to sleeping in front of each year. I’d like to point out that, in addition to their low re-broadcasting fees, they share some interesting common characteristics. In particular, I am struck by how, more than any other forms of entertainment (besides cable TV and talk radio) they tend to be crammed with the kind of social and political commentary that we don’t ordinarily think of as “entertaining,” especially since most of it is so dated as to be really “historical.”

One of the nice things about talking about these Christmas! ™ movies is that you, my fellow Red-Blooded Americans ™ have all seen them so many times that I don’t have to worry much about you understanding my literary references (as Paul Simon says: “you know exactly what I’m talking about”)… though they are also a bit like The Pledge of Allegiance ™, in that you have probably seen them so many times that you probably never bother to pay conscious attention to what they are saying.

Correct me if I am wrong here, but I think the old movies that most often wallpaper our TV screens this season are “Elf” (2003), “Home Alone” (1990), “Scrooged” (1988), “A Christmas Story” (1983), “A Miracle on 34th Street”  (1947) and “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946).  You may suggest others, but I’d be surprised if you come up with any that have the re-play presence of these. (Okay, maybe the Tim Allen “The Santa Claus” movies, but those are so dumb/bad I can’t handle talking about them, and Jim Carrey’s Grinch is really just a terrorist attack on Dr. Seuss.)

These Kristmas Klassics ™ are markedly different in tone and content from the “old chestnut” movies that were on TV when I was a child (never in 24-hour binge-a-thon format), though the last two (“Miracle” and “Wonderful Life”) were out then and occasionally shown. The movies that everyone played in the 1960’s were “White Christmas” (1954), “Holiday Inn” (1942),  “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), and “Babes in Toyland” (1934), which were all pretty purely “entertainments” without political commentary. (The Peanuts Christmas Special was also often shown then, but that was a News Klassic ™ .) A possible exception was “The Wizard of Oz”  (1939), which is definitely social/political (though in datedly obscure and allegorical way) and was shown heavily at holiday time, though it’s not really a Christmas! ™ movie.

Not that the new Christmas! ™ movies are dry historical documentaries and unentertaining – all contain famous comic actors and fair amount of comedy, ranging from the fondly gentle kind, to the biting and savagely sarcastic.  But these are not really comic movies. The four most recent ones -- “Elf” (2003), “Home Alone” (1990), “Scrooged” (1988), “A Christmas Story” (1983) – all contain still living stars, and each of these, generally speaking, is really a movie about the problem of humans trying to survive in a creepy landscape of modern narcissism and commercial meanness and brutality – a serious social theme, if I’ve ever seen one. “Elf” (the most recent and the currently most-played) manages to do this while being a semi-cartoon, surrealistic fantasy. I could write a whole essay on this movie all by itself (I won’t), because it’s a movie whose theme is almost identical to my own series of essays – the rampant selfishness and narcissism dominant in modern America, and the self-delusional world we have constructed to live in. It’s notable that the only nice, decent people in the movie are either mythological constructs (Santa and the elves) or Buddy, the main character, whose decency  and sweetness seems over-the-top absurd and fake in the larger context. Sorry to ruin the movie for you, but this is really serious social commentary about the problem of modern solipsism under the disguise of an absurdist comedy. It bites--savagely.

Santa in “A Christmas Story” – the hard reality behind our Christmas.

Of course so does “Home Alone.” which is about selfishness and narcissism in family life (it’s about a family so mean-spirited and ugly that it has even affected the youngest child, who relishes having ditched his near and dear ones at Christmas) and a surrounding world so empty and lawless as to seem post-apocalyptic (the comically stupid but vicious burglars who want to “brand” themselves). “Scrooged” is no kinder, being about the absurdly selfish and cruel world of media and corporate culture. “A Christmas Story” is perhaps a little “kinder and gentler” (the Clintonesque irony is intentional), being a nostalgic flashback to the goofy landscape of early 60’s childhood, but there, right beneath the surface is the same world of ferociously mean, ugly people and a holiday season that is still all about, when you get down to it, “getting the best toys.” Contemporary Kristmas Klassic! ™ movies are all about how the problem of how “me, me, ME” leads us to “mean, mean, mean.”

The two older Kristmas Klassic! ™ movies are only slightly different (though they are still both about the same personal themes) in that their social message also has overtly political overtones. The most famous of these, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” strikes me as particularly weird in its iconic Christmas!™ popularity, given that it is really a film about the triumph of the New Deal over the evil capitalistic forces of robber-barronism and fascism, with an inspirational message that we all have to be upbeat in the face of adversity and keep on fighting The Good Fight. For crisake, even heaven in this movie has a paternalisitic government bureaucracy like the WPA and angels are a kind of public servant social worker with military ranks!

Though the political background in this is extremely archaic to contemporary audiences, its presence is actually why we still need to see the movie repeatedly during The Season of Warm Holiday Feelings ™ -- it paints a world that seems empty, sterile, and mechanical, even as we go tediously through the commonplace details of George’s childhood, romance and adulthood and yet… and yet… and yet… humanity and personal joy blossom at the end of the movie. In many ways, this movie sets the mold for all our subsequent Kristmas Klassic ™  films, with its grim descent into bleakness and it’s improbable humanity-affirming “feel-good” turn at the end.

I say “improbable,” but what we are really talking about here is stretching Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief” (pardon me for my English major litcrit reference) beyond breaking: we’re talking pure miracle, folks.  This brings me to my personal favorite of all these movies, the 40’s genre comedy “Miracle on 34th Street.” Though the movie has “miracle” in it’s very title, it’s a movie where the whole concept of “miracle” is so matter-of-fact ridiculous as to be declared legally insane – as it literally is in the movie. It takes place inside the honestly rendered commercial machinery of Christmas (Macy’s department store), which is, in turn, imbedded in the brutal merchantile/legal/political machinery of modern life. The central character, Maureen O’Hara, is a divorcee single mom (to the precociously beautiful Natalie Wood) and department store marketing woman, who has turned pretty cynical and angry about anything and everything that whiffs of bullshit, from men to Christmas. John Payne plays a decent enough guy (though he’s a lawyer, of course) attracted to her va-va-voom, but put off a bit by her difficult harshness. (In modern parlance, we would say the lady is a bitch.) Yes, there is a real Santa in this movie, though he’s really just a prim and fussy old guy (who has an immaculate beard and lives in an upscale retirement home) who insists on professional Santa ethics,  which keeps on getting him into troubles … and then weirdly getting him out of them because of the ninja-like way his wacky ideas short-circuit the normal workings of the commercial and political world. He’s not a supernatural being but a genius management guru who understands, in  a zen way, the deeper truths of life. . Only in the movie’s last seconds does reality flip and admit the possibility of magic and miracle… which still seems so insane  a reality as to leave the main actors stunned and wide-eyed with denialist terror when they see it… and the audience flushed red-hot with the emotional reversal: I knew it was true! I knew it was true! I do believe, I do believe!

Because this then is what we really are looking for: the miraculous possibility of life-affirming warmth and humanity (I’d say “spiritual redemption,” but actually making this religious is more than most people would be able to stomach)  beyond  all hope, against and despite the contradictory “reality” of our disappointing real lives and our depressingly brutal real world. This is why we have elevated these rather odd movies to cult classics that we are willing to see again and again and again every year.

And this, I suspect, is why the Christmas! ™ season keeps getting a little longer each year (along with the need for Trickle-Down ™ commercial prosperity), though it brings with it an increasingly ferocious spending season that feels like a dangerous addiction with a really nasty recurring hangover. We know it’s not rational, given what is going on with us, but we desperately want to feel better. It’s in the words of this song by the great American spiritual leader, Johnny Mathis:

For I've grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older,
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder,
Need a little Christmas now.

It’s unlikely, we don’t deserve it and we keep doing things that make our situation worse, but we still need to be convinced of the possibility of a miracle turn around. As Judy Garland mournfully and illogically sings, “from now on, our troubles will be miles away…” Though the world is cold and hard, the big city bitter and cynical, miracles may sometimes happen on 34th Street.

So I say to you, Merry Christmas, happy holidays. Make the yuletide gay. God bless us, each and every one! I, for one, need a little Christmas now.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

We're All Not In It Together: Fantasy Trout Fishing in Delusional America -- 9

9: Heart of Darkness

“In the middle of my life, I found myself lost within a dark wood…”
--Dante, Canto I of “The Inferno”

Haters gotta hate.
Abandon all hope

“I hate people!” one of my kids used to declare, um,  a bit emphatically, back when she was in high school.

I was a little shocked, of course, when I first heard this vast negativity coming from a young and tender person. But I also knew what her high school was like, and the brutal things kids did to each other there, especially high school girls… I’d seen “Mean Girls,” and even lived the movie myself once or twice. This actually was not something she said rarely – it became a repeated theme, as she found dealing with the daily unpleasantnesses of her peers regularly annoying.  It applied to her teachers as well, to her sisters, and, I’d guess, sometimes to her parents.

After a while, the sentiment became familiar and made sense to me as a certain kind of worldview. Like Mary in reverse, I held this angry ethos in my heart, even after my daughter grew out of it, because it became my worldview too, after a while. This became a pregnant quote for me, full of meaning. Here are some other quotes that I often mutter:

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” (Samuel Johnson)

“The world is too much with us” (William Wordsworth)

“Good fences make good neighbors” (Robert Frost)

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Jake, “The Sun Also Rises”)

“Hell is other people” (Jean Paul Sartre)

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” (Joseph Welch)

“You knew what a horrid girl I was when you married me!” (Elizabeth Taylor in “Giant”)

“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” (“Network”)

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” (Kris Kristofferson)

“You can’t handle the truth!!!” (Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men”)

“We have met the enemy and he is us” (Pogo)

“O, the horror, the horror!” (Joseph Conrad)

You may sense a slight trend here.  You may sense a subtle whiff of the negative – anger, disdain and disgust towards fellow humans.

It’s what we used to call “misanthropy” (literally, hatred of men).  But that was back in the “quaint” old days when we thought about our attitudes and social values, weighed them morally and gave them high-falluntin’ names so we could label them, distance ourselves from our bad behaviors and attitudes, as if they were a medical condition. Anger, disdain, disgust.  Yes, I feel these emotions often, and yes, I know it’s “not cool.”  I don't distance myself from this because it's undeniably part of me. Judge me for being too-too bleak, but the thing is, pilgrim, you feel this darkness too, I know you do.

Before I embrace the Dark Side (which, indeed, I plan to do here), let me get out of the way the fact that I personally embrace an ideology that says that this is all very, very wrong-headed.  I’m actually a Christian (though you wouldn’t know it to read me) and I take very seriously what I think is Jesus’s “prime directive" to us:

"The foremost (commandment) is, 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' "The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

A Christian’s one central commandment is to love. As numerous theologians and scholars have pointed out, the second commandment is really just a corollary to the first. We know ourselves, our purpose and our God through no experience more than through knowing other people. We can’t know God without getting outside our sterile selves.  We call embracing the humanity of our fellow humans “The Golden Rule” and the idea is at the heart of almost every major religion and of all morality.  Love other people like yourself. Forgive other people’s weaknesses and evils the way you want to be forgiven for yours. Because God hasn’t blotted us off the planet, He/She must love us despite everything and has forgiven our sins --  so that makes it clearly Godly behavior to do so to others. Getting with the divine program is the way to peace. I repeat: the prime directive tells us to love.

Or does it?  It says to "love your neighbor as yourself." This doesn't actually means that you must love other people, just admit fair fellowship with them. From my own experience, the more I know other people, the more I understand them, the more I see myself and see my own actions, failures and inescapable weaknesses in theirs – the more I hold them in contempt (“We have met the enemy and he is us”).  Close identity  with others breeds contempt because… I hold myself in contempt. It’s not that I don’t love myself – I do, but it’s a primal, selfish, animal  love that I can’t help, a childish self-esteem that flies in the face of everything I know about myself. It’s melodramatic to say so, but I know I don’t deserve to be loved by myself, and if I forgive myself, then even more so, right? Selfish, hypocritical, self-centered pig! So when I see my own weaknesses in the weaknesses of others, I can’t help but hold them in the deep contempt, that, were I a decent and honest person, I would honestly feel towards myself. 

Oh, I know this is a pretty depressing syllogism. (By now, you know what I have to say is generally pretty much a downer -- “You knew what a horrid girl I was when you married me!”).  But the practical point that I’m trying to make is that, since I can’t allow myself to feel the self-contempt I know I deserve, I can’t help but aim it at all the other people I recognize myself in, instead.

Perhaps this is just my personal angst and anguish,  the bitter musings of a grumpy old guy, but somehow I don’t  think I’m the only one who feels this way. I hold up for evidence… Facebook.

In the other essays in this series, I’ve already spent a lot of time criticizing our internet behaviors, but let me point to the popular observation/condemnation that there are really only three kinds of things that people post on Facebook:

1) Jealousy-inducing brags about how cool/wonderful/exotic others lives are,
            2) Cute animal pictures/videos, and
3) Posts expressing outrage at what those other, uber-evil people are doing. 

The internet is pretty much packed with memes like this.

Note that numbers 1 and 3 are about causing/expressing hatred of others, and number 2 is “uplifting” and “positive” explicitly because it is not about people (except, occasionally children, in which case the kids are offspring of the poster, in which case the post is properly classified as #1).  Of course, there are combinations of these categories too – my favorites are posts expressing outrage (3) at people for being cruel to cute animals (2).  I myself am particularly prone to posting #3 (outrage), which occasionally invites the outrage of other people (double 3!), who try to make me jealous of their moral superiority (1) by suggesting that I need to spend more time posting pictures of cute animals (2).  No matter what, our shared love of our fellow man just keeps on flowing (“Hell is other people”).

Why is the virtual world so seething with our animosity towards each other? I think I’ve already given the primary reason to that that a bit earlier in this essay, but there are other things to say as well. First, modern life is sufficiently inter-connected (though I have argued that we are unconnected in other essays) that we are constantly rubbing up against other people, which is stressful and… annoying. The more time we spend watching and listening to other people, the more annoying they become (“The world is too much with us”), which is why we should spend more time with animals instead (unless a friend has suggested this for mood-lifting therapy). More solitude is probably what we need, though that might lead to brooding (… about other people -- “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”).

A second point is that we have too much time and freedom on our hands and that encourages bad behavior. As our mothers instinctively knew, too much freedom is bad for us (“Freedom’s just another  word for nothing left to lose”), because when we are left to our own wild emotions and selfish devices, we inevitably get into trouble.  We need the restrictions and defined borders of a civil society, with its rules and manners and required politenesses  (“Good fences make good neighbors). But the internet -- now the communication backbone of our society -- has blown this to hell with its total openness (see my piece “Resistance Is Futile”), which, of course, means that we retreat to the claustrophobia of our own little shells for comfort (I repeat: “Hell is other people.”). Contrary to what organized religion (which, I will admit, has rarely followed its own teachings) tells us to do, when we are left to make our own choices we gravitate towards fear and hate rather than hope and love.

The ninth circle

So what I’m saying is that modern life has left us to our own devices, and left home alone like this we end up hating others. You’re probably pretty much hating me for saying all this right now (“You can’t handle the truth!!!”), but if not, never fear because I’m automatically hating myself for you (“We have met the enemy and he is us”).

This is all pretty nihilistic and self-destructive, no? It’s been my observation (and the observation of many others) that a good chunk of us are in a spiral of despair, and those that aren’t, well, we pity and loath them for not being so. How can you feel good when others around you are in pain? Consider the way we react now to joys, enthusiasms and pleasures – almost all of them are now things we tend to not “enjoy” but pathologically binge on in wretched excess. We party to excess, especially if we are young, doing drugs to excess and binge drinking, almost every night of the week. We binge watch movies and television. We are addicted to the internet. We are addicted to fitness and exercise and dieting. We enjoy food and revel more than ever in being gourmands, while at the same time acknowledging that we are allergic to almost all of it – we are being poisoned by what we like best and need most. And we scorn ourselves for this, as if we are our Puritan fathers, watching a pagan orgy. Even mild or moderate pleasures are now looked upon with suspicion and contempt, with the word “porn” -- once a shorthand for the empty, solitary and selfish enjoyment of lust, that most ancient of vices – now becoming a qualifying adjective to heap disgust on anything we love: “food porn,” “gardening porn,” “health porn,” “technology porn,” “real estate porn,” “political porn,” “crafting porn,” “outrage porn,”… if anything makes you a little bit happy, someone is there to remind you that it is wrong. If it feels good, it must be irresponsible, immoral or illegal.

We are angry at everyone and at ourselves and we are nihilistic and even deliberately self-destructive. If we were, in the current fashion, to develop a hashtag to honestly brand ourselves, it would not be something positive, supportive or affirming like #jesuisCharlie, it could be #IamColumbine, #IamJamesHolmes, #IamDylanRoof.  (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”)

This is why the internet is such a toxic place. This is why we have cyber trolls (See: “This is why we can’t have nice things”).  This is why business is hateful. This is why we hate business. This is why government is hateful. This is why we hate the government. (See: Pew poll re government.) This is why politics is so toxic. This is why the public is so polarized about politics. This is why we have Ferguson. This is why we have Afghanistan. This is why we have Donald Trump. This is why one of our two major political parties is seriously considering nominating someone for president who they know will suck at being president and who they know much of the public will hate. This is why much of the public already hates President Obama, though he was elected as a symbol of “hope.” It’s why people are already talking about impeaching Hillary Clinton, who they plan to hate. This, I guess, is why this essay keeps boiling somewhat over-the-top.

While I would like to end this layered descent into hell on a positive note, that, in fact, is probably not appropriate here. What I will do is give you one more quote, this time a poem. It is a poem that is now almost a century old, but has acquired a certain amount of contemporary fame for being what many have recognized as an accurate description of our moment. It’s perhaps Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ most famous work, written during the Irish struggle of independence and before the (now receding into history) horrors of WWII. These are past, but Yeats believed in a cyclical theory of history and perhaps he was right:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

For me, this really does feel like a prophetic vision of our time. Joseph Conrad, in “The Heart of Darkness,” perhaps sums up this sentiment more neatly: “O, the horror, the horror!” But Yeats keeps coming back to me:  What rough beast, it’s hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? We’re entering the Christmas season, and it would be nice to be prepared.

In Dante’s “Inferno”, the last, deepest circle of hell is an icy cold, empty and desolate place, and, though I’m pretty desolate, I don’t think I’m there yet … frankly, I would like to avoid completing the journey, though Dante's guide, Virgil, says you have to go there in order to get to purgatory and begin the cleansing process.  What I can say here that is hopeful is this: This too shall pass. One can hope.