Thursday, December 26, 2013

Going Bald

Once, during my late twenties, when I was going bald, a blond my age asked, “What’s it like to go bald? If you don’t mind my asking…” I didn’t mind, as we feminists appreciate our real bodies, but I was slow to talk about myself—the conversation moved right along. Essays are easier.

Losing hair? It’s a loss. As with many losses, “I never thought it would happen to me.” Even though I had a bald uncle, on my mother’s side. Since my friend’s question, down the years, all five boys in my family have gone totally or mostly bald. But I was first. Baldness snuck up on me; we males typically don’t pay much attention to our looks. In department stores I just grab clothes to buy, rather than twisting back and forth at a three-way mirror. I never saw the back of my head.

And so when I got a tender head one summer, like a bruised apple, I figured it was just a coincidence, a little mystery. Nope, my hair was thinning—it was sunburn. One day, at a fashion mirror, I said, “Oh…” and I clued in… That summer, when punk rock was in fashion, I joked in the bar at how, being a rather uptight ex-army guy, I wasn’t ready to dye my hair punky blue, adding, “By the time I do get up my nerve, it will be too late!” A couple years later my platoon had a ten-year reunion, and when my rough old sergeant entered the room—I was standing near the door—the first thing he said was, “Good, someone with less hair than me.” I’m still laughing to tell that line.

I am who I am. Forget wigs, toupees or hair regeneration schemes. No comb-overs. In fact, as part of becoming less uptight, I went to a gay hairstylist—everyone knows they’re the best! And got a nice self-accepting hairstyle. Without using any brylcream, by the way: Gays have these really neat hair gels. Who knew?

As the feminists have noted, society can send so many body images at us that at last it can amount to a form of brainwashing. I guess two ways to counter such conditioning are to keep your eyes open to the real world, and keep your sense of humor. I remember standing in a mall checkout line, at a big box store, with a friend and observing, “It must hard for couch potatoes who stay at home watching too much TV. They finally get out to the mall, and then—they find everybody looks so plain.” A lady next in line burst out laughing.

Being observant can save money. One day, with a big bonus burning in my wallet, I found myself eyeing the large posters of male models. Maybe, I thought with longing, I should grow up, ditch my Big Bang Theory wardrobe and finally dress like an adult: A cool, exotic adult, drawn to neon lights and fashion models, doing not supper but “dinner,” during warm dark evenings where there is no chance of a white prairie blizzard. As it happens, standing by the posters that day, I was indeed on the lonesome prairie, inside the biggest mall in the whole time zone: the West Edmonton Mall. And when I thoughtfully walked away from the posters, walking up and down the great mall, although I’m usually oblivious to how other men dress, I had to admit: No one had clothes from Rome or East London. Well, I saved my money that day—bazzinga!  

Meanwhile, going bald, I keep getting messages that something has been lost in my life. Now I know: I’ll never be Hollywood’s leading man or lead cop or wear a costume in the Avengers. Well, maybe I can be Agent Coulson, he of the receding hairline. And I will never get out the words, “My favorite Starship captain is—” without some one gleefully finishing “—Captain Picard!”

Now I know what it must be like to lose the tip of one’s baby finger: it would be a lingering psychological loss, make no mistake.

A non-feminist, not feeling any need to “consciousness raise” about our silly, frilly culture, might ask me if I feel dumb being bald. Nope, not me. Besides, just as the average man self-reports being an above-average driver, I can report that I’m “an above averagely handsome fellow—” If only I had a mustache to twirl! With due respect to Hollywood, and to silly signals from our culture, I have become conscious of looking like so many real people in the real world: I appear like my fine uncle, like a confident Julius Caesar… and like a future Agent Coulson.

Sean Crawford
Enjoying gorgeous real people,
In plain real life
On the Great Plains
In a snowy December of 2013

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Activists and Music Videos

To extend an old slogan: “Think globally, act locally, and have a life.” Hence most of this essay is about a nice music video, as part of a good life… But first: Last week I came across the writings of the man they call President Barak Obama’s “mentor”: community organizer Saul Alinsky.

Alinsky was certainly my mentor. He opened my eyes to radical concepts, concepts about society and politics and organizations, and about humor too. In youth I had no more humor than, say, the guys on Big Bang Theory, those fellows who make the viewing audience howl while they themselves have no more humor than, well, a typical nerd. But because my mentor said an organizer must have a sense of humor… I began to semi-consciously acquire one: This fall two guests at toasmasters told me they wondered if I was a stand up comedian. I said “No, but two clients told me they ask for me by name because I am funny.”  

Alinsky wrote: “… On another level of communication, humor is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously. This is a sad and lonely generation. It laughs too little, and this, too, is tragic.” (Rules For Radicals, Vintage Press, 1971, p xviii)

A caveat: While according to the Internet “they say” Alinsky is Obama’s mentor, “they” are the same ones who hated Obama right from election day, when his honeymoon period had barely started, the same ones who believed Bush was a good president, selling smiling Bush T-shirts that read, “Miss me yet?” Up in Canada, where conservatives are a little more objective, it is commonly agreed that Bush was a lousy chief executive who really screwed the economy—even before the Wall Street Meltdown. (And whatever possessed him to give a big tax cut during wartime?) I can’t see anyone, including Obama, doing any worse. In fact, I suspect the Bush Whitehouse has waged war just as ineptly as during WWI, but with a much lower casualty rate, thank God. So much for “they.”

I bought Alinsky’s book to give to my friend Christina Chan, because I could tell she was surprised that I didn’t have much use for the Occupy Wall Street movement. And here she thought I was a nice guy! In fact, I feel contempt. To quote Alinsky from 1971, “…It is sad to see the stupidity of inexperienced organizers who make gross errors by failing to have even an elementary appreciation of this pattern.” (P 151) Below this he writes, “… was a disastrous failure, and any experienced revolutionary could have predicted without reservation that this would have been the case.” Maybe Alinsky was being diplomatic to merely say “sad.”

As for me, as I recorded in three essays about three sorts of occupiers, (December 2011) I am angry. If I’m sad at all it’s only from thinking the next generation of occupiers might repeat the same old mistakes, mindlessly, without making even a feeble attempt to re-invent the activist wheel. (Sarcasm: Is there a law that activists can’t own a library card?) Had I done a fourth essay, it would have been about organizing groups, but I didn’t write one because I sensed no interest from readers—and hey, I’m as lazy as the next man.

So much for politics.

Now for music. As Alinsky notes, “The organizer, in his constant hunt for patterns, universalities, and meaning, is always building up a body of experience.” (P 70) Such as by —(cough)—seeing music videos.

A Music Video:
I remember the very first music video ever played on MTV (Music Television) When it played again my brother Gordon alerted me, “Hey, look at this!” There is something gripping and powerful about Video Killed the Radio Star (Call it Video for short) Video is such a nice sounding song: I always play it last on my Lido café juke box play list, and Video has inspired a worthy parody (more on that later).

“Art,” said my high school teacher “is always described in the present tense.”  Video, then, proclaims a triumphant ever-present song… while recognizing that while old art “is” good, (not “was”) the music/art nonetheless fades away from popular culture, while an old artist may just fade away too, as if he were already dead. Accordingly, the music video features some hip ghostly images, and a most striking visual: a young girl crouched by a great big wooden radio set.

In those days we said “set,” same as for “TV set,” perhaps because it required a set of tubes in a mysterious array, as mysterious as silicon circuits are today. It was once so novel to receive music signals without a wire that we called the set a “wireless,” just as later the novelty of color produced the term “color TV.” Our ancestors, just like us, to quote Video, had “new technology.”

The two opening lines of Video plunge the reader into nostalgia:
I heard you on the wireless back in (nineteen) fifty-two,
Lying awake intent on tuning in on you

With 21st century technology being so precise and self-tuning we don’t have to “tune in” so much, and adults, at least on weekdays, will always go to bed to without any radio. Clearly, the singer is remembering childhood. “Intent” could mean keeping the sound low enough to avoid bothering the grownups. Soon the dramatic conflict is introduced:
They took the credit for your second symphony
Rewritten by machines on new technology.

Singers have lamented encroaching technology before: Dirty Old Town (1949) was covered by the Pogues, and long ago came the ballad Peg and Awl about a cobbler put out of business, “They’ve invented a new machine, prettiest thing you ever seen, hand me down my peg, my peg, my awwwl.” (Smithsonian collection) But while the ballads above are very human—what could be more human than the plaintive analogue swing of a ballad? —By the time a listener gets to the “new technology” lines of Video it is obvious that the syllables are being punched out with the even digital rhythm of a machine. The female emotive chorus comes as quite a relief:

And now I understand the problems you can see
Oh, a-oh
I met your children
Oh, a-oh
What did you tell them?

Although by one common scenario pop music is for only for the young, the hip, the “now generation...” the Video singer would surely disagree. He appears quite comfortable with being old enough to stand outside youth’s bubble of now-time, having instead a perspective, now, on the problems grownups can see… as down the years, since the age of cobblers, technology keeps rolling onward. Ironically, the lyrics were soothed over for the soundtrack of the movie The Wedding Singer, reading as, “And now I understand your supernova scene.” It’s as if in America major motion pictures are made for a majority who won’t want to think about problems.

Young people lying awake to hear Video probably don’t know what a Greek chorus is, but there they are, with their bitter sweet lines:
Oh a-oh
Video killed the radio star.

The very word nostalgia contains the Greek word for pain, algia (a pill against pain would be a analgia) The singer can find the past both bitter and sweet while acknowledging that progress rolls only one way, as radios become small enough for automobiles, and next comes new fangled car tape cassette players:
In my mind, and in my car
We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far
Pictures came and broke your heart

A big part of the song’s power is the singer’s concern for broken hearts. Not his own heart, no self pity, (just as the classic ballads above avoid self pity) but instead the compassion of a man having reached the age of perspective, with a softened heart for the plight of an old radio star. As for hearts: As I see it, in the world of human affairs, there might be a song with a passing reference to a youthful bully. (‘You’re not bad’ sneers a bully, parodied as ‘You’re not fat’ in Weird Al’s version of Michael Jackson’s Bad) But there won’t ever be a song about a middle-aged bully. To be old and still a bully, still lacking a softened heart, is somehow grotesque, a failure of both an individual and his surroundings, as pathetic as seeing a grandmother wearing a Nazi armband.

It is surely no coincidence that a music video parody version was made, to be her continuing education assignment, by a woman who has herself stepped aside from now-time: Amy Burvall is a history teacher with a young girl of her own. (The girl appears on the video) Burvall has heart. She once proclaimed on her video blog, “Oh poor Mary!” even though Mary is long dead: Mary Queen of the Scots. Burvall sings with punchy machine syllables, wearing cybernetic implants. Her refrain is Digital Life Has Changed Who We Are.

Change will continue… Technical change, community change… Guided by history, we will continue to deal with change through song, and through our video art—I’m thinking of a blond cyborg on a starship, named Seven of Nine, and of a dancing cyborg on The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Technology will reach further into our lives, and maybe into our very bodies, but still, humans will feel nostalgia. And still, people will sing.

Saul Alinsky, the respected and feared community organizer, was no rabid orthodox communist, no humorless slogan-spouting socialist. He said, “I detest and fear dogma.” (P 4) A sympathetic man of the people, as an organizer must be, he ends his prologue:
“I salute the present generation. Hang on to one of your most precious parts of youth, laughter—don’t lose it as many of you seem to have done, you need it. Together we may find some of what we’re looking for—laughter, beauty, love, and the chance to create.”

Sean Crawford
Meeting Chrissy by the factory wall,
December 2013
~For anyone with patience, here’s the Buggles on the first MTV video ever broadcast.

~Here’s Burvall’s parody—made on new technology. It's nice. My computer tech laughed to see it, and showed it to another tech right away. It ends with an expert talking about people becoming cyborgs.

~Speaking of cyborgs, for fans of attentive reading: I am awed by how much Ray Wood had to say in a fan magazine, (for fans of written sf and fantasy) Steam Engine Time 12. (Pages 40-56, including references) In The Dancing Cyborg Wood interprets a one-hour episode of the Sarah Connor Chronicles. I saw the same episode, and I surely didn’t get all the things he saw, such as the recurrent use of left-handedness as a symbol. Here is a link to the on-line version. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Gravity and Floating
(Spoiler Free)

…I am still under the spell of the space movie, Gravity

Cross the flat grounds of Kingsfold Retreat, plunge into the deep ravine-valley, climb the narrow path through the thickets up the steep far side, and you will find a cozy hermitage, complete with an iron stove, a stove that a body-builder had carried up, up against gravity, at what effort we can only imagine. Then think of a hermit: a fellow with long straggly hair—but not too straggly, not with Kingsfold so near. Keep an eye on that hermit; we’ll get back to him.

In the movie Gravity a young girl has tough straggly hair, combed daily by her mother. Orbiting her big mother, the girl will one day come to have civilized, groomed hair. And her mother, loving that girl, will stand with both feet on solid ground. The alternative, to float untethered, does not bear thinking about.

I seldom go see movies twice, but I did for Gravity. See it in 3D if you possibly can, in 2D if you can’t. If you merely see it on your idiot box then it will be like seeing Apocalypse Now on a box, instead of on a widescreen with dolby 3D sound: Same film credits, but a totally different experience. As for Apocalypse Now, when it was released the viewing audience, as I recall, was evenly divided: half thought it was very good; half thought it was very bad. Since then, of course, it has passed the test of time and even been re-released. Back in the 1970s, when it came out, I asked a college English teacher if it could possibly be any good, since so many thought so little of it. He answered that such a ratio of like/dislike is common in future classics. As for Gravity, its dislikes are from a smaller audience percentage, and it won’t be as much of a classic, but still, like Apocalypse Now, there is definitely something there.

On two or more web sites, including film critic Roger Ebert’s, I find detractors, and reading them leaves me with mixed feelings of irritation and contempt… and loneliness. The commenters who see the big name actors as “merely repeating their old roles,” who see the actors as being contaminated by previous roles, or see them as being unable to act (or at least, not act outside their usual roles) are mistaken. What those critics may not realize is they are unable to see the motion picture with fresh eyes on its own terms. Of course, if Gravity becomes a classic then when it is re-released young viewers will barely know the actors. I found the characters in Gravity, including the big name ones, to be drawn well enough for what they do.

Some people complained the show just went on and on. Perhaps they wanted some comic relief, or a comforting break of long flashbacks or a dream sequence. I suspect they have been conditioned to expect a break every seven point three minutes. (Commercials on TV are no longer 12 but instead 16 minutes out of every hour) I didn’t expect critics to have gotten away from their couch and TV to the great and dangerous outdoors, but neither was I prepared for them to be so innocent. A few complained about some “simple dialogue” with “simple questions.”

Not me: As a former soldier I know full well that when you are in pain without morphine you need questions to somehow reduce the pain by taking your mind off yourself. I know that under stress any questions to refocus your brain, to kick-start the resumption of simple thought processes, must be very simple. There is a good reason why the radio talk of soldiers and first responders is so unoriginal, clichéd, even hokey. For me to be confronted by the harsh judgments of contemptuous critics who don’t know such basic-to-me stuff, critics who must have lived nice safe lives, just makes me lonely.

Gravity is about a survival situation in an utterly hostile environment, and such plights, God help us, just go on and on. It’s never over until the fat lady sings—If you make it that long… And Gravity is also about something more…

I was born before the Mercury (one man) and Gemini (Two men) space programs. I once read a scientist’s book about his time in training back then, a time where potential future space-going scientists were expected to have the same training as the “normal” astronauts who had backgrounds as test pilots, fighter pilots and so forth. The scientist thought such hard training was over-kill, but such was the NASA (The right stuff) culture. (Incidentally, the scientist never did get into space) Today things are more relaxed, of course.

In Gravity one of the main characters, with a fine Polish-American name like Kowalski, is a representative of the old NASA: extroverted, confident and enjoying the simpler things in life such as country music. And he has goals, however simple, such as breaking a record set by a previous spaceman.  His polar opposite is the scientist Ryan. In the vastness of space Ryan inhabits a very narrow world. He asks Ryan, “What music do you like? Classical?” and Ryan doesn’t care enough to have any preferences: strange. And doesn’t care to have goals: seriously strange. Poor Ryan doesn’t even care enough about others to offer them jokes or tell them stories—but Kowalski sure does.

The problem, as I see it, is that subconscious caring, or uncaring, is so influential during split-second decisions. If two people are tethered as close as the Gemini twins in the zodiac, then to have someone just living as a cipher, without the gravity of caring, can depress the odds of survival. Gravity is not just space action; no, Gravity is a drama.

...My army experience is relevant: In the chaos of war, you don’t want to mix ammunition—trust me on this. Ammo resupply can be confused or interrupted—so keep it simple! Hence the submachine guns used pistol bullets, while the Bren guns and the big Browning machine guns used rifle bullets. An army rifle squad, of about ten men, when under enemy fire, would break down into two groups for maneuvering across a field: Seven riflemen and three guys responsible for the squad fire support: In Dad’s war this support meant two Bren guns with bipods. During the conflict in Nam they came out with new little M-16s firing new little bullets. It seemed so weird, at first, —even downright scandalous—to have individuals able to burn up ammunition so fast. According to a rumor I once read, the new theory was that for maneuvering across a field the seven riflemen would fire their M-16s with the select lever (the safety) on repetition, (single shot) while the other three would give support with their M-16s set on full automatic. It didn’t work.

Today they’ve had to mix ammo by having the squad support be two M-60s, with bipods, dangling a belt of big old style bullets. “It didn’t work” because the other seven guys didn’t feel self-confident, not if they were being supported by guys with just the same measly weapon they had themselves. If a sergeant needs to carry a rabbit’s foot he should: People need to feel they have an edge. During Dad's war we said, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” As alcoholics in recovery know, God is the biggest edge of all.

Ryan confesses, “No one ever taught me to pray.” Yes Ryan, but it has to be done, if only to help break you free of your own little world.

For Gravity, I am sure film school students will find a great deal to talk about; English teachers not so much. I suppose teachers might talk of various cultural values. The Russians? Their traditional culture (They needed identity papers long before communism) of oppression  has given them the distinction of vodka bottles. The Americans? Besides fast food, they have given the world pop culture: What can be more symbolic than a floating Marvin the Martian? Floating. The Chinese? With their three thousand year history? On a shelf is a statue of the Buddha, not floating but fixed. Stable. Some values are eternal.

And outside the lethal zone of orbit, down past the stratosphere and troposphere, down in some wild ravine is a hermit. Amidst fresh air and insects he is curled over, reverently reading his Bible. Such wonders and signs! Angels among us—Good folks meeting angels would need to shield their eyes from the glory! No wonder his Bible floats him free of people... But not for long. Any hermit soon finds himself, while coming in to get supplies, spending more and more time in town standing on two solid feet.

In our Gravity is our humanity.

Sean Crawford
On the Great Plains
December 2013

~Kingsfold Retreat is not for saints: Beside every outdoor bench is a tomato can for cigarette butts. I have been to the hermitage, and read the book  for resident's meditations.

~Hermits will spend “increasingly more time in town,” is according to a prairie social work teacher.

~”They needed identity papers long before communism,” I know this from Maxim Gorky’s classic play The Lower Depths.

~ “Doesn’t care enough about others,” see my Learning to be Nice, archived in May 2013. Come to think of it, my previous post might help set an intention, and a climate, for caring: Brights in a Grey Life.

~Commercials have gone from 12 to 16 minutes: Never again will there be long ballads to start a show such as for The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island. I guess leisurely screen credits are gone too.

~“Contaminated by previous roles,” is like how when Tom Cruise had a role without his trademark smile, his good looks blurred by a beard, playing the cruel villain in Collateral. The hero is a taxi driver. I read two or more reviews by paid professional movie critics who sounded, to my amazement, like caricatures of Hollywood drag queens. Hating Cruise, they hated the movie. Then I turned to a gentleman I could trust, the late Roger Ebert, who saw the movie with an innocent eye. The haters were wrong; it was a good show.

~Speaking of Tom Cruise, and “simple questions,” he is supposed to be in a sci-fi movie in the summer of 2014. This is according to a back cover blurb on an English translation of a Japanese sf "light novel"—the title will probably be changed by Hollywood, and most of the story too, but not one thing: A question. In the first chapter a young Japanese soldier-boy is sitting alone during his first battle, not wounded but rendered non-effective because his brain has boggled; his circuit breakers have tripped; he has silently freaked out. An older, famous American warrior-goddess comes across him. She asks him a question about Japanese green tea, claiming she’s always wanted to know. This resets the boy’s breakers, and he returns to the fight. Of course they are fated to meet again…