Rock On

I remember a year or so ago seeing this guy that was driving in the car in front of me while I was slowly moving through traffic. The guy was in an older car that was pretty small…you know, the sort of beat up car that most of us drive while we’re in college? Anyway, the windows were down, and the volume on his stereo was up. I can’t remember for certain if I heard or recognized the specific song that was playing…my memory seems to tell me that it was a hard rock song from my youth, but my memory may be deceiving me, there. In any case, what I remember was that this guy was rocking out, head moving, hands drumming on the wheel, singing. He was driving perfectly well, so its not that he was oblivious to his surroundings. He was just into the music, loving that moment in life, and couldn’t have cared less about what other drivers thought of him.

I remember thinking, “Rock on, man! Rock on!”

That phrase itself sort of sticks in my head because I remember when Karen and I moved to our new apartment, and several members of our faith community helped us with the move. At some point during the repetitive trips down three flights of stairs to the moving truck, I noticed a total stranger carrying our stuff down to the moving truck, helping the process without calling any attention to himself. I asked if he was also a member of that faith community, curious to know who this guy was and how he had randomly showed up to help us move. He replied that he was, and had been told by others that they were helping us move that day, and showed up to help. He just enjoyed doing that sort of thing.
“Cool.” I replied. “Rock on.”
“Thanks.” he said, matter-of-factly. “I will rock on.”

Yesterday afternoon, I was outside at work for my day job. We were in a public area, and music was playing from nearby speakers. The mix of songs was random, and at some point landed on Guns N’ Roses’ Welcome to the Jungle.  Talk about bringing back memories. And right there, in the middle of the public square, I was performing some serious air guitar (I have seriously competitive air guitar skills, you know). My co-workers commented on it to much amusement, but for a few seconds, I didn’t care. I was into the music, and loving that moment in life. So I rocked on.

Yesterday I thought about that, and about these previous instances. I think that “rock on” has become this sort of declaration for me that I’m carefree for a few fleeting seconds, and that I love the music (take that as metaphorically as you will), and that I’m going to enjoy those few seconds or minute or whatever, and I really am not concerned about what those around me think.

One evening when I was in college, I parked at a service station. I needed to run inside and buy something quickly, but the song on the radio, Counting Crows’ Round Here, was (and is) such a moving song for me lyrically, one that spoke about where I was at that point in life so articulately, that I was frozen, singing aloud in my car until the final bars of the song. When I became aware of my surroundings again, there were a bunch of guys in the car next to me, laughing out loud and staring. I drove away without going inside, because I was humiliated.

I think I would have a different reaction, now. I think I would tell myself to “rock on,” because what they thought doesn’t matter. The self-exploration caused by that particular song was much more important than their opinion of someone they didn’t, and would never, know. If nothing else is happening than one being transported away from their stress for a few moments, and they are “dancing like no one is watching,” then that is important enough, that they shouldn’t care what those around them think. They should rock on.

Perhaps I just push back a bit on this culture of appearance management that binds us so restrictively. Or, perhaps I’m just tired of caring what others think. Whatever the case, I’ve learned to look forward to those occasional moments when the right song is playing, and I need to let go, if even for a few seconds, and I let that moment take me out of time and space, regardless of what those around me think.

We need more of those moments, after all. I hope many of them find you in the future. Whenever they do, ignore what those around you think. And when you see them happening to someone else, just smile and think, “rock on, man, rock on!”

Photo Attribution: Marcus Jeffrey 

A Review of “Captain America: The First Avenger”

Captain America: The First Avenger (Film) Junior Novel (Junior Novelization)The summer season of comic book film adaptations slows now with this final installment by Marvel (there aren’t any upcoming that I’ve missed, right?). We settled into the theatre with much anticipation for Captain America, an iconic character from the Marvel Universe that represents the classic Golden Age of comics as no other character can, at least not from Marvel’s side. The idea of the super hero began, at least in part, with Captain America, and it is that story that is told here in original and riveting form (that is, right after you survive all of the trailers…are they really re-making Spider-Man???).

Captain America: The First Avenger begins following a modern day crew recovering the wreckage of an old aircraft frozen in ice in the Northern nether-regions of the planet, and, within that aircraft, the discovery of the familiar shield. We are then thrown back in time to World War II, following the attempts of a brave but physically inferior Steven Rogers to enlist in the military in order to serve the cause of the Allied war against Hitler’s Nazi regime (and we are treated to snappy military dialogue from Tommy Lee Jones when Rogers finally makes enlistment). When exposed to a “super-solider” serum, Rogers is physically enhanced to incredible physical prowess. With costume enhancements by Mr. Stark (that would be Tony Stark’s father), Rogers eventually assumes the identity of Captain America, motivating the country to victory over Hydra, a special science division of the Nazi empire that has now gone rogue (the screenplay took some liberty here). Of course, the villain of the film is the Red Skull, because any comic book fan knows that you really can’t make a Captain America film with any other villain. This is because Captain America represents everything that is the USA, while the Red Skull embodies everything that is not.

Visually, the Red Skull looks fantastic, and Hugo Weaving turns in a great performance. I thought I would have difficulty accepting Chris Evans as Captain America (some fans remember him as the Human Torch, a character with a completely different personality) but he plays the role flawlessly. The costume designers have taken the classic Captain America uniform and made it just edgy enough, right down to some battle scars on the shield. The red, white, and blue aren’t cartoonish, and brown holsters and other gear accent the costume well.

What the movie does superbly is capture the time period. The period of World War II is one studied to exhaustion in U.S. history, because the character of the country was honed there. The use of media as it existed brought nearly every citizen to passionately pursue the cause of the war, and the concepts of patriotism and American exceptionalism were forged in those years as in no other since the country was founded. The film not only manages to make you feel the sentiment of the era, but actually manages to get the viewer caught up in the desire for Rogers to be able to fulfill his passion to serve his country. This was something that the movie had to do well, because that is what Captain America represents in the history of comic book literature: he embodies the national pride of America, and is the hero that personifies everything great and wonderful about the country. As an aside, I’d be curious to hear reactions from audiences in other countries to this aspect of American history as presented in the film.

Interestingly, however, the film contains at least two back-handed commentaries to American exceptionalism. First, the super-solider serum is developed by a German scientist who defects from the evil of the Nazi empire (this would be a historical nod to the Nazi scientists who defected to help the Allies during the war). More obvious, however, is the fact that the British girl is the one who really knows what’s going on throughout the movie.

The action sequences are balanced well, and focus on hand-to-hand, close quarters combat that befits the character, while not shying away form epic battles in the sky and flame-drenched fields when necessary. Character development is emphasized throughout the film. We leave knowing Captain America, especially in the poignant and very human ending to the film as he experiences his profound shock and disappointment (no spoilers from me, though!), in addition to knowing his role in forging the beginnings of the Marvel Universe. Other Avengers characters show up in the end, of course, with the proclamation as we saw in Thor that “Captain America will return in the Avengers.”

Which leads me to my greatest conclusion about this well-done movie. Marvel is handling the Avengers in the right way, the way that they should have handled the X-Men franchise (and they undoubtedly have learned from their mistakes here). When the Avengers film releases next summer, almost every character will have already appeared at least once in a feature film (often their own film), and will have been developed. The screenwriters will need to waste no time with backstory in the Avengers, but can build on the character development that has already taken place. If Captain America serves as any example, the Avengers will be the iconic film for Marvel, a title befitting the “world’s greatest super heroes.”

Until then, however, we have been introduced to the First Avenger, and how he becomes who he is. This is an outstanding film, possibly the best since Thor earlier this summer. Perhaps Marvel intentionally saved the best until last for the ambitious summer super-hero undertaking. In any case, make time to see Captain America. Perhaps more than once. And stay through the credits for a teaser for the Avengers that drew applause from our audience. I already can’t wait.

Thoughts…Interrupted…

Help me understand this.

Several times over the past few weeks, I’ve been up and about early enough to catch “World Have Your Say” on the BBC World Service when it airs here, about 7:00 a.m. in the Eastern U.S. (No, my being up that early isn’t what I need help understanding). I’m a huge fan of the BBC, and a firm believer that their international journalism is superior to any other media source. I’m in the habit of listening in the mornings, and this is the program that has been on recently when I’ve been listening. Essentially, the program aims to air public response to international issues from people around the world. The program is thought-provoking as it demonstrates the differences in perspective between those who are living through the issues, and those who are observing the issues from afar. Of course, frequently the conversations involve dialogue between those who disagree, and occasionally those conversations become abrupt, if not heated. I’m surprised because the British culture is much more civilized than U.S. culture. Yet, technical difficulties and connection delays caused by international technological connections aside, the moderator of the discussion often has to step in because callers are blatantly talking over each other, interrupting each other, and simply trying to talk more loudly than the other party in order to have their perspective heard, as though being heard must be accomplished at all costs, including the loss of rest of the dialogue.

So, what I want help understanding is: what happened to civilized conversation?

This same issue has become a pandemic in American political discussion, in which yelling more loudly than the other side to ensure that you are heard and they are not seems to have become a valid debate tactic in the public’s opinion. I say that because we certainly tolerate it, and profit-seeking news outlets are all too happy to permit these uncivilized shouting matches to occur because the public has permitted them to be acceptable. Yet, the entire culture suffers, because its not acceptable.

In the interest of being objective, I do the same thing during passionate conversation about this or that. That is, I can become so excited about what I have to say that I talk over another participant in the conversation, or don’t hear them because I’m formulating my next comment.  Perhaps this is simply a generational issue, but I don’t think so. In any case, I’m infected, and its more of a struggle than you might imagine to prevent the diseased impulse from taking hold.

The reason that this is so detrimental to our public health (to say nothing of our intellect) is that it represents, at its core, lousy listening skills. Active listening, a concept of which I was taught a great deal during my communication studies, is an intentional action, and is required if we are to truly engage with, and participate in, conversation with others about any topic. When we don’t listen, we are too absorbed by what we’re thinking, and not working to understand (notice I don’t say we always agree with) the other person’s perspective. That leads to a “my way or the highway” mentality, or to groupthink in collective situations. Both of these mindsets place a very limited set of options and considerations on the table, and prohibit the compromise and brainstorming that are necessary to reach optimal solutions.

I understand being really jazzed about a conversation. I truly do. Whenever I hear people interrupting each other, though, I become frustrated, because it makes me want to shut out the interrupter in order to hear the interrupted. I then become frustrated with myself whenever I interrupt someone else because I’m so intent on saying what I want to say. Yet, I feel irritated when I don’t get to finish my sentence, when I’m interrupted by someone else.

Such are the imperfect dynamics of human communication, I suppose. I just want to work harder to restore some basic civility to my conversations, so that I (and whoever I’m talking with) can grow from those conversations.

I’m in sincere hopes that the public sphere will do the same.

Photo Attribution: sun dazed 

Encouraging and Unexpected

Nothing makes your weekend like discovering that you’ve popped up in a YouTube video from a cause you’re passionate about. That’s what happened when I stumbled onto this, a retrospective video from the Applied Theatre and Marginalized Communities conference that I attended last March:

I’m in there like four times, if you can spot me (hint: I’m the one doing the Brooklyn accent while yelling out the “cab” window). That, however, isn’t the point of my posting it here. Finding this over the weekend was a bit providential, because I really needed it. Like any good conference, I returned from this one in March completely buzzing with great ideas and positivity. And, honestly, few things make me quite as happy and fulfilled as spending time with other theatre practitioners. Attending that conference lifted me from the doldrums that the daily grind can sometimes plummet me into, and refreshed my perspective on interdisciplinarity…that is, that all of these seemingly disconnected interests and disciplines really do inform each other to the greater good.

It’s amazing, really, how we cling to those little moments, be it a weekend or just an hour of productive writing activity, to reclaim a feeling that we’re not really wasting our time. During an amazingly hectic weekend, I walked away feeling so accomplished because of an hour and a half of productive writing time. Not that much for one day of the weekend, but it made me feel confident, made me at least think that I wasn’t just tricking myself into believing that I was doing something worthwhile. On Monday I experienced a similar “high on life” moment as I implemented tools I learned at the Applied Theatre Conference to great success in two separate sessions with adolescents.

Over the weekend, even if for a brief period of time, I left the robotic motions of just writing pages in a novel and re-discovered what I’m trying to say with the project. Today, I left the robotic motions of a day job and re-discovered how theatre can impact those around me for the greater good. I stopped just being, and began living again in those moments.

Perhaps, more than just fleeting moments of feeling good about ourselves (because buying something new can do that for the briefest of seconds), these moments of feeling as though we’re serving a greater purpose motivate us because we realize just how narcissistic we are to look no further than ourselves. The reason that these glimpses into my true passions invigorated me so much is because it shakes me out of the trap of just getting from today into tomorrow in one piece, which can so often be the short term goal of our lives.

Not that getting from today into tomorrow isn’t important, and not that it isn’t legitimately the only thing that we can manage sometimes. But it is so, so important that we intentionally step back on occasion and try to see the “big picture.”

Its that “big picture” that reveals itself to us in those moments, just like a character does to the writer when you hear him or her speak in their own voice inside your words for the first time, or when an actor begins to be someone else on the stage. That “aha!” moment when we remember, “that’s why I’m doing this!”

I’m a big believer in stopping whatever it is that I’m doing when I can no longer remember why I’m doing it. That’s why moments like this weekend, set in motion by something as small as discovering myself in a YouTube video, are important beyond measure.

I hope you find those moments, as well.

Perspective and Experience

I used to be that guy.

Somewhere during the first real, professional job I held after college, I remember going down the hall to a co-worker’s office to ask a question about a mutual case we were handling. I walked into her office, and another co-worker was showing off her her new baby, much to the “oohs” and “aahs” of everyone present. I was mostly oblivious. I asked the question, and left with the answer, hearing comments and laughs about I was a “typical guy” who essentially didn’t even recognize that there was a child present.

Its not that I didn’t recognize that there was a child present. I acknowledged the fact, its just that this was data that I didn’t really have anything to do with. I mean, its not like I was going to interact with the little bugger or anything. My history to that point, and for several years after, had involved intentionally not being in positions in which I would have to hold a baby. And, when I did, I froze, and the baby screamed and cried, and it was a mess. So, I just avoided it.

Even after we were married, I would recall conversations that Karen and I had recently had with friends, and would have completely edited from my memory that the friends’ children were even present in the room. This was just not a fact that I needed. I had dumped the un-necessary data, almost as a web browser periodically does with cookies.

Since knowing that were are expecting, however, I’ve undergone a strange alteration in perspective…like someone threw a switch in my head. That change was relatively instant, too…I mean, it began the day I knew my daughter was coming. I’m hyper-vigilant now to children around me, playing with their parents, doing things that cause me to tense up because I’m afraid that they’re going to be hurt, or just catching my attention and giving me a big, baby grin.

At first I was afraid that I might be required to turn in my man card.

After thinking about it, though, I think that this is just indicative of how experiences alter the lenses through which we see life; changes our schema, to use the educational term. I’ve always suspected that I’ve reached emotional milestones late in life. That is, I’ve always felt as though I’m younger than I am, which has caused some interesting reactions from friends at times (“you’re going to do a career change now?”). I’ve always joked that I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but, much to my chagrin, I’ve grown up. This, I think, is just one of those experiential things that prove it. And, far from turning in my man card, I actually feel as though I am completely entitled to it for the first time in my life.

I have these people around me that are older and that I feel comfortable asking questions about anything. I feel comfortable with this because, whatever the issue at hand, they’ve been through it already, by virtue of the fact that they’ve been alive longer than me. They can give me input on how they handled the situation, and whether or not it worked. If nothing else, they tend to know what not to try. One of the areas in which I had to mature was to keep my mouth shut and not offer advice in areas that I know nothing of, or in which I am inexperienced. Asking questions is one thing, but I had an issue with thinking I knew everything when I was younger. Actually, I suppose we all did.

Now, though, I feel like I’m one step further down this experiential path. There’s something else that I could begin to offer some feedback on to someone younger than myself. I could say that this means I’m getting older, but I’m going to say I’m becoming more experienced, instead. That preserves my illusion of being perpetually 20 years old…an illusion that grows progressively more transparent with the smallest of challenges.

Here’s to changes in perspective.