I don’t find it at all odd that a season associated with new birth and restored life is such a tumultuous one. Birth is as stormy a process as it is beautiful. The intense weather of Spring brings vibrant colors to life. The metaphor to humanity shouldn’t be lost on us.


Last year, Lent became an exercise in abstract practice for me. You may recall that I gave up negativity for Lent. It was a very positive spiritual exercise for me, one that I can say I’m better for doing. Karen said that I needed to consider doing it again this year. I’m not entirely certain what she meant by that.

I lose track of Lent easily. I think this is because I take the liturgical calendar best in small doses. My liturgical observances go something like this through the year: I enthusiastically observe Advent and Christmas. I begin to falter around Epiphany. I mis-place Lent, but am back in the groove about halfway through, in time to focus on Easter. Then the season of Pentecost leads to more randomness in my spiritual practices. Rinse and repeat.

This year, I remembered Lent somewhere into the second week. What these seasons do for me is make me more disciplined in carving out intentional, meditative time from my days in order to be quiet and re-focus. Similar to last year, though, I struggled with what I should give up for Lent. Because, again, the practical and obvious fasts fell flat in my mind. They would all be things that I would be doing for the sake of religious ritual, not spiritual growth. Religious ritual becomes empty really quickly for me.

I have to say, I seriously considered Karen’s advice that I give up negativity again this year. But, as I read and spent time being quiet, I discovered that what I actually need to give up is independence.

American culture thrives on the myth of the self-made man, a myth that I find non-sensical. Everyone needs someone else at some point. Before Karen and I moved into our current apartment, I was walking up the stairs to our old apartment when a downstairs neighbor (whom I didn’t know) stopped me and told me she was moving out, but really needed help getting a piece of furniture out to the stairs. She asked if I could assist her in moving it. I felt a bit awkward just going into this lady’s apartment and helping wrestle out a tall wardrobe, but she needed help, and I saw no one else to give her assistance.

Sometimes, we just need help moving the big stuff.

That’s difficult for me because I don’t like asking for help. Yet, I’ve discovered that, once you have a child, you have to. In the midst of a crazy week this week,  Karen and I have twice had to ask  a friend to watch our daughter for a couple of hours. I have a real issue with imposing on friends, but this was just necessary. Also this week, I had to call a friend to ask a question about a car. I’m a geek, but I don’t do car repairs. Put me under the hood, and watch my ineptitude blossom. I have to call  someone and ask for assistance with anything involving vehicle mechanics. I have to seek help.

I could go on, because there are a huge number of other ways that we all need help from someone on a daily basis, but you get the idea. The issue is that I feel bad about asking others for help. It’s not a huge struggle, but it causes me to not do it often, to deal with things on my own. This leads to me not having a willingness to step in when others are in need of assistance.

Whether you approach this from the perspective of faith or not, the point is that we’re all stronger when we help each other, especially when we do so pro-actively. The process of doing so relieves us of this ludicrous idea that we can “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” At some point, you have to know someone. At some point, you need a favor. At some point, you need to know the person next door.

I heard someone say during an interview on the BBC this week that, if we took the time to know each other, that there wouldn’t be war. Knowing each other necessarily involves engaging each other. I think that takes the form of recognizing that the human condition involves at least occasional dependence. I’m not talking about an overload of enormous and deep friendships with everyone around you. I’m just talking about knowing more about the person living next to you than the name on their mailbox. Because then there might not be war. And we could certainly do with less of that.

I think this will play into the nature of a hero in some way, as well. I’ll keep you posted.

Photo Attribution: ktylerconk 

The Watchmen and the Phantom: Not as Good as the Original

Several months ago, this showed up in my Facebook feed:

And I thought to myself, there’s nothing quite like a sequel to degrade one of the greatest stories ever told on the stage.

You see, I have a long love affair with the Phantom. I have had since high school. I’m not certain why. I think that the poignant story and the magical musical score simply enchanted me. I went to see the Broadway production during my undergrad days, and was absolutely in stunned silence at the beauty of the production. Technically, musically, artistically, the Phantom is a masterpiece.

And the issue isn’t that I’m closed-minded to adaptations and new presentations. To the contrary, I was moved nearly to tears by the film adaptation of the show that arrived in theatres a few years ago. Of course, Webber was instrumental as a writer of the film production, as well. And, in fairness, Webber is the driving force behind the new show. It’s just that some things can’t be improved upon.

Of course, the same thing goes for prequels. DC Entertainment recently announced a set of prequels to the greatest graphic novel ever published, the Watchmen. My stomach turned. Was this a blatant attempt to capitalize on an amazing work of art? Simply because they own the rights to the story and the characters, they think that they can add to what was already a complete story simply to make money? I confess that I had a similar reaction to Love Never Dies. Was Webber selling out for money? Surely, if an artist were to ever have a comfortable income, Webber would.

A friend and fellow comic collector told me that it was a surety that I would at least read the Watchmen prequels, just to see what they were about. I responded that I wouldn’t read them on principle. Truth be told, I likely will scan one in my local comic shop. I may even put the DVD of Love Never Dies into our Netflix cue, as it is apparently living on DVD due to it’s poor reception in theatres (although I have read at least one opinion that the show’s theatrical demise was unfortunate). Part of me hopes that the Watchmen prequels are received poorly, as Moore has said that he accomplished everything he intended to in the original collection. Moore reportedly isn’t happy about the project, and I don’t think he was a fan of the film, either (for good reason…it was a disaster).

Still, the two projects are different in that, with Love Never Dies, at least the original writer is responsible for the project’s creation. And, I have to admit, from a design perspective, the show looks intriguing.  I think, however, that I’m just stubborn enough to eschew both projects, simply because I don’t want to give in to what I see as selling out amazing work in order to make profit from the original.

Am I doing myself a disservice in my stubbornness? Would you see/read either of these? What do you think?

The Nature of a Hero Part III

DC Entertainment is doing something very interesting. I mean, besides the New 52. Take a look:

Besides the fact that this is good charity work, and the fact that it is an excellent quality video that sort of gives me chills, there’s something really fascinating in the way DC is packaging this initiative rhetorically.

First off, we’re drawn in by the images of the Justice League characters, ones that are recognizable to even those not engaged in comic books (and leaving me very much in mind of the recent animated series intro.). The video is immediately evocative as a “person on the street” video can be: we see honesty, people admitting that they’ve never been needed, but that they have been needy. People self-absorbed, answering their phones. The video is poignant: the school girl remembering when she didn’t stand up for someone in her class being bullied is a time when she was needed, but didn’t react out of fear. This is something to which all of us can relate.

Then, the video moves into the ideal that we hope for ourselves: those who “didn’t think,” and “just went.” These are the heroes, those who reacted despite their fears, and who were a positive influence in a situation. I love the story of the man, taken out of context enough that the bulk of the events remain a mystery, re-telling how he went down on the ground beside someone in order to be with her, to help her get up again.

Then, of course, the video makes its pitch, calling us to action, calling us all to be heroes, and re-connecting us with the images of the iconic heroes that inspire us. The video confronts us with a situation, and gives us another chance to react without thinking, to put fear or misgivings aside, and to be a hero to someone. Even if from a distance. Even if our actions are never known. We’re given an opportunity to reach the ideal.

What’s amazing about the rhetoric of this project is that it is using the secret desire that we all have for a hero to swoop in during our time of greatest need and save us when we cannot save ourselves, and it is leading us to recognize another desire that we all hold: the desire to be the hero. I remember dreaming heroic dreams of coming to the rescue of the girl in distress when I was in elementary school. Heroes have always dominated my imagination, my stories. I’m fascinated by those who place themselves in “real-life”  hero positions, such as first responders. I’ve made professional choices that have placed me in a role to be helpful to others on several occasions.

What this video leads us to conclude is that heroism is relative. That is to say, we all have the ability to be a hero at some point, to someone, in some capacity. All of us can be the larger-than-life savior, landing (metaphorically) in the midst of evil’s apparent triumph, and saving the day. Because the evil that is about to triumph over the person next to us may be small to us, depending upon our gifts and resources. What they cannot defeat on their own, we can, and vice versa.

This video is powerful because it so effectively taps into another aspect of the nature of a hero: the fact that we all have the desire to be the hero. Sometimes this is for selfish motivations, often it is over-ridden by fear, or doubt. For some, it is a driving force, and for some it is merely a whisper of conscience. But it is there, and, I daresay, it is universal to the human experience.

Perhaps that’s why the idea of a hero resonates so much with all of us.

School is in Session

I was nearly finished with grad school before I took my first online course. I had never pursued it before that point partly because of limitations on the school’s part, and partly because the situation had never demanded it that seriously. Once Karen and I were married, however, I still had a semester to finish, and a brand new set of demands on my time management. Fortunately, online courses had become available, and I maximized the opportunity, to discover that I had fallen in love with the format.

Ideally, I like residential courses with a lot of the workload online. However, online classes are certainly the future of education in many disciplines, and I’m fascinated to see things like public speaking now being taught from a distance.

A couple of years ago, I was exploring iTunes U at it’s initial launch. I downloaded a literature class from Yale. I found it outstanding that I could watch a Yale professor lecture on one of my favorite novels, that I was getting the actual content of the course at no charge. Of course, no charge meant no credit, but a thorough education doesn’t necessarily equal heavy credentials. Knowledge is a beautiful thing, whether or not you acquire letters after your name to show for it.

I was only sort-of surprised that someone is finally attempting to bridge that gap, as well, however. MIT is now offering course credit for certain classes taken through an online platform at what many suspect will be a substantially less expensive rate than attending the prestigious school residentially would cost, building on the iTunes U model. This led to some conversation about what the future of education, and really everything else, will look like.

Personally, iTunes U is a gem of which I have yet to make full use. I have a lecture on technological developments in treating autism, and on the philosophy of film waiting for me, though, both from MIT. While researching my novel, I recently watched a lecture on quantum mechanics from Oxford. These are actual lectures from these schools. Typically, an entire course is offered. The knowledge gained is just as real as if you were in the classroom (minus, of course, what you learn by producing graded research assignments and so forth). I love that it’s out there for free.

I think there’s far too little of this. I’m concerned that academia is accessible only to a few. I see this manifest in different forms. While researching a proposal a few months ago, I found myself running up against a paywall. Should I want access to important academic research in the field I was exploring, I had to pay for a copy of an academic journal. Some research I couldn’t access at all because I wasn’t a current grad student. I’m bothered by this. While I recognize that the professors who conduct this research and write these articles for peer review must be financially compensated for their livelihood, at the end of the day, their research is being conducted for the greater good. Thus, I think the general public should have access to these articles.

I also see disciplines in the humanities, specifically the fine arts, being elitist and pretentious, producing art that only appeals to an ivory tower inner-circle of other authors and artists, to the exclusion of those who travel a different social sphere and come from different life experiences.

I think both are wrong. This wonderful knowledge, art, and research is so essential for the continued development of our culture, of our society. As such, it cannot be reserved for the privileged few, but must be accessible to all who wish to explore it. Now, I’m no economist. I have no idea how sustainable something like MIT’s new venture is from the perspective of supporting its professors so that they can do this sort of critical research. I also have no hesitation in agreeing that, if you want the credentials, then you need to do the work in the accepted manner.

All that said, however, I’m excited to see things like iTunes U begin to manifest. I’m excited to see this sort of culture and knowledge become available to our society at large, bridging an economic gap that has prevented many from exploring these sorts of ideas and fields. I hope more of this is to come, and that academic institutions leave behind hopes of profit in the interest of sharing their knowledge with the public.

I think the more art, the more philosophy and theology, the more scientific theory, becomes available for everyone who is interested, the better…dare I say, the more enlightened…we will be together. And I think that only good results can arise from that.