Wait? Where Was I?

I’ve heard people ask…reputable people, and in far too many places to link to here…why American authors aren’t writing novels of the calibre that we’ve seen in “classic” literature. Many think that the quality of fiction today just can’t compare to the great writers of our history. I push back on this in a few ways. While I don’t argue that there is an objective standard for good writing (or any other art form), I think that there’s also something to be said for subjective tastes. Though I can’t fathom why, there are a lot of you out there that don’t like science fiction or comic books, and may have difficulty appreciating even the best-written of the genre. That’s a matter of taste. There are still science fiction authors that one would objectively recognize a excellent writers.

The complaints that I list above, though, aren’t typically about so-called “genre” fiction, but rather literary fiction. They also tend to be made…and this is the second place in which I push back…by ivory tower elitists. I’ve certainly been accused of being a bit elitist at times, but literature, just like any art, is there for everyone to appreciate, engage, and discuss, regardless of vocation or educational standing. Sometimes analysis and debate of literature can cause us to miss the point of a wonderful story, and, again, we can say the same for any medium of creative expression.

I have to agree, though, that it’s more difficult to generate quality work of any sort today. And, while art should be there for everyone to engage, that assumes that everyone has the attention span with which to engage it. The issue in both of these statements is the same: we’re so invasively and so easily distracted by things that draw us away from our creative efforts. Fellow-blogger and author Michelle Argyle wrote about something similar just today, when she discussed how wearying it can be to put so much of yourself out there for the world to see.

Odd how we feel that we have the right to dissect our culture’s celebrities, while using social media platforms that can potentially make any of us small celebrities in our circles of influence.

A lot of others have written about this, as well. Nicholas Carr has written about the phenomenon of how the Internet’s structure re-wires our brains in a 2008 article in the Atlantic that received a lot of traction, and also in a new book that I haven’t read, but that looks fascinating, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. I’m familiar with different studies that indicate how difficult it is to regain focus on an important task following a single distraction (is that my phone dinging?), and how this negatively impacts productivity in a corporate environment.

How much more so in the creative process, which requires sustained, focused attention to the art which is so lovingly being crafted?

Or, the book that we find progressively more difficult to read? The painting that we can’t sit still long enough to to contemplate? The child with whom we struggle to provide our full attention because of the nagging tasks competing for us within easy arm’s reach?

In a more comedic way, this says it well. We’re losing a part of our humanity as we lose our focus:

How to be a Hero?

School has finished, and the career change that was a part of my New Year’s resolutions is underway. I begin a brand new position this week, and, in the transition time between being a full-time student and re-joining the world of the 9-5, I was enjoying a long weekend.

Monday evening, some errands drew me to a local shopping mall. I’m no fan of malls, mind you, but certain things (such as needing to pick up something from the Apple Store) are enough to motivate me to go there. I had our daughter with me, but Karen was otherwise engaged, so I was trying to do what any reasonable parent would do when going solo with their child to the mall: get in, get what you need, and get out.

Let me set the scene a bit by saying that the early part of this week held an event that I was convinced I would never see in New England: warmth. That is, my definition of warmth, not the definition of those who break out summer clothes at 60 degrees here. I was finally able to comfortably wear shorts and a t-shirt for a couple of days (it went away by Tuesday, just for the record). While I was walking into the mall, I noticed a girl walking through the parking lot toward the same entrance. I say that I noticed her because she was attractive, and was dressed according to the weather. I noticed her in the way that any warm-blooded guy would notice an attractive girl, and I went on with life.

I suppose it was coincidence that resulted in her walking back out to her vehicle at the same time that I was making my escape from the mall. She was on the other side of the lane of traffic, but I noticed her again, mostly out of recognition that I had seen her previously this time. That’s when it happened.

I was going through the process of getting my daughter out of her stroller and into the car seat, which also involves moving the backpack-diaper-bag into the car, moving the stroller to the back of the car, collapsing said stroller (I use a big stroller, complete with coffee-cup-holders…no little equipment for me), loading it into the back of the car, closing everything up and then getting in myself. Yes, it’s a long process. There was a car that spotted me going through this process and, recognizing that I was about to leave, turned on its signal to claim my parking spot, valuable real estate in a packed lot. I didn’t realize until the attractive girl walked by this car on the opposite side that there were three guys in the car. They noticed the girl, as well, except they decided to let her…and the world…know about, in the form of “cat calls,” whistles, and comments that I couldn’t completely understand but that I’m sure were suggestive and demeaning. The girl kept her head up, ignored the jerks in the car, and kept walking to her own car. The look on her face, though, grabbed my attention. She was steady, but humiliated, and wanted to vanish right there. She made it to her car, and got in.

I wanted… I so wanted…to get involved in this. I wanted to tell the three of those men to quit embarrassing our gender and respect a lady. I wanted to ask them if that approach had ever seriously worked for them, and when they planned to finish elementary school. I wanted to stand up for that girl who was humiliated and hurt, because she needed someone in her corner. And, honestly, with three of them in the car and one of me, it likely wouldn’t have gone well, but she needed it and I felt that it was what a real man…as opposed to the three boys in the car…should have done. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating that anyone should have escalated this to violence, but someone needed to tell them to grow up.

But, I had a 19-month-old child with me. That sort of rules out anything that could turn even remotely confrontational on someone else’s behalf.

What did I do? I used a passive-aggressive approach, slowly and methodically stretching out the process of returning my daughter and her gear to the car into a nearly five-minute-long process, until the    car with the immature trio moved on in frustration. The girl squealed her tires on her way out of the lot in her one sign of defiance to her insulters.

I wish that I could have done more. These are the moments in which every one of us have a chance to be a hero to someone around us, and I couldn’t find a way to act on it. What’s more, I want my daughter to see me stand up to this sort of thing, because she needs to know that a real man would never treat her that way, and that an honorable man stands against those sorts of actions. I just have no idea how to do that with her tiny little life in my care.

So, I want to hear from you. How should I have handled this situation? What could I have done differently that would have been the right thing for everyone involved? I want to hear your thoughts, because this is the stuff of a real world in need of heroes.

Gone in Eight Seconds

I use Tumblr as, among other things, sort of a collection of things that inspire me. Stunning photography and artwork are certain to catch my eye and be saved to my favorites there. I remember one photograph in particular that was quite inspirational as I was working on character development for my novel. At least once or twice weekly, a really unique piece of art will catch my eye there and have a similar effect.

There’s an interesting sort of detachment that happens, though, when you’re viewing artwork on a computer monitor…sort of an extra degree of separation than one would experience in the gallery or museum. Often, at least in larger museums, sitting areas will be strategically positioned for pausing to really experience a work of art, to let it soak in and to contemplate the piece. That really doesn’t occur when seeing artwork in a blog feed. Something is lost in translation, if not in the visual presentation of the work, then in the experience.
A few years ago, one of my dear friends gave a lecture on how the viewer engages art. I remember specifically his mentioning that the average viewer pauses for about eight seconds in front of a piece of art in a gallery or museum before moving on. I don’t think that this is inaccurate, because I actually see very few people using those sitting areas that I mentioned when I visit a museum or gallery. I jokingly said something to my friend after his talk to the effect of, “So, what I hear you saying is to look for at least nine seconds before I move on?” Whenever I pause for a few seconds to view artwork that shows up in my Tumblr feed, and start to scroll again, I remember my friend’s words, and try to take a breath to appreciate what I’m seeing instead of moving on to something else.
There’s something about speeding past a work of art…and I mean “art” in the general sense, not to speak of any medium in particular…that cheapens the experience, devalues the work, and even steals from the artist. The same is true in reading a book too quickly, without pausing to consider the chapter that you’ve just finished, or pausing to really experience the song that you’ve just heard. Moreover, we’re robbing ourselves, as well, of the experience…perhaps inspirational, or moving, or even life-altering…that we might have had by simply engaging the work of art that we have the privilege of viewing.
And it is a privilege, because many people in various parts of the world….including our own proverbial back yards…will never have such an opportunity, or have it very rarely.
As passionate as I am about the possibilities brought to us by our technological innovations, I am ever aware that we stand to lose much if we let ourselves be carried away. Instant access to information can, I think, lead to a loss of appreciation for that information. What once was memorized is now simply accessed at any time, and there is much that is less tender, less loving, about accessing something instead of memorizing and truly getting to know that thing.
So it is with speeding past art in our streams of data. When we do…and we all do…I don’t think that we realize what we have.
Which is a shame, because what we have…our wealth of creativity and common ground…is a truly beautiful thing. We just need to stop and appreciate it.

A Review of “Iron Man 3”

I confess, I’ve been a bit out of the loop lately. I didn’t realize how imminent Iron Man 3 was until after Christmas, and still it managed to take me by surprise on opening weekend, so much so that it took me nearly a week to make it to a theatre to become eagerly absorbed in the next film in the Avengers canon. Waiting a week to see a film based on the comic books of my childhood is…well, nearly unheard of for me, so much so that I grabbed the first show that I could when my schedule permitted, even though it was in (what I consider to be vastly over-rated) 3D.

I had, of course, heard rumors abounding of how this Iron Man film was taking a different directorial approach than the first two, and I tried to distance myself from those, because they’re the sorts of rumors that make me nervous. And, let me say up front that the rumors proved true, but not in a bad way. This is a new tone for an Iron Man film, but its consistent with the evolution of Tony Stark’s character that unfolds during it’s two hours and fifteen minutes.

This film walks us through Tony’s past, before he became the self-sacrificial hero that we witness him become in the Avengers. The story is connected with flashbacks to Tony’s self-absorbed history, during which we discover that his arrogance is at least partly responsible for spawning the villains with which he is confronted today. This is a technique of comic book storytelling that has a thorough history, and I think that it’s done well here. Favreau show his artistic depth as he explores a different way to tell Iron Man’s story.

Stark has always been a fragile person behind his bravado. This was seen in the comics in his struggle with alcoholism. Iron Man 3 picks up with the emotional aftermath of the Avengers, with Stark experiencing what is likely post-traumatic stress symptoms that are crippling his health as well as his relationship with Pepper. He begins making rash decisions as his flashbacks and anxiety escalate, and he becomes absorbed in his technology during his sleepless nights. He forms, in fact, a relationship with his technology, even more symbiotic that we have previously seen. He tells Pepper early in the film, “I am Iron Man,” and the undercurrent is explicit to the audience that his self-perception of his identity is completely enwrapped in his armor.

Robert Downey, Jr. delivers another outstanding performance as he portrays an insecure and nearly broken Stark who can’t move past his near-death experience shown in the Avengers. His insecurity, however, escalates into foolish bravado in the face of an attack on those close to him by a terrorist known as the Mandarin, and impulsively challenges the villain on the airwaves in a manner that places everyone near him in mortal danger. The writing of the screenplay shines, though, as Stark comes full circle to a repentant stance as he apologizes to Pepper for placing her in danger, and promises that he will never do so again.

The bulk of the film involves the Iron Man without his armor, a broken Tony Stark struggling to not only win confrontations with powerful villains but also to come to terms with himself as he finds himself stripped of the identity behind which he has hidden. The process of his working through this crisis in fascinating, and there’s almost a theology of a broken man relying on his creations to make him whole, only to find his creations also imperfect in his image, at play here. Ultimately, Stark chooses to accept his imperfections and confront them with his own humanity instead of attempting to mask them with seemingly perfect technology, and becomes more whole for it…complete with new relationships as evidence of his change. This, I think, is a new component of the nature of a hero.

Now, back to the 3D. This film is actually worth it, as the effects are not overbearing or distracting, as many 3D films are. The action sequences are all well-paced and well-choreographed, but I’m a bit disconcerted with Stark’s raw motivation for revenge in this film, and his willingness to use his weaponry so quickly in lethal force (he even instructs J.A.R.V.I.S. at one point to “terminate with extreme prejudice”). The level at which this occurs seems contrary to how we’ve seen Stark’s character develop in recent films.

Rhodes returns, not as the War Machine, but as the Iron Patriot, an extension of Captain America’s symbolism for the country and one of many (and the most subtle) references to the Avengers scattered throughout the film. The continuity here is excellent, but long-time comic readers will find it a bit odd to see Rhodes in the armor at its inception. The Extremis virus is a central plot point in Iron Man 3 (you might want to familiarize yourself with the Iron Man: Extremis animated mini-series before seeing this film…it’s available on Netflix), but what transpires with it seems a bit too wild in the very end…I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers.

The major disappointment of the film is the Mandarin. While visually stunning, this arch-villain of the Iron Man comics is transformed into a character that is quite impotent here, and to say that liberties were taken is to call major body work a paint job. I am left frustrated with Marvel’s failure to make such a rich villain into a critical character. It was as though two villains are too many to introduce in one film…which makes me think that the writers shouldn’t have tried.

While this is a good film in general, it left me feeling empty and disconnected, especially after the compellingly complex storyline of Iron Man 2, and the amazing experience that was last summer’s Avengers. While Stark’s character evolves in striking ways here, the overall plot of the story I found wanting…an odd juxtaposition of a thorough through-line with conflict that fell flat.

Still, I’ll call it necessary viewing for super hero or comic book fans. And, as if you haven’t gotten used to this by now, yes there’s a hidden ending after the credits. A humorous, but odd,  hidden ending that will leave you with little to go on regarding upcoming Marvel events. Which, while perhaps disappointing in its own right, is in step with the rest of the film: a character-driven interlude that left me snatching in the air for something more, only to leave with a tasty appetizer instead of a delicious feast.

Cookies and Milk

Cookie Monster, our daughter's new favorite toy

The scheduling of being a full-time student has been tighter than I had ever expected now that I have added “father” to my list of roles played each day. Squeezing in work, school, family, and occasional sleep requires approximately five more hours than the 24 I have to work with.

I also have difficulty focusing at times as I stop to be astounded by the human becoming that is our beautiful little girl, running and talking (with a vocabulary that far exceeds her age, mind you) and telling Daddy and Mommy alike that she loves us. Just this afternoon as I arrived home from class she came running across our driveway to meet me, all grins and excitement at my homecoming. With commutes and various other complications factored in, though, most weeknights end with my having just enough time to have dinner with my wife and daughter and maybe an hour of playtime before putting that little angel to bed.

Something that I said before we even had our daughter…a responsibility that weighs heavily on my thoughts…is that it is non-negotiable for me, absolutely critical,  that our daughter grow up feeling safe talking to me about anything, knowing that she can tell me anything, that I will never judge her, and that I will always be on her side. The depth of relationship I long to have with her by nature conflicts with my responsibility to provide a stable environment for her, because the latter involves a moderately successful career (and, thus, the school to make said career possible), which pulls me away from home.

How to reconcile these two important roles?

Sundays are the day that always give me time, and so I knew that would be part of the answer. And, one day, I was dreaming back to fond memories of our life in Virginia from only several months ago, and I remembered, one night when Karen was teaching her night class, taking our daughter with me to a nearby restaurant so that I could get a cheeseburger. She was, of course, far too young for anything but a bottle at the time, but we had great fun (and she managed to grab the attention of every waitress in the place…did I mention that she inherited her mother’s beauty?).

Then, I experienced a collision of ideas that results in inspiration. I needed to repeat such an excursion on a regular basis, and Sundays seemed to be free. And, since it only seems logical that I pass down my love of cookies to her (Karen affectionately refers to me as “cookie monster”), the obvious (and affordable) solution seemed to be cookies and milk.

Because, every child should love cookies and milk!

So, every Sunday afternoon for the past three months, I have announced to our daughter that we’re going for “cookies and milk!” She has began to jump for joy and repeat, in her adorably mis-pronounced way, “tooties and milt!” And, off we go to a coffee shop or some similar arrangement, where we split a cookie and have Daddy-daughter time.

Every Sunday.

Okay, there was an exception one weekend caused by an unexpected night of projectile vomiting, but that one notwithstanding….every Sunday.

My point with this isn’t just a routine or a ritual, though. When Karen and I were expecting, I had coffee with one of my spiritual leaders. He recalled his fear upon discovering that he and his wife were expecting their first, and he said that raising your child is a chance to correct many of the things that you’ve done wrong, to help your child not make those same mistakes. I’ve hurt those that I love by not being fully present because of the distractions of multiple responsibilities. I’m not proud of that. I want our daughter to know right up front that, whatever else is going on, Daddy will always carve out dedicated time for her. I also hope that, for the rest of her life until (and even after) she is an adult and makes her own way in this world from which I often desire so intensely to protect her, that, whatever is happening in her life, whatever troubles keep her awake or concerns that she carries, she will always be able have cookies and milk with Daddy and tell me anything. Anything. Because I want her to know that I will always listen, and that her Daddy always loves her and will make time for her.

I don’t know if this will take off, if she will grow to dislike cookies or milk (perish the thought, but it’s possible), or if it will survive the teenage years in which it will be less than cool to have a childhood snack with her father. Perhaps, even if it falls victim to such a fate, it will rebound later in life. The important thing, though, is not the snack itself, but the time. The more she talks, the more I will incline my ear to listen. And, one day, perhaps she will interrupt my work to tap me on the shoulder with a concerned look and say something to the effect of, “Daddy? I need to talk. Cookies and milk?”

At which point, life will stop and my attention will belong solely to her for whatever she needs. And, should she ever read this blog and perhaps this entry later in her life, then know, dearest, that you have my attention whenever you need it.

Because I never knew that I could love anyone this much, and this routine seems the most practical way to implement my desire for her to know that very thing.