…Thought Control? No Thanks….

When I was freshman in college, I worked as a DJ for the campus radio station. The experience was invaluable. The real perk , however, even though I worked every weekend, was that, while all of my freshmen friends got the dining hall as their work study, I got to spin tunes (yes, I know how dated that sounds, but seriously…there were turntables and vinyl in that radio station).

One afternoon, the CD machine broke (that was new technology at the time), and we had to figure out a way to keep the dead air at bay. So, one of my co-workers put on a Pink Floyd album and we were covered for some time.

Pink Floyd is a classic piece of our musical heritage, we can’t deny that. I’m going to come out and say, though, that, despite their technical skill, I’ve never been a huge fan of their music. I think it’s more because their sound just doesn’t click with me, but…I digress.  I still respect them artists. The song that’s always been most prominent in my noggin when I think of Pink Floyd is Another Brick in the Wall, and one line in particular:

“We don’t need no education…”

The writer in me cringes and weeps in the corner.

I listened to a great discussion on NPR last week…and, of course, I can’t find the audio anywhere now…about artistic license for musical artists. Basically, when do we let artists get by with such atrocious grammar, and when do we not? Of course, Pink Floyd is saying something with their poor grammar…like a good poet, their meta-message is augmented by their sentence structure. And rock n’ roll, lest we forget, is an art form with its roots in rebellion against the status quo. The posture, the hair, the distorted sound and guitars in overdrive…these are all pushing back on something. Back when music had poetry in its lyrics, the language worked to convey that message, carrying with it hints for which the listener had to work to find the meaning. In short, when the grammar was bad, it was generally bad for a reason.

Now, in the interest of being objective, I’m about to sound un-objective, as you might have guessed when I said “back when music had poetry.” You can imagine, then, that I don’t hold any particular love for a great deal of modern music. The teacher being interviewed in that NPR article talks about role modeling proper grammar in music for students in the impressionable time period between high school and middle school. She was concerned about artists such as Justin Bieber and Shakira using poor grammar and hearing her students repeat it, because music is such a powerful memory aid.

Yet, so much of the music to which I listened as a child had incorrect grammar, and I turned out just fine.

Rebellion in popular music certainly hasn’t changed…there’s a lot of machine to rage against out there, and a lot of rage with which to do so. That sort of expression is one of the most important things that rock music gives us, I think. Where does artistic license begin, though, in regards to grammar in the lyrics?

I propose an answer, and that answer is at the end of ignorance. When an artist (any artist…this is apropos for the poet as well as the musician) knows a rule and then breaks it for intentional effect, that is artistic license. Beethoven wrote much of his music by breaking the rules that contemporaries such as Mozart valued so highly, and we are without a doubt richer for it.

I can’t help but think, though…and if this sounds judgmental, I’d encourage you to look at statistics…that most poor grammar in the modern music industry is the result of being uneducated.  That is, the grammar errors aren’t made for effect, they’re made out of ignorance. These kids are just looking for something that rhymes.

When artists break societal norms out of ignorance instead of with intentional purpose, then they’re not making art…they’re making excuses. I can look back on Pink Floyd’s anthem and recognize what they’re saying, and their grammar choices lead me to that. Many modern artists don’t use their grammar choices to say anything, but rather boost their popularity by using trendy expressions. The poetry, my friends, appears to be dying.

And certainly it is preceded in death by lyrics than meant anything of substance, anyway. That, though, is a topic for another day.

A Review of “After the Golden Age”

After the Golden AgeAfter the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Most writing in superhero mythology paints the heroes as larger than life, more powerful than we could hope to be…gods among us, if you will…swooping in when all hope seems lost to fight the evil that we could never fight ourselves. The heroes are distant, aloof most often, typically because their position and power has left them that way, too far separated by definition from those that they pledge to defend…or, in the case of the villains, attempt to enslave. Due to their power, they can never be like us, and understand the obligation that comes with that power.

The better writing in superhero mythology explores the heroes’ struggle with that power, with a destiny that has often been thrust upon them by forces outside of themselves. They take up the mantel of defender because they have no other option. With great power, Uncle Ben reminds us, comes great responsibility.

The best writing in superhero mythology steps back from this, though, and remembers what the heroes truly are: people like the rest of us, but choosing to use what they have been given for good. Aliens, perhaps, or mutants, but still touched by a common thread of humanity that leads to a driving impulse to preserve life. Our heroes find common ground with us, even when they are so much larger than us.

There are a few explorations of the people behind the masks that are original enough to cause us to re-examine what lies behind their heroic natures, a handful that are memorable enough to, while not re-defining of a genre, certainly motivation to re-examine a genre. Somewhat out of the blue, Carrie Vaughn, a self-proclaimed lover of comic books and superheroes, has done exactly that, and done so with an interesting starting point: what if these huge, larger-than-life, indestructible heroes were but a blip in the history of heroism? What if their self-sacrificial desire to place the good of others, of their cities, before themselves were not tied to their superhuman abilities, but rather merely better facilitated by them? Wouldn’t that make them even greater heroes?

And wouldn’t that widen the definition of who we consider to be a hero, and what we consider heroism to be?

Vaughn’s protagonist, Celia West, is the daughter of the greatest superheroes that Commerce City has known. Her parents formed a team known as the Olympiad, fittingly titled protectors who watch the city from on high and strike hard against evil. Yet, she is born with no abilities, and lives in the shadow of superhuman parents whose superhuman nature has exacted a toll on their family life. Celia fights for good in her own way, however, in her role as an accountant of all things, with the same determination and passion to right wrongs that her parents hold, without all of the grandiose battles and conflicts. Yet, she is constantly compared to them, constantly made to appear to fall short…and constantly haunted by the one mistake for which she will seemingly find no forgiveness, despite her attempts to make her repentance felt.

Vaughn pays homage to the superhero tales of our youth in an offhandedly humorous but deeply respectful way that demonstrates her love for the tradition, gently touching stereotypes with the love of genre conventions without ever making anything seem unbelievable or silly. Her characters stay with you, her succinct prose and thought-provoking dialogue leave the reader with the moments that define a great book: the moments when you have to put the book down and walk away to digest what it is you’ve just read. Vaughn isn’t just de-constructing classic superhero story arcs here, she’s using the mythology to examine much larger questions: destiny vs. free will, the nature of a hero in each of us, the driving impulses behind self-sacrificing behaviors. She’s questioning what it means to be a hero from every angle, and disabusing us of many of the notions that we have held with conviction up to this point. The heroes that are most visible, we realize, perhaps aren’t the greatest heroes after all, but are merely following in the footsteps of heroes that are greater, and more normal, than we might otherwise imagine, heroes whose convictions were stronger than their powers.

This is the first novel I’ve read from Vaughn, and I’m impressed. The pacing is fluid, the story accessible and only minimally predictable. On the rare occasion in which I found myself suspecting that something didn’t fit, she made it fit within a few pages. Vaughn has done something fascinating with superhero culture here, something redemptive in it’s own right. If you grew up in love with these heroes as I did, this is a novel that will broaden the way you think. If you didn’t, you might just find yourself falling in love with the genre for the first time, because it is accessible to everyone in Vaughn’s prose.

In fact, of all the legacy that this book is likely to leave, that may well be its greatest.

An easy read at just under 400 pages, I recommend this novel for anyone.

View all my reviews

There Was a Time…

There was a time…it’s been around two years, now, I think…when I was on a consistent blogging schedule, at least, if not on a regular schedule with other writing projects. I took a sort of pride in it, honestly. I didn’t miss a post on that schedule. I maintained comment chains from the hospital when our daughter was born. I stopped one evening in the middle of our move to New England to write a post. I figured if a major family re-location and having a child didn’t knock me off of a blogging schedule, pretty much nothing ever would. And I’ve always respected blogging as a medium, too. Others have sounded the futurist predictions that long-form blogging is vanishing, falling behind micro-blogging platforms, and I stubbornly maintain this medium, because I think it’s important, that it has something valuable to contribute. It turns out that what finally did knock me off my blogging schedule wasn’t a major re-location or a child, but rather going back to school immediately following those two events, and then two subsequent smaller moves in the same year, all to accomplish that career-change for my day job that I dreamed of.

So, if my writing here has become more sporadic than in the past, it’s not for lack of motivation…it’s a symptom of a larger disorganization. And, as Karen would be quick to point out, that sort of disorganization just comes with having a two-year-old in the house.
And speaking of that two-year-old…she has a toy, a plush soccer ball that she loves to throw around. It’s laying at the other end of the sofa as I write this, having been missed in the nightly cleanup. And it’s poignant to me…poignant enough that instead of pushing through with the book review that I was so excited to write this evening, I’m stopping to write about it instead. Or, rather, the day that left it there.
In fact, of the days before that.
There’s been this interesting paradigm shift in my life now that I get to be creative for a living and not just for a hobby. That paradigm shift is that I don’t come home from a boring job and try to get the creative juices flowing any more. Instead, I tend to bring work home. In fact, I just work from home pretty frequently, especially when winter storms blanket New England (read: every week) and the commute to the office promises to be ugly. I always have side projects that I’m working on, both personal and freelance, anything from writing fiction to programming a website to editing the family photos. In short, I’m always busy. And, at first, that was really, really cool, because I love everything that’s keeping me that way.
Except that there’s a trap that comes with this, I realize now. That trap is that you aren’t able to break away at some point…the obligations become too many, the deadlines too tight, the work too complex and overwhelming. Today, with a winter storm having seriously complicated our plans and eradicated our childcare arrangements, Karen had to make a work obligation and I was working from home as our daughter played. I was pushing to meet a deadline. She wanted to play. We tossed the ball a bit, but then I had to get back to work. We read a book, but then I had to get back to work. She wanted to read the book some more. I couldn’t. So it went.
That girl…she has always been the proverbial apple of Daddy’s eye. I never knew that I could feel the emotions that she has brought out in me…the absolutely unconditional love, the protectiveness, the sense of duty. She has always been Daddy’s girl, and she knows it. She and I have always had a special bond…when she would cry in her first days with us and no one else could calm her down, she hushed when I held her and whispered in her ear. She loves her Daddy. She still wants his attention the way she used to have it.
She doesn’t understand deadlines.
She’s asleep now, the apartment is quiet, and I’m looking over the rim of my laptop at that soccer ball, tossed aside when it proved an unsuccessful way to keep my attention for long enough. I’m thinking of her hugs, which have become tighter, as though she’s holding on and doesn’t want me to go away. I’m treading water in this new lifestyle.
Overall, I truly believe that the changes we’ve made in our family are good. I do. I think that she will benefit from them in the long run. But, I don’t have an experiential referent for this yet, and I have much to learn. Among all of my creative passions, I also have a strong passion to be a good father. Right now, I’m not keeping that obligation, not through lack of desire, but because I don’t have a handle on this new life yet.
I’m working on it. If you’ve been there, and you have advice, I’d love to hear it. Because I’m looking at that soccer ball right now, and I really want to be smiling the next time I find it laying around, not regretting a day of opportunity lost.

A Typographical Formula for Success

A photo of a child's spelling test, and the word "adventurous" mis-spelled

When I saw it, I sort of shook my head, grieved, and went on.

Which is progress, because there was a time, not all that long ago, when I would have raged against it, shouted at the heavens, and inundated every single social media outlet in which I participate to complain about it.

Actually, now that I think about it, I should probably be more concerned that my response was so tame.

The offending thing was in a legal contract that I was reviewing for a project in which I was about to be involved. Going through a binding legal agreement that was about to be entered into between two parties, every nuance of which held meaning and obligations to all parties involved…in short, a document which should never be entered into lightly…I saw it: a typo.

So glaringly obvious that it couldn’t have been missed. Except that it had, as though rushing the document out the door was more important than having someone proofread it.

And I’m going to assume that, had someone proofread it, the error would have been caught, because…well, because otherwise I would lose all faith in an otherwise literate universe.

I see it everywhere on a regular basis. Formal business emails, company blogs, articles…it’s almost as though we’ve forgotten how to use English. In fact, I’ve seen two in a novel recently. I’m more forgiving of that in a way, though, because at least I know that a line-editor has been through it, and, when faced with the daunting task of correcting 500 pages of manuscript, I have difficulty faulting anyone for missing an article.

The issue that I have, see, isn’t that someone would make typos when writing something. Typos abound in my work, especially in first drafts. Spellcheck doesn’t catch everything, or even most things. I think it’s the fact that rushing something to an facsimile of completion, whether it be fiction, a legal document, or a blog post, seems to take precedence over making certain that it’s correct. It’s the rushing that bothers me, because producing something quickly is allowed to take precedence over producing something of quality.

In short, I believe that you can either do something fast, or you can do it well, but the two are mutually exclusive.

Of course, that mentality places me at odds with the driving premise of business today, because business accepts the gospel of time being money, and ultimately is concerned with money over quality. And, if you hadn’t noticed, everything in the U.S. is operated as a business, and the pressure to maximize time has grown exponentially in recent years. Which leads me to believe that more typos and more flippant disregard for this beautiful language of English that has served us so well for so long will continue to increase exponentially, because the time required to do something well will continue to be pushed to the side in favor of a quickly-produced, and thus more profitable, product.

So, in twenty years, we’ll have stopped teaching grammar (Karen’s experiences in the classroom indicate that we already have), and, though we’ll only be reading and writing like fifth graders, we’ll know all about how to make money. Lots and lots of rushed, expendable, unfulfilling and antithetical-to-beauty, money.

Such a brave new world, don’t you think?

Photo Attribution: elginwx under Creative Commons