Inspiration in Print

During one of my first journalism classes in college, I read a story about a new reporter who was working with obituaries. The story went that the reporter found a small detail in one of the obituaries that was about to go to print, and followed up with the family, ending up with a hugely influential piece.

This far removed from reading that (my adventures in journalism were a long time ago, and my college career even longer), I don’t recall the small detail that the reporter found. I remember the point of the story: that the smallest detail could uncover important news.

The town in which Karen and I live has a weekly paper. It’s tax-funded….delivered to every resident each Thursday. In the years since my byline appeared on a few front pages, I’ve honestly largely assumed the extinction of the newspaper, but have found since we’ve moved back to New England that I enjoy making the time to read this small paper each week. It’s a distinct point in the week. It marks time. I know what’s happening in the town. I feel more connected in a way that local broadcast news can’t provide, being mostly good only for weather and traffic. There’s some substance to print journalism, here complete even with local op-ed writers. It’s….refreshing.

This last week, I found myself wandering into the obituary section. I read the story of a local artist who had worked for Disney, then lived nearby and who had recently passed. This man’s life made for a compelling story to me. There’s an art to telling someone’s story, and I felt as though I knew this man after reading his obituary. I wasn’t struck so much by any specific aspect of the story, as I was by the totality of the story.

This will sound morbid, which isn’t my intention, so as earnestly as I can write this: I wonder how my obituary will read? As old as I sometimes feel (having a two-year old ages one prematurely, I’m convinced), I still have a lot of life left in front of me. I have no way of knowing what that will entail, and I’ve read enough dystopian science fiction to know that I don’t want to know. I hope, though, that an otherwise unremarkable life lived might inspire someone at an earlier point in their own life when it is read. I hope that I will leave a legacy of a good life lived to my children.

In short, there’s much that I gained from reading this stranger’s story, much that I will carry forward.

I miss newspapers.

 

A Review of “Ethel and Ernest”

I found Ethel and Ernest waiting for me one evening on my nightstand. This is the home of my “to-read stack,” or at least the non-digital incarnations in my to-read list. This small volume had been laid to the side…not inserting itself onto the top of the stack, but rather existing as a suggestion off to the right. Initially thinking this was a book for our daughter’s reading lessons, I passed it by. Then Karen told me that she had checked it out from our library, and that I really should read it.

Opening its pages and discovering it to be a graphic novel intrigued me, so I allowed it to skip ahead of others on the list and read it next. I am unbelievably glad that I did.

Ethel and Ernest is an artist’s recollection of his parents…the story of their lives told as he remembers and has pieced it together. One reviewer called it a “love story,” and that phrase resonates as I have found myself thinking about the book…unpacking it, journaling through its impact on my life, an impact disproportionate to its small size.

We initially encounter Ethel and Ernest as they meet and fall in love in 1920’s London. We watch them work through their relationship as the world goes to war, the horrors of what was faced as they sent their son away to the country to be safe, the stories we’ve all read in history books taking on a completely new depth when we witness how it played out in the lives of this ordinary couple. We watch them become lost in the pace of industrial and technological change, loving the new conveniences (she cannot believe how fast the washing machine gets their clothes clean) while grappling with the enormity of how their lives are altered by them. I adore the scene in which they buy a car and go riding down the street, in disbelief that they could afford such luxury.

We walk through their remembering their early romance later in life, watch them struggle with the alienation from their son (the author of the book) as they struggle to adapt to the things that he just accepts.

I feel as though I know Ethel and Ernest now, like I’ve met them. I feel like I know how they tried their best as life rushed by, how they found ways to cope with their profound political disagreements. Perhaps this is inevitable with such a work, whether it’s Brigg’s intention or not, but I can’t help but see my own parents here. They still sit in the same house in which I grew up, and I can picture them waiting for their son to visit or call, uncertain at times of how to adapt to a world that is merciless in the speed with which it changes.

I can hear Brigg’s sorrow at his frustration with them. I can feel my own love for my daughter as I watch¬† Earnest’s affection for his son. In short, I see that I have so much connecting me…all of us…with Ethel and Ernest, because their lives were ordinary, albeit lived in extraordinary times. Any of us can, and likely will, live through very similar struggles and triumphs.

I think that is why I fought back tears over Earnest’s loneliness in the end.

Brigg’s remorse over his broken relationship with his parents is never explicitly stated, but is an unmistakeable through-line, palpably felt in the jagged speech bubbles and the stark lines of his drawings of himself,¬† making the reader painfully aware of his disproportionate responses. Ethel, always seeing their family as proper and never “common,” persists in offering him a comb whenever they see each other, which we see as adorable but which was a source of much friction in their relationship. I think that she just wanted to take care of him in a manner of which she was deprived by the war. Later, he accepts the comb, no longer feeling judged, some peace made before the end, before Ethel and Ernest pass away alone and in the cruelest of circumstances after giving their life together everything.

I see so much of not only my parents in them, but also of Karen and I. I wonder how our daughters will remember our lives when we are gone.

In the end, we find the author and his wife looking at the house which Ethel and Ernest bought together. He states with some wonder that they lived in the same house for 40 years and never moved. That home becomes a metaphor for Ethel and Ernest’s devotion to each other. The horrors that they witnessed, the turmoil through which they lived, made them stronger, more resilient in their commitment to their marriage and to their son. They stayed together until the end in a way that I hope to, and were stronger for it.

This achievement alone, if it can be replicated, can be called a successful life.

This little graphic novel carries so much weight. I am not the same as before I read it. I do not treat my relationships the same, I do not view our world the same. Neither, I suspect, will you. I am so glad that Briggs has given us the chance to become acquainted with Ethel and Ernest.

I encourage you to take the opportunity.

Frenetic Pace

I’m writing this at the end of a long weekend, the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in the U.S. We’ve returned from a dinner marking the first Sunday of Advent. It was the first social event that I’ve gone out for since Thanksgiving day.

I’ve worked really hard to avoid busyness (yes, I know that’s only sort-of a word) since I finished grad school. Were I to go back through my posts from that time in my life, I’m sure that I complained about it way too often (if you were reading then and find yourself in vigorous agreement, I beg your forgiveness for putting up with that). I always thought that my time would be better spent writing than going back out after I was in for the evening. I felt that the hectic social calendars of many of my friends were a sort of sound and fury signifying nothing.

For the last few weeks, though, my evenings and weekends were filled. Having friends over for dinner, with all of the associated hustle and bustle involved, activities at our faith community, getting ready for Thanksgiving…all of these things made me feel alive in a way, as though I was getting to experience something that I normally avoided with such determination that the avoidance had become a habit of sorts.

Which was actually exactly what I had been doing.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, one evening I was getting our youngest ready for bed and was digging in her closet for pajamas, when I saw a backpack hanging there. Not just any backpack, mind you. This was what Karen and I affectionately referred to as “the essentials bag.” I remembered the Saturday afternoon in Raleigh when Karen and I picked it out.

You see, with both girls, we had one of these bags. It’s a specially outfitted backpack for outings with a baby. It’s neatly compartmentalized to carry changing gear, bottles, changes of clothes, etc. All of the essentials of which you will find yourself in need during any given excursion. The bag we had for our oldest fell apart from use, and we purchased a new one for the second baby years later. In retrospect, this was really more for me than for Karen. Somehow, having the requisite equipment helped me feel that I might be able to do the job of parenting, a job for which I have always found myself lacking in aptitude.

I remember each detail about that period in our oldest’s life. I remember the feeding and diaper routines, the morning rituals, the favorite toys. I remember as she progressed through the levels of her Pack N’ Play until she was too big for it altogether, when we had to buy her “big girl bed.” I remember reading the bed-time stories, checking out favorite books from the library over and over again until we eventually purchased copies because they were so beloved.

I don’t remember these details about our youngest. They’ve gone by so quickly. I was too busy to notice.

I’ll never be able to get that back.

So, as alive as this busy season has made me feel, or as thrilling as it was to be self-employed and successful in a new vocation, I need to find some sort of balance.

Then it occurs to me, however, that there are different types of busyness.

Because, as Karen and I were discussing the night that I write this about how much cooking and fun has been had over the last few days, I have felt it to be a slowing down. I found a rhythm outside of checking emails and consulting calendars. Cleaning up from holiday cooking, taking out the recycling…there’s something healing in the simplicity of these activities. Something relaxing. Something holy. Somehow, with all of those activities, the time multiplied, and I was still able to give piggy-back rides through the living room, read bed-time stories, and make breakfast.

Somehow.

And, as the weekend draws to a close, I approach the screen again with wariness.

Dr. Who and Girl Power

TARDIS from Dr. Who. Image used under Creative Commons.As a rule, “gender-swapping” characters really annoys me. Marvel comics has been the worst about it of late, finding annoying ways to make characters like Thor and Wolverine female, and then wondering why they aren’t playing well with audiences. Surely audiences want strong female characters, right? As someone with two daughters (one of whom loves Wonder Woman), I can answer resoundingly yes, but re-purposing a male character into a female character does not a strong female character make. Rather, it shows a complete lack of creativity and belies the heavy hands of marketers relying more on their data than on common sense and dedication to the art or the medium.

I grew up with Dr. Who. My family watched it on PBS every Saturday night for as long as I can remember. The recent announcement that the Doctor will be regenerating as woman (while it was set up sloppily in the dialogue of this most recent, poorly-written season) makes sense to me, though. Is that symptomatic of a cognitive dissonance on my part? Not really. I actually think these examples are two entirely different things.

The Doctor was an ingenious character when written decades ago in what is now referred to as the “classic” series, in that a Time Lord‘s regenerations make him infinitely adaptable. Subtle quirks and personality shifts in each regeneration make for endless possibilities. The Doctor (or any other Time Lord) remains who he is at his core, but is a slightly different person each time, accompanied by a completely different physical appearance with each regeneration (although, to be fair, David Tenant and Matt Smith always looked remarkably similar to me, but I digress). The key to what this imaginative, fantastic twist to the world-building accomplishes is the perpetual opportunity for a writer to explore “what if,” to ask what it would look like for this character to have a different set of personality traits while still drawing on the experiences of being impossibly old, to show us what would be different if this character were an old man or a young Millennial. There are a nearly infinite number of possibilities in the Doctor, and this has made Dr. Who one of the most original concepts in science fiction, as well as one of the most enduring.

So, if the Doctor can regenerate from young to old, why not regenerate as a woman? This sort of just makes sense, as a Time Lord (and pardon my descent into geekery here) is essentially a shape-shifter at the time of his or her regeneration. The writers have even more possibilities to explore now as they can enter into the question of what a feminine dynamic will bring to the character. We’ve seen something similar done creatively (if not explicitly) in good science fiction before, after all. The character of Dax in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine springs to mind.

These sorts of spins are the result of creative pursuits of the story, not poor editorial direction, as is the case with Marvel’s recent gender swaps.

Even DC Comics’ more traditional take on strong female characters is wanting in comparison. Characters such as Supergirl or Hawkgirl were often afterthoughts, a forced editorial choice to make a female version of a male character in order to gain readers. Not that this doesn’t ever work (I personally have always loved the strength of the character of Batgirl), but, in comparison to an original, strong female character such as Wonder Woman, the efforts fall short.

My point is that, if the writer’s intention is to create a strong female hero or protagonist (something more of which our literary landscape desperately needs), then do just that: write a new character. The genius of the Doctor is that he now has the ability to be an example of how this is done well, while drawing on decades of other great writing to build upon.

My hope is that this will be approached as creatively as the BBC has time and again displayed it’s ability to accomplish, with the notable exception of the tragically poor writing of this most recent season. I say that this is my hope because if this decision is reduced in practice to merely a gender-equality move…more “girl power,” as it were…then it won’t work. It will last perhaps a season, and be remembered as an ill-fated blip in the history of the Doctor.

If, however, it is left alone…if the story is served and the creative legacy of Dr. Who honored…then these nuances will occur naturally, and we’ll be left with an even richer speculative universe, asking all of the questions about ourselves that such a universe brings.

Here’s to hoping.

 

Image attribution: Mike chernucha under Creative Commons.

The Nature of a Reluctant Hero

Nature of a Reluctant Hero. Image used under Creative Commons.A few years ago (has it really been that long?), I spent a lot of time putting thoughts together here on the nature of a hero. Those conclusions still spring to mind for me occasionally, and, given some recent events in my life coinciding with just finishing a Green Lantern novel that I picked up on vacation last summer, it came to the forefront again.

The novel isn’t the best I’ve read, but O’Neil does, by the end, give us a compelling (though somewhat non-canonical) telling of Kyle Rayner’s beginnings as Green Lantern. The story begins slowly, but the author is giving us a very important point by the end.

In the DC Universe (pre-New 52), Kyle Rayner was the second Green Lantern on earth. He is given the power ring by the last surviving Guardian after the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, goes crazy and retires when he is unable to save his home city from destruction. The Guardians have vanished, and Rayner, a struggling graphic artist with little drive or ambition for anything in particular finds himself, without explanation or instruction, in possession of what is arguably the greatest source of power on the planet. Rayner now wears the mantle of one of the most formidable heroes in the DC Universe.

You can see where this gets interesting.

And, while it moves slowly in places, O’Neil does well at extensively relating Rayner’s internal dialogue as he struggles to first understand his power, and then to decide if he actually wants anything to do with it. The short answer is that he does not. Whatever aspirations he might have held, none of them included placing others’ good before his own, rushing into danger in order to protect others. This just isn’t him, not a position in which he has ever envisioned himself. Yet, now he is confronted with something bigger than himself, something outside of himself.

Quite literally bigger in this story. When the rest of the Justice League vanishes, he is the only one left save reality from destruction. As the story progresses, Rayner makes numerous choices to move beyond himself, to act sacrificially to save others, others who aren’t always even human. He doesn’t begin a hero, but becomes heroic in how he handles the responsibility that is thrust on him.

The author’s moment of brilliance, I think, in this novel comes just before Rayner embarks into the final epic conflict, when he tells the Guardian who gave him the ring:

“I’m a hero because you gave me something heroic to do.”

When I’ve talked before about the nature of a hero, I’ve frequently arrived at the conclusion that there is a decision point in many of these stories. Given a set of circumstances, how a character handles a choice determines whether or not that character becomes a hero or becomes a villain. When Rayner is confronted with a huge responsibility, he doesn’t run away, but chooses to embrace it, despite the fact that he does so clumsily and against his own instincts.

This is one of the most accessible aspects of the nature of a hero because it is something that we all face at some point. While we will likely experience this in a small way, we will be confronted with a responsibility that we didn’t choose and that we don’t want. Our reaction speaks to our choice to become either a hero or a villain in our own story. The reaction is never easy, the choice never without repercussions. It is always, however, necessary.

The inspiration to make the heroic choice is why these characters give us so much.

Image attribution: JD Hancock under Creative Commons.