Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Phintastic and Ferbalicious

Escapism and the Disney Channel

Ray Bradbury painted a picture of our world, in "The Pedestrian," one of glowing windows, blue and flickering, with televisions on and running, far into the night. The street lights in the neighborhoods illuminate nothing, for no one is out, even in the evenings, sitting on rocking chairs as they did before the invention of the picture box. I will admit it freely, the television plays a key role in my getting to sleep at night. There's nothing like the inane ramblings of Sportscenter to erase all pesky thoughts from your mind, resulting in the descent into the dream world.

But during the day...ah...that is when the television truly shines as a vehicle of escape. Tolkien once called the need for escapism heroic. Using the metaphor of the prisoner, he states, "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?" ("On Fairy Stories" from The Tolkien Reader) In such a time as this, when the flood of information both depressing and horrifying, there is a great need for escapism, for books and television shows that bring us out of the world of adult responsibility and into the blissful innocence of Blake's "Lamb".

I can honestly say that I love the Disney Channel. While the movies they've produced, both animated and live, haven't really done anything for me (the last Disney Movie I really liked was The Thirteenth Year, which was made in 97.), their recent sitcom series have been absolutely amazing. Yes, the characters are stereotyped and flawed (the intelligent poor character, the rich stupid character, the idiotic parent...), and the episode plots so predictable that you can see the ending for miles. But there's something about the world that they have created that makes it very appealing. In each episode, life's problems are solved within 22 minutes (11 for Phineas and Ferb). If only real life were like that. And while sit-coms have been doing this for years (watch an episode or two of Full House, if you can stomach it), Disney has perfected the style and made it applicable not only for children, but for adults as well.

Phineas and Ferb deserves more discussion. It's the best show on television, and it could last as long as The Simpsons because it's animated, and summer can last much longer than the 104 days the title sequence talks about. The writers also worked on Family Guy, and so P&F contains quick glimpses of adult culture while remaining accessible for children of any age. I could, and have, just left that show, along with Suite Life, Hannah Montana, and Wizards of Waverly Place, on all afternoon, while doing chores, taking a nap, or whatever, and it wiles the hours away. Now if they could only switch Nickelodeon's ICarly with Disney's deplorable Sonny with a Chance, I would have all the good shows on one station.

Each show is entirely livable. As if in a dream. I could live on the S.S. Tipton forever, or aside the beach near Hannah Montana's house.... great stuff. It's why they are all escapist television shows. Assuredly, most of the shows on nowadays are just that, but none that looks back quite as well into the world of naivete and innocence as those on the Disney Channel. Reality shows show people conniving and primitive, fighting amongst themselves for food, power, love, money. It is the wost type of sport. Leave "Reality" TV to find a pastime worse than the Ancient Romans could have ever dreamed. Or, as in American Idol, they show people whose dreams are crushed, evaluated, and eliminated, all by "celebrity" judges. Dramas and other sitcoms on network TV show the vilest of human creatures, and they point out that even the good guys have their flaws. It is rare and unexpected when Law & Order leaves you with and ending with everything tied up. It mostly leaves you hanging, wondering, questioning the justice of the world that it portrays. I can barely watch these shows.

Rather, if I have to choose the television shows to watch, I would switch between Disney Channel and Star Trek, as that show looks forward into the future of what man can become, even if it is unrealistic. The fantasy world Roddenberry created is one of potential, of the success and preservation of the best of mankind. There is very little positivity in the shows anymore, and it is a gem to actually find a show that does.

When philosophers and historians look back at the time following WWII, they'll label this period The Age of Escapism.... Brief history esson:

Reason: ~1650-1776 (Man is capable of knowing anything)

Romanticism 1776-1865 (Man lives in a world with Physical and Supernatural realms, and we must strive for the unknown, knowing it is a futile task.)

Realism 1865-WW1 (Man lives in reality only, and Nature is cold and uncaring)

Modernism WW1-WW2 (Man must question whether he exists at all, nothing really matters, communication is impossible, all history has failed us, and we must struggle to find something new.)

This is, of course, a brief and probably very simplistic look at how mankind has looked at his world. To this, I would add, from 1945 to now, the Age of Escapism. Man can live in this world, but as so much information floods his mind, it becomes impossible to grasp a hold of anything. Therefore, we should live in worlds of fantasy, letting that which we cannot understand go unacknowledged.

I could actually write a book detailing how our world has convinced us that living in worlds of fantasy is the best action to take. From Brave New World (Huxley) to the ideas of Communism and Socialism, to the Youth Revolution of the 1960's, it all can point back to the idea that mankind can live in fantasy worlds while those who want the power (who also are living in fantasy worlds) take care of us.

As soon as the world had the ability to create the material goods that it does now, thanks mostly to capitalists like Henry Ford and his mass production of goods on assembly lines, people started to advertise that this or that item could change the world. And I don't just mean television, although that invention opened up people's minds to worlds far beyond what mere books could contrive. Capitalism in America created the wealth necessary to allow people to chase after their own fantasy worlds. To pursue their addictions, from food (now available in microwaveable, artificial goodness), to drugs and sex, to the endless halls of the Internet, where any fantasy can become real, as long as it's made of HTML language.

The mass production of books also allowed authors to write more and more books, letting their minds wander as far as they could perceive, and the great boom of science fiction and fantasy genre fiction was born. It is odd that the creation of Epic Fantasy, mostly thanks to Tolkien, only happened in the 20th century, instead of centuries before. And now dragons, vampires, wizards, amongst the other space aliens, etc... now pervade our books and our imaginations. For every mind that exists, there is an ideal world to escape to, when the labors of everyday life get too taxing.

So I shall go home this afternoon, turn on the Disney Channel, and forget about the things I should be doing, about the world around me, and tread water. It's not the most productive thing to do with my life. It's not going to get me further in life, but it reminds me, amongst all the tragedy and "reality" of this world, that things could be, or might be better. In this way, I'll get the best of both worlds.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Haiti: The New Frontier

I know that political posts are too numerous to count these days. And it seems that I've turned continuously to the subject for reflection, especially since reading Ayn Rand's works. Events in this world, as I've discovered, cannot be evaluated without looking at the ideologies that run it. And since I can honestly say I don't care for the platforms of either Republicans or Democrats, I have to search for what I do believe in. World events help to put this in perspective.

Thus we come to Haiti. Natural disasters occur frequently throughout the world, bringing misery, death, corruption. They bring to light the best and the worst in human nature. They also elucidate what has been missing for so long, "the safety valve." The unique aspect of the Haitian disaster is that, since the country is so small, the earthquake devastated the entire country. The infrastructure, the government, everything, wiped away. Thus the people there have to begin anew.

What an opportunity, to start over again. To erase the old ways and create new ways of living. A responsible and self-aware human being would jump at the chance to create a society, to borrow a religious phrase, in their own image. We used to have that ability, freely, in this world, before every corner was explored and colonized. The frontier, the lands beyond human habitation, for which we were the pioneers that started over just by traveling over the land and seas, away from corrupt governments and totalitarian religious systems, to live in our own way. Naturally, I would think of the Utopian land of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, but Ms. Taggart was right in that book, too, when she looked back in admiration to her ancestors who built the railroads across the country to give people the chance to build their own lives, out of the land and the soil and the rocks and the gold.

For more information on the idea of Frontiers, especially of Fredrick Jackson Turner's idea of the "Safety Valve" and the American West, check out this link. Great stuff!

One day, in the future, we will be given that chance again, when human technology gives us the chance to expand the frontier beyond our planet, to the regions that Roddenberry imagined. But for now, this isn't possible. We have to make do with circumstances that provide us with frontiers here, today. The rebuilding of a country, out of the catastrophes, either man made or natural, give us a unique chance to start another experiment, much like that of the United States, some 200 years ago. Haiti, I'm afraid, will not be given that chance, because some of the government is still left, and our current government won't take over. I wouldn't want them to, anyway.

Instead, we hear on the television, on the radio, constant pleas for donations of money (which we don't have in abundance), charged to our cell phone bills (to which the telecommunication companies profit), or added on to our grocery bills, to be taken down to Haiti by some domestic non-profit organization, and used to rebuild the ruined infrastructure. Or, the donations might be given to international organizations that might do the ame thing, only to have the money disappear into the pockets of corrupt politicians, upstart military generals, and those who would control the people of Haiti through meager rationing of that which we give freely to them. In my opinion, it is not money that we need to give to the people of Haiti. It is ourselves.

Investors, entrepreneurs, ambitious people with dreams of success, of building their own empires in a place where they can live their lives and pursue their dreams without being regulated and controlled...these are the ones that should go to Haiti. Those that can rebuild the infrastructure, the hospitals, the schools, the roads, these people are essential to the future of the country. Yes, it takes money, but it takes the people who can undertake the operation and create something out of the rubble. Let's turn Haiti into a country of profit, into a place of tourism, industrial businesses, and educational and scientific marvels, not a land where we've dumped money into a government that will simply waste it all, or by giving to organizations that leak money as through the cracks in the buildings around them.

I don't know how to do this, but I would start with the idea that the government (for starters, the people who would invest in the country) have a responsibility to provide the basic necessities for the people who live there. Food, water, shelter, safety. For shelter, I would look at the works of Le Corbusier, a french architect, or look at the ideas that Americans have had with turning empty train cars into housing (see earlier blogs). We can provide the water and food, and the safety is of the utmost importance. That's where our military should step in, in levels similar to those in the middle east. Call it Imperialism, call it Manifest Destiny, whatever you will, but the idea of turning an impoverished country into one of great potential fulfills the American Dream.

So, fine, write the checks for $100 million dollars, but let's send the people to Haiti that can not only rebuild the nation's present, but build its future as well. I'd like to think that this what George W. Bush called "Compassionate Conservatism." It's a term that has been ridiculed by liberals, by the media, and misunderstood by everyone else. What could have been done better in Iraq, in Afghanistan, we have the ability to do it now, here, in Haiti. Let's lift them up, to fulfill the dreams of the impoverished, and our own as well. Let's not just shove money at them, a little food, and then leave for them to be ruled again by whomever would. It's our chance to show the world that America builds people up, and not just tears them down.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Yes, it's time once again for a "Things That Bug Me!" session. It's generally where I get to rant about things I've seen, and you get to read it.

♣ I know everyone's frozen here in Conyers, GA, with the polar winds that have pummeled the area for the past week (and believe me, 40 degrees is balmy right now), and there has been some ice on the ground the past couple of days. But it's gone now, and hasn't been there forever. So what I want to know is, why do people, when I'm on my way to work up the 2 lane backroads to save time, insist on going 30 mph down the roads!!! And today was even worse. It was a Mustang sports car! Going 30... Now, as much as I totally don't care about cars or things like that, I can appreciate the potential of a Mustang when there are no police cars around. It would be the same as some old guy taking a Ferrari down the interstate at 40, when the speed limit was 70, and the car could easily go 90 without thinking about it. You bought the car! You know what it can do!! Use it!!!

It's like the guy on Price is Right this week. Fit, muscular, Adonis type guy, tall, in his mid 20's, and he gets to the Showcase Showdown and does one of these finesse spins to try and get a dollar. Spin. The. Wheel. Let it go around 8 times... show it who's boss! Drove me nuts!

I've talked about this before... using your natural talent to its fullest extent (which applies to everyone except me, see my Singing post a few weeks ago.) If you can sing...then sing. David Phelps went from this booming tenor voice with the Gaither Vocal Band to his solo career where he sang these weaker ballads. Let's punch the notes. And while my stepdad would have said that he was resting his voice, because you can actually harm it if you strain it too much over a given time, there's a part of me that says, "So?" Produce the best work you can for as long as you can, and then you can be proud of the creations that came forth. Or athletes.... Barry Sanders did it right (although for the wrong team.) He let it fly for a few years, then retired. I would suspect that he would have stayed longer had his efforts been equalled by anyone else in the organization, but the Lions are like that, even today.

♣ And I'm sure I've said this before, in another blog sometime in the past, but I'm gonna say it again. I went to Blockbuster and was instantly greeted by the cashier as I came in....well, sort of. She said, "Hello," but never looked up from what she was doing, never acknowledged I had come in outside of the bell on the door that announced that someone had come in. Unacceptable behavior, in my opinion. If I am working near a door at Borders, I will move around a shelf and make sure they see me. Make eye contact. It's the best way of letting some know you're there, and you care about them. Of course, if Blockbuster let's this behavior go on like they do (and this isn't the only Blockbuster I've seen that does this,) it's no wonder they look like they're on their last leg. They must have better customer service that that if they hope to stay open. That mistake alone would make me want to order from Netflix, or download them online through, um, other means.

Just imagine what Blockbuster would be like if there were employees there that truly cared about the product they were selling, and were experts at that field, and good in giving customer service. Then, all the customers that call up Borders and ask, "I'm lookin' for that movie that has Johnny Depp in know the one I mean?" could call Blockbuster and the employees there would actually know and could order it or have it in stock. That would be a service that even Wal-Mart could not duplicate, even with the low prices. And then, if Blockbuster had contracts with the major studios, they could easily have a downloadable center where empty DVD's could be made into movies, complete with the covers on the DVD's, and the packaging...etc... Talk about a considerable cut in costs, as well as the availability of thousands of movies without actually having to process them or wait for them in the mail. This would set Blockbuster back on the road to profitability, but I doubt it will ever happen. I described something like this for bookstores a year or two back.

♣ And speaking of bugs...I think scientists need to introduce a DNA strand that makes cockroaches taste like chicken. Undoubtedly, bad taste is something that the bugs use to keep animals from eating them. Because my cat, while she'll chase after moths and lizards and whatever else, totally ignores roaches, even though they run about by the dozens. But if scientists were to introduce a slight change into the pests genetic makeup, like making them smell like tuna or something, they would become a viable food source for bigger animals. Just a thought..... :)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book Review: The Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick

Once again, this is a debut novel by an author who has great potential, with his ability to write about life in a revealing way, that shows the inner grubs that lay hidden beneath the rocks. The language is sparse, lyrical, and in the beginning, very well done.

But as this is a debut novel, and most authors do not write their masterpieces right out of the gate, this book does has its flaws. There are paragraphs that are identical in message and tone, almost right next to each other, as if one wasn't enough. Some of the plot lines come from nowhere, and dissolves into nowhere, leaving a spot that is essential to the plot, but not woven into it.
In some areas I was left longing for the lyrical writings of Ian McEwan, as he wrote in Enduring Love, but I ended up getting that of his Cement Garden. So his style is not yet to the potential that he has. His message, though, is very much there.

Like in The Piano Teacher, and in other books, there were spots of time in which, if the character had stopped, and lived, it would have been a happy ending. There were times of peace for Charlene, in Ralph's farmhouse at the beginning, while reading Whitman and taking walks in the frozen wasteland. Or in St. Louis, reading books of gardening in the libraries. In each of these cases, she had sustained some level of contentment. And this is the state we all yearn to arrive at one day. However, much like the characters in the book, this is not possible for any of us. Further steps are taken, the center cannot hold, to quote Keats. For people desire more than just contentment. They want the pleasures and wild joys that one only finds at the peaks of emotions, little knowing that, in most cases, the depths of depression lie just over the cliff.

Goolrick takes the decadent life that the characters like Antonio has and shows what happens when people take that step away from contentment. It reminds me, again, of the party scene in Cloverfield, where self-indulgent 20 somethings drink away the night, talking about their futures as if nothing could stop them, little knowing the monster about to attack their city. The prostitutes and their men, the druggies and the people that supply them, they all played the game and end up, at the end, where Charlene's sister did, in the slums.

The book is about control and happiness, and in the end, the conclusion that, much like Voltaire's Candide, the only happiness to reach in this world is when we "tend our gardens." The work of creating beauty out of a world of chaos, raising a family, this is what Voltaire and Goolrick try to achieve at the end. But as in Candide, the journey is not without heartbreak, loss, unspeakable joys, and unspeakable horrors.

I look forward to his next book, as his writing craft will undoubtedly improve. The book gave me much to think about, and much to write on, which is all I can ask.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Tyger, Tiger: Tiger Woods and Hard Core Pornography

It's all about control, really. Money and sex and power. Politics and manipulation. It's who we are. Trying to come up with some excuse for living. To find some niche in this world and to make something out of ourselves. And that's where the power comes in. In Blake's world of Experience, that's what we must grow into. Finding responsibility and affluence and power in this world, without succumbing to the temptations and the vices that are so easily attained these days. And in this world are so many people that tell us how it's supposed to be, who give us the top story, the popular headlines, the promises that we'll be taken care of by those more powerful than us, but who in actuality are savvy enough to make us believe it. The government and the media, two of many forces that would make of us victims whose only recourse is to rely on others to provide for our supposed happiness.

And Tiger Woods was just one of many victims to fall for the temptations of this world. He was a genius athlete, and the only thing that mattered was the Golf game. But companies came aside him and said, if you'll just wear this hat, or this shirt, or those shoes, will give you money. Or drive away in this car, shave with this razor... the list is endless. We'll even give to your own non-profit organization, help the kids in the urban centers play golf and forget their troubles for a while (or whatever). Make you think you're doing good for other people. Just become a walking billboard. And the other temptations.... the ones that got him into trouble..... yes, he was the victim in these actions. But we ought not to take pity on him.

For he was the one who gave them permission to do those things, to say what they say, to control his life for him. He gave them the sanction to profit off of his abilities. And now, without him, they will have to find some other gifted soul to make money off of. Perhaps it will be some tennis phenom, or the gifted pitcher for the Yankees. Who knows...

I was recently listening to a lecture given by Ayn Rand in the mid 1970's, called "Censorship, Local and Express," where she outlined the major Supreme Court cases for Obscenity rulings. The rulings, she found, were quite interesting, and I found a direct connection between pornography and Tiger Woods.

Modern pornography is an indirect result of the media on which it is produced. There were, of course, paintings that were considered obscene long before the camera and the photograph were invented. The invention of television didn't affect the amount of porn that was produced in the beginning, as, outside of 8mm reels that were located in adult Nickelodeons and movie theaters even up to the 1970's, there was no way to experience pornography at home except for magazines and still shots in books...etc.... Admittedly, the invention of the Polaroid camera did what the Internet did in terms of bringing the recording of desires into the forefront, as now photographs could be made instantly, and in private, so that everyone now could have pictures of their desires (be it legal or not). It was ultimately the invention of the VCR that made pornography available to all citizens.

But that is just the history of porn through the lens of the media that made it. To stem the tide of such material, various court cases were argued in the 1970's. The most important case was Miller vs. California in 1972. Miller was convicted of sending unsolicited advertisements of sexually explicit magazines to people, and so he argued that the conviction violated his 1st Amendment rights. The Supreme Court heard the case and upheld the lower courts decision. It was the reasoning for this upholding that interests me. Chief Justice Warren Burger showed that, to hold trial on an obscene work (I'll let Wikipedia do my work for me):

The basic guidelines for the trier of fact must be: (a) whether 'the average person, applying contemporary community standards would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. (from the article on Obscenity)

However, as Rand pointed out, there are no definitions given to what may be offensive, or who an "average person" might be. Also, what are the "contemporary community standards" that a work must be judged upon? In other words, the conservative Judges ruled that the government has the right to deem something obscene, and therefore, exempt from 1st Amendment protection, by some vague idea of moral law, that which could change from courtroom to courtroom.

There were other judges that upheld the lower courts decision based on the idea that Interstate business transactions had been made, so the federal government had the right to regulate those transactions. This reason was given by some of the more liberal Judges, who, although disagreeing with the idea of regulating based on moral principles, at least ideologically, found it easier to regulate business transactions as regulations of material things.

I have always said, even before I had heard it in Rand's lecture, that the Republican politicians are very willing to have small government, as long as they retain the right to regulate moral or ethical laws. Democrats find it abhorrent to regulate morality; however, they see a large, powerful government as a way of taking care of its citizens, regulating the material and business transactions in order to maintain control over people's lives. Neither method of control is acceptable, in my opinion. Rand goes a step further, in saying that the two political parties control those issues that they value most. In short, the Democrats want to control your things, your material possessions, while the Republicans want to control your mind, your thoughts.

So where am I going with all this? As I was listening to this lecture, I recalled the issues that the media brought up about Tiger Woods. The arguments against Tiger fall into two camps. He has committed immoral acts according to "community standards" and therefore should be allowed to fall from the pedestal on which he has been placed (note that the media is the entity that put him there). In doing so, he has committed a breach of contract from the businesses using him as a billboard, staining their image and decreasing profits. The stories you hear on the news is either shocking revelations of immorality, or how many sponsors have pulled their use of Tiger in advertisements.

It all comes down to control. One opinion is outraged over the immorality of the act, and the other revels over the loss in profit from failed business ventures. In each case, we oogle over the acts done, and the money lost. And all the while, the media profits from increased ratings. As they should, as we have become programmed to emotional outrage over immoral acts (to the point of getting pitchforks and branding torches), or in morbid curiosity over the loss of so much profit, as if in satisfaction that the loss of revenue somehow makes us feel better. The media realizes all this and feeds us other people's failures, so that we might feel good about ourselves. We have become a society in which success is tolerated as long as we can profit from it. And failure is expected, even anticipated, as the vultures look forward to pulling every last scrap off the bone.

There are people who look past the scavenging vultures and reach a conclusion far beyond the World of Experience. In the case of pornography, Justice William O. Douglas said that the Government had no right to interfere in the private lives of its citizens, and hailed the 1st Amendment as protection against censorship and control by a Authoritarian government. His opinion echoes that of Voltaire, and also of many Libertarian voices today. Each individual has the right to determine what is obscene and what isn't, and if they decide that a work is obscene, they should refrain from experiencing it.

In the case of Tiger Woods, the dissenting voice comes from Mike Huckabee, who stressed that ultimately, this is an individual problem for Tiger and his family. The public has no right to interfere or examine the private lives of individuals, even "celebrities" such as Tiger and his wife. We should all be examining issues that actually concern us, issues that were so easily put aside by the media and our own brains. Immorality and Failure are far more interesting than Health Care, or the supposed Environmental crisis. It's not the media's ultimate fault that we were so easily distracted. It is ours. We have given them the sanction to victimize Tiger Woods, to pull apart his flesh and expose him to the world, while we sit back and watch. They are simply doing what will make them profit, what will give them control over our lives. We have become a society of onlookers, like those who slow down gandering at traffic accidents. We have become the people sitting in Plato's Cave, watching the shadows of images on the wall, while those who control the fire do as they please.

[Not exactly sure I got where I wanted to go with this, so I'll edit it later. If anyone actually reads this, thoughts would be appreciated.]