Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Trashing Justin Bieber and other Random Thoughts.

I Shall Call them "Mini-blogs"

I was flippin' through what television channels we have left (Comcast is slowly pulling channels to go all digital, which is a pain) and found Justin Bieber performing on the David Letterman Show. It was an array of complex dance moves by 20 dancers while Justin sang this hip-hop type song about a girl....which is what kid singers have been doing for ages. But Bieber takes cheesy songs, mediocre talent, and shameless commercialism to a whole new level. He has subjected himself to the wolves of the teen pop star industry, and, when they are done with him, he'll be spit out like yesterday's Jesse McCartney. The few seconds I saw of the performance was enough to make me nauseous. A person can only stand so much cheesy photoshopped goodness before it turns their stomach. And there is good cheesy pop, and then there is processed American plastic cheese. Aaron Carter had some talent, before he flushed his life down the toilet. Hanson was good, mature, sharp cheese (like Smoked Gouda). All I know is that Bieber better make his albums now, because in a few years, when the voice drops and the acne scars take ahold, there won't be anyone drooling after him. Try to find pictures of Leif Garrett, then and now, and you'll see what I mean.

I always see interesting things while driving to each of the schools delivering Teacher Appreciation Week fliers. Live Oak Elementary School, in Newton Co., used stimuli to soothe the children, and the teachers. They used the overhead speakers to pipe in soft jazz music in the hallways and the outside corridors. So relaxing. And in the office, they had potpourri candles lit up on some of the shelves with a sweet minty smell. Obviously, the principal had done some research on stimuli that relaxes stressful people. It works very well.

Also in Newton County, the DOT people have put up speed limit signs, each solar powered with a speed detector on them, reflecting what your speed is flashing below the sign. It's much like the flashing lights they used to have on the interstate ramps between 20 and 285. And they'd never stop flashing. I sometimes wanted to just stop, in the middle of the road, to see if they'd stop flashing. But what the speed detectors do is to activate the area of your brain that competes with itself. It's a goal oriented part that makes you want to match the number of your speed with the sign. It works marvelously, because everyone wants to reach a goal, match a target, whether it be at work (with Book Drive quotas, for instance), or on the road. It keeps you awake, competing with yourself. They should have these on all the major speed zones throughout the counties, as it would make people slow down, not out of fear, but of their own volition.


Book Review: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.

A very good children's fantasy in the vein of Harry Potter. In fact, you could call it an imitation. But there are good imitations and bad ones. I have nothing against following an established plot line as long as it's done well. The characters were very well developed, sympathetic, with good dialogue and description. There were a couple of instances where Riordan says, of course it has to happen this way, it's a rule in the Greek God's world." and just introduces it when he feels the need to. It makes for some odd plot problems that, while very minor, just makes it feel like you've hit a small pothole. The plot twists were good, and I enjoyed reading it. Like I said, it's an imitation of the Harry Potter plotline, but a very good one. If you want to see a bad imitation, go pick up the first Charlie Bone book. So very awful.

One comment about the movie (which I haven't seen, yet.) It's easy to see why they cast Logan Lerman as the main character, with all the characters much older than the ones in the book. The producers wanted to appeal to the older Tween crowd. I think it takes a little bit out of the weakness of the children doing it that way, for instead of 6th graders, they looked like High Schoolers with more strength and determination. It might have done better with the kid audience if they had cast younger people. Just a thought.

I wish, in Conyers, that I would not get behind people that are practicing to drive in funeral procession. Short cuts aren't short cuts if we're driving behind an imaginary Hertz.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ode to a Home

If you ask me where I would want to live if the world ended, or if America dissolved into a civil war of Repubs. and Dems. with nobody winning, I think I found a place. I think it's a house the Howard Roark would find pleasing, and one that John Galt wouldn't mind living in. While I've been writing through the last two blog entries, I've had this house in mind, in that it conforms only to the needs of the people living there, and not to any standards by which the builders, whoever they were, thought about it looking like any other home on the market. I drove by new neighborhoods in Newton County a week or two ago and found that every house looked exactly the same, with no room between each of them, so you could probably walk between them, but that was about it. Why would anyone want to live in a house that looked like every single other house on the street? I'm reminded of the Monkees song, "Pleasant Valley Sunday,"

...Rows of houses that are all the same
And no one seems to care

See Mrs. Gray, she's proud today
because her roses are in bloom.
Mr. Greene he's so serene,
He's got a T.V. in every room

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday
Here in status symbol land
Mothers complain about how hard life is
And the kids just don't understand

Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
and make it hard for me to see
My thoughts all seem to stray,
to places far away
I need a change of scenery

If you notice the people in stanza two... their accomplishments are so small. And while roses are important, I guess, are far from raising a garden to provide sustenance for the family. The televisions are simply methods of escape from the mundane world outside, the one that "numbs my soul" in the last line. It's very obvious that the writers are nonplussed about the world of this neighborhood (which most young people in the 60's were. A shame that that energy was wasted in such a short time. But that's another blog that I'll probably never write.)

The house I'm referring to is located in Walton County, Georgia, just a little ways from Loganville. It's actually a house of a coworker, A., who has worked his whole life and has recently bought this house and is currently working on restoring it to its former splendor. I had to take him home one day, and he took me on a very detailed tour of the entire house. Turns out the architect is one who has made quite a living constructing Walmart buildings. He found this storage shed, with the land around it, and realized that it would make a great house. So he took the large barn-like structure, added a second floor and made it into a home. It's actually the reverse for what happened to Thoreau's home in Walden. After he moved out of the cabin, it was sold to a farmer to be a storage shed, and later had the roof removed, eventually to become a pig sty.

The single most impressive thing about the structure is the living room, which comprises of the storage building, built with a single raised roof, with angled ceilings and windows at odd places that would, for some, be absurd, but the light that the windows let in is amazing. Take a church sanctuary, for instance, with the giant windows and vaulted ceilings. What light should beam down upon the worshipers, letting the light from nature, the complexities that God has wrought in this universe, illuminate the hymnals and the words on the pastor's Bible. But unfortunately, churches seem to want colored glass windows, and drawn curtains, to keep the light out. A somber mood is not what a congregation should need for a Sunday church service. It would make one go to sleep, or view it as a funeral. Let it be a joyous time, and then when you get home, see again the light from the Sunday afternoons glowing through the windows, projecting off the dust in the air and affirming God's presence everywhere.

The openness of this house is what appeals to me. The center of the living room, which houses the sofas and the television, is surrounded by windows, doors opened to the kitchen and study, and above it, to one side, a balcony that is like a game room or study room that goes back to the bedrooms. It is warm and inviting, with only the bedrooms off to one side to afford privacy. As Thoreau said in Walden:

A house whose inside is as open and manifest as a bird's nest, and you cannot go in at the front door and out at the back without seeing some of its inhabitants; where to be a guest is to be presented with the freedom of the house, and not to be carefully excluded from seven eighths of it, shut up in a particular cell, and told to make yourself at home there -- in solitary confinement.

The location of the kids' bedroom is also worth noting, as it is off to the side, almost as in an alcove with large glass doors that open out to a patio, where a basketball goal should be, or where you would see girls using sidewalk chalk to make their favorite games. Then, beyond that, is constructed a large treehouse. And beyond that still are the trees and forests and the creek that lies at the bottom of the hills. What more wonderful things would children need? Paradise, I tell you. But A. told me that his children never play in the treehouse, they would much rather play on their Nintendo DS's. Children have forgotten how to create worlds of their own. They have lost the instincts built into them by God, to create realms and become lords over them. What better than the treehouse to survey your kingdom, to wield a stick as a sword and challenge all enemies lurking in the trees to overtake you? Or to travel over fields and streams to explore the world as Livingston or Louis and Clark had done in the past? Instead, they'd rather catch Pikachu and fight virtual battles in digital realms. It is a tragic loss when the outdoors remain silent because those who would seek its freedom find it rather in electronic gadgets made by corporations seeking to trap children and gain profit from it. Yet the ingenuity and imagination cultivated by romps in the outdoors would create minds sharp enough to solve the world's problems. The cerebral mind must have a physical body to go with it, lest atrophy and lethargy take over.

Yet the house is not finished, as the original designer left much undone, and it has fallen to A. to complete the task. If I had my house to redo, I would tear out so many walls and roofs. Bust through the prison walls that keep me inside. There is no greater joy than that of constructing your own home, nor any task more stressful to undertake. It is building shelter, much like the cavemen did to keep out of the rain and to protect themselves from predators and the like. Building our houses puts us in touch with one of the original motivators of man, an integral part of our subconsciousness. To quote Thoreau, again:

There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter? What does architecture amount to in the experience of the mass of men? I never in all my walks came across a man engaged in so simple and natural an occupation as building his house.

In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand puts these feelings into words as Roark looks over the Monadnock Valley resort, or as he is stretched out on the ground outside the house he designed for Gail Wynand and Francon. The house on the hill, overlooking the wilderness that is material for the architect's hands to mold into works of beauty and utilitarian function. For the architect, the builder, the canvas on which he paints is the whole world. The rocks and the clay and the wood and the ground are the materials he uses to make a masterpiece. Sure, anyone can make a house out of these things. Anyone can take a cheap art class and come home with a painting of some trees and mountains. But the master can take those same materials and make stunning works of beauty. Houses are of the same mold. They can be mechanically built boxes meant for meager shelter and banality, or they can be just as organic and full of life and beauty as the people who built and live in them. The abodes mirror those who abide. Thoreau: "And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him." and "Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have."

If I must live in a house, given a choice, give me the fishing shack with one room, with as little an attempt at becoming like those houses in the Monkees' song, so that I may create the beauty out of the box in which I live. Or give me the materials to build the house, or to someone who has the foresight, like Roark, to create out of the soul of the Earth a structure I would be proud to call mine, to strive to live to the organic energy that pulses through the walls. I want a house that will make me a better person just for having lived in it. Give me a house that promotes freedom and openness, and not the imprisoned walls that provide shelter, but little else.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

"I know what we're going to do today!"

I ended the last blog talking about how children, after school, seem more interested in the virtual worlds of the internet and video games than the real world, a world that provided their parents and grandparents...etc... with as much excitement as World of Warcraft does the kids today. Oddly enough, it still shows in some of the television shows made today.

There is something so refreshing about watching Phineas and Ferb on the Disney Channel each day. Something that will make me laugh and feel refreshed even when I'm having a rotten day (like yesterday, for instance. Dealing with my bipolar car and my grandmother's taxes was not the way I wanted to spend my day off.) But as I was thinking about Architecture and rooms and whatnot, it occurred to me that bedrooms in television shows are of the utmost importance. Whether to show them, or not, what they symbolize in the show itself. Take the characters on P&F. The only time you will ever see Phineas in his bedroom is when he is in bed or waking up. Otherwise, he is eating in the kitchen, or outside making a rocketship to the stars (or giving a monkey a shower). On the other hand, Candice, who cares little for the imagination of her brothers, is always found in her bedroom talking on the phone and daydreaming (virtual worlds, and the like) about her boyfriend. In some episodes, she was seen forwarding youtube videos (of a guy rollerblading in his underpants and falling into a toilet) to all her friends, and non-friends. Exactly what indoor, Cyber-children do today. True, she does go outside on dates with Jeremy, or to "bust" her brothers, but she symbolizes the contemporary adolescent. While Phineas and Ferb symbolize what children could be, letting imagination and creativity run wild.

In a similar show, the creators of iCarly on Nickelodeon have never shown, to my knowledge, Carly or Spencer's bedrooms. They've been in Freddie's bedroom once, and never in Sam's. And while we're not talking about the outdoors here, it's the same principle. The world in which imagination and creativity run wild takes place in the studio where they create the iCarly webshow. For them, they take the tools of the internet and take them as far as they want, doing anything they want with them. It's just as liberating for them as the outdoors is for P&F. Unlike Neville, who is holded up in his bedroom on his many computers all day long.

It's the spirit of freedom that creates the best environment for children. The ability to be creative, to build tent cities in the living room, or treehouses and forts in the backyard, using them as spaceships or castles or army forts. It's the free range of the outdoors that develops the sense of pioneering reach, that children can do whatever they want, if only they are creative and free enough to do it. It builds self-esteem, makes them strive toward their goals, for if imagination can take them anywhere in the fantasy worlds, the real worlds shouldn't be that much harder. The children today should reach for the moon just as their parents and grandparents did, only with the tools they have now, they should go further. And yet, when the tools of Cyberspace are instead creating pseudo-worlds for them to inhabit, what's the point? When corporations earn millions of dollars on a video game, such as Final Fantasy, what motivation is there to invest that money on the real frontiers here in the real world. Let's fight the challenges of going into the unknown, instead of taking on dragons and whatnot that aren't even real. The possibilities are endless when that energy is expended on the right thing. Let's be more like Phineas and Ferb, and a little less like Neville. The world will be far better off that way.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Room With No View, or Praising God in a Box.

[It's taken about a week to work on this...]

So the Oscars were last night (what was up with Zac Efron's hair?), and honestly, I watched it because it was slightly better than all the other drivel that was being broadcast at the same time. I wonder if the execs in the higher echelons of television have decided not to care about quality of programming, since we don't clearly. The same ratings exist now with worthless "reality" programming than the quality shows that were on the air not even a decade ago. Since "reality" is much cheaper, why not? And on most channels, 3 minutes of programming is followed by 3 minutes of commercials, with the result being that I have forgotten what I was watching, and thus, wasted 6 minutes of my life. But I am off track for what I really wanted to talk about.

I am curious why, when people build structures to live their lives in, they often construct them in manners totally opposite to their purpose. When I went to church, some years ago, the Baptist church I attended had been constructed many years before, added onto, and consisted of many staircases, small rooms, winding hallways, so much so that you could easily get lost going wherever your goal was. The rooms were small, ill lit by windows, and contained uncomfortable chairs and an hvac system that sometimes barely worked, keeping you too cold or too hot. Going to a place every weekend where you were lost, cold/hot, and uncomfortable, is hardly a way to spend a Sunday morning talking about faith, philosophy (which is what they should have been discussing), and Eternal salvation. I would much rather have spent the day talking about such things outside, under a tree, in the places where God is present. I would have rather kept notes on a slate made of wood and stone, and sat on the ground or an old tree stump, than in the rooms where we sat, much like chickens in a coup or cows in a stall. If a church building is to be about God's word, let it be built openly, where the vaulted roofs and the bright, plain windows would let the light shine in, and let prayers and praises float out into the heavens. Have the small rooms contain places for individual study, with comfortable chairs, and the lines of the roofs slanting up at angles to eternity. Man was not meant to worship in a box.

Nor was he meant to work in one either. Take how corporations make the buildings that they work in. The laborers sit in tiny cubicles, taking orders and mindlessly slugging away at their desks, dreaming about their calendars of Hawaii or whatever screen saver is currently showing pictures of paradises unknown. The windows on their world are unobtainable, unreachable, except for the pixels on the screen. They do not see the outside world, where the results of their labors are felt. There is no outward goal, only the struggles of what they do, day in and day out. The CEO might have windows in his corner office, overlooking the fountain and the forests outside, or overlooking the mighty cities that are the results of their success. Would that everyone could have an office that overlooked New York City, or Atlanta, to see the magnificence of what human beings can accomplish, when their dreams are realized through hard work and prevalence. Suddenly the minor bounces in the stock market don't seem so bad. The future, the window for which everyone peers outside at the unknown, is brighter, when the present is gazed at for what it is. But no one looks up to the heavens anymore, to the Empire State Building, to the complex construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, or of the Peachtree Tower (which my dad helped design the sprinkler system.). Instead, they see the ground, with their head held low, looking out for the cracks in the sidewalk, the mud on the streets. How can you look down and still look forward at the same time?

Corporations don't make their employees work "outside the box," literally, they are working inside them. Look at the plans for Google Inc., and their headquarters, and you will see the many windows (pun intended) and the open places, in which they work. Tell me they are not successful, when they can take a photograph of every square mile of the Earth, and allow us to travel along those paths and peek into every nook and cranny of our planet. How marvelous! You should try walking along the highway going from Western Canada to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and into Alaska. Such peace and tranquility, such openness of space. Such potential of creating a world where man and Earth can co-exist and thrive together, bringing exhalation to man and God alike.

If you ask me where I would want to live, I would describe for you a cabin located off of highway 212, and Lake Sinclair. A quaint fishing log structure, with maybe one or two rooms, a kitchen, and an overhang for parking the car under. That, and if there was a T1 line to the internet (because I am living in 2010 and not the 1860's, as Thoreau did), I would be all set. Or perhaps in a studio apartment overlooking the Porterdale waterfalls on the Yellow River, atop the Mill. But that's my love of old buildings. The reason I love that building is the tall, open ceilings and the large windows overlooking the river. I would enjoy that.

If you ask me the least favorite place I would want to live, I would tell you the old Napier Hall at Georgia College in Milledgeville. Quite possibly, in my opinion, the worst piece of architecture ever built on Earth. It would be more suitable for prisoners, who would never see the outside of the world again, than college students who are trying to expand their minds beyond the microcosms they live in. It was a box of stairs, small rooms, musty odors, and nothing that signifies the freedom a college student feels when he or she leaves home. Absolutely disgusting. And the Earth breathed a sigh of relief when it was torn down some years ago.

Many years ago, when I was in high school, we'd all rush away from those cement block prisons on unairconditioned cheese wagons to the relative freedom of our neighborhoods. Why they couldn't build public schools with a little more reflection of the growth that was expected inside I don't know. Heritage High School had, for years, these windows in each outer classroom that had been halfway painted over so that only a little light comes in, but you couldn't see anything outside. And the inside classrooms were just boxes which could have been Gas Chambers for all the comfort they gave. Today classrooms are made a little better, with some exceptions. If I were to teach someplace now, just based on Architecture, I'd go to Union Grove High School in Henry County, Georgia. Brilliantly designed, with clear light streaming into the wide hallways (Hall C at Heritage was so narrow, you just wanted to take a steamroller between classes and get rid of the people lounging around and totally blocking the arteries of the school.), and a cool round entryway with the gym in the center of the school with the rest expanding from the atrium next to the offices. Great style and function!

But I digress. During the summertime, after we've slaved away in these buildings, I'd go outside, hoping to find someone to play with, away from these boxes we call homes. But there'd be no one out. Everyone would be inside, playing their Playstations and watching TV, when the weather was nice and warm and people could be out playing and enjoying life. It's like I've said before, I've always yearned for the days before there were all the electronic distractions, when kids would go out after their chores were done and stay outside all day until supper was ready. The nostalgic times probably never existed the way they are painted, but the stereotype must have had some truth to it. Those times are long gone, and part of me wishes that some cyber-attack would destroy all these gadgets, these artificial windows into pseudo-worlds, so that we would all have to go outside and play again in the parks and streets. But the swings remain empty, the slides vacant, the local swimming holes become homes for the frogs and fishes, but no kids swinging out on ropes and jumping into icy water.
I'm gonna post this part of the blog and finish it later... honestly, on the days I've had off, I've done my grandmother's taxes and then spent the rest of the time trying to explain to her how I did them. I'm tired, and want to sleep.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Running the Race

A memory... It was the last day of school, my 4th grade year, and the Mustang Valley Elementary school playground was all abuzz. Not for the upcoming summer, the freedom, the endless hours of watching TV and playing basketball outside, but rather to watch a very interesting spectacle. I had, in all my wisdom, challenged J.L. Keplinger to a race around the edges of the yard. Around the swing sets and monkey bars, I had decided to run with the fastest boy in school, just to see if I could do it. I had just received word that I would be moving soon, out of the battered Oklahoma economy (the oil crisis of 1983, and the failing of the Penn Square Bank had made construction of buildings unnecessary, so my dad, being a sprinkler system designer had to move to more fertile ground), to Georgia, where everything was as green as the kudzu.

It was a futile experience, as everyone knew I was one of the slowest runners in my grade. There was no point. And I did lose that race by quite a bit. Now, as I look back, I wonder why I did that. Was it a spectacle made so that I could go out in some glorious fireball of attention (certainly my ADD would have said so)? Or was it some deep yearning to be more like the other children, more physical, more adept at something other than pretending I was a Transformer? Perhaps it was the same yearnings that Max had as he made his igloo in Where the Wild Things Are (which comes out next week). I still am not certain.

I think admiration has a large part to do with it. There are people that we look up to, not for any mental or emotional reason, but because the things they do are perfect. They discipline themselves to reach a level of their trade which is just not possible except for the top 1% of their peers. And while this occurs in business, in religion, in mental arenas, the most obvious is the athlete. As they exercise and perform at the highest level of sport, we look at them with admiration, with a little envy perhaps, to see what the most excellent of the human form might look like. As close to the Platonian "form" of "human" as there is. The Adonis of body, of mind, of skill. These are the people we look up to. It is not surprising that the Ancient Greeks held their Olympic Games in the nude, as it was not just a performance of the highest skills, but a stage for which others might admire the sculpted bodies, art chiseled alive by time and effort.

And we look at the athletes with that admiration, and they are set high on pedestals. As they should be. Look at the recent Olympic games set in Vancouver. Shaun White did amazing flips high in the air, a performance that demands power and skill to almost superhuman ends. How did he do that??? Or the beauty of the figure skaters. The flips and spins in the air, landing on blades of steel upon hard, cold ice. How can human beings be that perfect, that precise?? It boggles the mind, it pulls the emotions, to see mankind perform at that level.

As the IOC president said at the closing ceremony, "This Olympic games was a celebration of humanity." And so it should be. I've said it before, that the exaltation of mankind is as much as praise to God as it is to us. Just as the Olympic athlete should reach for measures of ability far beyond themselves, so should we reach for frontiers far beyond our reaches now. The moon landing of Apollo 11 was the greatest achievement of mankind thus far, and each performance of the Olympic athlete mirrors that achievement. It shows, for the world to witness, the ability of man, to reach, faster, higher, stronger, as the saying goes. And each Olympics has those shining moments where that happens.

We like placing the athletes, the Apollo Ohnos, the Tiger Woods of the sports, on pedestals. They become like gods to us, measures of mankind that we might never reach. And the envy comes through and becomes jealousy. We reach to pull them down off their pedestals and throw them into the muck. Such is the media's job, for while perfection gives ratings, the fall from perfection sells even more. Perfection is fleeting, and the descent, like the climb, is hard. Mercy to those who achieve perfection, only to fall upon the vices of mankind. We see those examples everywhere. Solomon, the wise, and Sampson the strong in Biblical times, succumbed to their wants and desires. Just as Tiger Woods did. Or Michael Phelps, to a lesser extent.

We must chain ourselves to the masts of our ships, and, having listened to the siren's calls, resist with all our minds and hearts. Ulysses, as Tennyson has proclaimed him, was just such a perfect soul, who, having reached his goal, sailed again, ever searching for the unknowns and the unreachable. "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.."

So I think it is that feeling that made me challenge J.L. to that race. The admiration of a perfect being, in my mind, an athlete who could race and strive for things I never could have. To admire that one last time before I moved. If J.L. kept that up, I don't know. I found that he scored the most goals on the Southern Nazarene University soccer team from 1995-97, but what he has done since then, I don't know. Hopefully he did not succumb to the siren's call.