Monday, May 23, 2016

Criticism...

I just read Anthony Lane's 5/16/16 review of "Captain America: Civil War" and "The Lobster" in The New Yorker. And, to semi-quote Peter Finch in Network, I really just can't take it anymore!

Clearly, Mr Lane has not gotten the excellent advice a friend gave me in college when I asked him (a little desperately): "What do you say when a friend asks you to read something they wrote and tell them what you think? What if you didn't like it?  Do you risk the truth? Or lie for the sake of the friendship?"

I'm not comfortable with a polite lie; it seems to denigrate the friendship.  Yet very few really want to hear the unvarnished truth about something they have created, labored over and are taking the risk of sharing with you.

What do you say?

The advice, which I have internalized in assessing all creative work was: "Liking or not liking is not at issue. When you read something, think about what the creator was trying to accomplish.  Did they achieve their goal?"

This opened a door to looking at any material and considering it in its own right.  Not against my personal opinion, but against itself, and if I have the background, in its context.

I would always laugh (quietly) when people would comment on series romances and say: "Well, it's hardly literature!"  And I would think Why are you making this absurd comparison? Neither is The New York Times, but you probably read it every day.  Assess something in its own right, or against its peers, in its own context.

Of course everyone is entitled to their personal taste: I like this, I don't like that.  I don't even have to have a reason.  But that doesn't require any critical faculties or judgment, really.  It's just your feeling, your opinion.

True criticism, in my opinion, is to put aside your personal tastes, your possibly narrow and judgmental vision of what is 'proper' or 'acceptable' or 'intellectually validated' and open your mind and heart to what the work itself is trying to achieve, how it relates to the history of material trying to achieve similar goals, and how it may succeed, fail, or break new ground.

Mr Lane seems deeply respectful of the surreal, science fiction and absurdist vision of "The Lobster," but childishly, rudely dismissive and disrespectful of an comic-book based action adventure film (which, full disclosure, I very much enjoyed).  It clearly wasn't deemed worthy of being assessed on its own merits, in the context of comic book action-adventure films, because Mr Lane's universe only validates things that are...?

Good question, and I can only speculate.  His universe would contain things that are perceived to be intellectual.  Certainly they must be difficult--popularity and success are likely by definition unacceptable.  It would be unimaginable to like someone lots of other people like.  That would weaken my self vision of being extra-special.  But in fairness, I appreciate the desire of many reviewers and critics to support difficult and unpopular work, to take up the challenge to bring worthy material to the public eye.  But then don't review popular stuff.  And certainly don't dump on it in such a shallow and disrespectful way.

I realize that many critics and their readers delight in creating a polarized world of Good and Bad, but it lacks humanity, offers little insight, and seems...well, small.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

All about Eve


During a difficult dating phase in my youth (single and looking) I felt I'd set the bar for boy behavior about as low as it could go (on the ground).

But it kept being too high to clear in terms of what seemed like basic human decency. It was a bit depressing. At the time, I was thinking: WTF? (but without the acronym).

Indeed films of the era, like Unmarried Woman, confirmed that after dumping their wives of decades, guys mostly just traded in for a new model, whereas women were left holding the family together, coping with lost income, lost self-esteem, and taking a long and difficult journey to reconnect to their sense of self.

Guys remarried and started a fresh new replacement family, no remorse (though if the new wife turns out not to treat him quite as well as the earlier model, there may be some self-centered regret).

Males in general seemed to find a simpler way to negotiate the universe.  Direct, uncomplicated, without self-doubt, self-questioning, able to dismiss mistakes and move on....Clueless.  Happy.

Drove me crazy.

Then I thought about Genesis and how the Bible presents paradise as an innocent world.  An ignorant world. Clueless.  Happy.

Within that world view, the "Original Sin" that humankind is cursed with, is the sin of disobedience. Though what is particularly poignant is that when you look up "original sin," it is referenced as "Adam's sin" in eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  And as you knowper the BibleEve got there first and is vilified because of her actions.  But in terms of history, it is his actions that are referenced, because, really, he's the only one that counts.

So I was thinking about the "curse," and that it was not just the "sin" of disobedience, but the declared "sin" of desiring the knowledge of good and evil.  The desire to know more, to understand more, to open the door to informationwith all its responsibilities, challenges and demands.

To stop being ignorant and be aware, accountable.  To go beyond the self and not only appreciate your impact on others, but to acknowledge that you have choices.  And that you are accountable for making those choices, and  responsible for the consequences of your actions.

You have taken a bite, and the knowledge of good and evil is now inescapably part of who you are. It is a burden.  It is a gift.

So during these difficult dating times, I wondered why women, on balance, seem to suffer more, be more aware, and often got the short end of the stick.  It didn't seem fair.

But then I reflected on Genesis and was helped by the following insight: Eve took a bite of the apple from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil before Adam did.

And it seemed that that Eve's first mover statusin reaching greater awareness and thus greater responsibility, sometimes greater painwere metaphorically (and actually) carried forward though life.  Women are cursedor blessedwith the ability to tell the difference between good and evil just a little bit sooner, a little bit more than most men.

That was a helpful metaphor for me in explaining the fact that women are usually just  a bit ahead of the game in that area.

And even more helpful when I asked myself the big question:  would you rather be blissfully ignorant and happy, or accept the burden of knowledge, even if it might bring unhappiness?

My answer: If I had a choice, I would bite the apple.  Despite the cost, no question.




Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Why I'm not rushing to see Batman Vs Superman

Bad reviews? Don't be silly. Many reviewers don't value the things I valueand often value things I don't, so a negative review, even a lot of negative reviews, may be irrelevant. To see Tars Tarkas? To hear Bianca Castafiore sing? Priceless.

So why the disinterest from someone who is fond of superheroes and comics? Here is my insight:

I am not into hierarchy.

I think of hierarchy as being mostly a guy thing, and pitting one superhero against another is certainly an appealing and oft indulged in device in comics. Bracketology is nothing but a drawn out hierarchical methodology. Everything has to "fight" everything else to establish a clear pecking order. But I don't enjoy this constant creation of winners and losers.

It is unappealing to me, even a bit depressing, as I often feel bad for the loser.

As Deborah Tannen notes in You Just Don't Understand, male conversational styles default slightly to autonomy, sensitive to hierarchy. Women default to connection, team. This perhaps helps me understand why I love most of the Avengers films, where the initial challenge is assembling a reluctant team, bound by a mutual threat/need. Not to mention The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, Hoosiers, or The Replacements (you get the drift).

These stories demonstrate the difficulty of compromise, the need to be respectfulindeed, appreciativeof differences, the development of trust. And ultimately the powerful visual of how the team can (and will) succeed in ways that no one individual, however skilled, could ever have managed alone.

While Good Vs Evil is OK, I don't usually enjoy the winners and losers trope, though it's clearly appealing to many. Interestingly, team sports combine the value of team with hierarchy. And when we see a team, perhaps lacking in star power, win against the odds through their ability to work together, I think the delight we feel taps into that value.

There's an African proverb: You can go faster alone. But you go farther together.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

How many reels in your slot machine?


I was listening to a friend who was feeling a frustrated by her significant other.  She noted that everything was great, but....  And how much of a problem was that deficit?

And the issue made me think of slot machines.

You know how slot machines have big reels with many visual elements--from cherries to lemons, and all the fruit and symbols in between: melons, pineapples, plums, oranges, strawberries, lucky sevens.  And the more reels you have--three, five, seven, or whatever random access the electronic versions allow--it becomes exponentially less likely those reels will line up and a payout or jackpot will be reached.

And, over the years as I listened to single female friends, I realized that for some, the longer the wait, the more reels were being added to their required 'jackpot.'

One friend had an increasingly long list of requirements: successful, well educated, attractive, interested, interesting, appealing social circle, and given her age, he would have to have had a substantial prior relationship (no  50+ perennial bachelors, please) yet ideally without a crazy ex-wife popping out of the woodwork.  And if there were children: independent and delightful.

Well, after a lot of pulling of levers and spinning of reels, things actually lined up (a widower, but enough years away from his loss to be ready to begin again, great adult children, everything else checked out).  If seemed a miracle.  Cha-ching! Payout.

But ultimately, it didn't work out.

Why? we wondered.  Well, once all the external requirements had been met, suddenly the intangibles manifested themselves.  Yes, those pesky feelings.  And she said,  everything was great, but "we didn't have emotional intimacy."  And ultimately, that was the key element for her to make a lifetime commitment.

Now, don't get me wrong, that connection is enormously important, perhaps one of the most important aspects that needs to be felt before you make that kind of commitment.  But her realization didn't re-prioritize or diminish the importance of any of the other reels/requirements.  I knew if she found someone she connected with, trusted, was capable of sharing herself with...he also needed to be successful, well educated, attractive, etc. Each additional reel or requirement added isn't just plus one.  The incremental difficultly to get all those elements lined up is exponential.

So it behooves us all to understand what is truly essential.  What can't be compensated for.  What can't be 'contracted out' or lived without.  And try to let go of the rest, at least if you want a reasonable chance for a payout.

Romances for me have always provided wonderful, illustrative stories of what appears important...and was is truly important.  And by sharing the stories of the difficult process we have to go through to determine that complex algorithm for ourselves, they offer insight and examples.  What is a worthwhile compromise?  What offers a sense of balance, yet gives each party the essentials they need to thrive in the relationship?

It is an endless and ever changing conundrum--and is it any wonder we hope for and delight to find a happy ending?

I think not.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

It's all about....


In Europe, there's a kind of oval black and white sticker people put on their cars to indicate their country of origin:  CH for Switzerland (fooled you, Confœderatio Helvetica), NL for the Netherlands, D for Germany (Deutschland) etc.

This became a fad in the US with various stickers sporting state, airport and place abbreviations or codes.  

So when walking down the street in a lovely town in Maine, the souvenir store showing a while oval with the black letters ME on seemed very much in keeping with the zeitgeist.  But what was the tiny additional lettering at the top...?  It read: 


 it's all about 

ME


That pretty much sums up the default response to most of the human condition. It's why people were burned alive for sharing the information that the earth revolved around the sun, and the universe did not, actually, revolve around us.

This realization has helped explain the advocacy for "Intelligent Design" over Evolutiona position that was basically incomprehensible to me.

Evolution is a system based, more or less, on meritocracy.  Those that survive have adapted most successfully to meet whatever challenges they face. In this perspective, the universe does not revolve around them; they must adapt to the 'universe.'

So if people are uncomfortable with the uncertainty that vision espouses, or they aren't sure they would rise to the top of a meritocratic ladder, or they can't accept the uncomfortable acknowledgement that they are not the center of the universe, or they need a sense of certainty, it's a problem. 

If for any reason they believe they would not measure up, or want to skip the uncertainty and just move to the front of the line, they need to believe that Someone Out There will Favorite them (their definition of intelligence, of course).  In a family context, basically, it's the happy belief that "Dad" likes them best (or whatever all-powerful deity you choose). Thus "Intelligent Design" addresses these uncomfortable-for-some issues.

And while this explanation may not be true for everyone, trying to understand the underlying needs for a belief can be a helpful tool in trying to understand when those beliefs that seem to fly in the face of established knowledge.  Stop and consider: what are the often powerful emotional needs that may dictate that belief system? Reason, rationality, science has nothing to do with it. Indeed, if you ever want to appreciate the lack of "intelligence" that has gone into the somewhat random process of evolutionary "design," do take a look at Neil de Grasse Tyson's article in Natural History Magazine.

Simone de Beauvoir articulates the male and female roles of Self and Other in The Second Sex. And for me, one of the most powerful aspects of a romance is the evolution the characters undergo in the process of the story.  The heroine often developing a stronger Self. The hero's realization that without the Other, he is not complete.  

That it's really not all about ME.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Wishing you a Festive Holiday Season and a Happy New Year!

I will not break into all the possible "holiday" options you might be experiencing (or not). Just like in Sleeping Beauty, if you try to invite "all" the fairies, you will be sure to leave one out, and the thirteenth fairy will come to your baby's christening and curse you all. So really, don't go there.

I figure you can just wish anybody the best from wherever you are coming from.  It's the only solid ground you have.  So whatever you celebrate, wish that happiness on others.  If you don't celebrate anything, then I believe Mr. Dickens has created "Bah, Humbug!" and it is available for use in any denomination.

But I do like to note that the January 1 "New Year" is only one of several options.

I am particularly fond of the Chinese New Year, as it involves animals and great yearly cards and ornaments, not to mention horoscopes.  So just to alert you, Chinese New Year is February 8th.  It is the Year of the Monkey.  Apparently the Chinese Zodiac timing starts a bit before the New Year, on February 4th, and there is a further refinement of 5 elements (one more than other Zodiac of 4: Earth, Air, Fire, Water).  Here the five elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water. Apparently Air is not an essential element. Perhaps a mistake.

So Happy Red Fire Monkey Year!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

I've been prosthelytizing.  I admit it.  When I hear the words "Happy Holidays" in the days before Thanksgiving--mostly from service providers--I find myself earnestly preaching The Word.  That is My Word.  

"No! You don't need to be politically correct for this day!  It is one of the special ones where we are all together as humans on American soil.  

It is a secular holiday, without any divisive religious implications. You don't even have to be an American to be wished a Happy Thanksgiving.  You just need to be in America and you are part of the team.

It is all about being thankful (and eating).  I think we can all get behind that.  The eating part is symbolic of one of the many things we are thankful for.  The fact that the meal is shared with others, often family and friends, is another. 

The classic Norman Rockwell painting we often see around Thanksgiving is just one of four paintings . celebrating the four freedoms articulated in Franklin D Roosevelt's January 6, 1941 State of the Union speech:

Freedom of Speech
Freedom of Worship
Freedom from Want
Freedom from Fear

Truly much to be thankful for.

Thanks!