Saturday, September 26, 2009

Dumbed down or just dumb?

I've read it and heard it and even been asked about it. Do television and movies make people stupid? Are we dumbing down? I don't have a simple answer.

There is a dumbing down in many quarters, but I don't think it's due to the prevalence of television and movies. It's due rather to people being lazy and stupid and perpetuating those habits in their children. Television and movies have a great deal to offer and can be a lamp on the path to illuminate history, politics, religion, literature and so much more. The trick is to indulge curiosity.

Many years ago, I picked up a book by Jane Austen and had a very difficult time getting into the flow of the language. It didn't matter that it was considered Literature because it was foreign and affected as far as I was concerned. Then I saw Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle in Pride & Prejudice and I had to give Austen another try. I'm not sorry I did.

The language is a bit daunting because it is so foreign to modern Americans, but once into the ebb and flow of the language, the social mores and the story, it all comes together and awakens something inside that finds a balance between the modern world and the world of the 18th and 19th centuries. Once I read Pride and Prejudice, I had to read all of Jane Austen's novels and I go back time after time to read them once more. They are marvelous, not only because of the romantic tone and story of Mr. Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennett, but because it is a glimpse of another age that hasn't been pieced together by archaeologists unwilling to take off the blinders and see the world as it was instead of as it is, based on modern prejudices. Jane Austen lived in the times she wrote about and she knew them intimately. More than anything else, Austen was an acute observer of people and society and she is proof that people and society haven't changed so much; at the heart, we are all the same even when separated by hundreds or even thousands of years.

I do think that in general people tend to look no farther than their own back yards or the yard down the street or across the state line, echoing Dorothy Gale's belief that happiness can best be found in one's own back yard. But we are citizens of the world and should look much further afield than our own cities, states and countries. That is where movies and televisions best provide a window on the world and offer a glimpse of history and the people and societies in far flung countries that the majority of Americans will never see. Used as a teaching tool, a sort of intellectual and historical hors d'ouevres, television and movies have much to teach us.

When I watch a movie, usually on my laptop, I keep a few tabs open for searches so I can take a quick break and read about the history and characters characterized. For instance, I am currently watching a foreign mini-series about Crown Prince Rudolf of Austriawho was the son of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth of Austria. It's about his life and death, a death that resulted in a great scandal because he purportedly killed his lover Baroness Mary Vetsera just before he committed suicide. I've only seen the first episode, but after a search and some reading I found out that the forensics of Rudolf and Mary's bodies doesn't bear out the double suicide story.

Mary was bludgeoned to death and Rudolf, quite a remarkable man, managed to shoot himself six times before he died. Amazing. The whispered stories surrounding their deaths was that Mary and Rudolf were murdered and that the Emperor knew about it and had it covered up because Rudolf was trying to overthrow him and bring the Austro-Hungarian empire into the 20th century, rescuing it from the backward thinking emperor and his Prime Minister Taaffe, who was by all accounts a very greedy and politically savvy man who ruled the empire through Franz Josef. Intrigue, political coups, love, lust, murder and conspiracies, what more could anyone want? And it happened around the turn of the 20th century, more than 100 years ago. That is what movies and television have to offer, a window on the past and into the lives of the people of other countries.

I am very fond of Indian musicals and historical movies and am fascinated by Iranian movies. In fact, I enjoy watching movies from many different countries and search them out, not only for their historical stories but to see what interests and moves people in other cultures and countries. Has it made me dumber, less intellectual? I don't think so. The problem with the belief that television and movies are dumbing down people is that intellectuals believe the only way to learn history and other topics is to read about them. It's snobbery.

Books have a lot to offer and I'll be the first one to praise the printed word, but in a world where entertainment is preferred over dry facts and figures, something else is needed, a marriage of sorts, using entertainment to spark and interested in learning more from books. It's what I've been doing for years and I consider myself a modestly educated person.

Schools have used the same tool through slide shows and short films, but they really have not taken full advantage of entertainment as a teaching tool, or of the Internet to make the information more accessible.

I've learned more about Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas through movies and the Internet than I ever did in school, and what I've found is utterly fascinating. I only wish I had enough money so I didn't have to work for a living and could devote all my time to movies, television, the Internet and books because there is so much to learn and so little time to absorb it all.

A National Geographic program a few months ago about the origins of the Amazons led me to the red-haired mummies of Mongolia, which in turn led me to ancient Greek and Roman histories about the Amazons and thence to Egypt (my of my favorite subjects) and tomb robbers, ancient and modern, and then back to Europe and the steppes of Russia, Afghanistan and Slavic countries to the Ice Maiden and the living heirs of the Amazons, a blonde-haired, blue-eyed nomad girl born to a family of dark haired, dark eyed nomads still following their herds from pasture to pasture and living in yurts. It's all connected and I found the first steps on the trail through television.

There's so much more to learn and no doubt Crown Prince Rudolf will lead the way on a journey through Europe and into the past that loops back into the present to mirror politics and society right here in America, and the route lies through the very things that intellectuals declaim for dumbing down the people. Intelligence has many levels, but stupidity only one and it's born in snobbery and a lack of curiosity not in television or movies. There's a rich and diverse education to be had and all that's needed is a sense of wonder and a desire to know more. Money does not have to be an issue, not when libraries offer movies and television shows and Internet access for free. There's no reason to be ignorant -- unless you want to be.

Formal education is not the only route to knowledge, just one path. There are less expensive roads. It's like setting out for any destination. Some people can afford to fly. Others take the train or a bus or go by car. There are also buggies, bikes and walking. No matter how long it takes to get there, everyone gets there eventually. It doesn't matter how you get there, just that you make the journey.

That is all. Disperse.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Running in quicksand

The week has been gray with massive continents of clouds that refuse to give up the goods and it's hard to tell what time of the day it is without a clock. The only clocks I use are on my computers and I'm not at the computer all the time.

In the darkness I reach for the light just as thumping footsteps stumble around in the attic over my head where the only thing up there is the furnace, the same furnace that last year the landlord had two guys check because it wasn't working and I found it difficult to work wrapped mummy-like in blankets with heavy gloves on my hands. The double split in the marble vanity of the bathroom sink reminds me daily of their visit, as does the still working furnace set at a balmy 68 degrees. The inept burglar that has somehow gotten into the house via the sagging roof and into the furnace filled attic, which is little more than a crawl space, is more likely to be the furnace clearing its morning throat with a rattling, cigarette cough rather than some miscreant bent on stealing my collection of books and boxes.

The yolk of the street light down the alley glares through the waving branches into my eyes and the blackness that precedes the dawn is complete everywhere but here where the spiraled twists of the bedside lamp bulb cast a pallid, but adequate glow across the littered landscape of my bed. Jumbled pillows and books sprawl read and half read across the bare mattress where the sheets have pulled loose in my struggle with nightmare goblins wrestling me to rest in winding sheets before the last battle with the working week. It's Friday, so why does it feel like Tuesday with the long expanse of the week still ahead? It's like running in quicksand.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

It's in the details

A dreamless sleep for a change, or at least one in which the dreams were pleasant and easily forgotten upon waking. I should go to bed early every night.

Dreams have been on my mind, not only because of yesterday's tarot post but because of the characters in my current work in progress. It's nowhere near being ready to share, but dreams and little affectations play a large part of what is happening. Not only dreams, but nightmares shape a person's character and inner life, and how they respond to both, and it reminds of me of a book Andre Norton wrote about a professional dreamer.

In a society where dreams could be bought and sold, one dreamer stands out because her dreams are inventive, adventurous and unique, and she controls the dreams. Tamisan is not the usual hive dreamer who gets lost in the dreaming, but an intelligent girl who works only for the best and richest clients, one of whom has been injured and can no longer walk. He is a vigorous man of wealth and taste, but he's is chained to a chair for the rest of his life, an invalid, prisoner of his body, with an active mind and a need to continue to do something physical. His brother, a greed and subtle man, hires Tamisan from the hive to be personal dreamer to his brother and sends his brother on three adventures from which he will never return, leaving the empire to him to use as he likes. It's a small cost to maintain two dreamers, a negligible cost for an empire as vast and wealthy as the one he is about to inherit and control, and the brother pays the cost gladly.

The book is Perilous Dreams based on the short story, The Toys of Tamisan first seen in High Sorcery.

It's strange how subtle clues and tics tell so much about a person, and it's those very qualities that writers use to make characters come alive. A strong and intelligent man who happens to be short or has a scar on his face or one glass eye whose favorite books, plays and movies are based on Beauty and the Beast say so much about who he is and what he dreams and thinks. It's obvious he thinks his small defect makes him a monster, a beast unlovable by any woman. He probably compensates for his perceived defect with jokes and dangles bait for women he finds attractive, waiting for them to take the lead so he doesn't have to feel rejected, especially since he believes every woman would reject him. He probably buys flowers or little gifts for women or makes them something they will treasure to draw attention toward his skills and away from his physical imperfections.

A woman who barely tolerates animals when her husband was alive suddenly falls in love with a little dog, a Yorkshire terrier or poodle or chihuahua, feeding it from her own plate and allowing it to sleep with her. It's her baby. Such a woman, so fastidious and germ conscious she'd never drink out of the same cup or eat from the same utensil as one of her children, cuddles the dog and kisses it. She was never so affectionate with her own children, so why has she changed so drastically?

The way someone constantly checks their makeup, runs fingers through their hair catch loose strands or constantly tugs at the hem of a fairly long skirt are all clues to someone's character and to their inner life.

When a person has nightmares, how do they react? Do they climb in bed or snuggle closer to their partner or do they whisper prayers in the darkness and struggle silently with dream-bred demons? How do they eat: one food at a time, mashed up together, only the white or brown or green things? What kind of partner do they seek? How close were they to their father, mother, brother, sister, next door neighbor? Who do they hang out with? Who do they avoid? Do they talk too fast when they're nervous or clamp up when they're angry?

Everything about a person is in the way they move, speak, listen and act and each action says more than words.

Someone assures you they love you, want to be with you, can't get enough of holding you, touching you, kissing you, loving you and yet they ignore you, never call, seldom write and visit rarely. How do they really feel?

There are conflicting emotions and they struggle with their feelings, avoiding the people and things that make them happiest because they cannot bear to go back to the mundane, painful or depressing life they have chosen to live, but how would you know? By their actions when they're with you. The look of sadness and pain in their eyes when they leave. The lingering touch as if when they let go they'll never be able to hold you again. The long last looks, their eyes on you when they get in their car and leave, glancing into the rear view mirror until they turn a corner and are gone. All these things are clues to what isn't being said and more indicative of their feelings and thoughts than all the words and assurances they use.

When you're out together, does your partner talk to you while his eyes slide over every other female in the restaurant? Does he drop your hand when other women walk by, saying it's too hot or he needs something from his pocket? Does he put distance between you when other people are near or does he look into your eyes and ignore the waiter until the waiter coughs or slaps the bill down on the table? Little moments, little clues, and they add up to so much if you know how and when and where to look.

Whether you're a writer or the average person, it pays to keep your eyes and ears open, to not just observe other people, but really look at them. So much history is written on faces and so many lies and fantasies uncovered right in front of you, if you really look at the people that pass into and out of your life every day. This is a world rich in sensory detail with fascinating and interesting people who can teach us as much about them as about ourselves. Pay attention and they will surprise you -- even in your own family.

I had no idea a cranky and evil chihuahua would soften my cranky and evil mother, but Dink did. Dink gave Mom someone to love who depended on her, something she desperately needed when Dad died. I didn't know how much that little dog meant to her until a couple of days ago when she told me how Dink saved her from depression and madness. It still makes me nauseous when she talks about "her baby," but I don't have to listen long, not as long as I have my bathroom escape. Mom has found a reason to live, so she will probably be around for a very long time, most likely until all that is left on this planet are cockroaches, moths and Mom.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tarot: Dream a dream and work

After reading zombie stories, it was inevitable they would creep, or rather shamble, into my dreams, waking me up with a pounding pulse and a need to get away. The disorientation lasted a few seconds before sleep claimed me again, adding weights to my eyelids, body and limbs so that I was dragged back into the dream, but I was prepared for them. I changed the dream, shifting people and monsters, going down different roads and heading for more familiar territory until the dream was behind me. It's called lucid dreaming.

Dreaming can be a release, for writers a way to work out plot points and get closer to their characters (whether they want to or not) and a way for the unconscious mind to surface and pick up threads from every part of the conscious mind and memories to weave a fantastic tapestry of people, places and events that can heal, relax and scare the bejeezus out of the dreamer.

And dreams are a way to reach for more in the waking life. Dreams are also a place to start, but not a place to linger or end.

4 of Cups

Asleep under a tree, the young man is dreaming, completely unaware of the full cups beside him or the full cup right in front of him. He's more intent on his dream than on what he already has or is given. The squirrel in the tree and the mouse in the grass are more curious about what's in the cups than the dreamer. The mouse and squirrel follow their instincts, but the dreamer is locked in his dream, dreaming his life away.

The young man is a romantic who is looking for something better to come down the road toward him or to find something better over the next hill, around the next corner, instead of seeing what is right in front of him. The Four of Cups symbolizes a quest for order and stability in a perfect world; it does not exist. The Four of Cups shows a disdain for reality, someone who is unwilling to see the gifts he has in plenty and more gifts offered, but keeps looking for something more, the ideal, ignoring the happiness he has and could have because he cannot see the difference the connection between his gifts and realities. There are no guarantees and expecting or demanding a guarantee will guarantee that what is right in front of you will disappear either because they were ignored or because someone with sense will pick them up and take them away.


Blind Justice has no power to harm, but holds the balance of karma in her own hands. Justice stands on the fulcrum between past and present, a guide, not an active force.

Past actions determine the present, but present actions can change the future. You cannot change the past, but you can change course and walk into a brighter future by what is decided at this moment, and this moment, and the next moment. The future is changeable. The past is fixed.

Look to the past to understand what created the present situations and take responsibility for your actions. Use that knowledge to make better choices for a better future. Learn from the errors and make choices based on the lessons of the past to realize and make a happier future a reality.

Ace of Pentacles

The Ace of Pentacles is the gift of resources: money, raw materials or time. Use skill and determination to make use of the available resources given and be grateful. Do not give in to the temptation to under value or squander the resources. Some resources are best used when they're offered. Don't hoard them or save them for a rainy day or when you have more time. There is no time like now.

Resources and gifts may seem mundane or not a true gift of the universe, but there are no coincidences and no accidents. As Einstein said, "God does not place dice with the Universe." The Ace of Pentacles offers a straight forward message: the riches of life are yours if you have the good sense to take them and use them. Don't waste time or money or the raw materials of talent or the earth because you only waste your own happiness. Remember the lesson of the weasel, take what's offered and don't look back.

* * *

My mother has always called me a dreamer and my quick response was that without dreamers she would still be huddled in a freezing cave gnawing raw meat from a sated lion's kill terrified of the snarls and growls just outside the cave entrance. Okay, it's a little more descriptive than I used to say, but not by much.

Yes, I'm a dreamer, but, even when it takes me a little while, I do make my dreams come true. I've walked the wrong paths, looking for something better, when I had everything I needed within my grasp. Luckily, I figured it out before I died.

* * *

Daria is a fortunate woman. She met an English duke who fell in love with her and offered her the world, and his heart. She cared for him deeply, but wasn't sure if he was the one. Still, she said yes to his proposal and followed him to his estate in England in the heart of the country where legends of Merlin are still told.

A great oak tree of massive size, centuries old, dominates the landscape. It is said that Merlin still sleeps within and waits for a woman willing to sacrifice everything to free him.

Daria and her duke have an argument and, as she has so many times in the past when happiness was within her grasp, she considers breaking off the engagement. Still angry and in tears, she takes a walk and ends up under Merlin's oak where she decides to sit and figure things out. Falling asleep, dreams of Merlin creep into her imagination and whisper that she is the woman who can set him free.

Awakened by workmen laughing and joking about cutting into Merlin's heart and seeing if the old oak bleeds, Daria begs them to wait until word can be sent to the duke. Daria refuses to leave the tree and convinces the foreman to send one of his men to find the duke. As she waits, it occurs to her that breaking off the engagement would seal the tree's doom and ruin any chance to free Merlin, so when the duke arrives she agrees to patch things up if he will give her the old oak as a wedding gift.

In order to save the oak, she must sacrifice her dreams and marry the duke, giving up any chance to free Merlin right away.

How do you think the story will end?

While you ponder the story and your own dreams, consider returning next week to see what stories the tarot cards will reveal. Until then, don't just dream it, be it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Two men, same harvest

I used to live across the alley from Eddie, an overall clad, bearded curmudgeon who had a love for and talent with pit bulls. He owned a house built just after the turn of the century with out buildings he turned into garages for his collection of trucks. His yard was immaculate and the chain link fence as silvery and taut as when it was put up forty years before. The short porch that led up to the black-out curtained door sparkled with sunlight from the strings of AOL disks hanging from the eaves. "Keeps the birds from nesting in the eaves," he told me one day as we walked down the alley, he leading his pit bull. When he was outside, the pit bull never left his side, quiet and watchful as she sat on her haunches next to him when we talked over the fence.

"I worked hard my whole life. Had a drinking problem, but I didn't let it get the best of me. Quit when it got in the way of my work."

"Now you're retired and can do whatever you want," I said.

"Not really, not like my friend Bob."

"The guy you have lunch with every day?"

"Yep. That's the one."

"Was Bob some kind of banker or executive?"

Eddie laughed. "Nope. Drunk. Always was and still is."

"Then how does he have more than you do?"

"Government takes care of him. If I'd known working hard, saving my money and quitting drinking wouldn't get me as much, or more, than being a drunk and a bum, I'd have kept drinking, but I had a family to support and I was brought up to earn my way, not expect nobody to take care of me. Just don't seem right somehow."

Work is a habit with some people, and it was with Eddie who was either working in the yard or the house or on one of his trucks. He had a rusty yellow truck for hauling things and running quick errands, a beautiful, sleek and shiny black truck for visiting relatives or long drives, and a bigger, rusty blue truck for hauling big things that would mess up the pristine bed of the black truck, maintaining them all with equal care and attention. Sometimes Bob rumbled up in his broken down Oldsmobile, exhaust belching black clouds of noxious fumes from the back. Bob didn't drive his Cadillac because he didn't want to "mess it up" with road grime.

I saw the Cadillac once and it was a beautiful metal flake sky blue with a deep blue leather landau roof and silvery spoked hub cabs. Bob won it in a contest. The car had less than 1000 miles on the odometer and sat in the garage at his house among the rusted paint cans and tottering heaps of bulging garbage bags protected by a black car cover in a slot just big enough for the car. It looked like the debris, garbage and junk had been shoved aside to make room for the Cadillac and was obvious the rusted, bald tired Olds had never been parked in the garage. The Olds sat in the yard where a rutted track wove drunkenly through clumps of crab grass, stunted bushes and waist high weeds led to an Olds sized patch of yellow and brown desiccated skeletons of anonymous growth.

Eddie curled his thumbs around the straps of his bib overalls. "Always taught in Sunday school that you reap what you sow. Strange old world when you're too drunk to sow a single seed and still reap a bountiful harvest. Good book got it wrong."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Two degrees of separation

My cousin Timmy's brother-in-law, Brand, visited him a couple weeks ago to discuss the headstone for Ruthie's grave and her memorial. Timmy had Beanie's copy of Dad's memorial DVD and showed it to Brand to give him an idea of what they could do for Ruthie. Brand watched the video and listened to me read what I wrote about my father. When Brand saw my name, he said, "That's my favorite writer and that's just how I always thought she'd sound. How do you know her, Tim?"

"She's my half-sister. How do you know her?"

"We've read all her stories in Chicken Soup. The whole family loves her. She's their favorite writer, too."

Timmy was thrilled, especially when he showed Brand my novel. Brand didn't know about that, but it didn't take him long to recover. "I'm going to go straight home and order copies for everyone in the family."

When Aunt Anne told me about all this tonight, I heard her ear-splitting grin through the phone. "Timmy's really proud of you. He always has been."

I had no idea Timmy even thought about me very much and I haven't seen him in over ten years. Aunt Anne told me a couple weeks ago that she planned to give Timmy a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: All in the Family so he could read my story, "On Esther Time." Timmy has a problem with always being late just like Esther. And he's reading Past Imperfect right now.

That's the surprising thing about all of this. Timmy's in-laws have been fans of my writing for over a year. Aunt Anne said whenever a new Chicken Soup book comes out, Brand and his family check to see if it contains one of my stories before they buy it. I had no idea. But to find out that I have a family of fans who don't know about the novel who are related to me by marriage throws the whole "seven degrees of separation" out the window, at least in this instance.

I didn't expect people to approach my family, or me, until I had made a real name for myself, but evidently, in some quarters, I already have a name -- and fans. I have fans.

Writing on blogs and getting comments, interacting with people quickly this way imparts a strange point of view based on instant gratification. People write. People respond. It's effortless. It's conversation electronic style, and many bloggers have fans. I have one or two. Writing a book or having stories published in anthologies is different. I've had a couple of people email me about what I've written in Chicken Soup and Cup of Comfort anthologies, but it's not the same. I know; I'm repeating myself, but it's true. I didn't expect this, not this soon, and not before I'd hit the best sellers lists, but it's so nice to know that even though people haven't contacted me directly they have read my stories and been touched and affected by them. That's part of why I write -- to touch people, give them something to think about.

It's a heady experience, knowing people read and like what I write. I doubt I'll ever get used to it or stop smiling when I remember moments like these. Even if no one ever told me they liked what I write, I'd still write. I wrote when no one read what I wrote, and I still do -- in paper journals. Still, even though most writers write for themselves, they also write for others because without readers there is no reason to fight the current in the publishing stream.

And like Scott Edelman wrote in his story, Almost the Last Story by Almost the Last Man about a writer unable to stop writing as long as he is alive.

"With each part of the Web that vanishes, I imagine that a part of the real world has gone as well. When it all goes, I will be alone.

"Well, not entirely alone. ...Shakespeare is here. And Frost. And Faulkner and Austen and Carver and Proust. All telling me of the worlds in which they lived. Worlds that continued to exit only because I am still here to read about them. ...

"It's not worth remaining in a world without readers, and I doubt that you still exist.

"My world can survive
my death. But it cannot survive yours.

"Art for art's sake as never what I was about. Art alone was never enough."

Amazing isn't it, Mary Ann that Scott Edelman's story is about zombies, too?