I turned 45 two days ago, but my wife and I postponed my birthday celebration till this week because we were too pooped to party. She had just wrapped a variety of roles in a new children's musical adaptation of Cinder Edna, and I finished the first draft of my new book. (More on that in a minute.) Tonight she's making me and her parents filets mignons--it seems my birthday got blended into her father's birthday and actual Father's Day--and then tomorrow night we're going out for pizza and Man of Steel with three dozen of our closest friends. I'm pretty stoked.
About that book: I'm calling it a memoir, though it isn't mine. I was intrigued enough to help Gary Klein write an account of his most famous public debacle. (Klein, you may remember, was involved in that fiasco out on Santa Catalina Island the day of the quake.) Once I got into his story, it really started rolling, and the first draft was finished right on the schedule--to the exact date, in fact--that I'd established several months ago. Now it goes into the softcopy equivalent of a drawer for a month or two while I try to forget every word of it. That way, when I come back to it for the revision process, I'll be able to work on it fresh, assessing it the way a new reader would. Once I'm happy with the writing, I'll run it by Gary for one last-fact check and anecdote hunt, and then it'll be time to start looking for representation. That's an emotionally draining process that can take over a year. In the meantime, a select few of you will be asked to read it early. If you're chosen and agree to help out, I can only hope you'll be as supportive as you are honest...and vice versa.
One of the few birthday treats I allowed myself in advance of tonight was a massage yesterday afternoon. It was my third time going to the same masseuse, so we're slowly getting to know each other while she tenderized my back like a chicken fried steak. She asked me what it was like to be 45. It was the day before her own 30th birthday, so age was on her mind. I started to tell her about noisy knees, lactose intolerance, weird hair products for people who don't have hair, all that Louis C.K. it's-rough-being-old kind of stuff. She didn't care about any of that. She's a dancer and yoga enthusiast, so she probably figures her body will stay bulletproof till she's well into her dotage. What she wanted to know was how it felt to be 45, meaning how is my thinking and emotional nature different from hers. Of course, I'm about as different from a 30-year-old German-born yoga enthusiast as I am from your average bonobo, so I didn't know where to begin. Instead, I thought about ways I may or may not feel different from when I was 25.
Why 25? Because in addition to my 45th birthday, this is the 20th anniversary of the week I graduated from my undergrad alma mater, East Central University. (If you graduated with me, congratulations; you're old now, too.) I loved ECU. I loved being an undergraduate college student. I loved my friends and wild parties and writing and learning and acting in five plays a year and sorority girls and for that matter, non-sorority girls and knowing I was where I belonged. If I became friends with someone at ECU, chances are we're still friends now. Some of those people are as close to me as anyone in my family, and I wouldn't trade my time there for a Harvard degree. I mean that.
Two decades ago, no one in our computer science department had heard of a JPEG. If you wanted to find something out, you went to an actual library (though we did have a computerized card catalog, on Apple IIe computers that could just about multiply numbers). AIDS was still an illness that affected young people's sex lives, as was Christian fundamentalism. President Clinton had been in office for about five months. People still had newspaper subscriptions. Jurassic Park was only a book, and no one doubted Han Solo shot first. All in all, it was just like today except everything was different.
So how am I different at age 45 than how I was then? I think the biggest difference is I still thought I had an outside chance at one day being COOL. I write COOL in all-caps because I'm trying to get at something bigger than the word, like YOLO or YWHW or TCBY. When I was young, whether I could've articulated it or not, I wanted to be COOL more than anything, and I honestly believed I might achieve it. What is COOL? God, it's everything. It's charisma and sexual attractiveness and fortune and fame and respect and a distinctive fashion sense and a great sense of humor and a reputation for trouble, but not like Amanda Bynes. It's about everyone remembering your name and maybe even spelling it correctly. It's about knowing that if life is a game, you've already won it with plenty of time to run out the clock and do illegal victory dances in the end zone and collect phone numbers from cheerleaders.
Why did I do theatre? It made me feel COOL.
Why did I write fiction? I liked inventing people and situations and writing jokes that were COOL.
Why did I move back to L.A., not just L.A. but actual Hollywood, and scratch and claw my way into the movie business as--try not to swoon--a glorified CopyMax clerk at GloboToad? Bet your ass it was COOL. I got to go to movie premieres. I roamed free on the studio backlot. I've been insulted by Joss Whedon, my friend, so good luck hurting my feelings. I'm not some bald math nerd with a Ben & Jerry's gut and a self-aggrandizing website; I've walked the surface of Planet COOL.
Except the thing is, I wasn't that COOL. I was kinda cool. I was lower-case cool. None of the dozens of celebrities I've met could pick me out of a lineup. They were COOL. I wasn't. I was just there. I've had a book published, and then my publisher went out of business five months later. How 'bout them apples? Story of my life, man. Story of my not-so-cool life. But I'm here, as Elaine Stritch would say. I'm still working. I put myself out there. I just don't believe for one second that I'm ever going to be Stephen King or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Come to think of it, both of those guys have dealt with substance abuse, so maybe it's all for the best. COOL can wear a brother out. In some ways, COOL is overrated.
I can honestly say I have few regrets when it comes to things I've done. I wish I hadn't given my ex-wife the silent treatment, but Lord knows how things would've gone if I'd talked. I wish I had a better handle on juggling two virtues I deeply respect, namely kindness and honesty. I'm sorry for times I've lost my temper or developed a persecution complex...but really, not that much. It all worked out okay.
I do, however, regret things I haven't done. I've never tried a hallucinogen or visited the Playboy mansion or, well, I could name several other things Gary Klein has done and I haven't. It may seem strange to you that I'm sitting here wishing I'd committed more sins, but one big way I've changed since I was 25 is I don't believe in an absolute moral authority anymore. Not that I believed in a personal God when I was 25, mind you--if anything, I was a more devout atheist then, as I was still a new convert--but I did believe some things were more right than others and so, in my reductivist logic, there had to be a set of things that were most right of all. I let that go a long time ago.
Of course, it's more right to not kill someone than to kill someone. It's important to tell the truth and be faithful to your spouse and support those in need and refrain from making fun of people as perilously troubled as, say, that poor Amanda Bynes. But is it more right to sleep with one person in your life than with 10? Or 20? Or 100? Is there a more right or wrong way to sleep with consenting adults? What if you bought them all breakfast the next morning? Is sex more or less wrong depending on the adults with whom you knock boots? Is smoking a joint more or less wrong than downing a six-pack? What about harder drugs? It's not simply that I don't have a definite answer for these questions anymore; it's that I don't think anyone else does, either. And before you say "well, the Bible says," no, it doesn't. The Bible hero-worships people like David and Solomon, whose sex lives put Ke$ha's to shame. The Bible doesn't say word one about masturbation or abortion or sexting. When the Bible does dictate morality, it's hard to take it seriously, because you just read a verse that said "here's how it's okay to have sex slaves and stone people in the public square and kill every man, woman and child who own real estate you want." I've realized in the last few decades that morality and ethics are no more or less than the decisions we make, day by day, moment by moment, about how good we can be to other people while still being great to ourselves. And that's okay.
If I could impart one useful life lesson to my 20-year-old self, it'd be this: Carv, you have a tendency right now to be nicer to people than they have been to you. As Stephen Chbosky says, "We accept the love we think we deserve." Try to believe you deserve better love. I mean, it's fine, good love will find you down the road either way, but maybe you'll have more fun before you get there. And maybe you won't be as depressed, which'll pacify some of those paranoid feelings, which'll make you more likely to be open to others.
Ah, but who am I kidding? I wouldn't have listened to me then. I barely listen to me now. I'm pretty fortunate that anyone does. It's okay being 45, at least the way I've managed to do it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I can hear those bacon-wrapped filets mignons hitting the skillet. Happy birthday to me!Print This Post
If I had written this blog entry 36 hours ago, it would've had a very different message and tone. The good folks at Capital Playhouse, an Olympia company devoted almost exclusively to American-style musical theatre, were kind and clever enough to invite me to appear in their spring production of Legally Blonde: The Musical. I say "clever" because I've learned more than I can say here about the complexity and difficulty of staging a professional-quality musical in the time they have to spend on it, and that'll help me keep perspective when I'm writing reviews. I say "kind" because I'm a theatre critic in Oly, and I haven't always been hyper-complimentary about Capital Playhouse productions. I bashed a run of their shows so persuasively that their promotional staffer was obliged to call and beg me for mercy. I hated CP's last Christmas show so profoundly that my review achieved lasting notoriety, yet its director is the one who cast me in Legally Blonde. That poor promotional staffer plays Paulette. They've both been nothing but sweet to me, though I know I've offered reason for concern.
See, I agreed to play Elle's dad with the sole proviso that I could not, should not, absolutely would not dance so much as a single step in the show. This is only to the show's benefit, I assure you, and that's not me having a rare bout of insincere modesty. I am to dancing what Guy Fieri is to haute cuisine. I only wish I had the skills and control of one of those dancing balloons outside a used car lot. The company agreed to let me out of dancing, then immediately implied it would find some way to get me in tap shoes. I've held firm. Yes, I do move my body in a vaguely predetermined way in the show, but as God is my witness, to call what I'm doing dancing would be equivalent to referring to the late Gerald Ford as an acrobat.
There were several reasons why I agreed to do this show so soon (i.e., immediately) after my previous role in The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood. First, I was excited about meeting CP actors face to face that I'd praised so many times in past reviews. In that respect, this transaction was an unqualified success. Bailey Boyd (Elle), Kristin Burch (Brooke), Patrick Wigren (Warren and choreographer), and director Chris Serface among at least a dozen others have truly impressed and inspired me. We have actors, including Ms. Burch, performing a full, high-energy song-and-dance number while simultaneously skipping rope. After seeing their finished product, I was stunned to learn Burch has been performing her role with the flu and a 104-degree temperature. I honestly had no idea. She's a pro. There's amazing talent up and down the line in this show, and they got it all ready in three and a half weeks (a necessity in order to maximize theater earnings).
My second reason for signing on was I wanted to push myself. I know I'm not a fully-trained singer, and I beat my head against it last year when I participated in Opera Pacifica's production of La Traviata. I may not always enjoy difficult learning experiences, but I understand their value. I was told Elle's dad had only a minute-long solo, so I figured I could handle that with minimal humiliation. So here we go! Who's up for a challenge?
What I did not understand was the company needed a greater number of male performers than they'd been able to find and hire. Ergo, I was soon recruited to play Winthrop, a dean of admissions, as well. Then I was asked to play a student. And a reporter. And a prison guard. You see where this is going. Suddenly my "minute of Elle's dad plus some choral stuff" became an entire show, complete with five costume changes. Don't get me wrong, I'm less essential to the overall success of the show than a backstage coat hanger, but I do have plenty of things to do...none of which I'm especially good at.
Again, I'm not being falsely modest. I can act. I have comic timing and I'm good with character voices. I can carry a tune, with a year of vocal training back in college. I just want you to understand that a.) I'm a klutz, due to my size and other physical limitations, and b.) I know I have issues with tempo. I discovered this during opera rehearsals last year. I don't read music, mostly because I can't, and there are times when it's difficult to hear what the orchestra is up to exactly in numbers like these. Sometimes the music's just ornamental squiggles behind a vocalist who carries the melody. There's no drum track like the ones we're used to on radio. So there are times, during my solo for one, when the orchestra goes "THUMP" and one had better maintain a consistent rhythm from there on out without further assistance. That's tough for me. I looked at a series of rest symbols in my script and thought, "What the hell is 'squiggle-dash-percent?' Can't somebody just point at me when it's my turn to sing? How do I get myself into these ordeals?"
Anyway. Long story short, I've had a hell of a time achieving even minimal standards of vocal mediocrity, and I'm used to being more competent than this. So when we finally got the real orchestra Monday night and my tiny little minute of singing flew completely off the rails, I was hit by a walloping, crushing realization: Ohh! I'm just never gonna get this. I am going to suck in this show. I've embarrassed myself and failed this hardworking company. They deserve better, and I don't have time or know a way to fix it.
I was heartbroken. It's amazing how deeply I feel these things. You'd be justified in asking why I don't find more comforting ways to spend my ever-diminishing free time. I don't know if I have a convincing answer for that question, so I won't try. What I will say is I'm unwilling to work this hard and fail without going down swinging. So I kept at it, rehearsing the same minute of vocal music more times than I could rationally defend, and last night, for the first time, I got it right with the orchestra. My mood reversed overnight. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I don't know if I've been prouder of myself for anything I've done the last two years. (My last personal triumph before that was marrying the optimal woman for me and my life, but you knew that already.)
So here we are. I've gone from thinking of musical performance as, in the words of David Foster Wallace, "a supposedly fun thing I'll never do again" to a "teachable moment." Tonight marks the free audience preview before we officially open tomorrow. I'm not saying Legally Blonde: The Musical has the best script since Sondheim was a pup, but it does have catchy songs and a lot of cool dancing by people who aren't me. It's sexy--I swear to God, these people all have perfect asses, which defies probability--and you'll root for plucky, Pepto-pink Elle. You might even see me genuinely grinning in my "young Nick Nolte" wig, assuming I make it through that white-knuckle minute of song three, "What You Want," without a catastrophic accident.
Break a leg, fellow Blondes.Print This Post
It may be that you've never seen the 1978 big-screen Superman, aka Superman: The Movie. It is, after all, 35 years old, and some of you are not. Suffice it to say it was the first time a comic-book superhero had ever been given a movie (or TV) adaptation with an actual budget or scope. When it went into production, the Batman TV series was still in daily reruns, so most filmmakers were tempted to approach it with a similar attitude of camp.
I hate camp! Luckily, so did Richard Donner, who jumped at directing the film after William Friedkin and Sam Peckinpah passed. It was only Donner's third feature, though he'd directed popular TV shows for years. Anyway, if you are one of those folks who's never seen Superman, you may want to skip this blog entry and add Superman to your Netflix queue instead, because these were my thoughts as I rescreened it last week.
The film is dedicated to its cinematographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, who died before it was released. As you watch the film, it becomes more and more amazing that Unsworth wasn't nominated for his efforts. Donner was incensed, doubly so because production designer John Barry was left out in the cold. The film was nominated for its film editing (Stuart Baird), sound editing (Gordon K. McCallum, et al.), and unforgettable score (the one and only John Williams). Donner would later point out that Williams's score all but yells "SUP-erman!" each time the mighty caped hero appears.
My God, I miss cinematic overtures. After a short prelude that recalls Superman's debut in 1938's Action Comics #1, this movie opens with a great one. We're whisked through the stars courtesy of visual effects that seem slightly cheesy now, but were jaw-dropping at the time--if only because it was rare for so lavish an effort to be expended on mere opening credits. When I was a kid, one of my bucket list items was to see my name WHOOSH! out of a screen the way Superman's did. (Y'know, actually, it kind of still is.) And then, after a three-note crescendo that recalls Thus Spake Zarathustra, we arrive on the planet...
Krypton! Later, Superman, played by 26-year-old Christopher Reeve, will remind us it's spelled "with a K-R-Y." I have no idea why that should be, unless the spelling is a tribute to the noble gas with atomic number 36; but then, I also have no idea why some newsmagazines spelled "Gaddafi" with a Q. Doesn't matter. Regardless of how Krypton ever looked in the comics, this is how it looked and will always look to my generation of fanboys. We go straight to the sentencing of a trio of supervillains, General Zod and his sidekicks, already chosen as the antagonists of Superman II. In fact, Superman and its immediate sequel were shot all at once...but more on that later.
It appears political correctness will never come to Kryptonopolis, even if Greek root words have. Non is introduced by Jor-El, Superman's birth father, as "this mindless aberration." That's just mean! And he's up for "eternal living death" in the Phantom Zone to boot! Jor-El goes on to introduce Zod's other crony as "the woman Ursa." Hel-lo, patriarchy! I mean literally: we see dozens of Kryptonian elders, and only one of them is female. Adding insult to injury, she seems to be the only one who doesn't get to wear her family emblem as a black decal on her glowing white robes. Even more surprising, it appears Kryptonian justice has no interest in defense attorneys. "GUILTY!"
Jor-El tells the ruling council, "This planet will explode within 30 days," then adds redundantly, "if not sooner."
And he's right. The council teleports an investigator to Jor-El's house to make sure he and his wife Lara have honored their word to remain Krypton-bound, but he never arrives. Instead, Jor-El delivers a long farewell speech before sealing his only son in a crystalline starburst spacecraft. Lara, on the other hand, just lays her head on Jor-El's shoulder, content to let him do all the talking. And why not! Marlon Brando earned a record $3.7 million for his ten minutes on screen, so make him talk! He refused to learn his lines, reading them instead off baby Kal-El's diaper, and pestered Donner with suggestions that Jor-El should look like a glowing green bagel instead of Marlon Brando in a spit curl. After profit participation, Brando wound up earning tens of millions of dollars for only 12 days' work.
The scene in which Krypton is destroyed, particularly the shots in which bodies plummet into burning chasms, haunted my dreams for years.
BLAMMO! Krypton goes bye-bye, and Kal-El is launched on a journey through six of "the 28 known galaxies." Does screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz mean "star systems?" I have to assume he does, though the confusion of "galaxy" for "stellar system" is repeated several times throughout the course of the movie. Jor-El electronically lectures his son for the entirety of a cosmic voyage we assume takes several years, continuing an explicit allusion to Christian "Father and Son" themes.
The spaceship crashes into a grain field outside Smallville, Kansas, and out steps toddler Kal-El, thus revealing the most memorable peepee in comic-book cinema (Dr. Manhattan's in Watchmen notwithstanding).
Young Clark Kent outruns a train, which kinda puts the kibosh to the whole "lay low" approach. Young Lois Lane spies the feat and reports it to her parents, played by Noel Neill and Kirk Alyn. Neill played Lois on the old TV show; Alyn played Supes in a series of cliffhanger short films. Young Clark is played by Jeff East, but all his lines were looped by Reeve--a fact East discovered, to his vast displeasure, at the premiere. Unlike the ADR in Star Wars, for example, this looping sounds pretty good. It's another feather in the sound editors' cap.
Glenn Ford plays Clark's adoptive father. As he dies, I find myself tearing up. What the hell? I've always been a sucker for good dads in movies, though, and Ford's performance still strikes me as iconic.
Superman leaves home, wanders north to the Arctic, and uses a Kryptonian crystal to build his beautiful Fortress of Solitude. This really was a triumph of production design, so much so that it deserved a nomination all by itself. Jor-El continues his Brando-y lectures, including the following remarkable statement: "This year, we shall examine the various concepts of immortality, and their basis in actual fact." It strikes me at this point that "Jor-El" sounds kind of like "Jehovah."
Upon graduation from Brando University, Clark Kent moves to Metropolis, New York, gaining a job at the Daily Planet newspaper with what must have been the most bullcrap curriculum vitae in the history of printed communications. Clark and Lois (Margot Kidder) exchange pleasantries with Rex Reed, possibly the most recognizable movie critic in America in 1978. Currying favor, were we?
Even lowlifes are remarkably well-dressed in Metropolis. Lois's mugger wears a sport coat. Lex Luthor's numbnuts assistant Otis favors a suit and tie. We follow Otis into Luthor's subterranean lair, apparently a repurposed subbasement of Grand Central Terminal. Again, props to John Barry. This set is fantastic. Echoing generations of Superman fans, however, I have to ask: why Otis?! Why in the 28 known galaxies would Lex Luthor, the self-described "greatest criminal mind of our time," ever saddle himself with such a vapor-brained yutz? Luthor, like Zod before and after him, appears to crave the company of hot chicks and large men with learning disabilities.
We add another feminist check mark in passing against costume designer Yvonne Blake, who can't seem to dress Valerine Perrine in anything that doesn't reveal at least eighty percent of her admittedly astonishing rack.
Poor Lois runs afoul of what has to be the least competent chopper pilot of all time, which prompts the classic exchange: "Easy, miss. I've got you." "Y-you've got me? Who's got you?!" That might be my mom's favorite movie dialogue ever. I didn't realize until years later what a celebrity crush she had on Christopher Reeve. And who could blame her? For me, even all these years later, after Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, and several other worthy portrayals, Christopher Reeve IS Superman, and that makes him immortal.
After a police car chase that would've been the climax of almost any other '70s action movie, Superman helps a little girl retrieve her cat from a tree. She runs inside to tell her parents about the encounter, and we hear, "Haven't I told you not to lie? (*SMACK*)" Ah, child abuse. Funny then, funny now.
The Man of Steel meets Lois at her penthouse apartment for an interview and impromptu date. "Nice place," he says, and indeed it is. One wonders what Lois earns per word at the Daily Planet, especially the many words she's unable to spell. Superman gives his vital statistics as 6'4", 225 pounds. Wait--didn't Jor-El say he'd have a "dense molecular structure?" What's he made of, then? Balsa neutronium? Is that how he flies? Not to put too fine a point on it, Lois makes it very clear throughout the interview that she has Kryptonian schlong on the brain. And how exactly did she know about Superman's X-ray vision? She must have read Action Comics.
In the course of that interview, the Man of Tomorrow looks Lois dead in the eye and vows, "I never lie." It's a motto that stuck with me for life. Say what you will about me, I do tell the truth, at least as well as I know it.
The Great Blue Boy Scout takes Lois out flying in a scene that starts out deliriously wonderful but quickly turns to embarrassing mush. "Can you read my mind?" I don't know, Margot Kidder. Can you stop reading that godawful poem? It's the bane of boy-movie screenwriters, isn't it? Romance, I mean. I don't know if anyone other than Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark) has gotten it right in my lifetime.
As he does in The Empire Strikes Back, John Ratzenberger makes a surprise appearance as a USAF radar officer. Cliffy!
For the first time in the movie, the effects team runs out of gas, and Christopher Reeve is frequently surrounded by coloring-book matte lines. It's the only time we don't believe that man can fly. Incidentally, Zoran Perisic and company won a Special Achievement Oscar for "Zoptic," their state-of-the-art system of rigging and flying effects.
Just before the climactic earthquake begins, Lois's car radio plays "Give a Little Bit" from Supertramp, a subtle in-joke. The song, a bona fide classic, was only a year old at the time.
Weirdly, Superman keeps calling Jimmy Olsen "son," though the actors were only five years apart in age. Marc McClure, aka Superman's pal Jimmy, went on to play Marty McFly's unreliable older brother in the Back to the Future movies. He's still working, though his last film was a dog movie with the unpromising title Hercules Saves Christmas.
That Lois: what a screamer. Deduct several more feminist happy points, or just go ahead and bury her alive as the movie does. That scene appeared in my mother's nightmares for decades. But Superman hears her dying gasps--the score whispers "can you read my mind"--and off he goes to save her by whipping around the planet and somehow undoing time. It's ridiculous, of course, but I guess it's kind of like that old cliché: "I would move heaven and earth for you." Superman does.
Superman patches up the San Andreas Fault, resurrects Lois Lane, and deposits Lex Luthor in Sing Sing. "This country is safe again, Superman," the warden announces, "thanks to you!" And so it is.
After Superman premiered as a massive hit but while Richard Donner was in post on Superman II, the movie's colorful, irascible nutjob of an executive producer, Alexander Salkind, decided to dump Donner in favor of Help! director Richard Lester. To this day, no one seems to know exactly why that happened. Some say it was because Donner objected to Salkind cutting Brando out of Superman II to save money. Others say Donner hated co-producer Pierre Spengler. Salkind said Donner went over-budget and over-schedule. Donner said he was never given a budget or a schedule. Whatever the case, scenes for the sequel were reshot in an attempt to meet guild stipulations that unless 75% of the film was shot by Lester, it wasn't a Richard Lester film. Donner's footage sat in European vaults until editor/producer Michael Thau convinced Warner Brothers to authorize and release Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut to home video in 2006. It's the version I own now, and if you're a fan of Donner's work, then it's well worth the cost of a rental or purchase.
On June 12, I'm turning 45. I'm not so happy about that, to be honest, so I'm distracting myself two nights later by catching the new summer blockbuster, Man of Steel, in the biggest, loudest format I can find. Care to join me? I'll be happy to share my popcorn, but the Dibs are all mine.
I may be all grown up now, but every kid still grows up needing his Superman.Print This Post
Hey, there, friends, it's been a while. Many of you are Facebook friends or follow me on Twitter (@carvwriter), so you know where I've been. For the rest of you, I've been concentrating on other projects. I've written 40,000 words on the new novel, which is about half the book. I'm hoping to have a polished first draft finished by my 45th birthday in mid-June. I have a day job, of course, and that takes a fair amount of time. I'm acting again, as Little John in Olympia Family Theater's The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood, opening March 29. The day after that show closes, I'll start work on Legally Blonde: The Musical at Capital Playhouse, in which I'm playing Elle's father and singing in the ensemble. My wife is in Robin Hood with me, then starts work as three characters in OFT's debut production of Cinder Edna. We're going to Paris in mid-September, so I'm spending about five hours a week learning French. (Here's an unsolicited promo, incidentally, for the free language learning app Duolingo.) I write a few articles a month for the Weekly Volcano, including a cover story next week on the subject of--wait for it--swingers.
With all that on my plate, I've had little time to think about either blogging or podcasting. I feel somewhat guilty about that, but it's definitely time to push this new novel out of my head and into the world. I can't wait to talk to you about the process of seeking a new publisher (Fear Nought is still defunct, I'm afraid) and scheduling readings. Bear with me, please, and I'll be back with a vengeance in a couple of months. Thanks for reading, and hey: may the Force be with you! Assuming Star Wars, Episode VII comes out in May of 2015, I'll be in L.A. that week for Opening Day.Print This Post
As I look ahead to the year in movies, I'm struck by how thoroughly we geeks have inherited--some might say infested--the media. When I was a kid, we could count on less than half a dozen respectable genre entries per year. As for TV, Star Trek reruns were pretty much the best we ever got, though the Saturday morning cartoon spinoff of that series attracted surprisingly hardcore science fiction writers (Larry Niven and DC Fontana, to name just two). The pickin's were so slim many of us actually paid to see David Lynch's miscarriage of Dune (a classic novel Hollywood has yet to get right). Now, thanks to the Lucas-Spielberg era and its spiritual heirs, erstwhile B-movie space operas and sci-fi head-scratchers have been elevated to the status (and budgets!) formerly reserved for epics by Fleming and Lean.
Well, let's be honest: that's a mixed blessing. For every tech-friendly James Cameron epic, there are dozens of brain-dead genre reboots, remakes, refluxes, and regurgitations. This year will be no different. Though I have warm nostalgic feelings for their predecessors, it's hard to work up too much excitement for A Good Day to Die Hard (Feb. 14), Oz: The Great and Powerful (Mar. 8), The Wolverine (July 26), and so on. One senses these movies were made primarily for almost-guaranteed financial returns, not because anyone involved had a necessary story to tell.
Still, there's plenty of smart fare on the menu for discriminating nerds this year. Granted, I'm the guy who got his hopes up for Prometheus, so what do I know? Well, I know that wasn't an entirely unworthy effort, and I'm hoping for better from the next wave. I think Shane Black, now enjoying his career resurrection after self-imploding the most lucrative screenwriting résumé in Hollywood, has a lot to prove with Iron Man 3 (May 3), a franchise he inherited from Jon Favreau. Hopefully it'll feel more like the first Iron Man movie than its overstuffed sequel. My fondest hopes for 2013, however, are pinned on JJ Abrams, the TV wunderkind (Alias, Lost, Fringe) who graduated to big-budget wonderments (Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek (2009), Super 8). I saw eight minutes of his Star Trek Into Darkness (opening May 17) projected with the HFR release of The Hobbit, and I'm desperate to see the remaining 112 or so.
A further word about Abrams. As most of you know by now, Abrams has (after flatly denying this would happen a mere two months ago) accepted the reins of Star Wars, Episode VII, which Disney is producing to milk the Lucasfilm cash cow they bought for four billion dollars last fall. I'm all for this selection, and, back in November, so was every other Star Wars fan on Earth. Then, mere minutes after somebody leaked that Abrams was taking the job, the Interwebs exploded in outrage. "He's Mr. Lens Flare!" was the common refrain. "He has no original ideas! Just look at Super 8!" Yes, please do. It's a Spielberg pastiche, to be sure, and there are plenty of lens flares. Hey, you know who else used plenty of lens flares? Steven Spielberg! Go back and watch any of his 1978-1993 output. Until Schindler's List, it was kind of the Great One's stock in trade. And who cared? We geeks certainly didn't. So why the boohoo and brouhaha now?
It's because somewhere along the way, my fellow geeks decided it was cool to crap on entertainment we love, and frankly, I'm effing sick of it. Listen, hipsters, it's okay to simply enjoy things, even silly things, and the nerd gods won't hand you bonus health or extra lives for acting as if you're above it all. I love Star Wars. I just do. I know it's silly. So what? Is it any sillier than huge, aggressive dudes in tight pants and spherical helmets beating the snot out of each other to move a pigskin back and forth on a field? Is it sillier than telling your kids the presents you maxed out four credit cards to buy were delivered by an obese Scandinavian elf on a sled pulled by magic flying reindeer? Is it sillier than Heaven and Hell, or pretending every bride is a virgin and every groom is James Bond? Who are we fooling? The best stuff in life is ridiculous.
So yeah, I like superhero movies, which is why my birthday celebration will be seeing Man of Steel on June 14. I like promiscuous superspies and Eiffel-Tower-sized robots made of guns who still fight with karate. I like space opera--or, as a family member once memorably referred to it, "gay-ass rockets 'n' shit." (Sorry, gay friends. It was 2004, a much snarkier time.) I like all of that CG-splattered nonsense. And if somebody like Abrams or Cameron can make it look pretty and pretend there's some kind of microscopically-plausible scientific rationale for invisible aircraft carriers or faster-than-light travel or werewolves, then so much the better. I'm tired of defending what I love against charges that it's childish. Of course it's childish. That's exactly what I love about it. When I start chomping at the bit for Star Wars VII, what I'm really drooling for is that rush of exhilaration I used to feel behind a silo-sized bucket of popcorn at an epic sci-fi eyeball-exploder. I want that feeling again. I think most geeks do. Maybe that's why they try so hard to act superior now in their fat years; they've been chasing that dragon so long they're weary of pursuing it in vain.
Well, cheer up, fellow dorks. Against all odds, we grew up and married pretty girls in spite of our parents' predictions, and the jocks who gave us wedgies are now working at Jiffy Lube. Meanwhile, guys like Abrams and Cameron and Favreau and Guillermo del Toro and Peter Jackson and on and on and on, folks who grew up loving the same geeky spectacles that we do, invaded the movie business. Consequently, we can look forward to mecha vs. kaiju fisticuffs in del Toro's Pacific Rim (July 12--and if you know what either "mecha" or "kaiju" means, Gentle Reader, congratulations: you're one of us). I'm intrigued by Elysium (Aug. 9), the new film from Neill Blomkamp, the Kiwi who gave us District 9. Perhaps this summer we'll also get Alfonso Cuarón's slow-shooting Gravity, a hard (meaning scientifically accurate) SF epic which promises new verisimilitude in depicting a zero-G environment.
My admiration for Sin City knows no bounds, so I'm hoping Robert Rodriguez will recapture that sheen of graphic magic in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Oct. 4). Failing that, perhaps the long-awaited movie adaptation of Ender's Game, a certified classic and thematic precursor to The Hunger Games, will deliver (Nov. 1). If not, there's always the Hunger Games sequel, Catching Fire, opening a mere three weeks later (Nov. 22). Closing out the year--almost--is the epic halfling-dragon confrontation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (Dec. 23). I say "almost" because, by Great Odin's beard, I'm downright turgid for the return of Ron Burgundy in Anchorman: The Legend Continues. Don't act like you're not impressed.
Writing sci-fi is tough in 2013, perhaps tougher than ever before. See, we caught up to the future. Granted, Marty McFly's hovering skateboard or time-skipping DeLorean failed to exist, but we did get email, cell phones, the Internet, home computers, pocket computers, dashboard computers, computer games, virtual identities, and Craigslist casual encounters. What cyberpunk authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson once called virtual reality, we're about to call the movies. The 3-D HFR (high frame rate, or 48FPS) release of The Hobbit had some problems, sure, but that was its debut attempt. In the next decade, movies and even TV will achieve a level of realism comparable to looking out a window, the only difference being that instead of my own parking lot, I'll see a sandworm or Coruscant or the Justice League of America. A generation from now, we might log onto the Web merely by thinking about it. Like Jason Bourne, we'll have multiple identities, but some of them will only "live" online. It's an exciting and, from a career standpoint, terrifying time to be alive, because the changes soon to come will be so bizarre and unpredictable that no sci-fi writer could anticipate or even describe them. That's why all this geeky bedazzlement is so important.
Genre entertainment, especially serious science fiction, prepares our minds to be boggled. It reminds us we live on a planet, not a color on a map. It gives us hope when that seems foolish. You say, wait, that's religion's job, and maybe you're right, but science gave us the iPhone. It yields results. The Bible, by contrast, hasn't developed a new app since 90 A.D. (I mean, come on, give us PowerPray, Angry Jews, something!) Sci-fi warns us away from looming dystopias and gene-altered nightmares. It keeps our brains young and agile and ready for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the nanotech era to come. Sci-fi turns awkward adolescents into astronauts and nerds into billionaires. I can't wait for this year's fresh round of fictional futures...and I'm all done pretending I'm not rabid for more.Print This Post
I want to be better.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do in the wake of a tragedy is to look inward. As Friday stretched into the weekend, many of us logged onto Facebook, our twenty-first century church house, to commune over the loss of twenty-six innocent lives. We responded the best way we knew how, saying, in a thousand ways both trite and original, that a.) our hearts were broken, b.) we wished we knew how to help, and c.) there must be a silver lining. Well, there is no silver lining. There's nothing we can do that will bring those children or their doomed protectors back. There's nothing you or I could say or do that would make even the slightest dent in their community's unfathomable pain. That's a hard truth to write. It was an even harder truth to feel. We sure felt it, though, didn't we? And we hoped, in our self-comforting way, that at least maybe this horror would bring us closer together as a country.
And then within minutes we were arguing over about how to be more caring, meaning holier or smarter or righter. I say "we" because I did it, too. Please don't take this as a lecture. It's a confession. I want to be better.
The debate this weekend focused on two issues. First, some people claim God abandoned our schools because we abandoned Him. Well, I'm probably the wrong guy to point this out, but the U.S. has the highest population of Christians of any country in the world. True, we're probably as agnostic as we've ever been these days, but that's not saying much. And if you're willing to suggest, even suggest, God allowed twenty children to die because we decided not to make a daily ritual of prayer in our schools, then you're describing a Deity Who deserves none of your affection. I don't believe in that God. I'll bet you don't, either. Not that God. You shouldn't. That God would be worse than any Devil ever imagined. And please don't hand me that business about free will. You have the "free will" to let a killer get away with shooting a child in front of you, but if you do, especially if you have the power to stop a mass murder, you'll be indicted as an accessory, as well you should be. You can't inject God into this discussion without opening...
Well, obviously this is one of those "can of worms" topics that is bigger and deeper than any of us, and I probably shouldn't delve into it further, especially since it's not the real meat of my comments. Suffice it to say I refuse to believe God allows people to die simply because of their political or even moral choices. That's magical, medieval thinking, and we need to outgrow it.
The other hot topic this weekend was gun control. In any sensible republic, this would be the time, maybe long past the right time, when we had a sober, mature, adult conversation about how to keep insane people from getting their hands on automatic weapons. But we can't seem to have that conversation, because the assumption is "gun control" = "the government is coming to take the guns you bought with your own money to protect your home and family or at least feel like you could if you had to." That also is medieval thinking, because I know very few people--I can count them on the fingers of one hand--who suggest any such thing. As for me, I don't want all your guns. I don't want the government in charge of such a program. I believe in the right to bear arms.
Having said that, I believe in the right to bear arms the exact same way I believe in freedom of speech or car ownership or religion or any other freedom. When your freedom gets in the way of children's safety, your freedom must bend. That's called being a grown-up. You can certainly own a car. You can even drive it. You can't drive it at eighty miles an hour in a school yard.
Now wait just a doggone minute, you say. I own a gun, and I'm no danger to children. How dare you? I know. I know many of you own guns, and I know your kids are at more risk driving to the store than living next to your duly locked gun safe. I know because my mom has a small arsenal locked in a gun safe. I know because I've been trained in how to use guns by people who understood the level of danger they represent. I know my friends are good people, sane people, who can be trusted with a weapon. I want you to be able to protect your family. I know you're hunters and you enjoy that, and I like free venison. We have no difference of opinion on any of that. But if you believe, if you genuinely believe, it should be easy for average people to buy and load semi-automatic weapons, then I really don't know what to say anymore. Does it have to be all or nothing? My friends, can we not even talk about this?
Because really, in almost any moral question in life, isn't the truth somewhere smack in the middle? Isn't it possible, for example, that freedom of speech has its limits? I raise that example because freedom of speech is my own pet right. I believe in it body, mind, and soul. But when I hear the Westboro "Baptist Church" plans to picket the funerals of children, I realize my favorite freedom can be abused, so even freedom can benefit from limits. (It sounds paradoxical, I know. C'est la vie.) Should freedom of religion be extended to even those Westboro monsters? Is that how anyone wants it? Is it possible, even probable, that in order to keep our civilization functional, we may sometimes have to compromise around the edges of even our most cherished "rights?"
I ask because I believe, even more than God or guns, our American hatred of compromise is the biggest obstacle to preventing another Newtown. And we must. We simply must. I don't want to hurt like this anymore. Do you? I thought not. So why can't we just talk about things? Why is the word "compromise" seen as a negative? It's basically the foundation of any working civilization. Don't we know that, in our heart of hearts? So why do slogans like "never give an inch!" and "no quarter asked, no quarter given!" resonate so happily in the American psyche?
I saw a lot of people blaming the media this weekend. It's the news, people said. It gets us so worked up we can't even think anymore. Well, I used to work in TV news, and I can promise you, whatever you may have heard about the "liberal media," it's owned by incredibly rich people. The media may not always agree with your preconceptions, but believe me, the media has only one bias: it wants to make money. And in order to make money, it needs your attention. It tries like hell to go wherever you're looking. If everyone started watching calm, clearheaded summaries on PBS, that's what every other news program would look like before the week was out. This isn't about how the media presents us with information. It's about the kind of stimuli we seek.
We're a thrill-seeking nation, short on patience and long on extreeeeeme! We like monster trucks and fisticuffs and 'splosions and silicone and yelling and crying and colors and sound. Our national anthem crescendos toward "rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air." AC/DC, once decried as "the devil's music," now accompanies Walmart commercials. We pretend to declare wars on things like poverty and drugs that aren't aware they're in a war. We use pronouns like "us" and "we" to refer to the 'roid-raging athletes on our favorite football teams. We even burst into sobs when they lose, as if people we don't know losing a ball game somehow affects our lives. We use inflammatory rhetoric like "George Lucas raped my childhood!" to complain about silly children's movies about light-swords and robots. We can't seem to talk about anything without raising our voices or leaping to doomsday conclusions about every eventuality. There are people in my family we can't even mention the duly elected President of the United States around because they will literally start screaming and their hearts will explode.
My friends, I ask you in all sincerity, what is wrong with us? Aren't we better than this? Why do mundane budget sessions have to end in "fiscal cliff" and "armageddon" scenarios? Why can't we say "snow" without adding the suffix "-pocalypse?" When did vitriolic anger addicts Sean Hannity and Bill Maher acquire the status of journalists? How did we get so worked up? Don't we know we have each other's best interests at heart? Are we so wedded to our insane American drama junkie personality that we can't take a single step back and reassess, even if it means risking the lives of children?
It's so hard to look in the mirror and realize we've gone crazy, but that's what we've done. We've allowed ourselves to degenerate to a place where we can't even look each other in the eye and discuss our mutual future, or that of our children, in good faith. We can't take steps to minimize global warming, because even admitting there is such a thing is decried as anti-business. We can't resolve our budget woes, because the rich will be damned if they'll pay the same tax rate they paid under Reagan. We can't let more people get married or the End of the World will be upon us. We treat everything like the magic trigger that'll somehow undo the fabric of our society. But the sad thing is, we're the trigger, and even worse, we're all trigger happy. I'm as guilty as you, Gentle Reader, perhaps more so. I want to be better.Print This Post
Simon knelt in the dust and wept convulsively. He sobbed as though a demon pressed his chest from the inside, demanding its freedom. And why not? The Great One was gone: Yehoshua, the backwater carpenter's son, a self-proclaimed champion the Greeks called Iesous, a man Simon himself called Master and friend. Simon cursed under his breath. He cursed the Romans--as well they deserved!--but lavished most of his oaths on the bastards of his own race. The elders of the Jewish Sanhedrin were still crowing over their role in the execution of Yehoshua. It made Simon want to vomit. Here were a people who met their own hero, yet couldn't toss his body to the dogs of Rome fast enough. Simon punched the very ground. The awful world crushed his heart like a rock. You sons of whores, he thought. You filthy, wretched rats among men. You're unworthy of such as him.
Like a rock, he thought, laughing perversely. How vividly he remembered the night Yehoshua punned on Simon's Aramaic nickname, Kephas, saying, "I'll build my church on this Rock." But now the Master was dead, and Simon had no idea what he meant, other than to poke fun at Simon's admittedly stone-hard head. All he knew in this moment was that he and his people were damned. Never again would any man live who might lead the Judeans in successful revolt against the Empire. Was Yehoshua the long-foretold Messiah? Simon no longer knew nor cared. Was he a prophet? Would Jerusalem be free of these arrogant occupiers in Simon's lifetime? It seemed more unlikely than ever. So why, if only one of Yehoshua's handful of prophecies could come true, did it have to be the one in which Simon denied even knowing the Master? Why that one? His shoulders heaved at the memory. A keening wail escaped his lips. Belief itself had one foot in the grave.
Some said the Messiah would vanquish the Romans, but that was not to be. Already the weak and women were grasping for some way to talk themselves down from the agony of Yehoshua's death. The poor man was still hanging from nails, his blood puddling at his feet, and these sheep were trying to say cheer up, it wasn't really that bad! The Lord must've needed him in Heaven! You have to take the bad with the good! Oh, their empty little prayers and lamentations! Here were people who'd never even met Yehoshua, didn't know that joyous light in his eyes, didn't get his sarcastic sense of humor or listen when he pleaded for change. Now they embraced him like Jerusalem's son. "Oh, that poor family," they gushed. "Our prayers are with them. Amen." Too late! Simon thought. The man is gone! His body reeks on Golgotha! What good was prayer now? What good was prayer ever? If Adonai had a plan, it certainly didn't include protecting His chosen people or even the great, no, the singular man who dared to call Him Daddy.
No death is a blessing, Simon thought. No loss is a miracle. That thought awakened the memory of Yehoshua's arrest in Gethsemane Garden. Simon was so outraged, so shocked by the outright audacity of those who'd accost such an innocent Jew, that he'd lopped off a Roman soldier's ear. Then something happened Simon would never forget: Yehoshua went to his knees in the grass and held the wounded soldier's cheeks, whispering comfort in pidgin Greek. The soldier--no more than a teenager, really--calmed immediately. Lucas swore the ear grew back when Yehoshua touched it, but what absolute nonsense. Not that Simon could see that side of the Roman's head from where he stood, mind you, but honestly, wasn't Lucas a doctor? How could he make such a claim? It wasn't like Lucas to lie, but the whole thing reeked of silliness. It did seem strange, however, that neither Simon nor Yehoshua had been charged with assaulting an officer.
There were fools who believed Yehoshua would rise up to Heaven and intercede for the Jews. Others believed he was the scapegoat for centuries of sin. Simon wanted none of such talk. It was more of the same, always the same, people making up fantasies to take the edge off gruesome reality. Here was reality: the stinking, gory corpse of the greatest man Judea had ever seen, his wounds spilling vinegar, a crown of bloody thorns on his head, his back flayed and crimson. His throngs of sycophants gone now, hiding in their crude homes with doors barred. Soon it'd be dark, so if someone didn't take Yehoshua down off that cross in the next hour or so, he'd be hanging there all Sabbath like the carcass of a goat. What a horror. The only proper response was absolute grief. Once again the universe reminded Simon of its will toward malevolent unfairness. There was no Messiah. The Romans were right: gods were many but small, distracted by petty squabbles and, ultimately, useless.
There was something about Yehoshua that rose above it all. Even Simon in his misery was unable to forget it. He had seen something precious. There was something in the Master that would live for all time. In the longest of nights, in the blackest of griefs, when tragedy struck so hard the world shook on its foundations, there would still be that candle of kindness. There would still be the man who saw past race and station and pettiness, who chatted with Samaritan harlots and traitorous tax collectors. There would still be that history, unshakeable and true, of a man who loved beyond love. There would still be his grace in the world, his Christ-ness, long after his death, and no man or devil or king could ever change that.
Simon, the man they called Peter, ever mindful of Yehoshua rolling his eyes at the ostentation of Jewish prayer, said no more about the Master that day. He went home to his wife and hearth, ate a meal, carried his sulky little girl to bed. He kissed her gently on her flushed cheeks and rested his hand on her chest to feel it rising and falling. Death did not undo life. Death did not undo Yehoshua's life. And for all King Solomon's wisdom and power, he was wrong when he said there was nothing new under the sun. Yehoshua himself was that new thing, a miracle if ever there was one. Simon wondered if that new thing, that ultimate love, would somehow last, often faltering, yet ever returning to a suffering world.Print This Post
I'm sure you've all heard by now that a Senate candidate from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, is in hot water over a reply he gave during a debate this week. He was asked if he'd allow abortion in cases of rape, and he said he believes "life begins at conception" and that "life is a gift from God." All life? You bet. "I think," he continued, "even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen."
I hesitated before including Mr. Mourdock's party affiliation here, because I wasn't sure it was relevant and I don't want to come off as partisan. Ultimately, however, I decided to note that he's Republican, largely because it follows on the heels of several ill-advised remarks from other Republicans on the topic of rape. These comments have many female and/or feminist voters wondering whether the GOP has it in for women. In states like Florida, recent polls suggest the female presidential vote leans toward Obama while the male vote leans toward Romney, so this is no minor issue.
If the GOP has, shall we say, a more traditional view of women and what makes them tick, that shouldn't surprise anyone. By definition, conservatives tend to like things the way they used to be; the only real variation is whether they want to regress to 1900, 1950, or 33 A.D. Being a woman who's Republican these days is kinda like being a black guy who's a Klansman. Now, before that enrages you, please don't misunderstand: I get why a woman might be fiscally conservative. I get why she'd oppose bloated government or a staggering deficit. I can even understand why she'd be pro-life. I just pity her for all the nonsense she has to overlook to be in her party of choice. Whether it's Henry Aldridge and Todd Akin believing a woman's uterus contains anti-rape sperm stompers, or Rush Limbaugh (what a wonderful sense of humor he has) quipping, "I love the women's movement--especially when walking behind it," or Clayton Williams advising rape victims to "lie back and enjoy it," or Jon Kyl claiming "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does" is abortion (try 3 percent), then having his office tell CNN this "was not intended to be a factual statement," you conservative women must live in permanent cringe mode these days.
So yeah, it kind of is a party thing. I tried to find equivalently stupid things Democratic candidates have said about rape but came up empty. If you know of one, please, post it below. I know liberals say imbecilic things all the time--Joe Biden is everyone's current favorite example--but not on that subject. What I will admit about liberals is we take abortion too lightly. If life did begin at conception (more on that in a moment), then abortion would be the leading cause of human death in America. It's not just some occasional thing. If you believe a day-old fetus is a person, then yeah, abortion is genocide. I can see why you'd be incensed about it.
I have to say, though, I've thought about this issue very deeply, as deeply as most in the pro-life camp. Indeed, I used to be pro-life myself, at least until well into my 20s. Without getting into specifics, it's touched my family (though not me directly) in a personal way. I've walked down a line of museum displays of zygotes and fetuses and embryos and tried to determine exactly when I believed those lumps of cells qualified as a human. I couldn't do it. It was somewhere to the right of the start and left of the end. I go around and around on this, and I don't blame anyone for being undecided about it, though I disregard any claim that life begins either at conception or the instant the baby sees daylight. That just doesn't make any sense. If you're going to say life begins at conception, why stop there? A sperm or an ovum is still a potential life; in fact, it's already alive. If you're a man who's ever masturbated or a woman who's ever menstruated, you've terminated sex cells that could've been babies nine months later. If God wanted every sex cell to become a baby, He wouldn't have created a reproductive system that blithely dispenses with so many possible lives. On the other hand, it's pretty much impossible to look at a seven-month-old fetus and not see it as an infant in training. We have to understand these issues are not cut and dry, and even well-intentioned geniuses like you and me can disagree with good reason.
Now. Back to Richard Mourdock. I want to commit liberal heresy and let this guy off the hook.
Listen, Mourdock is simply wrestling with a problem as old as religion itself, the problem of suffering. If you believe in a loving, all-powerful God Who can see into the future, eventually (say, age seven) you're going to wonder why He doesn't do something about suffering. And your authority figures, who never quite figured this one out themselves, will say something soothing about "God's will" and the "divine plan." Later, as you get older, they'll develop this argument to contend that when Jesus died, this somehow fixed the problem of suffering. Then Mom or Dad or Pastor Smith will tell you to go outside and play before you can ask the obvious question, which is why we're still suffering and dying two thousand years after Jesus died. The problem of suffering, or, to use its smartypants name, "theodicy," is an insurmountable paradox. Now, generally speaking, when scientists discover a paradox in earlier thinking, they realize somebody made a mistake. Religious people have a harder time doing that, but it still comes up surprisingly often.
Epicurus said, "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is He neither able nor willing? Then why call Him God?" Or, as Archibald Macleish put it more succinctly in his play JB, "If God is God, He is not good / If God is good, He is not God." Martina McBride developed this line of thought further in her song "Anyway" (written with the Warren Brothers): "God is great, but sometimes life ain't good. When I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should. But I do it anyway." To ask these questions is not blasphemous; they're basically the subject of the Biblical book of Job. And hey, if you think you worry about suffering, try being a Jewish Holocaust survivor. Some of those folks gave up on the whole question of whether God is good, preferring instead to concentrate on why we should be good and leaving God to deal with His own conscience.
That's a valid response. When scientists wonder where all the time travelers from the future are or run up against the "grandfather paradox," they tend to conclude time travel is and always will be impossible. That doesn't prove time travel is impossible, of course. It may be that time travelers are here right now, disguised as insurance salesmen or TV news reporters or pedantic bloggers. Likewise, the fact that evil exists may not be sufficient disproof of a loving, omnipotent God. It just doesn't help.
So when Richard Mourdock says if a woman is impregnated by a rapist, that tragedy must be God's will, he's simply beating his head against a very old paradox, and no more nor less successfully than most Christians. Mr. Mourdock's Democratic opponent, Joe Donnelly, of course, seized on Mourdock's remarks, insisting, "The God I believe in and the God I know most Hoosiers believe in does not intend for rape to happen, ever." Well...that's debatable, actually. I know, because I'm about to debate it.
Are you familiar with the Biblical term "concubine?" Do you know what it means? Uhhh...it's kinda like a wife, right? Kinda, in that concubines had sex with men and Israelites (especially kings) were allowed to have lots of them. Solomon famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). The English word "concubine" is a popular (because it's evasive) translation of pilegesh, a word Hebrews borrowed from the Greeks. What it actually means is women who were captured or purchased to use as unmarried sexual partners. But wait, you say, that can't be right. Isn't that fornication? Well, it is, and yes, God forbade it, but only if you were a Jew who had sex with an unmarried Jewish woman. If, however, you were a Jewish man and she were a Gentile captured in battle, no problemo! Not to put too fine a point on it, many concubines were sex slaves. Consider this passage from Leviticus (25:44-46), a direct quote from Yahweh:
"As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness."
Yeah, 'cause that'd be mean.
If you want a real hair-raiser, check out Judges 19. Just read that chapter from the woman's perspective. Spoiler alert: there's a twist at the end! So that's how the Bible feels about rape: it's terrific unless it happens to Jews or your sex slave, in which case it's best to kill the victim. Who, by the way, has been your victim all along anyway, so awesome job.
The fact is, in the Old Testament at least, God is pro-rape. I know that's not a fact that's going to sit well in your head. If you doubt me, please do the necessary research. You'll find countless Bible apologists who say, well, it's all part of "be fruitful and multiply" or "some concubines were treated like wives" (as if that were a supreme privilege in the B.C. 1000s), but none who can make Leviticus 25 or Judges 19 go away. You can also find Christians who say Jesus came to negate the filthy "morals" of the Old Testament, but none who can change the fact that Leviticus 25 is a direct quote from God (see verse 1). I say again: if most Hoosiers believe in a God Who's anti-rape, then they're ignoring the fact of God-endorsed concubines in the Old Testament. They're also ignoring the questionable relationship between the Roman centurion and his "servant" (Greek pais--better translated as "catamite" or, not to put too fine a point on it, "boy sex slave") in Matthew 8. But that's okay; Jesus ignored that relationship, too. He said nothing condemnatory about it, even bringing the pais back to life at the centurion's humble request. And yippee, what a life!
I know my own way around this eternally intractable problem. After decades of thought, I concluded that if there is a God, then the Bible writers had Him/Her/It/Them all wrong. God may indeed possess cosmic power, but I see no evidence that God intervenes in the day-to-day events of our lives or preserves earthly justice. That'd be like asking a biochemist to make life in a petri dish fair. Of course, I'm not telling you what to believe. I know my opinions sound dark-hearted or devil-possessed to some of my readers. But do yours make any more sense than mine? Do Richard Mourdock's? I'm just saying maybe we should cut the poor guy a little slack. There's nothing dumb about wondering why God lets evil happen. Indeed, Mourdock's efforts at armchair theodicy put him in the company of such great minds as Russell, Voltaire, Augustine, and Leibniz (who coined the term theodicy 35 years after, oh, inventing calculus). Like many Christians, Mourdock settled on the rationale Joseph gave his murderous brothers in Genesis 50:20: "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Awwww.
Still. That Rush Limbaugh. What a dick.Print This Post
My friends, I have smart friends. So it's not often--and by "not often" I mean "maybe once a year" that I run into anyone who might be smarter than any of my friends. This year, that man is author Josh Bazell. If you've kept up with my podcast (and really, why wouldn't you), you heard me name-check Bazell and his debut novel Beat the Reaper in my history lesson re the German dye manufacturer and Jew asphyxiater IG Farben. Bazell is a Columbia-trained medical doctor and Brooklyn-trained serial vulgarian. More than that, however, he's also the best new author I've read all year. In fact, he's my new read-on-sight authorial addiction, following closely on the heels of Junot Diaz and Jennifer Egan.
Imagine if Michael Crichton used his considerable medical knowledge to a.) come back to life, and b.) impregnate Robert Crais. The result would be Josh Bazell and a placenta liberally laced with cocaine. If you don't like four-letter words, not to mention five-letter, seven-letter, and twelve-letter, words, you will not dig Bazell. Might I instead recommend a heartwarming novel called Green Eggs and Ham?
As fast as I blazed through Beat the Reaper, I may have come in under time on Bazell's follow-up, Wild Thing. It's a murder mystery set around a Minnesota lake where an ancient leviathan may or may not reside and ingest random swimmers. Oh, and Sarah Palin shows up. The Sarah Palin. And then some!
For an example of Bazell's fiery smartness, consider this exchange from page 196:
"'So maybe it's like that thing Sherlock Holmes says, where when you eliminate all other options, the one that's left has to be the truth, even if it seems like it can't be.'
'Violet, I'm sorry, but that's the dumbest thing Sherlock Holmes ever said. How can you ever know you've eliminated all other options?'"
Burn, Conan Doyle! Also, and apropos of little, there's a vicious five-page takedown of creationism about halfway through.
How nerdy is Bazell? His 338-page novel Wild Thing is followed by 45 pages of references. I love this guy! Crichton fans, Beat the Reaper should be your next ebook purchase. You are welcome.Print This Post
I've just posted my first attempt at Andrew Zimmern-style food reporting, Devil's Breakfast, in this site's Essays section. Embedded below, should you feel you can stomach it, is a reference video I recorded of myself "enjoying" a pizza topped with bovine penis, slugs, and grubs. My gracious (and extremely good-humored) hosts were the owner-operators of Ah Badabing Pizzeria in Lakewood, WA. By the way, they really do make delicious normal-topped pizzas as well. Bon appetit!Print This Post