Saturday, November 16, 2013

Provincialism Under King's Dome

I don't think there has been a time in my life, at least since I was a eleven or twelve, that I haven't been in the middle of a book. I finished Stephen King's Under the Dome this morning, by the afternoon I was reading Paul Auster's The Music of Chance. I don't read as much as I used to. I am a better reader now, I see more and I am more critical, but I don't delve into them like I did when I was younger. The reasons for this are varied. For one, television is much better than it used to be. I avoided television most of my life because it was mostly very bad. But once shows like Madmen, The Wire and The Walking Dead started hitting the airwaves, I started paying more attention. Also, the internet has a lot to do with it. I am not reading full length books because the Net has so much quality stuff to read at my fingertips (and some not so much). I think I have maintained the same amount of quality of what I am reading, regardless of the medium. I can download this month 's Harper's Magazine onto my iPad whenever I want it. Not a bad thing at all.

I had given up on Stephen King novels long ago. I discovered him when I was in the ninth grade when the mini-series of Salem's Lot, starring David Soul, came on television. I ran out and bought the novel and read it quickly. When I hear sounds by my window at night, I still think of the child vampire tapping and it still freaks me out a little. This was his second novel, so I then read his first novel, Carrie, which I had already seen the Brian De Palma film. I was then reading his books as they came out, The Shining, Night Shift, The Stand and The Dead Zone. I loved them all. It was after reading The Fire Starter, I decided to stop reading him. I was a teenager, and I thought (as teenagers often do) that I was too good for this. I should be reading literature. It wasn't until I was in college that I picked him up again as some good summer reading. I read Different Seasons, Pet Sematary and half of Christine. Different Seasons was one of his best while the other two were horrendous. I had to stop half way through Christine because I was so annoyed. A haunted car? Really? I was seeing a formula that I didn't like. I stopped reading him then and hadn't read a word of his since, until now. I often wonder if I reread some of his old stuff, now that I am a better reader, if I'd like them as much as I did when I was a kid. But why ruin a good thing? Now, they are just a pleasant memory which is a good thing.

This summer I picked up Under the Dome at a yard sale for a dollar. It is a 1074 page tome that if I place on my passenger seat, my car tells me it needs a seat belt. It is huge. I had been told by a friend that I would like this one because finally King wrote something that could be considered literature. This excited me. It had been about three decades since I had read anything by him. It took me about three months to read it. Literature? I would say not, but it was a good read. I have read many good books that are probably not literature, but are simply good books. I would say that I enjoyed it but I am not going around recommending it.

I need to point out that I am in awe of Mr. King. I have no difficulty writing and coming up with great ideas and even characters, but I find plot to be horribly difficult. To arrange a piece of writing in a comprehensive story, to maintain it in an interesting narrative and consistent voice, I cannot imagine how he does it again and again. I have tried and I can't, not yet anyway. This story follows approximately 30 characters as they go about their business, for 8 days, after a mysterious dome covers their town. It is listed as science fiction but it is mostly a study of inner workings of a small town, surrounded by the dome, they can only rely on each other. How dependent are we on the outside world? Apparently very, at least according to Under the Dome. A power mad local politician, Big Jim, becomes a dictator within a few days by hoarding the propane supply, the only power supply, and demagoguing the most fearful of the town's citizens into a mob.  "A town is like a body, it seeks drugs to make it feel better." Big Jim is that drug.

The best thing I can say about the book is that it is perhaps the best portrayal of provincialism that I have ever read. If you have ever moved from a big city into a small town then I don't have to tell you what provincialism is. You already know too well. Being an outsider among people who have known each other their entire lives is an odd enough feeling, but when it starts having a detrimental effect on your life because of it, this is provincialism. Under the Dome does this very well. When the dome covers the town, they are looking for answers, they are terrified and are looking for someone to blame. The easiest target is the newest resident in town, a retired military officer named Barbie. You can guess who the hero of the book is. Like most of King's books, the good and evil sides are well defined. This is a trope of a lot genre fiction, particularly horror and fantasy, and the main reason I don't read much of it. Life is much more gray than the worlds that these generally portray. Science fiction usually doesn't fall into this trap, like horror. I probably won't be reading any more of King's fiction. I've read too many great books to spend time reading thousand pages of good-guys-versus-bad-guys and good guys win after a blood bath. Too many great books are out there waiting for me, literature or not, and I don't have enough time to read them.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Bubble Wrap Generation Goes to College

A while ago, I mentioned in a blog post that one of the reasons that I haven't reproduced was the environmental impact of having a child. But as a I mentioned in that posting, that was a minor reason. The major reasons were much more personal: financial and health. When we weighed the options, the joy of having a child were outweighed by the others. The environmental impact of having a child was piled on as another good reason. Another minor reason that I can pile into the mix is that I don't like how children are reared these days. Too many parents are over-protective. Of course, this not a good reason not to have kids, because no matter when you have a child, there are going to be other parents with styles that are incompatible with yours. I am sure many wouldn't like mine, if I had one.

The definition that the Urban Dictionary has for the Bubble Wrap Generation is very different from the one I use.  I use the term to describe parents that are so protective of their children that they might as well cover them in bubble wrap before they leave the house. This is prevalent in the suburbs where the family is wealthy enough to have at least one parent without a full-time paying job. These are the kids that don't leave the house without knee pads and that aren't allowed to do anything without adult supervision. When I was school age boy, I remember running around our neighborhood without any adult knowing where I was. Yes, I did get hurt sometimes and, yes, I did scrape a knee and bump my head a few times, but these were learning experiences. I healed and I learned. The thing that I learned the most was independence. How to talk my way out of a fight and how to be creative in our play. I am not sure the kids whose summers are filled with soccer camps and play dates are getting this.  Since this parenting style has been going on for years, we can see the affect this has had on them.

I have heard these parents referred to as helicopter parents. They are called this because they hover over their children. I am hearing more and more anecdotal evidence that the Bubble Wrap Generation is somewhat pathetic adults. I recently heard a story from a friend who is a professor on the West Coast that is sometimes contacted by their adult student's parent about grades. These are adult students employing their parents to fight their battles for them. This amazes me. I wouldn't have done this in high school, never mind college. This is a new phenomenon and not the first time I hear it, averaging about one student a year, I am told.

It is not just happening in college. At a prior job, someone showed up at a job interview with a parent. This was a huge red flag to not hire this person.  If they are so dependent on their parents, what kind of worker are they going to be in a professional setting? Probably not a very good one. Also, I heard another story from a teacher friend who was training a student teacher and asked for her to fill out some paper work. She said that her mother always filled out these forms for her. My friend told her, well now that you are an adult and are getting married yourself, you need to fill these out on your own.

Some might say that since I am childless that I shouldn't be commenting on parenting. I reject this notion, obviously. This would be like saying that if you don't own a gun then you don't have a right to complain about gun violence. How people bring up their kids has an affect on everyone, not just their families. If takes a village to raise a child, then that village has every right to complain about shitty parenting skills. That village, also, is quite good at correcting it. I am glad to say that my professor friends have refused to deal with the parents of a adult students, but will only deal with the student directly regardless of who is footing the tuition.

I realize that people love their kids and want to protect them, but wrapping the kid in bubble does no one any good.  As a taxpayer, I am expecting the future generation to carry my generation when we retire, not to ask us to do their paper work.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What is Justice?

My last road trip down to Fenway Park in Boston included a stop at a friend's to crash in their guest house. This is actually a friend of my wife's who is an ex-Harvard professor. He told us the most popular course at Harvard is called Justice. When he talks to a Harvard student about the course, he always asks them, "so what is Justice?" He usually doesn't get an answer, at least not one that is to his liking. I was curious as to what he would accept as a good answer and the subject of the statue of Lady Justice came up. I took this picture a couple of days ago at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. Many different versions of it exists.

Lady Justice (the Roman goddess of justice) is blindfolded because justice is supposed to be blind or at least objective. Regardless of your situation, your race, class, gender, religion, etc. ... justice is supposed to be accessible to you. You don't have to look far to figure out this is the ideal and not necessarily practiced. If O.J. Simpson were a poor man, he'd probably be in jail now. If Rubin "Hurricane" Carter were a rich man or a white man, we probably would not have spent a good part of his life incarcerated. Justice being blind is the ideal we want to achieve and we fail short often.

The scales in her left hand is for the balance between the plaintiff and the defendant.  The Egyptian goddesses Maat and Isis were depicted carrying scales as well thought to represent truth and fairness. 

In her right hand is a double edged sword which give her the power to administer punishment or exoneration. Without the sword, the rest is meaningless. A good example of justice without a sword is the Wold Court which has little jurisdiction to enforce their rulings. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Residents of Pious Mountain

One of the most interesting things I ever did in Grad school was a reception study of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. A reception study is a research paper in which you research how a work was received by critics and popular culture upon its first publication. This has always been one of my favorite books so I found the exercise fascinating. Other people in the class were doing equally interesting projects on controversial works, one did Lolita and another The Tropic of Cancer. We all found some really odd articles about our given work of literature, some strange, comical or even disturbing. The one that always stuck out with me was an article I found where the critic accused Vonnegut of anti-Semitism, not for anything he said, but for what he didn't say. This critic suggested that any novel about World War II that didn't mention The Holocaust was anti-Semitic. I found this preposterous and still do. Slaughterhouse Five is Vonnegut's most personal work and is a farcical representation of his own experience during the air bombing of Dresden. He didn't mention The Holocaust because he didn't experience it. He was a prisoner of war for most of the War.

This critic was a resident of Pious Mountain. The residents of Pious Mountain never miss an opportunity to fill the world with their deafening cries of superiority. They have to bring you down, to bring themselves up. This may be the oldest example that I have ever seen. Nowadays, they are everywhere. They can be seen all over the Internet, calling everyone names, "racist," "classist," "ageist" or "misogynist." The Residents of Pious Mountain shut down dialogue with every stroke of their Enter key, accomplishing nothing other than augmenting their own sense of smugness and self-entitlement.

They aren't always on the Internet. A few years ago, I arrived at work with a copy of Huckleberry Finn which I read on the bus. This is a great American classic, that everyone should read, full of political humor, sarcasm and biting commentary on 19th century America. But on that day, a coworker of mine picked up my Twain and said (paraphrasing), "you shouldn't be reading this book, it is a racist book." I believe I responded by saying, "What does that mean? Books can't be racists, people are racist." He had surprised me, so I probably wasn't that coherent. He then opened the book, leafed through it and then pointed at a page, "there it is, the N word." I tried to convince him of the book's greatness, of its importance in the canon, that you cannot judge a book by picking and choosing individual words and quoting them out of context. As you would expect, he never came down from Pious Mountain and I sat down there in the valley of my shame being put in the position of explaining myself.

I have had similar experiences with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. An acquaintance called it "pornography." After these two experiences, I learned to tuck my book into my backpack before entering the workplace. When it comes to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, get yourself a good old fashioned book cover and don't leave the house without it.

The residents of Pious Mountain are usually well-meaning, well-educated and possessors of much guilt. It is understandable why surface judgements are easy, especially of anything that challenges your beliefs or makes you look at the world in a new way. It is a lot easier to point a finger and judge than grasp a new idea. That new idea might make you feel bad, in a society of participation trophies and self-esteem junkies, judging others for not being as pious as you is mere food for the ego. The Internet has brought this to epidemic levels. The easiest targets are celebrities and politicians. Michael Richards has a moment of weakness while doing a stand-up and every pious jerk on the net is calling him a "racist."

I have always called myself a liberal. What this means to me is that I am open to new ideas and possibilities, but it is difficult, when there is a screen of taboo words, ideas or books blocking the view. It just makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs, "come down from Pious Mountain."