Monday, June 24, 2013

In the Valley of the Shadow

Fiction seems to be on a higher order than non-fiction. Gilgamesh, Hamlet, Gatsby: we marvel at them in large part because they benefit from the construct of fiction.  Yet looking ahead to this fall, I cannot help but be reminded of the great non-fiction of a generation.

In a decade, 9/11 seems to have become a flash of images.  CNN broadcasting the first tower on fire.  The second hit.  A prescient talking head saying that twice means it isn't a mistake.  Collapse.  Ruin.  An ineffective man becoming, for a time, Our President.  Waking up the next morning to check that the world was still there.

I don't mean to linger on that day--how could I, who personally lost nothing, add a valuable contribution?  Instead, I'd like to make two brief stops on how that day of profound realness informed fiction.

I was not aware of the notion of "post-9/11 fiction" until I heard about it from Ron Moore, the developer/producer/showrunner of the modern Battlestar Galactica.  In the miniseries which launches the reboot, it is revealed that "the enemy" of robot Cylons have now made themselves to look (and feel) human.  They attack the twelve colonies of humanity, visiting nuclear holocaust upon the species and reducing it to 40,000 without a homeland.  The Biblical correlation is apparent, of course (and left over from the 1970s version of the show).  That the great, horrible, attacking enemy appears to be an "us" with a zealotous agenda is the point.  That we don't know what all of them look like as the series proper starts is a larger point: the enemy can be among us as sleeper agents, saboteurs, or suicide bombers.  That the series continues to push the two sides together, blurring what it means to be an enemy is the largest point of all.

Another example used, I would argue, the visceral feelings post-9/11 as its starting point, but building upon and away from it quickly.  I refer to Lost, whose breathtaking opening scene is famously that of the crash of Flight 815.  How could the chaos in that scene not be informed by 9/11?  Strangers thrown together, death next to life, and unmitigated, oppressive tragedy.  For me, there is one moment early on that captures so perfectly the shared feeling that we had almost ten years ago.  We see the yet-unintroduced Shannon, standing amidst the fiery debris, screaming.  She is unable to help those around her; she is unable to run away from the danger around her; she is unable to tap into the basic animal drive to live.  She is, despite character flaws that we would learn about later in the series, drowning under the supreme, elemental wrongness of what is around her.

Shannon finds herself unable to escape the day when a plane fell out of the sky.  The crew of Galactica finds themselves forever changed by a single day's unimaginable loss.  Non-fiction is the less glamorous topic for writing, reading and thinking, but post-9/11 fiction serves as a reminder that the most engaging stories across time and space are often rooted in a very real world.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Two Big Words

In regards to the study of words, surely any meager attempt must always be worthwhile. To know one’s language better is, in a sense, to know one’s self better, to better understand communication and writing and speech, and most importantly, thinking. Thus the reader is hereby cautioned not to suppose that the words I have here explored have been chosen out of an attempt for humor, brevity, or inattention. Even if that could be thought, then
It's a big Twinkie.
nonetheless, as stated, such a study would have been worthwhile. But this series, filled with worthy reflection and self-reflection on the language which I call my own, is made up of words by which I have used to encourage my understanding of English, its functions, and its beauties. The words chosen are the cream of the crop from a larger list, tested in the incomparable Oxford English Dictionary in the 75th anniversary of that sacred sepulcher of haut anglais. I feel thus honored to hope that, in the shadow of the great Dictionary, the essay which follows might be looked upon as having been impossible without that magnificent text.

Upon reflecting on the wonderful gems of the English language, I naturally had to start somewhere. The first word is one that, in many regards, might be considered the mother of them all. By this, I do not mean that it is the maternal source of all words, but rather that, so it is said, it is the biggest word that English has to offer: “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Many a school child has spent time (surely time well spent) trying to pick apart the mysterious meaning of this long word, using the tools of prefix and suffix knowledge to work further inwards towards the key idea behind the word. Clearly, with a bit of thinking, the word means to be against… something, though what an antidisestablishmentarian is against has, to my knowledge, eluded elementary students across America. This can be expected, for the word is best applied to lovers of the Church of England, or more specifically, those in “opposition
It's a C and and E and a cross!
to the disestablishment of the Church of England” (this all all quotes hereafter are from the Oxford English Dictionary). (I find it anticlimactic that, as things turn out, with a bit of context, the word basically means what it would suggest.) What is perhaps not surprising is that this word in its original form is an older variety (the OED first cites its use in 1900); to my mind, with the grander and more verbose nature of what I think of nineteenth-century writing (albeit with the understanding, of course, that 1900 is not in the nineteenth-century), and with our era where world leaders refer to enemy combatants succinctly as “folks,” that a word as grand as antidisestablishmentarianism clearly was doomed to fall into the stuff of children. (I will, however, add that I did not know that such opposition to the Church of England existed at the turn of the twentieth-century; perhaps bright elementary school educators should file away this word and spring it at the proper time.) Indeed, if one supposes words to have individual emotions, this word probably has been depressed for some time: having started as such a lofty description for a difference in ideas about a religious institution, it is now notedin the OED, probably with giggles, as “the longest words that most people know are antidisestablishmentarianism... and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

But not all long words have lived such sad lives as the former. Indeed, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” ironically is, in one way, as an authentic a word as Dick Van Dyke’s accent in Mary Poppins: complete and utter “nonsense." Why then is this nonsense word noteworthy, aside from another long word that most people know? The word has an amazingly interesting history. The moral of it is that two persons named Parker and Young would have been wise to publish their hard work. In 1949 they wrote a song called “Supercalafajalistickespeealadojus” (underline mine to show differences), and following the success of 1964s Mary Poppins (which, “Whatever the ancestry of
Mary preferred Bert with his legs open, actually....
supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” was the venue by which the word “entered the general public consciousness”), legal action was taken against the Disney song authored by R. M. and R. B. Sherman. I will again ask the reader to look at the differences between the Disney song word and the word of Parker and Young; to my eyes, five differences exist between the Parker and Young word and that of Sherman and Sherman, the latter of which met success with a word that was 32 letters long. Parker and Young lost due to the “dissimilarity between the songs," according to the judge. Aside from being a nonsense word, and a very long word, “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” stands in mute testimony of the need for accurate authorship. Mary Poppins’ bastard word-child, so unclear of its origins, can at least take solace in its firm place in the English language.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Introducing The Podcast That Wasn't

About 14 months ago, we were keeping our ear to the ground about shows making their way through pilot season--shows to potentially podcast. One that sounded fantastic was called LA Noir, with executive producer Frank Darabont (then-recently ousted from Walking Dead) and carrying a cavalcade of stars. It was going to take place in the seedy world of 1940s/1950s Los Angeles, with cops and mobsters and costumes and violence.

Then nothing every came of it.

I had put together a podcast intro for an LA Noir Podcast--and I really enjoy making podcast intros, by the way. As a side note, I try and capture the aesthetic of the main television show in an abstract way. For Looking Back At LOST, the foundation has been the "system failure" warning and sound of the hatch implosion; it's mean to not only capture those iconic scenes, but the essential failure of the social system which occurred on crash day. With The Alcatraz Podcast, the sound elements of a closing, squeaking door and underwater breathing hopefully evoked the prison and the most obvious (if not dangerous) way to escape: the water. For The Revolution Podcast, my most complex intro yet, the Beatles' spare studio version of "Revolution" starts and stops while interrupted by thunder; things grind to a halt as the thunder explodes and a lone, sad guitar takes over. The idea there was to capture the end of "the way things were" and suggest a new, solitary hopeful nature. (Pity the show didn't live up to those ideals.)

Linked below is the unused introduction for The LA Noir Podcast, about a show that ultimately never came into being. Hopefully the introduction captures an early 1950s musical flavor, a call placed to an unknown hero, and his rushing in a police car amidst the gritty glitz of that age.

Monday, June 10, 2013

...Time Enough At Last

It is perhaps the saddest ending to any Twilight Zone: Henry Bemis is without a place in the world, having just lost all hope at ever finding the peace he so greatly and intimately desires.

Bemis is, as most readers will doubtless know, an avid reader (indeed, "avid" hardly starts to describe it).  His heaven as presented in the episode "Time Enough At Last" is one where all the trials and tribulations of the world disappear so that he simply might sit down and read morning, noon, and night--pausing, perhaps, to sleep on an old couch, puff on a bit of cigarette, and dine upon some canned food.  Such pleasures are luxuries, for Henry Bemis lives after the nuclear apocalypse.  He is, for all intents and purposes, the only person alive in the world.  He is, for all intents and purposes, the only person who feels the way he does.

Let us rewind to the start of this episode which first aired in November, 1959.  Bemis is a lowly bank clerk; yet even in his cage-like spot at the money-changing desk, he reads.  When chastised by his boss for being this way, for having these innate habits which he cannot shake, an earlier mistake is referenced: the time that Bemis' look lingered too long upon a campaign button on a lady's blouse.  The elegant prose of Rod Serling's teleplay communicates artfully the crass picture of Bemis being mistaken for staring longingly at a woman's bust.  Such, it is made clear, was not his intention.

Later, the sympathetic, lovable Bemis goes home to his wife.  Helen Bemis is a cruel, angry, hurtful, ugly shrew of a woman--just the sort of woman who inspires one to stay single.  Or celibate.  Adding insult to injury, she asks Henry to read some poetry to her.  He is touched by the gesture--until he sees that she has marked out each and every page of his book of poems.  Helen does not appreciate who this man is to the core.  To say his marriage was one of live would be to speak a lie.

Thus I wonder if there can be a serious, academic look at "Time Enough At Last" as worthy of a homosexual reading.  That Rod Serling has zero concrete clues to support this notion, unlike, say, the end of Some Like It Hot which then, as now, reads as farce-as-statement-of-truth:
No, "Time Enough At Last," released the same year as Some Like It Hot is neither so brazen nor bold.  Yet hidden beneath social mores, the powers of television advertisers, and the conservative choices of network programers, there is nonetheless the possibility that Henry Bemis speaks to the notion of "nobody being 'perfect.'" His lack of interest in the female figure, his blind allegiance to a marriage without all the things that make marriage worthwhile, and most of all his great desire to simply be left alone to live the life he wants: these speak to the small, quiet way in which Rod Serling's script whispers about a topic that few others would dare to address in 1959.

If indeed the plight of Henry Bemis as a homosexual character is an argument to be made--particularly in light of recent battles and victories for equal rights--then the episode ends with a basic, elemental argument for equality.  ""That's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now," cries Henry Bemis, now kept from the deeply driven desire to live as he would like.

The injustice of it all washes over him as the episode stops, soberly unwilling to conclude in the traditional sense.  The episode ends, leaving the viewer hanging at that sense of injustice.

"That's not fair."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Big Body Politic & NJ's Senate Election

Today, Gov. Chris Christie of my Garden State decreed that our Senate seat will be filled by someone popularly nominated by his or her party in two months and sent to Washington two months after that. The catch is that it will all be done before his own election in November, allowing for left-wing liberals such as myself to sit out his presumed re-election. This is being observed by both the New York Times and Politico as being the true motivation: to start his second term easily. They're right: the state will spend $24 million that it needn't spend in order to avoid the wildly popular (and, daresay, presumed Senator-elect) Cory Booker from driving rabid progressives to the polls to also support the underwhelming mouse of Barbara Buono (who?) who is opposing the lion Christie for the governor's mansion.

Let me be clear: Chris Christie has represented a most odious first term, in which he vilified public sector workers, teachers among them, as the single fault for New Jersey's problems. Christie has cut aide to the poor and the hungry while making New Jersey a better place for the rich. That he did his job--completely and properly--after Hurricane Sandy is to be applauded nonetheless. That he's ensuring his future--both the next four years and beyond--with the upcoming Senate election is abundantly clear.

And you know what? I don't have a problem with it.

Not one bit.

Elections matter, dearly. When voting for the next chief executive of your student council, village, city, or nation (or anywhere in between), know that your votes count. Who we elect isn't just to prevent the other guy from winning; it isn't to completely support the pie-in-the-sky, impossible plans of our candidate; it isn't just to keep things as they are. Sure, those are all factors--but sometimes real governance must happen.

Apparently, despite hazy New Jersey election laws, the governor can set the election for a time of his choosing. Period. It needn't be when it's inconvenient for him. It also needn't be this year: he could pick any dyed-in-the-wool Red Republican to fill the senate seat for the next year, giving a leg up to a challenger against Cory Booker. Indeed, in a state that votes comfortably but not impossibly blue, perhaps Booker's rise (one that I think lands him a nomination for president in the 2020s) could be stopped now, today, with Christie naming a Republican senator.

Instead, we're off to the polls in two months--to vote, because democracy matters. Cory Booker will sail into the United States Senate for a year and be given enough light to shine, ensuring six more years after that. Perhaps Senator Booker will steal away the governor's mansion from Republicans in 2017--how "wise" will Christie's move look to Republicans then? Or perhaps Booker will help advance some other 2017 Dem to Trenton--same effect.

The bottom line is that voting counts. Are the August primary and October general elections ill-timed versus the November election?


Did the people of New Jersey choose the man who made that decision?


Can they share their anger one month later by voting against Christie?

It's still yes. And it's equally a no--because it's ultimately about voting and democracy. I won't be voting for you this November, Mr. Christie. But today, my hat's off to you.

Monday, June 3, 2013

An Untrue Air About It

Whilst an undergraduate at Stockton College, I took a course called Literary Research with a respected, bespectacled German woman called Professor Vorgeben. Part of the course set forth by this taskmaster was to participate in historical research--that is to say, to try and uncover some little bit or piece of history on our own and for the very first time.

Thus I found myself in the Ocean County Historical Society's stately building--a place I had grudgingly visited many times before as a child, having been dragged there by my father to look at cannons used in the Battle of Monmouth, jackets from a New Jersey soldier who fought in the Civil War, and the like. It's always been a quiet building, populated by quiet workers who fiercely guard their minorly interestingitems as though it's the Holy Grail. However, being there to perform "important collegiate research" somehow changed how I was treated--indeed, I wondered if they had mistaken me for some sort of Indiana Jones. The formerly schoolmarmish bitties who work there ushered me into their "document collection facility."

Disappointingly, it was a stuffy attic in a state of poor organization. Nonetheless, I had a job to do, and so I fiddled and waded through the barely-organized boxes until I finally found my way to older and older documents. Most were terribly boring: voting tallies, deeds, permits, tax roles. But then I came across a most odd and unique letter, reprinted here as it was written:

January the Sixth, 1800

Dear Cousin Jobarth,

Today I entitle my montly correspondence to you, as it is most important.

“Upon The Wonderes of Various Types of Gasses, Fumes, and Fartes: a Retrospective Reflectionary Upon the Turning of the Ninteenth Century in the State of New Jersey, Specifically Written From Its Coastal Countie of Ocean.”

As calendars are turned to celebrate the start of twentie centuries since our great Lorde Christ was borne, I would hereby like to reflect upon a biological facte that most assuredly has been visited upon us by Loki, the punishing angel which smited the horrorable folkes in Soddom and Gamorroah those many millennia ago. Indeed, it appears to me that there is little way that I, a poor fisherfolk, can find the wordes to best,

and least rudely, describe this awful acte that visites me daily, nightly, and constantly. Bless me, gentle babe Jesu, that I do not offend ye by using the following word, so crass as it is: the farte.

I find myself so punished at every turn by these vile gasses and fumes that my “lifee de sociale,” or social interactions, are severely inhibited. A fortenight ago, I took gentle milkmaden Hannah Boorkesstrang oute upon a gentle cartride after our dinner at the Tavern of Western Pointe towards the ocean, hoping, frankly, for a chance at some lovely necking and petting. Alas, for my boweles were a-flame from the Itallian spa-getti upon which I dined. Tried, I did, to prevent the foul smells to eminate from me, but alas, it was not meant to be. Bubble and chortle did my stoumach, then suddenly there was a loud and eminating popage of farte. I struck the horse drawing our carte, hoping that Miss Boorkesstrang would assume it to be from an animal of the four-legged variety. Sadly, before I could blame the horse, my body gas strucke again, this time sounding like a Forthe of July artillery shote! Miss Boorkesstrang jumped with fright, and before I could hope to place blame on anything, anyone (perhaps, even her), she held her handkercheif most close to her face and exclaimed “dear and most Holy God, you’ve the smell of death, Sir,” and jumped off my carte, running into the woods speaking as if Satan had visited upon her many strange voices and spirits.

The moral of the story is that sometimes a man is made of such bitter stuff that his gasseous emmisions can scare away even the most lovely and bosomy milkmaden that the countie of Ocean has to offer. I can only assume that, as the past centurie turnes to the next one, we must hope that those great twins of the mind, Science and Philosophy can create a way in which a simple lad as I could be fixed of the most awful affliction that besets me.

I hope you are well and that your chicken farm continues to produce massive layage.

Your cousin,

Edmund X. Bertelby, Junior

Doubtless, you can imagine the confusion on my face after reading this letter purported to have been written by Mr. Bertelby. Short on time, I conducted what limited search I could; there was no record of Bertelby (senior or junior), but the ladies downstairs said that true historical record-keeping started in Ocean County in the late 1850s.

I was not able to make heads or tails of it; indeed, even today, after many years have passed, I wonder what in the world that letter was really about. Was it a bit of Enlightenment humor? A rogue fake placed with real documents in order to be found one day? Indeed, I share this anecdote not only to interest the mind, but with the faint hope that, being on the internet, one day someone will come across it and be able to shine a light on this foggy letter.