Sunday, January 27, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, January 27

Emmet Kelly

Good Morning Jacob…

I've heard it said recently that the words we use are often disguise.  It is our body language and behavior that give us away.  Who would know this better than the clown?  We each have our own buffoonish moments, performed best when it is totally unintended.  It is for the clown to recognize our act for what it is, find the emotional motivation within himself, then play it back to us in grotesque pantomime so we’re sure to get the point – and laugh.  

Alfred E. Neuman

The whole world doesn’t love a clown.  They can be quite disturbing, especially close up.  After all, it is their nature to be confrontational.  They demand your attention.  You can’t help but look their way, study their movements and feel vaguely uncomfortable.  At some point most of us begin to laugh.  We probably laugh hardest when we recognize something of ourselves portrayed in them.  Surely I don’t appear that way to others.  But, then again… Oh, my God!  

Fellini Clown

You don’t need elaborate circus get up to look like a clown.  A simple red bulb on the end of your nose will give a hilarious context to all your normal everyday behavior.  Just eating a sandwich becomes ridiculous.  Chances are, though, you don’t have a clown nose lying about the house.  In that case, a single item of clothing may do.  Maybe it’s a hat bought on vacation or a loud pair of shorts two sizes too small.  Try wearing your glasses upside down.  It’s important, though, to go about your normal routine oblivious to your humorous appearance.  Keep in mind that being a clown requires we don’t see ourselves as funny.  We only get laughs when our absurdity is first discovered by others.

Krusty the Clown

Our best clowns don’t require any props to be funny.  They focus on the curious things you and I do each day just to get by.  Life routinely provides us moments of confusion, enabling us to better describe who it is we really are, fumbling in befuddlement.  The humor depicted may be too small or seemingly so normal as to go unnoticed.  The clown picks up on our vulnerability because he so readily recognizes it in himself.  

Giulietta Masina

Take a look at Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate or Robert De Niro in Meeting the Parents.  Why are they funny?  It’s not the words they speak.  They wear nothing that especially draws attention to itself.  Placed in everyday, but stressful situations, they reveal with their face, body language and behavior more than what they intend.  Their discomfort is that they've become unscripted.  They have only themselves as resource and that risks being made ridiculous.  We recognize this.  We've all been there.  It’s humiliating, and it can be terribly funny when portrayed by others – with the hurt gone.  It’s the role of the clown to safely show the clown within each of us.  He presents himself as a total goof so that he can mimic our behavior without our feeling insulted.  It’s OK to appear stupid with a red bulb fastened to your nose.  Give it a try.  It works.


Red Skelton

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 20 January

Good Morning Jack…

Frederick Remington’s iconic Western scene, Aiding a Comrade, depicts the possible doom of three horsemen at its most precarious moment.  While hotly pursued across an arid plain by a band of hostile Indians, one of the three riders falls from his rearing horse.  Has the fallen man been shot?  Was his mount reacting to being struck when an Indian discharged his rifle?  The answers here are critical to the actions available for the two remaining riders.  Having precious few seconds to react the men must decide who to save and how to go about it.  Reasoned thought is fractured by the charged emotions of those facing imminent death.  Remington has carefully portrayed this moment of climatic desperation in order to confront you with the question, “What is it you would do?”

There seems no palatable choice.  Valor would have the two remaining riders stay and die defending their stricken comrade.  The alternative is flight, dooming your companion in order to preserve your chance at continued life.  What if you dismount, determined to fight, only to have the third rider continue to flee, deserting you both?  Is it possible you’re the one riding off in panic?  Glancing back over your shoulder you capture the image of your betrayal, the merciless death of two men, whose names and faces will confront you daily for the remainder of your days. 

Remington’s painting skillfully captures a moment of high adventure but his art sweeps you into the drama, determined to prod you into revealing something of yourself to yourself.  Chances are you can’t answer his question with any certainty.  But your own lack of clarity as to how you would react is what gives the painting its great emotional power.  Would you readily stay with the fallen man were he your cherished brother?  How likely would you fight and die for the man were he but another hired hand you hardly knew?  Maybe it shouldn’t matter but it probably does.  If you’re the one choosing to flee then what value do you place on this life you saved for yourself? 

Can you imagine a life of mornings waking to the question, “What kind of person am I?”  If you don’t like the answer what is it you need do to change it?  What acts of redemption are there to lift one’s burden of guilt?  Fortunately few people are confronted with the decisions faced by the men in Remington’s painting.  We can breathe easily, comfortable with the fact we are more valuable alive than were we to be dead.  Our honor need not be brought to question by severe circumstance.  Our character can be built upon daily acts of kindness towards others.  We are free to peaceably reinforce the qualities of just living.  Too often violence results not only in physical death but it also takes away the lives of those who remain living. 

A comic book illustration, an action movie sequence often has terrific entertainment value.  Something we like to think of as art provides us paths of conversation we might not normally consider, and for good reason.  Those discussions can lead us to dark places.  Undoubtedly it has its redeeming value but, like a tablespoon of cod liver oil in the morning, a little goes a long way.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to My Daughter
Sunday, 13 January

American Gothic - Grant Wood

Here’s a thought before I get to Jessicca’s letter:  we don’t make love complicated.  We don’t have to.  How many books, songs and movies explore this topic?  Human love is so nuanced, surprising, joyous and absolutely terrible.  The reason we muster to solve our daily challenges is often replaced with foolishness, delusion and deceit when matters of passionate love confront us on our otherwise carefully plotted sane path.

Do I wish for a world limited to the hushed librarian tones of persuasion when resolving relational disquiet?  Hardly.  My God, there are times in a couple’s life that requires adamant passion, the vivid conviction of one’s heart.  This in no way implies violence unless we take into account the bed having been brought crashing down by the now exhausted couple somewhere near the break of dawn.  Yeah, love can be like that. 

Adam and Eve - Masolino da Panicale
Good Morning Jessicca…

We all know of evolution and how various environmental factors influence the development of biology over time.  We can follow the course of this action from the fossils we unearth.  It’s about the variability of genetics exhibited within individuals of a particular species population and which ones are more likely to reproduce, insuring their characteristics are represented in succeeding generations.  

8 1/2 - Federico Fellini

The fundamental thing about us humans is that we increasingly control our environment and we've greatly improved the likelihood of survival of nearly all individuals.  So what factors most contribute to our own genetic design?  Let me offer you the intriguing possibility that sex appeal has become a significant determinant in our own evolutionary development.  Sounds crazy, doesn't it?  I must be joking.  Think about it, though.  Many vertebrate animals mate based on the appeal of an individual of the opposite sex.  You see evidence of this in ritual mating behavior, such as the display of colors or acts of dominance.  

Henry and June - Anais Nin

People are complex.  We usually make decisions that lead to having children on factors in addition to appearance and charm.  Desire is a very strong incentive but alone it makes for only a brief encounter.  People commit to long term relationships having considered characteristics such as trust, stability, respect and earning potential.  Eye appeal leads to an introduction, conversation – a personality assessment that may continue with an extended period of  ‘getting to know’ each other.  When lightening strikes a committed relationship between the two becomes understood.  In this manner women contribute their influence to future characteristic of men and men do likewise with women.  Each sex helps determine the nature of the other.  It’s nothing new.  It’s part of the history of men and women.  But the impact of gender appeal on our genetic make up has increased as other evolutionary pressures on us diminish.  For instance, we no longer fear being fed upon by predators.  Mental shrewdness supplants brute strength as a demonstrated key to success in a technological society.  The appeal based on sexual desire may change little over time but societal considerations evolve with changing circumstance and they do have significant effect in choosing a partner to raise a family.  

End of the Affair - Graham Greene

Is this about love?  I don’t know.  It’s complicated.  There are so many aspects to love – love of family, love of children… romantic love.  They aren’t the same.  They make differing demands of us.  Romantic loves leads to love of one’s own children.  What about endurance?  Love of a child tends to last a lifetime.  Romance is often fleeting, especially with the pressures of raising a family.  

Eyes Wide Shut - Stanley Kubrick

The love between partners changes in nature.  It may remain equally intense but the excitement of desire ebbs with familiarity.  The love shared by two adults in a relationship can not be taken for granted.  It is not reliable.  You can’t leave your spouse in a pumpkin shell.  The human heart is too easily stolen.  

Scenes from a Marriage - Ingmar Bergman

Then, too, human nature doesn’t conveniently fit into societal expectations, social needs.  Human sexuality is not simple, never has been.  Society’s tolerance of an individual’s personal disposition soon leads to the discover that people diverge widely from the proscribed norm.  We’re not a population of squares and circles, after all.  Chances are there are few true squares and circles anywhere, even among those that wish it otherwise.  The genie is out of the bottle and suppressing the nature of the human heart is out of fashion.  What it all means is that new freedoms present new challenges to one’s personal happiness.  At some point we are overwhelmed by complexity.  A life of simple squares and circles may seem a blessing.  We give up something to gain something else. 

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Edward Albee

We are complicated, mentally and emotionally.  We just want to simply love and be loved.  You have your entire life in front of you and you undoubtedly anticipate the future with relish.  I’m dragging a heavy chain of years and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.  I see challenge.  You see opportunity.  That’s why my stay here isn't open ended.  At some point the brain fills up with experience and you just plain run out of thinking room to decide on what next to do.  

Persona - Ingmar Bergman

As long as people cherish Valentine’s Day I suppose we’re safe.


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Good Morning Justin...

Happy Birthday to My Son
Tuesday, 8 January

I've begun drawing a bit.  It’s like a journal, maybe a diary.  For me it is better than words.  Words honestly used often reveal too much.  I prefer the obscurity built into pictures.  People provide their own stories when viewing pictures.  Is a picture ever meant for just two eyes?  If so, it would be like telling a story into thin air, where there are no ears to hear but one’s own.

Happy Birthday Justin!

Twelve is a popular number.  It even has its own unique name.  You’re a dozen years old.  Next year comes the incredible Baker’s Dozen – thirteen cookies in a bag meant for twelve.  If you think twelve is great just wait till next year when you become Super Twelve – which beats having to say thirteen.  Some people feel thirteen is a lonely number.  It gets blamed for all kinds of bad things.  Have you ever been in a building that didn’t have a thirteenth floor?  I have.  The elevator went from the twelfth floor right straight to fourteen.  You have to wonder what you missed.  And try finding out anything at the Information Desk.  Excuse me, how do I get to the thirteenth floor?  There isn’t one?  You’re telling me fourteen is really thirteen?  How does that work? 

I can’t make this up.  Humans are really an amazing breed of animal.  We’re so smart we like to indulge in practical jokes on ourselves.  The official explanation is that if there was a thirteenth floor people wouldn’t want to visit it or have their place of work there.  Scary things happen.  People wouldn’t be allowed to have scissors, for one thing.  Pages would be put together with string because staplers can cause blood to emerge from tiny holes in fingers.  Can you imagine all the painful paper cuts that would happen on a thirteenth floor?  Think of all the resulting infections, too, because you don’t want antiseptic around.  It might get in someone’s eye.  Then there’s the constant stings from static electricity that sneaks into your body from walking across ordinary carpet.  Your chair breaks or you fall over in it and bang your head because it swiveled back too far.  You get burned just minding your own business because someone stumbled with hot coffee in their hand.  And you’ve lost track of the number of times you’ve bumped your shin on the coffee table in the reception area.

Now that I think about it I can now see the sense in avoiding a thirteenth floor.  What a jittery place to work.  I’d probably get an ulcer.

Why talk about thirteen, anyway.  You’re twelve!  You’re incredibly fun.  You’re happy.
You’re smart – smart enough to know to go from a wonderful twelfth year straight into glorious fourteen.  I did.  Look how I turned out.

Happy Birthday, Justin.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to My Son
Sunday, 6 January

I suppose amnesia is the most effective way to start over with a clean slate.  Cutting off all human links with the past and losing yourself in a foreign country would be another attempt at starting over but you would drag your memory with you.  Both of these efforts to escape your past seem impractical for those of us that settle for a simple New Year’s resolution.

I wonder what dreams people have that suffer from amnesia.  Do they reveal something of the history that has been lost to our conscious mind?  Last night I dreamt I woke to find both my family and the front door gone.  Were I an amnesiac what is it that I could take away with that?

Good Morning Jacob…

Happy New Year!  This is my first opportunity to use the number 2013.  Notice they contain the first four numbers, starting with zero – the number for nothing.  One might think it odd to account for nothing but, as it turns out, nothing counts.  Apparently it was the Arabs that determined the need for a ‘no amount’ number.  The Romans couldn't see the use of a number that represented nothing.  Imagine how difficult it would be to do math with Roman numerals?  Whoever it was that first saw the use for a number meaning zero amount deserves a Nobel Prize.  It would be no small task explaining to people the need for representing nothing to count as well as the usefulness of placing a zero to the right of every number evenly divisible by ten, then adding an additional zero indicating ten times the initial denomination of ten. 

Zero seems such a small creation.  It’s importance may seem obvious to us now but for people of ancient times it just sounded nonsensical, counter intuitive.  If there is nothing to count, why would I want to count it?  Of course, it’s become more than just zero.  It is a convenient way of representing a number’s size.  The Roman’s had to use different letters to represent units of ten:  X = 10; L = 50; C = 100; D = 500; M = 1,000.  You can quickly see how clumsy the system is when you compare the Arabic 1910 with the Roman:  MDCCCCX.  The year 1918 becomes MDCCCCXVIII.  The Roman numeric tools discouraged the development of advanced math such as algebra (an Arabic word, by the way, as is zero itself) and calculus.  Roman numerals today are limited mostly to decorative representations of dates.  They are in a race towards oblivion with Latin.  At least Latin gives us a relational understanding of the contemporary languages it spawned, including Italian, Spanish and French.  Historians and anthropologists can study the relationships between people by finding similarities in their diverse languages. 

English is an interesting blend of cultural influences.  A group of people dominant in a particular field often lent their words to other languages.  Many of our scientific terms are based on Greek words, reflecting the initial thoughts of Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle.  Latin phrases are pervasive in the vocabulary of law.  Words relating to music, such as piano, reflect Italy’s one time dominance in Western music.  The success of Napoleonic France militarily has contributed words like lieutenant and sergeant, among others.  The pervasive reach of American culture has contributed its share of words to the world’s vocabulary.  Ideas are shaped in the human mind through the tools of language.  In this regard, words have been seen by some societies as subversive, a form of cultural imperialism.  The French government has long discouraged the use of American terms, much as English teachers regard slang expressions as terms that coarsen our culture.  

Ideas, and their products, are infectious.  Governments that try to suppress popular movements in philosophy, politics and the arts will find they fight a losing battle.  At most they buy themselves only time.  The people of this world are becoming too interconnected for governments to successfully isolate their population from outside influences.  The unprecedented explosive success of Facebook and other social media dramatically demonstrates the desire for people everywhere to connect and exchange information relevant to them in real time.  A dynamic society requires computers capable of sharing with one another.  Today’s computers are the size of a phone that slips into one’s pocket.  The potential of our growing global conversation for human advancement is incredibly exciting.  It is also subversive to repressive governments wishing to keep their society isolated from the rest of humanity.  It’s like insisting on the use of Roman Numerals while everyone else is calculating clickity-clack with the use of the Arabic zero through nine.  A thumb in the dike won’t long hold back the flood of progress.