4 – 8 – 15 – 16 – 23 – 42

After a three-month hiatus, Ana Spoke has resumed posting to her blog today. Explaining she “was too busy getting married and starting my new job” to blog, Ana never did lose her literary ambition, although she struggled mightily to get back into her writing.

The difficulty Ana faced in re-starting speaks powerfully to a dilemma that’s been coming for some time. About five years ago, I was writing sporadically in this blog, and wasn’t happy with what I was posting. I had read from several bloggers that the key was to make a committment of some fashion — number of posts per week, word count, completing a story each month, whatever — and stick to it. Many suggested that posting each day was the key, and for whatever reason that committment was the most appealing to me. Not sure of the exact date, although I do know it was the day after my younger son’s bar mitzvah (I could look it up, as if that mattered) — I told myself I was going to post something, every day, in this blog, starting that day until… whenever.

I’m now wondering if whenever’s day has finally come.

At times, the show’s title perfectly described its audience

It’s not that the thrill is gone; I still love writing, and blogging, as much as ever. But this daily obligation has me feeling like Desmond Hume from the television show “Lost”, tasked with entering six numbers (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42) into a computer terminal every 108 minutes (I’ll save you the work — the six numbers add up to 108). Desmond was told this sequence of numbers had a supernatural power, and entering those numbers was the only way to prevent a catastrophic event. “Lost” was a cult phenomenon in its day, and its fans spent a good deal of time and energy speculating on some of the show’s recurring motifs, particularly those six numbers (hey guys, astrology has 12 houses and 9 planets — guess what number you get when they’re multiplied!). Posting on online message boards, speaking at conventions, and giving interviews to fawning entertainment writers, the show’s writers would frequently drop hints at the numbers’ significance, but after the show ended in 2010, they admitted most of show’s motifs had no hidden meaning. Those numbers had been chosen pretty much at random, and served as nothing more than a useful plot device, what the detective novelists would call a red herring. In other words, Desmond had been entering those numbers for absolutely no reason.

The decision to post every day was the right call five years ago, as I don’t think I could have produced as much as I have if I didn’t have that disciplined motivation. But there’s been too many obligatory posts the past several weeks, and I don’t see the value in keeping the streak going any longer. My Christian readers will likely say that I’ve made an idol out of my daily obligation — and they’re likely to be correct.

But as I contemplate stepping away, I think of Ana’s struggle to resume writing. Let’s say tomorrow, Wednesday, I decide not to post. What’s going to motivate me to post on Thursday? Or any other day this week? Next week? The rest of the month?

If you’ve managed to wade through the preceding 500+ words, I’m now asking a favor. What advice do you have for blogging consistently, but not daily? What tactics do you employ to keep posting regularly? I don’t want to be like poor Desmond any longer, but right now I’m at a loss in my search for a different way of being diligent.

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Super Boor

Super Bowl LI will be played this evening; kickoff should occur some time after the singing of the third or fourth patriotic anthem, the broadcast of a couple dozen overproduced commercials, and the 30 men and 20 minutes required to flip the damn coin. The game represents America at its boorish best — even our most sports-adverse citizens cannot ignore the event, while the rest of the world tolerates our obsession like a kindly yet overbearing relative visiting for the holidays.

I wanted to begin today by reblogging a post about the game that makes no actual mention of American football. Agnes Wright is ready for the halftime show, and shares some recipes for what has become an American tradition.

Ignorance is strength

George Orwell

[Today’s prompt from The Daily Post: Devastation]

Over this past weekend, a dystopian novel first published in 1948 entered the bestseller list on Amazon. The “alternative facts” promoted by President Trump’s leading spokesperson has evoked comparisons to doublethink and newspeak, concepts introduced in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m glad to see Orwell re-enter the public conversation. My doctoral dissertation in the 1990s relied heavily on the writings of Eric Blair, but as I studied and wrote I wondered if Orwell would remain intellectually and culturally viable in the 21st century. He had a lot going against him — deceased for almost half a century, the title of his most famous work evoking a year sinking further into the past, ridiculed by academics as a lightweight (“let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about” was a frequent punching bag for postmodern philosophers, who argued that meanings didn’t exist outside of language), castigated for his role as a government informer in his later years. Orwell seemed headed for the dustbin of history; I’d been fascinated by his work since high school and was still moved by his call for simple human decency in defiance of political oppression, and I regretted what I saw as his coming demise.

Well, perhaps that’s changing. Trump’s America is certainly no Oceania, but in less than a week we’ve seen this administration intimidate the press and attempt to control how information is communicated. The Conways and Bannons in the regime seem to realize that while any third-rate despot with enough guns can temporarily control a population by force, a tyrant who controls people’s thoughts can remain in power much longer — and what better way to control people’s thoughts, than to bring devastation to their language?

So welcome back, George Orwell. You felt out of time in your own age, and for all the wondrous technological advances since your passing, I’m sorry to say we’re no less fearful and brutal than what you remember. Maybe it’s that sense of alienation, your feeling of not belonging in an age like this, that gives you an insight that, for all your faults, make your voice still so valuable at this time.

Stumping for Pumpkin

In response to this fall’s backlash against premature pumpkin spicing (which threatens to morph into a br0ader attack against the cloying flavoring), I propose the following rule when ordering overpriced coffee drinks or baked goods: if you’re not wearing a jacket or sweater, stick with the caramel and cinammon. 

Music Monday: And Then It Rains

Starting a new weekly feature today, “Music Monday,” dedicated to retelling great stories about popular music from the last half century or so. Most of these stories have been told before, but all are compelling enough to warrant being told again.

If you’ve listened to American pop music over the last twenty years with any regularity, you are most certainly familiar with “Joey“, the 1990 single that has been the only hit to date for the enigmatic group Concrete Blonde. It’s never been my favorite song from them — I prefer their edgy takes on LA life, such as “Still in Hollywood” and “City Screaming” —  but the opening power chord, combined with Johnette Napolitano’s booming vocals, have preserved the position of “Joey” in the soundtrack of my mind.

It’s definitely not a feel-good song; it’s not hummable, you can’t dance to it, and the lyrics are clearly about a man suffering from alcoholism (if you’re somewhere drunk and passed out on the floor). There are many theories about the song’s origin, but the most popular, and the one advocated by Napolitano in her musical autobiography “Rough Mix“, is that it was written about the singer’s relationship with Marc Moreland, guitarist for Wall of Voodoo and other bands (some of which also featured Napolitano). A dozen years after “Joey” made the charts, Moreland would die after a liver transplant necessitated by his alcoholism; Napolitano doesn’t mention her relationship with Moreland in a 2013 interview, but it’s clear from her description of how she wrote “Joey” that the song was written about a deeply troubling experience:

We did a demo with no lyrics. It was just like scratchy vocals, just me making sounds, basically, where I knew the melody would go. … I knew what I wanted to say, but I wasn’t looking forward to saying it.

Napolitano was in a cab, riding to the studio where she would provide the song’s vocals, when the lyrics finally came:

it’s just a matter of like a cloud’s forming and then it rains. The lines are forming in my head and they’re all in my head, and I know the chorus, and I know what I’m going to say. It’s just a matter of fine tuning the details and how I’m going to lug it out. And then it rains. The clouds all formed and it rained. And then it happened. And that was it. And it was just there.

A love song, written spontaneously, for a doomed man. It’s eerily prophetic, tragic, and beautiful.

Hirsute Hollering

Anyone who’s read this blog over the past few months is familiar with my contempt for the person I can only call The Fraud. My opinion hasn’t changed: He is an existential threat to the United States; should he somehow get elected this November (wouldn’t bet on that, but far stranger things have happened), the damage he could cause might take decades to repair.

I’ll give him one thing though — he is entertaining. What he says and does can be downright scary at times, but there’s a certain car-crash fascination that comes with every one of his inane ramblings. And there’s no harm in a little amusement, so long as you don’t forget about his very real menace.

Comedians, though — they’ve been largely disappointing in regards to The Fraud. There is a long tradition of brilliant political satire in America, demonstrated most famously by Jon Stewart and the pre-CBS Stephen Colbert. Yet for every Jon Oliver and Samantha Bee these days, there seems to be a dozen pathetic standups, telling the same lame jokes about The Fraud’s hair and poorly imitating his accent. Go for the easy targets, the cheap chuckles; play along with his hucksterism and ignore his vacuous substance, letting The Fraud laugh all the way to the bank, and perhaps the most powerful position in the world.

When I read the first few lines of Elan Mudrow‘s recent poem on The Fraud, I feared this would be more of the same, a rimshot in verse. But Elan’s too insightful to be satisfied with easy answers, and her poem uses his hair as a metaphor for our angst-ridden age, where a bad case of bed-head can send us into a frenzy of angry despair. In her poem, The Fraud is a symptom of our collective anxiety, and his outrageous behavior a sign of our desperation:

We’re you poking your nose

in some other country’s junk drawer

Hoping to find a flat iron?

“Hair Yell” is the best poem, and one of the best overall commentaries, about The Fraud to date.

Fighting Back

Some interesting advice the other day from Olive Ole on how to deal with obnoxious comments and online bullying. Diverting from the “don’t feed the trolls” strategy that most advise, Olive argues for a direct response — Know your bully, learn their weak spot, and use it — which at times seems closer to retribution than self-defense. To her credit, Olive does warn that going all Oulaw Josy Wales on your tormentors can turn victims into perpetrators, and her advice is given with the intent to stop the cycle of abuse rather than escalate the conflict.

As the tenor of my reaction suggests, I feel very ambivalent about this type of response, as revenge has always seemed an inadequate substitute for justice. But then again, justice in the wonderfully uncontrolled environment of the Internet seems comically impossible, and the most effective technique against any form of bullying is to fight back. A troll starved of attention does tend to go away, but sometimes the spell of indifference doesn’t work; while I don’t agree with many of Olive’s tactics, I do see the value in assertive responses to trolls who won’t go away.

Aunt Marisa, and Geek Culture’s Ambivalence with Elderly Women

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” opened in movie theaters this weekend, and I believe it’s deserved the rave reviews and tremendous box office receipts it’s earned. Rather than adding another voice of praise, I want to analyze one of the minor moments of the film, and its implied comment about geek culture. (Mild spoilers ahead; if you’re planning to see the movie but haven’t gotten around to it yet, you might want to check back here later.)

As a confrontation with Captain America and his allies becomes evident, Tony Stark/Iron Man decides to recruit an “enhanced human” he has recently discovered — sixteen-year-old Peter Parker, who apparently had been bitten that radioactive-or-whatever spider six months ago and has been captured on YouTube videos swinging through the streets of New York in a hilariously crude homemade costume. (Why Stark would recruit a kid who’s only fought burglars and car thieves into a superhero battle is a question for another time.) The lad comes home from school one day to find Stark sitting in the living room of his apartment — but Parker’s surprise isn’t as big as the surprise generated by the actress sitting next to Robert Downey Jr.

AuntMay-Comics

Aunt May in the comics

Aunt May is arguably the most important supporting character in the Spider-Man story. Typically portrayed in the comics as a frail septuagenarian, May has been a major influence on the nephew she’s raised since childhood. (Peter’s biological parents, along with the how-when-why of their deaths, have never been adequately detailed.) While frequently used for comic relief, May also has a strong moral code, and is never afraid to admonish her nephew when he fails to live up to his obligations; her guidance early in a Spider-Man story arc often directly influences Spider-Man’s decisions later in that same narrative. May’s presence since Amazing Fantasy 15 has reinforced the notion that Spider-Man’s power comes as much from within as from his wall-crawling abilities.

AuntMay-Harris

Rosemary Harris as Aunt May

Prior to “Civil War”, Aunt May’s casting in Spider-Man movies has been largely consistent with her portrayal in the comics, with Rosemary Harris portraying her in the three Tobey Maguire films, and Sally Field playing a younger yet still visibly aged version of the character in the two Andrew Garfield movies. Both of these wonderful actresses portrayed Aunt May’s inner strength along with her charming cluelessness, and delivered memorable performances with limited screen time.

AuntMay-Field

Sally Field as Aunt May

But neither of these Aunt Mays are recognizable in the woman waiting with Tony Stark for Peter’s arrival.

For the record, I’ve been a huge fan of Marisa Tomei since “My Cousin Vinny”, for which she deservedly won an Academy award. I also believe she can bring an energy and charm to Aunt May that neither Harris nor Field could match. Her appearance in “Civil War” is brief but engaging, and I’m actually looking forward to what she’ll do with the character given a larger role in next year’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”

Marisa Tomei as . . . as . . . I forgot what I was writing about

Marisa Tomei as . . . as . . . what was I writing about?

But as much as I admire Tomei as an actress, I’m one of many who have misgivings about this casting. I’ll let this tweet speak for one of those misgivings:

I simply can’t help feeling this casting in large part represents Marvel’s cynical exploitation of the juvenile ideal of feminine beauty that’s an unfortunate part of geek culture. It’s part of a larger ambivalence I see regarding elderly characters in fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero fiction; you see the occasional geriatric male, but they mostly comply with the Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore “wizened wizard” stereotype, and the few elderly women who appear are often met with caustic derision from fans, as demonstrated in the response to General Leia Organa in last year’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” As much as I appreciate Tomei, and look forward to seeing her portray Aunt May in the years to come, I can’t help regret losing one of few (if not the only) strong elderly women in superhero films, and the opportunity to address an enduring ambivalence in geek culture.

In the past few years, the comics industry has placed an emphasis on diversity, with several minority characters taking the mantle of established superheroes; most notably, proto-WASP Peter Parker has been replaced as Spider-Man by Miles Morales, a Hispanic African-American. (They’re all fictional characters; if Marvel wants a trans-gender Spidey, or to have Aunt May played by a knockout, they have every right to do so.) I just hope this emphasis on diversity also extends to characters over the age of 40.

Black Panther #1

 For someone with an advanced degree in literature, I spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on comic books and movies derived from them, so much that I’ve considered starting another blog titled “I Only Watch Movies About Superheroes.” But every once in a while, a project comes out that makes me feel a little less guilty about this indulgence.

Next month, Marvel Comics will publish the first in an eleven-part series scripted by Ta-Nehisi Coates. (New York Times columnist, senior editor at The Atlantic, won The National Book Award — yeah, that Ta-Nehisi Coates.) The series will feature the Black Panther, a character with an uneven history at Marvel. First appearing in the early years of Marvel’s Silver Age fifty years ago, the Panther has been a member of the Fantastic Four, Avengers, and other lesser-known superhero teams, and is often a central character in Marvel’s seemingly annual (and typically tiresome) cross-title/mashup/battle-royal events. Yet while he’s a solid member of the Marvel Universe, the Panther has had limited success as a solo character; every few years, an artistic team will launch a new Black Panther series, which will garner critical praise but limited sales before ending a few years later. Given this history, the decision to limit the new series to 11 issues (an intriguingly odd number) seems prudent.

But let’s be honest, I didn’t call my comic book shop today (yes, I “have” a comic book shop) to reserve my copy of Black Panther #1 because I’m a T’Challa fan. I simply can’t remember someone like Coates — an author this accomplished, an intellectual this powerful — writing a comic book. (Only person who comes close is Neil Gaiman, but that’s an entirely different story, as Gaiman was writing comics before expanding his literary scope.) And at first I was cynical, as I’m always suspicious of intellectual attempts to appropriate comic book culture; read just about any philosophical study of Batman, and you’ll see what I mean. Then I read Coates’ Atlantic article about the series, and discovered his interest in comics is rooted in a sincere appreciation from his youth:

In the way that past writers had been shaped by the canon of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wharton, I was formed by the canon of Claremont, DeFalco, and Simonson. 

If you were trying to establish your geek cred with this quote, consider yourself successful, my friend.

While there’s no guarantee of success, I’m intrigued by this particular combination of writer and character, given the intersection of their biographies. The first black superhero in a mainstream comic, Black Panther’s name was temporarily changed in the early 1970s to the Black Leopard, entirely in order to remove any association with the Black Panther Party (Marvel Comics gives voices to minority viewpoints, but has always stopped well short of revolution); Coates’ father, meanwhile, was an actual BPP member for a while, and considering the author’s interests I fully expect the series will explore post-colonialism in Africa as well as race relations in the US. I really have no idea what to expect — this series could suck, or it could supplement my monthly fix of “Howard the Duck” and whatever the Luna Brothers are producing. But if nothing else, I appreciate the chance both Marvel and Ta-Nehisi Coates are taking with this project.