Friday, November 23, 2018

Middling 2.1: Beyond the Glitter to the Light

Some jokes are wasted on the young. Case in point: “Electric Boogaloo,” the subtitle to the sequel of the movie Breakin’, which I first saw at a theater in Neillsville, Wisconsin, with my cousins when we were young. That’s how I remember it, at least. Breakin’ was a theatrical attempt to capitalize on white suburban fascination with hip hop dance. It certainly worked on us.

At the end of the credits for that first film we were told to keep an eye out for the second, but by the time Electric Boogaloo hit the theaters I had moved on to other interests—hair metal, maybe. (The time bleeds together.) I still to this day have never seen the sequel, but I love the cadence of the title, and I find myself throwing back to it every time I reference the second in a sequence of something. Millennials rarely get the joke.

Such is the travail of the middle-aged life. I am reminded almost daily of the ephemerality of our preoccupations. The things that fascinate us, the things that shock us, the things that seem so earth-shatteringly important will one day seem cute and immaterial, the way old people seem to young people. One day I myself will be that old and cute and immaterial artifact. It’s only a matter of time.

I’m writing this the day after the birthday of the late great Thomas Merton, a mid-twentieth century monk whose writings have been significant for me. He died fifty years ago this year; he was five years older than I will be this year when he died. Among his later writings is the fantastic book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, which covers a lot of ground but ends with a refreshingly nondualistic reflection on the ephemera of every age:

There is the hope, there is the world
that remakes itself at God's command
without consulting us. . . .
The glitter is false?
Well, the light is true.
The glitter has ceased to matter.
It is even beautiful.

It occurs to me that the middling age is the opportunity to look beyond the glitter to the light. At first that can feel like a great giving up, even like a rapid succession of great givings up, with no assurance on the far end that we’ll have anything left. But from the angle Merton describes, this looking beyond is a gift, a truer seeing of everything.

Kara and I rewatched Breakin’ a year or so ago. It was huge for her, apparently, when she was a kid. It was cheesy, but fun. You should check it out.


This is an excerpt from an occasional e-newsletter I send out, focused on books, music, and life in middle age. This excerpt is from the spring 2018 issue. Let me know if you'd like to be on the distribution list.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Two Ladders, No Heaven: Stan Lee, Yoko Ono, and the Universes They Imagined

When Stan Lee was a student, he was clowning around with friends in the classroom office of the school paper when he spotted a ladder. "“So I climbed up and wrote Stan Lee Is God on the ceiling, which was one of the earliest evidences of my overpowering inferiority complex.” He was joking, of course: Stan Lee was a lot of things, but he was not dealing with an inferiority complex.

Joining the comic book industry in its infancy, Stan Lee, who died this week at the age of 95, worked like a horse for decades, seeing the fortunes of his chosen media rise and fall in the process. By the time he found himself working for Marvel Comics, the superhero genre was running on fumes, a caricature of its former greatness. It was all monsters all the time for Marvel. And then Stan and Jack Kirby came up with the Fantastic Four, a highly dysfunctional family of superheroes made powerful by exposure to radiation. There was even a monster among them--the Thing, a man whose body had been mutated into orange rock.

And Stan saw what he had made, and it was very good. And so a universe was born, and in a sense Stan's scribbling at the top of the ladder was proven prophetic.

I've always been a Marvel guy. I was buying countless back issues of The Avengers before Chris Hemsworth was born. My first book was an ode to comic books, which tells you something about my nerd cred. I've idolized Stan Lee for most of my life. But as I step back from Stan Lee I see not so much the man as the mindset: What happens at the top of a ladder is generally telling.

Stan Lee and all his contemporaries at the dawn of the superhero age were preoccupied with power, and rightly so. Many of the founders of the industry were Jewish, and they were creating characters and crafting tales while hearing stories of the criminalization of Judaism in Germany during the build-up to World War II. Closer to home, they were feeling the ongoing effects of the Great Depression. Is it any wonder that the fantasies of the day were caught up in deliverance: powerful men and women saving the helpless from every trouble and dispensing justice to those who would harm others. Captain America was introduced to the world in a drawing: He was punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

How do we get the power to be heroes? In many cases, we manufacture it. Captain America was cooked up in a laboratory; the original Human Torch was a robot; Batman had deep pockets. Stan Lee came into his own in an industry that glorified power and sought to harness it. For his generation, the first impressions of the nuclear bomb were good: It had the power to bring whole wars to an end. And even a couple of decades later, after "fallout" became a thing and nuclear power lost some of its luster, there was still the hope that good things come from those who harness it: The Fantastic Four were fantastic, after all, and while the Hulk was terrifying, he was also cool. Radioactive material made Matt Murdock blind, but it also made him Daredevil; a radioactive spider turned Peter Parker into Spider-Man. "With great power comes great responsibility," Peter learned the hard way from his uncle Ben. But before you get the responsibility, first you get the power.

YOKO ONO was born ten years and some change after Stan Lee in Tokyo, Japan. She was twelve and a half when Hiroshima and then Nagasaki were obliterated by nuclear bombs. Somewhere between 130,000 and 226,000 Japanese people died as a result of those two bombings. Imagine coming of age in full view of the most devastating military action of all time. Imagine that the power harnessed through the technologies of warfare--atom splitting and bomb making--were symbols not of deliverance and victory but the utter devastation of your homeland. I had a professor who wanted to reset our calendars so that August 6, 1945, when the US government killed Hiroshima, Japan, would henceforth be counted as the beginning of time, the start of the nuclear age. Every future decision of ethical import would have to take into consideration the fact that we had it within our power to destroy the planet.

Yoko Ono has her own ladder story. In 1966 she was exhibiting her art in London when John Lennon walked in. Lennon, the goofball anarchist of The Beatles, explored the exhibit, which included a white ladder that reached all the way to the ceiling. At the top was a magnifying glass, and on the ceiling were three little letters, so small you might miss them. "You feel like a fool," John told an interviewer years later, "you could fall any minute - and you look through it and it just says 'YES.'" Yoko was doing her own thing, markedly different from the art of her day: "all anti-, anti-, anti-," as John recalled. The two quickly became a bonded pair, and together they began to imagine the world as a place of possibility, with power being not something you harness so much as something that simply exists within you and without you, something you simply embrace. "War is over!" they shouted from the rooftops of Times Square in New York City. "(If you want it)" was the whisper to the shout.

"Imagine there's no heaven," John wrote, and we imagine Yoko sitting next to him at the piano as he wrote. "Above us only sky." I follow Yoko on Twitter and to this day she's still imagining such lofty, implausible things: Imagine that you are mystically joined to every other thing in the universe, such that your inner peace can manufacture world peace. Ten years and a world apart from Stan Lee, Yoko sees the universe differently, and she gives a little time each day to shaping it from her little corner of it. The two of them, Stan Lee and Yoko Ono, strike me as competing visions for how the universe works: Do we seize power, shape it and set it loose on the world? Or do we breathe power in and out, and so hold it loosely as we share it with the world? Yoko and Stan answered that question; the rest of us have to as well.


There's a third ladder story, this one in the Bible. Jacob the deceiver is on the run from a brother who wants to kill him. He carries with him the blessing of his father, who himself carried with him the promise of God that he and his children would be a blessing to the nations. Jacob has a vision on the road of a ladder to heaven, with angels ascending and descending. This, then, is the biblical view of the universe: Power is something invested in the world by a God who created it and loves it. We come by power as an accident of being. We may harness it, we may hold it, we may share it, we may hoard it. But it doesn't originate with us; it doesn't come into being by sheer force of our will or imagination. "Whatcha gonna do," Kanye West wrote, "with all that power?" It's an ethical question, and God already gave us the answer: Use it to bless.

Friday, November 02, 2018

The Triumph of Sisyphus: A Parable

“There’s room at the top, they are telling you still.
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill.”
—John Lennon, “Working Class Hero”

Every day was the same, for as long as he bothered to remember. He would strain at the rock, pushing and pushing, feeling it in his arms, his shoulders, his back, his feet. Every inch of ground he gained on the hill made the work that much harder, the climb that much steeper. And then he would reach the peak, and after a moment of rest and satisfaction, he would watch the boulder roll down the hill. He would follow it down, and begin again.

Then one day, he looked around. Just for a moment. That’s when he saw the others. Person upon person, pushing boulder after boulder. He’d never noticed before. And then he had an idea: Maybe the rut of another boulder would make his pushing easier. He steered his path toward his nearest neighbor, and wouldn’t you know it, the uphill climb became easier—only negligibly so, but after what seemed an eternity of pushing, every little bit helps.

When he reached the peak, he took a moment to celebrate. In the second between his boulder’s summiting and its plummeting, he took another look around. There he noticed more people—different people. People without rocks of their own. People whispering among themselves and gesturing toward him.

Then his rock rolled away, and he chased after it. But he kept thinking about the day’s strange turn of events.

At the base of the hill he took his position behind his rock and made ready to push. He took note of where the other pushers were and picked a target to follow, and again he found the slightest bit of relief in the day’s ascent. There was still the rock, still the climb, but he noticed the faintest of smiles trying to break out on his face. He reached the top and looked around, and he noticed that some of the other rock pushers had already begun their descent.

And then he had the strangest thought. I wonder if I could hit one of them with my rock.

The rock was already slipping away from him, but he reached out and gave it a little push—barely enough to alter its course just a little bit. He watched as the rock rolled toward one of the pushers downhill from him. He noticed the disappointment that flashed over him as the rock rolled by, grazing the pusher’s leg.

Then he looked around and caught the eye of one of the rockless people, who smiled and nodded toward him before turning away.

Sisyphus made his way down the hill, but he was no longer trudging. He felt a vague sense of accomplishment, a faint tingle of delight. He liked the feeling, he decided. He actually hurried.

Then he took his place behind the rock and began his ascent. He settled in behind another pusher and found himself annoyed. Why is this pusher so slow? he muttered under breath. Even so, he eventually summited, took quick note of the location of the other pushers, made a brief mental calculation, and leaned hard on the side of his rock before it broke loose from him.

The rock rolled down the hill. Sisyphus noticed that he was breathing fast. An unsuspecting pusher continued to make her way downhill, ignorant of the boulder gaining on her, pressing down on her.

The boulder made contact; the pusher collapsed under its weight and momentum. The rock kept rolling. The pusher didn’t get back up. Sisyphus let out a gasp, or was it a laugh? He looked around. Some of the rockless observers were pointing, laughing. Others were shaking their heads. One seemed to sigh and even suppress a tear.

Sisyphus made his way down the hill. He was smiling as he went.

Then he took his place behind his rock and began pushing.

This pattern continued for some time. Sisyphus’s rock didn’t always make contact with another pusher, but he always aimed it, and when his boulder crushed a pusher he would seek the eye of one of the rockless observers. He would smile at them, and they would smile at him.

He reveled in his superiority over the other pushers, who lacked vision and displayed no freedom of thought. He had come to take pride in his work.

Then one day, Sisyphus summited. He aimed his boulder and sent it rolling down the hill. He pointed and laughed as the boulder struck one and then another pusher on its way down. And then he sighed as he watched the boulder come to rest at the base of the hill.

But this time, Sisyphus lingered.

The other pushers were long gone. He stood and watched, and he wondered at his indecisiveness. Why was he not heading downhill? Why was he just standing there? What would happen to his rock?

He waited. And watched. And before too long, he saw a new pusher step toward his rock—the rock he had been pushing and chasing for all eternity past—and begin to push his rock up the hill.

And Sisyphus bowed his head, sighed, took his place alongside the watchers, and continued to watch.

Both Inspiration and Cautionary Tale: Excerpts from Middling

What follows is an excerpt from the Winter 2021 edition of Middling, my quarterly newsletter on music, books, work, and getting older. I'...