Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Tao of Le Guin

When I was in college in the early 1990s, I took a fantasy fiction course with Dr. Carl Holmberg. For one of the course's writing assignments, we had to choose an author, find three different books the author wrote, and write a paper on a theme that applied across all three books.

To find possibilities for the assignment, I browsed through my dad's fantasy and science fiction collection and considered my options. Tolkien was an option, but that seemed too easy and overused. I already had a bunch of Frank Herbert stuff, and I considered that, but Dune was my favorite book, and I wanted to branch out a little. My dad had a number of Piers Anthony books, and I considered them. In the end, though, I chose Ursula K. Le Guin, and I did the paper on A Wizard of Earthsea, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Lathe of Heaven. In addition to reading the books, I found some articles on Le Guin, and I picked up on the theme of Taoism. I don't remember the details of my analysis, but I ended up focusing on some aspect of Taoism that spanned the three books.

Writing that paper began my appreciation of Le Guin. I hadn't known much at all about her before that, but afterward, I knew I enjoyed her work. It was so imaginative, so full of beautiful writing, and so full of love. While I didn't read a lot more of her works, I always cherished the time I spent on my paper. To this day The Lathe of Heaven is among my all-time favorite books, and I owe some of the growth in understanding sexuality I experienced in my twenties to The Left Hand of Darkness.

Le Guin passed away earlier this week at the age of 88. I'm not Taoist; I'm much more Buddhist than anything. The rudimentary understanding I have of Taoism would tell me that death is part of life, and so the passing of Le Guin, who was fortunate enough to live a long life, ought to be recognized for its inevitability. Still, I feel another inevitability -- the sadness of knowing Le Guin is no longer with us.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Here I Go Again for 30 Years

I found my deep interest in popular music in the summer of 1987. Sure, I had listened to pop music before, knew words to whole songs, etc., but the summer of 1987 is when I started really following and learning about popular music. It began with watching Dial MTV counting down the Top 10 vote-getting videos of the day, and it would continue into listening to Rick Dees’ Weekly Top 40, followed by listening to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem and within a couple years subscribing to Billboard magazine and religiously following the Hot 100 chart.

I feel fairly certain the interest in popular music I cultivated that summer led me to love popular culture, which led to me to study popular culture, which led me to my career today. So, really, the summer of 1987 was pretty influential for my life.

As I said, it started with watching Dial MTV and the songs that consistently made the daily chart. I remember developing a crush on Whitney Houston, who I thought was so beautiful in “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).” I remember Ann Wilson belting out Heart’s “Alone,” which seemed to be the most heavily played song of the summer. I remember wanting to watch Beverly Hills Cop 2 because of Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” I remember thinking about the word “monogamy” for probably the first time in my life after seeing George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” video. And I remember my reaction the first time I saw Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” video.

My first reaction to “Here I Go Again” was to think this was just another long-haired 80s rock band having a popular song. I didn’t really even listen to the song. I sort of dismissed it as something I would find run of the mill. But sometime soon thereafter I actually did listen to the song, and not only did I realize my first reaction was wrong; I was blown away. This song spoke to me like no song ever had before. Every line seemed to sum up my life and my identity, and the sound of the song itself seemed to emphasize those lines so perfectly. This was my song if ever there was one.

Of course, once I had become attached to the song, I maintained a firm interest in its chart performance. It rose to the Top 10 and then the Top 5, and it seemed like it might stall out at number 2. But, then, “Here I Go Again” forged upward to the number one spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. I hoped it would stay for more than one week, but alas, the song was already well into its run, and Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam had other plans for the next week. So, disappointedly, I listened as Whitesnake fell from the top spot after just one week on top. Still, though, the song that spoke to me had made it, achieving the pinnacle of pop song success by topping the chart.

Incredibly, today marks exactly 30 years since “Here I Go Again” rose to number one. Every now and then, I think that maybe a song has replaced “Here I Go Again” as my favorite. I’ve loved many songs in the past three decades. Yet, all it takes is one listen to the song, and all of those doubts subside. "Here I Go Again" still speaks to me like no other song ever has. Its sound still resonates through my bones, and its words still seem to represent not just my life, but my career interests – the very interests upon which it played such a profound influence.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

It's Time for Football to Go Away

Five years ago, I made a decision to give up watching and following college football. While I didn’t as explicitly quit following and watching the NFL, I found that over the course of that first season without college football, my interest in professional football waned, and over time, I have given up the NFL and football at other levels as well.

All of this hasn’t been easy. Football is so heavily built into U.S. life and had become so much a part of my fall routine that at times I have found myself watching a few minutes of a game and, more often, checking scores and standings for various leagues at various levels. Working at a Division I university makes it even more difficult because so many university activities, especially in the fall, revolve around football. Yet, despite the occasional slipups, I remain committed to avoiding football and to get to a point where I never check standings or scores and never choose to watch any part of any game.

You can read my blogpost from five years ago for explanation of my reasons for giving up college football. Those reasons had much more to do with the inappropriate position of football within university power structures than with the physical toll of the sport on its participants. That said, in the five years since, that physical toll has become much greater of an influence on my decision to avoid football. Stories from the past week about deaths playing college football and the results of the study of former professional footballplayer Aaron Hernandez’s brain strengthen my resolve. It really is time to end this sport. Those who run it don’t appear willing to end it or even address the problem in a meaningful fashion. Many of them have sought to downplay and discredit the connections to brain injuries. They are making too much money off it. And so, I’m led to the same conclusion I came to five years ago: within our current economic system, power exists in consumption choices. More of us must refuse to consume football, and we ought to do it sooner rather than later.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

When a Member of Your Sandlot Passes Away

Folks who take classes I teach in which we talk about it know that I critique the film The Sandlot for its representations of gender. The film makes the exclusion of women rather explicit, and the implications of that exclusion are all the more significant when we recognize that the film is typically characterized as a “family film.” In fact, my own DVD copy of the film says “Family Feature” on the front cover.

Still, as a baseball fan, the film has appeal because it captures the joy of playing sandlot baseball with a group of other kids. That joy is important to me because I spent a significant amount of my time as a kid doing exactly that. My brothers and I, along with a collection of other friends, would go to the local park in my hometown that had a number of baseball diamonds, and we would play baseball for hours.

Among that collection of other friends, the most consistent participant was Jason, a classmate of my youngest brother, Nate, who shared with Nate and me a passion for baseball – a passion borne out in our shared interest in collecting baseball cards and, of course, in playing baseball together. Indeed, “consistent” is not strong enough of a word to convey Jason’s participation in our baseball games. “Constant” works much better. I think only Nate and I participated more.

Jason passed away Friday at the age of 39. I don’t know the cause. I do know he had experienced some health issues recently, but I don’t know if they contributed to his death or not.

I can’t say I know Jason well any longer. We were connected on Facebook, and there was a little interaction there, but I really hadn’t seen him in a couple decades. I remember that he won my NCAA men’s basketball pool in 1993, and I have specific memory of giving him the money when he won. I remember him working at my grandfather’s drugstore for a while in the 1990s. I remember trading baseball cards with him in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But most of all, I remember him as an integral part of my sandlot experience.

The Sandlot is about remembering childhood. As we get older, that which makes up our childhood slowly recedes. Our favorite television shows go off the air. Buildings we knew make way for newer structures. Our friends and family pass on, and so eventually do we. When these people and things are gone, it makes the process of remembering the joys of childhood more difficult … or at least it makes that process take less concrete form. Sometimes the process happens before it should, and that’s the case with Jason. Still, even though less concrete, that which has passed on remains with us. Jason will always be an important part of my youth, and he will always figure prominently in my memory of that youth.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

On the Benefits of Being Snowflakes

I don't live in the kind of bubble that popular opinion since November has suggested leftists and academics like me live in. Indeed, I think many of us don't fit that characterization. Rather, I am well aware of the kinds of things folks of different backgrounds and political perspectives say about folks like me. One of the latest trends I'm seeing is use of the word "snowflake" to disparage us. This is much preferable to other words that are used. "Libtard," for instance, may be the worst of the lot, given not only its implication that leftist and liberal perspectives are stupid, but also its marginalization  of people based on disability by invoking the word "retard" as an intended insult. While not as marginalizing, "snowflake" in these contexts is still meant to belittle leftists and academics as weak.

I would like, though, to reclaim "snowflake," given its potentially positive connotations. Consider that every snowflake is different. Claiming an identity as a snowflake is thus a celebration of diversity. Additionally, while an individual snowflake may be easily crushed, if you put a whole bunch of snowflakes together, you get something very strong that can make a tremendous impact -- a snowstorm. This, then, adds to the celebration of diversity as it recognizes the substantial power that can occur when a great number of diverse people work together even as they maintain their diversity. Indeed, as I write this, it occurs to me that snowstorm might work as a replacement metaphor for the problematic melting pot that has been used to symbolize the goal of U.S. democracy.

So, yes, I'm a proud snowflake.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Curt Schilling -- A Matter of Character

In September 2015 I wrote on this blog about applying the character argument to Lance Berkman when he becomes eligible for voting in elections for Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. I had planned to write a similar post this winter about Curt Schilling, who both is currently on the ballot and has a much stronger case for election. Indeed, there’s a good likelihood Schilling will be elected at some point, and were I a Hall of Fame voter, the only thing that would keep Schilling off my ballot is that the ballot has a limit of ten names, and I might have ten names that go before him. Barring that, I would vote for him, and I consider Schilling a Hall of Famer.

I also would not apply the character guideline when voting for the Hall of Fame. To me, it’s a judgment I would not wish to make and that I would not see as something that should play an important role in my voting.

That said, I was prepared to write a post about how folks who can vote and who do apply the character criterion should consider applying it to Schilling. Based on inflammatory things Schilling has said in recent years, there ought to be questions about his character. Fortunately, though, I do not have to advance the argument, because people who are in much greater positions of visibility, including some voters, are already doing so.

Perhaps predictably, Schilling has responded to folks advancing that argument, claiming that they would vote for him if he had said "Lynch Trump" and that "There are some of the worst human beings I’ve ever known voting. There are scumbags all across." His response is exactly indicative of the problem. There seems to be little if any self-reflection and self-evaluation on Schilling's part. In the past, he has made disparaging remarks about various groups based in willful ignorance, and when called out on it he has relied on tired tropes about fictional bogeymen such as political correctness and people getting offended too easily. Now, as he faces legitimate questions about his character, Schilling continues his pattern of blaming others rather than taking responsibility for himself.

Two years ago Schilling claimed that he lost Hall of Fame votes because he is a Republican, a claim that does not appear to hold up when we consider the many other Republicans who have been elected. His current claims seem to echo that sentiment, suggesting that his political positions are at the heart of arguments about his character. Curt's politics do have something to do with this, bit it's not simply the expressing of particular political positions that constitutes the problem; rather, it's the way in which those positions are expressed, the kinds of sentiments through which they are expressed, and the kinds of demeaning and marginalizing assumptions that inform those positions (at least as they are expressed). Curt's losing votes not because he's a Republican, but ... well, frankly, because he appears to be a jerk. And that certainly is a matter of character.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Remembering Carrie Fisher

As news spread a couple days ago about the death of Carrie Fisher, like so many other folks I found myself thinking of Fisher in connection with her role as Leia in the Star Wars films. I’ve read a number of statements and accounts by heterosexual men relating how they had a crush on Fisher/Leia during the time period of the original Star Wars trilogy. I probably did, too. I was of the right age, sexual orientation, etc. to do so, and I certainly was a Star Wars fan. Yet, if I did, I don’t remember it, so it must not have been a particularly strong crush like the ones I do remember, such as Kim Richards in Escape to Witch Mountain or Nancy McKeon as Jo in The Facts of Life.

At the same time, I’ve read a number of statements and accounts that frame Fisher and Leia in terms of being a princess. Yet, while I called Fisher’s character Princess Leia without thinking about it, out of a sort of rote consciousness because that’s what Leia was called so often, I didn’t really think of her in terms of being a princess. Sure, I knew she was a princess, and there were times in the films that highlighted that. But as I’ve thought back on it the past couple days, that’s not what Leia signified to me.

Rather, the more I reflect on it, the more I think I saw Leia – and by association Carrie Fisher – as tough. Sure, she was the damsel in distress in the first film, but her interaction with Luke Skywalker begins with the sarcastic “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” and Leia was the one who blew a hole in the garbage chute so that she and her “rescuers” could escape the detention level. Additionally, the first time we see her in the film, she’s quite willing to stand up to Darth Vader. In The Empire Strikes Back, she’s in a leadership role from the beginning of the film, one she maintains through the next film and then, of course, decades later with The Force Awakens. Much has been written over the past four decades about the complexities of gender representation in Leia’s character, and I’m not going to rehash it all here but to summarize that it’s generally considered a mixed bag of reinforcing traditional images of women as an object of sexual/romantic desire for heterosexual men, yet also challenging those images through her leadership, strength, and courage.

In my life I’ve thought a lot about Star Wars, engaged with plenty of texts and artifacts from the Star Wars phenomenon, written about Star Wars, and even taught a class on Star Wars, but I had never really reflected so deeply on my own perceptions of Leia until now. After doing so, my most prevalent thought is to admire her toughness. Carrie Fisher has a tremendous legacy that includes advocating for mental health awareness and opening spaces for honest discussion about stardom. Her portrayal of toughness in the character of Leia Organa in one of the most significant phenomena in popular culture history should be considered a vital part of that legacy as well.