Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Happy Independence Day, everyone! Here’s a refresher course in American history that’s particularly important and relevant for this year’s 4th of July. For some reason, I just remembered it this morning and found it on Youtube. If you were an American kid in the 1970s, you might remember those wonderful “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoons. They were catchy little snippets of educational material that ran between less edifying cartoons during Saturday mornings. Which a lot of kids of my generation spent camped out in front of the TV, wolfing down bowls of sugary cereal. So don’t be fooled by those bullshit sanctimonious re-posts on Facebook by middle-aged people about how *sniff* OUR generation didn’t need electronic gadgets to stay entertained because we were out riding bikes and organizing community patriotic rallies when we weren’t busy plowing the fields. We’re just jealous because our electronic gadgets weren’t as cool. But I digress.

Anyway, I actually felt a little but guilty when I found this. Because much as I loved Schoolhouse Rock as a kid, I always wanted to change the channel when this one came on. It was one of those women’s lib (that’s what we called it in the 1970s) things. Girl stuff. I found it not only irrelevant to me as a boy, but offensive. What? Were these “women’s libbers” implying that they were somehow BETTER than men?

No. They were simply claiming their rights as human beings in a free and democratic society. I hope the boys growing up today have a better understanding of that principle than I did. How suffragists should be heroes to them, as well as to girls. How whenever people are denied basic rights for no good reason, that’s a threat to everyone. How being part of one group that oppresses another doesn’t ennoble you, but demeans you.

So here’s a tribute to some true American heroes. The women of the suffrage movement. Pour yourself a bowl of sugary cereal and enjoy.

 

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This past Saturday, I attended my first meeting of Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers in a while. As I’ve mentioned (whined about?) in some recent posts, I’ve been really busy lately and a lot of things got put on the back burner.

The meeting is in North Jersey and it’s a nearly two-hour drive for me. But it’s worth it. The group is made up of a very talented, professional and dedicated group of writers, and I always take away something valuable.

At this meeting, the guest speaker was Teel James Glenn. The guy’s pretty much a walking encyclopedia of things I consider to be cool. He writes books that are intentional throwbacks to the classic pulp era of the 1930s, of which I’m also a fan. Some elements of The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report were intended as a homage to classic pulps, including the tough-guy detective hero and the gang of masked villains.

Teel is also a martial artist, professional stuntman, and fight coordinator for movies. He’s got a particular specialty in sword fighting. I picked up his now out-of-print (but not for much longer, as a reissue is on the way) Them’s Fightin’ Words!: A Writer’s Guide To Writing Fight Scenes. I know we’re not too far into 2014 yet, but that still pretty much made my year. Hell, he’s even into sleight-of-hand.

Check out his Website, The Urban Swashbuckler. (Come on! How freakin cool is THAT?)

Anyway, he said something about writing that really had a big impact on me, and helped me get past something I was struggling with in the novel I’m currently working on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read articles, writing manuals, and critical think pieces about popular culture that stress the importance of two elements in fiction: A flawed hero and a compelling villain. (more…)

MadMan! My friends are the best!

I went to a Christmas/New Year party last weekend, and my buddy Doug Ferguson got my 2014 off to a very good start by presenting me with the pictured issue of “Mad” magazine, signed by writer Dick DeBartolo. Thanks Doug!

Doug’s a tech guy, and he’s a fan of DeBartolo’s netcast “The Giz Wiz,” in which he talks about gadgets. I myself am not a tech guy, but I still listened to “The Giz Wiz” on Doug’s recommendation, and found it highly entertaining. By the way, be sure to check out Doug’s blog here.

My familiarity with DeBartolo comes from his status as a long-time writer for “Mad,” going back to the early 1960s. He specialized in the movie and TV satires, which were usually my favorite parts of the magazine when I was a kid. He also wrote an account of his experiences in “Good Days and Mad: A Hysterical Tour Behind the Scenes at Mad Magazine.”

So I started leafing through the signed copy of “Mad,” and thinking about how much I loved that magazine as a kid. I’d like to think that when I was writing “The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report,” DeBartolo and “The Usual Gang of Idiots” (the appellation by which the magazine’s editorial staff customarily referred to themselves) were kicking around in my subconscious.

If so, I wouldn’t be the first one to cite “Mad” as an influence. So have writers with “The Simpsons” and “The Onion.” Even Joyce Carol Oates has sung its praises.

I stopped reading it at roughly the time I entered high school, around 1981. When I was in grade school, I first started reading the new issues that came out in the late 1970s. Then I started buying second-hand issues from earlier years, as well as paperbacks showcasing material from the 1950s and ’60s. I loved it all.

Here’s the funny thing — much as I hungrily devoured every issue I could get my hands on, I always felt vaguely depressed after reading them for reasons I couldn’t understand at the time. In retrospect, I think the reason tied in with why I found them so fascinating.

Social critic Tim Gitlin once described Mad as “bubble gum nihilism,” which strikes me as a very apt description. Looking back, I marvel at the balancing act that the writers and artists of “Mad” managed to pull off. They kept it ostensibly within the realm of children’s entertainment, always toeing that line but never quite crossing it. (I noted in the issue Doug got me that they’re still using the word “dreck” as a thinly veiled substitute for “shit.”)

What amazes me, given those strictures, is how subversive, bracing, sharp and ultimately bleak they managed to make the humor. Even in gloriously sardonic comedy such as “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development,” you get glimpses of redeeming intentions and behavior. Not so with “Mad.” Its sensibility was more analogous to “Eastbound & Down” or “Archer.” Unremitting in its cynicism. Every emotion, every action, every institution, every human impulse was ultimately grounded in venal self-interest, lust, or stupidity. Nobody and nothing was above mockery. The Usual Gang of Idiots were simply hanging back and reporting on it with knowing smirks on their faces — advising you that existence is nothing but an unkind joke, so you might as well laugh at it. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing that was for me, as a Catholic school boy from suburban South Jersey raised on Tom Swift and Hardy Boys books.

(And for the record, based on the netcast, Dick DeBartolo sounds like a wonderful human being. That’s often the case — people with the most cynical, biting sense of humor in print turn out to be the nicest people when you meet them in person. Maybe because they have a means of getting it out of their system.)

As I leaf through this recent issue of “Mad,” it looks a lot different from the magazine I remember. It’s in color, and printed on slick paper. I don’t recognize most of the artists and writers. It’s full of references to modern pop culture and technology.

But it’s still sharp. It’s still lively. And most importantly, it’s still funny.

So Alfred E. Neuman, my friend, it’s good to see you again after all these years. Thanks for the laughs. (Eccch! What a load of dreck!)

duck dynastyI could be fired for writing this. By “this,” I don’t mean the words to follow. I mean that this very sentence I’m typing right now, in this format, could theoretically get me canned.

By the way — Hi, regular readers! Assuming any of you are still left. Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. I took a new job, and for a while I was commuting 90 minutes each way. I really didn’t have time to do much posting.

I don’t want to tell you where I work, for reasons that will become apparent. Suffice it to say that it’s a media-related job with a sizable corporation. I like it. I’m happy with my employers and my co-workers.

But I wasn’t happy about one stipulation that I had to agree to when I took the job. It stated, effectively, that I was barred from public communication outside the job. No books. No blogs. In light of the fact that this was a week before my book was scheduled to be released, I was less than pleased.

One of my supervisors confirmed what I suspected. The company didn’t intend to vigorously enforce this provision. It was just in place so they’d be covered in case I should decide to start a blog devoted entirely to trashing my employer. Or something outrageous that might hurt our public image, such as white supremacist propaganda.

I guess that sort of “no public controversy clause” is increasingly common. But is it right?

I started considering that when I read about Phil Robertson, the guy who got fired from the hit A&E reality series “Duck Dynasty” over his homophobic remarks in an interview with GQ.

I’ll say a few things up front. This might be a wishy-washy piece, because I’m not going to arrive at any answers here. I simply don’t have them. All I intend to do — all I’m capable of doing — is raising a few points that may be worth considering. I’m not a big TV watcher. I’ve never seen “Duck Dynasty,” nor have I ever felt any desire to check it out. I have gay and lesbian friends and relatives, and I am a staunch supporter of their rights. Robertson’s remarks about homosexuality, which I will not reiterate here, were grossly insulting to these friends and family members of mine. They disgusted me.

I saw some comments on social media to the effect that A&E’s decision to fire Robertson was a violation of the constitutional principle of freedom of speech. My first reaction, when I saw those comments, was to roll my eyes. Don’t these people understand what “the constitutional principle of freedom of speech” means? It refers to the role of government. If a government agency subjected Robertson to some kind of legal sanction for his remarks, THAT would be a violation of constitutional principles. Didn’t happen.

He has a legal right to say whatever he wants. And if I find his remarks offensive (which I do) and decide to start a boycott of A&E unless they fire him (which seems unnecessary at this point), I’m exercising my freedom of speech. The system works.

But is it really that simple?

Let’s not talk about Freedom of Speech, the constitutional principle. Let’s talk about plain ol’ freedom of speech — the ability to say what you want, when you want. The rationale for Robertson’s firing is that he entered into a contract with A&E. He was essentially serving as a public face of the company.  If he does something to make himself a liability to the network, they can fire him. Nobody forced him to sign that contract at gunpoint.

Obviously, that kind of thing is very important for TV personalities, whose entire job description is based on being in the public eye. Companies should be able to dismiss employees who become liabilities in that respect, right?

Yet, that also sounds very similar to the company policy that says I can be fired for writing this blog post. Nobody forced me at gunpoint to sign that agreement. (Although I was informed of that policy only after I’d left my previous employer and showed up for the first day of the new job. Just sayin’.)

And I can’t say I’d necessarily be opposed to that policy, under certain circumstances. I work hard doing my part to make the company I work for successful. Ideological objections aside, I would be very annoyed if a colleague negated my efforts by driving off potential customers with a misogynistic blog or self-published anti-Semitic rant tract. Even if he wrote said blog or rant tract on his own time, it would make little difference if people saw him as the public face of the company. I’d likely be happy if this theoretical co-worker got his ass fired.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, it’s easy to protect speech you agree with and condemn speech you disagree with. The problem is that it’s always a double-edged sword. Sanctions that you condone for the guy you DON’T agree with can eventually apply to the one you DO agree with. Or to you.

So let’s look at employers with the “no public controversy” clause. Like mine. Yeah, you could argue that nobody’s forcing anybody to work for them. But would that really hold any more water than the argument that nobody was forcing black people to patronize segregated diners in the early 1960s?

And say that clause went on to become as ubiquitous and accepted as workplace prohibitions on smoking. What if you had no reasonable option other than to accept it?

It’s not hard to imagine some dire possibilities arising from that scenario. For example, picture selective enforcement where bosses fired employees with blogs supporting Political Candidate A, but looked the other way when they supported Political Candidate B. Having recently worked for an employer that blatantly harassed union supporters via selective enforcement, I know that’s no abstract hypothetical.

So there’s no question A&E had a legal right to fire Robertson, and a sound practical reason to do so. I’m just wondering if I should be applauding what happened to him. Even if I think he’s wrong.

By the way — you may wonder why I’m writing this, despite what I was saying back there in the first sentence. It’s because I believe in freedom of speech.  Although I’m not always sure what it means these days.

stewieI guess I’m weighing in a little late in the news cycle about Seth MacFarlane’s now-notorious Oscars hosting gig. But I’m not really going to talk about the gig itself, so much as what it illustrates about the nature of humor. And in that respect, a little bit of perspective is probably a good thing.

As a writer of humor – or what I HOPE constitutes humor, anyway – it’s a debate that I’ve followed, in the hopes that I might glean some insights.

MacFarlane, of course, took a lot of criticism for the jokes he made. Many observers, including Jamie Lee Curtis and Jane Fonda, branded him as sexist. Particularly infuriating, from the critics’ standpoint, was a musical number titled “We Saw Your Boobs,” which was essentially a listing of movies in which female actresses showed their breasts.

Another factor in the controversy, for better or worse, is the fact that MacFarlane’s appearance accomplished exactly what the Oscar programmers hoped it would. Ratings were up, particularly among the coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. (more…)

ShalomHow come we don’t have more Jewish action heroes in popular culture?

I started wondering about that when I posted my recent interview with Michael Katz about his book “Shalom on the Range” – a Western with a Jewish hero.

Actually, I also wondered about it a few months ago after reading an interview with Michael Chabon regarding his (really good) novel “Gentlemen of the Road,” which concerns a pair of Jewish adventurers around 950 A.D.

For a while, Chabon’s book had the working title “Jews With Swords.” When he’d mention that to people, their reaction was frequently to laugh at the incongruity of the concept.

And yet, there’s nothing incongruous about the concept. For better or worse, Jews – like pretty much every culture in human history – went through a time when they ran around getting in sword fights. It’s what people did before guns were invented.

And it’s not like there’s any shortage of real-life Jewish badasses to serve as inspirations in the modern age.

I figure the dearth of Jewish action heroes is related indirectly to the fact that in America, the 1960s TV show “The Green Hornet” was about a square-jawed white hero and his Asian sidekick, Kato. But when it aired in Hong Kong, it was called “The Kato Show” and regarded as a show about an Asian hero and his white sidekick. (more…)

Alright! Got some discussion going on my previous entry concerning Ouija boards, from two very different religious perspectives. Which is cool. I’m not above using a little bit of religious controversy as a cynical ploy to generate readership. (Stay tuned for my upcoming post titled: “The Dalai Lama. What a Dick.”)

As an added bonus, the people weighing in happen to be two of my favorite bloggers. Ray Ladouceur’s “Dogwood Tales” incorporates woodworking advice and entertaining videos.

Check it out here:

http://dogwoodtales-woodworking.blogspot.com/

And Carlette Norwood Ritter’s “Lette’s Chat” is a blog talk radio show that features thought-provoking and fun discussions with an array of fascinating guests.

Check it out here:

http://castusblaidd.wordpress.com/

As I say, they approach the subject from very different perspectives and you can see their original comments in the previous post. (more…)