Thursday, December 03, 2009

Men and Escapism

I’m no child psychologist, but I do work in an office where an endless string of kids parade in and out, allowing me ample opportunity to observe behavior. We also have a big TV here playing cartoons half the day, which gives me a chance to glimpse commercials for children’s toys. I’m noticing a particular trend, which may be obvious but I’m only now really beginning to appreciate.

There is a difference between little boys and little girls. I have no idea how much this difference is actually biological or how much it is merely cultural. Like many “nature or nuture” issues, I suspect the answer is a complex combination of both. But look at the toys marketed to boys versus the toys marketed to girls. Yes, the boy-toys are in general related to conflict, war, and competition. And yes, the girl-toys are in general related to domestic, nurturing tasks. This says a lot about our perception of gender, of course, but I’m making a slightly different point today.

While both kinds of toys embrace the imagination of a child, they do so in very different ways. A girl might be encouraged to play with a dolly, taking care of her as though she were a real baby, even (with these new-fangled dolls) changing her diaper, burping her, and putting her down for naps. Or alternatively, she may care for a little pony, or accessorize Barbie with all the latest fashions. Meanwhile, the boys are pretending they are Jedi and beating each other up with plastic lightsabers.

In short, girls are encouraged to imagine they are adults in the real world, while boys are in a galaxy far, far away.

Now I always hesitate to make blanket statements about gender traits, but so many boys I know (myself included) have been strongly affected by this trend. We spend our entire childhoods inhabiting completely other systems of reality, so that when it comes to doing something relatively straightforward or dealing with real world complications, we’re utterly unreliable. It also might explain a bit why so many girls, to my amazement, are so freaking put together and practical.

Is this why the male fantasy since the days of Huckleberry Finn and even earlier has been… escape? Running off into the wildnerness where no ties will bind? Ben Folds sings:

“Started thinking ‘bout my old man
it seems that all men
want to get into a car and go

Is this why I’m addicted to video games? Is this why I face an ever mounting anxiety when faced with real problems and would prefer to just slip off into the alternate world of a book, or a game, or a play, or a TV show, or a comic book, or whatever? Even sports represent an other-world, a place of concentration that distracts from the day-to-day realities of life. The men who throw themselves into memorizing football trivia and watching every game are doing the same thing as the guys who play World of Warcraft for hours or go to Star Trek conventions. But I’ve argued this before.

Sure, some women must feel this way too. And plenty of men I know have grown out of this. But I guess some of us never did. I hear people talking all the time about boys who never grow up. Our culture is flooded with 80’s nostalgia because of my generation refusing to let go of childhood. And one day twenty-somethings who are now only toddlers will speak with amused fascination and longing about the good old 2000’s.

Ben Folds again:

And everybody know
it sucks to grow up
but everybody does…

The years go on and
we’re still fighting it
we’re still fighting it

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Ugly Princess

Once upon a time there lived a little princess who was very beautiful. She was so gentle and kind and gracious that she almost glowed. Everyone who saw her smiled and felt happier, and almost everybody loved her. The people of the kingdom loved her. The men and women who worked in the castle loved her. The knights and the soldiers and even the visitors from far away lands loved her. The king, her father, loved her most of all.

Every day she was told how beautiful she was.

“You are the prettiest little girl in the world,” the people of the kingdom said.

“The sweetest angel, and so very kind,” said the men and women who worked in the castle.

“A treasure above all others,” remarked the visitors from far away lands.

“My pride and joy, the most beautiful creature in the world,” said the king, her father, who loved her most of all, and the little girl would hug him and kiss him.

But the queen, her mother, said nothing. Nobody told the queen that she was pretty. Nobody called her an angel, or a treasure, and the king never said she was the most beautiful creature in the world. In secret she grew jealous of the little princess and her beauty.

One day the queen heard of an old woman who lived in the mountains and who knew many secrets and the ways magic. And so she journeyed far over the land, through the towns of the people, across the bridge over the river, and through the woods to the foot of the mountains. There she found the hut of the old magic woman, with the old woman herself standing just outside. The hut was old and dirty, and the woman was dressed in rags.

“My daughter the princess is very beautiful,” the queen said, “but everyone treats her like such a treasure that I am afraid she will grow up very spoilt and selfish.”

“I have just the thing,” the old woman said, and she went into her hut. In a few minutes she returned, holding a beautiful mirror. It was framed in delicately crafted bronze and its surface was clear and smooth.

“Look closely, your highness,” said the old woman, “And you will see this is no ordinary mirror.”

And so the queen bent down and peered into the mirror, and shrieked. She could see a woman dressed in beautiful, royal robes but who looked so ugly and wretched and cruel that the queen shuddered. The ugly women in the mirror shuddered too. And at last the queen understood that the hideous woman was herself.

“Thank you,” the queen said, and she took the magic mirror from the old woman, “You will be well rewarded.”

And so the queen journeyed back to the castle.

The next week was the little princess’ birthday, and all the men and women of the kingdom came to the castle to bring her presents. She was given gifts of gold, of precious stones, and jewelry. She received servants and puppies and ponies and many beautiful dresses. She was given everything a little princess could possible desire.

That night, when all the castle was preparing for bed, the queen came to her room with her own gift for the princess.

“Oh, it’s lovely!” the princess said when she saw the mirror. “Thank you so much, mother!”

“You’re very welcome,” said the queen.

“Oh!” the little princess cried. “But who is that horrible little girl in the mirror, mother? The one who looks so cruel and ugly?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” the queen replied, “There is only your own reflection, dear.”

“Is it that really me?” the girl asked. Her face was very white and pale. “I don’t believe it!”

“Go to sleep, darling,” the queen said, “You will feel better in the morning.”

But the little princess did not sleep at all. She lay in her bed, thinking of the horrible sight in the mirror. It could not be real! She waited until she could not stand it any longer, and then leapt from the bed and rushed to the mirror to prove to herself that it had all been a nightmare. But the image in the mirror was always the same. If anything, it looked more hideous than she remembered. And so she fled back to her bed and wept, until she grew convinced again she had been dreaming and rushed back to the mirror again to check.

And so on and so on, throughout the night.

And in the morning, when the sun crept in through the windows of her room, the princess looked at herself in the mirror and said, “I am ugly.” And she got dressed and went about her day.

“You are the prettiest little girl in the world,” the people of the kingdom said when they saw her, but the little princess squeaked and ran away.

“The sweetest angel, and so very kind,” said the men and women of the castle, but the little princess hid her face in shame.

“A treasure above all others,” said the visitors from far away lands, but the little princess stamped her foot and wept.

“The most beautiful creature in the world,” said the king, her father, who loved her most of all. But the little princess did not hug him or kiss him, but pushed him away and ran back to her room in tears.

“How cruel they all are to tell such lies,” the little princess said to her reflection in the mirror.

And so the little princess did not go out of her room any more. She didn’t visit the people, or hug or kiss her father. She stayed in her room all day and night, looking in her mirror.

One day the little princess heard of an old woman who lived in the mountains and who knew many secrets and the ways of magic. “Maybe, just maybe,” the little princess thought, “she could make me beautiful again.” And so she set off on a journey to the mountains, leaving the castle, and the knights and the soldiers, and the visitors from far off lands, and the king, her father, who loved her most of all. She left them all far, far behind.

She passed through a little town where the people had never seen the king or the queen or the princess before. But when the people saw the princess coming, she looked so beautiful and noble that they knew at once who she was. They came out of their houses and lined the streets to see her. But when she came near, they were so awed by her beauty that they bowed their heads in respect.

“I knew it,” the little princess said to herself, “they cannot bear to look at how ugly I am.”

And she passed through the town without saying a word.

She came to the bridge that crossed the might river. There was a little man who lived by the bridge and tended it and who helped travelers across.

“The bridge can be treacherous and slippery,” the little man said to the princess, “Please let me help you to the other side.”

“Thank you,” the little princess said, and held out her hand for him to take.

And the little man looked at his own hands, which were dirty and coarse, and not at all suited to touch the lovely, clean hands of a beautiful princess. So he took out a clean kerchief and wrapped it about his hand, and then he gently took the hand of the little princess and guided her carefully across the mighty river.

And the little princess thought, “I am so ugly he could not even bear to touch me.”
And she left the little man and the bridge without saying a word.

She walked through the woods, which were full of creatures. She saw deer frolicking, and hear birds singing, and watched squirrels leap from tree to tree. The she heard a deep, scary growling, and she turned to see a fearsome, terrible lion. The little princess grew very frightened and began to tremble.

But the lion was so impressed by the little girl’s beauty that he lost his appetite and began to feel bad for her. He bowed deeply to the princess with respect, then turned and wandered off into the forest.

“Oh,” the little princess cried, “I am even too ugly to eat!”

And she walked through the forest without saying a word.

At last she reached the foot of the mountains and the hut of the old magic woman. The hut was large and spacious, and decorated very elegantly. The old woman herself was standing outside, dressed in very fancy clothes.

“Please, please, help me,” the little princess cried. She fell to her knees before the old woman and begged.

“My dear child,” the old magic woman replied, “What is the matter?”

The princess wept. “I am ugly,” she said, “I’m so very, very ugly. Please, can you make me pretty?”

The old woman was confused. “What are you talking about, my dear?”

“Please,” the princess begged, “I cannot bear to look at myself anymore!”

And then the old magic woman remembered the queen and the magic mirror and her heart broke. “My dear, dear child. You are not ugly at all. You are a very beautiful princess.”

“Do not lie to me, old woman, please,” the princess said, “I have seen myself many times in the mirror.”

“Come,” the old woman said, “I will show you.”

And she went into her hut for a few moments and returned with a plain, simple looking mirror.

“Here we are,” the old woman said. “This is just an ordinary mirror. It has no magic in it.”

The little princess took it from her nervously.

“Now, what do you see?” the old woman asked.

The little girl stared at the mirror. She stared so hard her eyes began to hurt. She stared and stared and stared and stared.

But she could only see an ugly princess, no matter how hard she looked.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Little Boy Who Wandered

Once upon a time there was a little boy who loved to wander. He would wander over the hills beyond the edge of the town, past the fields where the farmers were sweating under the sun, right to the edge of the mysterious forest. The little boy loved the sight of the forest, so green and dark. There were many adventures in there, the boy thought. There was magic and love and glory. He would walk along its edges, enjoying the forest smells, but he never would enter. That was forbidden. Oh, once or twice he took a few steps beyond the line of trees, into the outer edges of the dark wood, before running breathlessly back into the open air, giddy with excitement. But he could never go in properly and explore.

“That is not where you belong,” his mother said one day. “The wood is dangerous. No more wandering. One day soon you’ll be a man, and then you will work in the fields where you will sweat under the sun, like your father and his father before him. And then you will marry, and have a little boy of your own. This is the proper course of life.”

And so the little boy who loved to wander tried not to wander any more. He learned to work in the fields and to sweat under the sun. At first it was very difficult not to stare at the hills beyond the edge of town, and to stop from thinking of what lay beyond, but with time it grew easier.

The little boy got bigger and bigger, and the people of the town began to treat him like a man. But the little boy knew he was still a little boy.

One day, when he was working in the fields and sweating under the sun, the little boy looked at the farmers all around him. Their eyes were empty and sad, and little weary lines marked their brown faces.

“I won’t become like that!” the little boy said to himself, “I’m meant for something more!”

And he threw down his hoe, wiped the sweat from his brow, and wandered away. He wandered over the hills beyond the edge of the town right to the edge of the mysterious forest. Here he hesitated, and his lip trembled with fear.

“Are you going into the wood?” asked a strange voice.

The boy turned and saw a little glowing creature, floating nearby. It looked like a very small woman with wings, and she smiled at the boy and flew happily around his head.

“If you’re going into the wood, you’ll need help,” she said, “I know all the ways of the forest: how to climb over branches, and how to search for the delicious mushrooms, and how to hide from the creatures that would eat you.”

The boy didn’t like the sound of being eaten at all. “I don’t know,” he said, “Is it worth it?”

“Of course!” the little fairy replied, “Life in the forest is magic and wonderful! The cares of the men of your little town won’t ever find you in there, because you are different and you are special.”

“Yes, I am special,” the little boy thought, “No more sweating under the sun for me!”

And so the fairy led the little boy into the wood. She taught him how to climb over branches, and how to search for the delicious mushrooms to eat, and how to hide from the evil creatures that would eat him. And it was scary, but it was exciting, and so very different from life in the little town beyond the hills. The little boy thought of his mother and father, and of their eyes that were empty and sad and of the weary lines that marked their brown faces. And he felt sorry for them sometimes, but there was much to do in the mysterious wood and the boy stayed very busy.

Of course, sometimes he grew discouraged. The mushrooms were difficult to find at times, the branches large and daunting, and the creatures came more and more often. But the little fairy was always there to encourage the little boy.

“You are different,” she said time and time again, “You are special.”

And the little boy believed her and would carry on cheerfully, humming a little tune to himself.

One day the boy met another little boy who was also searching for mushrooms. Then he met another, and a little girl too. There were many little children in the forest looking for mushrooms and places to hide.

“Where did they all come from?” the little boy asked the fairy.

“Why, from the towns and the fields, just like you!” she replied.

“But I thought I was different and special,” he said.

“You are,” she said, smiling, “But so are they. Each and every one of them.”

And then the day came that the fairy told the little boy she couldn’t help him anymore. He knew all the tricks of the forest and he could take care of himself. She had other little boys and girls to help, she said. Other children who were wandering into the wood who would need her help. But she would always remember him, and maybe they would meet again one day. And so she left.

“I don’t need her anymore,” the little boy told himself, “I know how to survive in the forest.”

But there many children now in the wood, and there were not enough mushrooms, and there were not enough places to hide. Many of the little boys and girls got lost, or went hungry, or were eaten by the creatures that roam the night. The little boy worked hard. He fought for the mushrooms all during the day. He chased other little boys away from the places to hide during the night. He survived.

It was hard, but it was worth it – for he was now living in the magic forest. He was different from the people in the town, different from the farmers who worked in the fields and sweated under the sun. He was special.

His fingers turned brown from digging into the forest soil for mushrooms. He became skinny and small enough to hide almost anywhere. His eyes grew empty and sad, and little weary lines marked his brown face.

Monday, March 02, 2009

So Say We All....

The other day somebody suggested that the role of art during difficult times such as these is simply to be entertaining. During a recession, people don't want to consider weighty or grave matters, or to be confronted with intellectually or ethically challenging questions. They just want see a happy story with singing and dancing and forget about their troubles for a while. I understand where this line of thinking comes from.

But I don't see any reason why artistic work can't provide both entertaining escapism and still stimulate critical and analytical thought and energize deep human emotion. To prove this, I am going to give my best sales pitch for a TV show which I have, on occasion, found myself reluctant to talk about with my friends for fear of inviting their scorn.

Listen up, people. Battlestar Galactica might just be one of the best shows on TV right now. Yes, its on the Sci-Fi Channel. Yes, that means that is technically considered a science fiction program. And yes, I still stand by what I said. You don't have to be a sci-fi geek to like it, and if you hated Star Trek don't count this show out. It's wildly, completely unlike Star Trek in every way.

Of course, there are only three more episodes and then the show is over forever, so by this point if you want to watch it you'll have to catch it on DVD. However, it being so near the end of its lifespan, I feel I have to say a few words about the show.

The premise is something like this: way,way out in space there is a civilization of humans spread across twelve colonized planets. This civilization resembles ours almost exactly. The political structure of the Colonies is nearly exactly like that of the US, the clothing looks just like what we wear, and the military is run almost exactly like ours. The technology, while obviously more advanced in some ways, looks contemporary and believable. People don't tap little communicators on their chests to talk to one another, they pick up phones with cords. There are a few computer monitors, but mostly people are reading from actual paper. There's no "viewscreen" (a la Star Trek) but only a slightly more sophisticated version of radar.

Some years earlier, the humans created robotic servants that they called Cylons. These machines developed artificial intelligence and free will and rebelled against the humans (like the Matrix, but not quite). After a long and brutal war, the Cylons agreed to a truce and disappeared and the humans went back to living their busy lives. The show begins as Galactica, one of the oldest ships in the human fleet, a relic from the Cylon war, is about to be decommissioned to make way for newer, more technologically advanced ships. It's right at this moment that the Cylons, now with models that look just like humans, make their dramatic return, surprising the humans and destroying all twelve colonies in a brutal holocaust. Only the civilian ships who managed to get off the planets or who were already traveling escape, and of the human military only the Galactica survives. These few remnants of the human race cling together to try to avoid the Cylons looking for them and set out on a long journey to find the location of a legendary 13th colony, known only to them as "Earth."

Ok, so that sounds pretty nerdy, I'll admit. But over the course of four seasons, Battlestar Galactica has consistently put out extremely high quality work. The writing has generally been superb and I can't say enough good things about the acting. It boasts a large cast of extremely talented actors who each bring a unique and memorable character to the show. And while of course spaceships and robots play an important part in the context of the story, the tale of the straggling human survivors has from start to finish always been about realistic people dealing with unimaginable challenges, and the relationships they forge between each other. The show continually explores the complexity of ethics and morality in extreme, life-or-death situations. And it has spent a great amount of time examining and deconstructing the psychology of tribalism, the "us or them" philosophy that keeps the opposing factions, human and Cylon, locked in conflict.

Every time the show has begun to seem repetitive or predictable, it has completely re-invented itself. The show's producers have chosen to voluntarily end it after the fourth season, a move that suggests a desire to tell a complete story rather than draw out a successful show for several extra seasons. Looking back, it's amazing to see each character's arc and journey through the four years. Much has changed, but at heart these are still the characters we have loved since the beginning.

As this fantastic tale draws to a close, I can only give this as my best compliment: though eager to at last see the long journey of the Galactica crew and the human refugees in their fleet come to an end, the thought that soon the show will be over and that these people will no longer be part of my life makes me very sad.

Battlestar Galactica is a fine example for what I think is possible in modern theater. (Stay with me, I'm not crazy). The context of the story is fantastic, allowing for some degree of escapism, and yet the focus of the show is very much on our society, on us as individuals. The show has proved addicting to me precisely because it is simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking. Isn't it possible to produce work in the theater that walks the same fine line? I know that it is - the best new plays do exactly that. And so the entertaining/intellectual dichotomy is a complete fiction. But you knew that. Right?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oscar Wilde was the man!

"An aesthetic education, which humanizes people, is far more important even for politicians than an economic education, which does the opposite."

--From "The English Renaissance of Art"

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Blog is REBORN! .... AGAIN!

I always knew I'd be back one day, blog. I know I've been unfaithful to you, spending my time and energy on whatever mindless pursuits came my way, but deep down I knew that you were the only love for me. And so here I am. Begging you to take me back.

I promise to post on you more often. I promise to make those posts interesting, passionate, relevant. I promise to make you readable again.

Can you forgive me? I can't live without you, blog. Take me back, baby.