Friday, March 6, 2015

This Is A Story About The Plains

Fall 2014 Issue
I call this piece a "prose lyric," and it appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Yellow Medicine Review. Its editor, Judy Wilson, generously selected it as one of her nominations for the Pushcart Prizes.  (I have made minor tweaks in a couple of sentences, so it differs very slightly from the printed version.)

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be a pick-up truck in it. So let us say I am driving a pick-up. Let us say it is an older pick-up. Its bed is a little out of kilter. Perhaps I drove through a ditch in the truck, and that vehicular adventure bent the bed a little to the side, so that if you are driving behind me you can see all four of my tires. Or perhaps the bed was bent when the truck got hit from the side by someone pulling out of a parking space in front of Dillon’s Feed Store. Or maybe it already was bent when I bought the truck secondhand from Mr. Tollefesen or maybe Leonard Two Bulls. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is a story about the Plains, and therefore it needs to have a pick-up truck in it. And the bent truck bed just communicates that the truck is indigenous to the Plains.

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be a stretch of road in it. It could be the road I am driving on now. Let us say that it is a two-lane highway that runs flat and straight, with the mountains in the distance and a strong wind blowing all the time. It is a road so straight and undecorated that it becomes a metaphor for truth and honesty. Or maybe it serves as a metaphor for life, for the life of some person driving down this stretch of road, a life that stretches out from this point to the horizon. And that horizon itself can be a metaphor, for a future that never arrives but is always arriving. Or perhaps this highway can be a metaphor for anticipation, that time and space that stands between us and something we look forward to. Or perhaps this long, straight highway is a symbol of some inevitability, some unavoidable doom or calamity. Perhaps it is all of these things at once. Perhaps it just depends upon which driver is looking at it. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is a story about the Plains, and so we need a long stretch of road that runs straight and true across the land.

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be Indian people and white people in it, for the Plains are a place where they met to work out their differences, one could say. And they are still working them out. Or you could say the Plains are where the white people came to work out something they had within themselves. They had been so unhappy in their first home that they moved away and never went back. But, as some say, you cannot run away from your problems, so they brought those with them. And they attempted to work out some of those problems on the Indians. Regardless. The white folks and the Indians met here. At one time on horseback, in ambushes, in massacres, in circled wagons, in burning cabins, in acres of dead buffalo. And now they work it out in alleys, in jail cells, in dark parking lots, outside liquor stores, in casinos. But in marriages, too. In churches and in schools. In friendships and yearbooks. At the feedstore and in the Wal-Mart. There was a time when Indian and white was all we needed to tell a story about the Plains. That is not true anymore. Now we need more actors for our play. We need Mexicans and African Americans. We need people from India to run the motel and the gas station, so now we have Indians and other Indians. We need Salvadorans. We need some Russians. The Plains are different now. This is a story of the Plains, so there must be constant change in it.

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be a lonely house in it. Let us say it sits off the road a ways, down an unused driveway. Let us say I drive by it every day and think about it. So do you. The driveway could be made of dirt or gravel. Let us say the driveway has been unused so long that a tree has taken root in the middle of it. The tree stands there, in the driveway, in front of the house, like some child waiting on a Mother or a Father to come home. There is no glass in the house’s windows and the paint is nearly gone from the wooden sides, peeled away by seasons of snow and rain and sun and wind and wind and wind and always the wind. The wind is slowly, patiently taking the house back, carrying it off one molecule at a time, like the careful, ancient erosion of the hills themselves. This is a story about the Plains, which are flat because the ocean was here to press them down. And now the wind is the ocean’s cousin, doing its work of keeping the land wide and smooth. This is a story about the Plains, and so the hand of time is seen everywhere.

This is a story about the Plains, and so there must be another lonely house in it. A house with people, but still it is lonely. But not really a house. A trailer home. It could even be a double-wide. But it will be at the end of a driveway, either dirt or gravel. Its lights are on at all hours of the night and people come go at strange intervals. This is a story about the Plains, and so some people feel that no one can see them, even though everyone can. And some people feel that no one cares, because no one asks. But everyone watches. And the sun and the moon see everything. The wind learns it all and carries the news up to the mountains and down to the rivers. In the house meth is cooked. And a corrosive dream eats the skin and teeth of its lovers. Then one night the trailer will burn down and the ghosts that had lived there will blow away. This is a story about the Plains, so there must be heartache and folly in it. 

This is a story about the Plains, so there must be happy houses in it. Yours and mine, we will say. I am headed to one now, on this straight road, in this crooked pick-up truck. And when the houses are not yours nor mine, we will beep the truck’s horn or wave our hand once, just once, off the steering wheel, when we drive past and see folks on the porches of those houses fat with children and grandparents and dogs and cats. Yes, let us say that. Yards covered with cars and trucks, some that run and some that don’t. Each one has a story to tell. This is a story about the Plains, so there must be basketball hoops in it. Let us say the hoop stands beneath a powerful lamp, like a streetlight from town. And children bounce a ball on the rough gravel (or dirt) of the driveway, until the ball is smooth and the same color as the gravel (or dirt). The children laugh and chase the ball, and the dogs bark, and the cats curl themselves around the legs of parents and grandparents. Yes, let us say that. Those are good things. Let us tell stories of good things. The children dream of high school championships and the parents dream of college for them. This is a story about the Plains, and so there must be laughter and dreams in it. The wind carries those too, up to the mountains and down to the rivers.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Brotherhood of the Traveling Cargo Pants

Why do all jeans have this pocket...
Pockets can be a pain in the ass.

I mean, the things carried in them can be.

Mostly wallets and cell phones.

But fashionistas can be a pain there, too.

You see, I am staging a personal pants pocket rebellion.  My goal is to undo the damage done by whoever decided to put pockets on the backside of men's pants.  I believe that pockets make much more sense on the thigh than on the butt, so I have recently purchased cargo pants (from Land's End) that do not look like they came from the Army Surplus Store, and I am hoping clothing companies will make the pockets less like rucksacks for your legs.  In the meantime, I must brave the ridicule of the fashion industry, which seems to hate cargo pants -- although hints of change are in the air.
... but not this pocket?

Many people have seen the episode of Seinfeld that depicts George Costanza's exploding wallet.  (You can see the wallet scenes of the episode here.) He keeps everything in it, including old receipts, customer loyalty cards, Sweet-N-Low packets, and loose change. Finally it is as large as a deli sandwich and is causing him severe back pain from sitting on it -- as Jerry tells him, "You've got a filing cabinet under half of your ass."

Some people would say his problem is his wallet, not his pants, and they would be right. While many men complain about the amount of things women carry in their purses (and the frequent chaos found in there), they can be guilty of carrying too many unnecessary items in their wallets. I have thinned out my wallet recently, but even a thin wallet is an uncomfortable seat cushion.

Moments before the explosion
Besides, men now have growing cell phones to contend with. Phones are like George's wallet: they have grown tremendously in what they contain -- phone, camera, contact information, game console, television programs, music libraries, all of the Internet, etc. As we have interacted with them more frequently and for more purposes, their screens have grown.

Gentlemen, look at the right pocket of your jeans. Do your jeans have a small pocket at the mouth of the standard pocket? When was the last time you kept your watch there? When was the last time you saw anyone with a pocket watch? Yet, probably every man in the country has a cell phone -- and no special pocket for holding it.

Until now, men have had two options: carry their cell phones in a holster on their belt (despite the scorn of the fashion mavens) or in their front pockets.  Until recently, I have carried my phone in a holster. But I am past 50 years old, and I am a college professor, so no one expects me to be very sensitive to fashion trends. However, phones are outgrowing holsters.

(One year, my students plotted to nominate me for an episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.  I said I would prefer to be on Wipeout.  Not like I was saying, "I would rather be catapulted into a lake of foamy bubbles than have my wardrobe criticized by those guys."  No, I just think it would be really fun to be catapulted into a lake of foamy bubbles.)

And as phones have gotten bigger, the front pocket has become less of an option. (Besides, shouldn't men be concerned about the proximity of cell phones to their privates?)  The back pocket is not much of an option, comfortwise, and some cell phones are too big for front or back pockets.

Some companies are working on the problem. Pants from Osmium have a cell phone pocket on the right pant leg (the image above is from their website). This does not solve the wallet-storage problem, but at least the pockets are not giant flaps of fabric. I have found another company, Red Kap, that has this feature. Dockers has something similar, but their side pocket has a zipper, which would slow down access and can get fouled.  And Dickies has pants with a "back thigh pocket."

Some folks in the fashion industry are even warming to the idea of cargo pants.  But I cannot say the cell-phone pocket has gone mainstream yet, when actually it needs to be a standard.

Wall Street Journal
In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently featured an article titled "Men's Cargo Pants Turn Refined for Spring." I welcome the attention, but the pants featured in the article are not what I would consider mainstream. In fact, I WOULD rather be catapulted into a lake of foamy bubbles than wear them. And they do not solve the problem of making cargo pants less cargo-ish.

So, if you are listening, Fashion Industry, please make more pants with side pockets. And design them to hold a wallet and a cell phone, not provisions for a two-day hike. They do not need to be giant, accordian-style pockets that are unattractive and which require the owner to fish around blindly for the desired object.

Also, please place the pockets closer to the hip than to the knee. Not only must the wearer swirl his hand around the giant pocket in search of his wallet, keys, phone, or Sonic Screwdriver, he must lean over to reach the bottom of the pocket. Retrieving something from the pocket of cargo pants can resemble calisthenics.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Godzilla Is Red: An American Indian Reading of the King of Monsters

Misshipeshu by Carl Ray (1943-1978)
When I saw Godzilla in his latest movie swimming quickly under the ocean waves, leaving behind a flotilla of U.S. Navy ships, I immediately thought about American Indians in the Northern Plains.

Godzilla in his city-smashing battle with a pair of radiation-guzzling monsters reminded me of Mishebeshu, “the great underwater monster.” That is what Theresa Smith calls him in her book The Island of the Anishnaabeg: Thunderers and Water Monsters in the Traditional Ojibwe Life-World.

(The Anishinaabe territory lies on both sides of the central U.S.-Canadian border. They are known to most Americans as the Ojibwe or Chippewa.)

Mishebeshu also is a reptile who lives between the waves and who battles a creature from the sky, the Animiki -- known variously as Thunderer, Thunder being, and Thunderbird and generally imagined in the form of an eagle or giant bird of prey. This struck me as interesting because the male MUTO can fly with his enormous wings.

Mishebeshu and Animiki are in perpetual battle with each other, and humans are at times caught between them – a lot like the people of San Francisco in the movie. The humans and their city are not the target of Godzilla and the MUTO; they are merely the collateral damage.

There is a big difference, though, because the moral poles are reversed. Mishebeshu is the “bad guy.” Animiki is the “good guy.” The Thunderers (actually, there are many) can come to the aid of the humans if Mishebeshu comes after them.

In the first Godzilla movie, Gojira (1954), and the American remix, Godzilla: King of the Monsters (1956), the monster more closely resembles the Anishinaabe version. Mishebeshu rules all of the creatures of the water and even the waves themselves, and he “frequently was asked simply to allow humans to travel on the water in safety” (Smith 97). In the Japanese original, Godzilla destroys several ships at sea before he is ever seen. And though he emerges to stomp and chew on Tokyo, the final showdown is beneath the waves, where he is destroyed.

Gojira (1954)
Since the original Godzilla serves as a metaphor for the atomic bomb, seeing him as the bad guy is quite easy – even if the film suggests that humanity created him by playing with natural forces that it should have left alone.

However, the Japanese did not wait long to resurrect Godzilla as a hero (albeit no friend to the insurance industry) who would rise from the waves to save humans from various monsters from Earth and elsewhere.

Although the character roles seem switched between the Japanese and Anishinaabe narratives, the dynamics in them are similar.

Smith suggests the battles between Mishebeshu and the Thunderers “are not experienced as contests between good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong, but between the forces of balance and imbalance, as embodied in powerful persons” (129). Mishebeshu is chaos; Thunderers are order.

Thunderbird by Carl Ray
This latest Godzilla reboot suggests a similar assumption. Although the film’s designers have made sure the MUTO look menacing and, to some degree, demonic – like red-eyed gargoyles come to life – they are not described by the humans in the film as evil. They are not shown attacking, torturing, or eating any people. But the humans do describe them as a chaotic force that must be countered, and the scientist played by Ken Watanabe articulates Godzilla’s role in this way: “Nature has an order, a power to restore balance.”

Like the Anishinaabeg in their stories about the battles between the Thunderers and Mishebeshu, the humans in Godzilla are stuck between contending forces that must do battle if order is to be restored to the world. Although the film gives Godzilla the physical attributes of Mishebeshu, it gives him the character of an Animiki.  In doing this, Godzilla suggests an epistemology consistent with the Anishinaabe stories.

In her book, Smith suggests that the Anishinaabe world defined bad behavior not as many people imagine “sin” – the transgression of a divinely ordained rule – but as “the failure to keep up one’s side of a healthy relationship” (105). However, the relationships that are to be maintained are not limited to other humans. Important relationships are everywhere and include those between humans and “other-than-human persons.” That is, plants, animals, and other things that are alive in various ways.

Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster
This view of the world resonates with the latest Godzilla and other entries in the canon. For instance, in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971), our scaly hero comes from the deep to save humanity from a monster of its own making. Humans had once again thrown the world out of balance, and Godzilla must come to fix it. (The film was released two years after the pollution in Lake Erie caught fire, and the same year as the “Keep America Beautiful” commercials that featured an Indian crying about roadside trash.)

In this regard, I am puzzled by the central role that radioactivity/nuclear energy play in the recent film. I understand its role in the first films – Japan was barely a decade beyond having two large cities destroyed by atomic bombs.  Worldwide, radioactivity remained a potent demon for years after that, as nations experimented with atomic energy and as the Super Powers threatened everyone with the fallout from a nuclear war. But I do not know that atomic energy remains today a potent symbol for the folly of man.

We have not knocked ourselves back to the Stone Age with a one-day blitz of nuclear missiles – instead we are doing it a little bit at a time, with each year’s incremental increase in global temperatures, with droughts and floods, and hurricanes, and all the trappings of an unstable climate.

Rather than have the MUTO awakened by a nuclear energy plant in Japan, perhaps it would have been more symbolically powerful to have them awakened from beneath a melted ice shelf in the Antarctic, awakened by humanity’s refusal to cooperate in reducing greenhouse gases.

This would have given more resonance to the statement by Watanabe’s character from the “Let Them Fight” clip: “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around… Let them fight.”

That would have made the film even more consistent with an Anishinaabe vision of the right relationship among humans, each other, and the world that surrounds them. The MUTO would have come because of the failure to keep up our side of a healthy relationship with our planet, and Godzilla would have come again to save us.

Perhaps in the next film he can attack Washington, D.C., and destroy a certain NFL franchise. 

* * *

Most people have not heard of the book I am goofing on for my title here, but I will use it anyway. God Is Red is an important book in American Indian Studies, published by Vine Deloria Jr in 1973. In it he explains some thoughts on the divine and humanity's relationship to it from an American Indian perspective.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Godzilla vs. Henry James

"What is character but the determination of incident?  What is incident but the illustration of character?"

Those words are possibly the most famous written by American novelist Henry James (1843-1916). They have been read and the concept they express has been studied by nearly every veteran of a college-level literature or creative writing class. They are from his essay titled "The Art of Fiction."

James is saying that the events of a story arise from the personalities of the people involved.  Their desires, fears, jealousies, loves, etc., cause them to act.  Those actions, their consequences, and the following reactions constitute the story.  Conversely, we often times understand those personalities through the actions taken by the characters.  The characters may describe their sentiments with words, but sometimes they do not; so the audience must infer those sentiments from a character's actions. Also, a character may express a sentiment that contradicts his actions -- and the audience will generally trust the character's actions more than his statements.

This relationship between character and incident holds true for monsters, too.

Take the MUTO from Godzilla, which opened last weekend. These giant creatures -- their name is an acronym for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism -- have very clear motivations.  They want to find sources of radioactivity so they can eat it, as that seems to be their only nutritional requirement. The two in the film seek each other out so they can mate and lay eggs.

These motivations drive their actions and therefore the story. The damage they cause to Las Vegas and San Francisco seems incidental; they are not out to kill humans or ruin property values.

Godzilla has a strong motivation that less clearly arises from his character.  For some reason he hates Mr. and Mrs. MUTO and goes to great lengths to kill them.  Even though the film describes him as the best predator of his long-gone era of Earth history, he does not hunt the happy couple in order to eat them.  He kills them and then returns to his home at the bottom of the sea -- perhaps not far from Spongebob's pineapple.

Perhaps he kills them because, as one of the film's scientists tell us, the MUTO are parasitic, laying eggs inside other giant creatures of their original era.  Or perhaps he kills them because, as Ken Watanabe's character tells us, "Nature has an order, a power to restore balance."

Regardless, Godzilla has a motivation -- ruin the MUTO honeymoon -- and he acts accordingly.  His actions and theirs create the events that lead to other events that eventually lead to a resolution of the story's fundamental conflict.

This conflict resolution is an important concept not clearly expressed in James's oft-quoted lines. The incidents that illustrate character are expected by most audiences to cause, alter, or resolve conflict. And the audience generally expects a final resolution to the story's central conflict by end of the tale.

In this regard, the humans in Godzilla present a potential problem. They have character that is illustrated in incident, but those incidents have little impact on the central conflict of the film. That is, we could pretty much remove the humans from the movie, and the battle between Godzilla and the MUTO Family might play out in a similar fashion.

Some of us are familiar with this dilemma of the irrelevant hero from an episode of The Big Bang Theory. In "The Raiders Minimization" (follow the link to a clip) Amy ruins Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark for the gang by pointing out that Harrison Ford's character has little to no influence on whether the Nazis find the Ark and what happens to them when they do.

I left the theater thinking about this problem. The humans in the film served two functions for the most part: they explained things to the audience by explaining things to each other and they attracted audience sympathy or identification. With the exception of some father-son conflict between the characters played by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (which is quickly resolved), there is little to no conflict among the human characters. Since they can have little influence on the fight between the monsters, that leaves them little to do (except explain and emote).

Christopher Orr at also makes this observation in his commentary titled "Waiting for Godzilla."  However, his desire to be emphatic makes his statement inaccurate: "Indeed, Godzilla is a film in which no deed or decision made by any human character seems to have the slightest impact on the inexorable mechanics of the plot."

SPOILER ALERT: Orr is wrong in at least two ways -- Taylor-Johnson's character destroys the nest of MUTO eggs in San Francisco; this not only saves the city from baby MUTOs, it distracts Mrs. MUTO from the beat-down that she and her husband are giving Godzilla. That break gives our lizard hero time to recover and defeat Mr. MUTO mano a mano. We could say that Taylor-Johnson's character influences the plot in a third way: He is taking a nuclear warhead out to sea as bait, and Mrs. MUTO follows it; she turns her back on Godzilla long enough for him to take her out.

In other words, no Taylor-Johnson, no Godzilla victory dance, no more San Francisco.

And yet, for most of the film, the humans do not influence the "inexorable mechanics" of the fight between monsters, and that hampered somewhat my enjoyment of the film. The characters talk a lot and explain a lot, and the happy family that must by some unwritten law be threatened by the central dilemma of so many films are present and expressing their love for each frequently. (We have seen them so many times, do we really care anymore?) But there is hardly any conflict among them, and that makes for boring scenes.

As the drunk and high Swedish persona of the blogger at "Behind the Proscenium" says it: "Worst thing on a movie that the makers can do - make the thing so that my brain sleeps before I know that I am asleep. Suck, suck, suck, suck."

Other movies have faced a similar dilemma, but they have solved it more satisfyingly. The characters played by Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt in Twister cannot do anything to stop the tornadoes; but they can work to survive them, and in the process of that they can deal with the personal conflicts between them (their marriage is falling apart). An apocalyptic favorite of mine, 2012, also has a central problem the humans cannot alter -- Earth's crust has come apart at the seams. But we have several groups of humans to track as they try to survive the mayhem, and each group has conflicts among various characters that must be resolved.

In Godzilla, however, the humans have little interesting drama among themselves. The scientists and Naval officers following Godzilla through the Pacific on his way to California have little to do other than that. There is no conflict on the ships between the military officers and the scientists.

The wife and child of Taylor-Johnson's character must survive the monsters in San Francisco, but that is not presented as a very interesting or complicated challenge, and there is little dramatic conflict involved. She pretty much stays in place at the hospital. She puts her son on a bus to escape the city and that bus (so wisely) drives across the Golden Gate Bridge just as Godzilla shows up. The child escapes, but the audience never senses he is in danger (as I suggested before, is the child ever really in danger in a monster movie?  Teens who have sex definitely are. The 5-year-old son of the protagonist? Not so much.)

If Steven Speilberg had directed the bridge scenes, we would have had a different story. Look at how often children are endangered in his movies. We may know they are going to survive, but Speilberg devotes a great deal of cinematic energy threatening the young ones and giving them interesting obstacles to overcome on their own. (Jurassic Park, for example.)

Some people have said the helplessness of the humans in Godzilla is part of the film's message. Godzilla and the MUTOs are symbolic of the forces of nature unleashed by irresponsible actions of humanity, and nature is a force larger than humanity, so we cannot escape the consequences of our actions. I agree. Presenting the humans as helpless to alter the combat between Godzilla and the MUTOs conveys a fine message. (In my opinion, the humans get off much too easily in the movie.) But if they cannot resolve the film's conflict, then they must given some conflict they can resolve so the audience can become more invested in their presence on the screen.

If you cannot make the humans more interesting, keep them off the screen and give us more monsters destroying things!