Archive for August, 2012

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty

This past summer, I had the pleasure of being asked to write letters (only letters) to my niece, Rachel, as she began her college career at West Point. From July 2 to August 15, she was in boot camp. She and the other new cadets were not allowed any other form of correspondence, aside from one strictly-timed 10 minute phone call per week to parents. The absence of any other forms of communication made these letters so much more important, for both of us.  I thrilled at the opportunity to communicate with her in such a potent way.  And, as she was beginning an important new part of her life, she had a good deal of quiet in which to contemplate the messages she received.

A personal letter has lasting value. “The medium is the message,” said Marshall McLuhan, and surely the letters I wrote to my niece bear the truth of that sentiment, for the singular elegance of an actual letter gives the content a new weight.  Written communication does not always require, or even deserve, permanence, but letters from home should last long. As such, I included ideas that have real value, discussed things rarely present in day-to-day chatter.  In the letters, I was able to encourage and celebrate my niece more fully than ever before.  At the midpoint of her experience, I wrote “I hope you are feeling incredibly strong. Yes, you are strong, and you should feel it as fully as possible. Feel the extraordinary strength of your body, mind, character, and will.” Extraordinary affirmations flourish in letters. I’d never say something so true in casual conversation.  I could be honest and earnest. While not terribly new, I was able to provide my niece with a truth I wish I encountered more frequently, “The more we know and accept ourselves, the happier we can try to be in life.” Whether she chose to listen or not, the ideas are undiminished.

I cherished the opportunity to share what little wisdom I possess. I made certain to include copies of my favorite poems for her to read, providing her with the endless gift of poetry. I felt compelled to include Robert Pinsky’s “Samurai Song,” a poem rich with resilience. The opening lines promise remarkable edification; “When I had no roof I made/Audacity my roof. When I had/No supper my eyes dined.” Here is the strength of spirit required to withstand hardships, to endure.

Rachel completed boot camp. There is no longer a need to write her letters, but I will persist. I will endeavor to offer her words worth reading again and again.

What’s Wrong with Fun?

Posted: August 15, 2012 in Uncategorized

by Paul Gaszak, English Faculty


 

I’ve never met a man, woman, child, dog, parakeet, wallaby, or any other creature with a nervous system that does not like the song “Love Shack” by The B-52s.

If it comes on, I must listen to it. It’s irresistible. And I’ll never tire of it. Though, ironically, it wasn’t until this week that I bought the song for the first time. When it was first released in 1989, seven-year-old me was in a record store with my mom and I asked her if she’d buy me the cassette single. Taking only half a glance at what was in my hand, she said “‘Love Sucks?’ What kind of terrible song is that? Put it back.” (I didn’t call her to ask for permission to download it on iTunes. Or to tell her she got the title wrong the first time.)

Over twenty years since its release, the song remains popular. However, I have never met anyone who calls “Love Shack” their favorite song.

Why not? Someone must, right? Maybe Fred Schneider and the rest of The B-52s?

Hmm. Back to music in a minute.

This summer’s two highest grossing films have been The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises. Both films are based on comic books, which prompted comparisons by fans and critics alike. The films are very different. The Avengers is light-hearted, funny, colorful, and completely fantastical. The Dark Knight Rises is somber, sorrowful, drab, rooted in realism.

One of the more interesting comparisons between the films that I’ve read from fans and critics is that they found The Dark Knight Rises to be the “better” film, but that The Avengers was more “fun” and they’d be far more likely to watch that over and over again.

How can one movie be more fun and warrant more repeat viewings, yet the other is the “better” film?

Back to music.

How many of you have either said or been told this: “The best music album of all time is __________; however, the album I listen to most often is __________.”

Most often, the “better” album is deemed more serious and artistic (like a musical equivalent to The Dark Knight Rises); the album most often listened to is the “fun” album (like The Avengers).

The same goes for movies. Of the top 50 highest grossing films in U.S. box office history, only two films (Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) won the Oscar for Best Film. While that may say as much about the Academy as anything, it also says that the serious, artistic films that we hold as achievements aren’t the same ones that people will – you know – go watch. The Avengers likely won’t win the Oscar for Best Picture, but as the third highest grossing film of all-time, it will likely have made more money – and earned more viewings – than all the other Best Picture nominees combined.

Why is it that “fun” art is so often demoted a few artistic levels because it is in fact fun?

This demotion seems to take root as we age. When I ask a group of students between the ages of 18-22 what their favorite song is, plenty will name a song currently getting heavy radio play. And it’s usually a fun song. Thus, if I’m looking for people who say “Love Shack” is their favorite song, the answer is probably college students in 1989. Though those people have probably “grown out of it” by now. And if I ask students about their favorite film, plenty will name a recent one. I don’t get a lot of Godfather or Citizen Kane responses.

Once past college age, people’s responses seem to shift, but it also seems as if “adults” begin to approach such as subjective question as favorite song or favorite movie with a hint of insincerity and caution, as if there is in fact a correct answer. You can almost hear people thinking, “My favorite movie is actually Anchorman, but people will respect me more if I say Dr. Strangelove.”

However, I do think it’s possible to have “serious” favorites that aren’t the ones in heaviest rotation. For example, my favorite movies are Chasing Amy and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both are funny, but also very serious, heavy and emotional. I love them both dearly, but I only watch them once in a blue moon. Recently, they were both on TV at the same time, but I passed them both over. Sometimes it is just too much, too emotional, too draining to watch them. I am far more likely to watch Billy Madison or Wayne’s World or Tommy Boy on a whim, all of which lack the traditional “artistic merit” of more serious films, but they’re fun and hilarious.

 But I’m lying even now. My three favorite movies are actually Chasing Amy, Eternal Sunshine, and Braveheart. Sometimes I will consciously omit Braveheart in fear that people will see it as a “lesser” candidate for favorite film status, even though it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

It seems that we want “fun” but we also condemn it. We can love something fun, like “Love Shack,” but we can’t love it too much, because then people like me will scoff at the sheer ignorance of such a fun, feel good, adolescent choice. It is true that the fun choice can also be the artistic choice, but that’s not necessarily the point. The problem is that there seems to be a strange, misinformed elitist view of “art” that doesn’t just originate from stuffy “professors” like me, but all of our culture. We have shunned fun in the same way as fast food – we want it and consume it, but know it’s not good for us or that it’s not the superior choice. That shouldn’t be the case.

What’s wrong with fun? We should all just go have some fun right now – and remember to bring your jukebox money!

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

My specialty is modern history.  Just like anything, focusing only upon one subject, or time period, can get a bit staid.  So, I am always looking to branch out.  Recently I have had mini-obsessions with biblical history, the beginnings of civilizations, the history of science, and the history of religion.  Lately, I have taken some minor detours into life during the so-called Middle Ages.  The years 600-1300 of European history is one I could always use some brushing up on.  With this in mind, I devoured a book recently entitled The Axe and the Oath: Ordinary Life in the Middle Ages, by the French historian Robert Fossier.  As I read this book, I thought some of aspects of ordinary life in the Middle Ages was worthy of a blog post.  Here are a couple of my favorite bits of information about the time period in the words of Fossier.

Mathematical Knowledge:

  • “Worse, in all of the centuries of the Middle Ages, figures were not given their real arithmetical values….Figures had only symbolic value. One, three, seven and twelve were God, the Trinity or figures found in the Bible; and as for six and its multiple six times six, they were the sign of what cannot be counted with the fingers of one hand, thus, what surpasses immediate understanding…This disdain for figures affected measurement as well. Someone would sell ‘a wood’, bequeath ‘his land,’ and give ‘what he has.’” ( Page 28)

Early Death:

  • “As late as the fifteenth century, 42 percent of the ground space in Hungarian cemeteries was taken up by the graves of children under ten years of age…and 25 to 30 percent of babies were stillborn, a figure difficult to find today even in the most poverty-stricken lands.” (30-42)

Child Rearing:

  • “When a child reached the age of one, he was helped to walk with the aid of a walker, but anything like a playpen or crawling on all fours was systemically discouraged. The first may have been seen as a reflection of fetal enclosure, and the second as a return to animal life, condemned by God.” (48)

What they ate:

  • “….bread occupied too great a place in the diet. People consumed from 1.6 to 2 kilos of bread per day, and other foods were known as companaticum, ‘what you eat with bread.’ (61)

A time of kindness:

  • “…the house was the basic cell of life, a haven of safety, a space for sociability….Closed in and private, hence inaccessible to the Other, it was also an expression of charity – or of charity as it was conceived in those centuries, which was the alms of a loaf of bread or a bowl of soup offered at the door, for the beggar knocking at the door might be Jesus…that hospitality…was one of the natural paths to salvation. “ (109)

And of cruelty:

  • “…mockery greeted the gesticulations of the mute. As for the blind…their confusion was met with laughter, and nothing was done to aid the myopic…” (20)

The British novelist L.P. Hartley wrote  that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  From these short glimpses of the Middle Ages, we can see he was correct. But, by looking at the lives of these people, we can also see how life has progressed, and regressed.

How lucky we are to live in a time when graveyards are not being filled by children?  How amazing is it that our 8 year old children have more mathematical knowledge than medieval adults?  How heartwarming is it that the modern world attempts to help and be kind to its most physically disabled? But, how unfortunate that those most socially and economically disabled are now seen as being a drain on society that should be punished for laziness? How annoying is it that with all the wonderful, healthy foods at our disposal, 10% of our calories per year come from sugar and chemical filled soda? Lastly, how sad that we have such a lack of historical knowledge that we don’t appreciate how far we have come in our attitudes and knowledge?

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Over the last couple weeks, I got sucked into watching the six hour saga known as The Godfather I and II.  It had been awhile, so I thought I should brush up on my knowledge of the dysfunctional Corleone family.  One thing that struck me was that the films are more enjoyable to me now, as I realize that they are largely the tale of a father’s relationship with his children. I am continually amazed at how having children completely changes your worldview.   But, that is for another blog post.

What I have been thinking about since watching the Godfather films is their depiction of violence.  Of course, the violent scenes in these films are infamous. “Leave the gun, take the cannoli”, Vito’s murder of Don Fanucchi, “Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes”, the decapitated horse head in the bed.  These films are part of Hollywood legend, and have made a mark as cultural references instantly recognized by the majority of Americans.  As I sat down to watch the movies for the first time in a decade or so, I remembered that violence was the norm in the world of the Corleones.  What I did not remember is how ‘unrealistic’ the physical depiction of the violence is. The gun shots sound fake in the film.  The bullet wounds look absurd.  The death of gun-shot victims is glamorized in an old Hollywood style (slowly staggering on their feet, only to dramatically fall to the ground.)  Most notably, the bloody wounds are almost laughable (the blood is a bright orange-ish red.) As I watched this, I thought to myself, “Hollywood special effects sure have gotten more advanced”.   ‘Realistic’ physical reactions to violence are an absolute must at this time.  (See: The first twenty five minutes of Saving Private Ryan.)

But then, I had two important realizations.  The first was, how in the world do I know what is realistic, and what is fake?  I have never been a part of a gangland hit.  I have never stormed a beach facing mortars and machine gun fire.  And of course, not only have I never took part in these events, I have never even seen anything resembling them. I have no idea how the human body reacts to physical violence.  And yet, I have no problem proclaiming if violent movies are ‘real’ or ‘fake’.  How odd this phenomenon is.  Evidently, Hollywood has created a sense of real violence in my mind so powerful that when actual violence does not conform to the Hollywood version, it can seem staged.  Does not the actual news footage of Jack Ruby assassinating Lee Harvey Oswald seem far too quick and clean? This is not graphic, ‘real’ Hollywood violence.

The second realization: The gruesome, ‘realistic’ violence of films today doesn’t always disturb me, and yet the ‘fake’ violence of the Godfather films is extremely disturbing.  Like most other Americans, I can watch bloodily disgusting films such as 300, and feel no effects from the dismembering of bodies or close-up decapitations that are central to the film.  In fact, such physically ‘realistic’ violence becomes passé.   In comparison, when Michael Corleone guns down his family’s enemies in the Italian restaurant, signaling the beginning of his eventual status as head of the Corleone crime family, I get sweaty palms, dry mouth, and an uncomfortable lump in the throat.

What is going on here? Simply put, realistic violence is not just about the physical effects on the body, but about the emotional effects on the mind.  Some of my students a couple quarters ago pointed this out.  I showed them a ‘realistic’ war film, The Thin Red Line, and had them compare that to an ‘unrealistic’ war film, Pearl Harbor.  One of my students stated that The Thin Red Line is much more violent.  But how so?  Pearl Harbor has its share of horrifying deaths. There is no shortage of blood.  In fact, The Thin Red Line is really not that graphic of a WWII film, especially compared to the more famous Saving Private Ryan.  After discussing why it seems so much more violent, my students and I realized it was because of the emotionally wrenching nature of the violence in The Thin Red Line.  All a viewer feels during the bombing scene of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is awe.  Not awe at the violence, but awe at the technological ability of the movie makers.  The emotions you feel while watching the battle scenes of The Thin Red Line are dread, fear and shock.  You don’t need a slow-motion decapitation to feel the realism.

Special effects in the Godfather I and II were quite primitive, but like all great stories, the wrenching of emotions these films provide for us are primal, and timeless.

by Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post is dedicated to my HUM310: Comparative Contemporary Literature course at the Peoria campus. Every class period they bring their smarts, their wits, and beverages too large for any reasonable person to consume alone.  Two liter bottles, 60oz fountain drinks, jugs of iced tea. Our class is packing more liquid than the Olympic Aquatics Center.)

 The answer is:

I don’t know.

The question is:

To get back to writing for The Flaneur’s Turtle, while also introducing my class to the blog, I had my students brainstorm my next topic. They presented plenty of topics that I would love to write about. And with almost all of them, I could reasonably pinpoint why it was raised. For example:

“How will the Aurora, Colorado tragedy affect movie-going?” (It’s current news and something we discussed in class after it happened.)

“What would you rather have, money or power?” (This question was raised because of the literature we read for class that day.)

“Should Olympic Gymnastics reform its rules?” (This coming in the days following America’s Jordyn Wieber being snubbed for the Individual All-Around due to a new rule.)

I wrote all of the suggestions on the board until we had nine. One student suggested we get to an even ten, so the class thought for a moment for another topic. Finally, a student in the front row said:

“How to handle a breakup.”

Everyone in class laughed a little. Where’d this question come from?And why the laughter? Because it seemingly came out of nowhere, and “surprise” is one of the keys to comedy? Was this a personal question to the student, something that her classmates knew more about than me? Do I just look like the type of dude who doesn’t know anything about relationships? Well, they’d be right.

The student then added, “Why can’t breakups be like that episode of Seinfeld…” referring to when Jerry and his girlfriend, played by Janine Garafalo, have an honest, easy, mutual breakup.


 

I told the class that for my homework, I would write about one of the topics they suggested. As I thought about which to do, I realized I already had established (or easy) answers for almost everything they asked. How will Aurora impact movie-going? It won’t in the long run. Money or power? Power. Should gymnastics rules be reformed? Yes.

Then I got to that last question. How to handle a breakup?

I have no friggin idea.

And, to take it a step further, does anyone really know? Is a question like that so individualized and multi-faceted that there is no easy response? Sure, someone like Dr. Phil might want to sit you down and say, “Now, what you need to do with your liiiiffee issssss….” But isn’t that all just BS?

There are probably a million articles online about how to handle a breakup, rattling off clichés like “Move on with life. It wasn’t meant to be. Find what makes you happy. Don’t stalk your ex. Get it off your mind with a one-night stand!”

The complexity of the question, coupled with having no real answer, made me want to write about it. But after thinking it over for a day or two, I realized my answer is I don’t know.

And isn’t “I don’t know” sometimes the best answer? We don’t always think so. I had lunch with a friend over the weekend and we discussed our frustration with doctors when the only answer they can give for symptoms is, “I don’t know.” We’ve both experienced stomach problems in our lives, and both of us were told the pain was stress or IBS or maybe an ulcer or who knows. No answer, no diagnosis, no real treatment.

Even if that’s the honest response, we don’t find it acceptable. We want an answer. We want some diagnosis even if it’s bad news. The mystery is just as scary, or even scarier, than putting a name to the ailment.

Teaching sometimes has that same stress. Sometimes students will expect us to know everything, even if it doesn’t relate to our fields. When faced with a question we don’t have an answer for, some people (and we all know a few like this) will opt to just make something up rather than admit they don’t know. But can they be blamed? Don’t we, as a society, sometimes see the lack of an immediate answer as a flaw? But what happens when your audience sniffs out the lie? You lose all credibility.

I’ve found that when I don’t know something, the best answer is “I don’t know.” Simply not knowing is understandable. It is human to not know everything. Not knowing and admitting to not knowing can increase credibility, particularly when that admission is coupled with a willingness and desire to think the question over and seek out an answer. I’d much rather ask a question to someone who is willing to say “I don’t know” and then go find an answer, rather than someone who ALWAYS has an answer for EVERYTHING.

So, how do you handle a breakup?

I don’t know. But if I ever figure out a definitive answer, I’ll let you know.