Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Dogmen of Michigan




Pic from a Google image search. If it's yours and you want it removed, let me know.


Chad, a friend and former colleague of mine, has now moved into cryptid central.

The faculty of my former college have been scattered to the four winds for reasons you know by now. Chad was fortunate enough to land a professor's position at a college in Michigan. Exciting news and a relief for his family for sure...until he learned his new home was right smackdab in the middle of the Dogman's lair. He jokingly referred to it on Facebook and I commented that I had indeed heard of the alleged creature.

Of course I have. The Weird is kinda my thing. And I've been tempted to research Dogmen for a while now, mostly due to their purported appearance.

Why? Because the most efficient way I have to describe these supposed creatures is "a werewolf." Witnesses report a hairy, bipedal creature as high as seven feet tall with the head of a canine but the torso of a human. Their legs are even said to be bent in the manner of a dog's hind legs.  A Dogman is also said to utter a terrifying, inhuman howl. The following size comparison chart comes from the North American Dogman Project:




In Michigan, stories of Dogmen are said to go back to the time of the Odawa tribes, the narratives later propagated among lumberjacks and farmers. Dogmen really didn't seem to enter the public consciousness of Michigan until a man named Steve Cook came along.

Cook was a radio DJ at WTCM in Traverse City. He recorded a song called "The Legend of the Dogman."





But...


"I made it up completely from my own imagination as an April Fools' prank for the radio and stumbled my way to a legend that goes back all the way to Native American times." he said.

Nonetheless, he received hundreds of reports from people once the song aired, all claiming to have seen Dogmen. It is important to note that Cook is "tremendously skeptical" about the nature of these reports. 

Dogmen are not confined to Michigan but rather appear to roam the whole of the Upper Midwest. In fact I first learned of the creatures via what came to be known as the "Beast of Bray Road." Bray Road is a rural road near Elkhorn, Wisconsin, just over the Illinois border. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, the area became host to numerous Dogman sightings. Local newspaper reporter Linda Godfrey was assigned to investigate. While initially skeptical, Godfrey became a convert and eventually wrote a book about the sightings, The Beast of Bray Road. I really must read it one day.






If you're looking for a central depository of sightings, look no further than DogmanEncounters.com


From that site:


"Have you seen a creature that looked like a Werewolf? If you have, you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. What you saw wasn’t a Werewolf. It’s what’s called a “Dogman.”  More people than you’ll ever know have had Dogman encounters. Unfortunately, most of them don’t know who they can talk to about their encounters. That’s where I come in. My name is Vic Cundiff and I help Dogman eyewitnesses deal with the trauma of their Dogman encounters. If you’re a Dogman eyewitness, you now have someone you can turn to for help. Me!"


Good to know he's out there for us. You got that link bookmarked, Chad? Good.


Are there really Dogmen? Is there a species of humanoid, bipedal canines hidden and lurking in arboreal and paludal regions the Great Lakes? Offhand, I'd have to say I doubt it. There would have to be substantial physical evidence for me to begin to accept such a notion. Then again, I have not studiously read each of the witness accounts.


In a way, I don't want to. While I'm not prepared to become a flag-carrying cryptid believer, I also don't want to know that they're not real. You see, this kid grew up loving monster movies and stories. Werewolves were among my most favorite variety of monsters. The idea that there could a species of werewolf-like creatures out there somewhere in the wooded confines of my geographical backyard, well...my inner ten year-old is agog. 


I think that may be the key to much of this. We are all writers. In one way or another we are constantly composing and constantly telling stories to one another. After all, what is a job interview but a moment where you must tell stories? Trust me, I'm acutely aware of this by now. The notion of the werewolf itself arises in part from our need to tell stories. I don't immediately doubt that Native Americans of the region told Dogmen tales as it would seem natural.


Also, humans are animals. Another colleague of mine wrote a book about how we are biologically "born expecting the Pleistocene," or an epoch far less civilized than what we currently have. Are Dogmen and werewolf stories just compositions expressing our "wild side"? I think that may be. I also think, as is also echoed on Skeptoid, there are deep connections between the accounts and the standard narratives of urban legends. See at that link the report of a young couple that went "parking" at Bray Road. At any rate, Dogmen could be a big potted stew of all of the above. It might also be that the Dogmen are beings somewhere on John Keel's "superspectrum," passing between our dimension and others.


Me? I'm going to just play pretend that there are werewolves on the prowl. Might not be good for livestock keepers, chihuahua owners, and my friend Chad, but as I said, this once-young monster/sci-fi kid chooses to revel in the idea. 


Seriously Chad, best of luck to you and your wife. I wish the best to both of you in your new home. Keep your eyes open around town for something that looks like this: 





(An alleged security camera still posted at North American Dogman Project.)






Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes





Summer is a time for reading.

Or at least that's as tradition holds. I used to read voraciously, a book tucked somewhere on my personage at all times. Then a disaster came along and pretty much destroyed my concentration for the longest while. Still, I eventually reverted to one of my sanctuaries for troubled times: the library. As I perused the shelves, I came upon a most engaging series of books.

The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is series where contemporary writers mash-up literature's greatest detective with/against other literary and historical figures of the 19th Century, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Jack the Ripper. I have been, and probably always will be, a fan of narrative mash-ups. As a kid I delighted whenever I'd see King Kong vs Godzilla listed in the TV Guide (I'm aware just how much that single sentence dates me.) As a teen geekboy, I was overjoyed when I learned that Dark Horse Comics was writing a series of Aliens vs Predator comics, a concept that seemed so explosively exciting yet obvious all at the same time. Ditto for DC's Batman vs Dracula. My very first foray into writing as a young lad was a mash-up. I had Sherlock Holmes (no kidding) meet Captain Nemo. Naturally, I was drawn in to the FAOSH concept. In fact, I couldn't make up my mind as to which titles to read first.

Before we go on any further, a word about my particular tastes regarding the Holmes mythos. I'm something of a purist. The Robert Downey Jr movies are fun and Benedict Cumberbatch is great in everything he does, but my Holmes will always be Basil Rathbone and my Watson will always be Nigel Bruce. I believe that those actors and their corresponding films were the closest in keeping with the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original literature. That means they aren't slam-bang action yarns and they're not especially brooding. I also believe that the source books are also somewhat unique in that they break a few rules of what is considered to be "good" writing. In the whole of the Holmes collection, there might be two pages worth of character development. Nevertheless, the stories work. The reader is drawn into the story, cares about the characters, and more than anything else, wants to see just how Holmes deduces the solution to the mystery at hand. It works. My point being, all of these literary sensibilities are in my mind when evaluating a new entry to the mythos.




Loren D. Estleman gets it. He is the writer of Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, the first title of the FAOSH series that I selected (how could I not?) I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I might not have heard of Estleman before taking this book from the shelf, but he is an award winning mystery author. Indeed, the mythos of both Holmes and Dracula were in capable hands the whole the time.

Remember when I said my seven year-old self wrote (or tried to, anyway) a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo? Well, I distinctly remember taking "voice" into consideration. When I wrote dialogue, I asked "did it sound like Holmes?" I was writing my thoughts to come out of his mouth, but it needed to sound like he was saying them. I would later do the same with action figures of various characters, making certain that their rhetorical choices were in keeping with their personalities. I was engaging in composition theory and didn't even know it.

Safe to say, Estleman captured the voice of not only the characters, but also the style and presentation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. Same goes for the Dracula characters, although I would argue that's a somewhat easier task as they are a bit less distinctive, save for the Count himself of course.

The story begins more or less where the English portion of Bram Stoker's Dracula picks up. A schooner called the Demeter sails into a harbor with not a single man on board...save for the corpse of the captain, lashed to the wheel and drained of blood. Sherlock Holmes sets off to solve the riddle of this mystery ship and that inevitably brings him to meet the characters of Dracula. Yes, we get to see Holmes interact with Van Helsing, even if briefly. It's amusing to find that the two don't especially get along that well. Of course we also see Holmes go one-on-one with the lord of vampires.

While it's solid, fun read for the most part, it does tend to drag at the end. The author has a protracted chase sequence that is ostensibly meant to be thrilling, but I found it to have the opposite effect. Instead of biting my nails, I kept grumbling "get on with it, man." On the plus side, remember what I said about character development? Well, Estleman has a marvelous moment where Dracula confronts Watson, asking why he would sacrifice so much for Holmes. "Sherlock Holmes is my friend," Watson replies plainly...and Dracula is absolutely flummoxed. Love it,

I also checked out the War of the Worlds installment of the series, written by Manly Wade Wellman and his son, Wade Wellman.





I had read a bit of Manly Wade Wellman's "weird tales" in college, thanks to my theater director. While I didn't have strong recollections of the prose style one way or another, I was interested enough to see how he would mash up Conan Doyle with the H.G. Wells story that I likewise love. The writers do this in part via another Conan Doyle character, Professor Challenger from The Lost World and a few other books I admittedly have not read. Anyway, Challenger joins Holmes and Watson as Martian cylinders fall on England and eventually London is in flames.

While this was entertaining to read, the writing lacked description and there were missed opportunities for turns of phrase. It also didn't seem quite Holmes enough. I don't mean that the authors didn't capture the voice. They were at least as good as Estleman in that regard. No, this just didn't quite seem to fit the Sherlock Holmes milieu once you get past the first quarter of the book.  What I really liked was a series of chapters that could only have been executed with the written word and not with cinema.

Holmes comes into the possession of a crystal egg. He and Professor Challenger examine it and find that they can see a whole other landscape through the crystal. For pages the two go on evaluating what it could or couldn't be and eventually deduce that they must be looking at the planet Mars. I was engrossed as I read of how they eventually came to the conclusion, even though the very title of the book was something of a natural spoiler. That's good writing.

One other handy feature of this series is that each book comes with preview pages of another installment in the series. I managed to read part of one before my copy was due back at the library. It was for The Ectoplasmic Man. This one features Holmes meeting the real-life escape artist, Harry Houdini. Houdini has been framed and sent to prison for espionage. Holmes vows to clear him and go after blackmailers bent on menacing the Prince of Wales.

TL;DR It's on the whole a fun, if modestly written, series for anyone who loves Sherlock Holmes. Next time, more weirdness.

Take care everyone.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Mothman in Chicago



Source of image: http://www.cryptozoo.ru/news/letajushhie_monstry/1-0-50


This is a momentous blog post!

I have co-blogged with others before, but never with my own brother.
That's right. Two! Two Nichols men. All for the price of one.

Michael entered the blogosphere back in May with Forest Dweller Thoughts. There he examines the many spiritual and cultural facets of the human experience, mostly through an academic lens. In this, the first of what I hope will be a series of posts co-blogged with him, we consider a most serious matter.

Mothman.

I've blogged before about how my interest in the paranormal started at quite a young age. It all started for me with books on UFOs and cryptids from the children's section of the library. Invariably, Michael would read the books I brought home and vice versa, thus cementing our own shared interests in the subjects. We read plenty of accounts of creatures, weirdness, and things that go bump in the night that subsequently kept us up at night, fearing those said same bumps. One of those narratives invovled an unknown creature called "Mothman." It immediately captured our imaginations.

In 1966 in the West Virginia dorp of Point Pleasant, a blizzard of bizarre occurrences took place. There were UFO sightings, eerie synchronicities, psychic phenomena, and encounters with strange entities. One of these entities was called "Mothman."

On November 15th, 1966, two teenage couples were driving at night by what was then known as "the TNT area" outside of Point Pleasant. The region earned this name due to the presence of an old World War II munitions plant and dump. On that lonely road, the couples claimed (and still claim to this day) that they saw a black, humanoid creature with wings and eyes that glowed red when hit with the beams of their car's headlights. It swooped down and followed their car, giving them all quite a fright. They reported the incident to police and the story made its way into the press. The media dubbed the creature "Mothman" partly due to the purported shape of the wings and because Batman starring Adam West was a big hit on TV at the time.

Sightings of Mothman continued in tandem with all of the other paranormal activity already mentioned. This attracted the attention of writer and researcher, John Keel. He spent a fair amount of time in Point Pleasant, talking to witnesses and doing investigations. The product of this research was his landmark book, The Mothman Prophecies. Both Michael and I first encountered this text in...of all places...our high school library I recommend this book for a number of reasons. If you have interest in the paranormal, Keel's theories are challenging and worthy of deep consideration (the idea of the "superspectrum" is one I've steadily grown to see as a fitting explanation for instances of the truly bizarre.) If you are not, then the book is entertaining in and of itself as Keel is a sharp writer. The man lived the paranormal and his portrayal of the entity Indrid Cold will stay with you.

So why are Michael and I writing about Mothman now?

For one, a somewhat bizarre synchronicity not unlike the kind described in The Mothman Prophecies. happened with us. I contacted Michael to see if he would be interested in a co-blogged Mothman post. When I asked, he replied that he just happened to have been re-reading The Mothman Prophecies. Coincidence? Synchronicity? Paranormal weirdness? I'll let you decide.

Why did I ask him about Mothman? Well, turns out Mothman has been sighted where I live: the greater Chicago area.

Since April, there have been 21 sightings of the creature...or something similar to it...all across the region. It's been seen near the Adler Planetarium, the Willis Tower (Sears Tower, for you out of towners), and in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. It's also been sighted in the outlying Chicagoland area, such as Hegewisch Park. The witnesses have described it as an enormous bat or owl, alternatively as a man in a suit or...as the name would imply...a cross between a moth and a man. What seems to be a consistent feature are the glowing red eyes that seem to "look right through you" as described by one Chicago woman who claimed to encounter the being while walking her dog in the park. This all seems to parallel what was seen in Point Pleasant.

"People say it moves its head and its legs. It acts like it's living. If it was a suit it would need some kind of jet pack. It's got some propulsion to it. It flaps its wings and accelerates," said paranormal researcher, Len Strickler to the Chicago Tribune.

Here is a map of the most recent sightings via the site, The Mothman Wikia:




These sightings might not bode well for Chicago.

You see, Mothman's appearance is said to be a harbinger of disaster. In the case of Point Pleasant, it was the December 1967 collapse of the Silver Springs Bridge. Keel describes this bridge's collapse into the Ohio River and the ensuing deaths of 35 people in macabre detail (wrapped Christmas presents floating in the water.) Sightings of a Mothman-like creature are rumored to have occurred in Chernobyl in the days leading up to the nuclear disaster. There are even those who claimed to have seen Mothman flitting between the towers of the World Trade Center on the night before 9/11. What does this mean for Chicago?

Well let's see. Highest tax rate in the nation, highest murder rate in the nation, godawful traffic, an impending economic collapse, people moving out of Illinois in droves....I'd say Mothman might be a little too late.

So what is Mothman? Keel suspected it is a "superspectrum" being that shares the Earth with us. Others believe it to be interdimensional or extraterrestrial in nature. Joe Nickell offers a bit more down-to-earth explanation: maybe the reason a few witnesses think it looked like an owl is because it actually was an owl. Mothman may even speak to the deeper spiritual nature of humanity as reflected in myths such as the Garuda. For an in-depth exploration of that subject, please head over to Michael's blog right now.

In the meantime, this will all certainly be on my mind. I walk my dogs. Sometimes at night. Often in a park.

I'll keep you updated.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Beneath Rudloe Manor



Image from Google. If you're the owner and want it removed, let me know.


It happened again.

Giorgio Tsoukalos and The History Channel have given me pause to think. It's happened before, but it remains a rare occurrence.

Ancient Aliens featured a location in Britain called Rudloe Manor. I was immediately captivated.

First of all, just look at the place (pictured above). It's a perfect combination of haunted house and an Anglophile's delight. It even somewhat reminds of the Captain America story, "Midnight in Greymoor Castle." Secondly, it occupies a place in World War II history, one of my favorite eras to study (I've mentioned before how I also love stories set during that time.) And of course, given that it was on AA and got a visit from Giorgio, there is a UFO connection. Let's start with history.

Rudloe Manor is, ostensibly, a typical British country manor located in Wiltshire. It sits atop caverns and tunnels created by quarrying stone to build the nearby town of Bath (which I'm hoping my former students recognize the mention of from Canterbury Tales.) Those subterranean chambers were a boon to the British in 1940.

The Battle of Britain began that year. The start and end dates of that campaign are somewhat nebulous and contentious among historians. At the earliest, it began in May and at the latest wound down in August, 1941, although engagements continued off and on until the end of hostilities in 1945. It was a battle fought almost entirely in the air. Having dominated the majority of Europe, the Germans turned towards one of the continent's last remaining powers: Britain. Through incessant air raids, the Germans sought to drastically cut British forces down and threaten the nation's autarky, forcing the UK into a non-aggression truce. A more optimistic scenario involved the utter elimination of the Royal Air Force (RAF), paving the way for Operation Sea Lion, an amphibious invasion of Britain. If you're a WWII buff, type that military operation into the Google machine and see all of the intriguing "what if" scenarios.

Because it never came to pass. The RAF inflicted massive losses on the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) and the Germans eventually turned their sights elsewhere (Soviet Union. Big mistake. But I digress...) During the fighting, Rudloe Manor became headquarters for Operations of No. 10 Group RAF. This was a communication nerve center that coordinated air defense of Plymouth and several ports and naval dockyards in the southwest of England. Much of this communications and intelligence operation could be housed in the rock-hewn caverns and tunnels, far beneath the ground and safe from enemy bombs. Ancient Aliens said that aircraft were built and stored in the underground facilities, but I've not yet seen documentation to support that. What was there was one of those classic World War II rooms with the giant map table and people with sticks pushing unit counters around like its a big game of Risk. Observe:





After the war, much of the facility was turned back over for civilian use...except for Rudloe Manor. It remained as a military installation. The RAF Provost and Security Service was established nearby, as was a space communications center in connection to the Skynet (yes, its real name) satellite. What got the place on AA was that British officials undertook UFO investigations from the Rudloe facility. Details have emerged that show Churchill and British defense officials took UFOs quite seriously starting in the 1950s. Famed UFO investigator, Nick Pope got his start investigating UFO claims for Ministry of Defense. Pope has stated that many UK UFO files from the dawn of the modern UFO era have been destroyed. Ancient Aliens intimated that those files still exist beneath Rudloe Manor...though no evidence is offered to support that claim. The show also teased that there may be more than just files underground.

On January 23, 1974, residents of villages in the Berwyn Mountains (BERWYN? for all you Svengoolie fans) of Wales claimed to have experienced an earth-shaking explosion and a burning light on a hillside. Military units were soon on the scene, but later dispersed. The official explanation is one of earthquake and meteor strike at the same time. At least a few Ufologists, not to mention witnesses of event, believe that the incident was in fact a UFO crash and a recovered craft was taken to storage beneath Rudloe Manor.

It's easy to see how the old English manor earned the name, "Britain's Area 51."

What isn't easy to see is the evidence for the claim of recovered spacecraft. The AA episode doesn't go into it. Instead they break for commercial and then retread the story of Rendelsham Forest which they've hashed and rehashed so many times. I'm getting the impression that these shows are getting more and more padding with each episode. I would rather have seen them flesh out their claims, particularly that Rudloe Manor is a center not only for UFO investigations but study and monitoring of all kinds of paranormal activity, such as ley lines and portals. I can't decide if it sounds more like Torchwood or one of Christopher Helton's role play game scenarios.

So what of Rudloe Manor itself? Is there anything alien lurking in its cavernous underside?

I'm going to say probably not. I'd still love to visit it, though. Why? You mean besides my being an incurable Anglophile? Well, I go back to my original point. Look at it. It naturally draws an air of mystery up around itself like fog from a moor. Not only that, but it is rich in historical significance not simply for Britain but perhaps for the entire world.

Whatever sits beneath it...or doesn't...is just an added bonus.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Friday, July 21, 2017

I'm tired of saving the world






They fight crime.

If someone asked seven year-old me what a superhero does, that probably would have been my answer. Superhero movies of today would say otherwise.

Case in point: Wonder Woman. While a strong film in its own right, it eventually falls into a trap of redundancy shared by many of its contemporaries.

"If the heroes don't succeed, the whole world is doomed."

Suits in marketing are partly to blame here. "It's got to be big. BIG! The film must be a BIGLY splodey extravaganza of CGI tidal waves incessantly washing over the audience in IMAX 3D. We must get on this! No time for lunch! We'll snack al desko!"

Like a descent into addiction, eventually the fate of the world is not nearly intense enough. It's the whole galaxy at stake. Then the universe. And if the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War follows the comics, all of existence and the very nature of reality will be at stake.

The concepts of "existence" and "reality" are difficult enough for philosophers to tackle. Can the average audience members really get their heads around "all reality"? I'll admit that I'm not sure I can. Regardless, that's where this constant one-upmanship of raised stakes has us.  Fundamentally, this is a problem of writing. Before exploring this issue, I would first like to examine the nature of the source literature and how that might hold a few answers as to how we got here.

Literary critic Northrop Frye would likely call these stories "romances." This does not mean deep kisses of unbridled passion and love triangles...although there is often some of that. Romantic stories include the tales of King Arthur and Camelot as written by Thomas Malory, Marie de France, and so many others. They are stories of colorful, larger than life heroes who move from one epic adventure to the next. Our contemporary superheroes are drawn from the well of these kinds of myths. That "larger than life" aspect is fertile ground for hyperbolic, "world-ending" stakes.

Yet comic books have their own composition theory. I witnessed this in a workshop at a Comic-Con decades past. A creator from one of the Big Two publishers of comics walked aspiring writers and artists through a little exercise where the participants broke down how they would open an issue of their own comic book. Most of the responses were something along the lines of "I start off with a full page, then go to a splash page, and then another splash page..." The creator responded, "Great, but you've left yourself with nowhere to go. You're not building toward anything."

It's the same conundrum with the writing of these films. If the fate of the world or the universe or realty itself is always at stake, then where else is there to go? There can be no more escalation. How long can a writer sustain such a fever pitch? Instead of nail-biting tension, the stories eventually just get trite, boring, and tedious. It's hard to care about saving the world if everybody is doing it. What was once sublime becomes tedious.

What's more, the writer paints the story into a corner. It is highly improbable that the heroes are going to fail to save the world/galaxy/universe. I'll admit it might be an interesting postmodern experiment to watch them fail and then see the apocalyptic aftermath. The truth is though, audiences would likely find such Bergman-esque risks wholly dissatisfying and that's bad news for the suits in marketing. After all, who will buy the merch tie-ins for a disliked film? In fairness, such an ending also doesn't fit what we humans have come to expect in a romantic story. So it's a given that the boys and girls in tights are going to come out on top. Where's the threat, then? Do we not, in time, just become numb to it?

I'm not saying "doomsday approaching" stories are bad in and of themselves. Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Kree-Skrull War (start here if you want slog through my deconstructive critique of that epic) are examples of great comics carrying this theme. I'm also not saying that the movies should be dull or the threats disproportionate. Take the Avengers for example. The cast includes characters such as Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. They are incredibly powerful and the antagonists should at least be able to menace them. The Avengers should not be fighting someone who could easily be beat up by Cage and Iron First. Dr. Strange is also quite powerful and should not be able to dispatch his villain by merely muttering a spell. Such would make for boring reading or moviegoing experiences.

There are ways, however, to raise the stakes without dangling the whole world over a pile of lit kindling. A threat to a single person or group of people can carry just as much investment from an audience as a doomsday scenario. One of the most often cited Spider-Man stories has him struggling his way through a death trap. If he fails to get out in time, he will be unable to get medicine to Aunt May and she will die. No, the world won't end. But the most important person in Peter's world will end and that is an apocalypse all its own.

As I mentally sift through the superhero films, we see kernels of such wonderfully personal themes. In the original Captain America, Steve (still in wimpy form) is the only member of his unit to dive on a grenade while all the "tough guys" run. In the first X-Men (2000), Mystique gets Senator Kelly in a headlock (of sorts) and growls, "People like you are the reason I was scared to go to school." Each of these is an amazing moment. I believe superhero films would do well to have more of these moments than "the world's going to end" CGI bonanzas. Additionally, there are so many other types of threats the heroes could face.

Off the top of my head, there's also the theme of "I just want to go home." Yes, it's been on  my mind quite a bit. Homer covers it in The Odyssey and Melville has it in greater and lesser shades in Moby Dick. If you want a genre example, I'll waste no time pointing to the greatest entry in the Star Trek film franchise, The Wrath of Khan. Captain Kirk just wants to get his "boatload of children" home, but there's wickedly intelligent madman in his way. Will they escape? Yes, but only after great sacrifice. Along similar lines, even a Nietzschean "will to power" struggle of "I need to get through this" can be infinitely more compelling that the now standard, "suit up because we have to save the world" trope.

I can only hope that the writers and other creative engines behind the juggernaut of comic book-based films will eventually change trajectory. If not, boredom and redundancy are excellent pins to burst what already looks like an inflating bubble. I implore you, Hollywood. There are other directions to take the stories.

After all, whatever happened to just fighting crime?


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Film Review--Wonder Woman





WONDER WOMAN
starring Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Danny Huston, and Lyle Waggoner as The Beav.

This is the origin story of Wonder Woman. Diana (Gadot), princess of the Amazons, lives a life of rigorous training on the island of Themyscira. That is until Steve Trevor (Pine) crashes his plane on the beach, bringing the raging war of the outside world to the marble doorsteps of the Amazons. Diana joins him and wades into the conflict, seeking an old enemy and her destiny as a hero.

This is one of the greatest DC Comics-based films of the past 30 years. Only Dark Knight and the original Tim Burton Batman approach or surpass its level. Don't get too excited. It isn't such a mean feat with movies such as Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman in the mix, but let's give Wonder Woman its due.

The most critical of the film's triumphs is that it absolutely captures the character of Diana. I know that in the past I have been victim of my own unenlightened thinking. What I thought were "strong female characters" were in fact...please forgive the profanity here..."fighting fucktoys." I am taking that term from the documentary Missrepresentation which I used to show in class. It was spoken in the film by a feminist and political thinker whose name sadly escapes me at the moment. The point was that so many "empowered" female characters in Hollywood action films aren't that at all. They are projections of male fantasies poured into catsuits with ample contributions of guns and blades. Indeed, the origin of the characters is in the service of stereotypical male ideals.

On the whole, Wonder Woman is not like this. Oh yes I know arguments could be made to the contrary and with good reason. Her costume for one and a few head-scratching, eyebrow-raising early aspects of her character for another (if you get her hands above her head and cross her bracelets, she's powerless.) For an in-depth look at the life of her creator, William Moulton Marston, read The Secret History of Wonder Woman. I have not read it, but I heard a fantastic interview with the author, Jill Lapore, on NPR. The book went right to my to-read list as it explains what influenced those odd choices by Marston as he created the character. But I digress...

Despite the arguably sexist nature of her comic book appearance, Wonder Woman has always been regal. Noble. Wise. Along with Batman and Superman, she forms one third of the "holy trinity" of DC superheroes. When she would show up on the scene, almost any other character would defer to her and her gravitas. Like all good characters, she is a fully realized human being. That means having flaws or not so good aspects of personality. In Diana's case, she's a warrior. As such, she sometimes falls into a "I got the job done, didn't I?" line of thinking and adverse consequences ensue. I remember one DC storyline where the character Maxwell Lord had the ability to manipulate minds. He was about to mind-control someone into doing something catastrophic and so Wonder Woman snapped Lord's neck. On live TV. She did what had to be done but the world debated the action from that point forward.

We saw all of these traits on the screen in Gadot. Gadot is obviously drop dead gorgeous, but that is never really played up in the film. Nor should it have been. Instead, she commands and inspires through her strength as a warrior and her sense of justice. Throughout the film, she's really the one who's in charge. Except of course on Themyscira (which more seasoned Wonder Woman fans might know by the name Paradise Island). By the way, after seeing Robin Wright as Claire Underwood on House of Cards, watching her smash faces in as an Amazon general just sort of...fits. As for Steve Trevor, I think that Pine plays him as actually somewhat smarter than the Trevor of the comics. I can remember Steve Trevor doing something dumb and then Wonder Woman has to be the one to go bail him out of the fire. Even so, I still didn't find the character to be especially likable on the screen and I found myself wondering if Diana would actually want a relationship with him.

Which brings me to another point. Wonder Woman is not without several flaws. For one, I'm not sure what motivated the change in setting of the origin story from World War II to World War I. That might just be me as I find World War II to be a magnificent canvas to paint stories upon. What advantage was there in this switch? The German villains were beyond cartoonish and fail miserably at generating any real interest in and of themselves apart from being antagonists for Wonder Woman. They basically serve as mere furniture.

Most vexing of all is the last half hour or so. It's a cluttered, CGI-generated, splodey mess. I think that is of course due to the suits in production and marketing. "It's gotta be big. Big I tell ya! BIG! Yuuuuuuge!" Yes, if Hollywood producers were in fact readers of Aristotle's Poetics, they would zero in on the section for "spectacle" and leave everything else he wrote as mere supporting facets. You know, little stuff like thought, diction, et. al. I know that this is not art. It's product. The director and the actors likely had no control over this aspect, but that does nothing to wash away the popcorny, empty-calorie taste in my mouth. It did leave me wondering something, though.

Do the heroes always have to be saving the world? Does the fate of the entire world always have to be what's at stake in these films? Doesn't that get boring after a while? How many times can the world be saved? I think that might be my next blog post.

Despite all of that, Wonder Woman is worth at least a rental. Its strength, as I said, is the depiction of the titular character. Enjoy it while you can. Good as it is, I doubt the strength of the character is going to be enough to save Justice League.

Say you all next time. Be well.


Art by Alex Ross.


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Thursday, July 6, 2017

A class in the "could" and "should" of transhumanism



This picture was found via Google. If you are the artist and want credit or want the pic removed, please let me know.


For what might be the last time, I got to teach transhumanism.

No, I wasn't leading students in constructing AIs and we didn't give each other cybernetic implants. The class was, it has always been, a class for second semester seniors that was focused on ethics. Or as I saw one of students eloquently put it in an online exchange:

S: Thanks for teaching us about robots and ethics.
Some guy: So now you can build ethical robots?
S: Heck yeah.

I love that comeback.
Anyway, teaching the class has always been a necessary mental exercise for this transhumanist. I know that I can sometimes become enraptured with the "sexier" promises of a transhuman future, but I try to never be so blind that I don't see the potential pitfalls. The heady rush of thinking that we can should always be tempered with the question of if we should. That's what the class was all about. Here's how it worked:

I like to start the class by showing a movie. There are any number of films that demonstrate how much the notion of transhumanism has always been ingrained in our culture while raising critical questions of consequences and serious considerations of right and wrong. My first outing I showed Blade Runner. I of course adore that film, but students found it dated and obtuse. So next time out I showed Transcendence. Not a good film really, but it illustrates many transhuman concepts. This time? I showed Ex Machina. That worked. It worked so well that I resolved to show it the first day of all of my future transhumanism classes.

Then they went and closed the college. What are ya gonna do?

We spent the first third of the semester reading and discussing The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. I know, I know. It's about 14 years old by now and it's contested by many. The text does a nice job however of laying out key concepts and questions regarding these emerging technologies. As such it prompted great discussions about just how much...or how little...consideration was being given to ethics as transhumanism becomes a greater part of our lives.

Students then took a month and did writing and research on an ethical question of their choosing. They were charged with looking at this question through the lens of at least three academic disciplines while instantiating their claims with published studies. Most critically, their argued stance needed to be explicitly connected to ethical reasoning, such as deontology or utilitarianism or the like. All of this was poured into their 20 page capstone document and presented to the rest of the class.

Let me tell you. I was very impressed with both the questions and the arguments they raised. Here are a few:

-Creating artificially intelligent robots would basically create a new class of being. We shouldn't do that when we can't even achieve true equality among humans.
-There are large companies like Monsanto that hold patents on genetically engineered organisms. They basically own forms of life. Think about that for a moment.
-Nanotechnology may become a doomsday weapon on par with nuclear warheads.
-Artificial Intelligence. So many thought-provoking meditations on this subject but so little room in a blog post.

At the end of the class, I came away with two realizations.

This year's senior class are "transhuman natives" of a sort. Class discussions from previous years quite often involved an element of shock. "They're really working on human-like robots? That think?" and the sort. These students didn't have that shock. Now granted that may in part be due to a class I had with them as freshmen where I briefly introduced transhuman concepts, but I think it's more than that. We've reached a point where youth see concepts such as machines with human intelligence and augmenting the body through technology as not wild notions but inevitable realities.

More importantly, the seniors were asking all the right questions with almost no prompting from me. Just like the rest of us, they want a better quality of life. They wouldn't mind easier living...but at what cost? There are aspects of their existence, such as identity and achievement through effort, they were unwilling to sacrifice. Yeah, anyone who calls millennials lazy and only wanting to live in their smartphones should take a moment and speak to one of the members of this graduating class.

It was a challenging but rewarding class and I am thankful I could teach it. If it must come to an end, then I can't think of a better roster for the final class.

Oh and if you're reading this, guys? There are a few other people pondering questions you raised in class:

If you have a neural interface, could hackers gain access to your brain?

There might be a downside to sexbots.
   


Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How do you create an "alien" language?




In all of my study and teaching of writing, it may have been my proudest moment.

Allow me to set the scene.

The class was Language, Grammar, and Society. The first half of this English class was an exploration of how the English language came to be, including the forces of race, gender, politics, and culture that continue to influence its evolution to this day. After midterm, the class went "into the steam tunnels" of the language, so to speak. Meaning, we did a lot of exercises to examine sentence structure, parts of speech, and all things mechanical.

Both the students and I attacked the subject the way a small child approaches cold peas.

While essential to an understanding of any language usage, grammar is...well, dry. Boring, in my humble opinion. Compounding our ennui was the fact that we were muddling through the class after hearing that our college, our home, was closing after over 100 years. We reached a point where I could no longer teach the subject and my poor students no longer harbored the energy to get through it. Therefore, I told them we were no longer doing grammar.

Of course that left me with a tidy month's worth of classes to fill. What were we going to do?

Since I would bring the class news stories involving language, I told them about a college student in Brazil who had disappeared. When his bedroom door was unlocked, concerned family members found the walls to be covered in a strange, undecipherable language. I joked that when the time came for me to finally vacate my office, I wanted to leave my walls the same way. Really make them wonder what kind of demented mind once inhabited the place.

Then it hit me. What if we created our own language?

A once dead class immediately came back to life. I saw fiery excitement in these students that had been absent for weeks, maybe longer. But, I cautioned them, we could not simply spew out gibberish. The new language would need a concrete set of grammar rules and...like any language...those rules would have to be consistent. There would have to be a rationale for the origin and etymology of each word. To set the spirit, I played a few videos that described how Tolkien invented Elvish and how the Klingon language came about in the Star Trek universe. In fact, you may wish to take a few minutes and watch this video of Marc Okrand, creator of the Klingon language (for which there is an actual official dictionary):




Speaking of Tolkien, he once said that every language has a story and a mythology behind it. His classic epic The Lord of the Rings is actually linguistic in nature. As a someone in the discipline of composition and rhetoric, I'm always asking about exigence, or what made someone write something? How did it affect their rhetorical choices?

What would be the "story" of our language?

Well, my students decided that their language would be the language of a displaced people. They were oppressed and wanted to develop a way of speaking and writing that could not be easily deciphered by their oppressors. Plenty of examples of that in history and I'll leave you to seek them out. You might also want to look into the history of cryptography. Next, we needed an alphabet.

At first, I showed an example of what is purported to be alien writing. It comes from the recollections of witnesses involved in the alleged UFO crash in Roswell in 1947. Here's someone's rendition of that written language said to have been found on a piece of wreckage from the crash:




The students wisely pointed out that we only had a month before the semester ended and everything went to vapor. Creating an entire alphabet from scratch would take at least a month by itself. Better to go with the alphabet we already know. That way we could jump straight to developing a vocabulary.

The cockles of my little academic heart warmed as I watched the students trace Latin, Greek, German, and Celtic roots of words and create their own variations upon them. They examined how words from other languages continue to interdigitate with cultural realities, spawning new and sometimes rankling words. I reminded them, however, that the language could not exist solely with the proper nouns that they were most interested in, but by necessity would require the common "furniture" of pronouns, conjunctions, and so many words that we take for granted. For example, what would be your word for "with"?

"This is hard!" one of them exclaimed.

Good. They got the idea then. It also made them realize that things weren't going to get any easier when we constructed sets of grammar rules. Difficult or not, my guys rose to the occasion and kicked all kinds of ass.

In a linguistic sense of course.

So what does the language look and sound like? Well, you can see an example of it at the top of the post. No, I won't translate any of it for you. The language is personal, a creation of my students. Sure, any PhD linguist would likely decipher it in no time, but you won't get it from me. I will give you one tidbit though. It's my favorite grammar rule of all the ones they created. To make a word plural, you place an accent over the word's harshest sounding consonant.

Love it.

The students then all wrote messages in this new tongue on flip chart paper and taped them to my walls. Just to make things really interesting, we added a few visuals to numerous screeds:

-I taped up a portrait of Al-Kindi. He was a philosopher and a pioneer of cryptography.

-Aliens. Yeah. A couple depictions of them.

-Weird art. One of my students could create really weird art. So much the better.

Then they really surprised me. My jaw dropped when they pulled out sets of t-shirts they made to commemorate the class.




That hand? It's a word. It means the communal "we." We the displaced people. We the community. We with a capital "W". They even got a shirt for me.

I'm not crying. You're crying.

It may have come from the most dismal and deplorable of situations, but this class ended up being a triumph. These students were able to take what he had studied and use the material...and their minds...creatively. In that final month, they created something truly unique in all of the Earth (dare I say, the universe) that they will forever have with them. So much better than a dry grammar book in my pedagogical opinion.

These students. Wow. They will forever have my love and admiration.




Follow me on Twitter: @Jntweets

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

RIP Roger Moore




I had another blog post in mind, but the news of the day has me changing plans.

Actor Roger Moore has died. He was 89. He will of course be most remembered for playing James Bond. I wanted to take a moment and explore what that means to ESE.

I've blogged several times about growing up in the Cold War. It was a unique epoch in history. I'm not sure how to accurately convey what it was like other than ask you to imagine the kind of "we could die any minute" terror that comes with war but without your country being actively engaged in any shooting. You knew that thousands of nuclear warheads were pointed at you, just waiting for the go code, but looking out the window nothing seemed amiss. That was partly due to the work of an entire "shadow world" of operatives on both sides, keeping the unthinkable from happening.

Espionage.

But as a kid, my only understanding of the spy life came down to two words: Roger Moore. He was James Bond at the time and my introduction to that mythos came through a movie called Moonraker.

In addition to Cold War tensions, the late 1970s was also something of a halcyon age for those of us who love classic science fiction films. It was the time of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Hollywood moguls were blending space themes into their films wherever they could, even if it didn't make sense. I guess they thought it would get geeks in seats. At least in the case of seven year-old Jonny, it worked.

When I came across a promotional article for Moonraker in Starlog magazine, I knew it would be a must-see film. It had a massive space station, a fleet of space shuttles, lasers, a giant assassin named Jaws with a mouth full of metal, and thrilling action of all kinds. I was only vaguely familiar with James Bond 007, but just how much did I need to know? He was a spy, he got all the girls, and this time he was going into space. Why? Because an arch-villain named Hugo Drax had built a base in orbit, poised to wipe out humanity with nerve gas so that he may repopulate the Earth with a master race.

It all ended with a climactic laser battle between men in spacesuits, thus granting me my introduction to the world of James Bond.




Later I would come to understand what real espionage was like and it certainly wasn't like Moonraker. It was more the books of John Le Carre, such as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, or other writers like Frederick Forsyth with The Day of the Jackal. If you want an even grittier look at "real life" Cold War espionage, I might recommend the TV show, The Americans. The real thing is nothing like what Roger Moore portrayed and that may be why a contemporary audience responds more to a Bond like Daniel Craig or even to the perennial favorite, Sean Connery. I can see that and I appreciate those two actors in the role in their own way.

I still come back to Roger Moore. Probably because he and the films he appeared in aren't realistic.

His Bond was cool, suave, and unflappable. The stories he appeared in mixed spy thrillers with science fiction (not just Moonraker, but take a look at that "sea car" in The Spy Who Loved Me), reminding me of the Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. comics I was reading at the same time. More than that, there was a underlying kindness and gentility about him. Those may sound like odd qualities for a Bond and in reality I suppose they are, but I think it makes a statement. It was as if the good person Roger Moore was came through no matter who he was playing.

He was fun.

In a day and an age where terrorists have just set off a bomb at a teen pop concert and cyber attacks on our infrastructure are commonplace, "fun" might be counter-intuitive or even repulsive for an espionage story. The post 9/11 palate may demand a spy character to be written more like Jack Bauer from 24. I can see that. At the same time, I don't think it's a detriment to a have a fun distraction from events I can do nothing about.

Roger Moore and his Bond provide that distraction and I thank him for it.

Addendum 1:
I fought this just a little bit ago. The Roger Moore Adventure Book with stories of "true life adventure." Not sure what it is exactly, but it might be the only book I'll ever need to read.




Addendum 2: I really should close out this tribute with my favorite James Bond theme...which just so happens to be from one of the Roger Moore films.





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Friday, May 19, 2017

Exile




"Every country is home to one man, and exile to another."
-T.S. Eliot

In composition studies, we have this concept called "exigency."

It's a fancy word that basically means "what makes someone write." What is that initial spark that occurs that compels a person to commit the thoughts in his or her head to written language? Exigency can range from the mundane (a grocery list) to the sublime (a literary novel). Right now, I'm considering exile as exigency in literature.

Because I feel as if I've been exiled. Why? Read here.

Back now? Good.

Turns out exile is quite the literary motivator. Without it, we might not have had The Divine Comedy. Dante was banished from Florence in the 13th Century for the duration of his life. At several turns, it must have seemed to Dante like he was "wandering through hell" and thus inspiration for The Inferno. Victor Hugo was expelled from France after tussling with Napoleon. Most of this explosive conflict was due to Hugo's passionate sense of social justice...something of which Napoleon had very little. It's all right. The banishment gave Victor Hugo time to write his triumph, Les Miserables.

Of course one can write a tremendous work about exile without actually having been exiled. It didn't happen to Milton (as far as I know), but Paradise Lost is loaded with it. From Satan's fall from Heaven ("It is far better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven!") to Adam and Eve driven from Eden, it's hard to miss the theme. Me? I have great affinity for Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. In that book, sailor Edmond Dantes is wrongly sent to prison. Just read the passage where Dantes is on a barge in shackles and realizes he's being taken to a grim, island prison. Dumas' description of the shock and despair at this realization is visceral. Even better, the story really focuses on Dantes getting out of the joint and returning to rain revenge down on those who wronged him. Dope.

I could go on with other examples both major and even minor, such as Aeneas in Carthage during The Aeneid, but if you've read ESE for any length of time, then you know I'm not entirely a traditional academic in a tweedy jacket with elbow patches. What of exile stories in America's greatest cultural achievement? What about...the comic book? I put a call out to my boys asking this very question. Here's a few of their responses:

Well, the Silver Surfer is essentially a story of exile from start to finish. He is forever expelled from his happy home, Zenn-La, and was for a time confined entirely to Earth.

My friend Jason also suggested the episode "Superman in Exile" from the original Superman TV series with George Reeves. While it's not a comic book, I will accept it as it is based on a comic book character (arguably the comic book character) and somebody had to write the script. In the episode, Superman shuts down a runaway nuclear reactor. This has the unfortunate side effect of irradiating him. To save Metropolis, Superman sends himself into self-imposed exile to the mountains of Blue Peak. Unfortunately, criminals take advantage of Superman's absence and purloin all manner of valuables from Metropolis. How can Superman return? Let's just say it's a typically cockamamie-but-fun solution involving lightning.

But my favorite example of comic book exile as proposed by the responses?




Yes, Planet Hulk. I like it conceptually if nothing else and it's not without a certain set of...parallels.

A secret cabal of characters in the Marvel Universe, including Tony Stark, Doctor Strange, and Professor X, all meet and decide that the Hulk is just too dangerous to remain on Earth any longer. They of course do not consult the Hulk in any of these proceedings. In a stomach-churning display of deceit and duplicity, they trick the Hulk into getting into a spaceship. At least "the deciders" leave him a recording in the ship to somewhat explain their motivations. This ship then takes him out of the solar system, presumably to a peaceful planet. Of course the hubris-laden minds that put this whole scheme together didn't account for what could go wrong. The spaceship goes through a wormhole and the Hulk lands on a hostile world full of alien monsters.

He ends up as a gladiator in an arena, complete with all of our Romanesque cultural expectations, e.g. sandals, a colosseum, and maybe Chuck Heston as Ben-Hur. No, more like Douglas in Spartacus for Hulk gathers ragtag allies in the gladitorial slave pens. The villagers of Sakaar, the name people of this world call their planet, begin to believe Hulk is a foretold savior, arrived by divine intention to overthrow the world's tyrant ruler, the Red King. Hulk leads a "warbound" pact of warriors and does just that. He even gets a wife and child out of the deal. It would appear that even though it came out of exile, Hulk has finally found his place in the universe and a new life of happiness.

But nothing could be further from the truth. The people of Sakaar take the spaceship and try to turn it into a monument to their newfound savior. Unfortunately, the antimatter warp core in the ship's engine cracks as part of a self-destruct program. The ensuing explosion kills millions, including Hulk's wife. So Hulk does what any reasonable person would do in the situation. He calls together the warbound and heads for Earth to find those who expelled him to Sakaar in the first place. And hell's coming with him...

Thus begins the World War Hulk storyline. "The deciders" face the full wrath of an enraged Hulk, all while being utterly befuddled as to how anyone could think they did anything wrong. It does not end well for anyone.

Will my own exile inspire any literary creation? I have plans and I can only hope so. If you have any suggestions of what I should write or of other examples of great stories of exile, please feel free to leave a message in the comments. In the meantime, here's Iris with a little message:





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Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Crashed



Found this art on Pinterest. If you're the artist and want credit or it taken down, hit me up.


So I'm back.

Don't know for how long, though. I certainly won't be doing daily posts.

Right now I'm thinking about crashes. And burning.

Why? Well, that all has to do with why I've been absent from the blog for so long. You see, Saint Joseph's College, my alma mater, my employer, and the life of my family for over 50 years, has closed its doors. As for the reasons why...well...Google them. It's something I shouldn't get into.

This past Saturday we held our last ever commencement. It was the finale, the coda to what has felt like a three month funeral. This has been a time of great sadness and loss for students, faculty, staff, and almost everyone in the Saint Joe family. For those of us who worked there, and I'll speak for myself anyway, it has been a time of existential terror. Where will we go? How will we survive?

I felt as if I were sitting in the strewn wreckage of a spaceship crash. You know, the kind seen all over the place in (sometimes) pulpier science fiction? A spaceship plummets to the surface of a planet and the crew members...those who survive the impact...suddenly find themselves on a strange or often inhospitable world. Dazed and wondering just what the hell happened, they try to gather themselves and whatever life-sustaining gear that can be salvaged from the wreckage. First order of business is survival, after all. I once shot a Lego movie about this. I set the tiny space guys in the backyard. They pulled out the reactor core (in real life, a glow stick) of their ship to use as a heat source. It was probably going to give them all radiation poisoning, but it was a question of dying from that or freezing to death. I found it quite existential for Lego.

I imagine any survivors would be both terrified and depressed. Their lives completely upended. Where are they? What happens next? Will they ever see their home again?

Lost in Space is a longtime example of this scenario. I also think of an alleged, "real life" illustration. I've read accounts of supposed witnesses to the Roswell UFO crash who encountered the last living, albeit badly wounded, survivor. The claim is that the alien transmitted a telepathic sense of terror and great loss, knowing that he would never see his home again. If you're not up for melancholy, you could take Chuck Heston's approach. After his ship and crew crash at the beginning of Planet of the Apes, he tells the other men, in true Heston style (I'm paraphrasing): "We're stuck here. The sooner we get our heads around that, the better off we're going to be."

There are other science fiction stories of ruin and survival of course. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood depicts a lone man who might be the last true human remaining after a bio-engineered plague gets loose. The Road, tells of a man attempting to guide his son through the wasteland that is post-apocalyptic America. They try to hold on to a glimmer of humanity because...well, just because. In the classic Dune, the family of Paul Atreides is shattered and he must go into exile in the desert wastes, only to rebuild his life among the Fremen and eventually crawl his way back.

I'm afraid I can't come up with many more science fiction examples. That may be because I mostly tend towards the cyberpunk milieu. If I'm lost in Gibson's Sprawl, then at least I have a mobile device to access navigation, search for instructions, and anything else one can find on the Web.

"Mainstream" literature is of course replete with stories of survival after ruin. Currently I'm reading Moby Dick. The ship is sunk and Ishmael is clinging to Queequeg's coffin in a dark and turbulent sea, but somehow he makes it. He also seems to keep covered a spark of his own humanity. Odysseus, lout though he could be, survived his own calamities (more than a few being self-generated) and returned home. You won't get much succor from Franz Kafka in The Metamorphosis, though. He'll tell you that life will likely cut you down. Camus might say that sure, you could survive, but will it really matter if you did?

While revered by English-types like me in glasses, plaid shirts, and carrying omnipresent coffee mugs, those latter two texts don't seem to resonate with readers as a whole. I wonder if that is because, culturally, we prefer the aforementioned grit of Chuck Heston's "just deal with it and move on" determination? Something like Nietzsche's "ubermensch." "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger." Is optimism hardwired in our DNA? Might make sense. If it weren't, if humans did not have a nigh unquenchable desire to survive despite any circumstance, we might have vanished altogether as a species. As a culture, we might abhor broken spirits and demand that "If you're going through hell, keep going."

I have a tendency to dismiss such platitudes as mere sophistry. Truthfully, I have indeed had dark thoughts these past months. Depression predisposes you to them. Why should I keep going? What is left? They've taken everything. Aren't there circumstances where survival really isn't your best option? Might this be one of them?

Given my discipline and the fact that I'm a writer, you might think I would take my comfort from great literature and I sometimes do. That is not what heartens me, though. To be truly inspired, I run back to my roots. I go to America's greatest cultural achievement: the comic book.




Green Arrow has always been one of my favorites. Oliver Queen is a young, pompous playboy with a selfish attitude. That is until he's shipwrecked on a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific. To survive, he is forced to teach himself the bow. He becomes an expert archer and when he returns to civilization, he vows never to be on the wrong side again. He becomes Green Arrow, vigilante against evil and defender of the less fortunate.




Then there's Batman. It's not really the same sort of story, but his is a profile in overcoming loss, of building yourself back better than before. He's been wronged and he's coming after those who commit wrong...and hell's coming with him.

Maybe both of these characters have a message for me. I'm scared, but maybe I need to go through this. Oh do I loathe those offered platitudes of "one door closes..." so on and so forth ad nauseum, but...yes, but...

I might one day look back and say I needed this. Though tragic, though deplorable, though as inscrutable as Waiting for Godot, I might one day find this situation as necessary. Anger may become a gift. It may motivate me to greater ends and somehow march me through this gauntlet. I hope so anyway. At least that's the best coping mechanism I've come up with thus far for this change.
 
By the way, I look pretty good with a mace.




“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” --Paul Atreides, Dune

"You know you've got to go through hell before you get to heaven." --Steve Miller

That college photo is from commencement, courtesy of Susie Ferek Hayes.



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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Requiem for a College--a WIP

“Counseling services will be available afterward.”
There is no possible way a meeting can end well with an addendum like that.
Nevertheless, we filed into the auditorium at the appointed time on February 3rd, “we” meaning the students, faculty, and staff of Saint Joseph’s College. Boxes of tissues sat at the end of each aisle of seating. A priest said a prayer at the podium. He thanked God for bringing us together and for “the continuing of our mission.” The Chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees then came to the mic. He wore a blazer and a shirt beneath it with the top button undone. What hair that remained on his head was a dark brown. He bore a more than passing resemblance to former Sen. Bob Dole.
Fear has a distinct smell. I wish I could convey it but chances are you know what I mean. It’s there in that split second just before a car crash or an injury involving sharp objects. It settles in like an ominous cloud in those moments after someone says, “Sit down. I need to talk to you.” I smelled it when the Chairman bent the paper in his hands with slow, thick movements.
He said that in the best interests of the college’s future, we would be “suspending operations” on our campus. “There will be no students here in the fall,” he said, capping off his statement.
I heard the wind go out of several stomachs. There was then a single, sharp wail from somewhere on my far left. A chorus of sobbing ensued. I could say nothing. I could only breathe. Intentional, pained breathing, the kind where you have to force it. It didn’t last long. The wall cracked and I fell onto the shoulder of my brother next to me. We just stood there, saying nothing. We didn’t need to.

Saint Joseph’s College rises up out of farmer’s fields in Rensselaer, Indiana, a town with a population of just under 6,000. As you approach town, the iconic twin towers of the college’s chapel are visible from a distance along with the college water tower and the Jasper County Courthouse. My first memories of life on this Earth are of sitting with my grandmother in front of the fountain and reflecting pond on campus. My father came to the college in 1968 to teach philosophy. He also implemented the college’s crowning achievement, the Core program. It was an interdisciplinary program for all undergraduates, ingraining a cycle of reading, discussion, thinking, and writing. I attended St. Joe’s for undergrad and experienced many of the best years of my life. My brother followed and even met his wife at the college, marrying her in the aforementioned chapel. After our respective graduate work, we returned to campus to teach, each one of us anticipating a “happily ever after” scenario.
But we returned to a college fraught with financial problems. The construction of new buildings in the mid-1990s and renovations in the 2000s burdened the institution with considerable and growing debt. Compounding matters was an enrollment level that remained either stagnant or falling at just under 1,000 students as recruitment and retention efforts faltered throughout the 2000s. Through it all, the business model did not seem to change.
The college began in 1891 founded by the Catholic order known as the Society of the Precious Blood. For many years that followed, the faculty consisted of priests and brothers who drew meager stipends but whose livelihoods were covered. Times changed and it became necessary to hire expert faculty from outside the church. This meant higher salaries and greater expenditures. The 21st Century faculty who believed in the college remained with few raises in their salaries, egregious insurance deductibles, and significant drops in their retirement contributions. It was hoped these sacrifices would be temporary. By working together, streamlining our academic programs, and a full court press of fundraising and recruitment, we could evade the fate that seemed to plague so many small colleges these days.
The Board of Trustees decision on February 3rd 2017 brought a sudden end to those aspirations. The Sword of Damocles fell and so many of us lay scattered in its wake, not having even the first clue as to what was next.
“What does that even mean? ‘Temporary suspension?’” asked Maia Hawthorne, a colleague of mine in the English Department.
I could offer no further explanation other than what the Board presented because there was nothing else. As nothing else came from “the deciders,” conspiracy theories flourished in the vacuum of information. “They’re going to turn the place into a completely online program run out of one building,” said one rumor. “I keep hearing the phrase ‘planned incompetence,’” said another.
“That’s it,” Maia said with a soft slap of her hand on the desk. “I’m going to see about teaching in one of the public high schools.
I asked her if that’s what she really wants to do.
“I’m…geographically bound,” she replied.
She went on to explain about how her husband teaches at history Rensselaer Central High School while her two young daughters attend elementary and middle school in town as well. Maia and her husband just finished building a house last year on land that was left to her by her parents. The Hawthorne family is rooted. Planted. She would have to make the best of what is available to her in the area.
“I may leave teaching altogether,” said Dr. April Toadvine, a colleague in the English Department. “Maybe do online content or admin work.”
Each faculty member would face his or her own challenges in finding new work. Our History Department is a study in the ends of the challenge spectrum.
Chad Turner is second year ABD faculty. He will receive only a small severance. Meanwhile, Dr. Bill White is a 32 year veteran of the History Department. He shook his head and muttered a laugh when he heard the Board thought tenure and years of experience would be an advantage for senior faculty in the marketplace. What is his severance? Well, that’s something of a debate. You wouldn’t think so, but it is.
The faculty handbook states that if laid off, a tenured faculty member is entitled to one year’s salary as severance. The week of March 20th, a letter was issued to tenured faculty by the Vice President for Academic Affairs. It stated that said faculty will receive this severance but should they obtain new employment in the next year, they receive only the difference, if any, between the new and old salaries. This is not stated in the handbook. As of this writing, the tenured faculty are taking the matter to court and Bill White is leading the charge.
“If we win, we are entitled to triple damages plus attorney’s fees,” White said. “That will guarantee no possible resurrection of Saint Joseph’s College.”
It’s safe to say that he is angry. It is not without good reason. Both professors of the History Department, along with the rest of the faculty, must look for new teaching positions at one of the worst points in the academic year to do so. This is in addition to teaching out the rest of the semester. How anyone teaches or learns in this situation is beyond me.
 I asked Ashley how she does it and she said she can’t concentrate on classes. She’s a second semester freshman with long red hair and a ring in her nose. She loves two things, English literature and marching band. Saint Joseph’s College afforded her the opportunity to pursue both those passions and at a location she could commute to from home. This latter point was critical in her selection of colleges. For one matter, living at home would cut the cost of higher education, an already expensive undertaking, by a significant amount. It would also allow Ashley to continue to care for younger sister. That needed to happen because their mother just got her second DUI, cutting off both employment and mobility. For Ashley, St. Joe’s became only way to spin all the various plates of education, home, and work.
She works part-time at Subway and chicken bacon ranch sandwiches will never be the same to her. Ashley was making that sandwich for a customer when her phone buzzed with an email on February 3rd that announced the college’s demise.
“I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” she said of when she went to read the message. “I broke down. My future seemed secure and they took my security.”
It’s uncertain where Ashley will continue her degree as much was predicated on scholarships she received from Saint Joseph’s.
“The only comfort is the number of colleges stepping up to help us transfer,” she said. “The employees of St. Joe’s and the people of Rensselaer don’t have that.”
The shockwave of the college’s closing is yet to be felt by the Rensselaer community. St. Joe’s is the third largest employer in Jasper County, Indiana. Steve Wood, Mayor of Rensselaer, reports that the college is a major utility customer for the city, spending $640,000 in the last year. There is a string of stores, businesses, and restaurants like Ashley’s Subway that line the street up to and across from campus. While their existence is not necessarily predicated upon the college, the dip in customer base is not in question.
“Kate” (not her real name) works at the McDonald’s across the street from campus. In her mid-50s and with only a high school education, working at the fast food establishment provided Kate a way to get off of food stamps. What’s more, she even got to know her “regulars,” college students who would come into the McDonald’s on a consistent basis, sometimes daily. She gets to know what they like.
“A few of them I’ll see come through the door and I’ll already have their order in,” Kate said.
Rumors circulated in the wake of the college’s announcement. There was speculation that the franchise location would have to close down. Where would that leave Kate? Everyone wondered about the future of the town as a whole, knowing that many of the nearly 200 employees who were laid off from the college will need to relocate in order to find work. Will Rensselaer become a ghost town?

My earliest TV memory is from around age four. I watched a scene of chaos unfold on a tiny black and white screen. People rushed about, many of them soldiers. There were helicopters on a roof and people boarding them single file, their hair and clothes whipped by the fierce winds generated by the rotors.
“That was the fall of Saigon,” my mother later told me.
Walking around campus now, I can’t help but think of that scene. A little over one hundred different colleges and universities descended on our campus, setting up in the student center ballroom to recruit transfers. Like vultures circling, then dropping down and picking at our carcass. It makes me angry, but it shouldn’t. These people are trying to help our students continue their education after a traumatic event. The colleges are the “helicopters” in this case and we need to make sure all of our students get on them and evacuate.
I wish there were helicopters coming for the faculty.
There are three men walking the grounds between the baseball diamond and the field house. I don’t recognize them. They are pointing here and there at the buildings while stopping at different points to take a look. It becomes obvious to me who they are. They are developers or such “businessmen.” They are here to see what could be broken off and sold, what property could be converted, and so on. I hate these men. I shouldn’t, but I do. They are no doubt “just doing their jobs,” but I can’t help but wonder just how it is that they can sleep at night.
I know our college was never shielded from the realities of the world. Whole lives and communities have been torn asunder by the closings of steel mills, factories, corporate offices, and other industries and there is no reason to think we should have enjoyed any special immunity from such things. Just because I’m an academic, why should that mean I get a free pass? But it’s quite different when it actually happens to you. For me, this is not only the immediate, existential crisis of a loss of income and a far from certain future. It is the loss of an entire community, of an identity, and of an investment from my entire family that goes back nearly 50 years. The seniors of the graduating class of 2017 are the first “orphans” of Saint Joseph’s College. There will be no campus homecoming for them this fall or any other year. They know this as they get asked that most common of questions posed not only to new graduates but now to our underclassmen: “What’s next for you?”

I find myself back in front of the waters of the reflecting pond asking myself the same thing.

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