I’m Going on an Adventure!

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Thus spake Bilbo Baggins as he rushed along the dirt path from Baggend into an adventure far more perilous and rewarding than he could ever imagine. He did not know where his new and ever expanding road would lead but he was driven to answer the call. I’ve recently answered a call as well and, as I do more often than I should admit, I turn to the Shire for some inspiration.

My road will not lead to an encounter with a dragon and I sincerely hope not to become entangled in a giant spider’s web, but challenges will definitely arise. You see, I have a new book titled Out of the Basement slated for release in May 2020! It has been a good four years in the making and I am increasingly proud of the final result. The current draft of back cover synopsis reads:

 “Michael Tanner is a citizen of two worlds. His outer world as a respected college professor affords him the opportunity to quietly pursue his joy of learning. His inner world, shaped by childhood abuse, is a prison of shame and pain, where he battles mythological monsters that draw power from his nightmarish memories.

Michael has mastered the art of hiding his pain while in full view. He is convinced that the sturdy life into which he has settled is good enough. Michael’s unexpected publishing success, however – with his book Bruce and Buddha: How Rock and Roll and Ancient Wisdom can Guide your Life – pushes him well beyond his comfortable existence.

Bolstered by the possibility of romance, the encouragement of old friends, and a new ally, Michael decides he must face his past. Only by challenging humiliation can he earn the inner victory necessary to bring authentic peace to his life. 

Out of the Basement. Find Hope in the Darkness”

Roads go Ever Ever On 

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I can’t help but get a little reflective as I have had books published before. What I never found was my footing as a marketer. Maybe it was because I am a teacher and we don’t market much…our captive audience just shows up! Maybe I was not willing to embrace the business side of writing. Maybe I was intimidated by how daunting the task seemed. Maybe I…who cares, because right now none of that matters. Doesn’t matter one bit. You can’t move forward fretting about your past. Now is the time to walk on new paths. In the months leading up to the release of Out of the Basement there will be websites to build, Amazon author pages to construct, keyword research and optimization…what was I saying earlier about spiderwebs? I think I just ran into one. That’s ok. Won’t be the last one. I think I’ll just keep moving.

Here’s the best part of this announcement. I’ve wanted to be an author (someone who makes a living writing) since I was eight. I’m now forty-eight and still chasing dreams. Hope you are too!

Until next time…keep fighting the good fight with all thy might!

 

  

 

Top Ten Movie Speeches…for now

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My daughter was in a reminiscent mood the other night. She was talking about highlights from the previous school year. One memory that she was particularly happy about involved a homework assignment that created a shared experience: she had to watch a civil rights themed movie. “Hidden Figures” was chosen and we watched it together. She recalled how I declared one of the speeches from the film “easily in my top ten movie speeches.” Naturally she wondered what my top ten was but we never completed that conversation. However, she brought it up again and we did, in fact, have that chat. I will now share those results, sort of, with you.

Wait. Sort of? What the hell does that mean?

Okay. Here are my ground rules and reasoning.

  1. Lists like this are never completely stable. For example, I did not include two “revenge speeches” on my list, opting to include Maximus Decimus Meridius’ “Father of  murdered son…” speech from “Gladiator.” But, sometimes, I find Wyatt Earp’s “I see a red sash I kill the man wearing it” rage fueled denunciation from “Tombstone” the pinnacle of revenge speeches. On other occasions it’s the famous “What I do have is a particular set of skills” from “Taken.” Top ten lists can be influenced by present moods and preferences between relative equals.
  2. Some speeches, however, go beyond moods and preferences between relative equals. Sometimes speeches speak directly to personal dreams, fears, hopes, desires, or values that are deeply imbedded in our psyches. When a speech collides with our humanity (for a reminder of my 5 core human traits please return to my “Black Panther” post) it becomes a true favorite, not easily displaced.
  3. A scene is not a speech. I would love to include Robert De Niro’s “The working man is the tough guy” from “A Bronx Tale” or the opening scene of “Inglorious Bastards” but those installments are better examples of dialogue than singular speeches. Perhaps a list for another day.

 

“Hidden Figures”: Bathroom Speech

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This seems like the most logical place to start since it’s where the conversation started with my daughter. Katherine Globe Johnson’s (played by Taraji P. Henson) stirring pronouncement of personal dignity and deep self-respect in the face of ignorance and smug racial and sexist superiority was pure fire and inspiration. The fact she endured as much as she did for the proverbial “good of the team” adds an additional layer of connection. There is a common cliche that if you love a job or activity enough, who you work for shouldn’t matter. This thought, in my experience, is usually shared by superiors seeking to justify the poor or dismissive treatment of subordinates. Be a good team member often sounds like, “stop thinking and do what I say.” And while there is some truth to the reality we must sometimes sacrifice for the good of the team, personal integrity should never be part of that exchange. There was no doubt that Katherine loved math (a thought that, frankly, is mystifying to this writer). In the film she endures mistreatment for the good of the cause and the love of the work. Pushed beyond her considerable patience she unleashes a torrent of bottled up frustration and a plea for dignity. In the film we also witness an instantaneous positive result when Kevin Costner’s Al Harrison is moved to action instead of defensiveness and reprimand. We could stand for life imitating art in this manner more often.

“Lincoln”: Now is the Time

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There are two main aspects of this speech that I will focus on. The first, much like the previous entry, brings the idea of human dignity to focus. “We’ve stepped out on the world stage…with the fate of human dignity in our hands.” It appears as I live here in my 48th year that I will never have the authority of Lincoln, who did in fact hold that precious parcel in his grasp. On a small scale, however, I may from time to time hold the dignity of one person in my hands. In those moments I hope I have honed my character well enough that my thoughts, words, and actions bring hope and healing.  Lincoln also emphasizes that importance of the here and now in our lives, going so far as to claim, “…it’s the only thing that accounts.” Somewhere Yoda, with his reprimand of Luke Skywalker’s inability to stay focused on “where he was and what he was doing,” is nodding his green head in agreement on the importance of the oh so precious present.

“Rocky Balboa”: It ain’t about how hard ya hit…

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This may be the greatest three minute summation of the human will to stand before the existential challenges of life and, despite the uncertainty of outcome, to continue to fight the good fight. Its demolition of the desire to make excuses and the habit of casting blame to avoid responsibility, combined with honest and yearning fatherly compassion makes for a powerful assault on apathy and immature prattle. Rocky’s response to his son is a fundamental approach to life any can embrace, regardless of your athletic prowess.

“John Wick”: We are cursed, you and I

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This is the only entry on this list from an antagonist, but Viggo Tarasov’s providential explanation for the symbolic suffering shared by himself and John Wick is magnificent. Viggo openly posits that “many of us suffer for our misdeeds” before opening the door to the possibility of a moral universe beyond the control of human action. Viggo claims that John, who in his life as a hitman has killed an untold number of people, lost his wife to  terminal illness as comeuppance for his violent life. Viggo, however, owns his own vicious criminal life as he concludes god has unleashed the tenacious John Wick upon him as a form of justice. How literally one takes Viggo is a matter of interpretation, but we can’t pretend he didn’t utter the words. Moreover, the speech comes after we learn Viggo uses a church as a front for some of his criminal activities. The existence of the terribly flawed institution has zero influence on the ontological view Viggo shares. As a philosophy teacher, I can only describe a pop-culture source that allows conversation on the meaning and possibility of a providential universe (or threads of karma is we take an eastern approach) with one word – Priceless! 

“Gladiator”: Father of  murdered son…

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Step aside Wyatt, “Gladiator” wins the day! The painful loss, raw determination, and seething rage with which Russell Crowe delivers this one still makes me shudder. In my mind the movie could end right there, with Commodus simply handing a sword to Maximus and whispering a last request, “Make it quick.”

“The Hurricane”: Writing is magic

 

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Denzel Washington’s Rubin Carter succinctly and brilliantly sums out the power of writing. The images of admired mentors, the spirit of fictional characters, and the never ending quest for the elusive flow that turns staggering sentences into symphony is the vision quest of the writer, even if, unlike Rubin, the writer is only imprisoned by their minds and self-doubt. Write, fellow reader, write! You’ll be amazed how when the pen start moving the words find you.

“The Two Towers”: Stories that really mattered

 

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I’m just going to let the great Joseph Campbell introduce this one for me.

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, mythology is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth…”

Stories, you see, are the life blood of hope. We have all heard that reading to children is the number one predictor of success in schools. What a limiting view of stories, as if their primary purpose is to produce students. They can produce mature adults who weather storms and find themselves smiling in the rain. Samwise shares a profound message, “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered…Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why.” The stories we loved as children find a home in our souls, the truth of the myth becoming our supporting staff on the ever unfolding path. Sometimes – despite the attempts of many to dismiss some tales as false, childish, or too old to have meaning in today’s world – the lessons of those tales return to us as adults. In my life, neither the cynic nor his pollyanna shadow has helped me through a crisis. But those stories and archetypes from my youth have been powerful guides. I have no qualms dismissing pompous dolts who claim myths are false because they lack the eyes to see and the heart to feel. Teach the children well because someday when they are far beyond your grasp that story you told might just might be the beacon in the dark that keeps them going.

“Good Will Hunting”: The Park Bench Monologue

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Holy. Crap.

The gentle verbal beat down Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire delivers to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting is as elegant as it is searing. Shredding Will’s arrogant intellectual superiority with the power of experience, Sean allows a glimpse of wisdom in action. Will’s stunned silence speaks volumes in the scene and Sean’s last line – “Your move, chief” – may be the greatest mic drop in cinema history.

“Grumpier Old Men”: I Just Like that Story

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I think I broke my third rule on this one but it’s just so damn endearing. And funny. And just plain entertaining. Did I mention awesome? Jack Lemmon’s dutiful John Gustafson Jr. listens to his dad’s story, enjoying the time while looking for (perhaps straining to see) a little of dad’s wisdom. In the end, John Sr. proclaims “There ain’t no moral! I just like that story.” Well, maybe there was no moral, but there is a always a point to sitting down for one more story from dad. This one’s for all the sons who listen, all the dads who share, and anyone who wishes they could hear just one more story from their old man. Peace be with you.

“Hidden Figures”: No choice but to be first

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Loved this moment in the film! Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson brings a different kind of thunder than our first entry. Her surgical strike was aimed (as it likely would have to be) at the judge’s ego. Prepared for her appearance in court and armed with research for her opponent she brings forth an intelligent and determined argument that could not be ignored. She chose her weapons well and won the day – even if the judge held onto his prejudices by assigning her to night school. Good for you Judge Whatsyername, that’s Mary Jackson and she deserves to be remembered!

 

Well, that’s the list. Hope you found the entries interesting and worthy of your time. Go enjoy a good movie or surrender to a story…who knows what you’ll encounter!

Socrates in School

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We live in a technological age. The eye is drawn to it, the mind bounces from stimulated
to stupefied by it, commercials guarantee that the latest gadget will simplify our lives and make them more fulfilling, and schools scramble to prove they are on the cutting edge. But what if it is all a bluff? What if we have been seduced to looking at the bottom line or the party line and have completely lost sight of the finish line? Professor Isaac Kandel, in the middle of the 20th century, lamented that education followed a “hollow doctrine” and was all but bereft “intellectual vitality or moral purpose.” Moreove, in the absence of strong guiding principles education celebrated “change for its own sake” (1). Maybe it is not change we need but a challenge. If it is a challenge one needs than the gadfly of Athens is an able presenter.

St. Socrates, pray for us

Erasmus wrote, “Saint Socrates, pray for us” (2). There are a multitude of possible prayers Socrates would likely say on our behalf…and a legion of prayers he would consider that I could not possibly fathom. Such a thought exercise may have a purpose but I believe it far more prudent to consider what I, as a teacher, would pray to Socrates for. What boon would I seek? The answer is simply to find the patience and words to awaken people (myself most definitely included) to the possibility of living from our learning minds.
Socrates theorized “the soul of every single man is also divided in three” (3, line 580d). Each aspect of the soul sought specific pleasures and led to the habits and actions of a particular kind of person. The three aspects of the soul are the learning, spirited, and one that has “many forms…but we named it…the desiring part…” (4, line 580e). The descriptions Socrates offers of each division and the corresponding pleasures can be quite instructive.

The Three Aspects of the Socratic Soul

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Desiring 

The desiring part of the soul seeks immediate gratification of desires. These desires can  be anything from sex to food. From alcohol to money. Socrates calls identifies the pleasure of this aspect as “gain loving” and even “money loving” (5, line 581a). The modern philosopher Jacob Needleman defines materialism as “a disease of the mind starved for ideas” (6). This mind, so barren of ideas that invigorate and intrigue, seeks vitality from material items and physical experiences separated from an emotional core or a community of friends.

It is also important to note that the desiring part seeks quick and easy answers as well. We live in an age of speed as well as technology, almost completely succumbing to the proposition that speed is good. Articles and books are written about the necessity of educators to meet this generation addiction to speed with activities that feed the addiction! Text them, twitter at them, post on-line now! Now! Now! Maybe, just maybe mind you, schools should stand for something more than being a mere mirror to society or a helpless piece of kelp tossed about by the waves of existing culture. Whatever happened to the beauty of a song being the silence that existed between the notes?

Spirited

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The spirited part of the soul was also referred to as “victory-loving” and “honor-loving” (7, line 581b). It is“wholly set on mastery, victory and good reputation” (8, line 581a). Now, our initial reaction to this might be…hell, yea! Victory! That’s where it’s at! Who wants to be the loser? Who doesn’t want the acclaim and accolades due the person of achievement and action? We’re number one! We’re number one! So, what’s the limitation here? 

The problem is this. The spirited part is “wholly set” on victory. It is most definitely not focused on the joy of the game but the outcome. Your value to the person of the spirited soul is dictated entirely by your capacity to bring victory. You are as valuable as your utility makes you. Don’t talk of human value here. What do you bring to the table? Period.

Steroids in baseball…spirited. Lance Armstrong…spirited.Kid kicked out of the  national scrabble tournament for cheating…spirited (9). High school coaches running up scores and middle aged athletes bragging about things they have never done…spirited. Putting others down to build yourself up…spirited. Image over substance…spirited. Party line over seeking truth…spirited. Well, maybe there is a problem with being ruled by the spirited part of the soul after all.

Learning 

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Socrates identified this part of the soul as “learning-loving” or “wisdom-loving” (10, line 581b). Y’know, the part of the souls schools try to awaken with rubrics and jargon heavy lesson plans. Socrates used the phrase “dragged away…by force along the rough, steep, upward way” to describe someone being moved to the point of experiencing their highest nature (11, line 515e). Dragged, as in someone was forcing the individual to progress. Catering won’t get it done. This part of the soul can only be awakened with patience, diligence, and effort.

We love these mentors in movies. Meet such a person in life and they likely annoy the crap out of us. Forgive me as I show my age here, but it is one thing to cheer for Mr. Miyagi. It would be quite another thing to put up with him in real life. Paint your own &*%$@^& fence!

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The Soul and Pleasure

 

Socrates stressed that each aspect of the soul sought, and experienced, pleasure. The true issue, as he saw it, was that the desiring part and the spirited part only saw value in the pleasure of their own domain. The learning part, however, sees pleasure in all of them but maintains a perspective that keeps that allows for balance and the hope of harmony. 

 The various aspects of the soul, however, don’t always work well together. For example one living intently from the spirited soul sees pleasure from money as vulgar but if learning doesn’t bring awards, notoriety, and acclaim then it is “smoke and nonsense”  (12, line 581d). I mean, if no one is telling you that you are the best then why do it? Meanwhile the desiring part wonders  if learning doesn’t get you paid…now….then what is the point? And, please, spare me your praise unless it comes with some kind of physical reward. (13, line 581d).

And schools, well, they certainly can proclaim high-minded ideals but what do they model? What part of soul is fed in education? In you classroom? In mine? Can you build a love of learning by feeding the other parts? What is the unspoken curriculum of the school your students walk through every day? Moreover, what kind of behaviors do we encourage young people to carry into adulthood? Socrates noted that too many people in a country who are dominated by desiring or spirited aspects of the soul leads to “war-like” men and “lover{s} of gain” and “money makers” incapable of appreciating love of wisdom and learning (14, line 583a).

Back to Erasmus: A simple prayer

St. Socrates pray for us that we may grope until we find a method of making love of learning appealing in its own right. That we live praiseworthy lives while not seeking praise. That we should laud only that which is worthy of lauding. That we be worthy of the victories we win and noble enough to bear the burden of the defeats we suffer. That we have the audacity to pursue wisdom and  compassion while, hopefully, leaving the paths we walk just a little better by our passing.

(1) Aeschliman, M. (2007). Why We Always Need Socrates: Some Unfashionable, Unprogressive Thoughts on Teachers, Teaching, Curriculum. and the Theory of Knowledge, with Reference and Thanks to Socrates, Pascal, and C.S. Lewis. Journal of Education, Vol 188.3, p 31.

(2) Erasmus, Ten Colloquies, trans. Craig R. Thompson (New York: MacMillan, 1986), 158.

(3) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf.

(4) ibid.

(5) ibid.

(6) Needleman, J. The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders (New York, Penguin, 2002), 6.

(7) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(8) ibid.

(9)I’m not making that up. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/15/scrabble-player-caught-cheating_n_1778014.html

(10) http://www.inp.uw.edu.pl/mdsie/Political_Thought/Plato-Republic.pdf

(11) ibid

(12) ibid.

(13) ibid.

(14) ibid.

 

The Power of Words: Shire Edition

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I believe in the power of words. I suppose that would be a requirement for someone who writes and teaches. Don’t mistake power for omnipotence, for words can be quite limited in their reach. While the passion and sincerity of delivery truly matters so to does the disposition of the listener (or reader). Cynicism builds walls and egocentric dispositions destroy well intended messages. Even so, words have power so I would like to deliver a brief story in the hopes it brings a little extra life to a sterling passage from the great J.R.R. Tolkien.

New England was in the midst of a heat wave yesterday. It so happens that on this hot day I was preparing a breakfast buffet for my children. About three weeks ago my 12 year-old mentioned to me that we have not held a “dad buffet breakfast” in some time. She was correct. My oldest daughter is now married with a son. My oldest son is in college and, as anyone with a child in college can attest, such a situation can make you feel like your kid is exploring the galaxy on the USS Enterprise.

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She was undaunted and we were able to arrange event and did I cook! And did they eat! Breakfast potatoes on the grill with kielbasa and sausage. Loaded scramble eggs, strawberry crepes, cherry stuffed french toast, and bacon rounded out the menu. It was truly a lot of fun. It was fantastic having all my kids and grandson together in the house. After the meal we headed into the basement and played catch with my grandson and built with blocks while two of my kids strummed on their guitars.

Playtime can’t last forever and the kitchen needed cleaning. Cue the music! With Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, a little Ed Sheeran, and even Pink lending musical support the dishes didn’t stand a chance!

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As I washed some dishes with my kids on drying duty (we do dishes old school style) I found myself looking at the wooden plaque hanging over my sink. It’s inscription may be familiar to you.

If more of us valued food and cheer

and song above hoarded gold

it would be a merrier world.

So there I was laughing with my kids, listening to our music, and – somehow – enjoying the dishes. And before me were words from one of my favorite authors.

Take the words of this story as you will. All I know is this: the heat didn’t stand a chance of ruining the joy in that kitchen.

Be well, dear reader!

Until next time: Keep fighting the good fight…with all thy might!

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Avengers: Endgame Through the Eyes of my Kids

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Hello! It has been quite some time since I’ve posted but nothing like the worldwide pop culture event that is Avengers: Endgame to bring me back to this site. There are so many angles I could approach this movie from but, for this post, I’ve decided to allow a glimpse of the movie through the eyes of a twelve year-old girl and a ten year-old boy with some commentary from their forty-eight year old father. Hopefully you enjoy the post as much as I enjoyed watching and discussing the movies with my children.

There are spoilers ahead but the Russo brothers lifted the spoiler ban so here we go!

Dad…that didn’t mean anything

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The above heading came courtesy of my son. Thor dropped Stormbreaker across Thanos’ neck, decapitating the titan and bringing forth a collective gasp from the audience (wait…what? I mean…wait…hey killed him in the first 15 minutes? Be honest, nobody in all their Endgame predictions had that on the table. Nobody.). The great thing about the scene, however, was my son pulling on my arm and whispering, “Dad…that didn’t mean anything.” When asked why he answered, “The gems are gone. Nobody is coming back.” I loved the fact that he instantly understood this fact for it showed he understood the moment and it enabled us to discuss later why Thor was, in his words, “super sad.” From there we delved into the idea that the beheading of Thanos was not actually a victory. It was, in fact, a stunning act of shallow revenge and powerless rage which allowed for a nice discussion about how problems can and can’t be solved. Empty anger rarely leads to satisfying results. Another wonderful aspect of this moment was discussing Thor’s depression with my son. As he put it, “But Thor’s super strong!” I agreed, but told him, “Even the strongest people can hurt real bad inside.” This seemed like a stunning revelation to my son and, while it did not make Thor his favorite Avenger, it definitely made for a powerful connection. What more do you need from a story?

Dad, just so ya know, we’re suing Marvel

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This one comes from my daughter. The instant . . . I’m saying the INSTANT . . . Clint and Natasha arrived in Vormir she stated saying, “Ohnonononnono.” Again, the power of these stories to stick in the imagination from movie to movie was on full display and my daughter knew someone was being sacrificed for the Soul Stone. She held my arm the entire scene and my hand when Natasha plummeted to the bottom of the pit (They really had to show her dead at the bottom Dad?!Really??!).

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She understood why it had to happen but it didn’t stop her from declaring Marvel is being sued. Her proclamation for the pending law suit was based on a truly fantastic declaration, “She’s been my favorite since I was 8!” The MCU has become the campfire story of her childhood…that is simply wonderful.

HE’S BACK!

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This one is a combination of my younglings. I saw Endgame before taking them, both because I knew I wold want to see it twice and also to prep myself for moments when I would want to put my attention on them and not the screen. Spider-man’s return was a huge moment for both of them. As Spidey came through one of Dr. Strange’s space portals, my son grabbed my arm and looked up at me with pure joy. He pointed at the screen and whisper-yelled, “Dad! He’s back!” He was vibrating with excitement, the sorrow he felt watching Spidey disappear in Infinity War matched by jubilation. My daughter was smiling ear-to-ear, not speaking but staring at the screen with a huge grin. Faith rewarded.

She. Is. Awesome.

My daughter loved the charge of the female Marvel heroes. I think she wanted to join in and protect the gauntlet. One hero, however, stood above the rest  – the Scarlet Witch.

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“Dad,” she told me after the film, “she was beating Thanos all by herself! She just used her power and twisted him up. She’s awesome!” I informed my daughter that the Scarlet Witch was always a VERY powerful member of The Avengers. Not sure how many comic nerds are reading this but my daughter was intrigued to learn that, in the comics of my youth, Ultron was pretty much unstoppable and the only Avenger he truly feared was the Scarlet With. In fact she used her hex power to completely shatter Ultron in one classic tale.

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This just made my daughter even happier. I did not share with her that Wanda, in her grief and rage due to the loss of her children, becomes a force of devastation in some comic arcs. She can learn that later.

Honesty check: How many people thought this was going to be a section on Captain Marvel? Go ahead, admit it. It’s okay. To be clear, my daughter is a bit lukewarm on Captain Marvel. The reason: Wonder Woman! Scarlet Witch is powerful in a non-physical  manner. My daughter is a huge Wonder Woman fan so another super-strong woman didn’t impact her very much. Or, as she put it, “She’s cool and all, but no Wonder Woman.”

Also, and I found this hilarious, my daughter doesn’t like the name Carol. “Dad, she sounds like a soccer mom. Carol, did you bring the cookies? Carol, could you give Lisa a ride home. Carol, Thanos has the Infinity Gauntlet, could you help us get it back?” Guess it’s hard to be the favorite super hero when you drive an SUV.

On your left

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This one was particularly meaningful for me. When Falcon said, “Cap. On your left.” in the movie I got some goosebumps. After the film, as we discussed how SPECTACULAR it was to see Spider-Man again I mentioned the phrase, “On your left.” The kids didn’t remember where that was from. I explained how, not only was it the first words Steve Rogers spoke to Sam Wilson but the phrase had become a simple saying packed with meaning. It means I’m always there for you. I’ve always got your back. You’re never alone and you can call me at anytime and I’ll be there for you. On you left.

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About a week after the film I was driving the kids to their mother’s house. One of the tough things about being a co-parenting divorced person (and, hell, being a parent in general) is you never know for sure if the lessons you teach are taking root. You hope the foundation being laid is strong and that you do enough for your kids. Anyway, my daughter was getting out of my car and I told her I love her and would see her soon (nice thing about 50/50 time split is I always see them soon). She replied in kind and paused a second as the door. She looked back in and said, “Hey Dad, on your left.”

Doesn’t get much better than that. So let me close this by saying to all four of my kids, and my grandson, on your left. Always and forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks, Stan

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By this point, I would think, anyone with an affinity for comics and superheroes is aware that Stan Lee died recently at the age of ninety-five. Today, December 28, would have been his ninety-sixth birthday. Sounds like the perfect day to remember and give thanks as we look forward to a new year of challenges and hopes.

Like so many people my life was touched by Stan Lee (1). The day Lee died I received a text from my twelve-year-old daughter which read, “STAN LEE DIED!!!!” I hesitated before answering, stunned not so much by the news as I already knew Lee had died, but of the thread flowing from his work through me and now touching my daughter. At forty-seven I have read the news of numerous celebrities and singers whose deaths gave me moments of pause and reflection, but never one who entrenched themselves in my life on such a fundamental level. Aware that I did not want to project my thoughts into my daughter I carefully responded to her with the following, “I know. I saw that. It’s so sad, but made me think how his characters brought me so much entertainment as a kid and he brought my kids entertainment, too. So, thanks for the gift, Stan Lee.”

So Much More than Entertainment…Even When I Didn’t Know it

 

After sending the text I instantly thought how it was so much more than entertainment. So much more. Carol Pearson, a teacher and student of archetypal psychology and myth, wrote, “Humans are storytelling creatures…we are sensitive to the tone of narratives lived around us and already (by age two) we have begun collecting thousands of images that resonate emotionally with us in some important way” (2). This was, perhaps, Lee’s greatest contribution. He provided mythic heroes and tales, morality plays and role models, for anyone (but in particular kids) who stepped into the mighty Marvel universe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the “images that resonated with me” came from Marvel Comics.

In high school the book 1984 made more sense to me when I imagined Dr. Doom pulling the strings of Big Brother. Hamlet can’t make up his mind? Are those doubts anything like Peter Parker struggling with the decision to remain Spider-Man or Ben Grimm’s struggle to accept his life as the Thing? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had nothing on the Hulk. Loyalty – Captain America. Courage – Black Panther! I mean, he has no super powers and yet he charges into combat with powerhouses like Ultron and Michael Korvac (3). Is Odin King Lear? I can’t lift Mjolnir but can I make strong stands like Thor? How do the X-Men keep persevering when people hate them so much? Come to think of it, why do people hate and can it be overcome?

These are not small questions or unimportant character traits to consider. I was given the opportunity to contemplate them at my level as a kid and, as an adult, I am amazed at the issues Stan Lee challenged me to wrestle with – even when I didn’t realize I was in the match! It is sometimes said the best learning is achieved when the student doesn’t see the lesson coming. There is curriculum and then the undercurrent of meaning that cannot be forced. I call them “lesson grenades” as they often “explode” well after a class session is over. At the age of Forty-seven and with twenty-four years of teaching experience I can say I learned more about constructing lessons that have the possibility of leaving a lasting impact from Stan Lee (and Tolkien, and Spielberg, and Lucas, and…) then I ever did from courses on education which were far more business than art. It is any wonder there is a soulless lack of wonder that often permeates schools?

Don’t be Fooled (or should I have said Hasty?)   

I can imagine there are people who would read the previous line (…soulless lack of wonder…) and be dismissive of it or find it too cynical for their taste. People tend to dichotomize the world into opposites; either you’re an optimist or pessimist, and never the twain shall meet!

It is this form of splitting the world that prevents growth and community. The middle path is the hardest to walk but also where enduring healing and sustainable progress is found.

I do not see the admittance of a “soulless lack of wonder” as pessimistic or cynical. I think it is far more accurate to view such a proclamation as a sign of cynical hope (or, perhaps, optimistic cynicism). No problem was ever solved by failing to admit its existence! Now, I am not in favor in seeing a problem just for the sake of pointing out flaws and casting blame. Such behavior exists somewhere on a scale between immature and reprehensible. Almost as reprehensible as ignoring problems or making molehills out of actual mountains. You see, mature negativity can only exist with a positive core.

Positive Psychology

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In a previous post (Don’t Say the H-Word) I introduced positive psychology. This school in the world of psychology is far more than merely having positive and healthy thoughts or donning rose colored glasses while spewing Pollyanna while the world is on fire. As Christopher Peterson noted, positive psychology does not “ignore or dismiss the very real problems that people experience” (4).

It does, however, focus on the strengths people possess and, more importantly, how to build those strengths to increase one’s fulfillment while buttressing them to overcome hardships. Positive psychologist “…realizes the value in growing through adversity” (5). Diener (2008) wrote a chapter for the book The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. His contribution evaluated the positive psychology of Marvel icon Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In his conclusion he praises Spider-Man as “an inspiring example of a person who rises to challenges on a consistent basis, and flourishes because he has the opportunity to use his greatest talents and strengths. He inspires all of us to harness our virtues…” (6).   

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Spider-Man is an apt exemplar for such an evaluation for almost no hero fails and rises quite so much as Spider-Man. Granted, you and I cannot lift  cars, stick to walls, or utilize spider-sense but Diener is not asking us to. He states, quite rightly, that we can “harness our virtues” like our fictional heroes. It is these virtues that enable Spider-Man to endure hardships.

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Perhaps the best example of Spider-Man failing (7) is when (in the iconic Amazing Spider-Man #122) his girlfriend Gwen Stacey is killed despite his efforts to save her. This scene was brought to the big screen thirty-one years later in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Super powers did not avail Peter in these scenes, but his humanity enabled him to endure the dark night and, eventually, rise to fight another day. It is what our humanity is supposed to do for us as well, even without Spider powers.

The Greatest of Super Powers

Two of the character strengths identified by positive psychology are hope and perseverance, traits Spider-Man has in abundance. In the long term they helped Spider-Man come to grips with the death of Gwen. Sometimes, however, life demands powerful bursts of energy that find their fuel in these twin traits.

One of Spider-Man’s earliest story arcs, found in Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1965-66) and written by Stan Lee, finds him desperately seeking a serum to save his beloved and ailing Aunt May. Naturally, a villain (Dr. Octopus) also has his eyes on the serum. After a battle with Octopus, Spider-Man finds himself pinned and seemingly helpless under a mountain of rubble, the serum mere feet away from him as his enemy has fled the collapsing building.  After initially despairing over his predicament, “I’ll never make it—I can’t–!”, Spidey digs in deep. Giving himself a pep-talk he declares, “Anyone can win a fight—when the odds — are easy! It’s when the going’s tough—when there seems to be no chance—that’s when—it counts!” With a final surge of energy Spider-Man throws off the rubble, accentuated by Lee’s exposition, “…from out of the pain — from out of the anguish — comes triumph!”

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This scene, which has been homaged in Spider-Man comics through the years, was brought to the big screen in the MCU’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). While I was not alive when the moment was first rendered in 1966 I was well aware of it as I sat, and relished, watching it play out (with my kids) in the movie theater.

There is another trait at work in this scene. In the original story from 1966 Spider-Man notes the presence of love that is driving his efforts, proclaiming, “I’ll do it, Aunt May! I won’t fail you!” Homages to the scene have him pinpointing his wife (Mary Jane), his unborn children, and the memory of his Uncle Ben as the source of his drive (8). Of course, they all have one thing in common – love. Love drives Spider-Man to his greatest victories. Without it he would not be the hero he is. Perhaps his greatest super power is ours as well.

Back to the Beginning

If it seems we have gotten a little away for Stan Lee with this foray into positive psychology and Spider-Man you can rest assured we have not. He’s been with us all along. One of the driving forces of my teaching is the Buddhist adage, “Remember the lesson, forget the teacher.” I’ve been told by truly valued colleagues that this is likely impossible as students, even over time, tend to remember the teachers who taught them memorable lessons. This is likely true but it does not change the fact that I strive to teach lessons that are so much bigger than me. So much more important.

Spider-Man, and the power of love and hope, is but one of Stan Lee’s lessons so when we discuss Spidey, we are discussing Mr. Lee. He’s there, in his creation. Offering inspiration and guidance. So allow me to say, “Thanks, Stan. You’re the best teacher I ever had.”

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This story, thankfully, does not end with me. My daughter responded to the my text with the following message. “Yeah. I didn’t grow up with the comics but without the comics we wouldn’t have marvel movies. And the movies have had a big impact on my life. So thanks for the gift Stan Lee.”

See you next time, true believers!

Excelsior!     

  

Notes

  1. I think necessary to note that almost every word I wrote in this essay could be applicable to the great Jack Kirby, who collaborates with Stan Lee for years as they combined their creative powers to build Marvel Comics. Kirby died in 1994, well before I had this website or, frankly, any real insight. So, even though the title of this essay thanks Stan, Jack Kirby’s presence is a prevalent force throughout.
  2. Pearson, C and Marr, H. “Introduction to Archetypes: A Companion for Understanding and Using the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator Instrument” (2002). Center for Applications of Psychological Types, Inc.
  3. So, any dedicated comic geeks reading this who remember the “Korvac Saga” from the late 1970’s?
  4. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-good-life/200805/what-is-positive-psychology-and-what-is-it-not
  5. Rosenberg, R and Canzoneri, J (Editors), The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (2008). p 73
  6. ibid. p 74
  7. Okay…fine…second best. Sorry Uncle Ben.
  8. As noted, in the first version of this scene Aunt May was the source of inspiration. The homages and their sources of inspiration are as follows: MJ as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 168 and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Kids as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 229. Uncle Ben as inspiration in Amazing Spider-Man 365.

When the Midnight Demons Come Calling

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

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Thus sang Bradley Cooper in the powerful reimagining of A Star is Born. (Beware – spoilers coming. If you haven’t seen the movie you will want to stop reading). Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a singer/song-writer who is an alcoholic struggling with the reality that is best days may well be behind him. During a night out drinking he discovers Lady Gaga’s Ally Campana and helps catapult her into stardom even as the two build an intense, loving if not flawed and co-dependent relationship. Jackson and Ally both have doubts and demons – from less than ideal childhoods to lingering fears of inadequacy – that they share with each other and strive to overcome. In the end, Maine succumbs to his demons and commits suicide.

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One could say that he was pushed to the decision by Rez Gavron, Ally’s controlling and condescending manager. Rez confronts Jackson, accusing him of holding Ally back. Ally, Rez assures the recovering alcoholic, would be better off without him. When Ally lies to Jackson about why she canceled a leg of her tour he decides to kill himself. An inconsolable Ally blames herself. The audience can blame whomever they want, but Rez’s verbal attack could be viewed as a triggering event. His words, however, would have no impact if they were not reinforced by Jackson’s demons.

You might know those demons. Those fears and doubts that emerge from their daytime hiding places to plague the soul when one is alone. The demons that lurk in your mind and lend power to the criticisms of others. They augment negative messages and reduce what should be the powerful support of friends to gossamer threads. Ally’s grief, to a degree, is fueled by such doubts. Thankfully she has the strength to listen to Jackson’s older brother.

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Bobby, played by Sam Elliot, explains to Ally that Jackson’s death was of his own making, not hers. Bobby has a point. The Jackson’s downward spiral began long before Ally came along. I would like to suggest that perhaps…and this may be stretch…but perhaps Jackson could have begun the process of reversing his downfall if he had learned to employ a little fuck you therapy.

Excuse me? Did you say…

Yup. Sometimes people need to employ a little fuck you therapy to their lives. To be clear, I don’t mean Jackson should have shouted, “Fuck you!” at Rez. In fact, that would not have worked at all (even if it would have felt good to witness). In the end, Jackson still would have committed suicide. You see, Rez’s words only had the power to cause pain because Jackson believed them. Deeply. His soul was receptive to the sharp criticism of a man who essentially hated him.  The words fed his doubts and fears, amplifying them to the point that only one path could be seen by the beleaguered singer. It is truly a tragic moment in the film.

The fuck you that Jackson needed wasn’t an immature expression of rage designed to protect his ego and hide his shattered sense of self from prying eyes. You know, the way we usually use the phrase. But there might just be a quiet use of the phrase that promotes healing rather than spreading anger and reinforcing delusion.

Calling Sean Maguire

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In Good Will Hunting we encounter the brilliant but…shall we say…difficult and anti-social Will Hunting played by Matt Damon. Will, through the patient guidance of Robin Williams’ Sean Maguire, comes to grips with his abusive past, transcends his attachment disorder, and willingly takes the risk of pursuing a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Skylar. During the breakthrough therapy session – the “It’s not your fault” scene – Will weeps and hugs Sean. As the camera pulls out Sean whispers, “Fuck them, okay?”

I love that line. That moment. That idea. The whispered use of “Fuck them” was and is fantastic. Both Will and Sean had suffered physical abuse as children. One can only imagine what the midnight demons used to torture these two characters. We can try to outthink our demons – and I definitely believe talk therapy can be helpful – but racing thoughts at two in the morning can’t be subdued by more thinking. Alone at night there are sometimes no friends to comfort or loved ones to offer hope. Anger is nothing more than a tattered cloth failing to contain fear while tears burn rather than baptize. But, what if the knowledge that friends are part of your life, your mind is ultimately your own, and where anger fails the earned pride of having fought the good fight enables a moment of calm? Perhaps in that calm there is a moment where one can look at the demons with mature strength and just whisper a forceful “Fuck you.” Perhaps on occasion we need a little vulgarity to find our peace and to stand with confidence before our dark fears, our midnight demons (1).

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Still

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In the Walking Dead (Episode 12: Season 4) Daryl and Beth engage in a memorable moment of what we are calling fuck you therapy. The unusual paring brought us one of the best episodes in that show’s run. Both characters are stung by the death of Hershel, Beth’s father. Beth suggests they have some drinks and, after initially declining, Daryl drinks some of the moonshine he supplied for his younger companion. The drinking leads initially to arguing and insults but, ultimately, hearts are opened as grief is shared. Daryl does not merely share his guilt (he feels he should have saved Hershel) but also divulges information about his difficult childhood with his brother Merle.  A calmer conversation ends with Beth suggesting the duo burn down the dilapidated house they had holed up in as a form of letting go of the past. The house is consumed by flames and the friends salute the flames with their middle fingers. Fuck you, painful past.

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Midnight demons often get their strength from past pains that we struggle to let go of, as if the pain is necessary to our identity. Jungian analyst Carol Pearson contends that one of the archetypes that helps us grow is the destroyer. When used without skill or in an immature manner the destroyer’s energy causes us to lash out, harming ourselves and our loved ones. When used with acumen, however, the destroyer archetype allows us to break unnecessary chains that bind us to past pain, allowing us to move forward unfettered. Well before Jungian archetypal psychology another great thinker counseled all who would listen to let go of the past – the Buddha.

Buddha and Fuck You Therapy

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Okay…I hear ya. Now I’m just being ridiculous. The Buddha never said “Fuck you” to people. That is likely true, but he surely advocated the difficult step of letting go of your attachment to the past. The very first chapter of The Dhammapada includes the verse,      ” ‘He was angry with me,he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me’ – those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.” Think about the way such a line could strike one’s ears. Buddha is not saying you have negative thoughts for no reason for you were “attacked” or “robbed.” He is saying, however, nurturing that pain binds one in chords of hate. We must sever our bonds with our pain – actually break them not merely claim to have done so –  if we hope to be free from hate. To be free from the Midnight Demons. 

Before we move on from Buddha there is another aspect of Buddhism that will be useful. Many people have a tendency to split reality into categories that makes life understandable (my side good/yours bad) but ultimately does not allow for the richness or totality of life to be felt. Buddhism is sometimes portrayed as a religion of undisturbed peace and tranquility. While that is the final goal, it is also a tradition of effort with a deep understanding of the human condition. The wrathful buddhas of the Tantric tradition remind us that some Buddhist thought has a more direct approach to what we sometimes categorize as negative emotions.

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The wrathful buddhas are ferocious beings with intense passions that absorb hostile emotions in order to dispense them. Only by embracing the darkness do we ultimately transcend it. While Buddha (Prince Siddhartha) wold not have said, “Fuck you” to the midnight demons the wrathful buddhas are portrayed as ferocious entities (picture Wolverine in one of his berserker states) that battle evil at its own level. A couple cusses are well within their realm.

Brining it Home

The dark side of fame, a therapist’s office, a zombie apocalypse, and Buddhism have all made an appearance to help vanquish our midnight demons. I would like to close with a brief story to ground this conversation. 

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My oldest son used to attend a parkour gym. He would train and work on skills that he would bring to the concrete jungle he and some friends ran through. His instructor had a phrase he would share with his students when they were holding onto fear instead of trusting their bodies and their skills. I remember the first time Logan sheepishly shared the phrase with me, unsure how I would respond. It was a fine phrase and I hope he follows this advice the rest of his life. “Sometimes,” his coach told him, “ya just gotta say fuck it and chuck it.” Nike’s PG-13 “Just do it” has nothing on parkour!

Thanks for reading everybody. Do me a favor. If your Midnight Demons come out to play tell ’em I said, “Fuck you.”

(1) I must confess, it was difficult to use this movie because of Robin Williams’ own tragic death. I decided to do so because the film’s powerful message of healing is still valid despite the sorrow of the loss of the great Robin Williams.