Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Real Turkeys

“I see turkeys… they’re everywhere!” Sorry, I must be channeling the holiday spirit of Haley Joel Osment. But I really do see turkeys everywhere, and I’m not talking about the kind stuffed on your dining room table. No, I’m referring to the taller ones flocking to stores and malls on this Black Friday, which in typical Wal-Mart fashion has been rolled back to 6 AM Thursday.

Otherwise (presumably) rational people line up six or eight hours before the stores open to take advantage of discounted merchandise, or expecting to be one of the six customers in the line to obtain a store’s Door-Buster Special (amazingly, even though the store has only six in stock, the 100th person in line still believes he or she has a chance to snag the item advertised at a ridiculously low price). These same people, who on Election Day refuse to wait 90 minutes on a voting line to decide the fate of our democracy, will gladly arrive hours before dawn and stand in the freezing cold of winter, rain, or snow for a 25% discount (remember, the Door-Busters are gone in the first three minutes) off the regularly inflated price of an item they don’t need.

If they had needed it, they would’ve bought it long before Thanksgiving. No, Black Friday sales, which focus heavily on electronic toys (from TVs to iPads), are hyping impulse items mass-market retailers want consumers to think they need. It’s all about getting consumers to think they need a product they really don’t, and then each year convincing them to upgrade to a newer or larger version. Bought the 52-inch TV last year? That was so 2013; you need a 60-inch this year. Already have an iPhone 5? The new iPhone 6 comes in gold.

The truth is, you really don’t need any of the things the marketers and retailers are hawking this weekend. What you need, is to understand the difference between a “need” and a “want”. A need is something critical that you cannot live without (food, water, a roof over your head). A want is something you desire (a PlayStation, a cruise, a yacht) but can live without.

If you need something, there are two ways to buy it: with money you have, or with credit (borrowing the money with the intent to pay it back later). If you want something, but do not need it, then you should only buy it with the money you have, and not go into debt to purchase something you don’t really need. If you don’t have enough money to buy it (which is another way of saying you can’t afford it), then you should not buy it. What you should do is put away a small amount each month towards savings and use those earmarked funds to purchase your “wants” without having to go into debt to a credit card company at 29% interest.

It’s a trap, because once those credit card statements arrive in your mail in January, you’ll be paying interest at usurious rates on your Black Friday impulse purchases through the next Turkey Day. There’s even a holiday for consumers who fall for this trap. It’s celebrated every April 1. Can you guess its name?

Friday, November 23, 2018

If Turkeys Could Speak

As you sit down for dinner this Thanksgiving, pause for a moment to ponder the meaning of the holiday. If you are a Millennial, a recent Pew poll suggests 40 percent of you are clueless as to why we should be thankful this day.

One of the first Thanksgiving celebrations occurred in the American colonies, in Plymouth Colony (now Southeast Massachusetts) in 1621 when the Pilgrims shared an autumn harvest feast with the Wampanoag Indians. The Indians brought deer, not turkey, so venison was the main course. But the first true Thanksgiving came two years later, when the Pilgrims’ prayers were answered: rain brought an end to the drought that was destroying their crops, and Captain Miles Standish landed bearing new and much needed supplies.

But who were these Pilgrims who had settled the Plymouth Colony? They were men and women fleeing religious persecution by the English Crown, emigrating first to the Netherlands and then to the American colonies. They sought freedom of religion, which encompasses two other freedoms: the right to express ones’ self and the right to gather with others who share this expression. A century and a half later, the American colonists upon declaring their independence from England would consider all three rights to be necessary, fundamental freedoms and combine them in the First Amendment to the new nation’s Constitution.

The First Amendment is arguably more important and essential to democracy than the other nine amendments comprising the Bill of Rights or even the Constitution itself. It’s all about freedom of expression. It guarantees it through what you say (freedom of speech), what you write (freedom of the press), what you believe and the practice of those beliefs (freedom of religion), and the right to share such expressions with others (freedom of assembly).

Of course, not everyone will agree with what you say, or write, or even how you express yourself. Some may even be offended. That is the cost of, and a necessary corollary of, free expression. While there is an explicit guarantee of the right to free speech in our nation’s Constitution, there is no corresponding right not to be offended by others. Democracy will survive, and even flourish, amidst offensive words – the most bountiful plants flourish when manure is heaped upon them. But democracy cannot survive when speech and other forms of expression are forbidden by the government.

That is why it is so shocking and downright frightening to read the results of the Pew poll in which 40 percent of Millennials – those aged 18-to-34 – say they want the government to censor statements that are offensive to minority groups. America was founded on the concept of fundamental freedoms, and that the government could not be allowed to censor its citizens, in part because the government was “of, by, and for the people.” We are not governed by a dictator or king’s edicts but rather by those we choose from among us. We are our government and therefore shall not censor ourselves. That’s what made America different from all the other nations from which its future citizens would emigrate. Once we allow the government to decide what we may or may not say, we have surrendered our democracy. Once we permit offensive speech to be proscribed, the next question becomes ‘Who decides which words or statements are deemed offensive?’ Our freedom decreases in direct proportion to the expansiveness of the definition of the word “offensive”.

Freedom of speech must not be curtailed in the name of political correctness. Americans should cherish the First Amendment and not carve it up along with their turkey.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Why It Matters

I decided to treat myself on my milestone birthday so I bought two books: one by Harlan Ellison and one about him. The first was Harlan’s last book, Can and Can’tankerous, which I noted had an error. The Latin phrase Omne ignotum pro magnifico (“Everything unknown is taken as grand”) was written as Omne ignotum pre magnifico. It was, of course, obviously the publisher’s fault, not Harlan’s. I imagine him turning in his grave, shouting foul epithets at the proofreader for having made the author look illiterate. The second book was A Lit Fuse, a biography of Ellison by journalist Nat Segaloff. I was only 49 pages in when I stumbled across a reference to “Martin O’Dell” whom Segaloff credits as the creator of Green Lantern and an inspiration for Ellison. There’s only one problem: there is no such person as “Martin O’Dell.” Green Lantern was created by a Jew, not an Irishman, and that man’s name was Martin Nodel. I know because Marty Nodel was a friend of mine, just as I know he never received his just due in life and apparently not even now in death.

I was reminded of an interviewer who asked my favorite short story author. I replied O. Henry, which was a pseudonym for William Sidney Porter, a master of the short story form and particularly of the use of irony within it. I was grated to read the piece and see the reporter, who had also claimed to be an author, had turned the American O. Henry into an Irishman named O’Henry. How could any writer be ignorant of O. Henry and then perpetuate that ignorance in print for other readers?

Likewise, it bothered me to see Marty not get the recognition and respect he deserved, just as it bothered me to read Bill Maher’s self-absorbed diatribe against the late Stan Lee in particular and comic book readers in general, printed only days after Lee’s death. For God’s sake, he hasn’t even been buried yet. In his column Maher says: “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” Smartass snark may be this comedian’s calling card but there’s a reason for the saying not to speak ill of the dead – primarily because they can no longer defend themselves. But those of us left behind can. “The guy” had a name, Billy-boy – Stan Lee. And he created more than two characters: he was responsible, along with a few other talented artists, for creating dozens of characters that have gone on to spawn a multibillion-dollar franchise that has provided jobs for thousands of people and entertainment for millions. What have you done lately, Billy-boy? 

Maher then perpetuates the myth that “comic are just for kids” writing in his blog “when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.” Actually, the comic books Stan Lee wrote in the ‘60s, while also read by children, found their primary audience among college students and young servicemen fighting overseas. The boys getting shot at in Vietnam didn’t have iPhones to watch movies on; they wanted quick disposable entertainment and comic books fit the bill. They didn’t want novels like War and Peace; they wanted something they could read from beginning to end in 20 minutes because they never knew when the next bullet might have their name on it. They wanted escapism from the hell they were living in every moment and Stan Lee gave it to them. I know Maher tours around the country; has he ever entertained our troops overseas, as other comedians like Bob Hope did? Just wondering.

Maher bemoans that “some dumb people got to be professors” and “pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” He closes by saying “Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Wrong, Billy-boy. Trump could only get elected in a country that doesn’t think reading is important. Now let me tell you why comic books, and other storytelling, are important.

Ellison, Nodel, Lee, and yes I’ll even include myself in this list, all share one thing in common: we’re all creators of fictional worlds and characters. We’re storytellers. We’re purveyors of imagination. The stories we tell — whether in comic books, films, novels, or whatever media we choose to express them in all serve as forms of escapism. They do more than entertain: they also serve a much more important function, especially when they comprise the childhood of so many. Childhood is an informative yet ephemeral period. It’s a finite, brief time in every individual’s life during which the foundation of who that person will become is laid. Children learn values and morals from the stories we tell; values and morals they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Every decision they make, every situation they encounter will be viewed through that prism formed in childhood. The authors who write these stories seldom get the recognition they deserve but their influence is profound and widespread. They deserve to have their name spelled correctly and to be quoted correctly, and for their work to be transcribed accurately; especially when done so by fellow authors and even more so by those who claim the mantle of journalist. Yes, they won’t complain after they’re dead but we owe it to posterity to be accurate and to give them their due so future generations will know who O. Henry was, who really created Green Lantern, and what quotes Harlan Ellison actually wrote.

Ironically, on the back of Segaloff’s biography there’s a quote from Ellison — the one he wanted as his eulogy — “For brief time I was here, and for brief time I mattered.” That’s true of all writers. That’s why accuracy is important. After all, even though the first president of the United States is long deceased we still want future generations to know about President Gregory Washington.