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.

Monday, November 12, 2018

From Excelsior to ‘Nuff Said

Stan Lee died today. I’ll leave it to others to pen his obituary and enumerate all of his accomplishments during his 95 years of creative fecundity. Not since the death of Walt Disney has the entertainment world lost a true giant whose imagination would excite and entertain successive generations during his lifetime and beyond.

Instead, let me tell you about the Stan Lee I knew. Not the 17-year-old who went to work for his cousin’s husband, Timely Comics comic book publisher Martin Goodman and ended up running the company. Not the man who would, along with legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, create a pantheon of superheroes uniquely endowed with human flaws that came to be known as the Marvel Age of Comics. Not the aspiring novelist who ironically ended up at one point writing an entire line of monthly comic books devoted to those creations. Not the man whose comic book characters became known around the world and now fill the screens of televisions and movie theaters. Not the savvy marketer and millionaire businessman attending corporate meetings in a three-piece suit and Italian loafers. No, the Stan Lee I knew wore white sneakers.

Despite his aspirations, Stan was at best a mediocre writer but his true strength was as a marketer. He was the greatest marketing genius since P.T. Barnum and his hyperbole put the 19th century showman to shame. His monthly “bullpen” column in every Marvel Comics publication in the 1960s and 70s began with the phrase “Excelsior” and ended with “’Nuff said.” The catchphrases became Lee’s personal trademarks. But for all the grandiose hyperbole, Stan was a warm, self-deprecating, down-to-earth man. He would show up at comic book conventions in a sweater and sneakers, just like his young readers, and sit on the floor with them. They would ask him questions and he treated both the questions and the questioners with a degree of respect children were not used to hearing from adults. As far Stan was concerned, there were no dumb questions or childish comments: he knew his young audience paid his bills and that he was an ambassador for his brand. If the kids had been Marvel Comics fans before meeting Stan Lee, they became acolytes afterward.

Stan Lee changed the comic book medium by writing superhuman characters that nonetheless had human flaws and frailties. They could save the world but still had to pay the rent at the end of the month. The Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Invincible Iron Man – like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Stan created an entire pantheon of gods who nonetheless squabbled like humans. That innovation brought the readers running to Marvel.

My young adult science fiction trilogy, The Adventures of McKenzie Mortimer, reveals the influence of Stan Lee — the alliterative teenage protagonist (think Peter Parker): a nondescript boy gifted with great power who must learn that with it comes great responsibility; and a school bully (think Flash Thompson). I even credited Stan in the acknowledgments.

I’ll close my remembrance of Stan Lee with a personal anecdote. In mid-December 1975, a three-day comic book convention, MiamiCon, was held at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. By the last day, the crowd had thinned and a bunch of us — Stan Lee, artist Jack Kirby, Capt. Marvel creator C.C. Beck, young fan (now artist) Dan Reed, and a younger version of myself were seated around a table, rather bored. Beck, the oldest among us, had brought his guitar with him and someone suggested we sing. Yes, sing. The greatest comic book creators of the 20th century meshed with the voices of the next generation of artists and writers, setting back the music industry by at least 40 years. Too bad no one had the foresight to record this classic moment…

Actually, I did. As a teenage reporter for my college newspaper I was carrying my trusty Panasonic tape recorder to record interviews with comic book creators that later became an award-winning series of articles (which you can read in my book Cub: The Story of a Boy Reporter. Now that’s a plug worthy of Stan himself.) The tape begins with me asking Stan for an introduction to the songfest, which he proceeds to do, introducing all of us in his adjective-laced, bloviated, hyperbole-filled fashion. At the end, 20 minutes later, you can hear Dan and me asking Stan for jobs that Marvel, as an artist and writer respectively. Well, Dan asked to be a page, LOL.

About a dozen years later, I ran into Stan at a convention in Atlanta and told him about the tape. I promised to send it to him. I forgot.

About six years later I ran into Dan Reed, for the first time in 20 years, in Southern California. Dan was now a professional comic book artist, and had even realized his dream of working for Marvel Comics. I told him about the existence of the tape and I promised to send him a copy. I forgot.

In 1993, I bumped into Stan and his wife Joan at the San Diego ComiCon. The topic of the tape came up (Stan had an excellent memory). Chagrined, I promised to mail it to him. This time I actually did send a copy to Stan in New York in care of Marvel Comics and while I was at it, I mailed a copy to Dan. A year later, I got a letter from Marvel Films in California. There was a Spider-Man head drawn on the letterhead with the word balloon reading “Hi Keith!” I thought it was the usual promotional junk mail a lot of us in the industry get. But as I read it, I realized it was a handwritten letter from Stan. It said, “Many, many thanks for the tape you sent me. I got a big kick out of it even if it took a year to get it -- and even if it undoubtedly set music and recording back a few decades! With all my very best wishes -- and much appreciation. Excelsior! Stan.”

Excelsior, Stan Lee. ‘Nuff said.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Peeling the Label

Americans love labels. On the food they buy, on their nametags at gatherings, and apply to themselves: it’s all about identification. Labels are designed to answer the question before it’s asked: What’s on the inside? Who are you? I’m a vegetarian; smoker; non-smoker; German; American; Russian; Southerner; Midwesterner; tourist; citizen; Catholic; Jew; Protestant; white; black; Asian; Latino; teacher; longshoreman; doctor; lawyer; hawk; dove; conservative; liberal; Democrat; Republican. People create their own self-identity based on their sense of who they are -- their beliefs, or what they do, or the culture they come from -- to establish their own sense of individuality and then, ironically and paradoxically, seek others who are like them. This is known as tribalism: a desire to align oneself with others of similar beliefs or backgrounds.

We all want to feel unique and special, which is why we strive to express our individualism. Yet subconsciously we realize the insecurity that comes from standing apart from the crowd. So while we want to be unique, we need the support and validation from others like us. Maybe I’m a vegetarian while most people aren’t, so that makes a statement about me and makes me somewhat more special or unique among others, yet I can still point to millions of vegetarians to prove choosing to be one does not make me weird or completely outside the mainstream. I can wear labels that establish my individuality while at the same time validating their legitimacy by pointing to all the others wearing the same labels.

This works so long as the label accurately represents the contents. If the label says “beef” but the package contains chicken, then obviously the label is worthless because it doesn’t accurately describe the contents. The same is true if the label changes from “salmon” to “seafood” to “something that came out of the ocean.” In this case, the label may be so vague that it encompasses things you wouldn’t want to include had they been specified.

While we think of physical labels as being attached adhesively to products, the opposite is true when it comes to the descriptive labels people apply to themselves. The problem is, people become emotionally attached to the labels they have chosen to describe themselves and their beliefs. If your religion, political party, or nation moves away from the values you previously shared with it, you’ll most likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from the label. “My country right or wrong,” “My party right or wrong,” “My faith right or wrong.” The flaw with tribalism is that we feel compelled to stick with the tribe, no matter what the tribe does.

This is where morality must trump tribalism. We know right from wrong. If someone in your family commits murder your first instinct is to protect them. The family member is part of your tribe: you stick together because of loyalty derived from familial love. But then you must confront the moral dilemma because you know murder is wrong and aiding and abetting murder is not the right thing to do. Yet many people would find themselves unable to walk away, just as they might be unable to walk away from a religion accused of pedophilia, or their own nation accused of war crimes or other atrocities. They are so invested in that label, and the tribalism behind it, that they turn a blind eye or rationalize the fact that label no longer represents the once shared values.

Compared with other countries, the two major political parties in America until recently have been relatively indistinct. Both parties were centrist parties, albeit the Democrats slightly to the left of center and the Republicans slightly to the right. In the 1976 presidential election, there was little to distinguish conservative Democrat Jimmy Carter from liberal Republican Gerald Ford. In succeeding elections, as the Republican Party moved more to the right so did the Democrats, still leaving little sunlight between the two major parties. Both Democrats and Republicans believed in and supported American ideals -- free speech; freedom of the press; democracy; the rule of law; the Constitution; and the sanctity of the electoral process. The fundamental bedrock precepts of American democracy were never held to be political issues by either party.

That changed in 2016  with the election of Donald Trump. But because of tribalism, Americans who wear the Republican label identify with Trump as he is the leader of their party, and take any criticism of Trump as a personal attack on themselves. “My party right or wrong.” But Americans who call themselves Republicans have to ask if the label still fits. We all know what the Republican label once stood for, just as we know it never represented trillion-dollar budget deficits; trade wars; nationalism; xenophobia; fascism; racism; anti-Semitism; misogyny; putting children in cages; or expanding executive authority to include the power to repeal constitutional amendments by executive order. The Republican label has always stood behind America’s intelligence agencies, including the FBI and CIA, and has been the political party most suspicious of, and confrontational with, America’s longtime Cold War enemy Russia. The Republican brand of years past would never sully itself by conspiring with Russians; by giving secret intelligence to Russian agents in the Oval Office; or by supporting Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin over the American intelligence services, as Donald Trump did in Helsinki. As Donald Trump leads the Republican Party further and further from the American ideals and beliefs upon which it was built, Americans who have long identified themselves as Republicans must ask if they can continue to wear that label when it no longer accurately describes their own beliefs.

When the label changes from “salmon” to “something that came out of the ocean,” you can continue buying it but you’re not eating salmon. And there are a lot of scummy, really sickening things on the ocean floor. It’s hard to walk away but there are times when you have to. Times when you must put the label aside and examine if what someone is selling you matches your ideals and beliefs, regardless of the name they slap on it. You’re not abandoning the Republican Party; they’ve already left you. Now you must decide: Do you vote them out of office and then form a new party that more accurately represents your beliefs, or do you vote for a party that now preaches hatred toward your fellow citizens and seeks to divide Americans? Are you willing to put country before party? Or will you wear the label to the grave no matter what it may come to represent, or how far it may stray from your own beliefs and ideals?

The only label you should wear this Tuesday on election day is the sticker that says “I voted.” And when you enter the voting booth, the only label you should bring with you is not “Republican” or “Democrat” but rather “American.” And when you pull the lever it should be because the candidate shares your beliefs and morality, not because he or she slapped an “R” label on their back.