Friday, September 18, 2015

Go Set a Watchman - My Thoughts (For What They're Worth)

*Note. I originally began the bulk of this review about a week after the book's release. For whatever reason I fell away from it. (Perhaps that's telling of the impact the novel has had on our psyches and it's importance in our libraries?) For whatever reason, I've decided to finish the final few sentences and publish it only because I didn't want my reading to have gone in vain. This is 2015 after all and I need all of social media to know just how hard it was to read an entire book.*

Harper Lee's new (and only second) novel "Go Set a Watchman" has certainly set a lot of fires recently. And rightfully so. If you follow the novel's history it's quite clear it was never meant to be published. Well, Lee never intended it to be published. There's quite an extensive back and forth about her being "trilled" that it is "finally" seeing the light of day but the general consensus is...that isn't true. There are a lot of suits and, ironically, lawyers behind the book being released. After suffering from a stroke years ago, Lee has had trouble seeing and hearing and it has been reported that she'd sign pretty much anything put in front of her and told to sign by people she trusted.

Needless to say, the rocky back and forth about whether the novel should or should not have been published should be laid to rest. It happened. It upsets and excites considerable amounts of people. But the novel is now available and that's the end of that story. Is the world a better place because it is now available to us? No. But is the world now a worse place because it is available? Certainly not. Quite honestly, it isn't a terrible book but it also isn't terribly good. It's content is a bit mired in the same mud that the conversations about the novel are: What do we do with this?

I was never particularly attached to "To Kill a Mockingbird" as so many are. I haven't revisited that story in many, many years but when I saw "Go Set a Watchman" on the shelf at my local supermarket, I stopped dead in my tracks. For whatever reason, to me, there is electricity in the notion that the author of one of the greatest pieces of American literature has published, at 89 years old, her second book. To me it was an opportunity to further explore her psyche, to add more context to her legacy, her craft, and her previous book. And with that book, as with life, context is the key to everything. Many people have a difficult time reading this new novel and remembering when it was written and why it ended up in Lee's scrap pile. Many also find it impossible to set apart the Atticus Finch they know and love from "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the Atticus Finch of "Go Set a Watchman". They are distinctly different and that difference does hit like a punch to the gut. However, "Go Set a Watchman" was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird" and it's clear why she shelved the project. It feels like an early draft and when the back cover is closed it doesn't feel like a complete novel. But it isn't entirely bad. And although the controversy around it stems mainly from Atticus being a racist 72 year old man, it doesn't mean it isn't without its merits. And, to me, it more greatly empowers the current interpretation of "To Kill a Mockingbird".

Essentially, this is the sequel/prequel we didn't ask for. We had a perfect novel, so naturally what do we do with perfect things? Make imperfect sequels and/or reboots. However this "sequel" was already written and, in a sub-textual way, serves as a prequel to "To Kill a Mockingbird" considering it was written prior. I think if there was less pomp and circumstance surrounding its release it would've caused less of a stir. If it were released via the internet as a manuscript or a leak or an unreleased, unpublished draft, we'd all look at it through the prism of "NEAT!" And then the finer details would have us saying, "I can see why she chose not to publish this." Or, "She definitely cut her teeth on this and that more refined style and prose is greater reflected in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'." Also, "I'm glad she chose not to make Atticus a racist."

However it's the race issue that actually, at the end of the day, makes "Go Set a Watchman" important. There are 3 days in your life that are specifically the worst.

3. When you learn there is no Santa Claus.
2. When you outrun your dog.
1. When you learn that your world view mustn't mirror your father's (or parent's).

"Go Set a Watchman" is certainly the third. And those are simply my perspective. I am very close to my Dad. He is absolutely my hero and if I grow up to be even a tenth of the man he is, I'll consider myself a good person. Thankfully he hasn't surprisingly turned out to be a racist. But I vividly recall the moment I realized that he and I disagreed. What the issue was I honestly don't know, but that the moment happened is what's burned into my brain. There's a feeling of helplessness, of being lost, and of knowing that at the exact moment I had become my own man. I was free to act, think, and believe as I pleased. And a great burden comes along with that. I am now responsible for my own actions and decisions. But until that moment everything I learned about life had come from my Dad. As soon as you realize you're free to draw your own conclusions it is both freeing and terrifying.

Scout learns that her father, despite being the pillar of justice and equality she remembers him as being, has a problem with the black population of Maycomb, Alabama and an even greater issue with the NAACP trying to help empower them. To a person living in 2015 (well, to some people living in 2015 I should unfortunately say) race should be a non-issue. So when reading the book through those eyes the initial reaction is a modern one. That people speak about other races in such a way is disgusting and deplorable. I will say, every time the "N word" is used it stings with venom. It feels unclean and inappropriate. There has been some desensitization of it over the years but it's context in "Go Set a Watchman" is vulgar and harsh. And very effective because of that. This is a 60+ year old book. It will not conform to the standards of 2015.

But for all the hate the book has received for turning Atticus, white people's former champion and greatest literary hero, into a racist, the book shines the new (and temporarily positive) spotlight on Scout. She is the hero. And how is that so bad? She was our narrator in "To Kill a Mockingbird" but not necessarily our hero. Here we, heaven forbid, find strength in a female protagonist who stands for something so strongly that she is willing to stand up for it. So strongly that she is willing to sever ties with her father, the great Atticus Finch. Now I know what you're thinking, "But I thought only men could do important things!" And the strength of Scout comes from, you guessed it, her father. The notion of that world crumbling down (seeing your father as God) plays a large role in the book and an important one. But because the book offers up important conversations on race is why, in my opinion, it should be read. It is both enlightening and heartbreaking that a book written over half a century ago still offers relevant commentary on racism and race related issues. That isn't to say that we expect these things to look and feel dated, but that maybe we haven't come as far as we believe we have.

When you turn on the news what do you see? White on black violence, black on black violence, police on black violence. And it never ends. The campaign "Black Lives Matter" is so important because it's true. Perhaps, as a reviewer, I'm writing from Scout's perspective and from that of an idealist. But I assumed that come the year 2015 we'd all be treated equally. But we are not. And it is soul crushing. Racism still runs rampant throughout the world and, sadly, I do not see an end. It's so twisted in some circles that after the devastating shootings in Charleston, SC I saw articles blaming women for men like Dylann Roof. If only we as a society hadn't repressed masculinity and perpetuated the notion that masculinity is "rape culture" then guys like this wouldn't need to do things like this.

The article also mentioned the notion of over medicating kids with mental health issues, but once the preposterous claim that women were ultimately to blame came along I checked out of anything sensible they might'be said (if even by accident).

But finally "Go Set a Watchman" becomes an unfortunate reminder that even the greatest authors are fallible. Or at least shouldn't have every word they've uttered become publish worthy material. However, that fallibility was not one we were meant to witness had Harper Lee been of sound mind when she was approached with the possible publication of her "lost" manuscript. Even towards the book's conclusion Scout makes a half-hearted acknowledgement that (essentially), well of course blacks aren't the same as whites, but still...we shouldn't be treating them so poorly because they're people...kind of?

When it finishes it is much less of a book than it is a manuscript, the very thing we knew it was if we'd done our research, all along. And now we have it and we must find something to do with it, like that fairly thoughtless gift you receive from an absent minded relative at Christmas time and are too embarrassed to return or dispose of for fear of hurting their feelings.

Finally, just like that "gift" it ends up buried on a shelf in between more important volumes or even worse, depending on your reverence for "To Kill a Mockingbird", it finds its way into the closet. Only to be rediscovered and reflected upon poorly when you're cleaning it out due to a move or a spring cleaning. And just like those items it will find its way into a thrift shop or a donation pile, and the cycle perpetuates, and its presence does not fade unless it is destroyed. Sadly Harper Lee did not have the foresight to destroy it decades years ago.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year, Same Old You

Much as I love the Holidays I won't lie to you, I don't like New Year's. It's not because I don't like the notion of change, renewal, or a sort of rebirth almost, but what I like least of all is the notion that who you are right now isn't enough and that the person you might become will be better than the person you see when you look in the mirror this morning. By those standards none of us will ever be enough, for ourselves, for our friends, family, society, whatever it may be. We judge and measure ourselves based upon an image of personal perfection that we'll never be able to live up to because when tomorrow becomes today you're going to be just as critical.

When all the inevitable motivation posts hit the web today through the end of the week titled "New Year, New You". Don't read them. I can guarantee not one of them is going to tell you something you didn't already know, be it about yourself or about the world or about what you need to do to change the person you're tired of being. What's most important is that you know the person you are right now, in this moment, is enough. They're enough to make the change.

We have no other option than to live in the present. Make amends for any of your past wrong doings but carry no regrets. The past is the past and will never catch back up to the present. It's time to let it go.

Make plans for the changes you'd like to see in yourself but know that those changes will not come tomorrow. Change is the result of hard work plus time, and time is always a variable. Whatever this change is you want to see in yourself in the new year know that it might not come in a week, in a month, even in an entire year, but it will come. What's important is to continue working hard toward it. The work is what's important, not necessarily the change.

What humbles men and women is not the rewards for their work, but the work itself. The quickest way to cause someone to lose their faith is to answer all their prayers. When someone has everything they want, what need have they for faith, for God, for anything? You must remain hungry for change, constantly. The only way to remain grounded, humble, and successful is to never stop working as hard as you can toward whatever it is you want and to never give up. If you obtain the thing you're working for, set a new goal. Life's not done with you yet. There's only one end and none of us want to meet it prematurely. So until that end arrives, stay hungry. Always.

Know that you can never be anyone other than who you are in the present, so you have no other option than to either be pleased or displeased with that person. Simple as that. If you can't be anyone else then work on ways to love yourself more because you deserve to be loved, not just by others but by you. No one will be a harsher critic or a more proud supporter of you than yourself.

In life you're either going to be your own best friend or you biggest enemy. Quit working against yourself and get out of your own way when oftentimes it's us standing in our own path to success. There's a talented, powerful, incredible individual inside each of us and you've got to let them out, but first your biggest enemy needs to get out of the way and if they don't you've got to force them aside. Break down walls, kick through doors, burn down buildings of the mind and spirit if that's what it takes to locate and bring out the you, you truly can be. Stop at nothing, and I mean nothing, to find that person. They're only hiding because you put them there. Because you were afraid. The first step toward true change is overcoming your fears. Fear can keep you hungry but it can also get in the way. Find the balance.

Be prepared and grateful when you fail, it's a learning experience. Failure is not the end and it isn't necessarily a step backward. Failure is fuel for the fire. It'll burn, it'll hurt, and it might scar, but it's a visual and visceral reminder of what you've learned on the road of life. And this road is not comfortable or easy either. It's bumpy, rocky, jagged, and switch backed. If the road to change and subsequently the road of life were a straight shot it'd be boring and you'd be a single celled organism. But you're not. You're a living, breathing human being. Be glad that you are capable of making mistakes and rectifying them. Crazy as that sounds it's a sign that you're special and different from the rest of the animal kingdom. If you stumble or fall, bow your head, grit your teeth, and get back up. Every day is not you working closer toward the end, it is you beginning your journey anew with each dawn. Recognize that and be glad for it. The past is gone and the future will never come. All you have is who you are right now.

If you have a desire to make changes in your life, cast away the notion of the "New Year, New You" which is dreadful for your psyche and your health. If you want to make a change, don't wait for January 1st or for Monday or for the first of the following month. Change starts now. Not tomorrow, not next week, and not five minutes from now. Throw away your New Year's resolution and make a resolution for life. Remember in life that the only constant is change. So why resist it? They say "be the change you want to see in the world", but don't neglect yourself trying to please everyone else. Most important on the road to change is the self must come first to give you the proper perspective on how to change the world. If you can't change yourself how can you expect to change anyone else?

If your resolution gets off track, stop. Don't just blindly barrel on down that road until it becomes a dead end and you're forced to turn around and come back. If you're trying to work out more, lose weight, eat better, study more, drink less, be a more devoted spouse or partner, whatever it is, if it gets off track stop and reassess. Take your lumps but buck up and keep the faith. If you remain hungry, you'll always find a way back onto your resolute path.

The value of your life is not necessarily measured by your successes but by how you respond to your mistakes.

Be where you are right now. Be present. Be mindful. Be grateful for your life and take heart knowing the person you will become is not imaginary. That person is you right now, but you've got to work to reveal them. Every successful woman and man started as a massive slab of marble. The beautiful sculpture lies waiting inside to be revealed. It's there. I promise. Maybe it's only an idea or a concept at the moment, but you've got to start chipping away at the exterior in or to reveal it. Achieving a higher sense of self and purpose is not an ethereal reward bestowed upon you from the heavens after the work has been done, you've got to give the rewards to yourself.

If God truly does has a "plan" for us, it's up to us to make that plan. No one else is pulling your strings. You have free will. It's up to you to decide whether or not that's a blessing or a curse.

There is no heavier burden to bear than that of a great potential. Feel it. Let it tear you, rip you, and take you down. Feel it's weight as it crushes you. That's good. That's fire. That's your fire. That's the weight of the amazing person you can become. Now bite down, brace yourself, and stand up. Don't try to put the fire out because it burns, fan the flames and let it scorch the person you used to be. From those ashes will arise the person you know you can become.

This person you're destined to become is locked away inside and only you have the key. They're not waiting for the world to change around them, they're not waiting for your family to change or for your friends to change, they're waiting on YOU to change. Make the change, unlock the door, and let them out.

Live a life others would want to read as a book.

Happy New Year everyone. Don't wait until tomorrow. The future is forever becoming the present. Live in it and be happy with who you are now because that person is enough, but know each passing moment is a step further on your road to becoming your best self. It's going to hurt and it's going to be hard. Good. If it were easy we'd all just quit.

Don't forget that cliches exist because they're truthful. Like all the cliches you just read above.

Monday, December 1, 2014

I Am a Poor Boy Too...

I am a poor boy too…

One of my least favorite Christmas songs for the majority of my life has been “The Little Drummer Boy”. I can’t really explain why. Maybe the constant ‘parumpumpumpum’ing got on my nerves. I never really like the Rankin and Bass animated short because, even by its standards when made in 1968, it still looked cheap. But as I grow older Christmas has come to mean many different things for me, as it should for everyone. Obviously each year I write a lot about it. I find that there are few other times that inspiration strikes as strongly. Maybe Halloween. Maybe Summer. Alright, maybe I just love Christmas.

But recently I was listening to what has become my favorite rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” by Josh Groban from his CD Noel. Something about the fullness of that version (probably the bagpipes) just lit me up and I couldn’t help but get teary eyed. And I think it was because that had been the first time I really truly listened to the lyrics. And I don’t mean listen as in heard them, I’ve had the words memorized since I was six, but I mean this is the first time the words really landed and had an impact of me, now some twenty years later.

Regardless of what you believe I think it’s still possible to let yourself be affected and even changed by the simple, relatable nature of different belief systems. I may not classify myself as a Buddhist or a Taoist, but I have read and studied them a great deal and allowed them to resonate with and affect me. At Christmastime, there tend to be three camps of folks who discuss “the true meaning of Christmas”.

  1. Far right/ extreme Christians who feel it’s only about Jesus’ birthday and celebrating anything other than that is wrong and sinful and if you want a TV for Christmas you’re selfish and if you sit down to Hanukah dinner with your neighbor you’re running the risk of blasphemy and also Santa is a rearranged anagram for his true identity: S A T A N.
  2. Cynics and “rationalists” who think Religion, and Christianity in particular, is stupid and that Linus’ speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas is preachy because Christmas is actually and amalgamation of traditions stolen from the Pagan Holiday celebration Yule so you should feel stupid for believing in magic or miracles and grateful to them for believing in reason and science and making your better by posting photos from the “I F*cking Love Science” Facebook page explaining away silly beliefs and informing you that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is, in fact, God’s true secret identity.
  3. People who just like to be happy and want others to be happy and do their own thing so they’re pretty chill about whatever goes on during the Holidays.

I like to think I fall into the third camp. But we’re all familiar with the other two and probably want to beat our heads against a wall when the Holidays come around.

The point to that mini rant is to explain the perspective that, hey, it’s Christmas, so let’s just relax. You can find value in all walks of life and all belief systems. So long as no one gets hurt, you do you BooBoo. You don’t even have to believe Jesus was a real guy to be affected by his story or by the story of those who came to celebrate his birth. History suggests a lot of contrary things about the birth of Jesus, mostly that he probably wasn’t even born in the Winter. But the nature of embellished stories can still inspire people to feel something deep and poignant, and sometimes even blatant fiction is the best driving force to get people to do something good for their fellow man. And that is the story that goes along with the The Little Drummer Boy.

Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of a kid with a drum. But as the song goes, the little drummer boy hears of Jesus’ birth and decides he will go see the child and celebrate his birth because the rumor is he’s going to grow up to be someone pretty special.

Let’s let the little drummer boy’s story speak for itself through the song’s lyrics.

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born King to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
So to honor Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.
Little Baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the King, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?
Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

I spent that brief moment above justifying that it’s okay to believe whatever you want because I’m asking you to let yourself be affected by the real heart of this song. It’s going to require some of you going with me on a hypothetical journey, but I find life is a lot easier and certainly a lot more beautiful and rewarding when we do.

If you’d heard the news that the savior of all mankind had been born and all your friends were tugging at your arm saying, “Come on! Come on! We have to go see him!” What would you do? Would you drop everything you were doing and go? Or would you balk and think, “But I haven’t a gift to bring that fit to give a King.”

A lot of the time, regardless of belief, our human nature has us telling ourselves we’re not worthy. We get self conscious and scared and second guess who we are, how we’ll look, what we’ll do or say; especially at times like Christmas, when expectations seem so high.

It might seem surprising but I really don’t like getting gifts. Christmas, Birthday, whatever it is, I really feel strange when someone gives me something. I have trouble receiving them because I immediately think to myself, “Oh no! What will I get this person in return?” And it’s a terribly selfish way to act since most of the time we give things without expecting anything in return. That’s the true nature of giving. I also clam up because I’m not terribly clever at coming up with what tangible gifts to get people. I measure my ability to give in the time spent with people. Good conversation, enjoying food and drinks together, laughing, singing, joking, whatever it may be. That’s my favorite type of giving and receiving; simply spending time with the ones you love.

And so the little drummer boy had the same dilemma. What do you give to the baby who has everything? He is the son of God after all, what could he possibly need? And if you go empty handed you run the risk of looking foolish standing next to three wise men who’ve brought along frankincense, myrrh, and even gold. Better not to go then. Better not run the risk of embarrassing yourself and embarrassing God by not bringing his son something he deserves. You’re just a poor boy with a drum and tattered clothes. Surely you are a disgrace in the presence of the Lord.

Most of us wouldn’t go. It’s like feeling like you can’t go to church because you don’t own any nice, expensive, or fancy clothes. It’s not taking a chance because you’re afraid of failure and embarrassment under the judging eye of someone or something “Holy”. But the most important thing to remember is that God is not human. God doesn’t wear ties or suits, dresses or skirts. God doesn’t collect physical possessions and has no use for them. So why on earth would we think that what we offer up as our gift to God should be something tangible? It isn’t to say it’s wrong. The idea is that you simply give from your heart, the best way you can. You give openly and freely because you love God, not because you are afraid of him. So many cultures used to, and still do, offer up animal sacrifices to him. But God doesn’t want bloodshed. God wants your love. God just wants you, whoever that person may be; man, woman, or child, straight, gay, or transgender. If you’re giving from the heart, no gift is too big or too small. We are all equal in the eyes of God.

But the little drummer boy remembered, “I do have something! I have my drum! I’ll play for him on my drum!”

And so he traveled far, a dangerous journey for such a young kid, in order to reach the child everyone had been talking about. And he stood quietly behind all those who came to praise the baby. They laid down their gifts for him, some extravagant, some small and meager, and finally, when all eyes turned to the little drummer boy he stood there in silence, holding his drum.

“Little baby,” He said as he approached the young Jesus, not worrying himself with many of the judgmental eyes that were on him. The whispering voices could easily be heard. Some thought he was cute, others felt he sullied the Lord with his presence. But, much as children do, the baby Jesus had no need for judgment. Neither did his parents Joseph and Mary. They had both come from immense poverty and traveled a journey similar to the drummer boy’s.

“I am a poor boy too.” The drummer boy said as he observed Jesus’ tattered and plain surroundings. He was born in a barn! The drummer boy thought the son of God would’ve been born on a golden throne, in a castle, surrounded by servants, money, and feasting. But here he was, surrounded by farm animals, lying in a pile of hay. It brought a strange joy to him as he spoke.

“I have no gifts to bring.” The drummer said timidly, looking from Jesus to his parents. “But…” he stammered. “Shall I play for you? On my drum?”

Mary nodded. And he played. The little drummer boy played his best for the baby Jesus because it was all he knew how to do. He had no money, hardly any clothes, and certainly not much respect in the eyes of the elite, but he did have a little drum. And he could play it well.

And as he played, something amazing happened. The baby Jesus, the son of God, God himself even, smiled at him. He smiled at the little drummer boy and at his drum because this gift had been more than enough to give. His talent, something given from the heart, was worth more than anything else he could’ve given, more than all the riches on earth.

And many years later, that baby who grew into a great Rabbi would impart the same lesson to his disciples, the lesson taught to him by a poor, honest, worthy little drummer boy.

“Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins.

Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.’” Mark 12:41-44

Christmas, whether or not the story of Jesus’ birth seems relevant to you, is about giving. Not just giving in the hopes of appeasing or giving out of obligation, but giving from the heart. Any gift given from the heart is a worthy gift, and any person not willing to recognize that a gift they receive, although meager, coming from their givers heart is a person who is not worthy to receive such a special gift. It doesn’t mean they can’t be worthy, but it means their focus is on receiving only tangible things, things that, if they were to burn to the ground, would be gone forever. As that little baby would one day go on to say:

"Don't store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” – Matthew 6:19-21

Gifts that come from the heart cannot fade. Even if they are physical items, the spirit within them will never die. Even if a photograph is lost, a painting is destroyed, or a house is toppled, the spirit lives forever. The little drummer boy is proof of that.