The Rocky Horror Picture Show

The Rocky Horror Picture Show


I am a chronic worrier.  I even get worried when there is nothing to worry about.  At age eight, after reading a pamphlet at the local pharmacy, I was convinced I had venereal disease.  I think it is genetic.  My father is convinced if the Bird flu does not get him, the Chinese economy will brings us to our knees and he will be dishing fast food in a Mandarin restaurant within ten years.  My brothers and other men I know suffer from a similar chronic anxiety syndrome.  It does not matter that 99.9% of the time, the most dramatically catastrophic scenario that we have built up in our head does not occur.  It could happen.  And if it could happen, I must do everything I can to hedge against this possibility. 


Once I have settled on my anxiety du jour, I have this little movie theatre in my head.  It seats one person.  When things go bad at work or one of the children gets sick, the little man in the projection room goes down to the archive room and pulls out a metal canister with a label on it – Horror Films.  The titles are familiar – How I Lost Everything, The Great Plague of 2006 and my favorite, From The Top of The Mountain to Under a Bridge in a Box.  The flickering film always plays out the same way – – I lose whatever it is I hold most dear to me and end up walking around Central park clutching a bag of string asking anyone if they have seen my car. 


I guess the panic reflex is nature’s way of getting your attention.  You end up doing extraordinary things when you are fearful.  You overachieve.  You cram 10 lbs into a 2lb sack. You work until all hours getting something just right.  You go for days without much sleep – – you focus on the task at hand.  You also become pretty selfish.  It’s all about you.  Perhaps if your buttons are really pushed, you might lie, cheat or steal.  In our town, that does not mean you would knock off a convenience store but perhaps you might finesse the edges of the truth or not be the kindest or most thoughtful person. You know, the person you see yourself as when you sit in church ? 


It’s interesting to me that a society that has so much seems so fearful ?  Is it because the media pipes us daily images of the chaos that reigns in certain regions around the world ?  Is it that many of us were children of a generation that dug bomb shelters in their backyards waiting for the big one and are still waiting for the Reds to fulfill their master plan ? 


In Organizational Psychology, I remember being educated on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  The basic levels of the hierarchy – food, shelter, clothing were the building blocks of a behavioral and socio-economic pyramid that eventually led to an apex where one became “ self actualized “. In being self actualized, a person was essentially free of the worries associated with finding food and shelter and was free to ponder the deeper issues in life and the cosmos.  The self actualized person seemed to me to be a sort of cross between Hugh Heffner, replete with robe and slippers, and William F Buckley with Barrons at his left hand and Tolstoy’s War and Peace at the right.  A self actualized person was independent, all knowing and of course, affluent. 


My professor never really mentioned fear and affluence being bedfellows.   It is strange seeing those so seemingly immune to the vagaries of a life that happens only to other people, not acting like emancipated pillars of society but instead capable of petty, selfish and highly self interested behavior.   It seems so interesting that affluence turns out not to be an enabler of self esteem, character, or courage, it just obscures the lack of it.


Most men do not refer to these issues as causing “fear”.  We were brought up by a generation of dads to pound through fear like a fullback sniffing out the goal-line.  We call it “anxiety”, “stress” or “dog-eat-dog “.  In a society that judges the ends more than the means, the more you accumulate, the more one feels the need to patrol your borders to ensure you protect it.  Ironically, when we are too busy patrolling we are cut off from the real world that desperately needs us – – our kids, our community, our world.   


We consider ourselves “blessed” as we survey the beleaguered citizens of Iraq, the destitute in the gutters of Bangladesh and the crucified in Darfur.  We assume that abundance is a sign of divine approval.  Yet, I wonder if affluence also makes one more afraid and as such, makes it that much harder to see the forest of mankind through the trees of self preservation.  


Happiness is wanting what you get instead of getting what you want.  Joy is watching those you love find happiness.  It doesn’t say much in that quote book about affluence other than to be careful as it may become the snare that snags the foot of one’s soul. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take the house over the cardboard box every day of the week – – my lead soldiers won’t fit in the cardboard box.  Yet, to those that much has been given, much is expected. 


My good friend and mentor once said to me, “Mike, the day you realize it is not about you, is the day you start changing the films in your projection room.”   My pastor Gary Wilburn reminds us that through serving others, we can find ourselves and be free from fear. 


I have to keep remembering that because they are about to start the movie Saw IV and I am one of the stars…


A Writer At Rest

A Writer At Rest


And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market-the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heart beat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file.  The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same.  Perfection Wasted — John Updike


My hero John Updike died last month of lung cancer at a hospice in suburban Massachusetts. A master narrator, he was a skilled oarsman meticulously ferrying his passengers across a dark river to wander the dimly lit bayous of Middle America.

He prowled the back streets and alleys of Anglo-Saxon America for five decades – gently tending the fires to illuminate the unfulfilled underbelly of small towns and small thinkers. He once told Life magazine that his subject “ is the American Protestant small-town middle class. I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.”  His magnificent writing existed in that rare literary greenbelt that separates poetry and fiction.  His characters were often flawed Greek tragedies – mortals stumbling through a universe of moribund marriages, failed dreams, invisible constraints and electric sexual tension.


To a young English major who could not yet properly identify the profound that lay hidden within the prosaic, Updike was an inspiration.  He had been to the mountain top and descended with a stone tablet that deciphered the strange alchemy of the human condition – a mixture of larceny and compassion, adultery and dogged faith, black desires and noble aspirations.  In the Rabbit series of novels, Updike injected the genomes of human frailty into a small town, former basketball star named Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom whose serial restlessness and inability to understand his deepest needs condemned him to a potholed road of detours, disappointments and desperate liaisons. Yet, Rabbit captivated us and was Updike’s foil to simultaneously cuff and embrace the American way at the same time.  James Woods described Updike as “ a prose writer of great beauty…that described the aching gap between God and his creatures”.


Critic Adam Gopnik related, “ Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation. For Updike, this effort was blessed, and very nearly successful. Unlike his European contemporaries, who saw the same space and the attempted filling as mere aridity and deprivation, Updike was close enough to, and fond enough of, the source of postwar material abundance to love it fully, and for itself. (And he knew enough of the decade of deprivation that preceded the big blossoming never to be jaded about plenty.) He viewed the material culture of American life with a benign, appreciative ironic eye. But he had no illusions, either, about its ability to cover the failure or wish away mortality.”


While he viewed America through a sober lens, he never stopped loving it.  It was as if he saw the nation for what it was – a stumbling adolescent whose life lessons must be learned the hard way and whose serial inability to learn from the past would condemn it to center stage as an endearing moral and social recidivist. Updike once barked that “ most of American life consists of driving somewhere and then returning home, wondering why the hell you went.”


Updike offered conditional emancipation for Middle America tangled in lives of self -righteousness and repressed temptation.  His liberation was not in the condoning the behavior of his conflicted protagonists but was instead expressed in the absence of formal reproach.  He was our mirror and cheerleader.  Instead of whisking his readers to far off places populated by strange characters and imaginary misfits, he drove us right back into our own neighborhoods, peering through silk drapes and the soft light cast from other rooms to gaze on souls leading lives that fell into the unimaginative seams that separated the uninspired and the inspired. He offered us a life that was an uneven box, deep and dark with broad possibilities but never tied neatly with a bow or wrapping. He celebrated our “enigmatic dullness”.  He was our champion and our critic all at the same time.  Updike became the treasured spokesperson for the Silent generation who grew up unevenly under the repressed, filtered light of Depression maturity only to burst into the wild excesses of an adolescent society in full rebellion.


In his Bech series of books, he created his own alter ego – a cynical Jewish American novelist who stumbles through amorous liaisons and the thick twisted forest of the literary world.  Bech offers us a glimpse into Updike and his unforgiving patriotism, sardonic sense of humor and relentlessly delicious need for venal satisfaction – revenge, sexual desire and love. 


He won two Pulitzer prizes – only one of three American authors to ever achieve such an honor.  He loved golf and endlessly pursued the redemption that could only be found pushing a dimpled ball recklessly along green manicured fairways. He advocated for human rights and helped America come to grips with its own shadows.  He was our burning bush.  Ever the optimist, Updike’s characters muddled through every possible storm that life could throw at them.  They weaved their way across life and were celebrated if for no other reason than for just being.


“We do survive every moment after all “, he said ” except the last one.”



The Oxymoron’s Guide to Rambling

The Oxymoron’s Guide to Rambling


“It infuriates me to be wrong when I know I’m right.” – Moliére


William Safire has made a career as America’s literary guide – assisting the grammatically challenged each week to navigate the great mountain ranges of the etymology – the history and roots of words.   Quick to identify the ancient epicenters of our lingua franca, Safire’s laser orienteering offers his readers an entertaining deconstruction of the DNA of grammar.  Under his deft instruction, any literary rambler can become more self-sufficient as they seek to master the more advanced landscapes of our native tongue.


As a neophyte wordsmith, I enjoy exploring the blue vernacular highways of English.  My preoccupation with what Noel Coward described as “people divided by a common language “was initially stimulated by my pursuit of a bachelor degree in Literature and then hyperactivated by the likes of Safire, Buckley, Stegner and Bierce.  My hobby turned to obsession while living abroad.  In England, I was routinely barraged with surrogate verbs and bizarre changeling nouns that supplanted the terms and phrases that were critical cultural rivets to my social and mental way of life.  To cope, I needed to understand their root meanings and weave them into my everyday existence.


It started one innocent afternoon when my son came home from school in his emblemed green jumper and blue corduroy pants asking me if he could have some crisps.  To a native Californian, a “crisp” was a drugged out surfer dude.


“He means potato chips,” my Anglo-American spouse mused. 


Weeks later, my other son leaned over and whispered to me, “Daddy, I think I messed my knickers.” I worried that within a few months, I would need an interpreter to speak to my own kids.  I agonized even more that years later when we moved back to America they would be beaten senseless by school yard bullies befuddled by their lilting Oxford accent.  “I say, old fellow, you’re acting a bit bohemian, aren’t you?”


A narrow pig eyed squint, “ Say that again, French fry”. 


“ I believe you’ve mistaken my English accent for French.  This happens when one is denied a proper public school education or spends too much time in one’s abode in his trailer park.” More squinting and clenched fists.“ I’m not sure what you just said but I’m gonna ‘a-bode’ you.”


At school, we had to buy our children “rubbers”, apply first aid with “plasters” and hear them snicker about someone “snogging” in the Tesco “ car park”. My misunderstandings became graver when the cable installation man casually admitted to me that he was going outside to “smoke a fag”.  I was about to dial the local constable to report a hate crime in process when my spouse told me to relax that he was merely taking a cigarette break. Even Dave, our handy man and perhaps the world’s slowest moving human being in the UK, ran circles around me as he incessantly complained about “prats”, “poofs” and “whinging, mental birds”.


On weekends, we would periodically escape suburban London with a drive down the A3 motorway to visit the children’s favorite farm in Surrey. At a certain roundabout, we would exit on to a small frontage road where a home and garden store offered prefabricated garden sheds.  A very visible billboard promised, “Buy Today and Get a Free Erection”.


I returned to America with a confused vocabulary of idioms, euphemisms, double entendres and suffering from tedious circumlocution. I started noticing the strange American oxymoronic phrases and odd grammatical habits that were woven into my daily routines.  For example, why is it that one must help clean up the house because the cleaners are coming to clean? Why do women watch the Food Channel while exercising at the gym?


Is there such a thing as a “non-working mother”?


I am told my “kids will stay healthy if they get dirty” and that if “I want to keep something, I should let it go”. I am reminded that “sinners make the best saints” and that sometimes, I must be “cruel to be kind”.  Someone told me years ago as I moved away from California that sometimes “a person has to leave a place in order to be able to return”.  After twenty years of marriage, I know that “silence can be deafening” and the fact that sometimes, you must “surrender if you want to win.”


Is it possible to be “pretty ugly?”  Do stripper’s have dressing rooms?  What exactly is a “butt head?”


The English language can also be wonderfully descriptive as evidenced by the use of collective nouns in the nature.  If you are an ornithologist, you might spy a “charm” of finches, a “parliament” of owls, a “murder” of crows, a “ wake” of buzzards, a “siege” of cranes, an “ implausibility” of gnus or an “exultation” of larks. I even invented some of my own collective nouns.  What about a “cyst” of politicians, a “stink” of (teenaged) boys, a “fang” of (teenaged) girls and a “neoplasm” of reality TV stars?  On the range, you might spy a “sinew” of cowboys.  In a pretentious club, one might be seated next to a “vacuum” of bachelors or dance with a “scandal” of debutantes.  At a town hall meeting, is it possible one might endure a “purgatory” of speakers?


Language is, in the end, a dense boreal forest where one can easily stray from a footpath and get snagged on an oxymoron, injured by an idiom, captivated by a collective noun or mangled on a malaprop.  Yet, the forest provides all that we need once we learn to respect it and recognize its subtle signs and hidden treasures. Palaver can be domesticated and tamed; and when properly cultivated, language can yield a rich bounty, even to the most amateur of verbal pioneers.


It’s just like your parents used to say,   “I’m not going to tell you, but I told you so…”