Writing is an Itch. This is a place to scratch.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Heroes Don't Have To Be Super.

Text and Pencil Drawings by
Rattus Scribus© 24 Sept 2010

I have not drawn in many, many years. Anita has been encouraging me to pick up the pencil once more. As an artist I'm about as out of shape as Jabba the Hut, but it sure is fun.

Ever since I could read, I've been a sucker for superheroes and superhero stories. Comics were my first real entrance to the wonderful world of books, and I could not then and still cannot get enough. During my middle and high school years I was not a good student. I hung around some of the worse kids in the school. We made teachers quit. That will give you an idea of my background.

But I loved to read, and I read more than anyone I knew (which may not be saying much). So while school bored me to tears and I barely graduated high school, I was engaging, quite by accident, in a significant amount of self-education. Years later when I got married and started college, all my teachers loved my work; and I owe it to my start in comics. Today, ironically perhaps, I am a teacher.

The comic book stories I read as a child may have been primitive compared to some of today's sophisticated writers. For one, the science was often just plain bad. I still laugh at how many superheroes got their powers from exposure to some radioactive cosmic energy -- gamma ray bombs, rocketing through Van Allen's radiation belt, radioactive spider bites, tumbling into horrifically toxic sludge, and so on. And instead of withering to bacon, the characters end up with the ability to juggle tanks, flame on, scale walls, and control nature.

Nevertheless, I learned a lot. At 10 years old I knew words like inundate, quandary, conundrum, heinous, raiment, refulgent, salutary and munificent. I also understood basic physics concepts like the inseparability of time and space, and why (if E=mc2 is true at all) humans cannot and never will travel Faster Than Light (FTL), despite all the sci-fi books and movies that depict otherwise.

But my love of superheroes was more than just knowledge acquisition, or even childhood fascination with fantastic powers and thrilling adventures. For a time my biggest dream and prayer request to God was to be a superhero. Crazy, I know. But there was practical reason behind the madness.

I wanted to save the world, and the world I grew up in needed saving, badly. For this was the time of Cold War paranoia, epitomized by the Cuban missile standoff that nearly plunged the world into the unthinkable; a time of race riots in virtually every major American city; a time of assassinations -- President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, and Robert Kennedy; a time of protests, from the Vietnam War to civil rights to the drug and sexual revolutions.

I wanted to help. But what could one lone skinny kid do about any of this? Comics came to the rescue, because I saw in them, three very important things that have stayed with me ever since.

First, comics stirred in me the beginnings of a social consciousness. Certain superheroes and stories impressed upon my young mind the need to look at evil and injustice in the world and to expose the causes. In many of the first comics I read, problems were often reduced to individual megalomaniacal super baddies who either wanted to rule the world or destroy it. But in the 1960s and early 70s, comics took a big risk and started dealing with systemic social problems like racism, drugs, homelessness, gender discrimination, political corruption and more, all reflective of real contemporary challenges.

Blue Beetle (Hispanic teen Jaime Reyes). Many comics today include ethnically diverse superheroes and social commentary. Such elements were rare when I was a child.

Second, action. Superheroes always took action whenever they saw the innocent threatened with danger, whether human, natural, alien, or mystic. I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. said: "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." His exhortation may well have been all the more influential on me because the groundwork had already been prepared by those comic superheroes who took Edmund Burke seriously when he said, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

Third, there is rarely a convenient time to be a hero. I loved Superman, but the guy is basically a god. When you're invulnerable to all but a rare chunk of your destroyed home planet, being a hero is not much to risk. Comic book writers understood this, and wrote some stories where heroes are marked not by their power, but by their willingness to do an utterly selfless heroic thing, even at great personal cost.

In my top five superheroes of all time is a Marvel character by the name of the Silver Surfer. Issue number five (1969) is titled "And Who Shall Mourn For Him?" The Silver Surfer, an alien being endowed with the "power cosmic" is exiled on earth. Misunderstood and hounded by a fearful and violent human race, he has at last found to his surprise that one human has befriended him, a scientific genius named Al B. Harper, who as an African American knows full well what it is like to be misunderstood, feared and hated.

Al B. Harper, a non-super hero.
Silver Surfer # 5 (Marvel Comics, 1969)
By Stan Lee and John Buscema

But a super-powered alien named the Stranger has arrived and judged humanity to be too wantonly ignorant and savage to live. This affront to the universe shall be destroyed by a (wait for it) "Null-Life bomb," which the Stranger has hidden somewhere in New York. While the Silver Surfer battles the stranger and seeks to change his mind about destroying the world, Al Harper frantically searches for the bomb using a sort of Geiger device.

Silver Surfer #5 (Marvel Comics, 1969)

Despite the ever-reliable ignorant humans who nearly thwart his efforts, Harper succeeds in finding and dismantling the bomb, but at great cost. An anti-tampering device is set off and Harper is killed, but the world saved. The Stranger then realizes that if one human is willing to lay down his life for his fellow humans, then perhaps the species does have redeeming value. He departs, leaving the Surfer to mourn the only human who, knowing alienation, befriended an alien. Although the world does not even know of Al Harper's sacrifice to save it, the Silver Surfer leaves on his otherwise unmarked grave an eternal flame as a testimony to a real hero.

This story and others like it (and my later introduction to Christianity) taught me that heroes don't have to have super-powers, only the willingness to be available. And that is something we all can do: a helping hand, a kind word, giving with no thought of reward, a shoulder to cry on, support, affirmation, love. These are the every day heroic acts that matter.

Above: A very kind rendition of me, after one of my favorite superheroes: The Silver Surfer. I loved this character not only because he had the coolest superpowers -- he could travel the distant galaxies, skim the surface of suns, and manipulate matter and energy -- but because comics legend Stan Lee made him among the wisest and noblest of heroes. I realized as a child that the Surfer had a wisdom that came with having seen much of the universe, with great civilizations that flourished for a time but are now long since gone, and what legacy did they leave? This cosmic perspective seemed sorely missing among us humans who tend to be imprisoned to the cultural-historical moment.

Heroes don't have to be super.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Is Solitude Going The Way of The Dodo?

By Rattus Scribus© 17 Sept 2010

I am the last of my kind, so I think

I'll put all my eggs safely in one basket.

(From a humorous cartoon I saw once.)

Most of us have heard, read, or watched a tale about a future world in which all privacy has been eliminated. It usually starts off in the name of benevolent protection of the people from an enemy, and inevitably the people themselves become the enemy. Orwell's 1984, the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix, Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, these are entertaining and thought-provoking.

Poster based on Orwell's 1984

But I never gave the premise enough concern to do anything about it personally. Until in a recent documentary, scholars demonstrated how the internet, cell phones, sophisticated non-stop consumer advertisement, astounding and increasingly ubiquitous surveillance capabilities, tracking and information devices on everything from consumer goods to pets and people, and other technologies, are making the world into a place where privacy and solitude are going the way of the Dodo bird.

"You have zero privacy now. Get over it."

Scott McNealy, CEO, Sun Microsystems, 1999

This small meditation is not about stirring up dire Orwellian predictions. But I am convinced that, in the face of these developments, unless we each take deliberate steps in our lives, solitude (significant quiet time that recharges and nourishes your mind, soul and faith) will become an endangered or even extinct practice.

Photo: Chris Otten, Camerahead Project (Devoted

to calling attention to America becoming a land

of surveillance cameras).

This truth came home to me not by reading and watching V for Vendetta, but during one of those moments of confirmation that come when prayer and a growing conviction collide with a seeming coincidence.

My wife Anita and I were driving in the Lake Elmo region of Minnesota looking for a mom and pop garden nursery. It was clear from the bleached buffalo bones and tumble weeds that we had strayed quite off the beaten path of civilization. Just then, something like a resort campground came into view, and a man ambling casually down the wooded trail towards the roadway where we waited to ask him for directions.

As soon as he was within earshot, I called out, "Excuse me! Can we trouble you for some directions?" He walked over to the car and gave us the directions that would thereafter get us to our destination. After he had finished speaking, I asked, "What is this place? It's beautiful. Do you live here?" He responded that it was the Jesuit Retreat Center at Demontreville in Lake Elmo, that he had come there seeking God in solitude and silence, and that his words to me were the first he had spoken in a week.

Now I may not be the sharpest knife on the butcher block, but even I knew that at that moment I represented precisely what spiritual adepts throughout the ages have gone to monasteries, retreats, deserts and remote mountains to get away from: the tyranny of the urgent, a mad whirling dervish of a world that will have us body and soul if we let it.

As I enter a new phase of my life I have become increasingly determined to protect this endangered species; to practice some environmental clean-up in my little world so that quality solitude should not become extinct.

So far I have affirmed three classical principles:

1. Don't think of the whole journey; think of the first step.

2. A little done often is better than a lot done rarely.

3. And third, with thanks to Jedi Master Yoda: "Do, or do not. There is no try."

Friday, September 10, 2010

Balzac And The Blair Bitch: A Children's Story For Adults

By Rattus Scribus© 10 Sept 2010
Fabulous drawings by Anita Rivera©
Also found on our other blog: Witsend
I don't know who came up with the saying, "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." I'm sure she or he meant well; and it does sound clever, almost poetic. But I don't think it delivers very well on its promise. A broken bone can heal. But cruel, humiliating, dehumanizing words can inflict terrible pain and significantly shape one's self-image negatively. Words do indeed hurt.

Recently I saw a situation in which a child was called something horrible. You could see clearly the internal hurt and damage occurring. That event was the inspiration for the following story.


Balzac and the Blair Bitch:
a Children's Story for Adults

By Rattus Scribus© 10 Sept 2010
Fabulous drawings by Anita Rivera©

Meet Balzac. He is a wire-haired Fox Terrier that lives next door. Isn't he cute? He is also loyal and brave, I mean really. If you read a book or web page on the Fox Terrier, it will say something like this:
The Fox Terrier may not always be friendly with strangers, but it is very loving and protective of its owners. If the Fox Terrier senses any danger to its human family, it will charge to the rescue with utter contempt for its own safety. When it comes to protecting loved ones, the Fox Terrier knows no fear.

Balzac gives of himself 100 percent all the time, rain or shine. He gives 100 percent when he eats, plays, and sleeps. He gives 100 percent to his friends, to love and happiness. But he also gives 100 percent when he is angry or getting even with his enemies.

When Balzac is a good dog, he's good 100 percent. But when he's a bad dog, he's bad 100 percent. Good dog Balzac will make you laugh. Bad dog Balzac will make you scream.

One day Balzac sees new neighbors moving into the house next door, and he is 100 percent curious to see if they have a dog. They do. Her name is Blair, and by a strange coincidence she is also a Fox Terrier.

Balzac falls in love (100 percent of course). He thinks to himself: "I must win the heart of the fair bitch Blair."

(Now in English, bitch is simply the word for a female dog, like sow is the word for a female bear, drone for a male bee, and jackass for a male donkey. So Balzac wants to win the love of the fair female dog Blair.)

In love 100 percent, Balzac sets out to win Blair, you guessed it, 100 percent.

Every day Balzac dreams of Blair: chasing a ball together, or playing tug-of-war with a toy, or rolling in the grass (all these games done, well, you know).

Whenever Blair is near the fence, Balzac will run and get a dog treat from his bowl and poke it through the fence to give to her.

He even makes up poetry and songs about her.
Oh, fair bitch Blair
of wire hair
and gorgeous button eyes.

I do declare
a love most fair.
Be mine or else I dies.
As you can see, Balzac is not much of a poet. But what he lacks in words (which of course to humans sound like barks, woofs, growls, yelps and howls), he more than makes up for in complete sincerity.

There is only one problem. Blair seems to have no interest in Balzac whatsoever. None. Nada. Nul. Zip. Zilch. Zero. 0 percent is not something that Balzac's brain can even compute.

It isn't that Blair does not like Balzac. It's just that she is different from him. He's an all or nothing dog. She's more give and take. He likes loud activity. She likes quiet. He is very forward. She is more reserved. He wants a girlfriend. She just wants to be a girl.

But Balzac does not understand their differences and he gets completely discouraged. He becomes irritable and takes out his frustration on everybody, especially strangers.

The poor mail carrier becomes Balzac's mortal enemy. Everyday when she delivers the mail, Balzac growls and barks at her and makes threatening gestures. One time Balzac even tries to bite her. Luckily for the mail carrier, he just rips her pants.

"You need to discipline Balzac," says the mail carrier to the owner, "or I'm not going to deliver your mail anymore. He has to learn to treat others with respect."

The one who gets the worst of it is Blair. Balzac begins growling and rushing at her like he is going to bite her. Because of the fence he can't touch her. But she is still frightened.

Since Balzac can't bite Blair, he begins calling her names. Sometimes people will take a name and twist it in order to make cruel fun and hurt you. That's what Balzac does to Blair.

"Bark Woof, Bark Woof, Bark Woof," which in human means: "Blair Bitch, Blair Bitch, Blair Bitch." When he was totally in love, Balzac called her "fair bitch Blair." Now that he is all mad, he calls her "Blair Bitch," and there is a big difference.

Blair is deeply hurt. She doesn't know what she did to be called such a terrible name.

"Bark Woof, Bark Woof, Bark Woof," Balzac keeps shouting relentlessly from his side of the fence. "Bark Woof, Bark Woof, Bark Woof."

"STOP IT! ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!" It is Balzac's master speaking. "I don't know what's gotten into you, but you will stop it this instant. Leave Blair alone or be nice to her. Be friendly and then you will both be happy."

The kind human disciplines Balzac and makes him stop being mean and calling Blair that awful version of her name.

In time Balzac learns that being respectful is not something you do when you feel right, but because it is right; and if you work at being nice, you might actually become nice. Who knows, maybe one day he will be 100 percent respectful and nice.

And everything ends happily ever after.

And everything ends happily ever after.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Tolkein Friendship

By Rattus Scribus©

I've been thinking about friendship lately. Especially since the possibility of friendships has both expanded exponentially as well as changed dramatically as a result of instantaneous communication via the worldwide web.

Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, blogging, email and other forms of social networking have created the largest pool of personal contacts from which friends can be made in all of human history. I have heard or read people say, "I have 600 friends on Facebook," like they were collecting merit badges to put on display.

Some people claim to have thousands of "friends." THOUSANDS OF FRIENDS! I get exhausted just thinking about it. I wonder if that is even possible, and then I realize: "Duh! We obviously have different conceptions of friends and friendship."

I read somewhere once something J. R. R. Tolkien said about friendship and I have a close affinity with his view. Friendship is not a term fitting for someone you recently met. That is a "recent acquaintance," though of course friendship can develop, perhaps quickly, from that initial meeting. Nor is friendship automatically applicable to someone you have "known" for a long time. That is simply a long time acquaintance. I have had dozens of colleagues over the years that I have been teaching, and some of them are wonderful human beings. But the people I count as friends are far fewer in number.

Tolkein said something like this (and I am paraphrasing): a friend is someone who SEES YOU. Or to put it another way, a friend is someone who SEES WHAT YOU SEE. They may not agree with every thing you see. But they see it; they see you; they "get" you. And of course -- and this is critical -- a friend is someone who will "stand with you" come what may.

Hobbits Hiding from Ringwraith, by Gary Cook, 1998.
Based on scene from LOTR animated film,
Ralph Bakshi, Dir. 1978.

This SEEING and STANDING aspect is what I call "Tolkein Friendship," and it is clearly depicted in the myth-master's magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings.

Merry: "You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin–to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours–closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the ring. We are horribly afraid–but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds." (LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring)

Scene: Fellowship of the Ring,
Peter Jackson Dir. 2001

This statement by Frodo's friend Merry Brandybuck (speaking also for the other friends Sam Gamgee and Pippin Took) reveals that friends are people that have loyalty to each other, but (and this is important) "without subservience," as one author put it.
(Have you ever known a person who calls you their "friend," but only on their terms, only based on your subservience to them in some way? Friends they most decidedly are not!)

Friends are, without equivocation, equals and responsible to each other.

So the person who says that he/she has thousands of friends on the web cannot possibly mean it in the same way that these four hobbits meant it. For a friend is someone who becomes nothing less than family, indeed, sometimes closer than individual blood relatives. Sometimes disagreeing with them. Sometimes frustrated, even mad at them. Sometimes separated by time and great distance. But ever attached by the bonds of affection, regard, respect, concern and good will.

It is this Tolkein Friendship that is a major theme running throughout the LOTR trilogy, and The Hobbit before that. It is Tolkein Friendship that helps to supply the bearer of the One Ring what he needs, what he does not have by himself, for his epic journey.

"[Frodo] saw his friends' faces more clearly again, and a measure of new strength and hope returned." (LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring)

Sam carries Frodo. Scene: Return of the King, Peter Jackson, Dir. 2003

I have read some writers who think that the development of internet social networks has created a culture in which millions of people are constantly in contact with everybody and know nobody.

While I think this is certainly true for some. It is definitely not true for everyone. Anita and I have made what we feel are nascent and nurturing friendships in bloglandia. Some of you are "blood" family who are also dearest friends.

Others are people we have come to know through many blog correspondences, comments, team story telling and a general sharing of silliness. A few of you we have actually had visits with face to face. Others of you we dream of meeting some day, even if we have to fly half way around the world to do it.

And so, to all of you whom we have enjoyed so much in our journey through bloglandia:
Blessings to you, our Tolkien Friends.

The Golden Girls, NBC sitcom, 1985-1992

In prosperity, our friends know us; in adversity, we know our friends.

— John Churton Collins

No one ever won an argument that lost a friend.
— Unknown

No distance of place or lapse of time can lessen the friendship of those who are throughout persuaded of each other's worth.
— Robert Southey

No miles of any measurement can separate your soul from mine.
— John Muir