Monday, February 18, 2019

The Eyre Affair - a pop culture, classic lit carnival ride

It took me until the age of forty to discover Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece and signature work Jane Eyre, despite the achievement of a Master's degree in literature at the age of thirty-two. And, now it's taken me sixteen years after its publication to discover a delightfully wacky, post-modern, pop-culture-infused, meta-fictional extrapolation of the adventures of young Jane, our nineteenth century riot grrl. Jasper Fforde's first installment of the Thursday Next novels, The Eyre Affair is a true joy for fans who spice their love of classic literature with a taste of popular culture.

The basic scoop on Fforde's literary detective novel is that Thursday Next is a LiteraTec in an alternative 1985 Great Britain where time travel is possible, England and Czarist Russia are still fighting the Crimean War, and people can slip in and out of novels. For lovers of literature, Fforde's setting is appealing for the reverence and significance that all-things-literary are paid, with a civilization somewhat ruled by literary societies whose very public debates are the pulse of the times. The Eyre Affair is a world that critics have described as perfect for fans of Hitchhiker's Guide author Douglas Adams if Adams had been a Ph.D. in literature. (He wasn't, was he?).

Anyway, I recall hearing of this fun read years ago, and I'm sure it was on my nightstand or bookshelf at some point, though I never got around to reading it. But that's OK, because I found it, and I was not disappointed. Now, I'm diving back into the original work to revel in the comparisons. Jasper Fforde is a quirky literary dude who has had great fun with one of English's literary treasures. He's the kind of author whose playful ideas lead me on to other works, such as an academic work from scholar Erica Hateley, who explored the satire and popular culture at the end of Thursday's first adventure.

Definitely worth your time.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

In Praise of Helicopter Parenting

Helicopter parent.

It's such a loaded term with cynical pejorative connotation, especially in the world of educators. We look with contempt at those parents who quite literally care too much. That is the general consensus anyway. Though I'd add a bit of a qualification. As an educator and an administrator I have always noted: "Give me a helicopter parent any day of the week over a parent who just doesn't care." I've seen both sides -- and the painful side of both sides -- and the risks of disengaged, careless, or even resentful parenting are just too damaging. For, as Elie Wiesel made clear  back in 1986, "The opposite of love is not hate. It's indifference."

Now, it appears, there is a bit of validation for helicopter parenting. According to an opinion piece in the New York Times by Pamela Druckerman "the bad news about helicopter parenting" is "it works." Now, I would imagine most critics would immediately key in on the word "works." How exactly does it work, and at what cost to the child? We've all seen and heard ridiculous examples of over-parenting that either coddles kids to a point of bratty, privileged incompetence or pushes kids to anxiety-riddled mania and incapacity. The stories of over-zealous mothers contacting college professors about grades or employers about interviews and even raises are not entirely urban legends. There are parents that unhinged. However, more active, and even "authoritative," parenting is actually linked to more successful, balanced, and productive kids with fewer social problems.

The most effective parents, according to the authors, are “authoritative.” They use reasoning to persuade kids to do things that are good for them. Instead of strict obedience, they emphasize adaptability, problem-solving and independence — skills that will help their offspring in future workplaces that we can’t even imagine yet. And they seem most successful at helping their kids achieve the holy grails of modern parenting: college and postgraduate degrees, which now have a huge financial payoff. Using data from a national study that followed thousands of American teenagers for years, the authors found that the offspring of “authoritative” parents were more likely to graduate from college and graduate school, especially compared with those with authoritarian parents. This was true even when they controlled for the parents’ education and income. The benefits aren’t just academic. In a British study, kids raised by authoritative parents reported better health and higher self-esteem. In the American study, they were less likely to use drugs, smoke or abuse alcohol; they started having sex at older ages, and they were more likely to use condoms.
Now, I've never really advocated for helicopter parenting, even as I seek to understand it and compensate for it. That approach seems to reflect the Baby Boomer style which sought to protect their Millennial kids from taking all the risks and making all the mistakes they did. I much prefer the structured and supportive but more free-range parenting style associated with Gen Xers who want their children to have the freedom and develop the resilience they did as children in the '70s and 80s. At the heart of it is the idea of loving them, but not obsessing over them. It's caring for them by teaching them and expecting them to care for themselves ... and others. It's also about trusting them to be the human beings we raised, even if that means knowing they will make mistakes and occasionally disappoint us and themselves. That's when they'll need the love and support.

Just love them.


Friday, February 1, 2019

Groundhog Day - “An Existential New Year



It’s not about monotony -- it’s about re-birth.

Twenty-six years ago, an unassuming little film about a cantankerous weatherman on the most random of holidays became a pop culture phenomenon that ingrained itself in our consciousness. The title became a metaphor for reluctantly acknowledging the dailiness of life. With the silly story of Phil Connors waking up everyday in Punxsutawney, PA, with Sonny and Cher singing “I’ve Got You Babe” on an endless string of February seconds, Groundhog Day entered the lexicon as a way to describe the drudgery and repetition of daily life. But the movie was never simply about the mundane nature of existence. It was always about self-awareness and second chances and reinvention and hope.

Let’s face it, by February 2 the New Year’s resolutions are fading, the fitness centers are back to the regulars, and we’re all bogged down in the drudgery of winter. These moments are ripe for a bit of pop culture existentialism, and the quirky film from Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin puts that long cold winter, the odd little holiday, and the repetitiveness of daily life in perspective. Watching the story of a disgruntled weatherman pondering the absurdity of a weather-forecasting rodent provides a second chance at mid-winter self-reflection and re-invention. The conceit of the film is not only the ridiculous holiday but also the inexplicable weirdness of Phil Connors’ predicament.

The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, dull, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke, and that realization is at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense. Phil spends many years in disgruntled fashion viewing his life as exactly that, a cruel meaningless joke of an existence.

However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity and a second chance at reinvention with the opportunity to get it right. Of course, Phil’s initial reaction to his epiphany of a life without consequences is to indulge his most base fantasies. It’s understandable -- who wouldn’t at least consider that? He truly seizes the day, drinking to excess, smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women, and even robbing an armored car. Of course, the freedom and control he ultimately achieves is freedom from and power over those primal and materialistic urges. For even unrestricted access to hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.

Initially, Phil’s attempts at betterment are jaded with ulterior motives -- he learns French simply to seduce his producer Rita. Later on, however, his attempts to change become about improving his quality of life. A pivotal, but often overlooked, moment in the film is when Phil is sitting quietly in the cafe reading, and he notices a piano playing in the background. Rather than simply enjoy the music, he seeks to develop the ability to create such beautiful sounds and immediately begins learning piano, offering his piano teacher “a thousand dollars if we could get started today.” He also masters other art forms like ice sculpting, but most importantly he learns deeply the details and hope and dreams of the people in his life.

The film is more than an entertaining romantic comedy, and numerous writers have explored how Rubin and Ramis incorporated key elements of existentialism into the film, notably the idea that in a life devoid of meaning, it is up to man to create it for himself. The film draws on Nietzsche’s idea that existence is a cycle of eternal recurrence, and it incorporates insight from Albert Camus who theorized in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” that despite the apparent misery of the subject’s situation, he actually imagined Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus, as you may recall, was the Greek king whose punishment by the gods was to push a huge rock up a steep hill only to see it roll back down as he neared the top. Camus framed Sisyphus’ situation as a reflection of the human condition -- stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the narrative from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance -- embracing their inescapable dilemma and finding joy in the meaningless absurdity.

Groundhog Day is a film with a message -- each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”