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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why Stephen King is My Favorite Undead Author

Last night, as I crawled into bed with a cup of tea and The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, the latest tome from my #onetruelove Stephen King, I had not only a wonderful sense of anticipation, but also of serenity.  There are very few things in this world you can count on, but for me, Stephen King is near top of the list; certainly he ranks above death and taxes.  I have often described the experience of reading his books thusly:  it is like going on the perfect vacation with the perfect companion; someone who understands my every mood  and craving and is always entirely in sync with what I want to do, where I want to go and when I want to do all of these things.  TOP THAT, Donna Tartt! 

As I was reading his introduction, I found myself daydreaming about our past history and the many good times we have shared together.  This walk down memory lane prompted me to recall our auspicious introduction:  Thanksgiving weekend, 1979.  Visiting my grandparents for the holiday, the adults safely ensconced in the dining room with drinks and cards, my younger sister and I dared to do something we NEVER would have tried at home (or gotten away with, for that matter)…we tuned in to the premiere of the unforgettable miniseries, “Salem’s Lot”.  I urge you to GO WATCH NOW if you haven’t before you continue reading.

Of course, I had some awareness of King before that moment, due mainly to a contraband, dog-eared copy of The Shining that had made its way around the neighborhood; but I was not a “rule-breaker”  and the consequences of being caught with such a thing would have been too great to risk.  Still, my sister and I huddled in front of the TV that weekend, betting the grown-ups would be only too glad to have us entertained and out of their hair, and not only did that bet pay off, but a lifelong love affair began.  For those of you who would now like to argue about how dated the miniseries has become, or the unworthiness of David Soul in the lead, I have but one response:  any form of entertainment that involves both James Mason and James at 16 is beyond reproach.  ‘Nuff said. 

Upon returning home from that fateful trip, I secured a copy of the novel post-haste and read it as eagerly as one would a secret diary--a glimpse into the mind of this man who seemed to understand me so well.  I was not disappointed (that book remains a favorite to this day) and of course I was impatient for more…in retrospect I realize it was my “gateway drug” to much harder stuff, not only by King but other writers who like to explore the twists and turns of both the human psyche and soul.
Speaking of other writers, I call Stephen King my favorite “undead” author because a) it’s funny and b) there has been one other who captured my heart and imagination with an even slightly more hypnotic pull:  the late, great Dame Iris Murdoch.  Alas, she is no longer undead and therefore no longer working, so Uncle Stevie has taken the crown.  To anyone who is thinking that they are so dissimilar as to compare apples to oranges, I beg to differ:  in my opinion, not only do both feel comfortable exploring the ramifications of the darker aspects of the human condition, they are also both incredibly compassionate about the turmoil we all encounter in our quest to be “good”.  They seem to understand what “struggling with your inner demons” is all about, even if for King it is expressed more metaphorically than in Murdoch’s work.   

People who only know Stephen King by reputation are always amazed when I describe him as an author with great hope.  I think it is a function of his uncanny ability to shine a light into the darkest of dark corners and confront what he finds, come what may.  He is still standing in spite of it—probably because of it—and is so obviously pleased to share what he has learned with his devoted fans.  Stephen King is delighted to entertain us; who could ask for anything more?

I suppose any ode to a writer as prolific as King should include a guide to the best of his best in order to tempt the uninitiated.  I am rolling my eyes as I type that, because to me he is one of those authors who either attracts you like a magnet, or is best left alone.  Does he have books that I consider “stinkers”?  You bet; he wouldn’t be the inexhaustible creator he is if he felt the need to be “perfect” every time.  And with a writer as gifted and thoughtful as he is, I have to imagine that my trash is undoubtedly another reader’s treasure.  How ANY book impacts you has a lot to do with what you are bringing to the table at any given time; something that strikes you as profound at 20 may seem silly at 40, and vice versa. 

But generally speaking, to pick favorites amongst King’s books is akin to picking favorites amongst friends…possible, but not really material.  However, as I began with ‘Salem’s Lot, it might be a good choice for you.  A mythic “boy who cried wolf” theme, the somber precursor to the enchanting “Fright Night”--what would you do if a vampire moved to your neighborhood?  King expands on the concept of children-seeing-the-truth-adults-cannot-accept in IT, a brilliant, epic, can’t-put-down read.  His opus, however, is most likely The Stand, a sprawling post-apocalyptic tale that has been imitated ad naseum, but never rivaled. 

Of his more recent work, I adored 11/22/63 and Joyland, the former being an incomparable treatise on the dangers of woulda-coulda-shoulda and the latter being a joy ride, pure and simple.  We all need rewards that truly motivate us, something to look forward to...for me, just knowing that another Stephen King book is somewhere on the horizon does it.  May my bookshelves forever be clogged with his offerings, because at the end of the day it is one of very few relationships that I have gotten much more out of than I have put into it.

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Monday, December 14, 2015

8 Reasons Why the Holidays Suck/Rock!

Oh, come on, you know they do!  We ALL dread/look forward to the holidays in equal measure.  We really hate/love it when we are reminded to simplify and count our blessings.  We all endure/enjoy the many opportunities for festive socialization at this time of year.  We are usually so exasperated/thrilled by the many gifts we receive that we will then return/cherish.  The holidays are such a hassle/fun time!  So let’s breakdown the 8 main reasons why the holidays suck/rock, shall we?

1)     MONEY.  Oooh, the holidays are so good for bringing out our inner Scrooge, are they not?  How to fit all those gifts we “need” to buy into the monthly budget without racking up credit card debt and/or eating beans the entire month of January to compensate?  It is stressful for everyone except Oprah, whose favorite things list this year included such items as a $98 sweatshirt and $150 makeup brushes.  I’ve got my fingers crossed, Oprah!  ‘Cuz on the other hand…we get gifts, too, and most of us like to use the holidays as our opportunity to treat our loved ones to a little something they would never buy for themselves.  So there is some sweet mutual wish fulfillment that doesn’t happen at any other time of the year.

2)     FOOD.  So much food!  SOOOOOO MUCH FOOOOD!  Everyone says you should never start a diet around the holidays and I completely agree with this; that is just mean.  With the short days and colder temperatures, we are all getting into hibernation mode—moving less, settling in earlier—and when you add all of the delicious treats of the season, we have a recipe for discontent with our waistlines.  On the other hand…the holidays do give us permission to spoil ourselves a little with indulgences we don’t normally enjoy.  I, for one, eat those nut-encrusted cheese balls/logs but once a year, and man, do I look forward to it.  Ditto egg-nog, gingerbread and the giant tins filled with flavored popcorn.  BOO-YA!  SO AWESOME!  It adds a little extra “spice” to the season for me.

3)     PARTIES.  MAN, parties SUCK.  Except when they are totally fun!  I think you all are with me on this one.

4)     FAMILY.  MAN, families SUCK.  Except when they are totally amazing!  Am I right???

5)     MUSIC.  Pop quiz:  what is your personal best record for speed in changing the radio station upon hearing the opening notes of “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” (or Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah song, which I happen to love but I feel you if you don’t)?  My hand can move so fast it’s a blur, practically accomplishing the song change by telekinesis.  Holiday music, by the end of the holidays always, is the definition of PLAYED OUT.  On the other hand…listening to Josh Groban sing “O, Holy Night” always moves me to tears and I love that my 10 year old son knows who Bing Crosby is, all because of “White Christmas”.  The agelessness of holiday music makes it the ultimate time machine, both bringing us back but also allowing us to bring that time back to the future for our kids.

6)     HOLIDAY MOVIES/ SPECIALS.  HOLY WOW is Santa a NIGHTMARE in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer!  Actually, the whole gang at the North Pole has clearly watched Mean Girls one too many times; what a judgmental, excluding, no-healthy boundaries group they are.  Home Alone treats your child to fear of home invasion, excessive violence and confirmation that Santa doesn’t actually come if your folks aren’t home.  Ouch.  The Little Drummer Boy opens with the murder of his parents; that’s always a good way to get a kid’s attention.  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas brings back Rudolph’s twitchy Santa; this time he stands ready and willing to punish an entire town because ONE MOUSE doesn’t believe in him.  What a jerk!  On the other hand…I LOVE EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM!!!!

7)     THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS.  Man, the war on Christmas is RELENTLESS!!!  Starbucks turning from the teachings of Christ with those blasphemous red cups, “holiday” trees, being forced to be multi-culturally sensitive, IT SUCKS!!!  On the other hand…Ha, ha, ha, I’m totally kidding.! There is no “war on Christmas”.  It’s just something rational people can have a good laugh over.

8)     THE SALVATION ARMY What in the world makes you feel worse than walking by one of those poor souls standing in the freezing cold in front of your grocery store ringing that stupid little bell without putting something into the bucket?  NOT MUCH, if you are anything like me.  The holidays are a time, as I mentioned earlier, where money tends to be a little tight for people who are not Oprah, so some days our inner Grinch does not have a DIME to spare, buddy.  And how about the soup kitchens that need extra help when you are already running around like a chicken with your head cut off and the food pantries trying to provide a decent holiday meal for needy families?  You could die of the guilt, I swear, especially as you are already spending a lot of money on stuff that some might consider “frivolous”.  On the other hand…do you have any idea how damn good you are going to feel if you do put some change into the bucket?  Or volunteer at the soup kitchen?  Or drop off supplies to the food pantry?  That is pretty much the definition of holiday cheer, my friends.  That is the kind of stuff that makes your heart grow 3 sizes that day, in Grinch vernacular.
The holidays are so tiring/invigorating in these and many other ways!  And my wish for you is that your holidays ROCK 8 times more than they SUCK.  You know you deserve it!


                                                        
 

Monday, December 7, 2015

WHY PRAYER WON'T HELP

I believe in God.  There, I said it!  A lot of people, especially really smart people, inwardly cringe when they hear this sort of thing.  They start thinking about the kind of person who took “go forth and be fruitful” very literally and is now raising an unimaginable brood of home schooled tots.  They worry about the sort of people who pick and choose their bible passages very carefully in order to feel justified in damning homosexuals.  If they are of a global mind, especially since the turn of the century, they consider the sort of individual who embarks on a suicide mission that takes innocent lives in order to reach some sort of promised afterlife.  It is fashionable to be agnostic because who the heck knows, really?  Well, I’m telling you right now:  I do.

I don’t consider my belief in God a matter of faith.  In my experience, God is as real as anything in this world; God is reality, in fact.  God is literature and art and nature and film and science and math and the ocean and the sky and the earth and humanity.  God is everything, all the time and above all, God is love.  Love is more than how we feel about each other.  It is a force field that heals, moves, creates, protects, transforms and transcends.  And God loves you, even those of you who are sniggering at these words.  Perhaps He loves you best, because God is humor and has certainly enjoyed a good laugh at my expense from time to time.  So believe, or laugh, or mock, or know, because it is all the same.  We came from the same place and we all will go back there.  From God, back to God.

Phew, I feel better getting that off of my chest.  Because now we can talk about something that is important to all of us, regardless of faith or lack thereof:  why a moment of prayer, or a day of prayer, or even a month of prayer is very little help.  Wait a minute, that sounds like I am still talking about God!  But actually I am talking about politics.  Personal, national and global politics.  I think the agnostics are with me now, but let me further clarify for the rest of you…much has been made in recent days, years perhaps, of public prayer and calls for prayer.  And in spite of the fact that the United States of America was founded for the express purpose of religious freedom, somehow our most fundamental reason for being has become lost in a sea of angry rhetoric.  Oh, the irony!
The recent rash of heart-breaking violence both in the United States and abroad has brought prayer and religious intolerance to the forefront of many people’s minds.  Much has been made of our knee-jerk tendency to lump all Muslims with extremist terrorists while parsing out violent Christian “activism” as a handful of right wing nut-jobs.  The obvious truth is that any cause, whether personal, political or religious, can be taken to unhealthy extremes.  But the real disease starts when people judge an entire group by its radical fringe elements.  That is like killing someone because they have cancer of the pinky toe—how do you justify it?  Even if you are the sort of person who insists on living this kind of lie, focusing on the minutia of evil instead embracing the enormity of good, at the end of the day that is your choice and too damn bad for you.  Because this is the United States of America and I might have mentioned we were founded for the EXPRESS purpose of RELIGIOUS freedom so you theoretically have NO choice but to LET IT BE.  Or buy an island somewhere and hole up with a bunch of your intolerant, miserable friends. And your guns.

And so here lies the real issue facing America today:  the question is not one of prayers, but of law.  Our laws guarantee freedom of religion but also the “right” to bear arms.  And just like typically religious people don’t consider murder a solution, typical gun owners don’t either.  But we have a logic disconnect—the “guns don’t kill people” argument.  Prayer doesn’t kill people, not even in the hands of the most fanatical, lunatic extremist.  But guns do.  Guns even kill people when they are accidentally mishandled by a seasoned pro or sometimes an innocent child.  Guns kill people in the heat of argument or in a moment of panic or fear.   Current statistics tell us that on average, 31 Americans are murdered with guns EVERY DAY and 151 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room; 55 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 46 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.  The U.S. firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 countries that are our peers in wealth and population.  By all measurable standards known to mankind, the casualty rate for prayer is thus far zero. Can prayer prevent gun violence?  Only insofar as it inspires us to take action.  Because laws can prevent gun violence and so common sense mandates this is the tool we should be utilizing in our current crisis.
Now I return to the subject of God.  No religion, person or country has a monopoly on the Divine; it is the simple fact of all of creation.  “God” is our call to share this planet in the highest spirit of cooperation and symbiosis.  What God is NOT is an excuse for marginalization, prejudice, hate and violence.  God is not something “out there” to be worshipped and feared; the inherent flaw in worshiping anything is that takes away your power and puts it into the hands of the concept/thing/person you worship.  This is why prayer is NOT the answer; WE ARE.  We are called act upon the wisdom of the ages—love thy neighbor as thyself and do unto others as you would have it done unto you.  God is only a helpful construct insofar as you choose to take responsibility for ALL of your neighbors, your global family.  We need to act while the sickness is still in the pinky toe.  If we work together as one body, our health will be guaranteed.  Divided by “prayer”, alone with our thoughts of separateness, we allow the cancer to spread.  Let us stand united and take steps to diminish threats through every channel available.  You can pray, but don’t sit still while you are doing it.  Our right action is the answer to everyone’s prayer.

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