Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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I’ve been tricked into reading two books about zombies.

Mind you, I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead. I’ve never even seen the classic George Romero movie Night of the Living Dead, which opened 50 years ago to widespread thrills and chills. Let’s just say that brain dead human flesh eaters are not my thing.

But not long ago, I read a review about a dystopian novel with an intriguing opening. It depicted a young girl describing a typical day in her life, which comprised being awakened in her prison cell, strapped to a wheelchair at gunpoint, and wheeled down a corridor with other wheelchair-bound children for their day at school. “Don’t worry,” she tells her military guards. “I won’t bite.”

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is about a virus that has decimated the planet by turning people into brain-dead “hungries.” But the children in the opening sequence are hungries with a difference: Their brains seem to be functioning perfectly well. Scientists speculate that these kids could be the key to unlocking a cure.

What I love about Carey’s novel is the inner conflict of various characters as they try to figure out what it means to be human in a scary and uncertain world. In his related novel The Boy on the Bridge, Carey continues to pursue this theme along with ideas about military authority and military decisions – and the movement toward autocracy in desperate times.

Reading these novels in Trump’s America gives them heightened resonance. As many in our country find scapegoats in illegal immigrants, questions arise about how to handle an influx of desperate Latinos fleeing poverty and violence. Children are being separated from their parents at the border. President Trump characterizes these people as “animals,” somehow not quite human. Like zombies?

As Matt Thompson of NPR states in his article “Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting,” “The true horror in any zombie story worth its salt is what other people do when faced with the zombie threat. Zombies are merely relentless; humans can be sadistic.” (“Code Switch: Race and Identity Remixed,” NPR online, Oct. 1, 2013)

So I may have been “tricked” into reading about zombies, but M.R. Carey’s thoughtful, suspenseful dystopian nightmare made it worth my while.

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The Greatest Charlatan

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I’ve been mystified by the success of the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman, a movie based on the life of P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame. How does someone make a “feel good” musical about a man who preyed upon people’s basest instincts to make money?

P.T. Barnum literally rented an elderly black slave and peddled the fiction that she was George Washington’s nursemaid. He exploited people of other races, such as the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng. People came to see his freak show of humans with physical characteristics outside the mainstream of society. (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017) All of this is whitewashed by rousing musical numbers and anthems, ironically, of tolerance for people’s differences (Academy-award nominated song “This Is Me”).

I guess the popularity of The Greatest Showman shouldn’t surprise me. After all, we live in an America that elected Donald Trump. Like Barnum, Trump exploited people’s prejudices and fears to win votes. He peddled the fiction that he was a man of great business acumen despite numerous business failures and the exploitation of many who worked for him.

Both Barnum’s and Trump’s greatest gifts have been for self-promotion. Barnum even titled his autobiography The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself. Similarly, Trump travels around the country like a religious tent revivalist, whipping up crowds and congratulating himself for his greatness and popularity. Trump is fond of phrases such as “we have the best …” and “like no one’s ever seen.”

Donald Trump has created his own three-ring circus to dazzle, obfuscate, and distract the media and the American people from his lies and the backroom dealings that keep coming to light through the Mueller investigation. He has managed to convince Republican legislators and conservative media pundits that the true chicanery lies elsewhere, with the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Justice Department, and American intelligence services. Unlike the offensive but entertaining smoke and mirrors of P.T. Barnum, Trump’s con artistry is bent on destroying American institutions.

Americans who so want to invest their hopes and dreams in a man like Trump are the perfect audience for a sugarcoated movie about a man who conned and exploited his way to fame and fortune, a man who was wiling to abuse both humans and animals to make a buck.

As historian Daniel Boorstin puts it, “Contrary to popular belief,” as Boorstin wrote, “Barnum’s great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public, but rather, how much the public enjoyed being deceived.” (smithsonianmag.com, Dec. 22, 2017)

If anything explains the ascendancy of Donald Trump, that does.

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I have been avoiding the comment section of Facebook posts lately. Other than wishing my friends a happy birthday or anniversary, or sending a complimentary word about a family photo, I have tried to stay out of the fray of these comment threads – especially political ones.

First of all, I doubt that my arguments with other Face-bookers will change their minds. Whether the subject is Donald Trump, gun violence, sexual harassment or racism, people have their strongly-held beliefs, and I’m just not going to change them. Worse, arguments on Facebook often lead to ill will. Without the social filter of physical proximity to the person with whom we are arguing, we tend to get more strident and offensive.

I’m also trying to eschew online comments because they are bad for my own mental health. Every time I enter the fray of a heated argument on Facebook, my blood pressure starts to rise at some of the responses I get. The only way to calm myself down is to refer to the point above and realize that my righteous indignation will change nothing.

Still, it’s very hard for me to refrain from offering my opinions. I grew up in a very argumentative household where it was almost a badge of honor to shout the loudest and make one’s judgments heard. Yes, family dinners did often give my poor mother a headache.

Also, I like to think of myself as a maven. I fancy myself in possession of lots of knowledge and wisdom, and I just know others would benefit from my sharing it. Well, in the context of Facebook or other social media, not so much.

So I will continue to work on repressing the need to comment on Facebook posts while still being my friends’ online cheerleaders. It won’t be easy, though. I shudder to think what would happen if I got an account on Twitter.

Sisters Aren’t Doing It For Themselves

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The 2018 NCAA basketball tournament has created the unlikeliest of media darlings: 98-year-old Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and biggest fan of Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers. The Ramblers will make their Final Four appearance since 1963, and their diminutive mentor and cheerleader has played a role in their success.

Before each game, Sr. Jean prays with the Catholic university’s team. She sends the players encouraging emails throughout the season. And she is there to watch them play, in spite of her age and frailty. Sr. Jean has been in such demand for media appearances since Loyola’s unlikely run in the tournament that her handlers have had to turn offers down. But what I love about Sr. Jean’s fame is that she puts a public face on modern Catholic women religious in America.

Most people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. But nuns are women who live in religious communities and function within the confines of these orders: praying, contemplating, often taking vows of silence. While nuns are also referred to as “Sister,” Catholic sisters are more active in the world outside the convent walls. Many are nurses, teachers, and agents of hospitality to the poor and marginalized of society.

When I was a child, my Catholic school had many Sisters of Mercy as teachers. My dad liked to joke and call them Sisters of No Mercy, and indeed, they could be harsh disciplinarians. The image of the sister with her ruler at the ready to physically admonish a misbehaving student is a cliche with some basis in reality. But I was always fascinated with our sisters, who wore black habits and veils that revealed absolutely no hair. I loved the click of the black rosary beads that circled the sisters’ waists.

As Vatican II started to liberalize some Catholic customs, many women religious stopped wearing habits. I remember a sister at our school who did wear a habit but allowed a large shock of bright red hair to spill out of her veil. I don’t recall her name, but she was young and she made Catholic sisters seem more human to me.

Catholic women religious in America have made important contributions to our society, including founding some of the first schools for African-American children. They have been advocates for the rights of women and minorities. But by far their most important roles have been those out of the limelight: helping the poor, tending to the sick, teaching and mentoring the young.

Long before she was a media sensation, Sr. Jean Schmidt was an active member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has been a teacher for many years and was an administrator at a Catholic women’s college before winding up as Loyola’s chaplain.

As much as Sr. Jean seems to enjoy the limelight, she is still focused on her vocation as the most important thing in her life. In other words, it’s not about her or even about her beloved Ramblers. As she recently told The New York Times, “Whether we win or lose, God is still with us.”

Like the thousands of other nuns and sisters in America, Sr. Jean is special not because of her undying loyalty to Loyola basketball, but because of her undying love for God and others.

Cult of Celebrity

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America’s cult of celebrity is ruining our democracy. Our obsession with being famous brought us the presidency of Donald Trump, a reality TV star more than anything, who gloried in shouting “You’re fired!” each week at a hapless contestant on The Apprentice. Now Trump is playing a high-stakes version of The Apprentice with the highest office in the land.

The ouster of National Security Chief H.R. McMaster yesterday is just the latest in dozens of firings from our volatile president. I used to be worried about Trump’s peopling his administration with military men. Now, as Trump starts combing the ranks of Fox News pundits and resurrecting the career of John Bolton, I’m missing those generals with wistful fondness.

It’s a measure of our fascination with famous people that someone like Oprah is being considered a great presidential candidate in 2020 . And just the other day, Cynthia Nixon of Sex and the City fame announced she will run for governor of New York. Of course, we’ve already had the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in California, as well as the presidency of the late Ronald Reagan, an actor who parlayed his work with the Screen Actors’ Guild into a stint as governor before becoming a two-term Republican president.

I’m not saying celebrities have no right to run for office or that their fame makes them unqualified to hold a government position. But I think that if we continue this obsession with electing people on the basis of their fame, we are apt to have Pauly D. from Jersey Shore as our next president (with The Situation his chief of staff).

I understand that voters are tired of business as usual in government. Career politicians whose every move is calculated against their chances of winning re-election have left a bad taste in our mouths. But we still need thoughtful, principled and knowledgable individuals to make laws and shape policies so that our democracy continues to be the thriving and vibrant envy of the world it has always been.

Politics as entertainment has to go. As volatile as this fledgling presidency of Donald Trump has been, I dread the prospect of seeing the reruns in 2020.

 

Celebrities: They’re NOT Just Like Us!

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jennifer-lawrence-oscars-2018-academy-awards.jpgThe magazine US Weekly has a feature titled, “Celebrities: They’re Just Like Us.” These pages feature photographs of famous people doing ordinary things, such as walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, and picking up dry cleaning. And while the photos show a decidedly less glamorous glimpse of these celebrities, it should be obvious to all of us that celebrities are not “just like us.” Otherwise, paparazzi would not find the need to snap pictures of them strolling down the street with their giant Starbucks drinks.

Last night the glitterati of Hollywood were out in full force to attend the most prestigious – and at 90, the oldest – entertainment awards ceremony in the country: the Academy Awards. As the decked out and bejeweled A-listers sauntered down the Red Carpet, onlookers in the stands cheered wildly for their favorite actors, singers and the like. Unlike the somber black that women donned for the Golden Globes as a #MeToo statement, last night’s nominees and presenters were adorned in bright reds, pinks, golds, and other happy colors.

Female and minority empowerment were definitely the theme of the evening, and at times Jimmy Kimmel got perhaps a bit too earnest about the industry’s attempts at fairness and inclusivity. Still, there were some refreshingly wonderful moments, such as Best Actress winner Frances McDormand’s somewhat kooky acceptance speech and her insistence that all female nominees stand up with her to show the world how far women have come in Hollywood.

As always, the musical numbers were overwrought and showcased the usual mediocrity of the Best Song category. My sister was apoplectic that The Greatest Showman‘s “This Is Me” lost out to the lame “Remember Me” from the Disney animated movie Coco.

I liked the fact that there were no sweeps by one movie this year, and I was fairly amused by the return of Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to have a do-over of the calamitous Best Picture announcement from last year. I guess even celebrities are human, as are the suits at Price Waterhouse Coopers.

Human, yes. But I can attest to the fact that they are somehow a little different from us. For years I lived in Los Angeles and saw many famous people in those nine years, including Michael Jackson, Tom Hanks, Brooke Shields, Martin Sheen, Jack Lemmon, and on and on. In L.A., it’s not cool to go crazy over a celebrity sighting or approach a famous person for his or her autograph. We act as if they are just another ordinary person, but inside we are like, “OMG, OMG, it’s George Clooney!”

Celebrities are different, not just because of their wealth or the fact that they can’t walk down the street without being recognized. They are different because their roles create larger than life personas through their music or their acting performances. That is why the big movie studios used to guard the public image of their stars with ruthless tenacity.

And that is why we turn out in huge numbers to get a glimpse of these luminaries as they walk the Red Carpet. It’s why we tune into an overlong but magical spectacle called the Oscars. And it’s why, detractors notwithstanding, the Academy Awards will endure to celebrate their 100th anniversary and beyond.

You’ve Been Bullied, Charlie Brown

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The other night I watched back-to-back Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day specials. It had been years since I had watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” with my kids, and I was in the mood for a bit of nostalgia. Imagine my surprise when I found myself slightly disturbed by the stories in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” and “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The gist of the plot in “Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown” is that Charlie never gets any valentines from friends or classmates. He sits forlornly by his mailbox waiting for the impossible: that someone will like him enough to send him a heart-shaped missive. I’ve always known, of course, that the whole persona of Charlie Brown from Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip and TV specials is that of an unpopular loser. His classmates openly make fun of his attempts to direct a Christmas play and his choice of a spindly little tree that is like a kindred spirit to Charlie. He’s clumsy and glum and never seems to catch a break.

But something in these Valentine’s Day specials really struck me as hard and mean-spirited. First of all, from today’s perspective, it is horrifying that kids would be allowed to bring to school valentines for some, but not all, of the children in their classes. Charlie stands there empty-handed while Schroeder publicly hands out all the valentines. Of course, there are none for Charlie Brown.

On top of the humiliation regularly heaped upon Charlie Brown in these cartoons, the other kids are openly hostile to each other. When Charlie’s little sister Sally pesters Linus about getting candy or a card from him, he shouts at her and tells her he’s not getting her anything. Ditto with the exasperated Schroeder dealing with the ever-persistent Lucy. Even Charlie himself is no Galahad as he spurns the advances of both Marcie and Peppermint Patty in “A Charlie Brown Valentine.”

The world of Charlie Brown is perhaps meant to signify the meanness of adults as seen through the eyes of children. Or maybe modern society has evolved into insisting that children treat each other better, at least on the surface. Imagine a modern elementary school that would allow kids to openly exclude another child from a valentine or an invitation to a birthday party. Maybe we have turned into a kinder, gentler society after all.

My sense of nostalgia definitely was not awakened as I watched the lovelorn world of a Charlie Brown Valentine’s Day special. When you really think about these stories, an apter title for them all would be “You’re a loser, Charlie Brown.” Next time I’m in the mood for nostalgia, I’ll pick something more wholesome, such as “Psycho.”