Monthly Archives: October 2011

Happy Birthday, Lady Liberty!

In case you missed it, last Friday was the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty, which was, of course, a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States back in the days when Americans and French actually had some mutual respect for one another. Hard to imagine how different things must’ve been before “freedom fries” and “surrender monkeys,” isn’t it?

Now, I’m not what most people would consider “patriotic.” I don’t feel any particular emotion when I gaze upon the flag, I’ve never liked reciting the Pledge of Allegiance going all the way back to elementary school, and that damn Lee Greenwood song that’s become a Fourth of July standard makes me want to kick puppies. But my attitude about these things is not, as many would accuse, because I hate my country. Rather, I dislike the baggage that’s become attached to the usual symbols of national pride in recent decades: sticky sentimentality combined with a strain of
belligerent jingoism that’s the exact opposite of what I consider the best about America; the social pressure to genuflect to anyone in uniform regardless of whether they truly deserve the label “hero” (motivated, I’m convinced, by collective guilt over all the home-front nastiness during the Vietnam War); and the simplistic “we’re number one” mentality that makes it nearly impossible to honestly assess our nation’s shortcomings and figure out how to improve. Not to mention the way “patriotism” has become just another blunt instrument wielded by one side of the political spectrum to accuse the other of being “un-American.” It’s hard to love the flag when some blowhard who clearly loathes me for not being just like him is wrapping himself in it and calling it his and his alone.

Nevertheless, there are some places and objects that remain unsullied by that kind of ugly mudslinging, things that penetrate my shell of pinko-liberal cynicism and cause me to reflect on the history and ideals of our nation: the sprawling Civil War battlefields of Gettysburg and Antietam; the actual Star-Spangled Banner, the one notable exception to my general feelings about flags; the words of the Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution’s Preamble; and of course a feminine colossus whose copper skin has gone green from a century’s exposure to the weather, technically entitled “Liberty Enlightening the World,” but better known as the Statue of Liberty.

Besides her aesthetic beauty and awe-inspiring scale — really, she’s big when you’re standing at the base of her — there is all that she represents: a beacon shining through the darkness to lead the downtrodden of the world to a better place… not necessarily a better physical place, although that’s how the words on Liberty’s tablet are usually interpreted, but a better social construct in which everyone is granted equal protections under the law as well as respect and dignity and a fair chance to make a good life for themselves, no matter who they are, what they believe, who they love, or what they look like. That’s what defines my America, not the military might or material wealth or Sunday-morning piety that most people think of. It’s an ideal we don’t live up to, frankly — in my opinion, we’re actually regressing away from it at the moment — and perhaps no country can live up to that. But it’s nevertheless an ideal worth striving for. We should be grateful to the people of France for providing us with such an effective and enduring symbol of what we’re supposed to be about.

So happy birthday, Lady Liberty. May your light shine on for centuries to come, until all the people of the world have finally come in out of the cold night of injustice…

If you want to see more pics like the one above, check out this slideshow at Talking Points Memo.


My Favorite New Show of 2011

Let us now sing the praises of my favorite new television series of the fall season… and the way the ratings have been dropping week to week, we’d probably better hurry because it’s not likely going to be around much longer. And what a damn shame that is, because I’m personally finding Pan Am to be a refreshing change from all those dour forensics shows and police procedurals, the “reality” competitions that reward the most sociopathic behavior, and of course all the boring damn variations on the amateur talent-hour.

If you don’t know it — and based on those disappointing ratings, I’m guessing you don’t — Pan Am follows the adventures of four young flight attendants and, to a lesser extent, their male counterparts up in the cockpit, as they fly around the world exploring exotic destinations and discovering their own potential and limitations. The show is set in the early 1960s, when jet airliners were the latest thing, travel still had a whiff of glamour and privilege about it, and the Cold War insinuated itself into the background of just about everything. But while Pan Am does pay lip service to the social issues of the day, particularly the ridiculous sexism that told women they shouldn’t have any dreams beyond making babies and cooking Sunday pot roasts, the show’s really not interested in examining these themes in depth. To be honest, it’s got more in common with The Love Boat than Mad Men, and the plots tend to be a little far-fetched, if not downright silly. (One of the ladies is a courier for the CIA who occasionally gets herself into some overblown intrigue; I find the stories about her sister, an insecure young woman who ran out on her own wedding, far more compelling.) That’s not to say the show is stupid or lacking in genuine poignancy, because it’s not. But it is a trifle, and deliberately so. It’s obviously intended to be a light dessert rather than a heavy meal. And honestly, that’s the very reason why the show appeals to me, because simple escapism has been out of fashion for far too long. Even the generally lighthearted Castle has done its grim serial killer story. And I’m sick and tired of grim.

The one thing Pan Am does especially well, the thing that keeps me coming back for more, is the way it captures the un-ironic optimism of an era when anything seemed possible, as well as the bubbly excitement of going some place new for the first time. The show reminds me of what it felt like to be young. It’s a welcome break from the harshness of our current-day reality.

And of course it has airplanes and pre-TSA airports, and I like seeing those things…


The Mighty Cave of Cool Survey

Nothing like a nice meme that you can work on a little bit at a time when your world is too crazy to allow for proper blog entries. These “quiz things,” as Jaquandor calls them, are getting harder to find; I guess they’ve become a bit passe these days, rather like blogging itself, really. But I still enjoy them, especially when, as I mentioned, I’m too busy to really do much else.

Here’s a pretty good one I found over at Michael May’s AdventureBlog


Quite a Sight

The objects in the photo above are Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSMEs), the reusable, steerable rocket motors that were formerly fitted in threes to the back end of each shuttle orbiter (the spaceworthy ones, at least; poor old Enterprise never had the honor of sporting real engines). They’ve now all been removed from the surviving space-flown orbiters — the shuttles will be fitted with dummy engines when they go on museum display next year — and in this image, we see them gathered together in the Kennedy Space Center Engine Shop, all 15 of them, for the first and probably last time.

I’ve read that these engines are some of the most complicated, most powerful machines ever designed; three of them working together at launch developed some 37 million horsepower, the equivalent energy output of 13 Hoover Dams. Simply amazing.

I don’t much like the thought of them being permanently separated from their shuttles. I don’t like the thought of a Duesenberg sitting in a museum with nothing under its hood, either; it’s far more appealing, for me, to think of museum pieces as complete. Blame my sentimental, romantic nature. But I understand NASA’s current plan is to repurpose them for some future heavy-lift vehicle, so I suppose that’s a better fate for them than being taxidermied anyhow.

I don’t know how much longer they’ll be at Kennedy; they’re ultimately headed for a storage facility in Mississippi to await whatever the future holds…

Photo courtesy of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Facebook page.


In The Cloud

One of the morning radio teams in these parts has a weekly feature called “The List of Things That Must Go,” in which either they or listeners who write in (they alternate every other week) bitch about their pet peeves, i.e., things that must go. Today, someone went off on a lovely little rant about the recent trend toward referring to the Internet as “the cloud.” It’s not a cloud, this person insisted, it’s a physical thing composed of wires and servers and technology, and it already has a perfectly good name, the Internet, so why are people now calling it by this vague and pretentious buzzword?

Normally I’d be all kinds of down with this gripe, being as I am generally opposed to buzzwords and jargon in all their forms. But this morning I found myself listening with a bemused grin, thinking to myself that this person obviously doesn’t realize this term originated with the graphical depiction of the Internet as a cloud on networking diagrams. Because that was the simplest way to show a complex yet amorphous infrastructure that usually doesn’t need to be represented in any kind of detail on these types of diagrams. It’s not a marketing thing at all, or at least not entirely… it actually has some legitimacy!

God, I have got to get away from the tech industry somehow. I have no business knowing things like that.


Let’s Try This Again

So, my buddy Jack recently did some fiddling on the Simple Tricks back-end to try and stem the uncontrolled flood of spam that forced me to shut down the comments back in July. I quietly switched them back on a couple weeks ago, just to see what would happen. I’m still not entirely spam-free, but whatever Jack did has knocked it down to something I can live with, at least for the time being. I still have to manually weed out garbage comments every couple of days, but the upshot is, hey, comments! Not that I’ve provided much grist for conversation lately, but if anyone has anything to say, now you can.

You’ll still have to go through the whole sign-in rigmarole, I’m afraid, but I’m told that ought to be working better now as well. If you have any problems with it, let me know (jason at jasonbennion dot com). I look forward to getting the conversation going again!


Better When We Used Gelflings

Do you all remember The Dark Crystal, Jim Henson’s experimental fantasy film from the early ’80s? It’s really a masterpiece of pre-digital effects work and virtuoso puppetry that immerses the audience in an alien world populated entirely by non-human creatures. Anyhow, if you recall, there’s a scene in which the Skeses, the evil bird-like bad guys, use the power of the titular crystal to drain the life essence from the “Podlings,” the innocent little villagers who live nearby, rendering them into prematurely aged, brain-dead slaves. Here, refresh your memories… go ahead, I’ll wait…

So, yeah, my job has reminded me of a lot of this scene lately. Guess which character I am?


Still Alive… If You Can Call This Living…

Hello? Anybody there?

Probably not, given the way I’ve been neglecting this place lately. Sorry about that, kids. If by some chance any Loyal Readers are still out there lurking in the dark after all this time, my sincerest apologies for disappearing on you. Blame the usual culprit: My day job has entered into another of those periodic cycles of soul-crushing, nonstop activity that seems to eat up my entire existence. I haven’t had to work any super-late nights recently, and for that I’m grateful. But even with that small boon, my days have been overstuffed and hectic, busy from the moment I hit the office until the moment I leave at night. I’ve been eating lunch at my desk and not taking breaks so I can get everything done in time to escape by six, but these extraordinary efforts don’t seem to make much of a dent; my in-box remains magically full no matter how quickly or selflessly I work, like some fiendish horn of plenty. Also, there’s been an iron slug of urgency hanging over every minute of every day because it’s all due yesterday, and if all that isn’t stressful enough, I’ve found myself fighting tooth-and-nail over such earth-shattering minutiae as whether or not it’s correct to put a period at the end of a sentence that ends in a URL. God, I hate it when it gets like this. A little busy stretch here and there is one thing, but when it’s sustained day after day for weeks on end…

I don’t think people who’ve never worked in advertising can fully grasp just how all-consuming — not to mention totally draining — this industry truly is. I certainly didn’t before I experienced it myself. It’s not that I dislike my job — no, really, I don’t, in spite of all the griping — so much as I hate not having the juice for anything but my job. Most nights, I don’t get home until after seven, so it’s not like I have much free time anyway, but when I do manage to carve out an hour for the things I want to do, well… I just don’t have much left to give them. I’ve tried to write, both fiction and blog content, but the words won’t come. I try to read, and I keep having to page back to remind myself of what’s going on. I put on a DVD and find myself dozing after five or ten minutes, so I have to rewind and try again, just like I do with the book. And it doesn’t help
that the sense of urgency I mentioned has started following me home, making me feel, no matter what I’m up to, that I don’t really have time to be wasting on this activity, that I ought to be doing something else that’s more important. Not that I know what that other thing is supposed to be, of course.

I feel like I’ve lost the connection to some of the deepest parts of my identity: whatever talents I have as a writer, my literary and cinematic interests, my curiosity, hell, my sense of enjoyment. Not being able to do the things I enjoy and by which I’ve always defined myself is generating tremendous anxiety for me. It’s immensely frustrating for me to be in this place. I feel like all I do anymore is work, commute, and sleep, and that kind of treadmill existence gets to me very quickly. Contrary to what a couple of my friends seem to believe, I’m no slacker… but no one will ever mistake me for a workaholic, either. Life isn’t supposed to be like this. Well, my life isn’t anyway.

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to push through the mental haze and accomplish the things I think I want to do. But in talking to friends who do similar work, I really don’t think it’s just me. We all seem to have the same complaints, the same frustrations. The day job that was supposed to support us while we did our “real work,” whatever that may be — creative writing, art, music, some kind of craft, or just having a good life that’s about something other than the thing that earns us our living — has instead come to dominate and define our identities. Against all our wishes and best efforts, we’ve been assimilated. We’ve become drab little cogs in the infernal machine. And it’s destroying us, hollowing us out in tiny little spoonfuls of glittery dust that gets cast to the wind, never to come back.

Now, I know I’ve made all these complaints before. And I realize as well that many people — maybe even most people — have frustrating, time-consuming, unfulfilling jobs. I also know that I’m lucky to even have a job, the way things are these days. I feel guilty and self-centered for writing this, as if I have no right to complain. And I suppose from some perspectives, I don’t. But knowing other people have problems too is small consolation when you’re staring at the ceiling in the quiet hours after midnight, too wound up to sleep and too wrung out to do anything else, wondering when, exactly, your dreams started to die, and you’re horrified to realize you no longer remember exactly what those dreams even were, and worst of all, you feel like you’re failing the one test everyone wants to ace: life itself.

I never have handled failure well. I once had a complete meltdown because I got a B-minus in my eighth-grade science class. A B-minus put me in tears, can you believe that? I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’ve been on the verge of tears a few times this week, too…