The Age of Mediocrity

I have not been to the movies in quite some time. This fact stems not just from the reality of my life as the parent of a child who is too young to sit through a movie with us (and this will presumably change in a year or so, at least where Disney movies are concerned). It stems from the fact that, quite honestly, the majority of movie previews that I see on television provokes a response not much more enthusiastic than “eh.” When did this happen? It cannot be that I am becoming a stick in the mud in my advancing years, since I have also heard this complaint from several different quarters. It is that, over the last few years, most of the movies whose worthiness Hollywood studios try desperately to convince us of have been either pointless altogether, or firmly in the “eh” zone.

Sure, the 3-D landmark Avatar was a visual triumph, and it was fun to watch and it had a few compelling moments; but the only thing the storyline could lay claim to was a large recycle bin of other people’s ideas. Which we had already either seen or read before. Many. Many. Times. The last time I can remember going to a movie and having my socks blown off and my head put into an alternate state for days was when Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King came out and my husband and I went to see it on opening day at 10 am. The situation is not helped by the fact that I am less than excited to spend now over $10 per ticket going to the theater if the odds of my being underwhelmed are greater than 50/50. Yet I used to adore going to the movies, and my husband and I (before the arrival of our unforgettable progeny) could usually find several per year to which we flocked with great anticipation. But now the idea of truly enjoying that many movies at the theater in any given year seems draped in nostalgia.

As I write this, I am able to see, near my TV, the cover of the box set of Bogart-and-Bacall films, which features a picture of a famous scene from their first movie, To Have and Have Not. In those days, you could go to a movie for 25 cents and have a pretty good shot of seeing something amazing. Casablanca. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Treasure of the Sierra Madre. On the Waterfront. A Streetcar Named Desire. Key Largo. It Happened One Night. Rebel Without a Cause. Sure, they made bad movies back then too, but from where I’m standing, an awful lot of classics came out of that period. Fast-forward just a little in time to the 1970s and you still get All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, Star Wars,  and those two movies by whose mindblowing standard others fear to be judged: The Godfather and The Godfather Part II. The latter is surely one of the greatest artistic achievements to emerge from the film industry. But the last five years or so, we too often get boilerplate action flicks and cookie-cutter romantic “dramedies.”

What does this have to do with anything? It seems to me that the wave of mediocrity in film making is just nestled amidst a much larger wave of even greater mediocrity in our society. Marvelous little one-off shops with delightful inventory are being replaced with mega stores whose inventory is often banal. You can still find treasures in those mega stores, but not as easily. This in turn brings me to “quality” of manufacturing. In an age where most products for sale are made in China or similar places with the cheapest materials possible, we’re saying “they don’t make ’em like they used to” a lot more these days, when holes form and threads unravel in our clothes often before we’ve stopped thinking of them as new. Things that used to be constructed in solid wood are now particle board that splits along seams, bends, and/or collapses. Electronics, which you’d think would come with some durability for the price, often abandon this world for the next with a little too much abandon.

Sure, there are still great books being written and sold, but stores are also full of shelves and shelves of drivel for which “mediocre” is a word of praise; yet they are somehow published. Pop music, in my opinion, has hit new lows over the last ten years. Those in the pop industry are no longer even required to possess a decent singing voice, since studio albums are now often doctored with AutoTune and live renditions are often atrocious. Even with the studio versions, mediocrity of content seems accepted fare. Yes, there are some real counterexamples, but the industry seems content with predictable plain potatoes. Small restaurants still exist, thank goodness; but they are being threatened by mega chains that too often churn out not delightful meals for a night’s getaway, but bland, mediocre fare that tastes as if it could have been shipped in from out of state.

There are many truly motivated, intelligent, hardworking college students out there, and they deserve respect for their effort. But it must be acknowledged that many others in the college populace, which long ago represented the shining motivated of our society, now do as little as possible as badly as possible to receive what should be a C, but is too often an A in an era of undergraduate grade inflation. Mere completion of an assignment, regardless of quality, can be regarded by the student as deserving of a high grade. This is not just the students’ fault; this sorry state of affairs is fostered by the new cultural environment that advocates merely “the college experience.”

I am not in general a negative person, and I dislike complaining. But I do think that a little perfectionism, a little drive, a little striving to make something as good as you can make it or to do something as well as you can do it, a little pride in one’s craft, does our species credit and makes us happy. And makes others happy as well. God has given us more intellectual and creative capabilities, and more potential, than any other species on this beautiful, volatile planet of ours. Let us not squander our gifts. Mediocrity does not become us.

© Elizabeth Keck

Lions Roaring

The other day, my husband, daughter, and I went to a zoo — a good one, where the animals are well cared for and occupy spacious outdoor areas that approximate their natural habitat. We had a wonderful time with all the animals, as we always do, but the crowning moment this time came at the end. We overstayed our welcome a bit by taking our time leaving after the park closed at 5 pm; at least the zookeepers don’t seem to mind too much. But this time, we were later than usual, and thus we were in time for the lions to arouse from their slumber.

Every time we’ve been to the zoo, the two lions — one male, one female — have spent their time stone-cold unconscious on their lawn, as if passed out from a long night of too many cold beers. This, of course, is their prerogative, since they are nocturnal creatures. But this is the time of year when the sun begins to go down noticeably earlier, and thus its rays were getting decidedly longer when we heard the first series of roars.

We were not too far away from the lions, but clearly their bellows could be heard throughout the entire zoo (and probably the adjoining neighborhood), as fellow overstayers-of-welcome began to arrive in groups shortly after the lions let us all know they had returned to the land of the conscious. I stood there with my mouth open while the male lion sent forth several long bellows followed by a series of short barks. At this, the female emerged from their house-shelter and joined the chorus, both of them seeming to answer the other, yet not facing the other, but rather some invisible point in space unknown to the rest of us.

Each time their interchange would end, they would lie down in separate places for 5 minutes or so, then one of them would get up and start roaring again; unfailingly, the other would rise and roar in response. It is hard to convey how thrilling this was to hear and to watch. The sound that came from these animals literally echoed through the entire park; if you were standing next to them as we eventually were, the sound overpowered you so much that you felt you were hearing it within your very bones, not merely your ear drums. There was no other sound.

So this got me to thinking about how drawn we are to all the big cats: lions, tigers, leopards, etc. The zoo also has two tigers and one leopard, and the response of the human onlookers is always the same to all of them: awe, admiration, fascination, respect. We think they are beautiful, and we are mesmerized by their barely-restrained power. We might love the cuter, sometimes also majestic prey animals, both large and small — like the various primates, tropical birds, turtles, prairie dogs, porcupines, llamas, kangaroos, camels, elephants, capybaras, tortoises, zebras, and more. We are charmed by them, curious about them, attracted to them. But there is something about those big cats and their raw, frightening power, combined with their cool composure, that seems to elicit the same reaction from everybody: a magnetic fascination and a formidable respect.

As this was in the back of my mind, I also happened to watch The Godfather. Aside from the artistic achievement of the film itself, it got me thinking about why we are drawn to mafia characters, particularly the dons. We are utterly fascinated with them, though we know their lifestyle is unlawful and in many ways detestable. Yet knowing this, we sometimes feel a contrarian respect at the same time, as I did for Don Vito Corleone while  I watched. True, he was portrayed in a way that showed not only his criminality but many dimensions of his full humanity as well, so perhaps that helps to explain it. But in movies, books, and television, we have to admit we can’t get enough of these characters. The Godfather series is only one example; the huge success of the TV series The Sopranos is another. And while we might not respect the mafia in real life, when their criminality is too stark and uncomfortably close to us, the fact remains that we are still fascinated by them. We buy books about them (Black Mass, for example), and we flock to semi-nonfictional depictions of them in films (The Departed and Donnie Brasco, for example).

As far as the fictional stories go, it is their fictional nature that allows us to observe that underground world with undisguised engagement for some discrete period of time without needing to worry about any of it being real — without needing to respect any of the real mafia bosses whose actions in the real world we disgust. So why do we feel such magnetic draw, and even that strange, grudging respect for these characters? I believe it is the same reason that we are drawn to the big cats, with all their undulating muscles; their raw power simmering just beneath the surface of their skin; their shocking roars that we seem to hear in our very bones; the chills of fear, fascination, and respect all at the same time. It is the rogue aspect to the existence of both the big cats and the mafia personalities; their power; and perhaps above all, the perception of their self-determination that stirs in us these strange and contrarian reactions.

Fundamental to us as humans is an inherent resistance to being told what to do. We manifest this resistance early in life as toddlers (as every hapless parent such as myself knows), and it does not vanish with the coming of the years. It is tempered by our upbringing, by civilization, sometimes by religious convictions; but it remains beneath the surface, sometimes like a still lake, and sometimes like a pot of water so close to boiling point that one object thrown into it will make it explode. It is the reason “reverse psychology,” the practice of advocating the opposite of (or even indifference to) the desired result, works so well. It is the reason that when we are in school or college, we instinctively resist reading books that we are assigned to read — books that, left to our own devices, we know we would enjoy reading. It is the reason there is so much resentment toward the perception of “nanny government” or “Big Brother.” It is the reason that we feel a secret little thrill when we flout some small law, like overstaying our parking meter without getting caught, or like successfully pulling a U-turn against the sign that says not to, or like performing some small home improvement in our houses without appearing at town hall to ask permission and pay for permits. Someone of a certain age, whom I know, recently said, “These days you can’t lean two sticks together without needing 5,000 permits.”

Unfortunately, it is also part of the reason that some people are attracted to violating larger laws, laws meant to protect all of us dwelling in peaceful society. Mafia dons would, of course, fall into this category. Even though Mafia dons radiate self-determination of a criminal variety, there is something attractive about self-determination itself. In civilized society, it manifests itself by the will to vote, or by anti-regulation sentiment, or by quitting one’s job and deciding to employ oneself so as not to have to live by someone else’s desires and rules. When that JetBlue crew member summarily renounced his job by announcing over the loudspeaker, “I’m outta here!”, inflating the emergency slide, and grabbing a cold one on his way out, we laughed and we cheered for him. Despite the famous Beatitude, we tend to value the bold, and we tend to value the meek only when they can make themselves be bold. I certainly don’t think that’s the way things should be; we would have a kinder, less violent society and a kinder, less violent world if we consistently took that Beatitude as seriously as Jesus wanted us to.

But I do wonder if all this is part of the same undercurrent in our minds that causes us to shiver with reverential delight at lions, tigers, and leopards when they are guaranteed not to hurt us. Whether it is or it isn’t, I do know that I’ll never forget that almost mystical thrill we all felt when we stood there in our favorite zoo. Because we had heard and seen the lions roaring.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

An Epiphany at Home Depot

I was in Home Depot the other day and got to thinking about how our culture has changed. Specifically, how it has changed in terms of the way people interact with one another. Yes, it’s in vogue now to write articles and even books on whether technologies such as email, texting, Facebook, and Twitter have brought us together or moved us further apart, or some combination of the two; but that’s not what I’m doing right here. Personally, I am always a little irked when I hear that “social networking” technologies do not bring people closer together, but rather the opposite, and that they take pride of place among the modern innovations contributing to the assured decay of society as we know it. Such grand conclusions irk me because it is only through Facebook that I have reconnected with friends who were once a daily part of my life, with whom I had lost touch over the natural course of things. Texting allows me to communicate quickly in the midst of a busy day with those who are close to me. There are also various parts of my life that sometimes make it difficult to carve out a significant block of time for phone calls — not to mention the fact that I’ve never really been an enthusiastic phone person. Trying to have an in-the-moment conversation with someone without seeing any of their facial expressions can make for some really weird conversational dynamics.

But I digress. I was in Home Depot the other day with my small daughter, looking for “odorless mineral spirits.” (Yes, that’s its actual name.). Such mineral spirits were going to aid me in the vexing task of prepping our bathroom walls — long the sorry victims of decades-old wallpaper from a bygone era — for painting. I was on my way to the aisle when I passed a kindly gentleman in his senior years whose job it was to stand near the entrance and answer questions and direct people. Figuring that I knew where the mineral spirits were, I intended on giving him a polite nod and passing by. He, however, was enthralled by my (admittedly adorable) daughter and promptly engaged her in conversation. Having recently blossomed into a social butterfly, the likes of which my rather solitary nature has never managed to approach, she complied. The next thing I knew, I too was welcomed into the gentleman’s conversation, and what I thought would be a passing nod became a real interchange among strangers.

The gentleman informed me that his wife helped their local church set up for an annual flea market that was only a few weeks away, and I should remember to go, since I might find some little thing for my daughter. When he told me the name of the church and the town (which is next to the town in which that Home Depot resides), I replied that I in fact live in that town with the church, and it is right up the street from me. Delighted, he said that he lived in my town and even told me his name, street, and described the exterior of his house and the house next to it. In a very easy way, he extended his hand and asked what my family name was, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I shook his hand and told him. He said if I ever went by his street, stop in because the missus would love my daughter. Then he bade me goodbye and went to help someone else.

I was left with a very warm feeling and a bunch of thoughts about how our American society has changed. Or, if not all of America, at least certain areas and certainly Generation X and below. If that helper at Home Depot had been someone of my generation (I shall coyly state that I am somewhere just north of 30), there would surely have been no spontaneous engagement of my child in conversation — but there would not even have been an unsolicited engagement of me, a peer, in conversation. We would have politely let each other be and never discovered that we live in the same town. I would not have learned about the local flea market, and I certainly would not have been extended a hand, informed of a family name, street, house exterior, and asked for my family name; and never in this time-space continuum would I have received an invitation to stop in while passing by on that street.

Most importantly, that warm feeling, that feeling of someone wanting to talk to me, to be interested in me just because I happened to be in physical proximity, would never have been experienced. No casual friendly bond would have formed. An easy, pleasant experience between three human beings would not have come to pass.

This is not the fault of Facebook, email, or texting (probably). I honestly do not know what caused it. Do you? That’s not a rhetorical question: if anyone has ideas, feel free to post them. My best guess is the faster pace of daily life now, and who on Earth knows the ins and outs of how that process developed over the decades. Generations older than my own still experience this faster pace, but spent much of their lives and formative years in a culture that valued stopping to chat with someone you don’t know, going across the street to say hi to your neighbor without worrying that you would intrude, extending your hand and asking someone their family name and telling them your own and having it be the most natural thing in the world.

But in my broad geographical area, even members of older generations tend not to be as interested in conversation if they are working registers. Yet I experienced the opposite recently in New Hampshire. They still have “general stores” there, which have become an endangered species in Massachusetts except perhaps in the western part. At the general store (or even most stores), we experienced something unusual to us: the clerks actually wanted to talk to us beyond “Hi” and “Have a good day.” They would ask us genial, easygoing questions about how we were and how was our day, and if they didn’t have a big line, they’d unfailingly start with anecdotes about their own lives that seemed to dovetail with whatever we’d been talking about. And the conversations went from there. No hurry. No implications that you’re taking up their time and they’d rather not be talking to you.

Why is this still in New Hampshire, and undoubtedly in similar places? Is it the countryside? A slower pace? Fewer people? What is it, and why has it been lost in so many other places? We can’t blame email and Facebook for this; it is something else. I, for one, would be sorry indeed to see no more of that old-fashioned interaction.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010