Squirrels In Trees

20 11 2008

There we were, drunk and giddy in the fast-fading remnants of the night, and a few guitars came out, spawning some sputtering discussion and head-nodding, the most our minds and terribly Caucasian notions of rhythm could muster at that hour. It was about 3 a.m. the night Daylight Savings Time ended, and we were upstairs at a house party and a kid intervenes in the conversation.

The discussion had veered toward the topic of classical music (somehow), and he interjects with a rant about how Pachelbel’s Canon (linked here – forward to 1:50, you’ll recognize it) has no musical validity and all and how it’s just ‘garbage pop.’ He argued that it was just a product of the music around it, that it didn’t influence anything at all – it was merely a pleasant and unusually resilient cultural blip, a polished version of music that had once been pioneering and was now entrenched. It was like saying that Pachelbel’s Canon sucked because it didn’t invent the F chord.

And I got to thinking about this nasty condition we have.

Of all the things that pin our generation to indecision and inertia, the rush to criticize, to provide an unsolicited and incomplete critique, should embarrass us most. We have become a nation of amateur critics, of hacks who seek not to enable and encourage, but to maim. Worst of all, that harsh critique we turn on the world turns into crushing self-awareness, of a form so bad that it keeps us from creating, from leaving any proof of our lives except for the airy nothingness of judgment passed.

First, a defense of criticism: We do need it. All of us. Just in doses. Criticism is the scalpel, the sandpaper, the extra touch of paint or the hallowed and underused delete key. Criticism, ingested correctly, only refines our work, whether that work be words or, hell, breakfast quiche. Everything can tolerate a little tinkering, some things more than others. In the proper amounts, and with an altruistic, compassionate mind at the center, criticism makes life better.

On a personality-formation and personality-maintenance level, mental critique is essential and natural. We form the notion of Who We Are as much from what we enjoy and align ourselves with as we do with what we find objectionable, what we rally against. We imitate the good, work against the bad. In high school, the notions of nerds and jocks exist, theoretically, as much because they’re smart/athletic as because they’re not the other. (Yes, yes, they can blend, but you get the idea)

That said, back to the need for a compassionate core. Here’s where we must alter our kindergarten idiom that, unless we have something nice to say, we shouldn’t say anything at all to something along the lines of unless we have something constructive to say, we shouldn’t say anything. Criticism, ideally communicated, should always seek to improve, not to demean.

We need to apply it with an eye toward bettering this race, toward polishing our worlds of art, thought, justice – toward making everything better, instead of just tearing everything down compulsively. We’re in this together, all of us. And if this vision sounds hopelessly corny (it does) it’s better than the reality of what we have right now.

What we have on our hands is a generation of wannabe iconoclasts, unyielding throngs of snarky snipers who throw barbs from afar. It’s the height of cowardice. It’s no longer that those who cannot do, teach. It’s that those who cannot do, criticize.

And why? Has it always been this way? Almost definitely: Keats was rumored to have died because of the stress and despair of his bad reviews. But has criticism always been this loud and this omnipresent? Certainly not.

On a basic level, people react in two ways to their peers standing out. They cheer or they boo, loudly or to themselves. That has, as far I know, been pretty much the case ever since the Romans were going crazy for Russell Crowe (and even earlier, some say!).

People want to be heard. They want to feel strong, even superior. And when others assert themselves, the act of chipping away at the edifice of courage and inspiration needed to create, to lead, to stand out is an easier task – especially when millions of others are willing to lend a hand – than building up the requisite courage and inspiration to push one’s self higher. To tear down means to not have to require more from one’s own life because, without the foil character of the ambitious, confident counterpart, there’s nothing to pale in comparison to.

All around us now, we have a new breed of entitled, enabled critics, bred from parental insistence of uniqueness, by the American party line that Everyone Is Special, not the former line of You’re Only Special If You Prove It method that drove some of our greatest figures to, well, prove it. Andrew Carnegie’s dad didn’t bring him to self-esteem camp.

This kind of new teaching gives rise to a generation bent on admiring its own brilliance and set on revealing the flaws in others. Confidence in one’s abilities can certainly be a good thing, but only if the brilliance is cultured. The problem is, so strong is the message that You’re So Special that cultivation doesn’t happen; leave that to the pedestrians. Nothing is produced, only consumed.

And now, armchair critics have a forum that allows them to spray as much vitriol as they can muster up. Which is, as we’ve seen, a hell of a lot. The Internet has given us capability to condemn without accountability, repercussion or thought.

You can write a post calling a book that took seven years for the author write an unreadable piece of shit, veiled by anonymity, and then head over to check the lines for that night’s NBA action. Thoughtful critique cannot breathe in this environment, choked off by a cloud of simple, Twitteresque comments that do nothing but feed the famished egos of the critics.

The greatest tragedy in all of this is the harshness with which we judge our own work, a condition that stems from this culture of criticism. Instead of diving headlong into a project, we over-analyze. Then frustration sets in, and so does mental paralysis. The work is, sadly, dead at birth.

The last story in Dave Eggers’ short story collection How We Are Hungry is called ‘After I Fell In The River And Before I Drowned.’ In it, he writes about this dog, this bullet of a creature that loves running, loves the way that the trees blur and the muscles twitch and the wind rips at his cheeks as he and his friends race through the woods every day, a race that culminates in a leap over a ravine, one that ultimately results in his death but until his death is the center of his world, the height of life. But while these dogs are racing, squirrels chirp from the trees, scattering insults, quick ones like ‘That was not very good’ or ‘that is very ugly.’ The dogs sometimes catch a squirrel and kill it, squeezing it between their jaws as the squirrel still chirps with its dying breath. But the squirrels’ numbers never dwindle. More and more squirrels show up, saying the same things. Just louder. And louder.

That leap is the leap that every person who wants to create must make. The willingness to make that leap after racing through the woods, instead of sitting in trees and jeering, is a form of victory in itself. But not making it, not even coming down from the trees, is nothing but a lifetime of deaths, the thousands of deaths that await cowards before their ultimate demise, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

When my late professor, Jack Falla, was in the finishing stages of his novel, he and I sat down for a catch-up lunch at a Chinese place on Beacon Street. He seemed nervous. After thousands of stories, a few nonfiction/memoir books, thousands more hours of interviewing, teaching and generally making everyone love him, he was afraid of how the novel would be received once it was out of his hands.

“Scheity,” he said, looking straight down at his plate. “I just don’t know if I’m gonna be able to take the reviews.”

He decided, as the great ones do, to just point to the scoreboard.

But how many, because of criticism both external and internal, never get up the courage to try to put one up on the board?





Barack Obama. Yes.

5 11 2008

‘And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President’

Tupac Shakur, Changes (1995)

Is this the dream fulfilled?

Is this the day, the day when our country’s little children – and their little children and their little children – have been judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their characters? When suddenly what wasn’t even considered a possibility becomes a reality? When we turn our backs on what’s come before and look to the future and understand, reminding ourselves of the failures behind us, that we can all make a difference, that we can form, after all, a more perfect union?

He spoke and we listened and in turn, we spoke louder, together and fully. A generation that never had a voice has suddenly bellowed.

How could we have possibly seen this, even four short years ago?  Could we have imagined a black man, even in these times, not only winning this election, but defeating a war hero opponent by a landslide?

On this night, we see ourselves atop one of our history’s highest peaks. Of all of the mythologies that galvanize this great continent, few have enjoyed more staying power than the intertwined ideas of the Melting Pot and infinite opportunity, that this country was founded on diversity and possibility, and all it took to ascend indefinitely was a sharp and shrewd mind and a tireless effort.

But before tonight, those allegories have been nothing but words and simple fantasies, tethered to the sad fragments of our past, dark and damning ghosts like Jim Crow, the notion of three-fifths, the bullet inside Martin Luther King, Jr. Over time, the increase of blacks in the workforce and the influx of blacks with college degrees chipped away at racism, while the integration of sports and the importance of blacks in music, from blues to hip-hop sanded more of it away.

But then the Fortune 500 would come out, and as of 2006, blacks occupied only four of the CEO spots. At the end of the same year, median household income for whites stood at $50,673; for blacks, it was $31,969. The stats go on and on, and yes, stats only tell part of the story, but the most glaring message behind these statistics is that, outside of the thin avenues of entertainment and athletics, blacks rose to prominence in so few ways. Terribly few ways.

That mythology of equality, of all men being created equal, had such little resonance under the harsh glare of these facts. Tonight, that idea has roots. Tonight, it is no longer mere floating, hollow words, the preserve of rhetoricians.

We’d be fools to assume that this will change everything. But we’d be missing out on the moment if we don’t think that we just witnessed a moment that will irrevocably change the course of American life.