Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Imaginative Faculty

Last week, I revisited a habit of my childhood. I closed my eyes and listened to a baseball game. I frequently listen to games while driving, but under those circumstances I rarely have the opportunity to close my eyes. I watch a great deal of baseball games, something that I couldn't do when I was a kid. I remember a time when there was one nationally televised game a week, and the Brewers were only on TV when they were on the road and it was a night game. Now I've gotten used to having pretty much every Brewer game on TV. But every once in awhile, a day game isn't on TV. That was the case last week; furthermore, I had no other obligations. So I took my radio outside, set up a blanket under a tree, and proceeded to lie there for three hours, mostly with my eyes closed, while the Brewers rallied from three runs down, then blew a two-run lead and lost in the bottom of the 9th.

At some point, I realized that I was projecting a TV feed of the game in my head. When you watch so many games, of course it becomes easy to do that (and it really isn't difficult to visualize Jeff Suppan giving up home runs). This caused me to remember a conversation I overheard over 20 years ago. A friend of my mother's told her that she like it when her kid listened to games because it is good for his imagination. I remember my mom politely nodding, and me hoping that this would be an epiphany for her, that she would now see value in the hours I spent listening to games.

But however hopeless my desire for validation was then, I was struck with how infinitely more hopeless it is now. Would anyone who would learn of my Wednesday afternoon on a blanket under the tree be impressed with my ability to imagine this baseball game in my head? And if not (and I'm sure the answer is "no,"), why not? Why are children encouraged to develop imagination but then often derided for exercising it as adults? Why is it that we are so eager to compliment a child that we "catch" reading a book, but unwilling to bestow the same compliment on an adult? (Can you imagine a public library setting up a rewards program for the adult who can read the most books over the course of a summer?)

Of course, some of the answers to these questions are obvious. There is a sense that while anything is possible to children ("You can be anything you want to be when you grow up!"), grown-ups should not be looking to future possibilities, they should be anchored to the present reality. Kids can be Walter Mitty without reprisal, while adult Walter Mittys are just pathetic (even though we all have our Walter Mitty moments).

I think there is also an economic component to this phenomenon. Even though imagination can lead to innovation, there is no way to quantify imagination as an investment. Thus it is of dubious value in commerce, and ultimately the concept of "production" is privileged over imagination. The ability to produce something, even of mediocre quality, is looked at as a net gain, while to dream is to take time away from producing.

But I think there is one more factor that accounts for the diminishing value of imagination. If children spend their day in reverie, they are A) Kept occupied and B) Rendered harmless. If adults exercise their imaginative powers, they are liable to affect some kind of change in society. Too many people have too much to lose if the status quo is upset. And that's ultimately more damaging to the potential power of imagination than your favorite team giving up a walk-off home run.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Oh Say Can You Hear?

Historically, one of my favorite parts of the Major League Baseball all-star game has been the pre-game introductions. As a kid, there was something thrilling in the enshrinement of a baseball pantheon; I can't think of many other instances in life where the best individuals in any given endeavor are symmetrically placed on a white chalk line and then introduced to thousands of cheering onlookers. Following the introductions, I would enjoy the singing of the American and Canadian anthems--not so much because I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the War of 1812 or what it means to stand on guard for Canada, but because I liked to shout out the names of the players that were given close-ups. Hours spent studying my card collection would pay off in these all too brief moments.

I have continued through the years to enjoy player introductions, but this year the television presentation of the anthem singing left a lot to be desired. I suppose some would not object to the two-minute close-up of Sheryl Crow, but I don't think she had a good enough first half to warrant that much screen time (and I thought the singing itself was particularly uninspiring. Maybe her ex-beau isn't the only one past their prime). And in a moment of diplomatic insensitivity, the network cut entirely away from the Canadian anthem, which was a piped-in recorded version instead of a live performance. (This led to an uproar in Canada, though of course, nobody in American even noticed).

These observations have led me to further reflect on the practice of singing and playing the national anthem at sporting events. Now, I realize it might be trite and cliche to analyze the pros and cons of this phenomena, as people have already been doing that for years (I remember an episode of Mr. Belvedere where Bob Uecker's character gets in trouble for editorializing against the practice), but I can't help myself. On the plus side, there is something to be said for the show of unity that the ritual inspires, and there are now very few times when a mass of people in a public space demonstrate good old-fashioned decorum. On the other hand, the significance of any ritual is diminished by repetition, and there is something odd about the display taking place only at sporting events and not at, say, plays. And finally, I remain convinced that to sing only the opening verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is absurd-- this verse serves only as a set up for the further verses and ends with a equivocal (and clearly not rhetorical) question, rather than any kind of declaration of triumph or celebration. One other negative--for as much as the ritual may be a unifying prospect, it is rarely communal, in that most often people don't join in singing.

However, anyone who has been to a Major League Baseball game knows that while most people stand with open eyes and closed mouths for "The Star Spangled Banner," they will usually join in singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch (and in Milwaukee, follow that up with tens of thousands of people joining in with "The Beer Barrel Polka"). Based on the enthusiasm with which people embrace this tradition, I see the seeds in place for something much greater.

Over a year ago, I wrote a post lamenting "The Day the Music Really Died," pointing out that A) People don't sing communally anymore, and B) People don't really know common songs anymore. What I would like to see happen is for a Great American Songbook to be reborn though public events. Every event of any significance, sporting or otherwise, would begin with an appropriate (or perhaps completely random) sing-along. Instead of "The Star Spangled Banner," everyone would stand and sing along with Gershwin's "Summertime." Some people would be "too cool," or too timid to join in, but over time I predict that resistance would give way, and we would rediscover elements of our culture that have gone dormant. And really, what could be more patriotic than that?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

An Analysis of Jury Duty Resistance

Last week, in my contemplation of the ramifications of not having a military draft, I briefly considered the phenomenon of people's reactions to being called for jury duty. Though I have never been called for jury duty, everyone who I have encountered that has been invariably also expressed a negative sentiment. This has always seemed odd to me, for a number of reasons.

First, our works of fiction across mediums- books, cinema, and especially television, are often built around courtroom drama. Our culture has an inherent interest in the proceedings of the justice system, and often makes the participants in these proceedings into dramatic personas, as evidenced by this listing of 177 fictional lawyers.

It may be prosaic to discuss why courtroom stories are so popular, but it is central to the discussion at hand, since it makes our real life aversion to courtrooms so baffling. One reason "trial stories" lend themselves so well to drama is because the audience is allowed to help build the narrative. The author can place the pieces of the puzzle together organically, so that his or her hand in weaving the tale is inconspicuous. The viewer or reader learns the story and sees the unfolding of the plot in real time right along with the protagonists. Further, the courtroom setting allows for a full range of characterization. Judge, prosecutor, defender, accused, and witnesses are all wonderful archetypes to play with and play off of one another. And the class and culture clash that often results from the intersection of a defendant and the lawyers is also fertile ground for exploration and contemplation. Finally, the rendering of the verdict is a built-in climax, and the reactions to the verdict are built-in "falling action."

Since most people willingly and enthusiastically choose to expose themselves to viewing fictional trials (for some or all of the above reasons), it seems odd that most would be averse to exposing themselves to the real thing.

Furthermore, it is odd to me that people wouldn't welcome the opportunity to shake up their routine. I would think that jury duty could be viewed as a paid vacation, a chance to do something different than the "same old same old," to essentially go on a field trip. Yet I have had college students called for jury duty inform me with actual regret that they would be missing class. I guess on some level I'm flattered that they'd rather go to my class, but as an educator I also lament that they aren't more open to a true learning experience.

And now I will address some possible reasons people shirk from becoming a jurist. Some may say that my view of jury duty as vacation is simplistic, that most of us don't have the means to give up a couple days of our professional lives, that there is simply too much to do. I suppose there are some people who can make this claim, but not nearly as many as actually do make it. If you are in a job that prevents you from taking actual vacation time, I buy it, and a judge probably will too. If not, well, this is a perfect excuse to pawn some work off on someone else.

Some may say that the supposed drama in an actual courtroom pales in comparison to what we read in a John Grisham book. This is undoubtedly true, yet taverns in real life are not nearly as interesting as the ones we read about or watch on TV, yet people still frequent them. Anytime you have people arguing over a tangible point (such as guilt or innocence), and there are stakes involved, there is drama.

Some may argue that they want no part in influencing the fate of a person they have never met. I'd have an easier time believing this if there was no such thing as the Internet, and I haven't witnessed the zealousness with which people render judgements of others they have never encountered face-to-face. And of course, there is strength in numbers. There is a reason there are 12 jurors instead of one.

So to return to the original question: why is there so much resistance to jury duty? Well, the one thing that hasn't been covered in this conversation is the actual "duty" aspect. Forget about the chance to partake in drama, forget about the chance to get a vacation, at its core, the categorical imperative should be enough. We should want to serve on juries for no other reason than simply to ensure that we live in a world where we would also get the benefit of a fair hearing by our peers. But the word "duty" gets in the way. We want to be able to define that word for ourselves, to be able to determine what citizenship means on our own terms.

And this brings us full circle to last week's post. I can't help but wonder if we would be more amenable to jury duty if it wasn't the only time when our government conscripted us.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Bring Back the Draft (But With Some Changes)

Last week, I wrote of similarities between the King of Rock and Roll and the King of Pop. One noticeable difference: The Gloved One never served in the military. Michael Jackson turned 18 about five years after the draft was ended, whereas 23-year-old Elvis was required to enter the army, even during a time of peace. In a larger sense, I wonder to what degree the possibility (or lack thereof) of conscription is a factor in how generational attitudes are formed.

For all of the conventional wisdom that holds the Baby Boomer generation as antithetical to their parents, they shared the common experience of conscription. And both generations saw cultural icons drafted into armed service right along with the hoi polloi: if the likes of Jimmy Stewart, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis Presley, and Willie Mayes could either be influenced to enlist, or plucked from the populace and given marching orders, the message was clear: the rights of citizenship came with responsibilities (even if many in the latter generation attempted to redefine what those responsibilities were).

Now, the most drastic time commitment the government is likely to ask from anybody is jury duty (a much reviled request at that). For those who haven't signed up for military duty, the possibility of being asked to give a year or more of life to the government is so far outside the realm of possibility so as to be unfathomable. Meanwhile, we have authors writing books with titles like Generation Me (about those born in the 70s, 80s, or 90s), or The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in an Age of Entitlement. While these books cite a variety of factors as causing the "epidemic," such as an educational emphasis on self-esteem and individualism, the draft is only briefly mentioned. I wonder if it shouldn't be a more central aspect to their exploration.

Of course, even if the reinstatement of conscription would have the positive effect of providing a generational "attitude adjustment," there are certainly some compelling reasons to prevent its resurrection. So the logical next question is whether there is an alternative to mandatory military service that can have the effect of discouraging a sense of entitlement and encouraging a sense of responsibility. The obvious answer is to require some kind of community service. Many school districts and the entire state of Maryland have mandated civic involvement among young people. But the problem with this is that the youngsters look around and notice that adults aren't held to the same standard, much less their generation's pop culture icons.

So the solution seems obvious to me: we need an "entertainer draft." Those who make their living in the entertainment industry would be subject to a civil conscription. For example, Justin Timberlake could be drafted to spend a year helping farmers in South America with sustainable agricultural practices. Ashton Kutcher would spend a year tutoring underprivileged children in math. Nobody would miss Terrell Owens if he took a year off from football to work the phone banks for nonprofit groups. So in addition to whatever tangible benefits the entertainers would contribute, they would also help to make their generation less narcissistic. And one final benefit: we would potentially have periods of freedom from some of our most annoying celebrities. More than a few parents must have been awfully relieved when Elvis became a G.I., and more than a few today would be happy to bid adieu to Miley Cyrus when she becomes draft-eligible in a couple years.