It’s Brutal Out There

What is that key 18-24 year-old demographic thinking about?  

Well, I’ll tell you.  Mostly they’re thinking they don’t want to be in 2021.  And, well, who can blame them? 

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?

To mask, or not to mask?

These should not be the questions. 

And why are those questions even up for debate?

Have I been quiet lately?

Once we lived in a world where science ruled; where political leaders understood they needed to agree to disagree in order to govern; and where actual news footage of hundreds of rioters storming the Capitol building, destroying property and killing cops was at the very least seen as a…well…riot .

Yet today’s 2021 has become one big mass of illogical conclusions.  A literal Alice In Wonderland where up IS down and down IS up.

That is if we could even agree on the definitions of DOWN and UP.

Nope. Na-ah. I’m going back to bed.

No wonder our young people want nothing to do with it, or us.

Every spring I teach a class for college writing majors called Thesis Writing For Screen Media.  In it, graduating seniors develop and write either an original screenplay or TV series pilot and first season episode guide.

It’s not an exact science but what I have come to see annually after reading their work over the years is a cross-section of what’s going through the minds of those with far less experience but far more guile and energy than myself and those of my peers.

Not at all what I look like while grading these scripts

What I get is a brief but fleeting glance of what they see as…the future.  And given their age and the fact that they will soon be taking over the reigns of this, ahem, Wonderland, their perceptions are far more relevant than mine.  Or, likely, yours.

Some years the stories are mostly pure escapist and other times they veer towards the deadly depressing in a way you can only pull off when you’re in college.  One year there were far too many scripts centered around technology (Note: At least for my tastes, which means more than three) and in another a decade back I wanted to shoot myself in the head when I had four or five (though it felt like ten) leaning heavily towards relentless versions of Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter sword and sorcery.

My notes. #igiveup

Of course, mixed into these are always, always, ALWAYS takes on love, injustice and outrageous coming of age, buddy, love stories in the contemporary world. 

Not much like that this year.

Of the twelve scripts I read, only ONE took place in 2021.  That means ELEVEN of them were set in the past, the future or, in one case, in an alternate animated universe that has never existed but you sure wish could exist.  Particularly in these days.

OK but not THIS alternate reality

I’ve got stories in the roaring twenties and depression era New York City.  I’ve got one that takes place in 18th century West Asia, two others set in the intolerant post Civil War west of the 1800s, and another in a literal ghost town not of this earth.

There is one that takes place far in the future on various planets, a second set in ancient Greek mythology (Note: Gods and all) and a third set only five years ago in a pre-pandemic restaurant.

I can’t wait to erase this from my memory

The sole story that takes place in our contemporary world is about three people, two of whom are on the spectrum, and all of whom pretty much live in their own worlds and mostly try to ignore ours.

It doesn’t take an analyst to understand what these writers are doing, and if you guessed taking the easy way out you would be incorrect.

We can intellectualize all we like – we baby boomers and we Gen Xers – but it seems clear that the reality we’ve rendered for the next generation has become pretty much incomprehensible to understand, that is with any real insight, without stepping out of our time period.

Gen Z edition

You can’t make sense of the illogical.  You can’t write about a world where there are no basic truths or rules the vast majority can agree upon.  If you want to answer real questions of faith or humanity you have to go back at least five years or more (Note: Preferably more) or move ahead some indeterminate amount of time (Note: Preferably A LOT more than five years).

Normally I tell young writers who are stumped or shy or reticent, if you merely look around your house or your neighborhood you will discover far more stories than you could possibly tell in a lifetime, much less a semester.

Me when I see that there is a screenwriting professor in the script

Choose what you can’t get off your mind, what fascinates you and go ALL IN.  Use all of YOUR creativity, YOUR craft and YOUR mind to recount to us one of those and you have the best chance of hooking us.  Not to mention, you’ll be amazed at how writing about what you care about in the here and now makes us exponentially care about it, too.

I gave that same min-speech this year but the result was like nothing in the past.

It’s not like there weren’t thematic personal truths to the stories they were telling.  We still got the love stories, the tales of deep hurt (Note: Sometimes even peppered with wry comedy) and the rite of passage journeys.  There were also those of war, of survival and even of government corruption that included people of all races, colors and sexual persuasions.

But in none of them, not a one, was there a literal evocation of 2021 as we know it.

Yep, this… entirely.

In reflection, this was a wise decision.

How can these young people, or any of us, write about something with any meaning that we can’t, at present, even begin to understand?

Olivia Rodrigo – “brutal”

The Eyes Have It

I am employed by a college where I teach young people writing and give them advice about navigating life in their chosen fields and, in turn, the world.

I don’t know everything, or sometimes even anything.  But overall, on a given day, I know a lot more than they do.  Certainly, I’ve experienced more.

Me on the first day of class

Contrary to popular belief, the role of higher education is not primarily to be a vocational or trade school.  Of course, we want our students to work and we have an obligation to train them with skills that will allow them to make a living when they graduate.

But if you had a gun to my head, which it often feels like Zooming these days, I’d confess our number #1 job is to teach them how to think.

No, not WHAT to think, just TO think.  For themselves.  

Desired reaction to education #keanuknows

Oh, of course they have thoughts and certainly they process them.  But they’ll need to do more than that in an information age (Note: God how I HATE that phrase) mired in bullshit specifically conceived to convince and convert them to a certain point of view.  Or to bury them in such a load of research that they accept as okay what they know in their guts to be seriously wrong.

If my students can recognize crap excuses, crap rulings and crap pronouncements on just about anything it makes my day.  And when they manage to find a creative way to bust through a crap show and assert what’s true, that’s jackpot.  Game over.  My work is done here.

Me, in the mirror

A current crop of insurgent students now attending the University of Texas at Austin is a case in point.  Somewhere I assume more than a teacher or two in this liberal university town are privately gloating and cheering on the small but powerful way their young people are calling bullshit on the powers that be in control of the university they all pay handsomely to attend.

See, UT Austin’s alma mater song in 2021 is still a little ditty from 1903 called The Eyes of Texas (Are Upon You).  The words of the tune were inspired by the words of a famous Confederate general rallying on his troops and it was first performed at a university-sponsored minstrel show in order to raise money for its track team at the turn of the century. 

The 20th century.

Oh.. I have a feeling this is not going to end well..

Nevertheless, after a many months long study UT Austin president Jay Hartzell, he of the smiling, welcoming tieless photo complete with southern style pocket square, ruled in a terse statement that the songis and will remain our alma mater.

This might not seem like a big deal to an outsider but in higher education life symbols mean a lot.  Heck, symbols and the protests or support they engender help define American life. 

We are a country that loves imagery, from the flag flying above or directly AT and THROUGH the Capitol building on down.  We use our symbols to interpret and express who we are, to the world and to ourselves.

And we call this…

That is why this story of this symbol in this weekend’s NY Times, as well as other writings in such publications as Texas Monthly, caught my eye.  As a college professor it also made me wonder:

If we can’t even bench a minstrel show song at one of the largest universities in the country after a year of protests over the nine minute public execution of a Black man by a racist cop, where exactly ARE we at the moment?

Pres. Hartzell’s pronouncement was in keeping with the conclusions of the 58-page study he commissioned on the subject and was no doubt met with great praise by the many wealthy donors who threatened to cut off the financial spigot to his institution were he to conclude any differently.  No doubt they were also pleased by the words in the report that said the song contained no racist intent.  Ditto earlier pronouncements by Mr. Hartzell that the song should unite us in that it would hold them all to be accountable to their institution’s core values.

Reminder: He looks like this so…

To me, the definition of bullshit is the same as former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography:

I know it when I see it.

And trust me, this university president is mired in it.  Well above his kneepads.

Well, clearly someone (nee professors) at UT Austin is doing their job because lots of their students see it too.

Level 5!

Since the Hartzell ruling, half of this university’s hundred or so volunteer student tour guides, many of them white, quit.  These are teens or early 20s who say they love their school (Note: Why else be a tour guide, seriously?) but could not in good faith walk people past UT Austin’s Admissions Center, on which a large plaque with The Eyes of Texas lyrics hangs prominently.

The president of the Texas NAACP and its members agreed and strongly voiced  their opposition at a televised news conference.  Then one of UT Austin’s oldest and most prominent campus service organizations held an online discussion in support of banning the song, which had to contend with a masked attendee with a gun who suddenly and quite purposely showed up onscreen in full intimidation mode.

Meaning, well, all of this is far from over.

I’d say!

The above should be painfully obvious to anyone who has half a brain about the evolution of social change.  Just as the Cleveland Indians has finally acquiesced to change its name and mascot after decades of pressure (Note: To what, we don’t yet know), The Eyes of Texas will at some point no longer exist as UT Austin’s official alma mater.

But this little song, written by one university band member at the request of another who happened to also be the executive director of the school’s annual minstrel show and one quarter of the Varsity Quartet that first performed it, won’t exit the stage willingly.

Then again, neither has the Confederacy.  It continues to live on in the form of this and so many other songs.  Still, this tune does have the distinction of having been featured prominently in such classic Hollywood films as Giant, Viva Las Vegas and The Right Stuff, as well as at the inaugural ball of Pres. Lyndon Johnson and the 2007 memorial service for his late wife, Lady Bird Johnson.

Let’s never forget this either (yikes)

It will also, for the time being, be a thorn in the side of all persons of color who attend the school, and to many others, including some whites, at each university sporting event where it will be very proudly played and sung.

No doubt this will also particularly irk all of the Black legislators who lobbied hard to ban it, people who know all too well that the very nature of a minstrel show in turn of the century Texas means White people dressed in blackface spoofing them as dimwitted, lazy, happy-go-lucky buffoons with bugged out eyes and wide toothy grins.

This is the history they are trying to preserve… really

If they have a kid there, or for some reason find themselves at a game, or another school event where this is tolerated they might even picture those reveling and singing that song sporting any one of the above accouterments while shuffling across the stage.

And we Whites wonder why so many people of color we know are so pissed off these days?  Read the lines to the ditty with everything you’ve just learned (Note: Or better yet, sing it to its tune of I’ve Been Working on the Railroad) and tell me if you’d feel any other way. 

The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the livelong day.
The Eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them
At night or early in the morn —
The Eyes of Texas are upon you
Til Gabriel blows his horn.

And if your answer is still yes, be prepared to forever be called out on your BULLSHIT by people far better at it than I.

Dua Lipa – IDGAF