Thursday, February 26, 2015

Telling the real story

Another Academy Awards show has come and gone, including ongoing complaints that historical films about the black American experience, most recently “Selma,” generally don’t win or are even nominated for any Oscars unless there’s a “white savior” involved. On the surface it sounds like racial bias or, at best, patronizing.

A few years ago at the writers’ conference I attend annually, however, I realized why this is the case.

My newspaper runs a weekly, first-person column called “Saturday Diary,” to which I’m a frequent contributor. When I started there I was told, “The Diarist aims to describe an inner transformation (which can be microscopic or massive) in a way that engages the reader. Being on the [Op-Ed] page, it is in the realm of changing the reader’s mind about something. But being a Diary, it’s more about altering the reader’s perception.”

In other words, I learned at the conference that, say, mere social change simply doesn’t make a good story in its own right, either in print or on the screen. The protagonist needs to undergo a transformation of his or her own in the process for the story to be effective.

A personal example: At the end of prom season three years ago I wrote a Diary called “Being Prince Charming” — I still regret that I didn’t go to mine 36 years ago, but on my birthday in 2010 I took a woman to a cabaret for which we “went to town,” having portraits taken and everything. (While it wasn’t a complete make-up, I did get a sense of satisfaction.)

That “inner transformation” is why films like “Cry Freedom” and “Invictus,” both about the apartheid system in South Africa, made for good stories. In the former, a white “liberal” newspaper editor who was a severe critic of a banned black activist later became friends with him and took up the cause; with the latter, Nelson Mandela, sent to prison for nearly 30 years and probably bitter at that time, emerged a conciliator and, upon becoming president, challenged his own people to “do right by” the white population. (That film, whose immediate premise was Mandela’s attempt to unite the country behind the national rugby team during the World Cup, which South Africa was hosting, won an ESPY award from ESPN.)

So perhaps the critics of the Academy are barking up the wrong tree. It could be that people need to see how the black American experience would change the folks involved on a heart level, not just in a cultural or legal sense.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Dating and marriage: Some thoughts from the dance floor

A few months ago I began taking lessons in West Coast Swing, and I’ve been having a blast. Since there are so few WCS dances in the Pittsburgh area I go to as many as I can, including most Tuesdays at the studio where they’re held.

There’s a culture involved in these dances — since in my observation no one is hitting on anyone else, you dance with whomever asks you and change partners with every song. And while I do have favorite partners (I’m sure that some women also prefer to dance with me as well), I usually invite the woman physically closest to me. It isn’t even considered gauche for a woman to approach a man, which happens to me about once a night.

The experience is showing me some things about relating healthily to the other gender.

For openers, I’ve never been of the opinion that you should date only those people you would marry; after all, everyone, men especially, needs to learn how to build a relationship, to see what works and doesn’t work. The studio offers lessons and a “practice party” afterwards, so that you can try out new moves and/or refresh old ones. Thankfully, since it’s a “safe” place, you can do that, with instructors ready, willing and able to help.

Were more people able to help each other in doing so, in love and life.

Second, I learned quickly that West Coast Swing is fairly unique in that the roles between “leader” and “follower” might change at a given movement; as such, I need to be ready for something different that my partner may want to do and thus create a “frame” for her to do it. For this reason I often prefer dancing with more experienced partners.

During one move called a “right-side pass,” in which a “follower” is normally twirling under the leader’s arm, one woman I was dancing with didn’t complete the pass but held my hand high and simply started moving in the direction I was taking her, indicating that I was supposed to respond. After this happened a couple of times, I finally realized what she was doing and didn’t force her to follow me, just “going with the flow.” (Technically it’s not a ballroom dance, most of which tend to adhere to strict rules.)

This happens a lot in marriage because, even though the husband is the “leader,” the wife may have some ideas of her own that he would need to, and thus should, support. Perhaps she may want to go back to school or seek a new ministry opportunity that would broaden her — and thus their — horizons.

And there’s no feeling in the world like knowing that you’re doing well. The last time I danced with one of my favorite partners, a 20-year-old who’s been at it for longer than I, I noticed at one point that her eyes were closed, I’m guessing because she had gotten "lost" in the dance. At the end of that evening she thanked me not once but twice for dancing with her.

I said in response, “I should be thanking you.” Because she was allowing me to grow.

Monday, February 16, 2015

‘Dangerous’ men

Lately I began thinking about a movie with the female lead as an ingĂ©nue and the male lead as a flawed anti-hero. The current “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

No. “Dirty Dancing,” which of course starred Jennifer Grey — what a coincidence — as a teenage girl nicknamed “Baby” and the late Patrick Swayze as a streetwise dance instructor with a checkered past who seduces her.

In fact, when that movie came out about a quarter-century ago it did arouse a bit of controversy. During a discussion on local Christian radio, one commentator called “Dirty Dancing” “a woman’s sex fantasy.”

And that may be the very same issue surrounding the extremely erotic “Fifty Shades of Grey”; when the book came out that a newspaper or magazine reported that one woman recommended the book to another, with this admonition: “Wear a panty liner.”

With the latter production has come the predictable amount of evangelical hand-wringing, especially the apparent glorification of sex, which many consider part of the coarsening of our culture.

Though I have no intention of reading the book or watching the movie, I have a different take: I see it as women falling for what I call “dangerous men.”

Having read the book “Wild at Heart,” I understand this phenomenon a little, with author John Eldredge explaining it as women wanting a sense of adventure in a relationship with a man. Not for nothing are fraternity men, athletes, entertainers and cowboys (to a certain extent) regarded as “hot”; mild guys who are morally upright and stable are, on the other hand, often as a result considered boring.

And this has been going on for decades now.

Here’s the rub: Eldredge also says that when women catch one of these “wild” men they often set out to tame him. Some refuse (I did in my last relationship), while others comply — and promptly lose their mojo, the very thing they fear. Some years ago a newspaper advice column ran a story about a couple in which the woman wanted her husband to trade in his pickup truck for a minivan and he was resisting for that reason. (I thought, “Why not buy the minivan but also keep the truck?”)

In one case, Eldredge referred to a wife who wanted to spice things up in her dull marriage, and he advised her to “invite [her husband] to be dangerous” — which in her case meant allowing him to buy a motorcycle, to her chagrin.

I’m seeing now that church culture usually doesn’t invite men to be “wild”; it’s supposed to turn out good and moral people who don’t make waves, but that has also hurt the masculine journey because a certain amount of passion is lost in the process. For that reason, adventure should be part of a man’s life. (It’s one reason I play jazz and blues, both an adventure every time out because in some cases no one knows what will happen next.)

So perhaps the issue isn’t really eroticism; it’s a desire for women to be intimate with a strong man. Or what they perceive to be one.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Avoiding the past

During his address at yesterday’s National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama spoke truth. Too bad that some took it as an insult.

Denouncing those of any faith who "hijack religion for their own murderous ends," as quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, and most recently the so-called Islamic State, which he quite accurately referred to as a “death cult,” he also had a message for those who believed in their own moral superiority.

"Unless we get on our high horse and think that this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ," Obama continued. "In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often [were] justified in the name of Christ." That led to the predictable outrage from pundits on the Fox News Channel who said that he was disrespecting Christianity in the process.

But that ignores the way that, say, people of color have been regarded — by other Christians — over the years, and I can tell you that such resentment exists even today because we haven’t truly dealt with it as a church or nation.

Let’s never forget the civil-rights movement, which started in Southern black churches in the 1950s but received not only non-support from the rest of Christendom down there but, in many cases, outright condemnation, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being denounced as a communist despite his stated opposition to communism as “incompatible” with the Christian faith. And the Ku Klux Klan, which hasn’t had any real power for two generations but still exists in some form today, considers itself a Christian organization.

Something else you might want to consider: Have you noticed the large number of African-Americans with Arabic names? There’s a reason for that: Also around that time many, especially in Northern cities, began abandoning Christianity altogether for Islam, which in this country had no connection to the powers that be — in addition to being perceived as more truly culturally relevant, it was a way for them to thumb their nose at the “establishment.”

“But what about ‘them?’,” you may ask. “They’re trying to kill us!” And we’ll deal with that in its time. But killing Christians has done nothing to kill Christianity; similarly, taking out Muslims won’t stop Islam because, as the saying goes, “The tree of faith is watered with the blood of martyrs.” So before we complain about someone else’s barbarism, we ought to look at our own — and, more telling, our continued propensity for such.