Saturday, May 29, 2010

Reality Matters and Reality TV in general.

So I just finished the book Reality Matters, edited by the lovely Anna David, which is a book featuring top-drawer writers dishing on their favorite reality TV shows. Each writer explores not only each show but how and why they relate to them. It is a kind of voyeuristic theme that is a main appeal of this book for me. I know what some of you are thinking, “Axxman? Reality TV? You?” and you might be right in questioning my sanity but hear me out.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, followed by the Iraq War, and then the banking/mortgage/economic collapse of 2008 America has begun to change. What Reality Matters illuminated for me were some of the deeper causes of the cultural change as each individual writer expresses very real connections to these shows, and then reveals some positive under lying change in them. To be honest, when I talk about a cultural shift I confess that I cannot put my finger on what exactly it is, but I get the feeling that what is shooting through the undercurrent of American society is akin to the regret and horror people feel the morning after they’ve rioted. The realization of just how out of control we have been as a people at every level of society from the nightclubs of Hollywood and Miami, the exclusive offices of Wall Street, the Mortgage guy at your bank that you thought that you could trust, and Washington D.C..
While the Tea Party is the most visible reaction to this awakening I would point to the election of Barak Obama to the Presidency as the left’s version of the Tea Party. However I submit that reality TV has played a big part in this awakening as well. Instead of pretty actors pretending to be somebody that they are not, reality TV pointed cameras at a wide variety of real people and gave us a new version of reality. Sure most of those shows are scripted, and all are edited for enhanced drama yet they ring true. Desperate Housewives is a well written and wonderfully acted show, but on many level The Real Housewives of New Jersey was far more decadent and juicy. Plus you could feel better about hating characters on Real Housewives because they are themselves, where as when the director yells “cut” on the Desperate Housewives set those women disappear as the actresses who portray them wander off to their trailers. One time I met J.T. Walsh, who played the evil Sgt. Major Dickerson in Good Morning Vietnam, and he was just the sweetest guy you could ever want to meet. Conversely when I met Michael Bean, who played “Hicks” in Terminator as well as many other “Cool Guy” roles, Bean turned out to be a dick. Generally with reality TV stars you are getting what you see.
I think that this underlies the cultural shift, while we still enjoy good fictional TV shows we also want to see what the neighbors are up to. When we watch those idiots on Jersey Shore we are confirming that our society’s decadence needs to be replaced with something else, something more real. Okay, when the two cast members tried to light charcoal on a gas bar-B-q I was indeed hoping that it would explode and disfigure them. I’m not going to try and tell you that there isn’t a gutter-level of enjoyment to reality TV.
My first reaction about reality TV shows is disgust. This reaction is based on MTV’s stable of shows headed by The Real World, which always bothered me and has continued to degenerate into worse anti-social behavior with each new season. What Reality Matters did for me is force me to think about the shows that I do watch, and low and behold many of them are reality television shows. I have sat through the Military Channel’s Making Marines and BUDS: Class 234 multiple times. Both shows took an often traveled road and used a reality show-style format to present their stories. Recently I sat through the Discovery Channel’s Two Weeks in Hell about the first two weeks of U.S. Army Special Forces selection, and this show also used the reality show-format. Compared with the Discovery Channel’s classic show: Navy SEALs, the Silent Option, Two Weeks in Hell new show offered much more insight into the men who try out for Special Force, and featured much more of a human connection.
Then I am forced to admit that my favorite TV shows are Deadliest Catch, and Ghost Hunters. In many ways Deadliest Catch is a thousand times more manly than “24”. The show features rugged dudes risking their lives to catch Alaskan King Crab, man against the sea, man against man as nerves and fatigue wear away nerves, and all around man-stuff (smoking, drinking, swearing, not showering, and missing their women). Ghost Hunters features a Rhode Island paranormal research team headed two Roto-Rooter plumbers. Each episode consists of the team rolling up to a haunted historical location, unloading the van, setting up the equipment, and running around in the dark saying “Shhh! Did you hear that?” The climax of each show is called “The Reveal” where they unveil the findings from the investigation. The show is a lot of fun and sometimes they don’t find anything. Both shows feature regular people doing extraordinary things in scary places.
As the 21st Century takes shape and we dust off the residue of the decadence of the last 20 years of the last century; I believe that reality TV will be a proven factor in our progress as a culture. I know that this sound wild, crazy and more than a little stupid, but I think that there is a connection. I think that as we search for the new “Truth” that reality TV offers us a glimpse; either as a window onto a world that we want, or a world that needs to be discarded.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Personification of Nature or Awakening to Possibilities?

I remember a morning about twelve years ago. I was hiking at Garland Ranch and it was around 7:30a.m up on the Mesa. I hiked Garland early in the morning because it was the best time to spot Mountain Lions (I never did), and while the lower trails could be busy with joggers the upper trails were usually empty of people. It usually took me about forty minutes to reach the Mesa from the parking lot; while it was just under a mile and a half the hike involved a steady, and in some parts – steep climb. My route took me across the flood plain, into the oak and buckeye forest, and across a mid-section of the park that was a central highway for the big cats. As I used to hike Garland once a week I was able to note patterns of movement of Mountain Lions within the park and this mid-section was my personal barometer. This morning showed no recent cat activity and I made my way to the Mesa.

The Mesa sits at about 1000 feet above the Carmel River below. Once it was to become a subdivision of nice homes but fate and water rights left it to be donated to the county. There is a pond that was once intended for cattle and now provides water for wildlife. It is fed by a well, which is about 100 meters up the hill, and the Park pipes the water down using gravity. The pond is home to a couple of large Bullfrogs, a mating pair of turtles, and water-borne insects. In the fall, migrating water fowl feed on the baby frogs. The pond is a great source of information about animal activity as they many creatures who come to drink will leave their footprints in the mud. Raccoons, Coyotes, Opossum, Skunks, White Tail Deer and Turkey tracks can be found on the shore of the pond. I look for the Mountain Lions and Bobcats. The Mesa is my last stop before dropping into Garza’s Canyon, so I took my time that morning.

As I came around the curving trail that feeds onto the Mesa I was met by a dazzling scene. The dew caught in the grass and trees made the Mesa sparkle in the bright morning sun. It looked like a thousand diamonds had been sprinkled across the Mesa’s meadow. I paused to take in the view. Next I circled the pond to see what secrets it might reveal that morning and aside from panicking the Bullfrog I found nothing more than deer tracks. As I made my way back to the trail I saw the most interesting and amazing thing. Between me and the trail there was a bush. A small Western Meadowlark had perched itself on an outcropping branch. The Meadowlark was signing away and I stopped to watch it as it put on a show. The bird would pluck at the branch to pull it towards him and then let it go. This caused the dew-drops to spring from the leaves and the result was that the Meadowlark got a shower. I watched the bird shower, popping the branch back and then puffing up its bright yellow feathers, and then chirping out what I realized was a rhythmic cadence. Once it had finished “showering” the Meadowlark hopped up to the highest branch (about chest high) and began to sing and flap its wings in a pattern that served no other purpose than as a rhythmic dance.

There on that bush, facing the sun above a dew-sparkling spider web, that Meadowlark sang a greeting to the morning sun. The bird was doing a joyful dance, possibly a ritual or worship to the sun, and I was there to witness it. It may have been an instinctual thing caused by thousands of years of evolution. Maybe it is just something Meadowlarks do. Yet I was aware that the bird was happy, and that this dance was out of pure joy.

The scientist in me says that this is nothing more than anthropomorphism, and that bird was just cleaning itself. I admit that my observation of this type of bird is limited, and yet the bird was alone. Since this was early October the mating season had long passed this bird by, so his song and dance had no purpose to attract a mate. I know that animals do not think and feel as humans do, but I also know that they do think and feel. That Meadowlark was seeing the beautiful Mesa the same way I was seeing it on that spectacular morning. He was thanking his maker for it too. In the years since that morning I have never seen any other animal perform like that Meadowlark, so the event may have been a one-of-a-kind, but somehow I doubt it.

I don’t mean to imply that there is a spiritual aspect to nature. The meadowlark may have just been happy to see the sun, but there was an element of joy in his act. I have seen birds hunt, forage, and flee and this was entirely different. The meadowlark was responding to an aesthetic and not to a concrete reality. It was a beautiful sun-lit morning and it chose to dance and sing. That vision has always stuck with me, and whenever I hike I hope to catch another glimpse of this kind of behavior. I suspect that one day I will experience this again. I suspect that this kind of thing goes on in secret in meadows and forests all over the world every day.