Wednesday, January 06, 2016

making history

Perhaps there should be a curriculum of study required for would-be insurrectionists.

That would have been a help to Ammon Bundy and the other members of the "Citizens for National Wildlife," the radicalized militia that made the news this weekend for taking over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. According to reports in the press, the militia believe that by seizing control of a birding outpost nobody has heard of, they can force the U.S. government to accede to vague demands about restoring freedom to ranchers in the Northwest.

You see, that's the problem with radicalized militias these days. They know how they want history to turn out; but they don't know how to articulate it, and they have no idea how to get there.

Changing the world takes more than a lofty ambition. You also need specific goals, and you need to take bold steps to reach them. If you want to become princeps of Rome, then you have to cross the Rubicon. Want to overthrow the monarchy, then you have to storm the Bastille. If no one fires at Fort Sumter, then there's no Civil War; and World War I can't happen if no one shoots the archduke of Sarajevo.

This is what it takes to make history and change the world. But while the Caesars and the Generals Beauregard are dropping mighty boulders that shift history from its river banks, Bundy and his fellow militants are setting up camp illegally at an unoccupied visitor's center at a bird refuge, and asking for friends to send them snacks in the mail.

Like many other Americans, when I heard Saturday that a coterie of militants were planning sedition in the Northwest and asking other right-wingers to join them, my initial reaction was disbelief at how gently they were being handled. An Ohio grand jury had just decided not to indict a police officer for killing a 12-year-old boy, and the past year has been full of reports of the National Guard deployment and heavy-handed police tactics against protesters upset by the oppression of black people. These yahoos plot insurrection, and nothing happens.

These are the same yahoos who 18 months ago, as FOX News cheered, expressed contempt for the law of the land and attempted with other militants to provoke federal officers into an armed firefight. These are the same nutjobs who threatened armed insurrection over Clive Bundy's supposed right not to pay fees to graze his cattle on land he did not own.

Walter Scott gets shot in the back by police for running away during a traffic stop, Eric Garner gets choked to death by a cop for selling loose cigarettes, and George Zimmerman gets off scott-free after hounding and murdering Trayvon Martin; and there is zero response to a radicalized militia that seizes a federal building and promises bloodshed if federal troops approach?

A few days later, though, and I have to concede the wisdom in the federal nonresponse. I'm old enough to remember what happened a year after the siege at Waco, Texas, ended. That's when American terrorist Timothy McVeigh – like the Bundys, also a radicalized rightwing militant – blew up a federal building in Oklahoma in what remains the worst incident of domestic terror in U.S. history.

I remain critical of news outlets like the Washington Post, however. The Post has insisted on calling the Bundys and their band of radicalized militants "activists," as though the militia has been going door to door and asking people to sign a petition.

There have been reports that officials plan to cut power to the Malheur building where the militants are holed up, to let them feel the "flat ass cold" of the winter in Oregon. That sounds like a good approach. Cut the power, and cut off their cell phones. Set up a fence a safe perimeter around the building so that no one can get in or out, and wait them out. From all reports, the militants brought enough food for a couple weeks at best, and while they might be able to hunt a little, that's going to take time, energy and patience.

When they surrender, I'm tempted to say that they should have the book thrown at them for sedition. But I also like the idea of charging them with as simple a crime as breaking and entering, destroying government property and any other low-level offenses that may apply. Something that will net them fines, community service and enough jail time that they lose the right to own firearms.

Because in the end, these men aren't the epic heroes they imagined themselves to be, and they don't deserve to be remembered as villains either.

They're little nobody thugs, and that's how history will remember them.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission. Hat tip to Jeff Holton for the inspiration.

Tale of the Town Crier

I heard the story once of a small city that employed the services of a town crier. It was this fellow's duty to walk around the city, calling out important news and announcements of interest both general and particular.

​"Quarantine lifted in Ditko Village!"

"Fire in Kirby Square!"

"Traders from Romita Valley arrive tomorrow at the South Gate!"

People didn't always stop what they were doing; but they heard, and they listened, and so important news spread, and everyone praised the wisdom of the king in appointing the crier, so that everyone knew what was going on at all times.

Now the city had enemies to the north, in the Steranko Mountains. Every winter, when the snows fell and the crops died, and food grew scarce, bandits would sweep down from the mountains and roam the plains, attacking settlements and raiding the people's stores. Sometimes, when the bandit hordes were large enough and daring enough, the wealth of the city would call to them, and they would attack it under the cover of darkness.

The city was protected on all sides by stone walls nine feet high and so wide that guards could walk two abreast on them. When the guards spotted bandits on the approach, they would alert the crier and he would raise the alarm. The men of the city would rise from their beds, seize whatever weapon they could, and they would drive the enemy away.

One year this did not happen. Perhaps the town crier was asleep himself, or perhaps he did not hear the guards call him to alert the townfolk, or perhaps the guards themselves failed to tell him. No one really knew, but no one blamed him either. What they did know is that the bandits scaled the walls of the city, slew the soldiers who stood watch. and for three terrible days the brigands ran wild through the streets of the city, looting and killing at will until they finally returned to the Steranko Mountains, their horses laden with all the plunder they had seized.

The survivors left the old crier to his task, because the king had appointed him to that task, and what had happened was not his fault. But he had gone mad. Often he did his job as well as ever, and the city was kept safe by his warnings; but other times, he threw it into needless panic. He would shout that the library was on fire, and men would rush to the scene, buckets in tow, only to find scribes quietly reading and copying the scrolls in peace and safety. Other times he would say nothing, and so a dozen people would die by drinking from a poisoned well for want of a warning that it was no longer safe.

He's still mad to this day, and it's still the devil's game to understand when to trust him and when he should be ignored.

The crier's name was Conscience.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Apples come from apple trees

One of the biggest gifts that parents can give to their children are their own loves and passions.

My children are their own people, and always will be. That's as it should be. But it's always a great thing to see the ways that they pick up on our interests, our hobbies and our enthusiasms. Middle Daughter has taken my amateur's love of theater and interest in acting, and has turned it into a full-fledged passion of her own. I started listening to Broadway cast albums in high school and college; she has surpassed me by far, in only middle school.

Oldest Daughter dabbles in theater the way I do. It's a hobby, something she enjoys doing; and while it's nice to get bigger and better parts, she has no serious aspirations as an actor. But she shares my love for folk music.

Peter, Paul and Mary are a folksinging trio I discovered some time after college. I had heard of them before, obviously; primarily for their cover of Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind," which I had first heard in college and then for a few other songs I heard on Oldies 99.9 while I was living in the Lehigh Valley. I'm a bigger fan now of Pete Seeger and early Joan Baez, but Peter, Paul and Mary are still a good listen.

For the past few months, I've heard Oldest Daughter singing this song all the time. She created a station on Pandora for folk music, and has been listening to Peter, Paul and Mary, and others on it.

It's a great song. I'm glad she turned me onto it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Land of the Lost: 'Album'

There is trouble brewing in the Land of the Lost. For starters, an unknown animal is coming into the Marshalls' cave at night and eating their stores; and then there is a strange buzzing noise that only Will can hear, that draws him to the Lost City.

In the Lost City, Will finds something that looks like a matrix table of the sort Enik used to open the time portal, but made with colored stones instead of the stones. On the floor is a pulsing blue crystal. When Will picks it up, a nearby doorway fills with mist -- as when Enik showed each of the Marshalls their deepest fears -- and in it he sees a woman beckoning him to come closer, whom he recognizes as his deceased mother.

Holly, who has been working on a trap to catch the animal eating their stores, eventually hears the buzzing; and she and Will go to the Lost City together. Holly sees their mother too, after she picks up the blue crystal. Will speculates that they've found a time portal has opened to a point where their mother is still alive, and that they see her through a mist because they don't remember her well. Their mother fades from view, and they return to their cave.

Rick Marshall notices how despondent his children have become, and when they wander off to the Lost City together the next morning, he fellows them. There he discovers that the whole thing is a trap. The Sleestak are using the blue crystal to show the Marshalls what they most love, as a way to draw them in, so they can feed them to the Sleestak god at the bottom of the pit. Rick frees his children, tackles two Sleestak and pushes them into the pit, and leads his family to safety.

Back at their cave, he explains to the children how the Sleestak trap worked; and Holly abandons her own efforts to trap the animal coming for their food.

What I loved about this episode:

It's tightly written. The subplot about trapping the animal synchs nicely with the larger plot about trapping the Marshalls. Rick explains to Holly that a good trap relies on offering the animal something it wants but doesn't already have easy access to. The Sleestak offer the Marshall children not just a loving parent, but a loving parent whom they have lost.

Family ties. There has been no mention the entire series that I can recall to the children's mother. Why wasn't she on the "routine expedition?" We're never told, until this episode, when we find out that she died, years ago. I can think of few things more upsetting to young children than the thought of losing a parent, particularly a mother. But that's what happened here. A 1974 children's Saturday morning show actually gave us a widowed father raising his children. Even more daringly, while the mirage of their mother is alluring enough to draw the Marshall children close, the trap doesn't work until the children believe they're seeing Rick.

The Sleestak. They don't move particularly fast, they hiss a lot, their aim with crossbows is terrible, and frankly they walk like they're grown men trying to move around in rubber suits. But they are cold-blooded, vicious, and evil to the core. When the Marshall children believe that they are walking through the Lost City with their father, the camera keeps showing us brief snatches of what is happening: A Sleestak is leading two trusting children to their intended deaths. I'm 45, and it still creeped me out.

I keep saying it, but it bears repeating. "The Land of the Lost" was an intelligently written TV series for children. Forty years after its initial broadcast, this remains a show that children and adults can watch and enjoy together in a way they can with few others.

Forget the Will Ferrell attempt to make a comedy about this show. It deserves a serious and respectful treatment, either as a new kids show revisiting the concept as respectfully as its original incarnation did, or as a serious show for the adults who grew up watching Spencer Milligan and his castmates.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

land of the lost: 'the stranger'

Self-control, and what that means, is at the heart of "The Stranger," the sixth episode of the classic "Land of the Lost" TV show.

Written by Star Trek alumnus Walter Koenig, "The Stranger" is where we start to see just how complex a sci-fi world David Gerrold created for this children's show. The episode begins with Holly and Will bickering as siblings will, while their father tries to keep the peace. They carry their fight as they go looking for food, and find a glowing crystal that converts the children's mutual hostility into actual physical pushing.

The crystal, it turns out, is called the Mageti. It is a stone that can operate the time portals in the Land of the Lost. The Marshalls are attacked by six Sleestak, and then rescued by Enik, a brown-skinned creature that looks like a Sleestak and claims to be an Altrusian from the future, descended from the Sleestak. The Mageti responds to emotions, but as a safeguard against violence, it self-destructs in the presence of too much hostility.

Enik acknowledges he theoretically could send the Marshalls home, but claims it would be too complex a calculation and refuses; besides, he needs the Mageti to return to his own time period. Will, predictably, becomes outraged; and in the ensuing fight for control of the Mageti, it explodes.

As it turns out, Enik possesses a stone that is a second Mageti, but it lacks a power source. The Marshalls lead Enik to the Lost City, where they soon find a gemstone to power Enik's Mageti; and Enik discovers that the Sleestak are not his ancestors, but the descendants of his people. He speculates that his people lost control of their emotions and descended into ignorance and savagery.

Another fight breaks out over the new Mageti, and this time Enik summons a psychoactive mist that subjects the Marshalls to their worst fears. Rick resists, and tells Enik that perhaps his people fell into the Sleestak not because they failed to control their anger and hate, but because they failed to display compassion and mercy. Persuaded, Enik releases the Marshalls and they let him return to his own time to warn his people of the danger facing them.

What I like about this episode:

Real sci-fi: OK, the matrix tables were pretty poor special effects; but this is some complex stuff. Interdimensional portals. Time travel. Evolution, and de-evolution. There's even an acknowledgment that this isn't magic; Enik could send the Marshalls home, yes; but as he points out time and again, with increasing irritation, it's not as simple as dusting crops. There are complex mathematical equations involved, and while he can do them, it could take years.

Complex world: Per the show's theme song, the Marshalls entered the Land of the Lost after an earthquake shook their raft while they were white-water rafting and plunged them down a waterfall. In the episodes, Rick has suggested that they fell through some sort of space warp, which he described as "a nightmare inside a nightmare." The world is obviously artificial, given that you can travel downstream from the swamp and end up back at the swamp without ever turning around. But now we're starting to see some of the machinery behind the world, which suggests that the Marshalls may be able to work that machinery themselves some day. (Albeit with risk. These controls are in the Lost City, which swarms with Sleestak.)

Unexpected twist. Enik is convinced the Sleestak are his ancestors, and why shouldn't they be? They're stupider, slower, and less advanced in every way. I can't imagine any viewer expects the Altrusians to predate the Sleestak, any more than Enik does.

Real fears. While a lot of kids shows have struggles like "How can I be popular?" or "How can I rescue him without revealing that I'm a mermaid?" the Marshalls just want to go home. Wesley Eure overacted a bit in this episode, and so did Spencer Milligan, but there has never been a child alive who hasn't been lost or separated from home and worried about never getting back.

Decent message. It's a kids show, so of course there's a moral. Rick Marshall puts it best: It's not enough just to control your emotions and not give into them; you also have to show empathy for others.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

land of the lost: 'tag team'

I keep writing about "Land of the Lost" as though it were a sci-fi adventure show, and it is; but for all the sophistication underlying the show, it's also a children's show, with all that goes along with that.

Fifth episode "Tag Team" is a lesson about cooperation. When the Marshalls go hunting for vegetables, their neighbors the Pakuni keep raiding their cart and stealing the gigantic carrots and turnips as soon as their backs are turned. (Food plants grow to enormous size in the Land of the Lost. Carrots are 3 feet long, strawberries are the size of basketballs, and a turnip is the size of an Ottoman.)

While the six of them threaten one another and yell about the vegetables, Grumpy returns and chases them away, breaking off pursuit only when they break into two groups; but since Cha-Ka has remained with the Marshalls, the conflict continues. Before long, they're being pursued not only by Grumpy but also by an allosaurus the Marshalls have named Alice -- and then the children all get trapped by themselves.

Eventually things work out, as they always do in these situations, but the episode is made ironically amusing as Rick Marshall explains his rescue plan to Ta and Sa, the other two Pakuni, through the time-tested means of speaking English very loudly and gesturing a lot with his hands in hopes that he'll be understood.

The Pakuni distract Grumpy and Alice while Rick rescues the children, and afterward the Marshalls show the Pakuni how to work together to harvest their own vegetables. Cooperation. It's such a nice lesson to pass on, especially when it involves running for your life from dinosaurs.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

land of the lost: 'downstream'

The mystery of the Land of the Lost deepens in "Downstream," as Rick Marshall leads his children on a rafting expedition downstream to see if they can find a way out of the land.

Along the way the episode sets up a number of mysteries about its setting. First is Jefferson Davis Collie, a Civil War artilleryman. Second is the cave where he lives and excavates jewels that store and direct large amounts of energy, enough that Rick speculates that they may be the power source for the time portal that brought theme there. Third, the show establishes that the land is finite and self-contained; heading downstream ultimately just leads back to the same point. Lastly, this is the first episode to mention Pylons.

As episodes go, this one was lackluster and not particularly exciting. But it does reveal just how intricate a world David Gerrold had created as a setting for the show. It's no surprise that 40 years after the show aired, my daughter right now is creating her own pretend Land of the Lost.