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I am, as has been stated in the past, a true believer in the importance of the arts. Artistic expression, in all of its myriad forms, is a foundational part of culture and, by extension, civilization. As a supporter of the arts, I am an active member of my local community theater. No, I have not “tread the boards” as the expression goes, but I have prowled the offstage areas doing everything from selling tickets to directing shows. One thing that anyone involved in live theater will tell you is the difficulty you often have staging productions. That is not to say our theater is not selling tickets. In fact, this summer I co-directed a major musical with my lovely wife and directed a piece in an evening of one acts, both to very brisk ticket sales.

Ticket sales aren’t the biggest problem for you average non-profit community theater. Usually you can depend on friends and family of cast and crew to help generate word of mouth to sell a show. The real problem these days often lies in staffing a show. Most theatergoers have no idea how many people are involved in the productions they attend. Casting can be hard enough with dwindling audition numbers in many cases, but filling out a crew can be very near impossible. Much of this is due to many skilled contributors (choreographers, vocal directors, lighting and sound designers, etc.) becoming increasingly unable or unwilling to volunteer their services, but the problem goes deeper than that.

The truth of the matter is that it is becoming more and more difficult for arts organizations to remain relevant in an era of Netflix and Pokemon GO. Technology has made it easy for anyone to stream the latest season of their favorite show or play a new and addictive game right in the palm of their hand. Screen time has become the most prevalent part of our day and we simply don’t have the time or motivation to do something that tears us away from the screen.

I understand the draw of it. I have been known to be pulled into the vortex myself. But, I think it is sad how often I see couples sitting in restaurants glues to their phones instead of talking to one another. Or kids more absorbed with Minecraft than Legos. As time progresses we, as a society are experiencing more and more of the world through the electronic viewfinder of our smartphone screens and we are, as a culture, suffering.

I know it is not realistic to ask everyone to give up their smartphones. I know that I would be one of the first to tell you where to go if you suggested that to me. But, if we could all make an effort to experience the world with our own senses, unfiltered by the Retina display and stereo speakers, we might rediscover what makes everything so rich around us. Museums, theaters, concert halls, and the like are out there beckoning you in. Trust me when I say the experience is much more breathtaking with the phone is your pocket.

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I sat in the theater a few nights ago watching the cast rehearsing “Fiddler on the Roof” distractedly trying to calculate ways to get set changes choreographed more efficiently when my mind snapped out of its musings for a short while.  Arrayed before me, the men of our cast were giving me a window on life in the shtetls of late nineteenth century Russia.  They were, in fact, about to launch into the song “To Life” when something told me to stop being a stage manager for a moment and just listen.

That’s when I heard the words that brought a few things into focus for me.

God would like us to be joyful even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.

I had heard the words over and over again in the past few months, but for some reason, that night they struck home.  In these days, we all have hearts panting on the floor.  Times are hard everywhere.  We all worry about making ends meet, keeping our children and loved ones safe, and what the future might hold.

And yet, God would like us to be joyful.

It is in these times, when the storm clouds seem so dark and threatening, that we need the light of joy.  Joy shines brightest in these times.  And, truth be told, despite all of our hardships there is always a reason to find joy.

I admit, as cynical as I can be I am the worst culprit out there when it comes to refusing to find joy.  In fact, today has been a prime example of that.  My heart is definitely panting on the floor.  But, that moment of clarity came rushing back to me and I realized that there is much joy to be found around me if I can see through the fog of despair that threatens to settle around me.

Despair is easy.  Joy can be hard.  But, which would you rather have?  Sometimes, despite the effort it takes to clear away the shadows and gloom, the effort is worth it when the light hits your face and restores your faith.

Within Temptation had this to say in one of their songs:

Where is the edge of your darkest emotions?

Why does it all survive?

Where is the light of your deepest devotions?

I pray that it’s still alive.

We need to find that edge to our darkest emotions.  We need to push past that edge back into the light of joy and devotion.  This has nothing to do with religion, but it has a lot to do with faith and spirituality.

Have faith that there is joy out there for you.  Seek out the edge of the darkness, break through it, and bask in the redeeming light of joy.  Rekindle your devotion to that light, whatever it is for you.

Our hearts might be panting on the floor, but we can still walk in the light.

The other day as I was walking the aisles of the local Giant shopping for the various and sundry items of sustenance that every household needs I happened on an odd thing.  You see, my wife and I will often purchase the “On The Go” sticks made by brands like Crystal Light or Kool-Aid to flavor bottled water.  We each have our favorite flavors, but we agree on one thing.  The Cherry Kool-Aid, it is, in fact, the best.  I’m sure that a part of this is nostalgia for childhood when there would be pitchers of the stuff in the refrigerator.  But, somehow, Kool-Aid is always a good bet.

I have purchased the Cherry Kool-Aid sticks on a few occasions, but on this particular occasion there was none to be had.  Of greater concern, there did not appear to be an empty spot where the currently sold out Cherry Kool-Aid should reside.  Yes, there was Tropical Punch, but this simply will not do when you want the Cherry.

When I mentioned this state of affairs to my wife she suggested that I try that paragon of online shopping, Amazon.  She made a good call.  Cherry On-The-Go Kool-Aid is, in fact, available through Amazon.  (As is the also tasty Grape flavor which I have never seen on store shelves, but I digress.)  But, my excitement for the prospect of Cherry goodness was suddenly intruded upon when I noticed some of the comments on the item.  It seems that many people have been faced with the same situation which caused me such consternation.  Apparently, Cherry Kool-Aid, in the On-The-Go format, has been disappearing from the shelves of grocers everywhere.

This sent a shiver up my spine.  It is an eerily familiar tale, for many years ago Cherry Pez suffered a similar fate.

Now, some may say that Cherry Pez is a myth.  A flight of fancy created in the mind of a somewhat unstable blogger.  But, I tell you it existed!  There is eve mention of the phenomenon in “Stand By Me” when Vern insists that the decision of a single food for the rest of his life is an easy choice: “Pez, Cherry flavored Pez.”

What does all this mean, though?  As usual, we here at the Jungle Gym have the answers for you.  But, I warn you, the facts are disturbing.

It is, in fact, a conspiracy.  A war, if you will, against the cherry.

It is a slow process.  Those aligned against the cherry are taking no chances.  They are carefully removing the cherry from our society one product at a time.  But, mark my words, the insidious plot will not stop.  Soon, you will not be able to get Cherry Coke or Wild Cherry Pepsi.  Then, music will begin disappearing from record stores and iTunes by Wild Cherry and Buckcherry.  Suddenly, you won’t be able to buy a cherry-shaped air freshener for your car or win with cherries on a slot machine.  And finally, and most insidiously, your sundae will be delivered to you without any maraschino cherry to top it.

Anarchy will ensue.  Civilization will fall.  And the perpetrators will laugh at our folly.

I haven’t yet determined the masterminds behind this as of yet, but I have my suspicions.  It is my belief that the strawberry is deeply involved.  It has been jealous for years of the fact that cherry has taken the color red in most candies and flavored items.  And, quite frankly, how can you trust a fruit that so blatantly displays its seeds on the outside.

Fight back, my friends.  Don’t let chaos engulf our world for want of a cherry!

Every once in a while as we travel trough this crazy world we suddenly are struck by something that just seems wrong.  Maybe it’s the phrasing of a comment we overhear or the text on a billboard, but we mentally stop in our tracks and consider why something just seems out of place.

In moments like these we often learn two things:

1) Everyone’s head will go to the naughty interpretation of things every once in a while.

– AND-

2) Sometimes we don’t really think about how what we say or write will be interpreted.

I had one of these moments last week, and believe it or not it all starts with a church.  Now, I am not going to name the church in question, and while I considered getting photographic evidence, I decided against it as the church in question identifies itself on the sign in question.  But, this, to me, is a demonstration of just how important it can be to get a few opinions on titles before you elect to publish them.

It is, as we all know from the ridiculous heat, summertime.  And, one of the traditions of American summer is Vacation Bible School.  I went to VBS when I was a kid.  Heck, I even worked as an aide one summer.  It is a wholesome tradition which allows kids to have some fun, makes some crafts, play with friends, and have a their faith explored just a little more.

In short, it’s good, clean, Mayberry-style Americana.

One of the trends in Vacation Bible School over the last decade or so has been to have a theme and name for the school.  Maybe we’re going to be ocean explorers.  Maybe this year we will visit the stars.  Or see the world by train.  All while sharing fun and fellowship with our friends and neighbors.

Or, maybe we’re going to have an Indiana Jones style adventure!  Yeah, that would be fun!  But, this is Vacation Bible School, so it needs a name that sounds, well….biblical.

These must have been the thoughts going through the minds of the individuals creating the program used at the church that made my mind make a mental full stop.  It was all, I am certain, intended to convey a sense of fun and adventure.  But, I have to wonder how many people were actually part of this planning.  I can’t imagine that this name slipped past too many individuals without someone saying something.

I mean, is it me or does “Jeremiah Stones and the Race for the Hidden Treasure” not sound like a bad porn movie?

I’m just saying.

Hello, all.

It has been some time since I wrote a weekly MovieDruid post.  For those who were, and hopefully will be again, my loyal readers I certainly apologize for my absence.  Life is a funny thing, and it will often throw you curveballs that require some adjustments.  I think I have gotten my adjustments in place enough that my posting should become a bit more regularly.

But, such things are not why we are here today.  Today we are here to once again address one of my favorite questions: “What movies were released this week?”

That, my friends, I shall answer forthwith…..

“Friends With Benefits”

Friends With BenefitsTrailer

Synopsis: Dylan and Jamie think it’s going to be easy to add the simple act of sex to their friendship, despite what Hollywood romantic comedies would have them believe. They soon discover, however, that getting physical really does always lead to complications.

MovieDruid’s Comments: I don’t understand exactly how many times Hollywood thinks it can make this movie and continue to make money.  It’s like a game for them.  Make a few alterations to the script.  Throw in a few new stars.  Bam, more money, same old story.  I know that Hollywood seems stuck in a holding pattern of uninspired material and remakes recently, but come on was it that long since “No Strings Attached.” (As an interesting side note, when I searched IMDb for “Friends With Benefits” the aforementioned “No Strings Attached” was the first result not this film.)  This one does have Mila Kunis (“The Book of Eli” & “Max Payne”), Justin Timberlake (“The Social Network” & the hilarious Liqourville sketch from SNL), and Woody Harrelson (“White Men Can’t Jump” & “A Scanner Darkly”), but even that is most likely not enough to raise this to this beyond its uninspired roots.

“Captain America: The First Avenger”: MovieDruid Pick of the Week

Trailer

Synopsis: “Captain America: The First Avenger” will focus on the early days of the Marvel Universe when Steve Rogers volunteers to participate in an experimental program that turns him into the Super Soldier known as Captain America. As Captain America, Rogers joins forces with Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter to wage war on the evil HYDRA organization, led by the villainous Red Skull.

MovieDruid’s Comments: It’s no secret that I am a comic book geek.  In my youth, Marvel was my publisher, and, unlike my friends who were X-Men guys, I was all about the Avengers.  Thus, the release of films like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have had me giddy, but the ultimate Avenger had not been given a proper big screen treatment.  That ends now, Cap is finally here.  Marvel has finally managed to get its ball rolling good and we’re seeing its properties really explode onto the screen.  This film is an important one for fans.  Cap is a cornerstone, and this film is one of the final pieces to be put in place before they tackle the Avengers as a team next summer.  And, I am generally happy with the pedigree here.  The directorial reins were given to Joe Johnston (“Hidalgo” & “October Sky”) who has a pretty solid eye.  And, of course, the cast looks pretty good overall with Hugo Weaving “V for Vendetta” & “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) as our villain and Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive” & “Double Jeopardy”) and others in good supporting roles.  My one complaint in the casting is Chris Evans (“The Fantastic Four” & “The Losers”) in the title role.  The complaint is hardly his talent, he is a solid performer.  My question is: Why cast an actor who is already established in a Marvel role as another character?  Granted the chances of FF/Avengers crossovers are remote, but now they are difficult, if not impossible.  Maye that’s just the fanboy in me talking.

When the shuttle Atlantis touched down yesterday it marked the official end of the space shuttle program at NASA.  For those, like myself, who grew up in the early days of the shuttle program it is the end of an era.  I remember vividly sitting in darkened classrooms glued to a television as Columbia launched into space in the early days.  I remember the shock and sadness of watching Challenger explode in the sky. The shuttle program was a formative part of American culture in the ’80’s and it will always be filled with both tragedy and triumph in my mind.

Was it time for the shuttles to be retired?  Probably.   The shuttle program was beginning to show its age and it was time for the workhorse space vehicles to be put out to pasture, but I still have issues with the current situation at NASA.

My problem is that the current administration has seen fit to slash the budget to the space agency so severely that programs are being scrapped, jobs are being lost, and a serious blow to our scientific infrastructure in this country.

Now, I understand that many people feel that the space program is something we can live without, particularly in light of the current economic and debt situations.  I couldn’t disagree more.  The space program is a vital and integral part of our nation.  It has provided incredible opportunities for scientific advancement and understanding that would not have been possible otherwise.  In this era of declining American competitiveness in scientific and technological fields, killing off programs that endeavor to advance our scientific prowess seems like a major misstep.

And, in my mind, there is another consequence of this that seems to be overlooked by most pundits and politicians debating these facts: the dreams of our youth.  When I was growing up being an astronaut was one of those big dreams that seemed to sweep up every kid at some point.  The idea of floating up there among the stars was a fantasy that everyone has felt at one time or another.  I know that for many of my friends the space program was a reason to work that much harder in math and science classes.

Now we have a space program that is on life support.  What does that do to those dreams?  Our nation has seen a downward spiral in performance by our youth in math and science, do we really want to take away something that gets them interested in these subjects?

I have heard all the arguments about the private sector taking over spaceflight.  And, I know that many organizations are working to do just that.  But, the commercialization of space is not a replacement for the kind of work in hard science that the individuals at our science agencies perform.  A company that develops a service to ferry people into space if they have the money is not going to conduct high-end experiments that expand our understanding of the universe we live in.  Commercial enterprises are not going to probe the depths of space to learn more about the physics that rule our lives.

I have to say, I think history will look back at the landing of the shuttle yesterday as the beginning of the end for American science if we don’t find some way to properly fund NASA and our other science agencies.

I think I might have a super power.

I know what you’re thinking.  I’ve finally gone off the deep end and have lost the few scraps of sanity left to me.  I disagree.  The evidence has been right there in front of me for years, I’ve just chosen to ignore it.  But, I think I have to accept it, I’m special.  And, no, I’m not talking “special” in the sense that you say a friend who is a moron is “special.”

So, now that I’ve figured out that I have this power, how can I give it back.  What is this power, this ability, I claim to have and so cavalierly wish to give up?  I have the uncanny ability to get sick any time there is a holiday, vacation, or other event planned.

Now, I’m not saying it happens every single time, but the percentages are lodged solidly in the over 75% range.  This past weekend was no exception.  I had been feeling fine, not a sign of trouble, until Saturday morning.  Upon awaking I found the beginnings of a sore throat had taken hold.  By the end of the day a full-fledged cold with all the trimmings was joyfully kicking my ass.

<sigh>

The illness is never terribly severe.  Oh, it’s enough to make things much less than fun.  And it certainly is enough to make me prone to bouts of crankiness and fatigue.  But, generally speaking, I do my best to ignore and/or medicate the symptoms and soldier on in an attempt to make something of the holiday, trip, or whatever that the germs are trying their best to disrupt.

I am beginning to believe that my body produces a pheromone of some sort.  It only begins to seep out when I start to feel anticipation for an upcoming event, and the closer the event comes, the stronger the pheromone gets.  It must be like a siren’s song to germs, calling out to them with promises of their own holiday cookouts in my lungs and sinuses.

And it must be one hell of a party.

So, please, if anyone knows where I can go to turn in this wonderful ability of mine, please, let me know.  I would even consider paying a disposal charge if that sort of thing is necessary.  After all, head colds and triple-h days (hazy/hot/humid not the wrestler) are not a good combination.

My writing on the blog recently has been more than a little random.  I apologize for that fact, as I have many other times.  I’d like to say it won’t happen anymore, but we all know that probably isn’t the case.  The reasons are many and manifold ,  but they boil down to two big things.  First, my muse hasn’t exactly been working overtime lately and, thus, my voice has been more difficult to find.  And, second, I don’t want this to be a place where I do nothing but vent and whine.  Nobody wants to hear it, and I need to keep my mind pointed in a more positive direction.

That said, this post is very likely going to veer quickly in a melancholy direction.

I have made a lot of mistakes in my life.  I guess everyone can say that.  But, the problem with my personal load of mistakes is that some of them are real doozies.  One of the biggest was my decision to cut myself off from my family.  Looking back now I understand that it was a decision born of cowardice, selfishness, and weakness.  I’ve come to accept that about myself, and I am trying to fix it.  I have been working to reestablish those ties and be the son and brother that I should have been all those years I was gone.

Unfortunately, in many ways the old saying “you can never go home” has a certain truth to it.

One of the things I learned early on as I began to do the work that would eventually reunite me with my family was that my mother passed away in May of 2006.  It was devastating news that I have never truly been able to come to terms with.  It’s funny, you grow up in this world and think that you learn something about grief and regret as you go, but life has a way of showing you that you don’t know anything.

I have come to hate the month of May since I got that news.  May is now a rapid fire succession of days reminding me of my failure as a son, a brother, and a man.  After all, last Sunday was Mother’s Day.  Yesterday was the anniversary of my mother’s passing.  And this Saturday is her birthday.

Susan Ford was one of the best people I have ever known.  I know that many people will smile and nod at that while thinking I am deifying my mother now that she is gone.  Perhaps, but the evidence would be to the contrary.  She was much loved by not only her family but also by her students who apparently showed up in droves for her memorial service.

I say apparently because I was not there.  I was not there to hug and comfort my father as he mourned the loss of his soulmate and the love of his life.  I was not there to hold my sister’s hand while she dealt with the sudden absence of her mother and friend.  I was not there standing beside my brother as we tried to lend each other strength.

I was not there.  I wasn’t even aware that there was a “there” I should have been. I never said goodbye.  I never told her I loved her.  And, God help me, I never said I’m sorry.

Yesterday afternoon I got in my car to pick my wife up from work.  It was a normal set of actions that I do without thinking that included plugging in my iPhone for music.  This time, however, I skipped straight to a song my sister had gifted to me a few months ago on iTunes.  The song was “Holly Holy” by Neil Diamond, one of many songs by Neil Diamond and James Taylor that will forever conjure images of mom.  I drive through now familiar streets on autopilot, not really seeing what was around me, losing myself in that song, singing along softly. And I remembered.

There is no way I can ever make this particular hurt right.  Not with my father or siblings.  Not with my mother.  Not even with myself.  It is a hurt that will never really go away and a grief I suffer with alone.  That’s just the way of things and the consequences of a terrible mistake.  I can live with that.

But, this May, I hope that somehow, somewhere my mother is looking down on me and that she understands how much I love her.  How much I miss her.  Everything that is good in me, everything that makes me anything approaching a worthwhile person, starts and ends with the influence of my parents and siblings.  My mother is owed the credit for all that is good in me.

I love you, Mom.  I hope you know that.

While driving my wife to work today I commented on a strange epiphany that hit me a few days ago when driving along that same road past the local community swimming pool.  The pool had caught my eye because they have begun the preparations necessary to ready it for opening, a sensible thing since May has arrived, I suppose.

But, I digress.

The thing that struck me that day as I drove by the pool was the fact that the concept of pools is simply an extension of natural animal instinct.  Throughout nature you can find examples of animals seeking out bodies of water, whether they be lakes, streams or watering holes, to cool off in the warmer months.  All  of us have seen the nature films of zebras and hippos at play in their African watering holes, after all.

The pool is an obvious extension of this instinct.  When it gets hot, jump in the water to cool off.  Simple enough.  The thing that struck me, though, was how we, as human beings, have managed to create a watering hole which belongs exclusively to us.  We don’t have to watch for predators or unsavory visitors that bring the ambiance of the place down. (well, perhaps we haven’t really solved that one yet)

We have, for all intents and purposes, made an exclusive club with a “Humans Only” sign prominently displayed outside.

When I explained my reasoning to my wife she made the comment that this type of instinctual extension is not limited to the pools.  Grocery stores, after all, are a similar extension of the hunting/gathering instinct.  And, once again, we have managed to find a way to concentrate our food into an exclusive location where we don’t have to compete with other species.  The closest thing to competition here is who will grab that last can on Pringles when they go on sale.

The examples are everywhere, but when you look at it from that angle it makes for an interesting view.  Our evolution as a species can, in some ways, be viewed as the founding of an exclusive fraternity or social club.  You just have to have the right genus and species to get in.  We will, of course, invite the occasional outsider into the club, but all in all it is fairly exclusive.

I know it is an oversimplification, but given the way we have endeavored to separate ourselves from the rest of the world as a superior species, can it really come as any kind of surprise that, with that mission accomplished, we now turn on each other and look for reasons our particular group is vastly superior to the others?  We as a species seem to thrive on the conceit that we have overcome all others and sit at the top of the heap.

Perhaps.  But, perhaps it is that very part of our nature, the thing that drives us to have a sense of superiority over those with whom we share this tiny plant, that will be our downfall.  Maybe, just maybe, that is what will tear us apart as a species.  Ego, self-righteousness, and the whole spectrum of other issues lead to one thing.

Hubris.

It may be time to reexamine our place in this world.  Nature has, after all, given us some pretty hard evidence lately.

I woke up this morning to hear my radio telling me that Osama bin Laden is dead.  I sat dumbfounded as I listened to the newsreader tell me about how Navy SEALs stormed a compound in Pakistan and killed him during the ensuing firefight.

It was a moment of astonishment.

There have been a few of those in the near decade since that fateful day in September of 2001.  The world changed that day in ways that can never really be put right.  And, since that day the world has hunted for the man considered responsible.  We have searched mountains and caves.  WE have lost good men and women in the fight against his confederates and supporters.

And now, he’s dead.

The reaction in many place has been celebration.  But, I have to admit that somehow celebration doesn’t feel like the right response to me.  I don’t feel joy or happiness at this news.  It is hard to feel happiness from the news that any man is dead, no matter how evil and deserving they were.  No, what I feel is more akin to a combination of relief and justice.

Relief may seem like a silly thing to feel.  It takes but a moment’s consideration to realize that the removal of one man, no matter how highly placed or charismatic, will not stem the tide of violence and terrorism.  The truth is that another has probably already stepped into his place, maybe even more than one other.  The man can now become a symbol for his movement, which in some ways makes him more dangerous than he was before.  But, I have to believe that men with such hate and violence in their hearts and souls are a cancer on the spirit of this planet.

And so, while I do not cheer for the violent death of a fellow human being, I am glad that this particular cancer has been excised.  The world in a better place with him removed.

Justice is a little more obvious, at least for those of us on this side of the issues.  Here was a man who plotted to end the lives of thousands of my countrymen.  A man who brought fear, terror, and loss of liberty to a place that should be a beacon of hope and freedom.  The acts committed in his name darkened the world with a cloud of fear that will never completely dissipate.

Much violence has been waged in the intervening period.  And we are not without fault in that violence.  But, you will have to forgive me if I feel a certain satisfaction in this death stemming from a grim sense that in some small way the scales have been balanced.  This will not bring back a single soul that has lost their life, whether in the incidents of September 11 or their aftermath, but knowing bin Laden is dead can bring a certain level of closure to the madness that has infected out nation psyche since that day.

I saw many things across my Facebook account today regarding this event.  But, perhaps the most accurate for how I feel in this matter came from a man who was a close friend in high school who simply quoted Mark Twain.

I have never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.

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