Monday, July 24, 2006

One hat to rule them all

My hat - the one pictured - has been through a lot.

Two presidents, two or three girlfriends, six or seven living arrangements, a Bachelor's degree, two wars, and upteen trips to upteen states. I may have even worn it on September 11.

The summer before sophomore year, my step-mom Becky took us school shopping. We went to Lansing, and it was the first time I'd been to an Old Navy. Exploring the store, they had a set of hats on sale - most of them khaki-colored, and simple designs - and I needed a new one. I had been wearing the same 49ers hat since I was a junior in high school, so I was due for an upgrade.

Shopping through the hats, I found one that fit perfectly. No other one came close. It was like we were bound by destiny to find each other.

Which is why I still have it, six years later (almost exactly).

It's still khaki, but more of a I've-seen-the-world-and-lived-to-tell-about-it khaki. An Indiana Jones khaki.

After a few runs through the washer, the edges of the bill are starting to fray. Sweat and soaked through to the front side. The buckle in the back no longer works.

But Jesus, I love that hat.

I've never found one that's even come close to its perfection. I've owned a few hats since buying the "Old Navy 2000" one - Dayna bought me a great one: green, with "Brooklyn NYC" on it (I thought it was cool just to have "Brooklyn" on a hat), and I wear it once in a while. I also have one for work events, and a few goofy hats here and there. But my Old Navy hat goes with everything, and it's usually my first pick.

Wait, stop. What am I talking about? "Usually?" It's always my first pick.

Lately, though, I've been getting comments like, "You're still wearing that?" And there's usually a little disgust (but I think a little jealousy) in the tone of voice.

But I say, to hell with everyone. That hat has carried me through the greatest years of my life. It's seen everything and everyone I've seen. And dammit all, it still fits like a charm.

This weekend at Dayna'sI met Deb, and she loved my hat too. I'm always a little self-conscious about my hair...

....wait. Stop. "A little?" Jesus, who am I kidding? I'm downright anal.

But anyway, she took off my hat and wore it while we played flippy-cup. I was okay with it being gone for a while, but then I got antsy (even as drunk as I was). I needed that hat on my head.

And so, much like Frodo's ring, it has become a part of me. It's my precious.

I'm wearing the thing until no amount of duct tape and sacrificial lamb's blood can save it.

If you're lucky, I'll let you wear it too.

- - - - -

This weekend was like an ex-girlfriend roundup, Rob Gordon-style. Leah at IKEA, Dayna at her going-away party, and (perhaps?) Katie on the drive home, all I was missing was a few key people on the in-between.

It was nice to be accepted back into Daynas circle: her friends, her family, and even her new boyfriend. At times it was like I never left.

The most touching, though, was when Days dad Mike put his hand on my shoulder, shook my hand, and told me I was welcome at his house anytime I was in the neighborhood.

I meant what I said, he said before he left.

Later, when I was plastered-drunk, and climbing the stairs to the guest room to sleep, I could hear him sleeping, and I thought about all the times before I heard the same thing. About all the time we picked on each other, over breakfast or out on the deck. About how he welcomed me into his home all the times before, for almost two years, and about how much all that meant to me (and about how much that's all been fucked up recently).

I miss it. All of it. But I dont regret how things have turned out since then, and how life has changed so much.

But maybe what this weekend taught me was, sometimes life doesnt change as much as we think.

My visit with Leah while she was at work was a little awkward. Usually, we find all kinds of things to talk about. We catch up, we goof around, just like we always do. This time, though, was different. I asked her about her job, and how it was going, and it started to feel like an question/answer session.

I feel like Im interviewing you, I said.

Her life has changed a lot more than mine - a fiance, a kid, and a new life in a new part of the state will do that. Despite all the time, however, we can still be friends and enjoy each others company, however briefly.

Just the way it should be, I guess. And I wouldn't have been surprised if I would've seen that mysterious, disappearing ex. But it was not to be.

Maybe that's a good thing.

- - - - -

And finally, here's to summer.

Here's to walleye fish-fries, and eating dinner out on the deck, and sweating on the way home from work in my shirt and tie and slacks.

Here's to visiting friends, and heading to the lake to swim, and sun burns that make your entire body peel.

Here's to meeting exciting new people, and revisiting friends, and to staying home most nights and doing my own thing. In shorts and sandals.

Here's to summer. May it never end.

Monday, July 17, 2006

On Superman

[It was while watching "Superman Returns" that some ideas and feelings I've had about Superman - particularly, my disgust - gelled, and became the following. Far from scholarly or even well-researched, I guess this is just some thoughts I've been thinking about since the "Doomsday" series back in the early '90s, when Superman "died." I've always had a big beef with the anti-underdog, especially in comics, but I do respect Superman because it was him who Started it All in the 1930s. All heroes, in some form or another, can trace their roots back to Kal-El - or at least to Kal-El's roots.

But still, I just can't root for the guy. Here's why...]


The idea for a Superman came long before Seigel and Schusters Depression-era funny book incarnation. Humans have lived with the super probably since we first learned to think and talk. Gods, demi-gods, angels, and aliens are all manifestation of our need for something more-than-human. A super human ideal has given us something to strive for and something to believe in.

So its no surprise that our modern Superman follows much the same pattern as previous super-folk did: a traveler from a distant planet, who experiences a life alien to his own, develops powers beyond the scope of mortal men and uses them to affect benevolent change. Despite much overhaul over Supermans 70-year history, his story is still iconic: like Moses, he was whisked away to safety as a child, growing up and learning about his true responsibilities. His father, like Jesuss own, ordained him as a savior-of-sorts for humankind (this borrowing also hints at the Golem of Jewish lore). Our Superman uses a disguise to mask his extraordinary gifts, and develops a life outside of his otherwordly persona, so that he can life a normal life while still doing deeds of derring-do, much as the Greek gods would transform into mere mortals to have sex or enact revenge on the humans below Olympus.

The Greeks developed a soap-opera pantheon of gods because they could reflect upon their own passions and realize that even the beings that shape the world (like politicians and celebrities today) have faults, and they make for outstanding stories. In this, Superman acts as Clark Kent to experience the hum-drum daily life of an ordinary American who works a regular job and falls in love with a spunky co-worker. Much like the Greek gods, this charade isnt necessary: he has the power to forego any disguise and merely take what he wants through brute force (as the Olympians often did). What makes him a superhero, however, is that he doesnt use his superhuman powers to bully his way into happiness. This, weve learned, is because he was raised by a hard-working pair of Kansas farmers, the Kents, who taught him to value truth, justice, and the American way.

Its this ideal that leads Superman into Earth-saving adventures as a kind of protector of the planet. Batman and the Flash (in the DC Comics universe) can help the downtrodden or the robbed business owner, but it is Superman - and usually Superman alone - who can stop earthquakes and asteroids from raining certain doom on the Earth. Superman is nothing more than a colorful (and even-tempered) Jupiter, a paternal protector who sees his powers as a responsibility to help those that - far down, on the planet below - cant help themselves.

How, then, can we identify with Superman? What is it about him that endears us - for more than 75 years now - and places him on the pedestal in the American mythology?

It certainly cant be his abilities, although any Futurist with a lust for power or an awkward teen who wishes for stability in an awkward time can desire the fantastic ability to fly at will, or to level whole mountain ranges with a well-placed punch. Superman is indeed super - so super that his powers are unmatched in the super hero world. He lacks only the power to manipulate reality itself to become truly godlike. Flight, invulnerability, super strength, heat vision, cold breath - the Platonic four elements of nature brought to life. Supermans only weakness is Kryptonite, the radioactive remains of his homeworld, which so far have not proved sufficient in defeating him. The reach of his powers stretches so far, in fact, that in the 1980s (with the help of John Byrne), DC dampened his powers in a revolutionary retelling of the Superman story (see the Man of Steel series). Prior to the mid 80s, Superman could run near or past the speed of light, leaving him at odds with the laws of the known universe (and therefore truly godlike, since reality would seemingly not apply to him). It may be only Batman, whos superior intellect and vast cunning, could undo and sidestep Supermans might by exploiting any known weaknesses. All this power makes Superman an ideal, since no mortal - even aided by todays or the near futures technology - could come close to replicating Kal-Els abilities.

Supermans altruistic philosophy is also the stuff of legend, and therefore leaves him unworthy of our sympathy. If Supermans job is to protect his adopted people, what are we to think of all the crimes and terrors that he cant save us from? He cant be everywhere at once, of course. So do we accept that Superman can only help out when and where he can? And do we leave it up to him which duties to take on? Frank Miller, in the amazing Dark Knight Returns series, saw this potential for exploition by making Superman a tool of the Reagan administration to wreck havoc on the Soviets and furthur extend Americas military capabilities. Who, after all, can stand up to a nation that has Superman on its side?

But why America? Why not Britain, say, or India? One could argue that it is Supermans adopted home of Kansas that leads him to fondness for the U.S.A., but would an alien being - with no real ties to this planet - really pick a small square of Midwestern land to identify with? Is this why we identify with Superman, because he calls the geographical and (some might say) emotional center of the country?

Supermans secret identity, Clark Kent, is an extension of Kal-Els attempts at fitting in on Earth. While Kal-El himself has often argued that Clark is the real personality, while Superman is merely an extension of Kal-Els awesome abilities, its hard not to think that Clark is merely Kal-El pretending to be human. While his roots in the Kents are strong, he still acts as mild-mannered Clark Kent, a bumbling, shy, introverted reporter. The fear of being found out as Superman is nil (even Lex Luthor said that no mere mortal, everyday human could be as powerful as Superman, and no one think to look for Supermans identity in the average Joe, making - as Batman even said - Supermans disguise a perfect one), but he still hides his Kansas- and Krypton-born identities behind glasses and a reporters notebook. Perhaps its his lack of any measurable personal life that makes the personna of Clark Kent ring hollow - as opposed to Peter Parker, Spider-Man, who spends most of his days not as the superhero but as a married schoolteacher. Peter Parker is a human given extraordinary powers, while Kal-El is an alien with powers who acts human.

Part of the act is to protect Earth and its citizens from harm. But why? Supermans adopted responsibility is purely benevolent. Unlike, say, Batman - who watched his parents die before his eyes - or Spider-Man - who was responsible for his uncles death - Superman has witnessed no trauma or life-altering circumstances to shape his altruistic attitude. In Byrnes retelling, Kal-El saves the Earth from a crash-landing spaceship. Is that enough to make a hero? Or, more importantly, is the story instilled with enough sense of drama to make it believable? And how much drama can be infused in a story about a character who can survive a nuclear blast?

His incredible abilities, as mentioned before, also make Superman a less-than-identifiable hero. In some cases (Batman, Spider-Man) the sense of underdog gives us a reason to root for the hero. Batman has no superpowers - none at all - but defeats his ever-legendary rogues gallery through superior intellect and fear. Spider-Man is the constant underdog. Rarely do things even in his normal life go his way, and often he is found in circumstances (often on an intergalactic level) that are far beyond his scope. But with Superman, everything is within reason. Theres nothing really to root for because, even in death, we know Superman can never be defeated. He ages slowly, he may not need to eat (gaining his strength from our yellow sun, photosynthesis-like), hes invulnerable - its hard to cheer for a hero who has everything going his way.

In recent comics, in fact, writers have steadily increased his powers. Superman is - or has the potential to be - a god. Rare is the character that can match him, and often - when such a character is created - they become even more unbelievable powered than Kal-El.

Despite his rural roots, Superman continues to exist outside the sphere of human understanding. While mortal, his powers are so great that to define his as mortal is to stretch the words meaning. Perhaps capable of death, however unlikely is more appropriate. But still Superman remains in the lore and stories of 20th- and 21st-century America. Indeed, he is among the pantheon of the modern gods, existing in that murky realm between science fiction and the Ubermensch, a way to help us make sense of and be hopeful of the universe around us. Sent to Earth to save humans from whatever ills befall them, Superman is our protector - and like religious protectors, his very being lies just outside our comprehension. Could such a being exist and, if so, would he be as benevolent as he is in the comic books and movies he appears in?

The stories continue, and we are always left with our imagination.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Just like riding a bike

"With my belly full I intended to get something done." - The Tragically Hip, 'The Bear'

- - - - -

It was right about the time a giant mutant woodchuck went scrambling through the brush that I thought, "Jesus, maybe I'm in over my head."

My iPod shuffled through weirdly pastoral songs - "In Dreams" by Roy Orbison, "The Bear" by the Tragically Hip, "Once Upon a Time" by Smashing Pumpkins - and had long ago abandoned any sort of rational playlist for a sort of jived-up LSD trip through the backwoods of mid-Michigan.

I was riding like a werewolf down the Falling Water Trail, a semi-complete bike and walking path that goes west from Jackson to Concord. Only days before I had broken out the bike, filled the tire with air at the local gas station, and re-learned how to ride the damn thing on a sweaty Saturday.

It's been years since I've ridden my bike. Since at least junior year at AC, it had been sitting in the ATO basement, neglected and moldy, until I rescued it and took it in to the local bike shop for repairs after this year's graduation. I abandoned the beast when it blew a tire on my way to get popcorn at the Adrian Wesco the summer I lived on campus. I never thought about it after that, especially when I inherited "Das Boot": my grandpa's tank of a Mercury Grand Marquis. It was my only real transportation that summer of excess after sophomore year. It was a shame to put it down so harshly.

But since I've moved to Alpine Lake, I've caught the bike-riding bug. I take walks at Cascades Park and envy the bastard bikers speeding by.

It used to be that, as a kid, a bike circumnavigated your entire known world. Remember that? Remember when the bounderies of reality were bordered by how far you could pedal? Training wheels to look-Ma-no-hands, your freedom depended on how well you could handle your wheels and chain.

I remember going from the corner of 23rd and Michigan Ave, back in junior high, to downtown Jackson every week to stop into Nostalgia Ink for the latest comics. It had to have been a two- or three-mile trek, but I looked forward to that weekly ride. I'd stop and grab a Slushee at the now-closed drug store downtown, whiz by the monstrous mansions down West Washington, and throw the bike in the front yard (kick stand be damned!) to read the latest adventures of the Amazing Spider-Man.

That was my whole world in sixth and seventh grade.

Now I've traveled to the West Coast and back by myself, and I head to Detroit at least once or twice a month, in a car. But still, nothing compares to the freedom you felt as a kid when you kicked that kickstand and pedalled off, chores undone.

Not that I want to recreate that feeling now, but I fixed my bike to get some exercise, enjoy the summer air, and explore my neighborhood. Saturday, after I filled the front tire with air, it took a little getting used to, but - as they say - it was just like riding a you-know-what. I traveled around the apartment parking lot at first to get my bearings and to see if the tire would hold air. It did, so I went a little farther, into Ella Sharp Park next door, and tried the trails that criss-cross the park. The bike was fine. So I hit the Falling Water Trail to West Ave., pedalled up to the gas station, grabbed a Gatorade, and went a few more miles through Cascades and on back home. This is what I missed.

Today, after dinner, I hit the Falling Water again, just to see how far I could go. I went through the paved section, passing walkers, bunnies and rasberry bushes, onto the unpaved section. No skid-outs, no crashes (although a minor freak-out when I saw something brown with legs around my right ear), no problems at all until I hit a sand patch near a construction site. I slid, stopped, and decided that was as far as I was willing to go.

By now I had worked up a good sweat. I turned around and went back to West Ave, up the hill where all the beautiful Republican houses are, and took Fourth Street home. A beautiful day, and a wonderful ride.

Just like when I was a kid, I'm exploring places you just can't get to in a car. I'm even thinking about riding to work on Fridays, our dress-down days, just to see a different neighborhood each time I go.

When I'm alone, I find myself exploring.

But I'll really feel like an 11-year-old Dave when I can stand on the cross bar flying down a hill.

Who's with me?