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Muck & Mire

Ecclesiastes 9:11-12: I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

My new book Banner Over Me opens with this verse from Ecclesiastes, and I don’t think there’s a more fitting phrase to summarize the tone of the story. You don’t have to be religious to understand its meaning: bad things unexpectedly happen to innocent people. I italicize the word ‘innocent’ because that term is overabundantly used, but here innocent refers to the MC (main character) and our relationship with them in the stories we read and watch. We usually root for our MC, and if something bad happens to them, we get angry, especially if they didn’t deserve it.

I probably have 10-15 stories outlined and in the early brainstorming phases. Each of them has their own diverse cast and voice, but almost all follow the basic message that Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 says: some uncontrollable thing changes MC’s life and then they react to it. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s bad. Like, really bad. Ok, for the first three books I’m writing it’s all bad, but out of that bad comes a plethora of good. You just have to trek through the muck and the mire to get there.

The stories we love and talk about certainly have changed over the years.  We used to obsess over Happy Days and fret about the family dynamics in The Brady Bunch. Today, we can’t wait to see who dies next in Game of Thrones and we fantasize about lawless worlds overrun by zombies or apocalyptic nations where we can shoot and destroy anything we like. People used to freak out if someone died on their favorite show. Now, they freak out when no one does and declare that one of the ‘slow & boring’ episodes. We watch a lot of gritty and brutal stuff. Have our tastes changed that much over the years? Short answer: Not really. TV and movies are finally catching up to what books have been doing for centuries.

I could get into a long argument about censorship and language, but that’s not really what I’m getting at here. Sure, we’ve come a long way since “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” but what is it about these brutal, in your face stories that have us so interested lately, and has me so fascinated? What it boils down to is two things: our consumption of media and technology, and our changed view of The American Dream.

WWII is considered America’s great war. It was a time where men were hanging themselves if they were declared unfit for battle and unable to fight. Men and women who stayed home worked in factories to fund the war effort, or worked in hospitals to treat the wounded. Everyone was doing their part for the greater good, and out of that era spawned the largest generation in American History – Baby Boomers.  It was also a time where the church heavily controlled the atmosphere in Hollywood, and what could or couldn’t be made.

But then the 60s and Vietnam happened. Censorship in movies and TV began to waver, and our ability to see a brutal war at home on the news became easier.  There is plenty of gruesome footage from WWII, but what the Vietnam War did was show us what we didn’t want to see.  News media also allowed us to follow politicians’ every move.  Back in the day, people used to not care about Presidents as much as we do now. Really the only time they did was around election time, and the majority of America would vote for the same candidate. If you look at electoral maps from past elections, you’ll see how unified America was in voting. Some Presidents only lost one or two states! Now, because we consume so much news and media and gossip, we are able to accurately (and unfortunately, inaccurately) see what the world is up to. 9/11 also played a major role in storytelling. Compare pre-9/11 blockbusters to post. A lot has certainly changed.

Technology helps us uncover the truth or blankets it with lies.

But there’s only so much you can lie about. If I took a video camera right now and started filming the intersection near my house, and then let’s say there’s a car accident that happens in the next half hour, I can upload that footage, put it on the web, and show the entire world what happened. There may be a few skeptics, but the footage is undeniably, 100% authentic – Real Life.  Now let’s say it’s the same situation, but this time I simply see the accident take place. I certainly could tell people what happened afterward, but I may not have had the best angle when it happened. I might have forgotten that the blue truck was actually red. I might have forgotten that it was red truck’s fault and not green car.  I was actually texting during the whole thing, but I was there, man, so I know what happened. You just have to trust me.

Trust. Have fun with that in 2017.

Our incredible access to technology has allowed us to experience life in incredible new ways. We can see what other people have experienced. Where this obviously gets diluted is when we’re unable to see certain things, and the media twists them to their benefit and liking. Without getting too much into that, it boils down to the fact that our eyes can lie, but a camera cannot. A camera shows us an event. Our eyes show us an event, then our brain interprets its meaning. See how the lines can get blurred?