Category Archives: feel-good

Down the River: The De-Evolution of Boy Scout Handbooks












I’ve always admired the austerity and simplicity of the 8th edition of the Boy Scout Handbook (1972-76), which I read during my harrowing time in the Scouts.  The subtle greens and no-nonsense font complement the inside illustrations, which are impressionistic line drawings:








There is a sophistication that works nicely with the simplicity of the Handbook’s messages: Be a good person.  Be a good citizen.  And the artistry of the  drawings – check out the tension lines on the boy’s pants above, how they meander outside border –  suggest a respect for the (young) reader’s imagination.  There’s a purposeful ambiguity at times: is the boy above Asian or White?  Hispanic?

Although I had a mostly-negative experience with Scouting, my Scoutmasters quit the troop and we disbanded, I continue to enjoy the magical aspirational quality that started with Baden-Powell.  The 8th edition captures this wonderfully.   The design style and artwork tell the reader “This is how things could be.” rather than “This is how things are.”   To any child growing up in the 70’s it was very apparent that the simple wholesome life portrayed by Scouting was at direct odds with the zeitgeist, which was suffused not only with the collapse of traditional values, but also with the collapse of 60’s idealism, which was an alternative set of values whose demise was particularly painful to youth due to its greater respect for children. I can remember when I very young, having “hippies” bending down to speak to me as if I were a person with an opinion, something the “straight” adults rarely did.

What a treat then, to be offered a world that both traditional values and alternative design.  And with a philosophy that looked hopefully to the future:









And in berets no less.  Yet never resorting to comic-book exaggeration, instead offering a reassuring adult sensibility.


Today’s Handbook, in comparison, is a 4th of July Happy Meal that someone has dropped on the ground:












The first thing you notice is that almost half of the cover is taken up by the patriotic tableaux of a confused looking bald eagle in front of a pixelated American flag.  The eagle looks anxious, as if the inflatable boat is about to come crashing down upon its head.  The Scouts are unidentifiable as scouts, they could be any campers or just kids out on a rafting trip.

This cover reflects anxiety.  The action is down, not up to the stars.  The visual metaphor that today’s youth are being sent “down the river”, that there is no solid ground under them.  And the demographic reality is that they will be forced to prop up the aging population, with few benefits or social safety net of their own.  The eagle has good reason to be anxious.

The imagery is realistic, like a photograph.  It says “This is how things are.” which undermines the beautiful (and useful) fiction that the 8th Edition captured so tenderly and  knowingly.

For something from the WWII era, check out this illustration from my father’s Boy Scout Handbook:
















Here, the Scout, a Tenderfoot no less, is placed directly in the historical pantheon in between a Founding Father and an explorer.  It looks like an illustration from “Treasure Island”.   And although the collapse of civilization was a distinct possibility at the time, the tone is confident, the Scout’s identity secure.   As always though, I have to point out that the good old times were not so good for those who were different.   I doubt you will see many brown faces in these lovely drawings.

What then would a non de-evolutional edition of the current Boy Scout Handbook look like?   It’s a cliche, but today’s world is even more complex.  There is less direct disappointment than in the early 70s: you no longer see the flag-draped coffins on the evening news, there is no draft and no there are no protests.  Today’s youth are numb.

A solution would wake them up, and make use of the identity-strengthening archetypes, like the WWII edition did.   Another book from the 70’s that offered a way out from the turmoil was the “Whole Earth Catolog”.  It featured all sorts of interesting projects and facts that were clever and low-tech.   A new Scouting handbook would show kids ways to use their energy and resilience to turn reduced prospects for traditional prosperity into a positive rather than a negative.  You can see this with locavore and permaculture movements.  To get kids to turn away from the video game and build a lean-to is a daunting task.

I think a return to seriousness, as opposed to the current edition’s candy-apple style, might be a way of getting through to the younger generation.  A new type of handbook that would convey both “This is how things are” (Wake up!) and “This is how thing could be” (Use this for inspiration).   A darker, more brooding BSA Handbook is the only one that will be successful.


Jazz gets it’s ass kicked by Korean shaman who then dies

“Intangible Asset 82” is an independent film which chronicles Australian jazz drummer Simon Barker’s trip to Korea in search of grand-master shaman drummer Kim Seok-Chul.  The title of the movie refers to the fact that the South Korean government has declared Seok-Chul to be a national “intangible” asset.  I bought the dvd after seeing a recital by Barker and some traditional Korean muscians at Lincoln Center’s “Target Free Thursdays.”

At the recital Barker tells the story of first heard the grandmaster on a rare recording.  The person who played the recording for him said something like “this is an example of awful drumming.”  Barker’s reaction was that this was the best thing he ever heard in his life and he wanted to find out all about it.

This is a great start.  He likes what other people hate, this chaotic free-form improvisatory drumming.   As a jazz drummer he must have had a degree of freedom to improvise, but nothing like what he heard on the recording.  I find that jazz, in general, despite its reputation for creativity and freedom, can often seem bland and overly formalized.  Think of how much jazz sounds the same, or of the traditionalist spoutings of this guy:

I would rather hear Koreans banging on pots and pans than Wynton Marsalis hectoring me on the classicism of Louis Armstrong.

Barker visited Korea seventeen times before this final trip, where he meets Seok-Chul just days before the shaman dies.   Along the way we meet various other shamans and traditional musicians.  We are told that the apprenticeship for being a shamanic singer is to live in a hut by a waterfall for several years, and to shout at the top of one’s lungs for literally seventeen hours a day.  Have you ever tried to shout at the top of your lungs for 10 minutes?

I wished that Barker would have taken a more questioning approach to Korean music and culture.  For example, he often describes Korean rhythms as “incredibly complex”.   The point is made several times that improvisation is based on rigorous technique and years of study.  I didn’t hear this.   As an erstwhile drummer I didn’t hear time signatures being changed, or intersecting polyrhythms, I just heard pleasant banging.  But I liked the banging, and I like the traditional singing, which was most often  like a throaty wail.  It seemed highly improvised and honest.  I didn’t see the need to justify it.

Barker seemed blissed out for most of the film, like a Deadhead (another genre I don’t get) and the soft-focus cinematography reflected his mood.  Lots of sunrises and sunsets, lights blinking on, picturesque old men in the public square, little children running.  Like a K.A.L. commercial.   My reaction to this was that I was being sold something.    Perhaps he was trying to put a sweet coating on a challenging type of music that can sound harsh and simultaneously chaotic and repetitive.  I longed for a happy traditional Korean tune.


Another white woman has a baby – Critics drool over slack “Juno”.


What is it about any movie that shows a hip white woman bringing her baby to term that causes film critics to temporarily lose their minds? “Knocked Up” was given a free pass and Juno is inspiring some of the worst film criticism I’ve ever seen.

The truth is that “Juno” is a calculatedly juvenile film with an immensely appealing main actress (Ellen Page), fake meta-dialog, and an inability to follow-through on its central theme of abandonment.

Juno is constructed so as to allow moviegoers to feel as if they’ve gone through a significant emotional journey, without doing the work. One way it blunts serious emotions is through the use of hipster patois in the place of real dialog. Rob Harvilla, a music critic with the Village Voice described this best:

“Teenagers who talk like thirtysomething screenwriters. “Cool” parents who talk like teenage screenwriters. A 16-year-old heroine who actually says things like “Just looking to secure a hasty abortion!” and “Just dealing with things way outside my maturity level!” and (grits teeth) “Swear to blog!”. Just appallingly cute cute cute CUTE CUTE.”

The cutesy dialog has been universally panned in reviews, but its also serving to throw critics off serious discussion of the film’s major shortcomings. A.O. Scott in the New York Times:

“…not many are so daring in their treatment of teenage pregnancy, which this film flirts with presenting not just as bearable but attractive. Kids, please! Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at “Juno.” Bring your parents, too.”

Scott cannot resist writing in a similar style to the dialog, in fact thinking in this teenage way. “Heed the cautionary whale. But in the meantime, have a good time at “Juno.” I don’t know anyone personally who has brought a pregnancy to term and given up her baby, but I can imagine it’s a lot more painful and less attractive than is portrayed in Juno. No amount of squiggly animated fonts and warbly hypersincere outsider-style singing can make up for that fact, and pretending otherwise is the opposite of daring.

At one point in the film, after he adoptive couple has seen their relationship dissolve, the character Juno gives voice to the main point of the movie. She says something like: “I just want to know that love can last. That two people can love each other and it’s not going to go away.” A movie-sequence childbirth follows, then a shot of Juno saying she does not want to see her newborn, followed by a single tear coursing down her face. Cut to a postpartum Juno, happily riding her bike, spitting wisecracks and singing twee duets, with the afraid-of-his-own-shadow Paul Cera.

I’m not being a moralist here, I don’t want to see the character Juno punished for giving up her baby. But it’s an unsatisfying experience to have the main theme of the movie evaporate, and to instead be fed a dose of indy candy rather than a resolution, or at least a coherent point of view. Critics have responded to this shortcoming by either ignoring it – offering, as Scott does, a blithe positive assessment of the films earnestness, or else, as Stephanie Zacharek does in Salon, constructing tortuous “filmic” criticism:

“Juno” is partly about the necessity of making choices for ourselves, but it’s also about knowing when we need to accept help from others. That idea is never spelled out in so many words; it comes through in the actors’ faces. “Language is the house man lives in,” Jean-Luc Godard told us, borrowing from Martin Heidegger, in “Two or Three Things I Know About Her.” There are lots of words in “Juno.” But in the end, it’s really all about language.”

OK I’m going to let the royal “we” pass. Her evasive argument reminds me of “cold-readings” by psychics, who employ verbal tricks to keep their marks engaged: “you’re a shy person, but if it’s something you care about you have strong opinions, although you mainly keep them to yourself, but when the chips are down…” Zacharek’s version is: “it’s all about language, but not the talking kind, but instead the kind you find in actor’s faces, when they are letting you know they need help, which is really what it’s all about, just ask Jean-Luc Godard, when he borrows from Martin Heiddeger.”

Anything to keep abandonment at bay.

Perhaps it’s a zeitgeist thing, there seems to be a generalized post 9/11 anxiety about the future of mankind, for example the spate of recent movies about apocalyptic threats to
civilization (cf. “Cloverfield”, “I am Legend”). Combine this with role-uncertainty created by modern decisions to delay childbearing (cf. Lori Gottlieb’s article “Marry Him” in the Atlantic Monthly), and the result may be that a simple squiggly-lined movie about a young woman’s lack of anxiety in futhering the human race has an appeal that is irresistable. Just not to me.

Swear to blog.