I wrote a book!

I’m a little late to my own party (such is the life of an adjunct teaching new curriculum during the summer), but remember that dissertation thingy I wrote? I made it into a book and it’s available for your purchasing pleasure!

walts utopiaHere are a few links where you can find it:

McFarland Books – This is the publisher

Amazon.com – This is one of my favorite online booksellers because of their convenience

Barnes and Noble – Because why not?

No public events are currently scheduled, but I’ll make sure I post something should they appear. I don’t necessarily have the resources to travel far and wide, but I’m open to any suggestions and invitations.

Here’s the blurb from the back:

The “Happiest Place on Earth” opened in 1955 during a trying time in American life–the Cold War. Disneyland was envisioned as a utopian resort where families could play together and escape the tension of the “real world.” Since its construction, the park has continually been updated to reflect changing American culture.

The park’s themed features are based on familiar Disney stories and American history and folklore. They reflect the hopes of a society trying to understand itself in the wake of World War II. This book takes a fresh look at the park, analyzing its cultural narrative by looking beyond consumerism and corporate marketing to how Disney helped America cope during the Cold War and beyond.

I did want to take a moment to comment on the writing process, since that’s what this blog has been mostly about for some time, right? I admire those people who can seemingly *just write a book.* With the academic research process being what it is, I’m amazed at people who seem to publish a new book every year or two. I started my dissertation in Fall 2010, and it only became book-worthy at the end of 2014, and that was with the benefit of taking a couple summers off from teaching. More interestingly, the final push to turn the dissertation into a book involved adding some new content. At the time I was writing this new content, most of my books were in storage, so I had to swim those waters with unfamiliar tools. But somehow I did it, and I gave my dissertation-child to the world.

So, here it is, dear public. The culmination of everything this blog has been about for the last 5 years. I have a few Next Projects in mind, all Disney myth related. I even have them outlined. Stay tuned, all two of you who still follow this blog. More to come!


Themed Spaces and AstroWorld

I’m in the early phase of an awesome post-doc research opportunity that I’m calling my Epic German Adventure. The project is researching theme parks (I’m leaning strongly toward a Disney focus–imagine that), postmodernism, temporality, and aesthetics. And it’s funded for three years. So basically, I have a three year subsidy to continue my dissertation research and write “The Second Book.” A totally groovy opportunity.

My colleagues–my new Deutsche Besties–have turned me onto a scholar named Scott Lukas. They speak of him with awe; I wish I’d known of him when I was writing my dissertation. He seems like Kind of a Big Deal. I’ll meet him this September, and maybe join the Scott Lukas fan club.  What makes his work stand out is that he, a cultural anthropologist, writes about theme parks and themed spaces with an ethnographer’s eye (a refreshing validation to my own perspective). When he was studying at Rice University, he had a gig working at Six Flags AstroWorld as a trainer.

So I figured I should find out what this guy is all about. I took a nice little field trip up to the University of Massachusetts library (a building that reminds me of Louis Sachar’s book, Sideways Stories of Wayside School) and picked up a copy of The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self. This is an edited volume that looks at themed spaces of varying sorts around the world. I’m going to confess that I haven’t read the whole volume yet. This is one of those aggravating books in which I find myself underlining every other paragraph and wanting to make lots of commentary in the margins, except that this is a library book, so I have to conduct these thought exercises in my notebook. I shouldn’t complain, though. Too many books don’t invite conversation, and I am very glad to be able to interact with this book at all.

Anyway, as one might imagine, I’m very Disney-centric when it comes to the kind of theming I’m looking for in a theme park. Six Flags parks, as a rule, tend to fall short of my very high expectations. So when Lukas writes fondly about AstroWorld, I question what AstroWorld he’s writing about. See, his tenure as a trainer overlapped with part of my angsty teenage years, growing up in Suburban Houston, and spending a very limited amount of my summer vacation at AstroWorld. Back then, ticket prices weren’t heinous, and I drank enough Dr. Pepper or Coca-Cola to guarantee cheaper ticket prices. My limited time at AstroWorld comes from a limited amount of interest and a vehement loathing of Houston summers.

For one thing, I don’t remember the themed boundaries that he describes. Sure, I remember that there were areas where there was more of one thing or another, but not a clear container to the theming. Perhaps one reason for this is that there were too many “lands” for the space available. It’s totally possible to pull off seven themed lands in a single park, but it takes skill to not make them so small as to be inconsequential or so overwhelming that the guest has a bad time. Disneyland in Anaheim has eight lands in a little more space. The big difference is that Disney doesn’t pack it’s theme park with a bunch of roller coasters, so many that it’s difficult to escape the screams and coaster rattles.

AstroWorld mid 1990s
AstroWorld mid 1990s

You can observe from the AstroWorld map that the coasters defined the berm of the park. They were the lure. They were what you could see as you rounded the bend on 610, competing for skyline with the Astrodome in what was called the AstroDomain.

Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain
Really Old Photo of the AstroDomain

The problem with defining the berm with roller coasters is that a) they don’t close the theme park off from the rest of the world, but more importantly b) already from the outset they establish a tone for the park as one of fast-paced movement. Disney’s berm is built up almost like a fortress wall that is designed to keep the outside world out of the park, because the outside world is full of enough of its own issues–let the park be a place of fun.

Plus, most of the roller coasters, though they looked cool, completely freaked me out. The Texas Cyclone was my favorite:

And though the Ultra Twister looked cool, I could never convince myself to go on it:

Excalibur was my first coaster ever:

But I never could convince anyone to go on XLR8 with me:

With these coasters, you’ll notice that you can see more than just the park. Because of their position on the berm, you can see Houston. It breaks the theme. No, I’m going to rephrase that–it breaks the sacredness of the space. It’s the ability to completely encapsulate me that I expect from a theme park, and it’s the fact that Six Flags fails in this detail that keeps me from regularly visiting those parks. That and this year Six Flags has developed some record-breaking doozies of death-defying rides that my inner roller-coward just wants to stay home.

As a kid, I was afraid of roller coasters, and never really had the opportunity to get over it. I think it has more to do with people telling me I’d lose my glasses if I didn’t secure them before going on the coaster, and the very real problem of not being able to see any of the sights without my glasses. One of the reasons I like Disney coasters like Space Mountain or Big Thunder Railroad is that I know my glasses will stay on without granny librarian strings to hold them in place. I can see the coaster’s narrative this way, enhancing my experience. Perhaps this is why I trust Disney so much, and not so much the other guys.

To me, the track of the coaster is a narrative, and our ride vehicle is our opportunity to read it. So I’m actually excited about the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Walt Disney World, and I’ll close with that video. I’m not sure why other theme parks struggle with coaster narrative so much. This one fuses a coaster narrative with my favorite attraction format, the “dark ride.”

Dionysos and Theme Parks

The only reason I’m not a rabid supporter of Archetypal Psychology is that the research I was exposed to as a student at Pacifica concentrated on Greek Myth as its basis for imagery, and I find that too limiting. But I will admit that the archetypal method can be very fun, which is why I delve into it from time to time on my blog, but I likely won’t use this in the methodology of my larger research projects.

The more I contemplate Greek myth, the more I like Dionysos. He had a rough childhood. I mean, come on, his family almost ate him. No wonder he was/is a complete drunk.

So Dionysos came to symbolize drunken excess, with the idea being that one needs the release that being drunk characterizes. It does get exhausting being uptight and proper for society. Dionysos provided a container for this excess. Boundaries, if you will, to allow each of us what we need without impacting greater society.

One mode of celebrating Dionysos was in the theater, and as such he’s also the god associated with theater and stage craft. In his Poetics, Aristotle writes about the experience of going to theater and the elements of a well-written play that would lead to catharsis, a powerful emotional, collective release.

My new delicious thought is this: the theme park—the well-crafted, well-staged theme park—is the realm of Dionysos. Disney designed Disneyland as a movie set, applying Hollywood’s version of set design that evolved from theater. So, then, the kinetic experience of the park is akin to a Dionysian catharsis (perhaps it’s my Walt Disney-colored glasses, but I prefer to find Dionysian experiences that don’t involve drunken or drug-induced releases, but much could be said about such catharsis in other areas of culture).

I’ve wondered about the attraction to thrill. Compared to attractions at parks such as Six Flags or Universal, Disney’s thrilling rides are relatively tame, but that speaks to the overall goal of Disney’s storytelling and the intended audience. Theme park and amusement park attractions bring us catharsis, with the added level of kinetic experience. We don’t simply take in the story and process it through our emotional framework. Attractions allow us to become a part of the story. The Fantasyland Dark Rides were constructed as though the guests in the ride vehicles were the main characters of the story. But what about roller coasters? It’s difficult to execute an entire narrative for a roller coaster. But perhaps the narrative ceases to be the point when we’re going that fast.

Roller coasters force us back into our bodies. The mind shuts down and instincts take over as we react with fear or pleasure. Although there are many attempts to rectify the mind-body (or Cartesian) split, it still governs many of our experiences, especially in the computer age. Riding a roller coaster allows us to spend some time in that body of ours. It invites us to let go and allow our sensation to soak in the experience.

It’s like this:

The Rise of Dark Fairy Tales

It is probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am a fairy tale enthusiast. It’s a topic I keep returning to time and time again, and it’s a topic that provides hours of academic muddling for this mythologist. That’s what scholars such as the Jungians find so fascinating about fairy tales. In their simplicity, they speak archetypally, deeply, meaningfully… They can become whatever story the reader or listener wants them to be.

And it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a Disney fan, and that Disney’s versions of fairy tales are hands-down my favorites. Why, you might ask? This is a complicated answer, and one that I don’t have lying around, but part of the answer lies in the fact that Disney’s retelling of these stories captures that magic that attracts readers to them in the first place while also translating the stories to a new medium. There’s something that Disney “gets” in its storytelling that makes these stories speak to the culture. Sure, perhaps 200 years from now, Disney’s fairy tales will be shelved along with Grimm’s as future readers try to find the next new gripping version of a tale that’s already been told 1000 times.

Finally, it’s probably no surprise to the passive reader of this blog (all two of you) that I am also a lover of the Disney parks, notably Disneyland since that’s the only one I’ve visited with any capacity to build memories. The parks do for the experience what the films do for the fairy tales. They capture the magic that attracted us to them in the first place. I’ve been to Universal Studios, Six Flags, and my childhood theme park, Eliches (or however it was spelled). But Disney keeps me coming back time and again because of the experience. I trust the rides to not kill me (even with those few scary stories of accidents); I trust the park to be clean and safe; and I trust that, even if I’m tired, sore, and cranky, that the day in the park will still make me very happy.

I am a product of the Disney mythos.

So here’s my point. My love for all three of the above things are combined in the book series Kingdom Keepers by Ridley Pearson, also known for his adult thrillers and his work on Peter and the Starcatchers. The Kingdom Keepers are a group of teenagers hired by Disney to be the models for DHIs, or Digital Host Interactive, digital tour guides through the parks at Walt Disney World. What these kids don’t know is that they have also been recruited to help the Imagineers fight against the Overtakers, who are Disney villans who come alive when the park closes at night. Villains such as Maleficent, Pirates, and Crash Test Dummies. The other Disney characters come alive as well, but they are powerless by themselves to stop the Overtakers from fulfilling their goal of overtaking the park. So the teens at night, when the fall asleep, become the DHIs, and spend their nights in constant battle against the Overtakers, receiving missions from the Imagineers, and trying very hard not to be caught in Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, which occurs when the DHI is prevented from crossing back over at the end of the night and the human teen is locked in a mysterious coma-like sleep.

These books capture the essences of the park and Disney magic and are thrilling for anyone who is either a fan who knows the parks intimately, enjoys a good sci-fi thriller, or even dreams of going to the park one day.

The most recent installment of the series, Shell Game, begins the process of moving the DHIs and the Overtakers to California from Florida by way of the new cruise ship. Having never been on a cruise, let alone a Disney cruise, I was a little skeptical about reading this book. But, of course, I enjoyed it thoroughly (having read half of it on the airplane to and from my dissertation defense). And, of course, in typical Disney fashion, find myself really wanting to take a Disney cruise now to share in the experience.

But that’s still not my point. In one particularly potent scene, the leader of the DHIs, Finn, confronts Maleficent, who is believed to be the leader of the Overtaker operation (though no one is certain about that). Finn and the other DHIs are in an auditorium doing a presentation for the cruise guests when they are besieged by pirates (of the Caribbean). Maleficent appears on the monitors and makes a rather bold statement:

 “Behold the New Order,” Maleficent said in her eerily calm and grating voice. “The dawning of a new age. [. . .] Enough of all this prince-and-princess spun-sugar nonsense. It’s time for the Grimm in the fairy tales to express itself. The woods are dark, my dears. The beasts within them will eat you for supper, not sing you a song. Wake up and smell the roses.” (484)

Remember up above when I said that Disney “gets it?” There is something happening in fairy tales right now, a sort of paradigm shift. In 2010 Disney claimed they were no longer going to make fairy tale animated features. At the same time several, albeit bad, fairy tale features were released by other studios. In 2011, Disney gave us Once Upon a Time. It’s as though the songs of the princesses in the forests have lost their magic for us. And it’s no wonder, given all of the darkness surrounding us as a culture. We are hungry for the magic; we are hungry for the good hero to defeat the dark evil bad person. But we are also hungry for the darkness to become a part of us, because it already is.

There is a shroud of darkness on American culture today, and it is spreading into other parts of the world. Perhaps this is because of the prevalence of our cultural exchanges, or perhaps this is a darkness that has been trying to take over (the Overtakers) for decades (think Great Depression, atomic bomb, and Cold War), but the American optimism has always kept it at bay. That optimism has taken a vacation, it seems. Even Disney, who always gave us a message of hope and happiness in our darkest hour is putting forth messages that this is the time of monsters (KK) or that the fairy tales have forgotten who they are (OUAT).

Meanwhile, fairy tales are being retold with a vigor that we haven’t seen in a while. New Grimm texts were found. Movies retell the stories. Vampires, werewolves, and zombies are everywhere and literally eating us (though occasionally, they may sing us a song to lure us in their charms).

It’s difficult to describe the change that is happening while being in the middle of it happening. Hindsight is always 20/20, but At-the-moment-sight is typically blind. We’re still looking to the past, expecting it to have all of the answers. Oh but wait, you’ll notice we’re looking at the 1950s for those answers. Just because television and the movies painting the decade as Pleasantville, the decade was anything but. Darkness perpetuating darkness.

We haven’t learned anything from our previous encounters with Darkness in the past, which is why it is still bothering us. Call it the shadow or whatever, but until we start communing with this Darkness and learning something from it, we’ll be on this endless cycle for a while yet.

Lessons we’re learning from today’s myths: 1. Believe in magic. 2. Remembering or finding your true identity or self is the first step toward dealing with the darkness. 3. Listen to your elders–you don’t know how much longer they’ll be around to advise you. 4. Don’t listen to your elders if you know they’re advising you poorly. 5. Saving good from evil has no room for EGO.

That said, I’m looking forward to the last two KK books. If the DHIs are successful in bringing down the Overtakers, perhaps we could stand to learn a thing or two from them?

Disneyland and dissertating

October 1 is right around the corner. That means hardly anything for you, except maybe a paycheck and a season change, but for me, October 1 marks the beginning of the most difficult project I have ever endeavored: the Dissertation. While I’m confident that my dissertation-writing process won’t be nearly as painful as the fabled stereotypical experience, I am nonetheless intimidated by the process. The original reason this blog exists was to have a place to document RoundTable business for my Joseph Campbell Foundation RoundTable. I’m in the process of passing that hat to someone else, leaving me with a blog with a paid domain name without an otherwise specific purpose. I thought I would attempt to blog about the process with some sort of daily (or at least weekly) check-in, and maybe someone out there in Cyberland will read it, making the process a little less lonely.

My dissertation topic is fun—Disneyland and American myth. While that could be a huge endeavor, there’s no way possible to make Disneyland not fun. Sure, there are many out there who don’t care for it. To those people, I offer a Mickey Mouse Balloon and a lolly. The real challenge is writing about American myth. It’s easy to identify the stories in the culture that comprise the mythos, but to get at the real heart of the mythic symbolism—now that’s a challenge and a half. I’m not sure Americans as a whole are even aware what their myths. I don’t mean Paul Bunyan and George Washington’s Cherry Tree, but, rather, the archetypal images behind those stories.

Where does Disneyland come in? Since 1955, Disneyland has served as both a sort of museum of these cultural myths AND creates – imagineers – how we perceive/interpret/understand/relate to these myths. While each land in the park captures the essence of each myth, we now define these myths by the Disney version. I don’t suggest that that’s a bad thing. I happen to like the Disney version a lot. But it has caused an interesting tension in our culture between Disneyphiles and Disneyphobics.

Infinitus, WWoHP Wrap-Up

The Con is coming to an end, which means I’m taking it easy tonight and packing and leaving bright and early tomorrow. I’m going to post the transcript for my talk when I get home, but in the mean time, I thought I’d wrap up the Con. This is really just an excuse to post the pictures I took of the Park.

The Con itself is a little disappointing. There is some good dialogue still happening about Harry Potter, but not enough of those people came to the Con. In fact, my presentation only had about 15 or so people because everyone was lining up for an event that didn’t start until after my talk that was far more popular than a bit of formal programming. I’m curious how other presentations at the same time went. Additionally, there weren’t as many talks this year worth seeing (in my opinion) than in previous years. Come on, Potter Scholars, don’t be afraid to share! My favorite talks were both by Travis Prinzi of The Hog’s Head, both were themed around Umbridge and her position in the Ministry and her place as an educator. I finally got a copy of The Hog’s Head Conversations and I am very reminded that I need to finish the Potter Project I’ve been working on for a few years. Perhaps that’s the sanity break I need while writing my dissertation.

The Park is well… a nice attempt. Not just as a fan of Harry Potter, but as a Disney-phile with very high standards for what a theme park should be, it’s very disappointing, crowded and the rides are mediocre. The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is an excellent attraction, and it’s clear that Universal put a lot more thought and money behind that than any other aspect of the park, but I’m not sure that it’s worth the cost in the entire Islands of Adventure to go see. Crowd control is a huge problem, and that alone suggests a huge amount of oversight on the part of Universal Creative. Some of the comments during my presentation pointed out that this is Universal’s first real attempt at a family themed area, but for those familiar with Disney will understand that Sleeping Beauty’s Castle in the middle of Mickey’s Toontown equals a bad time for any traveler. There is a rumoured expansion, but I’m not holding my breath. It’s a nice attempt, Universal, but far off the mark.

Here are some pictures though. Unfortunately, I arrived at the park right before the daily rain shower, so they’re kind of dark because of the overcast:

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The entrance to Hogsmeade and the sign going in, says “Please respect the spell limits”

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View of Hogsmeade and the Hogwarts Express.

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Zonko’s and Honeydukes – the crowds were so ridiculous, I had to stand in line to get in!

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The Dragon Challenge (inspired by 1st task of Tri-Wizard Tournament) & The Three Broomsticks

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The Hog’s Head Pub & The Owl Post (which has its own postmark).

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I love the idea of the bathrooms being “public conveniences” & store fronts (which are dead space)

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More Store Fronts.

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More Store Fronts & the crowd in front of Ollivander’s for a wand selection. Apparently, it’s not a good presentation. I didn’t do it because the lines were always too long.

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Dervish and Banges attached to Ollivander’s and the Owl Post – far too small for Potter shopping – & Hogwarts Castle, which houses Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is a very excellent attraction (it’s like Soarin’ meets Indy, really cool, but I’m not sure it’s worth the price of Universal)

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Hagrid’s Hut (which is NOT a walk-through and very disappointing, plus it’s not made of the correct material) and baby Beaky.

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The Flight of the Hippogriff (kiddie ride) & more Hagrid’s Hut.

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Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods & interior of Three Broomsticks.

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More Three Broomsticks & Mad-eye Moody.

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Night of  a Thousand Wizards crowd, a special promo event for those of us who bought the add-on for Infinitus. It gave us a few extra hours in the park with no Muggles running around.

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Dancing Snape and Hogwarts at Night.

In the Universal promo they showed us during NoaTW, there were headline’s about this out-doing Disney. Sadly, I think they’re mistaken. Nice attempt Universal, but go back to Disney University. Hogwarts is the only successful aspect of the over-crowded land, because it achieves total emersion.

Harry Potter, Infinitus and the Last Airbender

I’m presenting this summer at Infinitus, a HPEF Harry Potter fan conference. I really enjoy presenting at the HPEF events, because they’re an opportunity to be a stuffy academic without the stuffy academic environment. For example, you can sit through several serious presentations about Harry Potter and things like education, religion, or literature studies, then at lunch go watch a live water Quidditch match or Wizard Chess. I’ve only every attended HPEF conferences, but they’re not the only ones available each year, but I think they were the first organization to offer the conferences.

My presentation is about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter section of the theme park. I’ll post the transcript of the presentation once I finalize it. When I made my proposal, I thought it might be kind of fun to explore my dissertation topic using Harry Potter as a practice round. Of course, that means elaborating on my dissertation topic: Although I haven’t received the official go-ahead from the school yet (hopefully in the next few weeks!), I plan to write about how Disneyland is a space where we can interact with our culture’s mythologies and how Disney and Disneyland have essentially helped define what some of those mythologies actually are. It it seems kind of far out, consider this: ask a handful of children under the age of 10 who their hero is, and I would bet that a number of them would list someone who is a Disney character. Is this simply the product of successful targeted marketing? That would be the answer of many of the negative Nancys who write about Disneyland, which is perfectly acceptable and understandable. However, it is my contention and the driving force of much of my academic research that popular culture has become the dominant mythic paradigm for a percentage of the American population, and two of those dominant myths are Disney and Harry Potter (and from Harry Potter, we could stretch to include many of the other myths that have arisen as a result of Potter’s success. Excellent stories are being written and published that would not have had that much opportunity before Potter; of course, there are many icky stories being written and published that are given the opportunity because of Potter, but they’re usually the ones I don’t find the inspiration or the mojo to bother writing too much about. Except Twilight, because someone needs to be a champion against campy vampire romance and bad writing. When Twilight comes up in my classes, I often ask my students to consider the importance of vampires in our culture right now at this point of time AND why many of these vampires are someone we should be in love with.)

In vein with exploring modern myths in popular culture, I decided last week to start watching Avatar: The Last Airbender in light of the recent negative criticism of M. Night’s adaptation of the show. I didn’t want to see the film without knowing the show, and since I haven’t had cable in over 10 years, I missed the initial phenomenon entirely. The story of Avatar is that the world is divided into four types of people (read: races) themed around the four primary elements of the world: fire, earth, water, and air. Each of these peoples can interact with their elements, controlling them and all that jazz. In each generation, an Avatar is born who is the one person in the ENTIRE WORLD who can control all four elements and keep all the people at peace. [the requisite chosen one complex of any successful hero] The current Avatar went missing for 100 years, during which time, the Fire Nation began the process of world domination. They have taken over most of the world by the time the show starts. The current Avatar emerges, and is an Airbender (meaning he is from the Air people and can control the air element). Since the next avatar was supposed to be an Air person, the Fire Nation wiped out the Air people, making Aang the Last Airbender. See? It’s not just a smart name. The show is centered around his education of the elements and his growth into the hero that will bring peace back into the world by restoring balance in the Force. I just started the second season on Netflix. I see the mythic advantage of this story: using an Eastern frame of reference, Avatar teaches us Westerners the benefits of balance over world domination – a theme that everyone would be good to learn and sooner rather than later. It makes sense that the dominant power would be fire, as that is the only element that cannot be easily controlled and can potentially dominate the other elements if not properly tended and monitored.

It’s interesting that the prevalent myths of the current generations surround bringing some kind of balance. From Star Wars through Potter and many other current stories, there is the theme that someone is off kilter, and it is up to the hero to make everything right again sooner rather than later, because later leads to more catastrophic results. in contrast, more “adult” sectors have been focusing heavily on Apocalyptic scenarios about the world ending in 2012 or what the state of the country will actually be in a few hundred years. Somehow, I’m getting the impression that many “adults” or “Muggles” are giving up on the future of the world, whereas “children” or those who believe in magic still have hope that someone will bring about the needed balance. My inner realist would like to remind everyone that it won’t take a single hero, but it is a collective effort from each of us who still believes in the future, and it won’t fix itself overnight, but over time if we all make a concerted effort.