"Life always gives us exactly the teacher we need at every moment. This includes every mosquito, every misfortune, every red light, every traffic jam, every obnoxious supervisor (or employee), every illness, every loss, every moment of joy or depression, every addiction, every piece of garbage, every breath. Every moment is the guru." -- Charlotte Joko Beck

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Everything I Needed to Know in Life, I Learned from Monster Movies

The first piece in my massive collection of monster toys was this 1990's reissue of the Dracula model I had as a kid in the 60s. This gift from my wife opened the floodgate of memories and seeded my collection fever. Photo by Kurt Lengfield.

I admit it. I’m a “monster kid.”

Yes, this is a real category, and, no, it doesn’t mean I was a brat or a trouble maker. Monster kids are people who grew up in the 60s and 70s watching monster movies and cheesy science fiction flicks on late-night television and at drive-in theaters.

Long before Freddy Kruger, Jason, or the zombie invasion – and certainly before vampires became glittering heartthrobs for adolescent girls – there was Dracula, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla and, my personal favorite, King Kong. Extremely popular for watching from under the bedcovers were the low-budget nightmares of the 50s – gigantic mutations caused by residual radiation from atomic bombs, huge prehistoric beasts awakened by bomb testing, or alien species threatening to destroy our planet before our war-mongering race became a threat to the universe.

Today’s computer generated dragons can’t hold a candle to good, old-fashioned, stop-motion animation, puppetry and flying saucers hanging from strings. Our robots had zippers!

These were great fun, even with their not-so-subtle warnings for mankind. For me, however, they were also a source of great inspiration.  

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me now, but I was a very undersized and insecure kid. I was short and super skinny, had no special athletic abilities or unique talents, and tended toward the nerdy side (before being a nerd was cool). This made me a heck of a choice target for the bigger kids who would try to impress others with their physical strength by knocking the pipsqueak on his can.

My personal get-away therapy is to build and paint monster
models. Photo courtesy of Southern Maryland newspapers.
It seemed I was always facing foes that were bigger than me, stronger than me, and seemingly indestructible. Kind of like the people in the monster movies I loved so much.

In those movies, no matter how big and bad the monster was, the little guy always won the day (and usually the girl, too.) The underdog heroes learned to be innovative, to collaborate with others, and work in teams. They weren’t afraid to try new things, because not trying them could mean death or annihilation. They weren’t afraid to look foolish. Egos went out the door and were replaced by humility, fortitude, and “let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work” determination.

The hero wasn’t the big boss nor the overly muscled tough guy. He knew better than to try to face the monster head on and duke it out. Traditional weapons like guns, tanks and bombs usually had no effect on our supernatural villain, so new ideas were needed, no matter how ridiculous they seemed.

As the situation progressed, these underdogs became the true leaders, while even the most senior officials turned to them for guidance or turned over the reins.

These were great lessons for a kid like me. I learned that you didn’t need to be the biggest or most senior, nor even have a title, in order to be a leader. I learned that a true leader empowers others and fosters a collaborative environment. I learned that leaders should have no egos and should not expect to be the fount of all good ideas, but should have the humility to try new solutions, even if it means letting someone else lead for a while. I learned that no matter how challenging the threat, all hope was not lost. I could be a survivor and I could win the day – and maybe the girl, too.

Admittedly, I don’t have any stories about how I used my secret flamingo karate chop or Vulcan nerve pinch to defeat the bullies. I didn’t rig up booby traps or entrap them into situations where they got caught by the teacher and expelled from school.

But I did, however, change the rules of the game. I refused to play their way. I knew I couldn’t take them in a heads-up fight, but I could not degrade myself to fight “dirty” or escalate the situation into using weapons. I didn’t want anybody dead; I just wanted them to stop picking on me. Besides there was enough of that level of violence in our lives back then with Viet Nam and the racial tensions here on the home front. 

What I did was simply refuse to fight. I realized that if I refused to be goaded into a fight, the worst that would happen was that I’d be pushed aside or knocked down. But I wouldn’t have a black eye or a broken nose. Back then, there was somewhat of a code of honor – even among bullies. You didn’t beat up a defenseless victim or someone who refused to fight back. It was a sure-fire way to lose credibility with your posse. 

But I did learn another lesson from those old movies. There were plenty of examples where women were significant contributors to the successful solution against the monster, if they didn’t deliver the coup d’ grace themselves. So I learned early on that women were at least as good – if not better – than me, and should be treated as such. Because of this attitude, I befriended many more girls than boys. Even today, my female friends far outnumber my male friends.

My wife and I both love monsters. She
tolerates my collection. I'm a lucky man!
As you can imagine, my hanging out with mostly girls in school just made me more of a target, but when the bullies tried to start something and I refused to fight, the girls surprisingly took my side. They mocked the bullies for picking on someone half their size, called them names. Even their own girlfriends turned their backs and walked away from them.

Sure, I got heckled a bit for having girls stand up for me, but you could name-call me all day long. Sticks and stones, and all that. Fact of the matter is they stopped beating me up or playing nasty pranks on me, and even stopped pestering me altogether.

So, maybe I defeated the monster and won the day after all. And, in a sense I won the girl, too.