02 December 2014

the real cosby show.

Unless you're a Tibetan monk, you're likely aware that a number of women have publicly accused actor-comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault. I'm not going to rehash the particulars of the (alleged) incidents—because there are countless websites out there with the latest salacious details for your reading enjoyment. At any rate, you've probably already made up your mind whether you think Cosby is guilty or not—and chances are it has less to do with concrete evidence (which none of us spectators has access to) than a permutation of other irrelevant factors, including but not limited to:

(1) whether or not you liked Bill Cosby before you heard about the accusations;

(2) your pop-psych assessment of the accusers' motives and/or believability;

(3) your tendency to view sexual assault as a crime that the victim has more or less agency in preventing;

(4) your general attitude toward celebrity itself and its morally degenerative effects;

and (5) your gut feeling, irrespective of rational considerations.

Let's be frank here. None of the items listed above has anything to do with the facts in the case. (I refer to it as a 'case' only in the colloquial sense. There is no litigation pending.) Some of the items may have relevance to overall trends in sexual assault, but none has any specific relevance to Cosby's actual guilt or innocence in these specific matters.

I think we all instinctively know this. But we're also humans, and humans judge. Often judgment isn't even a fully conscious effort; sometimes through an almost instantaneous accretion of feelings, thoughts, and ingrained attitudes, we arrive at a 'sense' that someone is good or bad—innocent or guilty. There is nothing essentially wrong with this instinct; but whether we actually do anything based on this 'sense' is another thing altogether, and it implies a certain moral responsibility—either to speak out or to remain silent.

This brings me to what I want to talk about with respect to the case of Bill Cosby. It's a question that's remained largely neglected in the rush to condemn or to defend him:

What are we supposed to 'do with' this information about Bill Cosby?

When I say 'we' I mean those of us who don't know him or the accusers—the people on the sidelines for whom the scandal is merely a midday diversion on Facebook or a news website. 

I know that it sounds like a funny (and perhaps cynical) question to ask, but I mean it in all sincerity. When we're told that a bunch of people have been sexually assaulted by an individual, it seems to demand some sort of response—but to respond is also to fall into the trap of gossip-mongering or passing judgments peremptorily—without the benefit of any information or evidence that might make us qualified to judge. (That itself sounds absurd—as if somebody asked us to bring our wisdom to bear and render a verdict.)

We live in a nation where one is (supposedly) innocent until proven guilty. But that's only the legal ideal. In our heart of hearts, surely we're allowed to come to whatever conclusions we want because we don't have the power or moral responsibility of sentencing someone... right? But then again—isn't a ruined reputation a sentence of its own?

On the other hand, it feels reprehensible to hear these accusations and to shrug one's shoulders, as if to say, 'Oh, well. I don't have any special insight into the incidents or the people involved, so I'll just ignore it. What else can I do?' Doesn't that validate the age-old argument against reporting sexual assault in the first place: Nobody will believe the accuser (or possibly even care), so what's the point? 

I realize this all may sound like navel-gazing and utter self-absorption. People are, after all, dealing with sexual assault (or, alternately, are being accused unjustly of it), and here I am, fretting about how I should 'feel' about it. Poor baby. Other people are actually contending with a reality that I can't positively ascertain, and I'm busy wringing my hands and saying, 'But what about me?'

It's just that when we receive this kind of news it appears that we have three general choices: (1) We can believe the accusers and condemn Cosby. (2) We can believe Cosby and condemn the accusers. (3) Or we can stake out some neutral ground wherein we try to ignore the whole mess altogether or stow away our feelings about it as irrelevant. 

None of these three responses is terribly satisfying—especially to someone who is concerned both with the prevalence of sexual assault and the uninformed rush to judgment that the media often encourages.

Is it okay if I watch The Cosby Show? Don't worry. I won't. I never really liked it—or Bill Cosby. But hypothetically speaking, what does it mean to watch The Cosby Show today—or to go to one of his stand-up performances? All these actions seem to become ideologically freighted in the wake of these allegations, and saying or doing nothing too closely resembles apathy. 

I think that understanding the moral difficulty of responding to scandals like these—either by supporting the accused (i.e., buying his 'product'—whatever it might be) or rejecting him and his art totally—is a prerequisite to a compassionate and intelligent reckoning with the issue at hand—but anything after that is pure guesswork. 

13 June 2014

hate: patriotism

Things I Hate: Patriotism.

Obviously this is more controversial that hating mustaches. (Maybe.) Don't get me wrong. I think patriotism should probably exist; it's only that I really don't want any part of it. To be honest, when people are doing schmaltzy things like singing the national anthem or wearing American flag clothing or getting all solemn and reverent at the mention of the 'greatness' of the United States, I get really embarrassed. Part of this has to do with the specificity of American patriotism (barf!) and part of it has to do with my general ten-foot-pole stance on populism.

This is of course the interval in the discussion where some frothing-at-the-mouth veteran-fellator tells me to get the fuck out of this country.

Tut-tut, haters. I think I'll stay. But the reason I live in the U.S. generally has to do with my more immediate attachments to my home, my family, and my friends—as well as the comfort one finds in the familiar—than it has to do with any mythic quality that is exclusive to this geopolitical entity. By and large, the average person would likely not notice any remarkable distinction in terms of law and liberty among the Western nations.

What's amazing (and predictable) about patriotism is that it's often the people who are most patriotic who have never visited another country, outside of Canada perhaps or one of those Caribbean island nations that they visit on a cruise—and where they never venture beyond the borders of their Americanized resort or the precisely delimited tourist areas. 

I should point out that while I hate patriotism I don't hate America. I like it. It's okay. It's nothing that inspires the passion that I associate with the rifle-toting right wingers, but it certainly hasn't appalled me enough to leave. In other words, it's functional, it suits my basic needs, and it's probably not worth the effort required to relocate anywhere else. Besides, I'm sure that every nation is annoying in its own way. I'm not holding my breath for a utopian state.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I think that patriotism should exist. I mean that. It's a necessary evil. If everyone in the U.S. were as apathetic about national identity as I am, our security would probably be at risk. Who would fight off foreign invaders if everyone was all 'meh' about the country in the first place? But I don't even need to go as far as introducing invaders to the equation; the U.S. would be in a constant state of political turmoil and internal strife if people weren't committed (with some degree of passion) to honoring its historic values: states would secede; the constitution would probably be endlessly revised and discarded; and the nation would always exist on the precipice of dissolution.

It pains me to say it, but we actually need those flag-humping nutjobs. Of course, their more radical and vitriolic iteration of patriotism isn't a prerequisite, but extremism always seems to come with the territory where some kind of cultural identity is involved—religious, racial, national, etc.

What I am doing is mooching on the patriotism of others. And I don't feel guilty about it. My guilt is preoccupied with more personal matters.

12 June 2014

hate: mustache.

Things I Hate: Mustaches.

Apparently mustaches have been around since the year 300. It's difficult to imagine what would have possessed the first man with a mustache to shave all of his facial hair except the strip between his nose and upper lip. (He probably got some weird looks from people back in the day.) Whether it was for the sake of fashion or for some practical purpose that eludes me, his mustache probably made him a distinctive and unusual person.

But now it's seventeen hundred years later, and unfortunately the mustache has established itself as a standard in facial hair grooming—although it has gone through periods of relative favor and disfavor. 

As a general rule, I'm not a big fan of things that are symbolic (either deservedly or not) of conventional masculinity. I don't like cowboys or pick-up trucks or guns or Sam Peckinpah or football or fraternities or muscle cars. I guess I could add Adam's apples and penises to that list, but those aren't elective symbols. They come with the territory.

Now a lot of mustache apologists might make the claim that facial hair also comes with the territory and should be exempted as such. But sorry. Exceptions will not be made. Facial hair (i.e., a beard) is a natural byproduct of masculinity, but mustaches in particular are not. I'm not aware of any male beyond the age of early pubescence naturally growing a mustache and yet not a beard. In that respect, it's a cultural affectation. And an ugly one.

I would be lying if I said that mustaches—at least in contemporary American culture—aren't somewhat emblematic of the working class. This seems to suggest a problem: When I say that I hate mustaches, maybe what I really hate are the people who often have mustaches. Perhaps the mustache itself is only a synecdoche, much in the same way that the broom mustache has become symbolic of Hitler.

Meanwhile, 'hipsters' (I'm not a fan of that word) have co-opted the mustache ironically, but I don't think this has done much to disassociate mustaches with the working class, in so far that the ironic reappropriation of the mustache is dependent upon that original link. For example, we may now associate trucker hats with hipsters, but underlying this correlation there is the understanding that it's the incongruity that makes the link possible. 

Sometimes I'm surprised at just how hateful I am toward the mustache. You'd almost think it were Pol Pot. As with many things, my distaste for something takes on an almost moral character. When I was young and disturbed, my father made me listen to tapes by a woman named Julie White, Ph.D., who claimed (rightly, I think) that anxiety is often symptomatic of being raised by parents who can not distinguish between matters of taste and matters of morality. My parents were definitely that way, and I think I've unfortunately inherited this sensibility. Certainly, the tastes that my father and I enforce moralistically are very different from one another, but it's the dysfunction itself that unites us.

I find it amusing that my father made me listen to these tapes by Julie White, Ph.D., which were essentially damning of much of his parenting. He had of course not listened to the tapes himself. 

In the 1970s and early 1980s, my father had a terrible mustache. When I look back at photos from that time, I am struck by how sinister it made him look. Maybe this is another underlying motive for my mustache hatred. I'm not sure. But if you ever see me growing a mustache, you know it's a good time to prepare my room in the mental institution. I should really draw up a living will that says something to that effect...

11 June 2014

love: cottage cheese.

With this post I begin a new summer series called LOVE/HATE, in which I will write (both relevantly and tangentially) about things that (you guessed it) I love or hate. It's kind of like Oprah's 'favorite things'—when she makes a studio full of hausfraus scream because she gives them cars or bread makers or vibrators or whatever she has lying around her apartment ready-to-hand. 

In this case, I will not make you scream because I won't be giving you the things I write about. The only thing I have to offer you is the sheer delight of reading these blog posts—which is the greatest gift I could ever imagine giving. (Because I don't have much of an imagination, I guess.) 

Things I Love: Cottage Cheese.

For a long time I've felt that there's been an unspoken war going on in the dairy aisles of supermarkets across the nation. If you have a sensitivity to repressed animus like I do, I think you've probably felt it too. 

Yes, cottage cheese and yogurt have long been fighting for your protein-nourishment dollar. We all know that yogurt is the Israel in this Middle East conflict of the dairy aisle, using its firepower, technology, and impressive secret police to bully the consumer into yoplaiting ball with them. Meanwhile, the perennial underdog cottage cheese is the cause célèbre among the those with more (ahem) discriminating tastes. Like me.

I read a health news article online recently that claimed that yogurt is the healthier choice between the two because cottage cheese contains a surprising amount of sodium. Well, duh! That's what makes it taste better than yogurt. 

Do you really always want the healthiest choice? Is that the kind of life you're interested in living? If so, more power to you. You'll maybe live to be the healthiest and most miserable 120-year-old. 

I've always thought these people who are obsessed with health and fitness were fundamentally wrong and evil in some essential way. Really? You're going to work out every fricking day and eat only kale and cold pressed beet juice and almond milk? Well, that's certainly a life choice, but it would behoove me to remind you that many people in the past have lived healthy and long lives without ever once doing (or even hearing of) Pilates or drinking home-brewed kombucha. It's hard to believe, I know, but this cult of radical health-mindedness is a relatively new invention, at least in so far as it extends to half the state of California and not just a few random wackadoos here and there.

I'm getting off-track here. I hope I'm not implying that cottage cheese is an unhealthy food that you have to be persuaded to eat. Because it isn't. You can even buy sodium-free cottage cheese at places like Whole Foods (but—having tasted it—I cannot recommend it to you). 

I've always loved cottage cheese—even as a child. I don't think it's technically 'curds and whey' but I imagined that it was what that Tuffet broad was eating when that spider came along. I hate spiders, but you certainly can't fault them for being attracted to the deliciousness of an amply peppered bowl of cottage cheese.

04 June 2014

pair of deuces.

I know it's dangerous to write (i.e., kvetch) about your boss on the internet—because (a) you could be fired for doing so, obviously, and (b) you tacitly sanction every person you have ever wronged or annoyed to badmouth you publicly from now until infinity. (I'm basing the latter point on Jean-Paul Sartre's assertion that when we commit any act, we are essentially granting our moral approval for anyone else to commit the same act. This is one reason why we can't murder people at whim—because as much as I'd like to murder Adam Levine, I would thereby approve of one of Levine's douchebag friends murdering me in response. In other words, it's difficult to rationally justify exceptional rules, which apply to some people and not to others.)

But hey. I like to live dangerously. (In this single, solitary respect, anyway.) I naively trust that my boss is too stupid or naive or clueless (or some permutation of these qualities) both to find this post and to identify with it. And even if he did, he's so essentially strange that I don't think what I am going to say about him would truly 'register' in any appreciable way. 

My motivation in sharing these details with my (hypothetical) audience is not exclusively selfish. I know that most people like to gripe about their bosses—unless they're those strange mutant freaks who have amicable relationships with their superiors—but that's not my sole intent here. I just feel that these oddities are far too precious to not share with the world.

I should add that the danger of this post is compounded by the fact that I am writing it during work hours—on a company-owned computer—using a workplace internet connection. I am the Indiana Jones of internet tell-all.

For the purposes of my post, I will refer to my boss by the name Carl. His name is not actually Carl. Other too-specific details of his life may be altered in ways intended to make them comparable to but distinct from reality... although I'm not sure how a detail could be more specific and yet absolutely true than the following:

Our office building has five restrooms in it, which is admittedly excessive, given its size, but that is due to what the building was before it housed accounting and sales offices: it was a funeral home. The building itself contained the funeral home proper and (in back) the family residence. The residence has two bathrooms; the funeral home (main floor) has two bathrooms; and there was a 'lounge' with one bathroom in the basement where the grieving could go to smoke a cigarette, get a cup of coffee, or just get away from their relatives for a few minutes. 

As a side note, I want to mention that I had a few relatives whose visitations were at this very funeral home when I was a child. I remember my mother taking me to the lounge, either for her own benefit or mine. (As you might guess, I was an impressionable child.) I remember my mother's cousin walking down into the lounge; she was a bony, very early-1980s-looking woman in a synthetic wrap dress and heavy bruise-like make-up. She was notorious for her chain smoking—and if you had the misfortune of sitting near her, she constantly blew the smoke right in your face. I don't think she did this as an insult; it was just 'her way.' Anyway, the thing I remember clearly about my mother's cousin as she descended those stairs is that her legs 'clicked' with every step. You know how your knuckles make that sound when you crack them? Well, this cousin's leg joints made that noise with virtually every step she took. EVERY step. And she was only in her thirties, so it wasn't like she was some bent-over, arthritic battleaxe. She was an eccentric, memorable woman—the kind of woman who—in retrospect—one imagines spent much of the 1980s snorting coke off a Corbusier coffee table and listening to the Human League. But who didn't? (Listen to the Human League, I mean.) As soon as we heard the cousin clicking down the stairs, my mom said, 'Okay, let's go back upstairs!' Now I am not sure if the two incidents were related, but even my underdeveloped social instincts of the time told me that they were.

Well, that was an unnecessary detour. 
Let's get back to Carl and the office building restrooms. 

It is the general consensus in the office, I think, that Carl experiences some kind of recurrent gastric distress. Perhaps IBS. Because he is either inconsiderate or an imbecile, Carl always relieves his gastric distress in the one and only restroom in the building that doesn't have a fan. (All of these restrooms are single-person restrooms, by the way.) Many is the time when I've blithely walked into the restroom for a quick pee and found myself in the eye of a storm of fecal odor so wretchedly overpowering that I've fled the restroom repressing gags. It's truly sickening. To add insult to injury, because there's no fan in the restroom and because the restroom is found along a much-traveled hallway, the odor just sort of festers and spreads throughout the office... until it finally dissipates.

This is the fanless bathroom discussed in this blog post.
As you can see, it is also handicapped-accessible and depressing.

Even though these cataclysmic dumps are often alluded to behind Carl's back, there is seemingly nothing that can be done about them—because who is going to go up to this creep and tell him to use a bathroom in back—or at least one with a fan? Nobody, that's who. It's not a conversation you want to have. Moreover, it's not a conversation that you are generally required to have because most people can usually figure out these tips and tricks of the minor details of living life on their own. But not Carl. He is an exception to every rule of basic socialization.

What I've told you thus far is only by way of setup for the real meat of the story. I've attempted to establish that Carl is not especially thoughtful of others, lacks self-awareness, and is the person who often 'discussed' (in puzzlement) by others. Another setup detail that I want to include at this point is that when we have guests in the building—i.e., non-employees—they often go to the bathroom and leave the light on afterwards. This is a common mistake because in many multiple-stall public bathrooms, the lights are actually left on. I'm not justifying energy wastage; I'm just saying that some behaviors become automated.

A few years ago—even though I should know better than to try to use that restroom, even for the sake of convenience—I thought I would pop in for a piss. What are the odds it would be the aftermath of another one of Carl's shitstorms? (Pretty good, actually.) I started down the hallway—which as I previously mentioned is in a well-trafficked part of the office—and I saw that the door was ajar and the light was on. This was the tell-tale sign that a visitor had been in the building, right? Right. So I walked up to the door, pushed it open... and there was Carl! Sitting on the shitter with a magazine on his lap, with an expression of clenched concentration on his face that only generally accompanies eliminations. 

I can't even express to you how shocking this moment was to me. Any words I use will sound like exaggeration, but it truly was one of those sitcom moments—where you are suddenly locked in a moment for what seems like an eternity and when you are finally released from the moment... your psyche is so overwhelmed in trying to process it that you end up stuttering and stammering until you run away like a gazelle.

Okay. I didn't really run away like a gazelle. I think what I may have said was: 'OH! SORRY!' and then shut the door. But by the time I had uttered that 'OH! SORRY!' the damage was already done. I had seen my boss's pubic hair. I had seen him straining against an intractable turd. I had seen his eyes meet mine—and those eyes (most alarming of all) seemed to express no shock, no embarrassment... no acknowledgement of the moment whatsoever. They were dead. Dead eyes. Not that he was really dead, but his soul was. Whatever it is that makes a human human wasn't present there in his eyes.

A re-creation of what the door looked like when I entered.

After I escaped the scene of The Incident, I did what any reasonable person would do. I told absolutely everyone I could find in the building about it. The story sent most listeners into hysterics—because, after all, they know Carl and know what he's like (i.e., weird). Laughter resounded through the building that day. 

Meanwhile, it was my mission (and I told my coworkers this) to avoid running into or having to speak to Carl for AT LEAST the rest of the day. Because how awkward, right? It's not like Carl has a sense of humor or human emotions or anything. He couldn't make a joke about it at his own expense because (a) he didn't seem to know how jokes or self-deprecation work and (b) (more puzzling still) he didn't seem to even be aware that anything remarkable had happened. (There's something you should know about Carl; he roughly corresponds to Obi-Wan Kenobi's comment about Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi: 'He's more machine than man now... twisted and evil.')

I was unsuccessful in my mission. Within an hour, Carl wandered into my office to ask one of his asinine questions. It was as though it were the first time he'd seen me that day. Maybe—by his personal set of rules—the first time you see someone with your pants up is, officially speaking, the first time you see someone that day. I don't know. I can only speculate.

While he was in my office, as you might imagine, all my office neighbors were trying to hold back their peals of laughter. Yes, I could see the humor in it all, of course, but I still feel that something had irrevocably changed that day. You can't view a professional acquaintance quite the same once you've seen them pooping. It simply isn't possible. 

Plus, I saw his pubic hair. You know how there is a trend these days where people—particularly younger people—groom and/or tame their pubic hair? Well, let's just say that that particular trend has not found its way to Carl... Am I surprised? No, not at all. Carl is the furthest thing from a trendy person in any capacity. But I was surprised at quite how sprawling and unchecked his wilderness was. It's almost like he was wearing brown flokati underwear. I am still residually disturbed by this.

But wait! Don't run off yet. There is in an epilogue to this story. (Two epilogues actually.)

Let's say it was about six months after The Incident... but it may have been longer... Just like people who have experienced trauma usually heal and learn to trust again, I once again thought I would quickly stop into the convenient restroom for a pee. And lo and behold—the light was on again and the door was ajar. Well... it never even occurred to me...! Surely, he must have learned his lesson, right? I didn't even seriously consider the possibility, to be honest. BUT IT HAPPENED AGAIN! HE WAS IN THERE SHITTING! WITH THE DOOR SLIGHTLY OPEN! Who the fucking fuckety fuck DOES that? Not once, but twice? What is wrong with this world? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, STILL shame on YOU—because normal civilized people do not take dumps in public restrooms with the door open! Fuck you, Carl! Just FUCK THE FUCK OUT OF YOU.

Next epilogue: You think I'm going to say that it happened to me a third time, don't you? Well, you are wrong. Providence has smiled upon me, and I am happy to report that I have not yet walked in on my boss crapping a third time. (That is the weirdest sentence ever, by the way.) BUT... a couple of months ago, my coworker 'Henry' walked into my office, looking distraught, whispering, 'Didn't you walk in on Carl on the crapper once?' 'Yes!' I said. 'Since you brought it up, it happened not once, but twice.' 

'Well,' Henry said, clearly outraged, 'it just happened to me!' (Although I'm not happy that anyone else would have to experience this, I have to admit that I finally felt vindicated.) After I finished enjoying the moment, I asked Henry what he did when he saw Carl sitting there on the can. Apparently he said, 'Oh, HERE, Carl. Let me actually close the door for you!'—which is surely a better response than mine, which mostly involved fleeing and hiding and then gossiping about it afterward.

03 June 2014

goodbye, alice.

Here at last is my belated Ann B. Davis post. 

It's frankly humiliating that it has taken me two full days to publicly respond to the passing of the actress who portrayed everybody's favorite blue-aproned counselor, confidante, and cornball Alice Nelson from The Brady Bunch. She was more than an indentured household serving wench; Alice was fully assimilated into the Brady family—probably as a means of obscuring the exploitative nature of the employer-employee relationship, but that's neither here nor there now. Sure, we can fault the Bradys for lacking of class consciousness, but we can't help but love their indomitable maidservant, who was ready with a clunky quip for any and every occasion.

No episode of The Brady Bunch was more galling to me that 1972's 'Goodbye, Alice, Hello' in which the spoiled Brady kids unjustly accuse Alice of being a snitch and decide to give her the ol' cold shoulder. Naturally, Alice is hurt and decides to make up an excuse to leave the Bradys' employment. Alice's straight-laced friend Kay takes over for her, but the Bradys discover that Kay is pretty humorless and prefers to keep her relationship with the family strictly professional. One imagines Kay leaving Bobby to die in the gutter if she spotted him overdosing on methamphetamine while she was off duty.

Sure, eventually those dumb-ass Brady kids realize their error and seek out Alice in order to beg her to return; they find her waitressing at a greasy spoon and discover that she's been just as miserable without them as they have been without her. 

Of course, Alice returns as the Bradys' housekeeper and the show effectively resets itself for the next episode. So... happy ending, right? What's the problem?

Well, if you don't know what the problem is, then you have the problem. The ONLY REASON that those brats ask Alice to return is that Kay is such a dud! What would have happened if Kay happened to be an amazingly fun person? Wait. We don't even need to go that far. Let's say Kay was an acceptable replacement with a reasonably pleasant demeanor and a good work ethic. Then what?

I'll tell you what: Alice would have been permanently screwed over, and those Brady buttfucks would have never learned their lesson! Alice probably would have sunk into a life of poverty, desperation, and depression as the years went on—while the Bradys adjusted to Kay and got on with their lives. 

I wished that they would have found Alice happily working at a new family's house—a family that truly appreciated her and loved her—and when they begged her to return she would have said, 'Fuck off, Brady bitches!'

But it didn't happen that way. So whenever this episode came on when I was a kid, I would not watch it. There were only two episodes of The Brady Bunch I would immediately switch off: the screw-over Alice episode and 'Kelly's Kids' which was supposed to be a pilot a for spin-off about a white couple that adopts three sons—one black, one white, and one Asian-American.

That's how much I loved Alice. 

the ethics of the symbol.

I watched Ridley Scott's Hannibal the other night. (That sentence should evince the spirit of shamed confession that motivated it.) I know that most of the rest of the sentient universe watched and recovered from this film over a decade ago, but I'm a newbie to Gary Oldman's excessively cackly portrayal of Fire Marshall Bill. (If you were channel surfing and accidentally happened upon Hannibal, you'd probably just think that Bruce Jenner had taken his plastic surgery to the next level.)

In the film, Oldman plays Mason Verger, a child molester whom Dr. Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter has persuaded to self-mutilate during a psychotherapy session. Now years later, Verger is bent on revenge (of course)—against both Lecter and (it would seem) the audience. 

If I myself were hideously deformed—and some might justifiably argue that I am—I would be more than a little honked off by the representation of the disfigured in this film. It's not as if there's a surplus of deformed characters in Hollywood which might permit us to say that this portrayal is just one of many which evoke the lives of the aesthetically disadvantaged. Why must 'ugliness' on the outside inevitably suggest ugliness on the inside? And don't cite Mask or... or... The Elephant Man as counterexamples—because that's the other variety of film about the deformed: i.e., that kind of well-meaning yet sometimes patronizing film that posits the misunderstanding or abuse of the deformed as a problem to be solved or, if not solved, at least addressed. Because film and television are such powerful and pervasive media, we might argue—too idealistically perhaps—that the entertainment industry has an ethical obligation to normalize minorities as much as possible. While there's nothing wrong with entertainment for pure entertainment's sake, per se, why not depict social outliers in value-neutral terms when it doesn't impair the entertainment product in question? I'm not saying that Mason Verger shouldn't make moral decisions—good and/or bad—but his morality should not derive essentially from his deformity. (I realize that the character's pedophilia is ostensibly his 'essential' moral failing, but this is a point that's somehow lost in a narrative that seems to fetishize the character's deformity as a freak show.)

Now I want you to take a moment to consider what you have just read in the previous (looong) paragraph. Do you agree with it? Did you find yourself nodding along to the points I made? Or did they bother you in some way?

I've been putting you on a little here. That paragraph doesn't necessarily reflect my own feelings on representations of minorities and outliers in the media. I balk at the suggestion that a writer or filmmaker is obligated in some way to scrub his characters clean of untoward associations. For instance, let's throw out the issue of pedophilia with respect to Oldman's character for a moment. Let's just say that he is a deformed man and leave it at that. Would it be inconceivable in a narrative sense to ascribe bitterness or vindictiveness to such a character merely because of his deformity? 

I don't think so. From a character development standpoint, I think we can easily understand how a deformed person might end up bitter and angry—and to that extent we might empathize with him (if he were a fully developed character, that is—which Gary Oldman's character is not). His psychology might not be representative of all people in his situation; it might not even be representative of a significant subset of people. BUT—and here is the salient point—good characters are individuals, not mere symbols or stand-ins for classes of people. 

When we watch a movie in which we feel characters are only there to stand in for blacks or women or the handicapped, we generally have the sense of being preached to. Symbolic characters tend to be didactic, unpersuasive, and far too general to empathize with in any meaningful way. (Paul Haggis' film Crash, for example, is populated by nothing but socioeconomic symbols. Yes, minorities are depicted in both good and bad lights in the film, but this is part of Haggis' trite thesis, and his characters only exist in so far as they support it.)

Am I making the case that no depiction of minorities in films is offensive for the reason that any kind of behavior can be justified on an individualistic basis?

No, I am not making that claim. But here is where the critical problem arises: How do we determine when a filmmaker is saying something about race or gender or sexuality or disability versus when a filmmaker is saying something about a specific experience of race, gender, sexuality, or disability? It's certainly a fine line that I would never seek to define in black-and-white terms. 

14 May 2014

the art of being broken.

Last night I woke up about 1 AM and the right side of my chest was extremely sore. 

Before you tell me to go the emergency room, let me remind you it's the right side, not the center-left—and it wasn't a pressure pain accompanied by a tingling sensation running down my arm. It was more like someone had been punching me repeatedly during the night. (If you were punching me repeatedly last night, please don't do that.) 

I wondered what might have caused this strange pain. It's not like I had recently been in an elevator with Solange Knowles. Or had ever been employed as Naomi Campbell's personal assistant or maid. Or had been in a long-term relationship with Jackson Browne (that I can recall). I simply awoke to this idiopathic pain while my cat Herbert lay nearby, staring smugly at me. (Incidentally, I don't think Herbert was involved in the injury. His default is staring smugly at me. Silently judging me. It's what cats do.)

This pain is mostly gone as I type this, and I have given up wondering about it. Most unexplained pains and uncategorizable ailments can be rebutted with the simple statement, 'I'm getting old.' That explains it all, doesn't it? We must resign ourselves to infirmity and general discomfort as time passes. 

Meanwhile, the on/off button on my iPhone no longer works reliably. I have to push (aggressively) on it an average of three to seven times (that's an average I pulled out of my ass, by the way) before the screen agrees to light up and the iPhone's many superfluous functions are ready to be used. 

My iPhone is approximately one year and eight months old. In human years, that's about ninety-two. I'm sure the phone's obsolescence function begins surreptitiously doing its work at about the one-year mark. Sometimes it simply decides not to ring—even though all the settings say RING! Although I'm not the recipient of a lot of important telephone calls, it's disappointing to realize that I missed a call from my pharmacist while I was just sitting there beside my phone as it silently rang. (My pharmacist 'knows' me by now. She's familiar with my prescriptions, and as such I think she's delicate with me. She worried of riling me or causing me undue stress. Her voice mail messages are calm, clear, and reassuring: 'Hi. This is XXX at XXX pharmacy. I just wanted to let you know that you don't have any refills left on your XXX prescription. I realize you just picked up your last month's worth, but I wanted to give you plenty time to call up your doctor's office and get a refill called in. If you have any questions or concerns, give me a call. Have a great day.')

What I am saying is that it is disappointing when (usually old) things don't work properly. It is even more disappointing when that old thing is me. Who would have ever imagined that I would have to deal with things like back pain and sore knees? (I know young people sometimes have these problems too, but I am disregarding them for the sake of rhetorical tidiness. Join me in disregarding them, won't you?)

The problem is that I think of myself as an iPhone 5 but I'm actually an iPhone 3G. Never mind the fact that young people don't even really care about the iPhone anymore. They've moved on to that graceless, gargantuan Samsung thing. I might as well be a dinosaur.

Don't get me wrong. I'm okay with my body's minor defects and obsolescent features. None of them is terribly debilitating. (In other words, I guess I am lucky, although that's not always easy to accept.) The really troubling thing is that this (right this very moment) is probably the best condition I will ever be in for the rest of my life on this planet. This is as good as it gets. So if I suffer from unexplained chest soreness in the middle of the night, I should consider it a pleasure cruise compared to what's likely in store for me.

I will always be the iPhone 3G. That's upsetting. Newer and newer models will continue to be released, and I will still be the iPhone 3G. 

It isn't as though I am standing on a ship that's moving out to sea and taking me along with it. No. I'm standing on the shore watching the ship get farther and farther away. I'll always be on the shore, waving to the ship's passengers. Or flipping them off (as the mood strikes me).

13 May 2014

the smörgåsbord of peril.

I had one of those moments yesterday. I think it started when I read about Antarctica. In case you haven't heard or have willfully chosen not to hear, scientists think a major ice sheet in Antarctica has begun an irreversible melting process that will result in ocean levels rising about ten feet over the next few hundred to nine hundred years. 

Of course—given the prolonged time table of the doomsday scenarios and my indomitable narcissism—I should be content to throw up the deuces and be all like, 'Boo-yah! Sucks to live in five hundred years, losers!' This mortal coil will have long been shuffled off before the more dire effects of environmental catastrophe have assailed us (and by 'us' I mean 'them'—i.e., the punk-ass bitches who will reap what we've sown); so, in the lexicon of the self-obsessed, 'Not my problem'... right?

On the one hand, it's extraordinarily difficult to feel sympathy for the human race. If you can't relate, just remind yourself that this is the same society that imagines the preservation of the environment is a political issue. Instead of trusting science, the right wing would prefer to believe that environmental regulation is just another incarnation of liberal America's wet dream of 'big government'—or perhaps the 'radical' left's attempt force one of its hippy-dippy pet causes on American society (usually at the expense of big business, of course, which heavily funds Republican campaigns). 

When you look at it from this perspective, it's tempting to just say, 'Fuck 'em all. Let the whole planet dry out and wither away.' On the macro level, we deserve our fate. Future generations aren't likely to be more reasonable or compassionate than this one. Sure, they'll curse past generations for turning the earth into a wasteland, but that's only situational—because they're there and we're here. It has nothing to do with their being better or wiser or more innocent than those who have preceded them. All the individual differences in the world population will average out into approximately the same mouth-breathing, braindead mean. 

You see, I don't believe that society had gotten better or worse over the ages. We're probably pretty close to same bastards that we always were. Sure, we may have new variables to contend with—new technologies and new ways of engaging with society as a whole—but the instincts, preoccupations, and predilections are roundabout the same. 

I'm getting a little off-track. I started by telling you that I had 'one of those moments' yesterday. Antarctica and global warning and political game-playing is only part of it. I suddenly felt as if every peril—both large-scale and personal—had surrounded me all at once: environmental disaster, nuclear holocaust, asteroid collision, genocide, terrorism, war, murder, pollution, toxicity, heart disease, cancer, genetic mutation, natural disaster, automobile crash, insanity (and so on and so forth) were all hunkered around me, asserting their presence, reminding me that I'm just an insignificant and dispensable atom in the great social body. 

Do you ever have those moments—when you are acutely aware of your own vulnerability? Usually we don't think about things like that. After all, we are everything to ourselves, so we tend to assume our endurance is a given. We trust in our continuity—at least in the near future; and this doesn't only imply our physical continuity, but our psychological continuity as well. We believe in our 'self' as this unbroken stream of consciousness that accumulates past experience and compiles it into a somewhat coherent idea of what it means to be uniquely us.

I was having these thoughts as I was driving home from work. Every day I drive past the apartment complex where I used to live about ten years ago, but yesterday I thought about who I was at that time. I was aware that there was a long line of experiences and thoughts that connected me to that younger me, who was familiar to me, of course, but no longer intimately. I couldn't really relate to some of my ideals or tastes of that time. I could only superficially understand who I was because so much of the context and peculiarity of that moment was lost to me now.

But despite all that, I felt a deep affection for that person—that younger me—who stood at the starting point of a journey that stretched from then until this very moment. It's strange how retrospectively I assign so much possibility to my former self because I know that he has ten years of life ahead of him during which to accomplish many great (and not-so-great) things; but the me of today isn't guaranteed ten years or ten days or ten seconds... I'm always at the furthest reach of my own life, no matter how old I am. I must judge myself only on the basis of what I've done and not what I intend to do.

As I drove home yesterday, suddenly sensing all the dangers of the world convening around me, I thought it was miraculous that I am still here. I don't mean that it was miraculous that I am still alive (or I don't only mean that); I mean that it's miraculous that I was ever here at all. It isn't rational to think this way, of course; many of our most elemental feelings aren't grounded in the practical. But I couldn't help thinking about myself as I was ten years ago and feeling grateful to him and protective of him and intensely affectionate toward him, as you might feel toward something good and unspoiled. I elided the ten years between then and now and saw my former self as a distinct and separate person, to whom I was forever indebted for my existence (as I am now). I saw myself as a child—but the child who gave birth to me.