Is There a Problem with Apu?

The Simpsons are an indispensable part of my life. My sense of humor, so intricately entwined with Springfield lore, that when talking to me, people are often heard muttering through their frustration of being on the outside of the joke, “Is that a Simpsons quote?” Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t. I’m not quoting out of nowhere; I’m referencing a relevant moment in the show while engaged in a discussion. The real joy, is a perfectly placed quote, with like-minded individuals, when you don’t need to explain the meaning. I cannot count on my hands the number of people I know who will implicitly recognize Simpsons knowledge and enjoy a good quote placement. The Simpsons are a part of our life, a joyful, playful yet cromulent place, that embiggens our lives despite every character being flawed, dangerous or wildly incompetent.

Hari Kondabolu came onto my radar earlier last week in the New York Times headline, “You Love ‘The Simpsons’, Then Let’s Talk About Apu.” He made a documentary, “The Problem with Apu”, for TruTV, about a fictional Indian character living in a fictional American town voiced by an actual white man. Kondabolu is a stand up, writer and apparently deeply hurt by Apu. He’s not the only one. He got almost all of today’s prominent South Asian actors to participate in the film to express their frustrations and, in some cases, hatred of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon.

Here are some things I learned while researching Apu as a troubling stereotype of Indian immigrants in America or from Kondabolu’s film:

  • Apu’s name is taken from a famous film trilogy set in India from the 50’s about a young boy named Apu and his journey from adolescence to adulthood.
  • Indians don’t like the accent.
  • Some people didn’t know Apu was voiced by a white actor (Hank Azaria).
  • Some see Apu, as voiced by a white actor, equivalent to blackface minstrelsy.
  • Whoopi Goldberg has an extensive collection of “negrobilia” that is, blackface dolls, statues and assorted memorabilia of a bygone era of black representation by white performers.
  • The Indian guy in Short Circuit 2 was not actually Indian.
  • A non-Indian person imitating an Indian accent is called “pantanking.”
  • At least in the Spanish language dubbed Simpsons, Apu’s voice completely lacks any “pantanking.”
  • Hank Azaria, the voice actor, was quoted as saying, when creating the sound, that he was told, “How racist can you make [the voice]?”

I’m glad to have learned these things. I’m sad that Kondabolu likes The Simpsons, but hates the only character from his ethnicity. Apu’s voice truly is, “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy imitating [Kondabolu’s] dad.” For me, Apu’s voice was not what was funny. Apu was funny because of the situations he got into. He allowed Jasper to stay frozen in the ice cream cooler and charged admittance fees to see “Frostillicus.” He pretended to be married to Marge to avoid an arranged marriage, with sexy results. He sells expired meat to Homer. He lied to Homer through song. His penny candy is “surprisingly expensive.”

Apu’s voice is undeniably, albeit a broad stamp, but totally, Indian. I’ve had a few encounters with Indian people in my life. There was Sumanth—a guy at my high school, no accent, pretty funny, good dude. An Indian couple who were my doctors in Austin, TX—very lovely, smart and a full accent. The guys who ran the 7-11 in my hometown—accented, not funny and sour. A guy I met in Australia—wicked rich and bought me a sandwich, no accent, very funny, interesting stories about being in the high class of India. They were all different, and to none I thought to say, “Oh my god, you sound just like Apu.”

It’s hard to be too sympathetic with the idea that Apu led to bullying. Getting, “Thank you, come again” shouted at you doesn’t seem to be on par with the verbal weight behind an N-bomb or belittling Asian slurs. Apu being the only Indian on TV in 1990 makes sense since there were around 450,000 Indian immigrants in the entire U.S. at that time. The choice of a white actor to do his voice makes sense because Hank Azaria also does Moe, Frink, Wiggum, Comic Book Guy, Snake, Lenny & Carl, Dr. Nick, Wiseguy and the Sea Captain. Is it possible that of the half million Indians living in all of America in the late 80’s when the show was cast, that one of them was a voice work actor capable of the range and humor of Hank Azaria? Is it possible that Apu was made with a vocal stereotype of Indians? Is it possible that some young South Asian children were subjected to Kwik-E-Mart insults when they were young? Is it possible that The Simpsons are funny despite some short-sighted typecasting of the wide array of American people? If it is a discussion you want, we can ask those questions. But “The Problem with Apu” places too much blame on The Simpsons and not enough on the entertainment industry in general. Why pick on the one show that actually showed an (admittedly) fundamentally flawed yet intelligent, funny character of South Asian descent?

Hari bemoans the lack of Indians on TV, as does Aziz Ansari in Masters of None. I get it. You looked to TV to see yourself and it wasn’t there. But you were first generation! The TV was literally waiting for YOU! There actually wasn’t anyone there except you. Your parents were too busy being hard working role models for you.

Apu is funny because he doesn’t really understand Springfield, but totally fits into the craziness. He’s part of Homer’s bowling team, barbershop quartet, and the neighborhood watch. He’s not an outsider pushed to the perimeter of episodes only to jump in with a Squishee and make a joke about Ganesh. He took a bullet for James Woods. He was known as the “Fifth Beatle.” He can dance the robot. He once worked 96 straight hours and thought he was a hummingbird.

I get that there were no South Asians on the white dominated TV landscape of the early 90’s, mid-90’s, late 90’s, early 00’s, basically until Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show. But now, that’s changed; it’s shown to have changed in the documentary.

Apu is a cartoonish cartoon on a globally offensive show. The Australians hated their episode rife with Aussie accents, koalas and allegedly big beers. The Brazilians banned their episode that showed kidnapping and that Brazil nuts are simply called “nuts” there. The Japanese episode included over the top game shows, Godzilla attacks and origami in prison. Everything is a stereotype; does that mean we can’t laugh? Luckily, Judge Kondabolu says, “You’re allowed to like The Simpsons.” Just saying that means that I have to see each character and wonder, does this offend someone? I don’t want to hurt someone for my amusement. I didn’t know The Simpsons did that. For Kondabolu as a Simpsons fan, to bring this up, could be a good thing if we see Apu move in a direction that shows a positive arc. But it shouldn’t have to. He’s allowed to stay working at the Kwik-E-Mart overcharging “for meat, and milk, from 1984.” It’s not a real person. There are other South Asians on TV, so no young Indian kids will be bullied by “Thank you, come again” being chanted at them on the playground by some stereotypically dumb slack jawed yokel like Cletus types.

The main question: Is Apu racist? I think no, but it’s not my ethnicity or culture being parodied. Therefore, Kondabolu is entitled to feel that way. But imagine if all the satirized cultures, personalities, races or countries felt that way. There would be no Simpsons, and what a poorer world it would be.

Is Barney’s alcoholism triggering?

Is Fat Tony or the chef an accurate representation of Italians?

Is Groundskeeper Willie a true Scotsman?

Is Bumblebee Man’s clumsiness insulting to Mexicans?

Is the Sea Captain’s growl characteristic of all sailors?

Is Krusty’s miserly nature offensive to Jewish people?

Is Smithers’ homosexuality being expressed toward the man he serves homophobic?

Is Marge fulfilling outdated gender roles as a stay at home mom?

Is Nelson’s bullying a result of a distant single mother and a deadbeat dad?

Are these kinds of questions necessary when talking about the inarguably greatest show of our generation, Hari?

Do the writers need to discuss the sensitivities of all the microcosms of contemporary American society before deciding if something is funny? The old Aesop Fable of the Miller and his donkey taught that by trying to please everyone, you please none.

Thank you Hari Kondabolu for making me aware that this is a sensitive accent, that a fantasy show can have negative consequences in the real world. I’m glad to learn about you, your stand up and the opinions of the other South Asian actors’ in the movie. I’m happy to talk Simpsons with any of you anytime. I don’t consider this matter closed. It is a discussion. I just wanted to contribute my ideas. After all, “I’m a white male age 18-49, everyone listens to me.”

 

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I Remember Robin Williams

He made a man dressing as a woman seem like a normal way to avoid the disturbing reality of divorce. He made Vietnam seem like a terribly scary playground. He made genies appear fragile and emotional. He made Walt Whitman’s words come alive. He made developing disposable cameras frightening. He made forced therapy…therapeutic. He made a plausible adult of Peter Pan. He made aliens look like cokeheads. He made me laugh and cry. The two opposite ends of the human emotional range, touched by one hirsute and hilarious man. 

I remember being about 12 watching Mrs. Doubtfire and imitating all his voices. I pretended to know the words of the Italian operetta he sang in the voice of the little yellow bird. I remember Toys used to be shown on rainy days, and I’d imagine what I’d do if I was an orphan at a toy factory about to be overrun by the army. I remember teaching the young Korean kids the songs from Aladdin and feeling the memories of childhood magic, imagining your three wishes and knowing you probably wouldn’t have used your 3rd wish on the genie.

I also remember Patch Adams and the dedication of that doctor. When he filled the hospital with balloons; or when he got yelled at, and had to walk away with squeaky shoes. But, what I’ll never forget was the completely eviscerating scene from Good Will Hunting, when he told young Will: “It’s not your fault.” It’s something we all want to hear. I can’t even write those words without crying. I’m crying now. It wasn’t only the words, but also the empathetic delivery from his understanding eyes, and his implicit wisdom that pain is real and scars may heal, but never evaporate.

The outpouring of emotion on the Internet for his death does not surprise me. He was an important actor on life’s stage. I listened to an interview today of Williams with Marc Maron from 2010 where Williams went on an uninterrupted rant describing his inner monologue when thinking about suicide. It was funny, because he is funny; it was sad, because now we know he couldn’t talk himself down this time. He struggled with something inside that told him he wasn’t good enough. Depression can block all but the negative thoughts. It can swarm over like a wave washing away your name in the sand, until there is nothing left but blankness; and the thought of trying to fill in that void again is just too daunting. I wish somebody could have done him the favor of looking into his kind, thoughtful, charming eyes and told him what we all need to hear sometimes; “It’s not your fault.”

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Samuel and Jimi Hendrix

One of the best things about teaching ESL is that you meet awesome students. You can meet impressive, precocious youngsters who correct your grammar or wild, excitable hooligans that are incapable of sitting still. You can meet demure, sweet kids who draw you cute pictures or give you their last piece of candy. You can meet the kindergarten munchkins who’ll tell you they love you every day. You can also meet a kid like Samuel.

I’ve known Samuel for just about two years now. On his first day in kindergarten last year, he asked me if he could sing a song. I thought he’d stand up and sing “The wheels on the bus go round and round” or something juvenile and boring. He confidently strutted to the front of the room next to me and sang a popular K-Pop song called “Itaewon Freedom” complete with the dance moves! He sang until he forgot the words. The shy young 5-year olds sat smiling with jaws agape and clapped. My Korean co-teacher, Elly, laughed the whole time. I knew I found an extraordinary little soul. He didn’t know (or maybe didn’t care) what peer judgment was, or embarrassment, or being cool. He just knew he wanted to sing, that’s it. Throughout that year, we’d let him sing and dance for new teachers, visiting parents, our hard-nosed principal and basically, he’d sing even if we didn’t ask him to. Anyone who saw my Facebook page during the “Gangnam Style” craze of 2012 summer remembers Samuel. He was wearing the backwards hat in my video of the kids playing conga drums to the song on our field trip to the local funny farm.

He’s a natural entertainer. I heard one story where, on another field trip, he went up to some typically shy high school girls for no reason and sang a song to them. They blushed and covered their mouths like they were talking to some cute English-speaking foreigner. Another day, our attractive young female intern was putting some papers together for a parent newsletter. I happened to walk by the desk and Samuel was casually singing and dancing next to her, as if teaching her the moves. It was apparent he had been there awhile, for she wasn’t even paying attention anymore.

This brings us to last week. I called my pretty co-teacher a foxy lady (because she is the teacher of the room called “Foxy”) and she didn’t get it. I said, “You know, like the song, Foxy Lady…(nothing registered on her face)…The song by Jimi Hendrix…(still nothing)…You know Jimi Hendrix right?” I couldn’t believe it. Neither she, nor any of these six intelligent Korean women had ever heard his name let alone his style of psychedelic blues, radical behavior and flamboyant fashion. I thought he was a household name. (At least they knew Bob Dylan.) But it made me think maybe that’s why Asia and Asians are so dissimilar to Westerners. Entertainment seems to be America’s number one export and the only thing we do well lately. Their world of entertainment is so far removed from the West. I’m not familiar enough with it to explain. But I know their silly TV shows, overacted dramas and outlandish Friday night K-pop extravaganzas are incomparable to the unmatched quality of SNL’s comedy, The Simpsons’ writing, CSI’s production, or even Glee’s singing (if that’s your thing.) There’s a reason American TV and cinema is shown around the world. There’s a reason Western bands and singers can sell out arenas all around the world. There’s a reason why PSY was only a temporary global phenomenon. But there is NO reason why you should know his name but not Jimi Hendrix. The reason is unfortunately, inexplicable. If I have to explain it, you won’t understand. I’m trying not to be intolerant and biased. I know there is great music, TV, and cinema from the Asian world. Perhaps their culture values others traits more than musical creativity. Perhaps their culture doesn’t lend itself well to improvisation. Perhaps their culture is okay not having a U2, Beatles, or Jimi Hendrix to call their own. But, by the same token, where would the world be without Confucius or Lao Tzu? Would they be the Beat poets or the Bob Dylan of the modern age?

It’s hard to get across my feelings. Maybe you agree or disagree that the Western world is providing better music and movies that the Asian world. Maybe it’s a matter of economics, and Hollywood and big record companies have more money to throw into marketing; but what I do know is that when Samuel sings “We Will Rock You” by Queen, and does a decent Freddy Mercury impression, I’m more happy and more impressed than when he does the horse dance and sings about snotty girls who are overdressed and underfed wearing high heels south of the Han River in Seoul.

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1984 and the War on Terror

            I went to an all-boys high school. We had four or five female teachers in the whole school and an all male kitchen staff. Those haggard teachers were the most confident ladies ever to give detention. We must have looked at them like the goddesses they were most certainly not. The two newest editions to the female scope at that school were a short, mousy looking girl with bad acne and a pear shaped black woman with a penchant for Sinead O’Connor hairstyles. Needless to say, they became popular on our hormone-riddled campus. I know I looked at them with naïve lust; yet somehow unsure about their merits as a figure for such lustful inspiration. So, when a female of the species arrived onto the campus of Malvern Preparatory School, a silent alarm went off perking all of our collective dog-ears into overdrive. One such example was during our yearly foray into legitimate theatre. During middle school, a troupe performed Orwell’s dystopian future of Newspeak and Big Brother, 1984. All I remembered was the dull lighting, people saying “comrade” too much, and the time when the girl took off her dress. I was barely a teenager and didn’t know about sex at all. But the upperclassman had at least seen pictures and knew that sex involved taking dresses off, but after that, I imagine most of them would have been confused and shy. Nevertheless, her dress hit the floor revealing a pink nightie and a pair of long shapely legs. They embraced and lay on the bed as the curtain fell. Before the dress crumpled onto the stage floor, the young Malvernians hooted like the boys at the USO watching some singer-stripper shriek and shake through her latest hit. I think the poor actress might have expected it, or if she didn’t I wonder if she was disappointed in our lack of appreciation of her courageous acting, or if she was happily pleased her carnal frame could elicit such a response. Either way, that’s what I remember most from the performance. (It’s a burned memory, just like the time that mousy looking teacher picked me up, in her own car, to go to school early, to take a “test.” I was sure I was in for a story to make all the boys jealous. But actually, I just took my make-up Spanish test as she drank a coffee.)

            I watched the John Hurt version of 1984 last night and it was awfully depressing. The world presented was full of intentional lies, torture, inverted sexual perversion, overreaching government, faux meat, dreary clothes and tedious, monotonous production statistics. There was no pleasure; except happiness for the nightly hangings, no emotions; except for joy about acknowledging the meat as non-meat but liking it anyway, no sex; except for the illegal kind that evidently gets you the mind erasing treatment reminiscent of McMurphy’s experience in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The protagonist, Winston Smith, reminded me of this new character Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. They both have a feeling that what they are doing to help the government is wrong and aim to seek the truth. Snowden talks about how he left a good job with good pay because he felt too complicit in the illegality of NSA espionage. Smith talks about the wars Oceania is fighting against Eurasia or East Asia depending on which truth is truth that week. Snowden mentions how truth against power is never easy. Smith mentions how winning is not important, so much as creating the illusion of winning over a dangerous enemy thereby maintaining the war. The war in the book is tantamount to our War on Terror. Big Brother can change the name of whom they are fighting, just like America’s “Big Government” can change the name of our enemies so long as those combatants fight under the comprehensive flag of “terror.” American foreign policy is well known to be self-governed, hypocritical and sometimes tyrannical. We’ve allowed dictatorial or corrupt leaders sympathetic to American corporations or ideals to stay in power and often removed (or attempted to remove) popularly elected leaders in coups or assassinations. It’s not really a secret; ask Chile, Congo, or Cuba, just to name the “C’s.” Americans are very surprised and usually concerned to learn about the surreptitious and illegitimate tampering with other nations’ sovereignty. We are even more surprised, concerned and angry when we find that tampering isn’t only abroad, but actually recording and accessing our phone and Internet records.

            September 11th changed America forever. The Patriot Act, War on Terror, FAA body scanners, and Homeland Security are all post 9/11 features of the new way of American life and loss of privacy. Many were happy to sign up to be spied on immediately after the attacks with the emotions of seeing the towers fall. But, as time passed, and no attacks occurred, we were left wondering, did the wars help, did the access granted to FBI, CIA and NSA help, did killing Bin Laden help, or did nothing help, and we are still as vulnerable as ever to a style of kamikaze jihadist warfare that can never truly be eliminated? Did Big Brother find the newspeak words: ‘War on Terror’ that he needed to ensure “forever war?” When will we not be terrified of a possibility of terror? Will there be more pictures of presidents on battleships with banners proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” for us to cheer jingoistic chants of “U.S.A.” and wave our flags patriotically while feeling less terrified for a week? 30 years after the movie, 60 years after the book, are we closer or farther away from living under Big Brother’s watchful eyes?

Love and the Jersey Shore

Love is all around us on Valentine’s Day; and not the love that most of us experience. Not the absolute love from family; not the productive love of a partner; not even the dependable love of a pet. We are exposed to the Hallmark version of love. The version of love that can be quantified through expensive jewelry, fancy chocolates, and effusive gift cards. It’s another great idea destroyed by commercialism. Valentine’s probably began with one caveman bringing his wife a big rabbit followed by a hug and kiss. Then Dr. Showoff caveman brought home a deer and flowers, and the competition of gossiping girlfriends began. Christmas—a day of family gatherings turned into must-have items; Thanksgiving—a day of gratefulness warped into a giant carb feast to prepare for the insanity of the approaching Black Friday. Although these holidays of excess and spending money give a modicum of order and idealized sequences to the festivals, it doesn’t change the loss of purpose. St. Valentine paid his life to marry young Christian couples in a pagan world. He believed in uniting the love that finds a way to be together. He believed in the love that those Valentine’s cards aspire to bestow, but fall short mumbling in smarm and stumbling in schmaltz.

While people are falling in love all the time, love is also falling apart somewhere at the same time. It’s the cycle. We all have felt different types of love at different times in our lives. It has been asked if it’s better to have loved and lost or never to have loved at all.  Hopefully, we have all both had and lost love to be able to answer the question for ourselves. But love is a heavy word—so, “What’s in a name?” Did we lose the lover we had, did we lose the happy times spent together, or did we lose something intangible inside ourselves. Love is only an idea, an idea that makes us act insane sometimes. Is love a necessary part of life? Must one love oneself before loving others? Does anyone admit to loving another, but loving themselves more? Is true love possible—and what is true love? Those questions are simply rhetorical, and must be answered inside your own heart.

Another bit of rhetoric from the modern world, albeit far removed from Shakespeare’s classic monologue of Juliet questioning semantics’ role in our life, is the ever so crucial knowledge of “Never fall in love at the Jersey Shore.” That was the best piece of advice those guidos and guidettes could give us; and yet three of them did fall in love and maintained the relationship throughout many of the seasons. Snooki found a docile gorilla in Jionni, J-Woww found the walking tattooed colossus of Roger, and possibly the most dysfunctional couple of all—Sammy and Ronnie, found each other the first week in the house. Those couplings left Vinnie and Pauly’s bromance to swell with their expanding biceps each week, Deena to flaunt her shoddily airbrushed tan assets and the eternally hopeless Mike “The Situation” to flounder in his own fatuity and arrogance.

I was dating a girl in 2008 (when “Jersey Shore” premiered) that hated all things and people from the Northeastern parts of the U.S. At the time, it didn’t register that if she hated everything from that area, and I came from there, that it stands to reason she hated me too. As I said, love turns you into a crazy person. She enjoyed reality TV, and I thought it looked like a hilarious way to show her the charm of New Jersey’s insouciant and ridiculous attitude. I’ve seen every episode since then. I was fascinated by the similarities of Sammy and Ronnie’s relationship to my own alternatingly adoring and unbearable one. I liked how unapologetic they were about the GTL lifestyle, and finding girls who are DTF. I went to university with guidos before that name was widely acceptable and now, perhaps complimentary. They did gel their hair to excess, wear tight t-shirts and fist pump in crowded, steamy nightclubs, but they were also intelligent, comical and sensible (mostly).

This show hit the zeitgeist of America right where it hurts, in the guilty pleasure genitals. Fans latched onto the show and therefore, it brought a hailstorm of vitriol from Italian-Americans, New Jerseyans and concerned mothers nationwide. Their anger only brought more attention to the cast and their antics and the show became MTV’s biggest hit. It was fun to watch them grow together, whereas “The Real World” got to leave after 4 strained months together. These strangers, picked to live in house, and have their lives taped, had to do it for four months, six different times. Of course, there were plenty of fights, sabotaging, backstabbing, C-blocking, clubbing, hooking up, working out and tanning. But, the reason I stayed with the show, besides being able to stare at a train wreck for 45 minutes every week, was how they actually matured throughout the run. Snooki became a responsible, sober mother-to-be, Mike became a successful recovering addict, Vinnie conquered his panic attacks, and the others all worked on their own shortcomings and problems to end the show with completely different attitudes than when they began. It turned out to be a fairly decent example of how my generation sees the world. Many of us experience the freedom and debauchery of university and are then expected to cut it cold turkey while working the 9-5 napless and without buffet dining hall meals. Some of us find our life-long lovers in college, like Sam and Ron and some find best friends, like Vin and Pauly. We all come out different people than when we entered and with memories that will never be forgotten (if they were remembered in the first place).

This show wasn’t labeled as a love show, but that’s what we saw in many episodes. We saw Ron and Sam almost kill each other, but ultimately fight through, learn to communicate and stay together. We saw two grown men able to say they love each other (with only a pinch of sarcasm). We saw a rather shallow, marginally alcoholic girl, find a man who loves her and learns to accept her wild behavior while she adjusts to life as a mature mother. Hell, even Mike found a girl who loved him, but she wanted him to love her back, and that wasn’t ever going to happen, so they broke up with benefits. It seems falling in love at the Jersey Shore isn’t so much something to avoid, but rather, something that is inevitable.

My parents met at the Jersey Shore, and they are still together after 35 years. Love finds you. Sometimes love leaves heart holes only fixed by love. Love is working together and working on being a better person and partner. Love isn’t easy, and because of that, it’s hard to say it or admit to others. Can you lose a part of yourself to be replaced by another? Would you prefer to be lucky in life and unlucky in love or vice versa? To me, love isn’t the grand gestures of candlelit dinners, lavish gifts and rote romantic motions given once a year; love is more perfectly expressed in the intricacies of accidentally holding hands, surprises based on listening and sharing selflessly. Love is subjective, incomprehensible, profound, and completely incapable of being written by strangers on a decorated card. Show love in your own way, everyday.

Football Runs on America

Most sports fans in America are a fan of two sports, football, and any one of the others. I know I’m generalizing, but it is certainly the most popular sport in the USA. Living abroad, the NFL season appears out of nowhere. We are not subject to the onslaught of misleading preseason games, training camp dramas, draft day projections or constant SportsCenter coverage. It’s not to say I wasn’t unaware that it was approaching, it just wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. Football is the opiate of the masses in America. It is the great pacifier of the American male. As long as they have NFL games on Sunday, they could never assemble into government attacking militias, and I think those powers that be understand this fact. They would never have allowed that strike to happen at a time when unemployment is high and houses are being foreclosed. It is a desperately symbiotic relationship.

I watch the games onDemand through the Internet. The season opening game of defending champs NY Giants and the Cowboys of Dallas began as most games do, with the national anthem. It is the rallying cry for unity in the stadium and in the homes before the brutal, concussive combat and geographical animosity expressed by the colors of the jerseys turns average men into anxious Romans at the Coliseum salivating for violence on God’s day of rest. We know the feeling of testosterone surging and the way we catch ourselves gritting our teeth on 3rd and long or 4th and 1. We know the way we hate a player and know he is a disgrace—until he plays for our team. We know that Sunday is for football; it is comforting. The national anthem is that unifying moment where we all can remember it’s just a game and that it’s freedom that makes it possible. What is a little too symbolic is the flyover.

“Please rise for the singing of the national anthem…followed by a flyover of three Blackhawk helicopters,” said the announcer. Queen Latifah had a cool, new, hip-hop version of the song, which surprised and slightly annoyed me at first, but quickly grew on me. I like that it can be updated. And any excuse to repeat the favorite line of armchair singers “…home of the brave,” will be a desired change. The helicopters flew over the giant, glistening MetLife stadium in North Jersey after the last goose-bump inducing line was delivered, and a wild roar surged from the crowd. I realized they were cheering because those flying machines were on our side. They were cheering for how safe having those flying machines make us feel. They were cheering because war, and the elements of war, makes us feel something. It makes us feel a strange humility bred with arrogance for our great nation. Americans alive today have grown up on warfare and only had a handful of years when some foreign war was not involving the USA. We have tacitly given consent over the last half-century into the military-industrial complex. It is our economy. We produce beautiful celebrities and beautiful weapons. I’m not quite sure where it’s leading us, but being involved in two wars, the purposefully endless War on Terror and the fact that Hollywood will never run out of a pretty face to manipulate, makes it a safe bet that behavior continues. Beyond the subliminal jingoism of a flyover, it also reeks of an unintentional indoctrination though. It’s as if some invisible powers are telling us: “These jets and helicopters make this game possible, so don’t worry about the inconceivable amount of tax money we spend to keep them shiny and updated, and just enjoy the game.”

It’s completely natural to respect your country’s military. It’s natural to feel a bit of flag-waving patriotism when you see the might that is our arsenal. Somehow it just felt like a commercial when those helicopters flew over the Meadowlands.

Guns, Killing, MTV and The American Celebrity

Back in 1992, a new band named Pearl Jam made a seminal video of teenage angst, called “Jeremy.” “The boy was something that mommy wouldn’t wear.” The boy screamed and cried for attention and never got it. He felt awkward at school and felt awkward in his own skin. It’s the high school curse to never feel at ease anywhere you are. Eventually, after receiving many taunting’s, and returning the favor by punching his bullies; he bit the recess lady’s breast, which was something that nobody could forget. He was a troubled youth. One day, he entered class, back dropped by each child’s stark white clothing, representing their pure and innocent nature, and shot them all. “King Jeremy the wicked, ruled his world.” The lesson learned is that he made quite an impact on all of them. Their faces were frozen in terror, instead of laughing, pointing and jeering at him as before. Jeremy created the climax to his own grief, for what is more climactic than a public massacre.

I haven’t seen this video in many years, but I remember it like my backyard. We watched MTV every day of our early lives. There were great videos, shows and teenage entertainment for 24 hours a day. There were young VJ’s speaking our language and rappers who we tried to emulate, poorly. MTV, in the 90’s, was a flashing moment of teen culture, unsurpassed and incomparable to anything today. We watched videos by Nirvana, Soundgarden, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam. Many of those videos had to do with bizarre, angry or misplaced people in this world. Nobody seemed to fit in; it was easy to identify with as a youngling. Even if you had friends, there was always a group in which you didn’t fit. Those 10 popular kids in everybody’s high school, that were such jerks and specimens of perfection, are now fat and unhappy, reminiscing about the “Glory Days.” Time moves on, only change is permanent, and we learn this after graduation. Only the prescient few can understand that high school doesn’t determine your life—unless you let it.

On April 20, 1999, I was in my friend’s basement eating chips and watching Simpsons re-runs when we were interrupted by a Fox breaking news story. Earlier that day, two armed students in trench coats attacked their classmates with automatic weapons, killing 13. They were “nerds”, picked on by “jocks” and decided to get revenge. Immediately, people blamed Marilyn Manson, video games or depression. These kids had warped minds, possibly strengthened by the deceptive ease of killing, dying and hitting reset in video games, but I doubt that was the main reason. They killed for power. They had no power in their world. They committed suicide, further proof that this was a way out, a way to show they had control and power over their lives and others. They wanted the actions to speak for themselves; they were too timid to face the aftermath. They were cowards, killing unarmed children and teachers.

We have seen other killing sprees like this since then in Norway, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood and now a movie theater in suburban Colorado. Many of these killers destroy themselves, along with their story and motive. We have little understanding of their psychology. The man in Denver, who invaded a midnight movie with bombs and a personal arsenal, was arrested and faces trial. There will certainly be interviews and studies done to figure out what went wrong inside of him. But, I believe it is the desire to be famous, combined with lack of discernible talent, and a dash of psychosis.

Famous for the wrong reasons is still famous. Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton can attest to that fact. Although they didn’t kill anyone, they certainly have a bit of lunacy and a strong desire for fame. Our celebrity-obsessed culture bred into a society of bullied kids creates a potential mixture for fame-led hostility. Not everybody who had a bad time in grade school turns out to be a killer, but every killer had a bad time in grade school. Debatably, our formative years of birth to eight years old, determine our personality with minor fluctuations and changes. Are some people pre-determined, through nature or nurture, to be bullied and insulted? Are some people pre-determined for success, for failure, for fortune, for murder?

The debate also will arise again about gun control. Why were the Columbine and Aurora shooters both able to legally acquire heavy assault weapons? Guns are a part of American society and will never go away. The argument could be on whether we actually need such rapid-fire weapons for public purchase. The argument could be on why America is the global leader in homicide. There is no argument here. We cannot erase guns or homicide. We cannot erase hate or stupidity. We cannot really even hope to contain it. We cannot put metal detectors in every theater, school, restaurant, mall, gym, and nail salon. Trust is implied in society, and when broken, there are the police. As long as there are people who are willing to bring pain into the world, they will do so. It is unstoppable. However, there are also those who bring pleasure into the world.

At the mud festival this weekend, three well-meaning people with hope-filled eyes approached me and gave me a paper with a headline that read PEACE IS: and I had to fill in the blank. They were part of a World Peace Initiative, and had do-gooder written all over their pro-active, diplomatic faces. I know peace is subjective, and to some it may be a nice fire, with a bottle of wine and your lover, but I got the feeling they were hoping to end the world’s wars through charitable thoughts and nonviolent behavior. I don’t believe we are evolved enough to eradicate war. We all claim something as “ours.” As long as you claim something as your own, it can be taken from you, making you angry and wanting to fight for that thing. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is way beyond our capacity to comprehend. Imagine no possessions, imagine no religion, and imagine no countries. John, it’s more than “hard to do,” we simply can’t yet. Today, we meditate to calm our anxiety, we exercise to remove excess aggression, and we take drugs to ease away depression. We are in the middle of the evolutionary chain between the perceptible world of combative cavemen and the inexpressible beauty of ceaseless positive energy pulsing through us as radiating light beams. As long as we have no peace internally, we cannot have peace externally.

Nobody knows if “Jeremy” killed his classmates because he was mad at them or himself. Nobody knows if the V.T. or Aurora shooter was angry with his peers or disgusted by himself. We know that media isn’t responsible for their actions. We know that music isn’t responsible for it. We also know that the shroud of war for the past 11 years in America isn’t responsible for their actions. As the ridiculous t-shirt says: “Guns don’t kill people. I kill people.” It’s a way of ascribing personal responsibility to public actions. Guns aren’t the problem; people pull those triggers. It’s like blaming Ford for car accidents, or McDonald’s for selling fatty hamburgers. Competent adults made a decision, and sometimes, it’s the wrong one.

This wasn’t the first tragedy of people randomly killing in retribution for a shitty adolescence or for their desire for fame, and it won’t be the last. Gun control won’t stop it, friends and family can help, but it is merely a symptom of our society and we should feel indignation toward the perpetrators and sympathy for the victims, but not surprise or shock that it happened again.

Zombies and Nazis

The rash of cannibalistic murders and attacks in the past week has led to much talk of a coming zombie apocalypse (it is 2012 after all). Zombies, the walking dead, that make such great antagonists in silly horror movies, are fascinating to us living humans. There is no doubt of what action to take when confronted with a zombie—kill them. We do not feel pity, remorse, shame, nor does it even feel like murder. They are the perfect image of less than human. They have no brainpower left, and are merely wobbly corpses, desirous of brain flesh. They are usually normal people who have been co-opted or infected by some terrible plague unleashed by an unscrupulous, greedy corporation/government. So, why do we feel no pity for those, who could so easily have been us, contaminated by the virus?

There is something deep in human biology, a hint of pure competitiveness and Darwinian logic that tells us to get rid of the weakest links. The modern, slightly compassionate, global world is gradually erasing this primordial urge, but it remains, albeit repressed; yet it is there nonetheless. We can find this feeling manifested through zombie slaughter. They are lethal, weak, incapable of thought or emotion, and worst of all, ugly. They have lost. They have been bitten or scratched and are therefore not allowed in our new healthy, zombie-free, future.

Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, Shaun/Dawn of the Dead et al. have the common theme of merciless carnage on those poor bloody demons. We watch and feel great when they get killed. We don’t even care when they kill the zombie dogs. The reason zombie movies are such a staple of the horror genre is it requires no build-up, or back-story or reason for why we should root for the hero and hate on the scraggly, draggly mop heads. We can be instantly immersed, in media res, into a story and know exactly who are the bad guys. The same usually goes for Nazi movies; but, remember that scene in The Pianist, when the Nazi listened to Adrian “the schnozz” Brody play his first piano in years and then walk away without killing him? Yeah, the normal line of natural dislike and aversion to Nazis is purposely blurry there, same with Oscar Schindler’s jovial backslapping and dinner parties with the SS. Those Nazi soldiers had free will and a working brain, but also orders to follow, a terrible dilemma for all involved. Sometimes, when watching a WW2 movie, we can feel the same feelings toward Nazis that we feel toward zombies—that is, kill them, for they are trying to kill you. But, as illustrated by a few Hollywood movies, it is not always that simple. Nazis, ruthless, cruel and seemingly inflexible though they seem, are still human; and can therefore be given to the all too human condition of a softened heart. Zombies, have lost their innate humanness, and no longer possess anything that obliges the non-zombies to spare them. Even in The Simpsons’ world, when the town was hit by a nuclear bomb, and everyone but the Simpsons clan (due to the many layers of lead paint in their house, creating a perfect bomb shelter) became zombies, the moment when they were confronted by the Moe, Apu and Flanders’ zombies, Marge blew their heads off. The nicest cartoon mom knew: you can’t trust a zombie.

The world needs dichotomy. We have two sides to every story and A Tale of Two Cities. We have good and bad, night and day, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. In all we see, there is an opposite. The human condition is destined to endure both happy and sad times. We are aware of the fact that death and life are in the same cycle as love and hate. Death exists to give meaning and progression to life. The beautiful fallen tree rots to create new soil and homes to Earth’s lowliest creatures. The staggering depth, breadth and infinite soul of the oceans are merely one drop on one planet in one galaxy. Those zombies you see eating faces and hearts, they are the evil, lost side of our world. They are the opposite side of the double-edged sword on which all human life on Earth precariously teeters. If you took away the oil supply, you might find yourself as Mel Gibson in Mad Max’s dystopian desert world. If you took away the drinking water, you might find yourself sailing with Kevin Costner in Waterworld’s endless search for stability. We feel like a functional, secure society because we have cars that run, water to drink, police that supervise and no zombies to fear. How long would that peace last if there were no consequences? Do people act according to the golden rule of communal living because they want to, or are they just afraid of getting caught? When asked the question of: What would you do if the world were going to end in 24 hours? Many people think of the world blowing up and all prior actions erased in a climactic mushroom cloud. But, imagine if it merely meant, the world, as you knew it, would end, and you were left with the last 24 hours in your memory, as you wandered alone in the dreadful zombie-infected future. Would you wish for those hours back to act less like a brain-dead zombie, or does breaking rules make you more human?

A Titanic Question

The Titanic re-release in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking may have been seen as a money grab for either a studio or possibly James Cameron; which it may have been, despite the fact that Cameron, according to IMDB, forfeited his director’s salary and share in the gross to get the extra money needed to finish the film. But the film is a modern classic with amazingly cheesy yet famous one-liners, a thrilling story behind a dramatic love story, all set in an extremely sad historical event.

My fascination with Titanic goes back to my early adolescence when I had a large Nat-Geo hardback picture book depicting Robert Ballard’s extraordinary 1985 recovery expedition. The dark green, ghost-like images of the sunken steam liner miles below the surface evoked some wild feelings in my 8-year-old body. I was so equally terrified and excited. I vividly remember a picture of a pair of boots sticking out from under a large door like the Wicked Witch’s feet, simply freaking me out and staring at them and wondering who wore them, what happened to his body on the way down? I spent lots of time in the ocean growing up and would open my eyes to test my courage at times. I was always so afraid of the unknown depths and the creatures therein. The power of the sea is both a joy and a terror. It can push you to shore surfing with a stoked smile, or pull you helplessly in a rip tide with flailing arms. Imagining myself in frozen waters, with no land in sight and a thousand screaming people beside me in hysteria was not a pleasant thought. The 1500 people who died that day, many of whom are at the bottom of the ocean, cannot tell their story, so I had to imagine it for them.

Here they were, asleep in their cabins late on a peaceful Sunday night, and suddenly awoken by a deep shudder felt throughout the boat. The largest ship ever built, shamelessly provoking fate by calling it “unsinkable”, had just struck a large iceberg condemning many to inevitable death. In the middle of the desolate, expansive North Atlantic, a ship sat stalled, slowly acquiring the freezing waters into her belly. Many unaware passengers, thinking they were riding an invincible creation of man, failed to realize the seriousness of their predicament. Two hours after striking, Titanic was on its way down, leaving well over a thousand stranded in the icy waters struggling to survive.

The pictures and stories are so well known. We all know the tale. James Cameron just added a love story so that we could somehow place ourselves on that boat, in their shoes. The movie is actually quite accurate; several scenes were lifted right from the pages of history. The docks of Southampton, the first class dining room and quarters, the lifeboat almost crushing the other until cut away by a knife carrying passenger, the first smokestack falling, and the splitting of the boat were all immortalized in pictures or paintings from first hand accounts. Unfortunately, there is no record of the love story, but now we can imagine one.

I first saw the movie in 1997 with my high school girlfriend. It was made for high school lovers, because they hate people telling them who they can date or love. Rose’s mother telling her to marry up just so she wouldn’t have to work as a seamstress feels confining to a teenager, but it seems both selfish and smart to a 31 year old now. Sure, marry the bastard, he gave you heart of the ocean for God’s sake and he told you, “There is nothing I can’t give you and nothing I would deny you.” He seemed to care about you in an abstractly detached, rich guy way until you started bumping around the 3rd class quarters. But, alas, the heart wants what it wants and in Hollywood, things don’t have to make sense.

The movie also has some perfectly placed cheese beside wonderful bites of incisiveness. Leo standing astride the bow exclaiming to the dolphins, Fabrizio and the setting sun that he is, in fact, the king of the world, is pure cheesy Cheetos gold dust. When Jack and Rose escape the jerk searching for them and end up in an old-timey car, he asks her where she’d like to go, she replies, roasting with lust, “To the stars.” The hidden gold at the end of the pubescent rainbow certainly seems as unattainable as the stars sometimes. Then, when Rose tells her mother that there are only enough lifeboats for half the people on the ship, and therefore, half of the passengers will die; Cal replies, “Not the better half.” To which we get the underrated gem of “You unimaginable bastard.” If you say it out loud, it feels pretty good. With blueprints out, and a full understanding of the damage to the hull, the ship’s designer tells the captain that sinking is, “a mathematical certainty.” Can you imagine hearing that 400 miles from land?

Titanic is perfectly cast, well acted and contains an understated musical score. 21-year-old Kate Winslet was such a delightfully posh red head whose generously proportionate curves were perfectly suited for nude prostrate portraits. Leonardo DiCaprio was the heartthrob and delivered with plenty of romance and seductive eyes to satisfy the ladies. Billy Zane was superb in his unimaginably bastard-like portrayal of selfish self-loathing. Frances Fisher as Ruth, playing the cold, isolated mother aiming to marry off her only offspring to continue her lavish lifestyle without consideration of her daughter’s changing desires. Many characters resembled the true-life persona, creating a realistic glimpse of the past on the big screen.

Whatever you have to say about liking it or hating it, you most certainly saw the movie. Sure, there may be better movies, but how many people have actually seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca? It was a cultural phenomenon and what I now believe to be a symbol of America upon re-watching.

This giant boat, the first of its kind, seemingly invincible and proclaimed by all to be a paradigm of quality for the world, brought down by hubris and misfortune. We see America in this boat. We see the classes, the myriad of backgrounds and races, and the dedicated workers. It’s a ship built after seeing how others were built and designing it to fix the flaws of others. Thomas Andrews, designer, represents the Jefferson of Titanic, forced to watch the ruin of his creation. I can only imagine T.J. looking at America today, perhaps not thinking it ruined, but maybe unrecognizable from what he imagined. Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Lines, pushing the captain to go faster through icy waters just to make headlines as the fastest ship of the day, may be represented by todays Lobbyists. They are working against intelligence and safety for their own gain. Captain Smith, knowledgeable and experienced, represented by our presidents. They may begin with best intentions but are persuaded by a never-ending line of special interests pulling them in too many directions until they are forced to bend to the will of elections or congressional deadlocks. I may be jumping in a pile of sophistic thought here, but once we ask the what if’s, it makes a little sense.

What if Titanic had left a day earlier or later? What if they had not stopped to pick up more passengers in Cherbourg? What if the captain had been awake and on deck during the iceberg warning, or paid more attention to the warnings he received earlier? What if the crow’s nest had been provided with binoculars to assist iceberg spotting? What if the sea had been choppier providing eye-catching whitecaps against the giant icebergs? What if the Carpathia had been closer? They are numerous but futile. Now, many years later, we can ask these questions with the clarity of hindsight. Centuries from now, what questions will we ask of the American generations?

What if we had changed Wall Street culture after the collapse of 2008? What if we had not begun two interminable and expensive wars in the space of 15 months? What if we had not fought in Vietnam or Korea or become surreptitiously involved in Iran, Chile, Mexico, or Afghanistan? What if we had not elected Bush or Obama or whomever? What if we had been more concerned with greenhouse gases? What if we had put more attention into alternative energy? What if we had not initiated trillions of dollars of debt to China and Japan? What if Manhattan, Miami and New Orleans had not been completely flooded by rising seawater? Will the questions existing in the educated future be filled with the futility of our Titanic questions or will we see the advancing icebergs and steer away in time with our modern computers, intellect and acumen?