Thursday, December 23, 2010


Okay. 10 things. With subsections.

1. Best Music Purchase: LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening. My strange return to electronic music this year hit a high with this one: at times beautifully danceable (“All I Want”) and other times beautifully noisy. “Drunk Girls” may be the catchiest single of the year, and is more about slyly admiring the bonding of drunk girls versus the solipsistic behavior of drunk boys. Best lines: “Just 'cause I'm shallow doesn't mean that I'm heartless/ Just 'cause I'm heartless doesn't mean that I'm mean” and “Drunk girls wait an hour to pee”.

1A. Fave Music Purchase: DEVO – Something For Everybody. A high concept album that featured fake marketing research videos and a release party only for cats, this album was more than a comeback for fans; it was a reminder that when Devo’s syncopation is on, and Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale’s voices blend together, you get some damned fine, really fun music. It starts off with four great, ironic and utterly danceable singles – the song “Fresh” features recycled lyrics from other Devo songs and “Don’t Shoot” is as propulsive as anything they’ve ever done – and then gets better, peaking with the final three songs, which are totally unironic, emotionally committed songs that should not work for Devo, but absolutely do. Problem: The CD stalls momentarily with “Cameo”, a song that is either: 1. About Ian Astbury of The Cult and his appropriations of Native American culture; 2. Simply about pop appropriations of Native American culture, or; 3. Completely fucking offensive for fucking offensiveness’ sake. Regardless, the single “Work It” should have been on here instead of this.

1B. Fave Single: “Alive” by Goldfrapp, a spot-on Xanadu soundtrack soundalike that should be played in skating rinks everywhere. It features everything that’s great about early 80’s Eurodisco – a hook that could catch a sperm whale, self-empowerment lyrics, big, fat, bloated keyboards, and a line about one’s jeans being “a little tight”. The video is a hilarious romp through a Satanic ritual designed to bring a now-aerobicized Sandy from Grease back to demonic life via a Goth dance ceremony, interrupted by also-aerobicizing vampires.

2. Worst Music – I haven’t immediately hated any song as much as Owl City’s “Fireflies”, a song with lyrics I have seen quoted in complete sincerity on Facebook. Besides the fact that the music is a complete ripoff of the Postal Service, it attempts to, and I quote myself here, “…commercially recreate the feeling of precious wonder felt by any girl seeing Lloyd Dobler delicately kick the piece of glass out of Diane Court’s way in Say Anything”. It doesn’t mean anything. It wants you to think it does. It wants you to believe that preciousness equals emotional and spiritual yearning and discovery. It features the worst fucking song lyrics of all time: “It’s hard to say that I’d rather stay/ Awake when I’m asleep/ ‘Cause everything is never as it seems”. The video only adds to the horror, as a bunch of old toys come to life as Mr. City plays his Sears-brand 70’s catalog-bought organ, complete with light patterns, while leaning over it in his darned socks. It is a completely commercial attempt to co-opt the dreams of sensitive teenagers everywhere and completely succeeded on a commercial level. And I hate its ass-face. Yes, most pop music attempts to use co-opted emotion to sell product, but rarely is it dressed up as sincerely as this crap. Yeah, it may have come out last year, but it’s still as fucking ubiquitous as ever, which is why it’s still the worst song of the year.

3. Best Saddest Moment: Gotta say, David Tennant’s departure from Doctor Who, while certainly not the best story of all time (with commercials, the pacing drags, without commercials, it’s a dozen times better, but still not that great), does get the epic transition and the idea that the Doctor actually dies when he regenerates completely right. But what seals it for me is not Tennant’s fantastic final line, completely in character for his Doctor (“I don’t wanna go.”), but the teary salute Wilf gives him as he goes off to die. Wilf – an old man with maybe 2-3 years left in him, has done something completely selfless and stupid that, after saving the universe for the umpteenth time, forces the Doctor to sacrifice himself just to save one old man, who did something selfless and stupid. At Donna’s wedding, Wilf salutes him as he’s leaving, and The Doctor gives him a look that, to me, is full of blame and anger. Wilf knows what’s happened, and knows this “wonderful man” may never forgive him.

3A: Best Next Moment: Matt Smith appears in The Doctor’s pants post-regeneration and makes the part completely his in about 2 minutes.

3B: that’s what she said

4. Best Movie I Actually Saw From This Year Released This Year: I don’t go to the movies anymore: maybe once a year. This year, it was Tron: Legacy, and I was deeply disappointed, although my eight-year-old loved it. The best movie I saw was …well, shit. I’ve hit a point where I don’t care as much about seeing newer films as I do about discovering older ones and revisiting old friends. Hell, I cry during the first five minutes of A Matter of Life and Death, and did so again Monday night. I guess the newest film I saw that had any impact on a legitimate critical level – and not the one I will discuss below – was Monsters, which wears its allegory on its sleeve so much that it almost doesn’t work. And I’m sure it doesn’t work for most people, who want a movie about giant monsters and not a very slightly hidden story about illegal immigration, the genuine horrors those people go through just to get across the border, and how aggravation and unthinking violence destroys lives. In case you didn’t get that when watching it, I advise you to think about the sublime ending of the film, where two people trapped in a deserted gas station bear witness to an amazingly beautiful courtship/conversation/mating ritual performed by two computer generated squid/elephant hybrid lookin’ things, and then remember what happened in the first sequence of the film. No spoiler here. It’s overwrought at times, and I wished I cared about the two main characters more, but the thing works fantastically at times, and there’s a supporting performance by a ferry worker that ranks among the best performances ever, as he smiles and continues to insist that the two travelers will pay what he wants eventually, so why haggle? And why get upset? The most suspenseful part of the film is when he eyes a ring given in exchange for travel and sits and eyes, and eyes, and eyes, until he says something so short and natural that it’s funny in spite of itself. Oh, and the director made the film for about 50 grand, most of which was spent on the title critters, which he created on his computer in his bedroom. I just play Starcraft 2 on mine. Movie improved a lot upon re-viewing.

5.Thing I Still Just Don’t “Get” But Which Must Be Great Because My Wife Likes It So Much And I Deeply Respect Her Opinions On Things: Dexter. He’s a fucking serial killer. So he kills other murderers. If that’s what we’re down to, morally, that this sort of thing is okay – and I’ve never seen an episode where this wasn’t portrayed as something okay – then throw Hammurabi’s Code out the fucking window. Hell, let’s just throw every idea we have that’s morally above such behavior in order for society to progress right out the window and just let the planet revert back to the Cro-Magnon era. Seriously. My wife says the show is about the mental damage caused by bad parenting, and I believe she might be right, because I respect her opinion. I still call bullshit on it. But this is highly ironic because….

6. Best Guilty Pleasure and Fave New Movie of the Year I Actually Caught On Demand As It Was In Theaters: Centurion. Damn, I love a good B-movie. You don’t have to think, it doesn’t ask anything else of you than to watch it, and sometimes a great filmmaker can take those limitations and make something great. This is not great. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but as bloody and violent a movie as I’ve ever seen – and damned if I don’t love it for going as far as it does. This isn’t violence – it’s cartoon violence, so over the top and in your face that it’s like watching any one of Braveheart’s battle scenes if they were done by the old Warner Brothers cartoon crowd and extended to 90 minutes. You’ll see more brain bashing and severed heads than in any performance of Titus Andronicus. There are some great things about it: Michael Fassbender gives an Oscar-caliber performance that holds the whole thing together, and David Morrisey and Olga Kurylenko are great, too. Ms. Kurylenko’s revenge seeking Pict is awesome, especially the way she just jumps right in to the horrific primitivism that is the slow, savage chopping of someone’s head off via a handaxe. If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know exactly what will happen, and that’s exactly what great B-movies do – fulfill the promise. It turns into a chase film that uses every cliché in the book, from the waterfall jump to the centurions’ amazing ability to hide exactly where and when necessary to escape their foes. So, yeah, it’s more violent than Dexter, and, yeah, I’m being asked to identify with a bunch of Roman soldiers who are evil occupiers and who have – for the most part – earned their fate. The difference is that the film doesn’t try to hide any of it, and isn’t trying to make some point. It’s pure, visceral power that could be even better than it is if it didn’t try to give us so many characters to try and deal with, and if the ending didn’t just…sort of happen. I know my history, so I knew what was going to happen, but there’s a suddenness to it that throws it off, just slightly. Neil Marshall is on his way to becoming the next John Carpenter, and Godspeed.

7. Best Night Of The Week: Thursdays on NBC. Certainly, The Office has declined over time, but how the hell was it expected to keep up the amazing heights reached in Seasons 2 and 3? I still laugh at it, even though the humor’s not quite as smart. However, as of the last episode, Holly, you’re dead to me. New secretary Erin’s blockage of Holly Flax as she tries to explain things to a devastated Michael is the high point of the season, for me. Now, Outsourced? Hate it. 30 Rock? It’s okay, and I laugh, but it’s just not…deep, emotionally, and isn’t intended to be. That leaves the two best sitcoms on the air right now, Parks and Recreation and Community, the latter of which hit it out of the park with the stop-motion animation Christmas episode, which may be among the greatest things in the history of humans, esp. the final, sublime image of the real life actors reflected in Abed’s TV screen, as in a Christmas card. If there was ever a TV show that could actually heal the planet, it might be that one. Parks and Rec. has overtaken The Office in quality, maybe more so than that series' best seasons, and I care so much more about April and Andy than I ever did Jim and Pam, since A & A were never predictably destined to get together (and haven't), unlike Jim and Pam. This season’s high points include the great Ron Swanson, aka Duke Silver (smooth jazz saxster supreme), going to April’s house to apologize for being mean to her, where he runs into her sister and incredibly friendly parents, who have all his CD’s. The sister’s response to his “You must be April’s sister” is to scuttle off hilariously out of the room after rolling her eyes and dipping her head, just like April. And then he apologizes to April with all the sincerity he can muster, which is exactly enough. That’s the greatness of the show – its ability to be alternately hilarious and emotional moving. Also, there's a scene in one episode where Andy dives on and captures a raccoon that is awesome physical comedy, as is the aforementioned Ron Swanson's no-real-reason-to-show-it-except-it's-damned-funny slip and fall on the grass in the background of the season finale. No way will either of these shows last past their third year. Maybe they’ll get canceled this year, if only to make room for more of…

8. The Worst Things On Television That People Seem To Give A Shit About: Reality shows with people who are horrible role models getting shows that seem to turn them into role models and then idiots at home who don’t think begin to act just like them, so now they are fucking role models. Jersey Shore doesn’t bother me so much, because they’re just a bunch of rowdy kids who are taking advantage of an opportunity, and who can blame them? No, it’s the Teen Mom Shows and Blah-Fucking-Blah Housewives of Who-Fucking Cares that get me. Being a teen mom should be about the hardships and problems of being a teenage parent, not getting on the fucking covers of magazines and getting millions of dollars in salaries and product endorsements: the copycat pregnancies have already commenced. Rich housewives who have a shitload of money, yet also the temerity to act as though their lives are anything but troubleless, pointless, vapid-as-fly-farts creations have no business but to be on TV to MAKE FUN OF THEM. Unfortunately, they’re role models now. Certainly, there are rich housewives whose lives are worth following, but none of these are them. Weird moment of the year from this crap? Realizing that one of the “Real” Housewives of Beverly Hills is former Disney child star Kim Richards, who looks almost exactly the same, but who cannot really communicate telepathically with goats; she talks to them out loud on this show, and they are the title characters.

9. Best Reason For Dubbing Ever: the vast amount of Godzilla and Toho-Monster related films I purchased this year, primarily because they’re cheap, but also because watching the dubbed versions with the subtitles on gives you completely different viewing experiences. Also, it’s the best way to understand some of the ways the Japanese deal with the Second World War using pop culture. We bought one titled Atragon, the name of a giant, awesomely beautiful flying submarine, which is as weird to watch as can be, since the captain of said flying sub has been in hiding since the end of WWII under orders from a former naval colleague, and who refuses to fight for the world, but wants to use the sub to start re-fighting the war. As his own daughter and his former colleague desperately try to convince him to use his amazing Japanese product to save the world, and not just Japan’s reputation, the people from the sunken island of Mu attack using Manda, which looks like an old Japanese dragon, but which moves like an old Japanese puppet. At the end, SPOILER ALERT! the captain and his flying sub save the world, and the captured queen of Mu chooses to jump into the flaming water around the destroyed continent. So the captain gets his cake and blows it up, too. Manda eventually shows up again in Destroy All Monsters, which, as film historian David Cook calls it, is the Gotterdammerung of Japanese monster films. His choice of words seems slightly ironic, in regards to one of the other Axis powers.

9A. If you have never seen Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, find a subtitled and dubbed copy so you can see how a legitimately creepy and serious children’s film about human greed and selfishness can be turned into something nice and fluffy for American audiences. The dubbed, unintentionally hilarious final line uttered by the lone survivor is not even a part of the original Japanese script. That line? “I ate them!” Also, there is a three minute song that consists of nothing but the word “La”.

9B. Damn, I love Inframan. Not Japanese, but a Hong Kong version of the Ultraman series, it contains amazingly cheap and beautiful effects with the usual “hero fights monsters with kung fu until the final moment, when he whips out the new secret weapon the inventor has made for him (Thunderball Fists!) and just blasts whatever monster he’s fighting into fairy dust” motif. The original English dubbed version has some of the greatest lines in history, none of which actually appear in the original version: the main baddie is now named Queen Dragon Mom, and at one point, a scientist actually says, “The situation is so bad now that it is the worst the world has ever seen.” In the first two minutes, post-credits, a giant dragon lands on a road, causing a school van full of children to crash off a cliff – just the driver, the kids get out – and then the film immediately jumps to – with no rhyme or reason -- Hong Kong completely in flames and people leaping out of windows while on fire. That’s cutting to the chase. If I ever teach a film class again, I will figure out some reason to show this amazingly entertaining movie. You are warned.

9B1. Inframan is, as of now, the only film Roger Ebert has ever changed his star rating for, up from 2 and a half to three stars, so it remains better than Mighty Peking Man, made by the same film company (Shaw Brothers), and which contains a scene where five men shoot an attacking lion with pistols about 675 times.

10. I didn’t die this year, which is surprising.

10A. There’s still about a week left in the year.

10B. I am now too old to care about word repetition and the correct use of the word "ironic" when writing ironically.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


(This is dedicated to Stephen Gill for some reason. He will know the reason. The numbers in parenthesis are there to indicate that there's more information about whatever the number is after in the Appendixitis! located after the entry. My advice is to read the stuff after reading the blog entry, and then go north and south with it.)

“Swami: We were speaking of belief; beliefs and conditioning. All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one system of beliefs deposing another, and so on and so on and so on... A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, the conscious and subconscious, is unable to discern between the real, and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference, and most of us believe there is.

Am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To allow the unknown to occur and to occur, requires clarity. And where there is clarity there is no choice. And where there is choice, there is misery. But then, why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak, since I know nothing?

Sonny Liston: How’s about some more steam?”
-- quoted from the movie Head, featuring The Monkees (1).

Try as I might, I cannot let things go. I am cursed by memory – an inability to forget most anything, except that stuff that is relevant to day-to-day activities. For example, I can remember with great clarity the food I ate at a restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado when I was about 11 years old, but have trouble remembering if I told my wife who called last night (2).

There’s a lot of bad stuff to go with a memory like mine, but there’s also some pretty good ones. Take “The Moment”, which took place on the Wednesday afternoon of a trip I took to Calgary, which involved driving some-odd 300 miles north from Glacier National Park, which had, the day before, seen another 300 mile drive, from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier. All of this was part of a trip I took during the middle of July between my undergraduate and graduate years at OU.

I came up with the idea of flying up to Yellowstone as I headed towards my graduation from OU with mighty Bachelor’s Degrees in mighty useless degree programs. Which ones? Well, I can tell you the history of film, and the history of America in the same breath, and will starve to death trying to do so. I was going to begin OU’s English graduate degree program the next Fall, and would be teaching as part of my studies -- you know, First-Year Comp 1 and 2 -- and some film classes, since I was also going to work as the sole grad. student in the FVS department. At one point, I figured I was teaching over 300 students, and all with a collection of sweater vests to rival even the most stereotypical Harold’s-shopping professor. I’m sure I was an imposing sight – long hair done up in a professorial pony tail, sweater vest flapping in the breeze – but the kids seemed to dig me, so myeah.

Intimidated by the prospect of starting a degree program someone had basically blackmailed the department into letting me join (don’t ask), and not sure whether or not I could actually, well, teach, I wanted some time to get away from everything and everyone. Why not head to one of the most-visited national parks at the height of the season? I knew that I’d probably never have a chance to do this sort of trip again in my life, so I got my plane ticket, paid for two nights in a hotel room in Gardiner, Montana (one of the most serene and beautiful places on this planet), and reserved my rental car. It was when I got to the hotel room that I hatched my scheme to drive north to Calgary.

Rental cars from the Billings airport (think Wiley Post Airport (3), only older) have a limit of 1500 miles on them, and then it’s 25 cents a mile over it. I was flush with cash and credit, so I figured a 600 mile round trip to and beyond the Canadian border would ultimately only add about 100 bucks to the price of the car. I got out the road maps and started planning. Why Calgary? Good question. Probably because it seemed distant enough to be a “journey”, as opposed to just a trip, and I figured the scenery alone would be worth it. I figured that this part of Canada=Mountains, just like Montana. I knew nothing about the city itself, and assumed it was about the size of Tulsa. Oh, so wrong. So very wrong.

Tuesday afternoon of the trip, after a drive that seemed to include nothing but wheat fields, wheat fields, and more wheat fields, I hit city. There was some sort of major event going on, so I wound up having to look for a motel with vacancies and had to decide between a Holiday Inn for about 100 Canadian dollars a night, or an Econolodge for about 40. I chose the Econolodge to save some Canadian cash, and immediately regretted it when I found that to get to the bathroom, you had to climb over the bed. Awesome.

Calgary also turned out to have a population of about a million – nowhere near the large frontier city I’d thought it would be. I was alone in a city the size of Dallas, and had no idea what to do. I decided to do what I usually do in big cities, find the local university and sample the college life of Calgary. As some form of protest, except for breakfast Wednesday morning at the Canadian equivalent of a Grandy’s, I ate nothing but sushi the entire time I was there.

So the big-city trip turned out to be a bust. I drove around a lot, hit some local record stores, and went to the James Joyce Irish Pub, where I had an authentically poured Guinness. For those not in the know, this means it takes somewhere between two and three hours to fill the glass, and the thing has to be room temperature. You’re basically drinking bread. The only other plan I had for the two days I was going to be there was to hit a couple of hobby shops. I like hobby shops. They remind me of when I was a kid, and I used to assemble model kits. They also remind me of when I was a Doctor Who fan. Which is always.

By noon of the first day, I had decided to swallow the second night at the “motel” and head back down to Montana, probably to Great Falls to spend the night. Calgary meant nothing to me but a long drive wasted. The last hobby shop on my list was, nicely enough, supposed to be right off of the road that would take me out of town. I checked the address again, and headed towards the north side of Calgary, where it was located. As I kept heading norther and norther, I started getting worried. Had I gone the wrong way? The street numbers seemed correct, but I was beginning to worry that the shop was located even further north, possibly in Edmonton (that’s a Canada joke! Ha ha, eh!). Up ahead, a mall was becoming visible. Discouragement mounted. Imagine thinking you’re headed towards a nice, Nichols Hills-esque neighborhood, and you suddenly find yourself at Heritage Park Mall (4)(that’s a Midwest City/Del City joke! Ha, ha, fuckers!). I pulled in the parking lot, and it matched the address. Shit.

Fortunately, the shop was located directly inside the doors, so I didn’t have to worry about crossing the food court, with what I imagined were the rich combined smells of Poutine and back bacon (another Canada joke! Sorry, eh.). The shop itself kicked ass. They’d spent some money on decorations, and had an awesome tunnel instead of a doorway, which turned around and around slowly, like a Time Tunnel. It was more collector’s toy shop than actual hobby shop, and I was able to fulfill both childhood and adult fantasies by looking at sci-fi model kits and eventually purchasing an import K-9 action figure, which means nothing if you’ve never seen an episode of Doctor Who, and even less if I tell you it was one of those crappy Dapol toys (5). Never take’em out of the box, and don’t look too close, or you might see some resemblance to what the action figure is supposed to represent. The K-9 toy was cool, though – hard to mess that one up – and I felt like it was worth the long drive north. Not the whole damned drive into the wheat fields of Canada, mind you, just the long journey into the northern part of Calgary, where the wild things aren’t.

So, shop trip accomplished, I got back in the rental car (bumped up two levels for free, by the way, because the rental place didn’t have the type of car I’d reserved or the next level up, the first of many awesome surprises on the trip), and got ready to head for The America. In full, sort-of-but-not-kind-of ironic fashion, I had to head north out of the parking lot, and north again to make a U-turn. The left-turn light was red when I got to it. Turn signal clicking, 100-minute Maxell cassette tape of Americana music blaring (let’s make it Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road” for extra effect (7)), I sat there. And then I had The Moment.

Your brain thinks fast – the speed of electricity. This allows you to make a hundred decisions and revisions in less than a second -- a fantastic development that lets you think of something, decide to fully invest yourself in it, and then out of it, so The Moment really only lasted about three or four seconds, but seemed, as the cliché goes, much longer: possibly even longer in Canadian seconds.

I was about to turn south. In a literal sense, that meant that my vacation was half over. I had hit the crappy point in every vacation, when the journey itself is over and the trip home has to begin. I had to be at the Billings airport by 3:30 Friday afternoon for a 5:00 flight out. Yes, an hour and a half before the flight. I was not worried about traffic or overcrowding -- I always get to the airport early so I can get a great seat in the line for the plane. And to eat at the airport diner. I love airport diners. The trip had, aside from the trip to Calgary – and let me point out that Calgary is one of the cleanest, prettiest, friendliest cities I’ve ever been to, and all this bad talk is simply because it wasn’t what I expected – been extraordinary. The weather was perfect, people were not everywhere, and Montana had NO SPEED LIMIT at the time. If you ever have the chance to drive a car at 100 miles per hour legally, take it. The trip was everything I needed, and more so. But now it was time to head towards the endgame portion. I was a few hundred miles from the Billings airport. After a 70 kilometer-an-hour drive south through Alberta, I could again hit 80-90 miles an hour, getting passed only by people much sturdier than I and state troopers, who are by definition much sturdier than I. I could be in Great Falls by around 9PM, MST., then Billings the next morning. The people running the Econolodge would never know I’d skipped out the second night. Nor would they care, since I’d already paid for it.

Metaphorically, the u-turn meant something bigger, as metaphors always do. I was about to turn a corner in my life, and start a graduate degree program, a new job, and…well, there was something else going on at the time, which I’ll get to when the postcards are mailed, somewhere down south of here. In those 2-3 seconds, I felt the full impact of the huge change in my life that was about to happen. And I also knew one other thing: I was the furthest north I would probably ever be in my lifetime, and I was about to turn south. So I took The Moment.

I looked in the rearview mirror, saw that no one was behind me, and let the light turn green and then red again, still sitting there. I looked down at my little K-9 “action” figure, and remembered when I was a kid and staying up late on Saturday nights was the greatest thing for me. Doctor Who has been a part of my life for so long, I sometimes refer to my life as pre-“The Ark in Space”, and post-“The Ark in Space” (8). About 30 seconds later, the light turned green, there were now a couple of cars behind me, and I turned south, “homeward bound.” Next stop, adulthood -- fucking adulthood. And I was only in my early 30’s.

I’d purchased two postcards from a random gift shop Wednesday morning, and now I needed to mail them. First, though, I wanted to get the hell out of the city, and back to the frontier. It took about 30 minutes to drive all the way south through the city, and I eventually left the non-wilds of Calgary for the strangely familiar wheat fields of Canada. I grew up in Yukon, Oklahoma, where the old flour mills still stand. At one point, they even paid a crapload of money to relight the old “Yukon’s Best” flour mill sign, which glows like a multi-colored beacon in the night (9), attracting Martian spaceships who arrived at the actually pretty decrepit flour mills and left disappointed that they would not be able to make their delicious Martian pies. In a rage, they strafed El Reno. Or maybe it just looks that way. Maybe that was another reason to be disappointed with this part of the trip – it was too much like my old hometown, if it suddenly gained about a million people.

I hit some town about 20 minutes south of Calgary and mailed the two postcards – one to the now-named Sarah Mauldin, then Sarah Cooper, one of the 36 Tzaddikim (10). The other was mailed to my now wife, who was going to be married in a few months. Not to me. Yes, my wife is a divorcee. She was a fiancé at the time, and not mine. That’s what I was talking about somewhere up north in the story. Once I mailed them, with enough stamps to get them to the dwarf planet Pluto, I kept going.

I stopped to take a break in some small town right across the border from the U.S., mainly to stretch my legs, but also to take in the scenery again – wheat fields and flour mills, just like my hometown, except for the life-sized T. Rex statue they’d somehow/some reason put in the town park. Roar. With tiny useless arms.

The border crossing was uneventful. Unlike the trip over the border, this was very much like a drive-thru bank lane (pre 9-11, of course). I was asked one question:

“Do you have any Beanie Babies?”


The guard sighed. He’d gotten this response before, and was obviously embarrassed at the fact that instead of asking me if I had any guns or weapons-grade Plutonium, he’d been forced to ask me if I had any Canadian-only Beanie Babies (11) that were being smuggled across the border to be sold for dozens of dollars on the American Beanie Baby black market.

“No, sir,” I answered, as seriously as I could, to try and give him the respect he deserved – a man with a loaded gun and a badge asking me about some goddamned Beanie Babies.

“Have a good day, and a safe trip.”

I drove on.

The sun started to set. I was feeling lonely for the first time in the trip. The flat lands of Canada had given way to the more hilly parts of northern Montana, the sun was setting, and I kept pulling the car over to take pictures of the incredibly beautiful waves of golden light as the sun slowly sank between two hills, framed perfectly by them. The picture are amazing, except for the fact that I forgot to turn the damned date stamp off, and so the date is permanently etched on the photographs: July 22nd, 1998. Two days before the release of Saving Private Ryan (I had to kill some time in Billings that Friday morning).

Through a series of events, I wound up staying the night at a Best Western in downtown Great Falls, a hotel that had probably been the hippest place imaginable in 1964, but hadn’t changed a bit since then, and was now into full blown kitsch phase. It was surprisingly cheap for a downtown hotel, and may not have changed the rates since ’64. I checked in around 8:30, ate at a local diner where Leonard Nimoy had shot a movie (12), and then decided to hit the hotel bar before settling down in my room for the night.

The bar hadn’t aged, either. It was still 60’s-Camelot-era Tahitian Tiki style, grass skirting and mood indigo lighting, painted tropical island motifs on the walls, and was having a special on Blue Hawaii’s (13). I walked in and immediately smiled. The place was awesome. It had obviously gone from stylish to dated to kitsch to special local attraction for hip twenty-somethings over the course of 30-plus years. In a darkened corner, a group of probable college students had camped out, drinking fruity drinks from huge glasses with little umbrellas while wearing Hawaiian shirts (in Montana, mind you) and wearing leis. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a special. The bartender, an older gentleman, the kind you’d expect to see in a BAR somewhere in New York City, where they kick your ass if you order anything that isn’t clear and painful to drink, served me my fluorescent blue drink, two umbrellas for décor, and took my ridiculously large tip, probably embarrassed by the Hawaiian shirt he was forced to wear. Again, I was flush – for the last time in my life.

My mood continued to lighten as the entertainment started back up. I turned towards the sound of a piano and stopped at the huge window that was obviously set into the side of the hotel’s swimming pool: pure 1960’s. No one was swimming, but you knew that during the day you would see people swimming by the window and peering in towards the glowing blue drinks. I assume that any potential night swimmer would use the drinks in the bar as lights to swim by.

I continued my turn and stopped at the entertainment. Sitting in front of a piano – not a grand piano, but the kind you find in grade school vocal classrooms all across America – was a woman, probably in her early 80’s, peering down through her reading glasses at the songbook propped up on the piano in front of her. To her right was the coolest looking Casio keyboard ever. I knew that at some point in the evening, she would eventually resemble Keith Emerson (14) or Tori Amos, straddling the gap between the two keyboards, and playing both at the same time. It took a while for me to recognize the song she was playing: “I’ve Heard That Song Before”, by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. She did not sing, but simply played the melody.

As she played, one of the college students walked up to the piano, put a couple of dollars in her tip glass – the same as the neon drinks were served in – and made a request. He walked off, happy as could be, and she finished the song. She pulled out a stack of songbooks, found his song, and started singing and playing: “Margaritaville”.

It was obvious she didn’t know the song, and was sight reading it, barely hitting the melody and just sort of speak-singing it, playing the chords and bobbing her head. The college kids thought it was awesome, and clapped and hollered. You know what? It was awesome. I spent an hour in the bar, listening to her fake her way through a couple of songs by The Beatles, which eventually required the Tori Amos straddle I predicted, and a bunch of old standards. I put a five in her glass and requested a song that reminded me of the love of my life, who loved me as much, but was going to marry someone else: Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”. She knew this one (15).

Glowing drink in hand, big grin on my face, I listened to her as she sang a song she seemed to actually like and I finished up. When she finished, I thanked her again and told her she was easily the greatest lounge act I’d even seen in my life, and I wished I lived in the town so I could come see her as often as possible. She thanked me and took a cigarette break.

I went back to my room and walked in. The room itself was also straight out of the Camelot-era, with big colored buttons to control everything set in a shiny steel panel next to the bed. Most of them even worked. I pushed on one and it smushed in with a loud “CLICK”, turning out the light by the door. They were not labeled. I eventually found the “TV ON” button and smushed it down with another “CLICK”. I got ready for bed as the sound of Headline News filled the room. The Moment was several hours old, and I still dwelled on it, but the hotel, bar, and entertainer had lightened the mood considerably.

I’d get to the airport Friday afternoon and my flight out would be delayed for three hours while they scooted air traffic around to avoid the runways, which were being re-tarmacked. I missed my connecting flight out of Salt Lake, and the airport had to bump me up to first-class on the first flight out Saturday morning, put me up in a bitching hotel for the night and paid for dinner. Saturday night, I would play my last-ever gig as a musician, singing at the final Prairiemen show, which would end with me still not speaking to my brother, the drummer, and not doing so for another couple of years. Never join a band with family (16).

My wife got married at the end of the year, called me at work a few months later, and then married me a few years later. How ‘bout that.

The Billings airport was still a couple of days away. Fading quickly, I smushed the button down to turn the TV off with a “CLICK”, and then smushed the button for the room’s main light.


I settled down and eventually fell asleep, Moment securely set in my memory, and neon-blue drink restless in my stomach.

I’m sure I dreamed about something.


1. Head is the infamous Monkee movie, co-written by Bob Rafelson and THE Jack Nicholson (17). Far from the kiddie film it was partially advertised as, it is actually a quite brilliant dissection of the power of celebrity in our society, the mythology of The Monkees themselves, the circularity of fate, and society's willingness to repeat history without thinking. It also contains "The Porpoise Song". The scene quoted to the north features Peter, the "dummy of the group", listening to his swami in a steam bath. Sonny Liston, who has previously knocked out Davy Jones in a dream sequence inside another dream sequence, is not impressed, and fills the room with steam, obscuring everything. Eventually, once the group is captured yet again inside the Black Box, Peter tries to teach the other three Monkees about the zen feeling of serenity that can come when one is faced with the prospect of not having any say in the matter, so why create tension in your life by fighting it, if you cannot win? This pisses Davy Jones off, he yells "That's it?!" and kicks down the fourth wall, allowing them to escape. They then try to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, only to be caught in the box again. Yup. They wrote it while extremely high. The scene is here:

2. I have seen every extant episode of Doctor Who, and can recite some of them from memory. Behold, from "Revenge of the Cybermen":

VORUS, LEADER OF THE GUARDIANS: You have no proof of these absurd allegations.

TYRUM, LEAD COUNCILLOR OF VOGA, THE PLANET OF GOLD: Nevertheless, I believe it. Strange stories have reached my ears – your guards have never resorted to murder.

VORUS: It was a matter of internal discipline.

Later on, there’s one of the greatest lines ever written:

TYRUM: You’re insane, Vorus! You’ve brought about the destruction of our race!! (Cue Stephen Gill)

Yeah, I can go on.If you've never seen an episode of the original series of Doctor Who, this is not the one to start with. Start here: (8)

3. Yes, we all know that central Oklahoma's two major airports are named after people who died in plane crashes. Ha-frickin-ha. The airport is here:


5. The second paragraph is spot on.

6. Id. iii, verse 24.


8. So let's explain the rather grand statement of life pre-Ark in Space and post-Ark in Space briefly. The first Doctor Who story I ever watched was "Robot", Tom Baker's (previously the most famous of the Doctors in America, before the new series) first story, and the first story broadcast in Oklahoma. The next story is "The Ark in Space," widely considered to be one of the best in the history of the series, and which scared me shitless as a 10-11 year-old. It also meant that, because the story scared, entertained, and enthralled me, that I would watch the series almost continuously for (my gods) 30 years. Thus, pre-Ark in Space, and post. The fact that the monster maggots in it are actually stuntmen in painted green bubble packing plastic wrap does nothing to its power. It is one of the best stories they've ever done. This was made in 1975.

9. A picture of the mill is about a third of the way down the page. You can even buy one there.

10. From Neil Gaiman's Sandman series:

DEATH: Did you ever hear the story of the 36 Tzaddikim? They say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints -- 36 unselfish men and women. Because of them the world continues to exist. They are the secret kings and queens of this world.






which is of low quality, but Rick Moranis at 1:43 is pretty accurate.


16. If it seems like this obviously major event just got tossed in at the last minute, it’s because the reasons why, the during, and the complete pointlessness and stupidity of it all doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the fact that it ended, and Jerry and I are so much better now. Better than ever, frankly. The fact that it happened is so unimportant as compared to the outcome that it’s just not worth discussing any more than I do here.


By the way, #6 is a joke based on Eliot's The Wasteland .

Friday, June 26, 2009


Michael Jackson died yesterday, although he’d been a walking corpse of a man for many years. To say that he’d turned himself into something beyond human, beyond any sense of normalcy was sometimes an understatement. He pushed the publicity bandwagons to their breaking point with tales of giant castles, Elephant Man bones, and dating Madonna and Brooke Shields in a completely celibate manner.

Madonna. Celibacy. That’s a weird guy.

I read my first Michael Jackson death joke about 10 minutes after finding out he was dead via cable reports. The joke was part of a comments thread on The Onion’s AV Club page, an amazing collection of brilliance and snark that often has insights about popular culture that are brilliant and offensive in the same sentence. So, here’s the sentence that actually caused me to laugh:

“Well, he’s having sleepovers with Baby Jesus now.”

Sorry for the pause, I was listening to “Rock With You” again. It’s pretty much impossible not to sing along with that one. It has a much softer melody than most of the other dance songs on Off The Wall, and a series of call and responses on the chorus that define “smooth”. It builds well towards it, too, the way the massed vocals sing “Feel that heat”, and the song pulls back, dropping everything but the percussion and Michael singing “And we can ride the boogie” with the hihat cymbal emphasizing the off-beats. The chorus uses the beats between the phrases in a way that makes the responses even more powerful. When Michael sings “I wanna rock with you”, there’s a mild snap of massed fingers and percussion that creates a single beat pause before the choir sings “Allllll niiiiight”. “Rock With You” is great in that it never boils over – never is anything but remarkably smooth. The tension created by the propulsion of the beat and the lack of caterwauling works fantastically to create a mood of anticipation. The song sets up the idea of rocking with you, but does not yet rock with you. That’s the next few songs. He’s the seducer here, and, back then, we all knew what that meant: get McKinley laid! It did not mean sleepovers with children in the same bed as a 40-year-old man.

(physical shudder)

I have a child who’s 7 years old. I never thought I’d be a parent, partially for biological reasons (way to go prostrate treatment!), partially for personal (ain’t nobody gonna break MY stride), but I have one, and she’s awesome. All parents say their kids are awesome – well, decent parents do – but E-beth is truly cool and awesome. She’s polite, nice, genuinely appreciative of everything and everyone, and doesn’t judge. While I’d love to take credit for all this, most of that has to go to my wife Lori, who, after I quit OU, has had to spend a lot more time around Elizabeth than me, which means she’s getting to be the child’s teacher of taste and manners. Smart move, fate.

We try to support her as much as we can, but also want her to be a kid – a paste-eating, crap-leaving, mess-making kid. She deserves the right to be a child.

And so did Michael Jackson.

I can’t begin to imagine the abuse in the Jackson household. We’ve all heard tales of Joe Jackson driving his kids into tearful fits, picking Michael up by his feet and slamming his head against the ground, and generally treating him in a manner we now call Child Abuse without even thinking about the definition. And that, unfortunately, is what will be lost in the whole shuffle to “understand” Michael Jackson: that his story mirrors the way child abuse has been dealt with by our society.

When I was a kid, children’s entertainment took on a particularly educational, left-wing stance. Sesame Street and other children’s educational television suddenly popped up with messages of equality and empathy, echoing the left-wing themes of the late 60’s. These messages were ingrained into a lot of Saturday morning cartoons, and much of it is mocked for its over-the-top stance and insistence on a moral, no matter how goofy the show’s premise might be. The last episode of Land of the Lost? A cavalry soldier and a Native American learn to help each other. Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids – a criminally underwatched show nowadays – dealt with the harshness of inner city life as realistically as possible for a kid’s show. Drug use, stealing, poverty, ice cream after a tonsillectomy – all these subjects were discussed on the show, and things didn’t always turn out well for those involved. The Super Friends routinely took on various racial and political ideologies and showed how they were flat-out wrong, and then Superman saved us from the Liquid Light – a liquid so corrosive that it can eat through everything but the ground it slides down on towards a city.

Michael Jackson had a cartoon, too, as part of the Jackson 5ive. Ever seen it? It’s a piece of shit – one of those Rankin-Bass/Filmation cartoons that featured so much repetitive animation that, even as a small child, I recognized its lameness. The Jacksons were so busy, they didn’t even do the voices of themselves. Think about that: Michael Jackson, a person obsessed with childhood and everything tethered to it, wasn’t even allowed to do the voice of his own cartoon character. For the record, Diana Ross – the “discoverer of the Jackson Five” – did her own voice when she appeared. It may have been the episode where Michael and the boys did some farming. How craptastically disappointed would you be if you found out there was going to be a cartoon of your (fictionalized) life, but your dad wouldn’t let you be in it?

While a lot of the shows from that period haven’t aged well for that very seriousness of approach, I still admire what they were trying to do. Women’s rights, open-mindedness, charity: these were the traits pushed in a lot of these cartoons and children’s shows, before the 80’s when the rules regarding children’s television – and all of television itself – were trashed so stations could sell more airtime for commercials. Who to blame? Those people who saw capitalism as the way to improve everything and broke down as many barriers as possible that stood in the way of people making money. Nope, not everything was improved. Love those 24-hour infomercial stations and the constant selling of subsidiary products on TV shows? Great. Please leave. For those of us who see constant advertising as a soul-crushing experience, I’ll buy yez a beer at the Reunion tonight.

So, along with other social wrongs, child abuse was one of the subjects these shows dealt with, and sometimes with a clarity that put news reports to shame. So I grew up, and society began to understand what a horrible thing it is to beat the shit out of your own kids. Way to go, humanity. What the hell took you so long? Moral Relativity?

(In a horrible piece of irony, Janet Jackson, sister of Michael played an abused child on Good Times, and I’m assuming she brought a lot of real-life experience to the role.A bit more on her later. Just a bit.)

Ooh, here comes “Billie Jean”. In the same way that “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Strawberry Fields Forever” show how you can take pop music and make art out of it, “Billie Jean” is a momentous event. It’s an amazing thing – a song about stalking, lying, the dark side of celebrity, and parental responsibility that you can dance to. Set up as one of Jackson’s paranoid fever dreams about how celebrity can bring out the freaks, the song is about an accusation of parenthood. Jackson is terrified that the child might be his, because it will destroy everything, and he fights and fights to find ways to ensure, factually, that the kid is not his son. He denies, denies, denies, and then “the lie becomes the truth” and he cracks.

Whether or not he is actually the father is not important. What’s important here is the denial. He refuses to accept the idea that he is the father of a child. He rails against it and blames everyone but himself: the media, the machine, the woman. It’s the second song on Thriller to discuss the probability of having an unwanted child. The first is “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”, which reminds us that if you can’t feed the baby, don’t have the baby. In “Billie Jean”, if you don’t want the baby, you rail against everyone and everything but never accept the possibility that you are responsible for the child.

The music of “Billie Jean” is what most people want to talk about: that bass-line, the spare use of guitar, the scary-movie string cues. The bass line gets us into the song, although a drum beat that sounds more like someone walking down a dark street introduces us to it. The bass line is almost an inversion of the Peter Gunn theme, and shouldn’t work as a funk bass line because it’s too busy. But it hits the One hard enough to work. Then, the “ooh…ooh……ooh…ooh” vocals come in. The effect is staggering, creating a dark psychic landscape right out of a film noir, and that’s before the strings come in to counterpoint the melody and make the song even darker sounding. There’s no escape from the depth of the song. It sucks you in to a world of stealing and shadows, where you can be a pop star and have no happiness because of your constant paranoia, and where a child can be used as a bargaining chip to gain money from innocent people. Well, that’s if you believe the kid is not his son. I certainly think he is.

The song slowly builds and builds, adding layer and layer of instrumentation until you get the controlled chaos of the end, where everything’s playing at once, and the singer’s wailing over the backing vocals, and the guitar line keeps coming in, and the chaos keeps generating, and…is never released. We just fade out. Quincy Jones obviously deserves a lot of credit as producer of the song, but Michael was in charge by this time. If it sounds like this, it’s because he wanted it to. “Billie Jean” is as complex and heartbreaking as pop music gets. More than Dylan, who peered into the abyss and decided he wanted out of that shit, Jackson comes from a world of shit, and still lives in it during this song. He returns to this theme in other songs – “Dirty Diana” is the most obvious – but never wallows around in it the way “Billie Jean” does. God, I love that song. It disappeared right after “Beat It” hit and Thriller slammed its way into the subconscious of every American, but, by then, Michael had moved onto the more fun, flippant sounds of “PYT” and “Thriller”. “Billie Jean” sort of disappeared as the funner songs on the album took over the narrative.

By now, you’ve probably realized that I’m pretty affected by Michael Jackson’s death. Like a lot of people my age, I grew up with him as a constant presence – radio, Saturday morning cartoon, The Wiz. When Off The Wall hit large on the charts, it was cool to see him make the transition to being an adult singer, and I liked that someone who was still very much a kid could do so well. Thriller underwhelmed me when it appeared. While “Billie Jean” was obviously brilliant, I didn’t like “Beat It” or “Thriller”. They were too conventional for me, the guy who kept trying to get people to listen to Zappa, Oingo Boingo, and Elvis Costello in middle school and beyond. So while I became less interested in Michael Jackson, everyone else got too interested.

Has there ever been a person as popular as Michael Jackson was during the 1980’s? I mean, besides a dead religious figure, has there ever been anyone that popular worldwide? The man ate with presidents, helped Eastern Europeans learn to dance, and tried to feed the goddamned world. That’s how big Michael Jackson used to be. For a while, you could not escape coverage of him on TV. MTV – after Jackson finally broke the color barrier there – played his videos non-stop, including that over-hyped mini-movie of “Thriller” that brought a crashing end to the world of cheap, do-what-you-want music videos that used to play all over the channel because they needed stuff to fill up space. Myself, I could watch Costello drunkenly flailing around motel corridors all day – a lot more than I want to watch the video for “Thriller”. But the world had changed. It wasn’t enough to have a decent video; it had to be an event: cue the flowing curtains, white horses, and glowing children’s eyes. Jackson also brought entertainment news to the forefront like no on else before him – especially as he started his move from eccentric to crazy during the years following the release of Bad.

Jackson never did anything close to even the filler on Thriller after that.

Stories of Jackson’s weird shopping sprees, glitzy outfits, and the constant presence of children painted the man as batshit crazy years before Lisa Marie, skin-bleaching, and nose problems.

“She’s Out of My Life”. Awesome song. Beautifully undersung until the passion is needed, with as minimal of accompaniment as the song can take without bursting like a soap bubble. If someone sang this these days, there’d be glissandos and other fancy vocal shit all over it, not to mention the auto-tuning, which would eliminate Jackson’s very real breakdown during the last few lines of the song. This isn’t a song he wrote, so it’s a bit more personal about these feelings than Jackson’s own attempts to talk about heartbreak. This song gets it right on almost every level, from the adult understanding communicated in the lyrics, to the way the melody goes up and down the scales like a child’s sing-along. At one point, Michael pushes the volume up and sings “Damned indecision and cur-sed pride”, but doesn’t quite release the pent-up emotion until the end of the phrase, which is “’Kept my love for her/locked deep inside”, and he lets it all loose in a controlled burst, taking the word “deep” and extending it as long as he can without breaking it and holding the “eee” sound until he sings it through clenched teeth. His own pride killed his one true chance at love, and he knows it. Nothing he can do but stand in place, rigid, without revealing any emotion until he has to. The power of the song is that his tentative delivery is the same tentativeness that kept him from admitting his love, and, obviously, the guy has learned nothing but how to feel bad. He can’t even break out of his depression to express genuine rage and sadness. It’s a crushing song and was the first song I listened to after hearing he’d died, and I felt sympathy for him. Lori tried to make an Arrested Development joke, and I quietly shut her down. Jackson had earned some seriousness from me, and, aside from the jokes at his expense that were all over the place within 10 minutes, I tried to keep it serious, which is hard to do when you’re talking about a man whose best friend was Elizabeth Taylor, another person whose abused childhood and early traumas turned her into a basket case.

“They fuck you up, your mom and dad”, goes the poem. As hard as they (now we) try, a parent can’t help but bring some of their own baggage into their own relationships with their children. Who knows how Joe Jackson was treated as a child? Parallels between Jackson’s childhood and Brian Wilson’s childhood are so close, is it even necessary to say that great pain can create great art, but great art isn’t enough of an achievement to justify it? Wilson spent years in therapy to deal with his problems, and seems to have come out the other side intact and better. But he had one thing Jackson never had – a pause. Wilson’s life slowed down considerably once The Beach Boys became nothing more than a nostalgia act, so he had time to step away from the limelight and get some of his shit together; Jackson never did. As he got older, he got more exposure, and as his popularity grew, so did his eccentricities. From around 1983 to 1990-something the man was everywhere – somehow. He never got a break, and never gave himself one, possibly because he never got one as a child – not even to do his own voice over for a cartoon based at least partially on his own life. Now, why would someone like that become a control freak?

I don’t think Jackson had sex with the many kids he was around. I think that at some point, he lost his ability to tell whether or not right and wrong mattered in his world. He was an abused child, so he wound up trying to be the best friend he could to every child in the world, going so far as to try to end hunger in Africa with a song I find nauseating, at best: “We Are the World”. But in his obsession to help kids, he simply regressed and became one, with the same sort of solipsistic sense of self and lack of social niceties. I this, he began to practice a form of self-abuse that defines self-hate caused by abuse. Did Jackson ever understand that what he was doing was wrong? You can’t be a man in your 30’s and 40’s and have sleepovers with children; it’s simply not appropriate in the same way that a teacher/student or boss/intern relationship is wrong. It’s a use of power that is wrong – turning a relationship that should be about nurturing and educating into sleep-over buddies and damn the consequences. At most, I think Jackson played “Doctor” with the kids in the same way young kids would do so, with a level of innocence and curiosity that a child would have. Jackson wasn’t a child; he was a full grown man, and that sort of behavior is inappropriate on every level.

So who told him not to do it? By the time Jackson was doing all of this stuff, his family of hangers-on had used his celebrity to become celebrities themselves, including dear-old abusive dad, Joe. They sure didn’t stop him. What about his – face it, no one told Jackson to stop doing it, or at least no one told him with any authority. His parents could have tried, but they lost that opportunity – the opportunity to teach right and wrong – the moment Joe Jackson realized he could get rich by exploiting his kids, especially poor Michael.

It’s hard to jump back and forth discussing Jackson’s abuse and the abuse he himself performed without sounding like a schizophrenic. But that’s what the cycle of abuse does – replays itself into rote routine until someone stops it. Want a literal metaphor? Take the ending of Kubrick’s The Shining, a movie that is about the cycle of abuse in society, even more than it is a supernatural horror film. The ending – different from the book for both technical necessity and support of theme – has Danny fleeing from his axe-wielding father, who now has a chance to kill off the main person who ruined his life – his kid, who obviously forced him into an unhappy marriage with a flake of a wife, and ruined his chances to be a best-selling, world-famous author. Jack Torrance is living out his dream – a dream of revenge against all those who screwed his life up but his damned alcoholic, barely talented, selfish self. But Danny’s smarter than that. He starts walking backwards in his own footprints left in the snow, and eventually jumps into a hiding place and covers up the footprints that show him heading to it. His father follows the footprints and is caught up, forever, in the redundancy of the hedge maze. Danny has literally walked backwards through his own steps to break the cycle of abuse. He and his mom will go on to better lives, with the aid of huge amounts of therapy and a frozen-dead psychopathic father.

Too bad it wasn’t Michael Jackson who had the opportunity to break the cycle. Instead, he’s raised his kids outside of the real world that hurt him so much, and so they will internalize his own faults and fuck-ups unless they get help. But considering the people surrounding them, I can’t see that happening. Kids, don’t watch TV for about a month. You’re not going to like what they have to say about your father.

While Jackson got nuttier and nuttier, the idea that his actions stem from abuse began to drift away until he stopped being a person to most people, and became a thing to point at, like that crazy woman who talks to her hand and walks the streets of Norman. She must have been somebody, at some time. For almost 20 years, Jackson’s existed as Michael Jackson the fucked-up nut, and not Michael Jackson, the Artist. It’s weird to have taught students who thought Jackson “turned” himself white, and was no longer “black”, as though identity is nothing but your skin color. Instead of a cautionary tale of what abuse can do to children, he’s a freak child molester – no evidence of it whatsoever and vindication in a courtroom haven’t dispelled that notion at all – whose body is so plastic and fake he no longer counts as a person, but as an object of ridicule and Boo Radley-esque horror stories (“Why, once, I seen him walking on the moon!”).

“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’” is on now. As the lead-off track for Thriller, it’s a bit of a wild card, a shuffling skitter of an electronic percussion beat with lyrics that seem to be about all of these things: Jackson railing against someone trying to cement a bad relationship by having a child; the way someone else is treating this person, much like a “buffet”, where you take all you want , but don’t necessarily eat (need) all you take; and a “dammmit, you’re amazing, regardless” song. Towards the end, everything but the background singers and handclaps drop out, and a chant starts up: “Mama-se, mama-sa, mama-coo-sa”. It’s stolen from an old Manu Dibango song and pretty much is there for dressing, as it’s actually translates as a call to dance and have sex, in the original (Makossa is a slang word for “dance” in Cameroon). It’s supposed to be a chant to get women to have sex, but Jackson just has it there because it sounds cool -- hopefully. Otherwise, it’s hypocrisy in action.

Now that Jackson’s finally dead – and I say “finally” because he’s been dying in front of us for years, and few people tried to help him stop and instead pushed him onwards as long as they got money and the opportunity to be a “hanger-on” (Jackson family, I mean you) – maybe we can concentrate on his accomplishments more than his history. The man took popular music and – like Elvis and The Beatles before him – stretched its possibilities and creativity to the end. Unlike The Beatles, whose back catalog gave him the cash cow he needed to buy most of central Walachia for a picnic ground, Jackson kept trying long after he should have stopped. Unlike Jackson, Elvis was still beloved by everyone after he died, since the really freaky stuff he did hadn’t leaked out. Elvis’ weirdness was tempered by the fact that he kept it at home and didn’t display everything for the whole world to see, like dangling Lisa-Marie out a hotel balcony because he was so happy he wanted to show off his kid to some fans below for their approval.

And that’s ultimately the tragedy of all of this. Michael wanted everyone’s approval, since he didn’t get it from his father and family. He wanted to be the biggest star in the world because he thought that would mean everyone would love him. Instead, he got approval when he was making us happy, general disapproval when his music got less and less interesting to listen to, and then complete disavowal once the really fucked up shit came out.

He died on the verge of a comeback, so they say. What that word means in this context is a bit weird, since in this case, “comeback” meant “doing some big concerts to dig himself out of debt”. He wasn’t trying to revive himself musically, he just needed tons of money to pay things off. So his search for approval became a life and death matter for him, and he ultimately lost it, although, if he could see the way the world is reacting to his death (and Mark Sanford should be on his knees thanking God that the media isn’t at all interested in him anymore), he’d be happier than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn at their own funerals. Lester Bangs, the late, great rock critic, wrote a piece about Elvis’ death that works as one of the greatest elegies ever, but also as an understanding of how Elvis’ death meant society was changing, becoming more and more individualistic, and, therefore, less empathetic to other people’s views and beliefs. Here’s a long quote from it, included because it’s one of my favorite bits of writing, and because it takes up space:

"If love is truly going out of fashion, which I do not believe, then along with our nurtured indifference to each other will be an even more contemptuous indifference to each other's objects of reverence. I thought it was Iggy Stooge, you thought it was Joni Mitchell or whoever else seemed to speak for your own private, entirely circumscribed situation's many pains and few ecstasies. We will continue to fragment in this manner, because solipsism holds all the cards at present; it is a king whose domain engulfs even Elvis's. But I can guarantee you one thing; we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis. So I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say goodbye to you."

Bangs was wrong. There was something else we could all agree on: that Michael Jackson was a very talented man who was completely fucked up. That mutual recognition of his insanity also tied us together, since, no matter what, we could all agree that Jackson was fucked up beyond belief. There will never be another person like him, in that regard, and no one who deserves our sympathy more right now. The man’s story is a walking tale of the horrors of child abuse and the effects it has on those involved. However, at some point, he lost our sympathies and became a thing to be mocked and ridiculed. He never stopped being an abuse victim, though. Most people just stopped caring about what caused his weirdness and just concentrated on the weirdness.

Which is why we probably won’t learn anything as a society because of Jackson’s death, except that there’ll be a chance to re-evaluate him as an artist rather than a freak in many people’s eye, since he‘s no longer there to distract us from him. Michael Jackson’s story is a cautionary tale of how families can hurt each other for personal gain, and abuse can turn a happy child into a freak. We don’t want to face him that way because, as a freak, it’s so much easier. His surprise death probably won’t do anything but remind people that, for 20 years, Jackson’s been considered less an artist and more of a reclusive, pedophiliac, self-hating "thing". Everything before that is unnecessary, because it disrupts our ability to make Jackson a scapegoat for our own fallacies. Who’s to say we wouldn’t act the same once we were famous – so famous everyone on the fucking planet had an opinion about us? And once he had enough clout to get away from his family, why wouldn’t he retreat into a world of a fantastic childhood, to counter the one he actually had? He turned them all into hangers-on, their own talents and ambitions crushed by the weight of being one of Michael Jackson’s siblings. Only Janet, who ran away earlier and to other talented people, seems to have escaped.

So, for the death of Michael Jackson, I’d like to reprint, without permission, the full text of “This Be the Verse”, the Phillip Larkin poem I started to quote earlier:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.”

It’s a dark one, and ends with the idea of the cycle of abuse as a permanent thing, unless you take the easy way out or simply don’t have any kids to pass on your own neuroses to. Some of Jackson’s work is this dark, and reflects a part of the man he would try to stifle or make overly maudlin instead of dealing with it head first in songs like “Billie Jean”.

As that one starts over again, I wonder how the song would be received now, with all the knowledge of Jackson’s past and his weirdness on display for everyone to see. Nowadays, it would be understood that Jackson was talking about one of his deepest fears and confronting it, not necessarily in a successful manner. Back then, he was this cute guy who had finally grown up and was finally talking about sex. How far we’ve come. We understand now that abuse exists on many levels in our society, and many people are still abusing the guy, by telling jokes about wine, sleepovers, and plastic surgery without a damned care for the way he was brought up, and his inability to escape his demons. Make no mistake, there are a lot of very sad people out there who cared for Jackson, and many of his fans are going to be in hysterics, and they should be cared for, not mocked. They have their lives and loves, and we have ours. And even if there’s a disagreement on how the guy should be perceived, those in mourning should be respected. We’ve had enough fun at the guy’s expense, now let’s listen to his music and let the freakish recluse disappear into time. We’ve had our fun, and he didn’t, no matter how hard he tried. Goodbye Michael Jackson. Sorry I wasn’t there for you.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Pop Culture and Christmas -- 6 1/2 Short Blogs about Music and TV for the Season No One Can Agree To Disagree On Anymore.

1. My favorite Christmas song is "Joseph, Who Understood", by the New Pornographers. It's sung from the point-of-view of Joseph, the least sung about guy in the Bible, who hears the townsfolk of Galilee belittling his status as a father and husband because, to them, he's a cuckold. Joseph's response is to talk to Mary about this. He understands that "Some things are bigger/ Than we know", but still needs to know "Mary, is he mine?" It's a beautiful pop song, full of glorious choruses and harmonies, and background cadences that work both as a Greek chorus and an answer to Joseph's questions. By the end, he's singing "Mary, He is mine", which is why the title of the song is what it is. "You're Asking Me/ To Believe/ In Too Many Things" is as heartbreaking a line as ever written. "Mary, He is mine" is the determination of a father to do the right thing. Glorious. Go to iTunes and buy it now. It's a buck, for cryin' out loud.

2. After that, it's the BC Clark jingle. For those of you who have never been inside the state of Oklahoma over Christmas, BC Clark Jewelers has been around for a very long time, and is older than the state itself. At some point, the gods smiled upon the commercial songwriters of central Oklahoma, and they came up with this gem of a jingle that is almost impossible to get out of your head, once heard -- and you cannot live within the state lines without hearing the song over and over for the month of December. Then it disappears, back into the vault to be reissued next December. Never re-recorded since its original version, it sounds beautifully retro and timeless AND works fabulously as a commercial, placing the store in historical context and providing you with the information you need to go spend money there. It never gets annoying, and no matter how many people are around, they will all start singing along when it's played on the radio. You can be arrested for not doing so in some of the smaller towns in Oklahoma, as a variation of their old "sundown" laws. BC Clark Jewelers should not be confused with the Trust House Jewelers, who aren't around anymore, and who used to sponsor a lot of local late night television. This led to Godzilla movies being interrupted every 15 minutes by a picture of their French Market Mall store, and a Muzak version of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" playing as the owners displayed horrifyingly expensive, tacky as hell jewelry for you to buy. Late at night.

3. There are so many worst songs involving Christmas that I could write entry after entry without my usual sardonic glee and just display pain -- the pain of Magic 104's already horrible station going Christmas since some time in late November. There's nothing like 24-hour, constant, enforced merriment to make you Grinch out all over the place. Worst thing I've ever heard: any of the myriad versions of "Mary, Did You Know?", which is answered "Yup, she did." Didn't you read that book? Almost any Christmas song written especially for a movie made in the last ten years also falls under this umbrella, especially that piece of shit "Where Are You, Christmas?" song that Faith Hill sang in that even shittier version of How The Grinch... Ron Howard plopped on us from above. Magic 104 is a constant pain in my side. It's the station more people agreed to listen to at work, so it is played constantly. I have NPR on at my desk, but am not always there, so I get to listen to Magic 104's playlist, as selected by (in my mind, at least) their typical listener: a conservative 30-ish, low 40's-ish female secretary with three kids who thought Bon Jovi was the height of rock and roll in the 80's, but is too scared to listen to Top 40 radio now because it's all hip-hop and rap. She loved Garth Brooks at the time, and CARES about the contestants on American Idol. Think "Debbie", Frank Zappa's hypothetical teenager who is the focus of record companies' promotional departments, but grown up and almost 40, and you've got it. Magic 104: ass-kissing radio for your home or business. I also get to listen to Bill O'Reilly every day, in part because I believe in free speech and listening to those people you vehemently disagree with so you can understand where they're coming from. Also in part because the guys at work like to hear me yell back at the radio. "That's bullshit!!!" is another big Holiday tradition.

4. At one point I could recite all the lines, sing all the songs, and perform all the voices of the great Rankin/Bass classic Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Let me say this again; I could do them on command, and do so now without being asked. Many's the person who has heard me do this and looked wide-eyed at the weird person speaking like Yukon Cornelius. Rudolph is to me, and for many people my age, THE Christmas TV special. And how did this happen? Seriously? How does a stop-motion puppet show from the late 60's come to dominate every other Christmas Special around it? Is it the message, that you should accept people for who they are and understand that every person is special in some way? Is it the songs? I mean, who doesn't love the timeless beauty of "There's Always Tomorrow For Dreams To Come True"? Or the remakes of almost-blacklisted folkster Burl Ives' classics "Holly, Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold"? No, what makes Rudolph so timeless is that the special helped create a whole chunk of Christmas mythology, and inhabits its world so completely, that it's hard to imagine Christmas without an Island of Misfit Toys, or the hope that the ones we love will simply accept us as who we are. That makes Rudolph, the character, a cipher. He can represent any minority group you want, and any hero you need. He's a tough deer-of-action who is polite, caring, and flies when people like him. And Hermie may be the best gay Jewish puppet role model ever. The fact that you can buy the entire cast of the show at auction is one of the weirder realizations of my adult life.

5. The Charlie Brown Christmas Special has finally fallen victim to enforced nostalgia, for me. Now, they spread the 24 minute cartoon out to an hour, with more commercial breaks than you'd think possible in 60 minutes, and ram a few shorts in afterward to keep you watching -- and in order to fit in more commercials. The CBCS, as we hipsters call it (only me), is also the only special that really tries to downplay the festivities in favor of a discussion of the theme of Christmas. For many people, that means the Story of Jesus's birth -- and ONLY the story of Jesus's birth. For the special (and this has to be read a bit into it, as I never got high enough with Charles Schulz to ask him), the theme is the way Capitalism has destroyed the original meaning of Christmas, and has "created" a new, commercial and status-appointed meaning. Fogged up in the mist of ideology, time, and people bitching about "Lack of Tradition!" and "Tannenbaum?!" is the thing I remember most from the Story -- that Jesus's parents were willing to defy death in order to bring the child into the world. That selflessness (and let's not forget that Mary didn't really have much choice in the matter) and generosity (the two of them allowed that Jesus was their child, even though God was the father) is faintly echoed in Charlie Brown's pick of a runt-of-the-litter Christmas Tree, that he likes in spite of what everyone else says, and in spite of what everyone else thinks he should purchase. Linus eventually steps in, as he usually does, to provide some sense in those chaotic times, and simply recites a few lines from The Bible that resets everyone's bearings. Jesus, he points out, was a Gift. Be happy with the Gift. Selflessness is the reason for the season.

But the ideology gets a bit crossed here. Linus seems to be saying that the gift of Jesus is what's important to remember, that it is the meaning of Christmas. In one sense, he's right. Christians are supposed to celebrate Christmas as the birth of their Savior -- the Savior of the World, for them. But the holiday is so much more than that. For those of us who aren't Christians, it's a pause for breath, a chance to take the year as a whole and celebrate those things that make life worth living. For you, it may involve religion. For me, it's my family and friends, and the hope that people can continue to be as selfless as Jesus's parents, and do unto others, etc. The CBCS isn't quite sure how to work this all out. After his tree is rejected by his selfish compatriots, Charlie takes it to his house. He'll love it as it is, so there. He's much better than you, and is self-important enough to know it. His attempt to make the tree more palatable -- the ornament from Snoopy's prize-winning Christmas doghouse display that Mr. Brown (sounds like Mr. Shit!) puts on it -- only succeeds in hurting the tree, and he runs off, screaming. His "friends", who have followed after him, possibly to see if he'll commit suicide, give the tree their "love", which for Linus is the gift of his security blanket, and for the rest, the moving of ALL of Snoopy's decorations onto the tree, thus making it as pretty as all the others BECAUSE THEY'VE MADE IT THAT WAY. Far from being an acceptance of the tree as it is, the Peanuts cast remakes the tree in their own image, and it is accepted. Hell, they even serenade Charlie Brown as some sort of "keeper of the flame", when Linus is the one who got everyone to shut up for a minute and think about the "meaning" of Christmas. The blanket around the tree should be enough, but it isn't for Shermy and the rest. Charlie bought the tree, and they made it less individualistic, just so he and it would fit in better. At the end, it just looks like every other over-decorated tree in the world, and not "itself" anymore. Rah frickin' rah. As dark as Peanuts got, I think this point might actually be what Charles Schulz is trying to get at, but, again, I never got high enough with him to ask. Dolly Madison cakes for all!

Next up, a Marxist revaluation of the Cold and Heat Misers.

6. Without doubt the saddest AND sappiest Christmas song is "Same Old Lang Syne", by schlockmeister Dan Fogelberg, he who told us about his penis size years before doing so was hip: "Longer". (See! I told you there would be dick jokes!) This 5 minute opus about a rock star who meets an old high school girlfriend in the grocery store is not the set up for Time Chasers, but the saddest of all Xmas songs: the reunion that turns into the Big Suck. Filled with little details about frozen food and drinking in the car, the song represents nostalgia past, present, and future in a nice Christmas Carol-ly sort of way: the Future, in that the song is about the inability to recreate the past, either in action or feeling, so it's best to look forward; the Present, in that the damned thing is played on Magic 104 every hour, and because I am about the age of the main character now, so, watch out, nostalgia fans!!; and the Past, which takes some back story.

We used to have dances in high school, back in the day when I danced not to attract the opposite sex, but to have fucking fun! Really! I follow the idea that if music makes you want jump and down, then jump up and down! Forget the embarrassment that comes with trying to impress someone with your dancing, just do whatever the hell you feel like. Dancing is the greatest thing ever for those who want to express feeling through dance. All that said, I am one of the greatest disco dancers of all time. Hands down.

Anyway, as one of the final slow songs of the evening, you know, the one where you're supposed to finally wind up with the person you have true affection for and stare MEANINGFULLY into each other's eyes and postulate on "For us, what happens next?", "Syne" is the greatest song, since it is about the time AFTER the relationship, after you've had your final dance with someone and they -- and you -- have gone on to other things. For those of us who had an eye on the future, it became the song to dance to and ponder deep, philosophical thoughts about the end of high school, the beginning of adulthood. It can be the first understanding of the power of nostalgia -- even before you've earned it. "Syne" allows that feelings never quite disappear, but are replaced, and either submerged completely, or re-interpreted ("I shouldn't have been a jazz musician after all!"). So you get a feeling of nostalgia just from hearing the song, because you once danced to it with someone you said you liked a lot, maybe loved, and now aren't with. Nowadays, the song simply takes me back to the time when I thought deep thoughts about relationships instead of actually having them; when I "acted" instead of doing. It's nice to think that teenagers are self-aware in high school, but in most cases, we were doing what we thought we were supposed to do at the time, instead of actually doing something because we wanted to do it. High school is a time of role playing, not introspection, unless you're role playing the part of an introspective teenager, which is, again, a role (and then you become a Goth: "Burn! Burn! Burn Hot Topic! Don't let it steal your soul!").

And that's why "Syne" is so sad. These two people are trying to connect with old parts they used to play, but that time is over. It'd be nice to recreate some magic every once in a while, but a lot of times, there isn't magic, just nostalgia. My nostalgia for the song "Same Old Lang Syne" is on many levels, from remembering people I used to dance to during it, to the genius of Darren Penrod, who put it on last on the slow-dance/make-out mix tape most of us copied to have as our own. You know, the one that had a lot of Journey, Styx (Styx?), and The Eagles, whose "Wasted Time" is another one of those instant nostalgia songs, but isn't Xmas-related, so it's not in here. It reminds me of a time when I thought I actually knew a lot of stuff, but it turned out I knew shadows of things, like owning the guidebook to Plato's Cave and expecting it to provide the true experience, rather than just being promotional material. I strongly believe that graduating from high school causes a sort of mental illness. You're grouped in with a bunch of people for up to 13 years, and then -- POOF! -- you're not. Set up. Fail. Suddenly, you don't see that guy with the cowboy hat in the hallway anymore, or hear Darron Dunbar's magnificent, wonderful laugh, or see Cindy, or ineffectually criticize everything decent with Mark, go "Myeh!" with another Mark, or slow dance with whoever happened to be closest and cutest when the right song came on. Good days, high school. Too bad, as the saying sort of goes, that we aren't adults when we experience it, so we can understand the beautiful tragedy of it all: fraudulent, meaningful, pointless, incisive high school.

So "Same Old" re-creates, for me, that realization, late in my high school tenure, that I had spent too much time trying to do what you're supposed to do in high school, and not enough time actually enjoying it, which is, of course, part of the teenage experience, too. Oh, to be the un-enlightened person who looked at high school with less pretentiousness and less shit-headedness. Oh, to patronize some more. Oh, for the days when I didn't have to worry about so much shit that it becomes hard to be a part of one's life, and not an observer. Well, that's what adulthood is for -- to figure out the world. And you have a long time to do it. Adulthood lasts the rest of your life, which means you have a lot of opportunities to figure out stuff, but as you get older, less time to enjoy the knowledge as you try to pass it on to someone younger than you who is in the same trap you were "at that age". At the end of "Same Old Lang Syne," the protagonists part, and the snow turns to rain, which will wash away the beauty of the Winter Wonderland and return us to the rest of the year. Christmas is a time for reflection and exhaling -- lots of exhaling. Far from there being a War on Christmas, we rush towards the end of the year faster and faster each year, hoping the exhalation process starts earlier and earlier and lasts longer. Crappy Christmas music starts blaring out of radios a little earlier in November each year, and each year, Wal-Mart tries to push Xmas on us a bit sooner. I realize that some people are concerned about the death of Christmas, which is the dumbest fucking thing ever. No, it's more dumb than those Christmas commercials that try to convince you to buy the stuff you want instead of being happy with just getting a gift. And I know that Bill O'Reilly's greatest Holiday wish is to run around with a claw hammer bashing in the skulls of any and all who don't celebrate Christmas the same way he does every year: fucking mountains of hookers on top of a running chainsaw. But that's his deal, and he's wrong about Christmas. What he's really worried about is being passed by, about not being a part of something. He doesn't want his way of life to disappear, so he forces the world into his own mold, and tries to compress it into a shape, much like using a Play-Doh extractor. He's doomed to fail, thank God. As history bypasses us and makes it more difficult to actually be involved in a moment of history than ever before -- witness the "instant historocity" of the Obama election, and he hasn't even taken office yet -- we are forced to concentrate on the mundanity of our own lives, and try to force events into narrative conventions so we "get" our lives. Well, there's nothing to "get", no "meaning" to extract. There are lessons to be learned, for sure, but not everyone gets them. Christmas is a time of beautiful impermanence. It comes, leaves a trail of destruction in its wake, makes us happy for a few weeks, and then is gone until next year. Snow falls, sits on the ground, then melts or gets washed away by the rain. Presents are wrapped, and the wrapping paper is ripped and tossed in the corner to get at the thing inside, then winds up in the garbage can, unless you reuse it, which is a stupid idea. Whatever event you thought was incredibly meaningful in your teenage years turns out to be useful for creating nostalgia, that beautiful feeling that nothing will ever be the same again. Damn, I hope so.

6.5 Hey, Merry Christmas everyone. Happy Holidays, just to make sure everyone gets a shout out. While my sarcasm meter may be off the charts right now, the one thing I really want to do right now is thank all those people who have been and those who are still a part of my life. I hope you're happy. I hope you succeed at something. I hope you are loved by someone and love someone back, even if it's a love without all that fluid passing. I hope you can be the person you want to be instead of the person someone else wants you to be, or that society wants you to be. I hope you're not judged, and I hope you don't judge. If you're religious, remember that you could be wrong. If you're not religious -- ahem --, remember that you could be wrong. Share a gift with someone for reasons other than selfish ones, and love the gifts you receive because they were given for this reason: Appreciation. "The worst thing in the world," the amazing songwriter Peter Case once wrote, "is to be unwanted/ To be used up and thrown away." Like wrapping paper. So take your time unwrapping things. Someone spent some time making the gift look pretty, and you should take your time in order to appreciate the thought. If you are alone this Christmas, and I've been there myself, appreciate the incredible feeling of independence and the fact that you're leading an alternative Christmas lifestyle. Break a tradition, and try to create a new one. Whatever the heck else you do this holiday, try to be nice to someone. Happy Saturnalia, everyone. I mean, Happy Kwanzaa. Sorry, I meant, Happy Hanukkah, all of you. I mean, have a nice life. Breathe deep and exhale slowly, since you have another full year heading at you faster than you'd probably like to realize.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


Well, Barack Obama was elected president last night, a moment that scares, humbles, and thrills me to the core. This country has been divided by politics for too long, and maybe this is a sign that – because voters crossed both party lines and other, media-created ones – we can heal some of the fractures.

I will not hide the fact that I voted for Obama, and that a part of me felt proud to be able to do so. However, he’s not the candidate I initially supported – that’s his new VP – and, far from the evil “liberal” tag people have tried to paint him with, he’s a moderate, and moderates don’t necessarily get as much done, because they don’t push as hard. I apologize to all the moderates – 2, maybe 3 people read this thing? – out there, but I am reminded of a joke my Constitutional History professor told in class, when he explained why he flat-out hated moderates, which, strangely enough, is very similar to a “how many blanks does it take to change a light bulb” joke I invented years earlier. Here’s his joke, paraphrased, or rather, misremembered and recited to myself in an attempt to not screw the damned thing up:

A dam breaks and a wall of water is heading towards a bridge with hundreds of people on it. What does a Conservative do about it? “The wall of water is a necessary correction in the amount of humans on the planet.” What does a Liberal do about it? “We must throw an enormous amount of money in front of the water to stop it from hitting the bridge, and then build a newer, not-yet-designed-but-better bridge next to it.” What does a Moderate do about it? Nothing. All the people die and water crushes through everything while they’re trying to please everyone.

This was, of course, his reason for being a Progressive, and not a Moderate, a political position someone had inquired about.

His name was Dr. Crockett, a 70-ish year old man who taught the two-part Constitutional History class one night a week, for three hours a night. We rarely stayed past the first hour, and if we did, it was because we were giving our Supreme Court presentations in class, and, since there were about 80 of us in there, they could go all night. He also took smoke breaks every 15 minutes, and coughed up chunks of what must have been his remaining lung every five.

It was a great series of classes. One thing most people don’t know about me is that, along with my Film and TV degrees, I also have a History degree. With honors; 4.0 and shit. One of my personal favorite moments in time to study is the year 1848 and the European Revolutions that threatened to change the social order completely, spreading equal rights across a group of countries, and which were put down violently. Historians refer to it as "The Year The World Could Have Turned, But Didn't." I got my multiple degrees by stacking classes, taking history classes as Humanities classes for my Film and TV degrees and vice versa.

The “work” you did in the Const. Hist. class was research Supreme Court cases. This meant you were assigned 2 cases per semester, and you had to get up in front of the entire class and explain the case, along with historic precedence. Sometimes, this was really boring, and you might only need 5-6 minutes to explain the Interstate Commerce Clause and how it dealt with state-to-state rail transportation. Other times, and this means when I got my “randomly” assigned cases, I got Roe v. Wade, or Gideon V. Wainwright, and that meant basically teaching the class for half-an-hour while Dr. Crockett coughed and wrote notes, and giggled at whatever jokes I could make. Yup. Jokes around Roe v. Wade. I did ‘em. They mostly involved swimming vs. paddling, but one was about the Texas judicial system, which I compared to the Nuremberg Trials, only backwards. He thought that was funny as hell, and coughed and spluttered approvingly. I also stated my political position on the issue of abortion (I’m pro-choice, but that’s another couple of entries, and I’ll summarize by saying that having a choice means you don’t have to do something, either), which I thought was mighty “vaginal-sy” of me (why is it that you have to have “balls” in order to show nerve? Does that mean all women are spineless cretins?). The rest of the class looked at me like Keith Olberman into the camera during a “Special Comment”. Or an OU fan watching us lose to Texas for the third time in four years. And what the fuck is up with that?

The two of us had one extended conversation, at the end of the second class, when I had gotten my paper over Eugene V. Debs back with a nice “A” on it – earned, damn it – and a comment about my R.V.W. joke that said something along the lines of “Nice to know someone who’s willing to voice an opinion that’s not popular in a place you can’t drink in.” I decided to thank him for that, and apologize to him for using the class as a bit of a soapbox. He coughed and chuckled, possibly both at the same time (coughled?) and said not to worry about it. He asked me why I wrote the paper over Debs, since he’s a historical figure who, while once a viable presidential candidate from inside jail (for speaking out against WWI), was disappearing from America’s collective memory. I admitted that I admired the fact that he stood for what he believed in, and never traded his position of authority for anything other than results. The man walked the walk and talked the talk. I admitted I wasn’t a Socialist, and that I thought humanity would never be ready for the amount of altruism and empathy true Socialism requires; you have to know why you’re giving up certain things and agree to do so in order for it to work, which means you have to care for your neighbor, sometimes, more than yourself. We’ll never get there, I said.

Cough. Cough.

"Well, you’re probably right. But it’s nice to know that some people have enough faith in people to think they might be able to do it. Sometimes just knowing those people can make the difference.”

I also told him about my research into Oklahoma’s history, and how Socialism was once a relatively big part of Oklahoma’s initial government. We elected some real Socialists, and everything. There’s a very radical, leftist part to the early history of Oklahoma, which I thought was interesting, considering how right-wing the state had swung during my lifetime. Mmm-hmmm, he muttered. “But let me tell you about Oklahoma’s ‘radical’ nature.” He then proceeded to tell me about the one big anti-war protest held on the OU campus during the Vietnam War.

“Oh, it was big – a couple of thousand students and teachers all gathered around, with signs, bullhorns, songs and everything. Then, the police showed up and told everyone to leave.”


“And they did.”

He laughed at this, and I did, too. He’d told the story like a great comedian, building up the size and ferocity of the crowd, which immediately gave in the moment someone in authority told them to. The punch line was both hilarious and telling, and his point was clear; no one was willing to go to jail, and no one was willing to fight back. The “protest” was all about following the crowd – everybody else is doing it, so why can’t we? (“Linger” begins to play). The leftist movement at the start of the 20th century wasn’t just a few fanatics and bath-avoiding people at the time; it was a full blown movement, and Debs was a national hero, not just “that ass-hat” who wants to get laid at a peace rally. Oklahoma, he was saying, followed trends, it never started them. When it came down to the business of implementing anything, ahhh... there’s the rub. As soon as Socialism was destroyed as a political force nationally, it died here, and never raised its head with any import again. As the country moved further to the right during the 80’s and 90’s, so did Oklahoma, up to where it is today, about as far to the right as you can get without meeting yourself on the other side – a bit less Conservative than North Korea, but not quite as far left as Jasper, TX. Eventually, the state will shift back to the left a bit, as the country always does after the turn of the century, but it will never get as far to the left as its early, radical days, because those progressive, radical days will never return to the United States. Never. Never ever ever.

(Not that those early days were some sort of leftist paradise here, oh no. But imagine trying to be elected as a Socialist candidate in Oklahoma right now. “Hi. I’m David Murphy, and I’m running for office as a member of the Socialist Party.” “Are you fucking kidding me? Officer!”)

One thing I’ve noticed about Oklahoma in the past few years is how openly hateful it’s become towards anyone who slinks past Moderate into “Liberal.” There are many reasons for that: the abundance of ultra-conservative talk radio, which more rural Oklahomans are going to listen to, since it’s the only thing out there, except for NPR, and they don’t listen to it because it’s “biased”; the continual bullshit of this being the “heartland” of America, because it’s in the middle of the country, and has all that small town blah-blah-blah-whatever, which is supposed to be what America should stand for, not those evil cities, where nothing good can ever come; and what I call the “squeezing the air out of the bag effect”.

The “squeezing the air out of the bag effect” is illustrated as follows: you want to put something in a plastic bag that seals and ship it in a box. So that the bag takes up less space, you want to get the air out of it, so you close the end and press the air inside towards the seal, so that it will eventually get pushed out, leaving you with less air in the bag, so it takes up less space in the box. Before you get the air out, though, it bulges towards the end of the bag you’re pushing towards, which gets harder and harder to squeeze out. Think of that as a group of people who refuse to turn with the tide: Racists, for example. As these people get squeezed out as society progresses and understands how bad prejudice and racism are – not to mention how fucking stupid prejudice and racism are – not to mention how incredibly stupid the justifications for prejudice and racism have become -- not to mention how embarrassing it is to remember how naïve and stupid you can be when you’re uninformed and don’t know what words like “jigaboo” mean, goddamn I used that word so often before I actually knew what it meant that I’m about to throw up on the keyboard as I type this – I’ll start the sentence over now. As these people get squeezed out as society progresses and understands how bad prejudice and racism are, they’ll bunch up where they can and get harder and tougher in their stance as they’re pushed out of society. That’s a decent sized portion of Oklahoma for you; pushed to the extremes as the rest of the country moves on, and, because they can’t understand why they’re wrong and are too fucking caught up in “lost lifestyles” and “lost ways of life” to understand that there’s a reason why those things are LOSING, that they become more ingrained in their ways, instead of questioning them, which all human beings should do every once in a while.

It’s easy to either dismiss these people or ridicule them, and there are perfectly good reasons to do both, but in doing so, all we do is create a “siege mentality”, where all they do is associate with people who agree with them, and have their beliefs entrenched further. This solves nothing. It proves nothing. It makes people feel even more like outsiders than they already do – earned in many ways, of course because they're fucking bigots -- but that doesn't mean you stop trying to reach them. Lead by example, and you never know what you can accomplish. I heard a quote last night that, of people who considered themselves prejudiced at one time, being regularly around the person they were prejudiced against, such as at work or school, 90 percent of the time, it eliminated the prejudice. There are dozens of real-world examples we can use to prove this, from the person Derek Vineyard (American History X) is based on, to Malcolm X, on whom the film Malcolm X is based.

Now, I've tried this before. If you read the previous blog, you remember that I dated a red-haired beauty who turned out to be a bigot. True that. She did, in fact, hide her prejudices from me because I stated up front in our relationship that I didn't like prejudiced people. I guess it's a sign that she actually cared about me that she hid it as long as she could. It finally came out after we went to see that damned Wong Foo blah-blah-blah movie, where the magic gay people who are played by stridently (vocally so) non-gay actors save a small town from itself. Afterward, I said the movie was okay. She said, "Yeah, it was okay, except for all the gay stuff." Picture me, eyes wide open, yet another revelation dropped in my lap. I decided to stick around and try to change her by example, and this turned into what the interweb peoples call an "Epic Fail". She eventually got to where she was talking about shooting Bill Clinton, and I knew I had to get out, which led to the, again, embarrassing-yet-necessary answering machine message.

I made a choice I hated but needed at the time, and something I wish I'd done earlier in my life, when I was much more tolerant about what people said about the "Others", which actually means I didn't have the vaginals to get away; I wanted them to be my friends because I hate loneliness.

Let me tell you, loneliness is much better than pettiness.

When I began grad school at OU and started teaching, I decided that it was time to make sure I walked and talked the walktalk. Conservative students? I let them talk. Liberal students? I let them talk. Bewilderingly silly sorority girls who wanted to keep midgets as pets? Yuppers. (Oh, no shit. This happened. Greatest quote ever? "It's always sad when somebody dies. Especially midgets.") The idea here was to give everyone a legitimate voice; the idiots would hang themselves, and the serious ones would get a soapbox. The rest might learn a little bit of tolerance to other points of view besides their own. I talked about Doctor Who. Every once in a while, I taught some writing. Greatest compliment I ever got was from a student who told his counselor that he felt students could talk about anything in my class, no matter how much I disagreed with them, and they would be treated fairly. I loved teaching. I miss it dearly.

(Goddamn certain people.)

So, while watching John McCain's concession speech last night, I felt sorry for him. I don't think McCain's a bigot, or anything like that. I think he allowed himself to be coached by people who felt that the "Squeezed" peoples would take the vote, and not the squeezers. They were wrong, and John McCain's reputation will never recover. He came a hell of a long way with his speech last night, where he said exactly what needed to be said in exactly the right way, making him almost Shakespearean in his tragedy; Othello never got such bad advice. What we need to do now is build on what HE said. Obviously, Barack Obama's election is a sign that things in this country have gotten better. But make no mistake, complacency will kill this event. What McCain said about this being a historical event is right, and something many of the people who voted for him will have to understand. I know some people who voted for McCain who feel very left out of this event. While Obama's victory is historical, they see that, but they also lost a presidential election, and that means that, no matter how much they may understand the importance of this election, they can't enjoy it, because they lost.

Now is not the time to throw this in their faces. Now is not the time to squeeze against those who can't see this as anything but a lost campaign. Now is the time to engage in two of the things that America seems to have lost over the past few years: Empathy and Altruism. These two things, these two unselfish parts of our psyche have been in short supply the last few years, deadened by a constant negation in the manner our politicians have acted, and also by those who used recent events to greedily take more than what they might have honestly earned. Folks, there's a difference between having money and having all the money you can get. Selfishness and greed are Un-American and "not good". The Drive to Succeed is what we learn about in the history books, and that is why we cherish those people who, upon making their fortune, use it to help others. Those jackasses who can't live with less than 200 million dollars, and who will do anything to attain it want one thing: Independence. And power. Two Things. And the status those levels of income can provide. Three things. There are three things...oh, fuck it.

Now is the time to change the way we talk to each other. Instead of referring to all Republicans as bigoted bastards, we need to understand that in doing so, we are no better than those people who saw Obama getting elected last night as a sign that the country is headed to hell in a hand basket. The key to getting people understanding how stupid prejudice is turns on one question: How many of the people you are against do you actually know? How can you say all black people are shiftless and lazy when you can't possibly know more than .000000000000000000001 percent of them? And the same with Conservatives, or Republicans, or whatever side you immediately roll your eyes about when they're mentioned?

The country's moving back to the center again, and I hope Oklahoma doesn't take too long to follow suit. The important thing is to make this more than just a fad to follow, like protesting "The War", being "Socialist", or wearing flannel. Please, don't wear flannel again unless you're cold, or you're a lumberjack. Come the fuck on, people.

What has to happen is a change in the way America sees itself. Far from the perfect, City-On-A-Hill that's always mentioned by people, and which is almost always misunderstood or misused, we are a bunch of human beings with roots from all across the planet, possibly the first country that can claim that. And, in that, it means we are literally citizens of the World. Not as in the "One World, One Government" stuff many End-Timers scream in terror about, but as in America IS the World, in a microcosm (maybe not so micro). For better and for worse, the rest of the world looks to us. What we do now with this opportunity is how the rest of the world will turn. We can come together, embrace our differences and how those differences make us better, and, thus, make the world better. This cannot be a fad -- something that's hip and cool one minute and then ridiculed on one of those fucking Vh1 (I mean, the "List Channel") "Remember the 00's?" specials.

If it is a fad, then we need to ride it as long as we can. Maybe we can get it from cool to crap to kitsch so fast we can turn it into nostalgia. Maybe then we'll remember the things we have yet to do as the time the world got to a turning point.

And it did.