21 Sept. 12 // Vuel Deux

21 Sept. 12 // Vuel Deux

I had been working for the store about two years with this guy Scott. My girl says I’m not a great judge of character, but he seemed alright to me. We had a drink a few times. He liked lagers, if I remember right. He was talkative, but kind of pretentious, you know? He had a way of using his hands a lot when he said something and I would laugh sometimes.

He had been dating this girl, I forget her name. I don’t know. Whatever it was, he had bought this ring and was showing it to me before Thanksgiving. Was gonna surprise her for Christmas, he said. Boy, was he head over heels for her. It made me feel guilty sometimes when he’d talk about her because I don’t know anyone who was so sure of something. Which is why I guess it came as such a shock when she broke up with him. Said she knew he was going to propose and she didn’t want to marry him for some reason or the other. That’s when the weird shit started.

Being in New Orleans, we see voodoo shit all the time you know? It’s no big deal to me. To most of us. I don’t know whether any of that stuff is real or not, but I don’t go asking questions either. It’s always given me a funny feeling, you know? Well, the store did estates and consignments and so one day we go to this lady’s house, Birch or Cypress I think. Uptown, anyway. And we pick up her stuff and in one of the boxes is this book. Reminded me of Harry Potter, you know, really old book with metal on the front and back, you know, leather strap and all. Scott? He was like me. He tried to stay away from it, all that voodoo shit, and I don’t know why but he started flipping through this book on the way back to the store and he got real quiet.

Ever since that girl, he had gotten real quiet. I mean, at first he talked about her all the time, how sad he was, and I feel guilty about it now but I told him one day I was tired of hearing it. So he shut up. I kind of regret saying that now.

But I guess what you really want to know is what happened in February, right? Like I said, he’d been reading this book he found. I knew he was pretty religious and had talked about going to seminary one day, said he was saving money to marry this girl and they were gonna go out West. He’d read his Bible sometimes during lunch and sometimes we’d talk about it. Real good guy, you know?

I guess was why it was so surprising when he did what he did.

One day, we moved this butcher block. It was really nice, tall and… Well, anyway, it was a butcher block. Scott had said he needed a butcher block and I thought he was gonna buy it from the boss once we got back or something. But no. We get back to the store and he sets that block up right in front of it, in front of the store and starts yelling out about how he’s going to do some magic. Swear to God, the hair on the back of my neck stood up and I got really scared. My first thought was of that book. So, he’s standing there, calling people over, kids, parents, grandmas, anybody who’ll listen. He’s standing there calling people off the streetcar, anyone who’ll look his way.

About that time, you know , he gets a crowd going. He does a few card tricks and keeps saying the real magic is about to happen, just wait for it. Says it’s gonna be big and really freaky. Even had me starting to believe it. Now, he just starts with the cards and then he starts doing the whole coin thing, you know, he’s handing out money left and right and I’m starting to calm down. I mean, he was good and I never knew he could do all that magic shit. He never talked about it anyway. But the entire time, though, I’m thinking about that book and I’m thinking where’d he learn all this? ‘Cause he never talked about it.

Then he asks everyone if they’re ready for the real show, the stuff no one can do and by this point people are into him, he’s got a bigger crowd off the streetcars and all. I mean, there had to have been about a hundred by this point! He reaches in – hand to God- he reaches in his pocket and gets a spoon out and says he’s going to carve his heart out. Well, I mean people were just eating this up by this point but I got that funny feeling again like something ain’t right. But he takes that spoon, reaches under this shirt and I don’t know what to tell you except that’s exactly what he did. There’s like this – oh God, I’m gonna puke just thinking about it- there’s this sound – oh God…

He takes that spoon, reaches up his shirt and there’s this sound like it’s wet? And like he sighs or something at the same moment? And then he puts his heart, or what looked like his heart, right there on the butcher block and everyone is clapping. The kids are eating this up, the adults are grossed out, but Scott? Scott just wipes his hands on his pants, thanks everyone and goes back inside. Just leaves. Just like that. I’m having to lock the doors just to keep people out. They’re asking for his card, for birthday parties and stuff, you know?

But like I said, I lock the doors and I go after him. He’s in the bathroom, sitting on the floor and he’s crying and I ask him how he did that, and he’s turning paler by the minute and I don’t want to believe it, but there’s blood all over his shirt and I realize, holy shit, there’s like this puddle of blood he’s sitting in!

Well, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I kinda froze for a second there. I knew something was wrong and he wasn’t saying anything, but there’s also this part of me that’s thinking this isn’t possible. There’s no way this is happening. A man can’t just carve out his heart, you know? And so I ask him, because it had been on my mind that whole time, I ask him what he’d done and his eyes they dart over to this bag under the sink. He always carried that backpack with him. Always had it with him. So I open it up and there’s that fucking witch doctor book and I drop it ’cause – hand to God- I felt like there was such evil there. But Scott stands up, he takes his shirt off and wipes the blood off his chest and he smiles real weak, you know, and says something in French, I don’t know what ’cause I don’t speak French, and dies. Just like that. He collapses and dies.

I guess that’s the story you wanted, hunh? Voodoo alive and well in New Orleans? The only thing was, I brought that book to the hospital with us and when they opened it, turns out it was only part of the thing he was trying to do. Step one or something. Now, I don’t know if you believe me or not, all I know is a man doesn’t scoop his heart out with a spoon and walk around for a few more minutes like he did. And like I said, I don’t know if voodoo is real or not, but I know I felt it was real evil-like and I know he was never the same after… Well… I don’t know what to think anymore.

Believe it if you want to.

21 Sept. 12 // The U.S.S. Basilone

21 Sept. 12 // The U.S.S. Basilone

February 3, 1973, somewhere off the New York coast –

Once, there was a war where three men were told to put their hammers down. The gun with the barrel as long as two Cadillacs wouldn’t fire without them pulling the trigger, hammers down, sweaty and grimy hands rubbing against the handles of the grips until the coastal village in their scope was left plain, sulfurous smoke wafting on the wind. It took three men, a trinitarian tribunal of three, to deal out death and judgment on the innocent, lest their mass destruction be considered inhumane.

Hey man, one said, Hey, man, I don’t know how I feel about this. When the time comes, I dunno if I’m gonna be able to pull that trigger, yaknow? I mean, that’s… That’s some heavy shit, man. That’s some heavy shit there, knowing you, yaknow… Like you wake up and that’s it, man. You dead.

There is and was nothing like the moral objectors. No way to tell you what a conversation like this is like. Even now, the scene plays in your mind and you think a thing. But there is nothing like that. Nothing is as simple as you think until you’re there, in that moment, deciding the fate of another life. Each man is given a pistol for just such a moment, and told if the man next to you does that, if he doesn’t pull that fucking trigger for whatever reason, Well, you shoot his fucking head off and pull that goddamn trigger for him. In a conversation like that, things can only go one way. Boom. And you better be damned sure you do your job, otherwise you can’t be so sure what the guy seated next to you will do. Peace is a lot like war in that sense. You can say you’ll do a million things. Tomorrow we’ll go here, the day after there. After it’s all done, you can say what you could have done, should have done, what the “right” thing to do was. But what do you know? What do any of us know, really, when it comes to a moment like that? You never know what the person sitting next to you will do. Whether you’re a gun control technician perched in the lofty tribunal court of the gun director atop the ship, or a slant-eye on the island just trying to feed your kids with a coconut and some rice, you wake up, see the guy on the other side of the water out there, and maybe you’ll have tomorrow. Maybe you won’t. But you don’t know. None of us do.

On his tour of duty, Frederick made it a policy to keep his hammer squeezed. It was the two bastards next to him who were responsible for whatever happened. Not him. Never him. Occasionally, he would look through the scope just to see something, anything, and there would be a child or a hut or a village or a flock of chickens or some other sign of family or life. And he’d shut his eyes again, lean his head back and just squeeze. The other sonsabitches were the ones who did it, he would tell himself. But that wasn’t the way it felt inside. It wasn’t that simple, at least not when he told the story to his therapist three decades later.

As a gun control technician, Frederick had a reprieve that day. It was February, he was outside, and he was on deck with the wind instead of the confines of the gun director’s three seats. What civilians don’t know is that anyone who has been in the Navy can request to be buried at sea. It’s a right conferred by duty. That morning, Frederick was one of the ones who fired off a salute with a rifle for some past Navyman, scattering the ashes on the water, then tucking his gun away in the gunshaft, right there off the deck of the ship so that he could change out of his dress uniform. He would be right back, he said to Thimmer, to clean the rifle.

The war was not over yet, and the Basilone had returned to New York for repairs. Simple things like handrails, CO2 bottle brackets, and boiler maintenance needed to be replaced. The ship may have survived the tour, but the physical exhaustion of war caused her to sigh heavily that morning. There was a tremor of expectancy pulsing through the crew, everyone ready to get into port and go to the city. Neil Young’s After the Goldrush had played all summer long and on through Christmas. It was the only album on board. Guys loaned each other their radios to pick up the stations from New York for each shift, but thank Christ it was only a matter of time before they could pour out into the city. What did they care about a radio, after all? They were gonna get some ass once they docked.

A ship is a strange community, unique in that it is cut off from the world and in constant danger of being attacked and destroyed. Paranoia breeds easily in the military, and the only certainty is that the guy next to you will do his job just like you’re doing yours, or Boom. No matter how casual a man seems, this is never far from his mind.

Frederick was thinking about what he was going to do once he got offboard. Women loved a guy in a suit, but did he feel like playing with them tonight, drawing it out? Making them dime on him before he-

Boom.

There was a sudden, silencing rumble – the kind that makes everything harshly stop, time thick like marmalade on the tongue, everyone statuesque as the brain registers facial muscles tightening and the grind into instinct as that moment, that instantaneous moment travels – and his body righted itself in a way that any enlisted man knows after years onboard a ship. His head came through jumper, his arms still in the air, waving it into place as the floor wobbled and swayed under him. He turned, and then night fell as the lights lost their power.

Another frozen moment, infinitesimally different, moved through more quickly this time, no time for mistakes, no time for anything save the primal survival of men who might just be your savior before this was through. There was another soft, distant rumble as the lights came back and a generator switched, bathing everything in a dim yellow. All of the guys in the quarters looked to one another, golden gods and shadowed spirits in the emergency lights, harbingers of death, the Chirons of their time, confirming that yeah, that just happened. And yeah, it had to be a torpedo. And yeah, there had to have been an attack. And yeah, get your ass out of that bed right goddamn now, ’cause that really just goddamn happened.

Ping.

The pinging of the Claxon siren began and did not stop for two hours. Ping after ping. The pings putting everyone on edge, the pings eliciting every instinctual response, the pings for self preserva-ping-tion. By the time Frederick, ping, had moved towards the door, an excited voice began, “All hands-” Ping. “-to battle stations.” Ping. “This is not-” Ping. “-a drill.” Ping. “Repeat.” Ping. All hands-” Ping. “-to battlestations.” Ping. “This-” Ping. “-is not a drill.” Ping.

He flew up the stairs, each specter of man and dimly glowing god shoving another out of the way, nothing civil about wanting to reach daylight and get to your post. Nothing civil about wanting air, wanting the opportunity that space provided to live. Fuck civility. This was war. Evolution. Let the gods defend themselves.

Each of the crew had to be at their battle station for body count. A man assigned to his place was more easily counted this way than by yelling a call and response down the john, Hey, you in there? Yeah, I’m here.

Under such strain, living in confinement for months, the brain acts curiously, building apprehensions into realities and repeating those realities, rumors whisking from stem to stern. Unlike on land, though, the rumor is the same and not lost in translation. And then, when a thing is a truth, it travels even more quickly as if by providence, as if God Himself says, “This is true.”

When the boiler exploded and water began to appear in thin air, gushing from tanks and apparating through walls, the entire crew knew, even if they weren’t there. This was true. Someone had to die.

Frederick reached the deck of the ship and saw the neat plumes of black there, the four boiled bodies cracking open, splitting and popping in the windy, overcast February morning, someone trying to cover them with a tablecloth-like sheet, a group of men trying to force a door open, the stench, that ungodly stench of something now no longer human, the mixture of boiled meat, smoke, ash and fuel, even as he moved past crewman Swoyer, just up from below and –my god, my god, my god, were those broiled clumps of jelly his hands? – everyone knew at that same moment that there had been no torpedo, there had been no attack, but this was not something they had prepared for in their exercises, and something really bad had happened.

Frederick scrambled up and up, once last glance down at the deck as he mounted his controls in the gun director, shoving the earphones which could muffle the destruction of villages over his head, the voice from before which had commanded him to his battle station now telling him with pregnant, determinant pauses that the boiler had exploded. That there were casualties. That he should have died.

“I’ll be right back,” he had told Thimmer. “Help you clean up.” Clean the rifles. Ah yes, a distant promise now. Had that even been today? Moments ago? Ah, dammit, where was Thimmer?

“FTGSN Thimmer.”

Yes, that Thimmer. The same. That mountain of a man, all 6’2”, all 295 pounds, that same Thimmer who had come on board the same time as Frederick, who wanted to go to college and see his kids again, maybe plant a garden and take them to a game or two, the Thimmer who wasn’t especially funny but made up for it with the roar of a laugh, yes, now, that Thimmer. The same.

“Confirmed dead.”

Thimmer had been leaning against the door, waiting for Frederick to return. The door had been shut as a matter of protocol when cleaning weapons, and he was making small talk with Fire Technician Kelley, a black guy who got excited over black empowerment and didn’t feel second rate to anyone since he was the highest ranking black man on board. The gun shaft had been right above the boiler, and that’s what did it. Heat rises, anyone will tell you that, and when Boiler Three broke below, there was nowhere for the steam to go but up. Thimmer, in a chair against the door, had been inside the room Frederick had seen them trying to force open, all those guys, why hadn’t it made sense before? And Swoyer, a boiler technician, had his hands melted off. Literally. When the boiler began to overheat, he was the one who sealed the valve to contain it, his hands losing all sensation as nerve endings pop and blistered, turning pink, then white, then grey, peeling, peeling, until yes, my god, those were his hands, those skeletal claws of bone, the skin flapping as it fell off, that sickening smell of roasted flesh, yes, that had really happened. Yes, those were four bodies under the sheets on the deck he had seen, with names attached to them like BT1 Hearrold, 34; BTFN Raun, 19; BTFN Zajazckowski, 21; and BTFN Hardin, that 20 year old boy delivered on board with the ashes he had just let go of. And yes, Thimmer was sitting down in the chair, propped against the door, right above the boiler, the steam apparating through the metal floor, sealing them in like an oven, yes, that same Thimmer, when they shoved that door open, had plopped right onto the floor and burst open like a Jello-mold gone wrong. That was Thimmer, and Death, that last enemy, had his full meal from the appetizer of Swoyer right down through jellied dessert of Thimmer.

As Frederick sat there, the last seat he wanted to sit in, he kept going over it all in his head for those two hours, trying to make sense of it, trying to take the words in his headset and turn them around and around and why, why hadn’t it been him? What purpose did it serve?

When he came down from the gun director those two hours later, he passed by the shaft and muttered something that sounded like, “Shouldabimee,” but no one took notice. All eyes were on the guy who scooping up pieces of clothes drenched in the syrup of ruptured bodies, swatches of hair falling off the scalp into the muck of lost humanity and one guy unashamedly puking over the siderail which still needed to be repaired.

Seventeen hours of information silence descended, but the explosion and miles of black cloud and ash were too big for the New York newspapers to not spread across the wire. Rumors reached the western coast, losing all elements of truth by the time their echo returned, and the families of those on board would be visited shortly after lunch the following day by men in dress uniforms like the one Frederick had gone below to take off.

“Yes sir, I’m alive,” Frederick said into the receiver. “But let me call you right back, okay? I need to call Grammarie. No, I’m fine. Listen-. No-. I promise, I’ll call you right back. I’ll call you right back. I’ll be right back.”

Note-

USS Basilone DD824 was towed to the Boston Naval Ship Yard for repairs immediately. A court marshal was issued against Captain and statements from the men in the boiler room provided evidence that he had pushed the crew to an unrealistic point so that he could have the ship participate in training exercises scheduled two days following the explosion. It was determined that the explosion was caused by three two-inch tubes becoming unstable from rapid heating and cooling, causing water to flash to steam with superheating and the boiler thereafter blowing up and out of its casing. The steam reached above 1200 degrees, becoming entirely gaseous and able to transfer through safety walls, floors and ceilings. Eight men died within a two minute period, making the USS Basilone the worst non-wartime casualty loss for its time.

4 Sept 12 // Lacrimae Rerum

4 Sept 12 // Lacrimae Rerum

And you will find in time

The alphabets of yesteryear

Are a photo of grim numbers

Held together by cheer

 But the tears do not stop

Try as you may to contain

They become louder with words

Gasping is their every refrain

 In reply, no, the tears do not

Respect signage of the will

They are anarchists together

Who demand their full fill

 Of violence and mercy

Of forgiveness and strain

Every tear is to be measured

So that others feel their pain

They will begin with the dawn

With seasons they do not change

The tears, they do not stop

Their currency has no exchange

 Left to sensible governments

Your cause you may plead

Though tears are a capricious judge

On this, I trust, we are agreed

Oh, forgiveness and mercy

May these ever be your lament

Confession and love have n’er

Been anything else but torment

So let the tears rule your heart

Let them sweep down the plain

For oppression serves us well

Let tears ever reign

24 July 12 // Judd Apatow’s Ironic Bromantic Ethic

24 July 12 // Judd Apatow’s Ironic Bromantic Ethic

A conversation earlier this month sparked an interest in re-examining filmmaker Judd Apatow’s works for their “greater meaning” (for list of the works, see here).

Typically when I visit Stephen, I will borrow a movie. His last count totaled over 900 discs (some of those discs of the “double feature” or “triple feature” variety. you do the math). It’s alternatively quite impressive and quite pitiable – how many hours of his life are on that shelf? I wonder. When I am judgmental, I tell him I find it “ungodly”… but then I will borrow a movie just the same (after all, who can pass up a free movie store, right?). He is quick to remind me that my library of books exceeds his of film and that if anyone has an “addiction” (as I call his behavior of collecting) it is I and my attempt to out-book the Library of Congress.

All the same, on this particular visit, he insisted that I give The 40 Year Old Virgin another shot. Years earlier, I had watched the film but recalled it as high on language, low on content and unrealistic tres jour (when I was a bit more “active” than I am now). It took a bit of persuading, but I agreed given his insistence that Apatow was “hilarious.” Now, I knew who Apatow was… or is. Present tense, as he is still alive. But I had not given much attention to him since his films were firmly lowbrow in my estimation. In many ways, his works were everything that I stand against. Overweight man-child gets the girl? That’s realistic. Smoke pot all day and celebrate not having a job so you can continue your pot-smoking ways? Great plan! Keep contributing to society because we need more people like you! Main goal in life is fucking and sucking – or, when this is not possible, jerking off to porn and tipping off your bros to the latest spank-bank site? Ooh, baby. That’ll get the ladies. So it took some convincing to give him a second go.

I watched The 40 Year Old Virgin first and found it… passable. Redeeming in a way. So I thought I would check out Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Even better. Funny People. Wow! A really good presentation of how we spend our lives and make meaning which got me thinking, Hey, wait a minute. Maybe there’s something to this guy’s work. I need to look for the underlying message. If Spielberg’s work is about growing up in/with the fantastic (ex: Jaws, E.T., Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park, Super 8, even Indiana Jones) and Hitchcock’s work is about who you can trust (ex: Psycho, Rear Window, The 39 Steps) then what is Apatow getting at?

Best I can tell, here’s my summary of the common thread:

The 40 Year Old Virgin – You need to have sex to grow up. That is what this film is about, plain and simple. But is it? The film shows that there are legitimate reasons why people don’t have sex or fail to launch. Their comfort themselves with toys or movies or video games – but none of these are a replacement for a relationship. You need friends – real people, not possessions – to be an adult. The main character’s friends and coworkers push him to grow up (each in their own way – some pushing “just sex,” some pushing forgiveness, some a committed relationship. But while sex is the “grail” of the quest, sex is never simple. When the main character finally does have sex, it is after marriage – not because marriage was ever the ideal (it clearly wasn’t) but because he has finally put away childish things, committed to a relationship, and found his voice to stand up for what he believes in to his friends. If anything, I think the film is a modern Shakespearian tale – honestly. It is a testimony to the power of friendship and (though not evident at first glance) strongly supports the idea that being a man-child who plays video games all day and smokes pot is a bad way to live. Indeed, the characters that live that way and don’t grow-up on their own are still alone at the end of the story.

Knocked Up – If you get a girl pregnant, you better grow up fast. Be a man, read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and you take of the baby-mama and the baby. Anything else is just unacceptable. It won’t always be easy. You might to get married. You might get married and want to get a divorce – but dammit all, you take care of that kid no matter what.

Don’t Mess with the Zohan – Off the bat, I was not a fan. I think Adam Sandler is a terrible comedian though like Will Ferrell, I think his dramatic acting is fantastic. In this, (I think) what Apatow is promoting is that you have a passion. Don’t just have a job, have something that you love doing. Maybe it won’t always be fashionable, and you certainly won’t have everyone believe in you, but if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then why do it at all? A lot of attention could be given here to the fact that Zohan is really good at his job – it’s just not where his passion in life is. How many of us are good at our jobs, but hate who we are on the inside for the ways in which we have abandoned our true self? That is firmly what is at stake here – become who you truly are, not who others expect you to be.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – Everybody deserves a second chance, and part of being an adult is extending forgiveness. It doesn’t mean you have to let them back into your life the way they were before; there are very real consequences to our decisions, and forgiveness doesn’t meaning forgetting. Part of that – part of forgiving – is eventually “forgetting” the bad things they did to you. In this film, Sarah takes on two roles: the person and the hurt they caused. I was left with the impression that it is the second part that the title refers to.

The Pineapple Express – A hilarious film; especially the phone booth scene. I don’t think there’s much to learn from this movie, except that drugs aren’t always fun. There is a crime element to it, and it’s never about smoking a bud. At the end of the day, there are forces at work beyond us, beyond what we think, and you should not anger “the gods” by doing their work for them. Otherwise, everything will burn. Kind of a stretch, I’ll admit, but that’s what happens when you’re as steeped in religious studies as I am – you see metanarratives everywhere. I wouldn’t hold too strongly to this idea though, since Apatow is clearly paying homage to the drug-buddy comedies of the seventies, down to the soundtrack, bad action scenes, and car chases. I’m almost inclined to draw a shot-by-shot comparison between this film and Cheech & Chong’s Up in Smoke or Still Smokin.

Funny People – Holy crow, what an excellent film on facing death! As I said previously, not a fan of Sandler’s comedic work but maybe Sandler isn’t either. His previous works are openly mocked (including the way that Sandler blows raspberries and had a short-lived music career), and the line between film and reality is a bit blurred since there is a reference to a late-night comedy show (Saturday Night Live), a string of bad films which somehow did well (hello? Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, Big Daddy, Click? C’mon now! Even Sandler in interviews has mused over what the heck people are thinking going to these things!), and the influence he has on a new generation of those in his profession (ex: the entire comedy-club cast of this film, from Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen to Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza). This is Apatow’s most serious work and notably written right after The Pineapple Express, perhaps as counter-balance. It explores in detail the brush with cancer that Apatow went through in his own life and how a man reflects on his life and deals with his regrets. In play once again is the power of friendship – how it can quite literally bring health and life to someone dying inside as well as out. What is curious to me is that in the end, even though you might have been desensitized to unethical behavior (it is in spades here, particularly with Sandler’s character), you still become sickened to the ways that one of the characters closes the film – pushing for what is the coup de grace to our Western ethic, the dissolving of a marriage solely for self-fulfillment. Apatow once again shows that this is wrong and takes a firm pro-family stance. A marriage, even a bad one, can always be redeemed. Adultery is never the way to “live happily.” Maybe you won’t always get what you want, but then again maybe you need to examine if what you want is, in the end, a “good” thing in the first place. There’s a lot to be said for this movie – particularly where it questions our idea of success, what is important in life, and whether we will make the same mistakes again after we’ve “learned our lesson” and make amends with the gods.

These films, while making unethical and criminal activity funny, always press the point that there is a better way to live. Friendship is good – it can save your life. Marriage is good – if you broke it, you should fix it. Family is good – in fact, the most important. A man who doesn’t provide for his family is the lowest kind of life form. And sure, have fun while you’re young. Smoke pot if that’s what you want. But there comes a time to put away childish things, and (contrary to the Western narrative of isolation) you will not be able to do this alone.

The other films Apatow has been a part of corroborate these same lessons. In Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the titular character is saved by his friends and putting aside his lothario nature for a stable and committed relationship. In Superbad, the movie closes with two guys openly admitting (albeit in a drunken state) that they love one another and would do anything to help each other. People move on, they grow up (maybe even grown out of you) but you can still love them. Step-Brothers puts a high value on bonding a family together. Even if it’s difficult, as the end of the day, family are there for you. Bridesmaids, a female version to the Apatow line-up, threads the same cord: People grow up and move on, but don’t treat them like shit. Love them and care for them, don’t forget what you’ve been through together.

I have to admit, I was really surprised by Apatow’s work. It wasn’t the bromantic celebration of debauchery I thought it was and certainly didn’t support the eternal man-child. Quite the contrary, each film encouraged the audience to examine their lives and become better people by investing in their relationships. In a culture that makes friends into accessories and relationships expendable, it’s nice to see films that promote something that lasts.

19 July 12 // Clinton pt.II

19 July 12 // Clinton pt.II

In my last article on Bill Clinton (see link), I ended by touching on how the former President built a team of people around him to implement the world he imagined.

Now, it is important to give credit where credit is due. I believe Bill Clinton was very intelligent. He was a Rhodes scholar, studied at Oxford and Yale, convinced a state to re-elect him after they had kicked him out of office, became President, and stayed in office despite being impeached (yeah. that happened.) before leaving office to continue as a diplomat, philanthropist and best-selling author. Yeah. That also happened.

But his greatest achievement, I feel, comes back to the team he assembled around him.

Quick rollcall:

Cabinet

Hilary Clinton – while including Hilary on this list may seem an “easy” choice since they were married, I think history will afford a shining light for her. Hilary’s profile before Bill won any election was impressive for a woman growing up in the seventies, and remains impressive to this day on its own merit apart from him. She studied law at Yale before helping impeach Nixon from office, has been a strong advocate for women’s rights, literacy and education, and went on to teach law and serve as legal counsel to Wal-Mart. Since leaving the White House with Bill, she ran for and was elected to the Senate (where even the strongest Republicans found common ground with her), almost won the Democratic nomination for president (without question, the closest a woman has ever come), and quickly became an exemplary Sect. of State under (current) Pres. Obama.

Al Gore – a strong advocate for putting the Internet in high schools (and thus pioneering the Internet as an educational resource), Gore went on to write several essays and books and (after narrowly losing the presidency to George Bush in ’00) host the most well-known public speaking tour of a former VP ever. Today, Gore remains “the” voice on global warming and, building on his previous experience with forwarding technology, sits on the board of Apple and Google.

George Stephanopolous – senior speechwriter during the election, Stephanopolous was ceremonially “fired” from his post in the Clinton cabinet after he tried to insulate Pres. Clinton from other members of staff and the FOBs. “The Little Greek” went on to write a tell-all book, lecture on communications (including his mistake of “hiding” Bill from the public) and today is a senior correspondant for ABC News. During the ’08 election, having come full circle, Stephanopolous is an outspoken advocate for the Clinton Foundation and chief political correspondant for ABC Studios. It is believed that the character of Henry in “Primary Colors” is based off of Stephanopolous.

James Carville – “The Mouth from the South” is a firebrand political commentator, lecturer and author. He now resides in New Orleans with his (Republican) wife. Together, they are proving that radically different ideologies can coexist harmoniously. As an aside, Carville has made a film career out of cameos (including frat-boy comedy “Old School”). During the Clinton presidency, Carville was instrumental in rallying the Democrats, writing key speeches, and advising the president on domestic policy.

Madeleine Albright – It must be noted that the position of Sect. of State is a “make it or break it” position. In the last seven decades, only three are noteworthy – (current) Hilary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Madeleine Albright. Raised by immigrants who survived the Holocaust, Albright was one of the most important powerhouses in securing peace in Northern Ireland, brokering relations with the Middle East, the Balkans, navigating the new regime of Russia after the death of Boris Yeltsin into the hands of Vladimir Putin and promoting women’s rights worldwide. After leaving her post, Albright went on to write one of the greatest books on religion, diplomacy and foreign relations, “The Mighty and the Almighty.” On a personal note, I think the book is one of the 100 greatest books of the last 100 years.

Janet Reno – While many made fun of Reno’s “manliness,” her position in the Clinton Administration showed that women could play “in a man’s world.” No Atrny. Gen. had to deal with the rise of cults like Reno did. From “Branch Davidian” in Waco to “Heaven’s Gate” outside of Los Angeles, Reno had to navigate eccentric faith like no other.

Foreign Friends

Tony Blair – the most popular Prime Minister since… well… his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, Blair ushered in “Cool Britannia” and was instrumental in navigating his country (and the world) through several heartbreaks, from the death of Princess Diana to the “fall” of the Clinton presidency. Blair, every biographer will agree, reminded the world that friendship and forgiveness are the things everyone needs in their most critical hour. After Clinton left office, Blair renewed his friendship with America through Pres. Bush (43) and stood up against terrorism, evil everywhere, even when it became “Uncool.”

Kofi Annan – Sect. Gen. of the United Nations during Clinton’s administration, Annan oversaw the “modernization” of the global institution through significant reform. Though his leadership would ultimately end sourly, Annan was outspoken on numerous global issues – including the civil war in Syria, world health and education, and the AIDS/HIV pandemic.

Nelson Mandela – The most public face of the end of apartheid in Africa. An outspoken (and jailed) voice for dignity, respect, and honor between races, Mandela’s legacy will always be that of a man who moved the world forward towards reconciliation in the midst of age-old hatred. The two men found solidarity in the pursuit of equal rights, as Clinton was raised in divided Arkansas during the Civil Rights Era.

Boris Yeltsin – the former Russian president who, while comical in his drunkenness, still wanted to make his country better. I always felt like Yeltsin was a bit of a boob – the “drunken uncle” who wanted good things for his family, but just couldn’t get there. That Clinton found friendship with Yeltsin and forged a friendship after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Berlin Wall, and resurrection of the “bear” market is testimony to the vision and forward-thinking Clinton possessed. Instead of letting Russia hang itself, he found an inroad with a “boob” and opened the East back up for trade and weapons negotiations. Yeltsin, via Clinton, was instrumental in building the necessary bridges to “help” in Kosovo once Putin took power and show that Russia still possessed some degree of morality and justice.

Hollywood – a virtual “Who’s Who” too long for me to list here and do justice do. Suffice to say, Clinton was (and remains) a friend of the arts (see evidence here).

The 3,000+ people he names in his autobiography – The “Friends of Bill” (see the 38pgs of reference notes in the back of “My Life” for the most recognizable) are a testimony to the fact that Clinton never forgot helped him get where he is. While many might make a joke about this coterie, isn’t it impressive that they take up so much of “his” life?

Returning to my original idea from the first part of this post, I feel it important that we understand the collective weight each of the “Team Clinton” members brought to the table. As intelligent as Bill may be, his crowning genius was that he was able to assemble a team of equally intelligent and capable minds and hearts around him.

It is no secret that I have always want to “build” a team like this. At times, this has been misunderstood (“I’m not good enough for your cool club ./!/? ”) – a painful reality. And while, given the nature and context of an article like this, it would be easy to surmise that I was “raised” under Clinton and adopted his aspirations via osmosis or acculturation, this would be as accurate as it would be untrue. From an early age (that is, while Reagan was still President) I was the kid on the playground who mediated, who tried to bring people together, who was the first to make reconciliation if I had done wrong and apologize first even if I did not feel I was the offending party. It is a trait that has, to greater and lesser extent, caused some degree of friction for me. On my better days, people take advantage of me: “I thought you were a leader. We trusted you. Even if we are wrong, we still expect you to do the right thing.” On my weaker days, I become an easy target: “I thought you were a team player. We trusted you. Even if we are wrong, we still expect you to do the right thing.” Still, this is part of the person I have become – the one who tries (at times desperately) to “assemble” a team and secure a better future. So it was that I began paying attention to what Clinton was doing as he took office even as my father yelled at television sets about how “stupid” Clinton (and his team) were, how “evil” they were, and how they were “destroying America.” Between all the lines and lies, I saw in Clinton a flawed man who was trying to make something better and did not want to do it alone.

It is telling, I feel, that during the scandal the Clintons endured with Monica Lewinsky, that Clinton confessed his moral lapse to feeling “so alone” and that Chelsea, Bill and Hilary’s daughter, “linked” them together again. Like father, like daughter – always uniting what was broken.

On my recent visit to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, this was the most entertaining and awe-inspiring part of the tour – the team that Clinton had assembled around him. To be perfectly candid, it made me sad as I reflected on the ways in which I had (and have) become selfish, ignored others, “broken ranks” with others of equal (or greater) genius who desire to make the world better. Inspirational? Of course. But also cause for pause, because we will either live together or die alone.

Here’s the funny thing: I don’t know where I got all my crazy ideas about teamwork and a better world. Maybe it was comic books, maybe I was just wired differently. But this has always been “part” of who I am as far as I can remember. And while you could attribute this to any number of things, I ground it in the fact that my parents encouraged me to read from an early age, exposed me to different cultures, took my to art galleries and played classical music.

For some, I know, this may sound as though I am an elitist and to be sure I would agree with you, were it not for the decades of hardship I endured and my reliance on “teamwork” and “hope” to get me through those years. I needed to believe in something better, I needed to believe in something beautiful, and I needed to believe in something greater than myself and my circumstance. My “reading” turned to scriptures at an early age. I can remember flipping through picture books about world religions when I was six, fascinated by the reclining Buddha, by the beauty of Islam, and the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about. I was enraptured by this united concept of “Heaven” as a place where we could come together, where loved ones and enemies could crush a cup of wine together and celebrate the peace that had finally come, our “shared sharing” as it were.

Where my father raged against the system, where he cried foul to the expanse of equal rights and opportunities for women, minorities and homosexuals, where he foamed at the mouth against Team Clinton’s combined effort to make the world a better place? I quietly disagreed, finding that scripture – all scripture – promoted the very things that Clinton was putting in place. Indeed, it seems upon reflection that almost every hymn I sang as a boy lamented our division and looked forward to a time when all would be one, would be at peace, and when we could stand against injustice and rejoice in hope.

18 July 12 // The Bronze Age of Television

18 July 12 // The Bronze Age of Television

I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed, but the best television – temporary theater and serials – has taken place in the last ten years. That’s not to say the previous decades haven’t been solid. I’ll quickly tip my hat to M*A*S*H or Star Trek and feel strongly that any discussion of television that doesn’t spend time reflecting on the contributions of WGBH-Boston and PBS to show the potential for the medium would be incomplete. Imports like Fawlty Towers simply must be discussed, as must the progressive vision of MTV during the eighties and nineties. These networks and their shows are individually as well as collectively fascinating and I could talk for ages about them. But the last decade? A different matter entirely. Is there any doubt we are watching the Bronze Age of television right now? Given the ways that “city life” can be frenetic and exhausting, it is a welcome reprieve to be entertained well.

Years ago, I imagined myself to be a television writer. There are many stops along the road and, for me, I moved away from this desire (as with every good story, it involved a girl, but that’s a story for another time) but the enjoyment found in really good writing has remained consistent.

Here’s some of the best shows you may not be watching:

Breaking Bad – I relate to main character Walter White’s assessment of life. Walter tried living life by the book – tried to do the “right” thing, be a good man, not to create problems for anyone or speak up, and generally do what was expected of him only to find that reality played by a different set of rules entirely. Walter began to do “bad” things to survive (murder, create a meth lab, etc) and a captive audience lived out their frustrations and disappointments through him. Indeed, this show depicts a reality we know all too well and wish we could rage against with him.

Downton Abbey – Is there any doubt that PBS has come back into primetime with a vengeance? Between the modern Sherlock and blowing the dust off of Masterpiece Theater, Downton Abbey showcases the petty infighting as well as the aspirations for wealth and achievement, personal rights and elusive love we experience every day. While not particularly original (Upstairs, Downstairs; Howard’s End; Larkrise to Candleford to name a few), this show clearly continues to speak to our desire for a simpler time when, perhaps, we could feel more liberated.

Game of Thrones – Based on George Martin’s fantasy series, the earthiness here is juxtaposed wonderfully with the mythic. Thankfully, the fantastic is underplayed (dragons, seasons which change in years not months, the frosty-dead blue-eyes? c’mon now…) in a world of Rowling and Tolkien replicas screaming for Blu-ray glory. Championing loyalty and friendship, we must never forget: A Lannister always pays his debts.

Gilmore Girls – With witty, fast-paced dialogue (borrowing heavily from Aaron Sorkin) that is culturally relevant, sarcastic yet optimistic at the same time, Gilmore Girls proved to be a guilty pleasure for numerous women – and as just as many men. Arguably past their prime by season six, the show remained faithful and funny to the very end with Rory taking her first steps towards the realized dream.

Girls – HBO has revived their female audience share with a revamped but toned down version of hit Sex and the City. In Lena Dunham’s Girls the plight of broke twenty-somethings in New York is shockingly accurate. From the fights that take place over haircuts to the shocking realization that your ex is – and always was – gay, this show is blazingly funny.

Homeland – Claire Danes stars as counterintelligence agent with a secret that proves her undoing in pursuit of a turned soldier. Spoilers are abundant, so instead I will say this show works best when it grounds itself. Time and again, threats are made but instead of watching how those threats get played out, we see terrorists calling “the good guys” bluff. The shock always comes when you see how unshocked world players really are. Government cover up? Sure. Leak the story to The Washington Post. I’ll be hired on as a contractor by the end of the day. What’s that? You’ll strip me of diplomatic immunity? Okay, great. That’ll free me up to play golf with the Shah of Iran. Incredibly addictive by the simplicity and reality, this show (almost) blew me away.

In Treatment – Basically a therapy session… without washed-up rockstars. Incredibly intelligent for HBO to take a big gamble like this, but very sad to see it cancelled. As with real sessions… we weren’t able to get to the real issues.

Lost – The best show. Of all time. That is my take on this six-season philosophical journey. I am uncharacteristically at a loss to explain what this show does for me, the way that I am instantly captured everytime I see reruns. Nothing comes close, and while I understand the frustration with the series finale (it wasn’t what I wanted either!), it cannot take away the deep and abiding questions each episode raises.

New Girl – For personal reasons, I wasn’t entirely sold on this show when it debuted (an ex-girlfriend was a big Deschanel fan) but quickly found the quirkiness and cynical humor convincing me this is one of the funniest shows on television right now (need proof? click here).

The Newsroom – Aaron Sorkin, hot off the heels of The Social Network, returns to telling behind-the-scenes stories of how news is made and delivered. With rapid dialogue, researched and informed scripts, and unparalleled casting, Aaron “Midas” Sorkin is firing once again turning everything he touches to entertainment gold. Jeff Daniels is at his peak, and Alison Pill is hands-down the breakout star of the show.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip – Aaron Sorkin makes the list more than once because of the sheer influence he has had on conditioning a generation towards hope. Studio 60, in characteristic fashion, is tremendous love letter to a “dead” industry. Further, his current HBO series, The Newsroom, seems a perfect hybrid of what Sports Night and Studio 60 were trying to get at – that smart people in small rooms will always be entertaining.

The Sopranos – One of the first anti-hero shows of the decade, each episode exaggerated our fears of mortality and what kind of legacy we would leave behind. One of the best unsung decisions in this series was the conclusion, which left us with the tension Tony had felt for years.

The Walking Dead – What happens when the world as you know it just… Stops? Instantly? You wake up and nothing, absolutely nothing, is as you left it. I’m convinced that this show isn’t really about zombies, but the ways that each of us make decisions every day to survive. Must we throw others into certain death just so we can live another day? When it comes to blows, would you be willing to kill a friend? No matter what we do, the stench of death is all around.

The West Wing – The final Sorkin entry. Earlier this year, Vanity Fair did a cover story (see link) on Sorkin’s ability to change politics of every color, persuasion and position to transcend the ideological and bring “sexy” back to the corridors of power.  Most striking was the way that Sorkin wrote (the fictional) Pres. Barlett as a foil to (the real) Pres. Bush. Fluent in multiple languages, well-versed in literature, powerful and genuinely conflicted when he must make decisions on war, articulate and inspirational, this is the kind of leader each of us want.

10 July 12 // Clinton Library

10 July 12 // Clinton Library

So I went to Arkansas last week to see the Clinton Presidential Library.  It was on my list of things to do this year, and on an idle Friday I picked up the miner’s staked claim and travelled north in search of gold.

First time in Little Rock. Fourth time in Arkansas.

Once, I went with lovers. Once I went with friends. Once to retrace the ruins. And now to make amends.

It is a curious thing, libraries. You never know what you’ll find out. And while I knew a good bit about Pres. Clinton, I am always learning/overjoyed to see the ways in which he assembled a team around him.

As a schoolchild, a wee tot, a “man on the make” I found myself gravitating towards “team” and “teamwork.” A few times, I have had random strangers say that they felt a “strong leadership” on/in/around me (if you believe in prophecies, auras and personalities). I’m not sure if this is true. That is, what I mean to say is that I don’t particularly feel like a leader. John Maxwell once said, “If you think you are a leader and no one is following, you’re just taking a walk.” And I do a lot of walking. But a thing is a thing no matter what we call it (words being signifiers, not the signified) and I have found myself working in/with/among teams more than occasionally.

I love it. I love building up people. I love knowing and seeing them grow, developing, evolving, and knowing I had a hand in it. That I encouraged them at a sore time, that I believed in them. And that they are now doing well. I take great, deep pride in that – in seeing my people succeed. And, as long as I can remember, this has always been so. A faint memory of kindergarten: I gave someone a toy because I somehow knew it would make their playtime better, more imaginative.  In fourth and fifth grade: I often was the “leader” of the “X-men” during recess (really, 10 to 12yo boys and the occasional girl. we ran around the playground “fighting” one another in pantomime… good times…).

I’m not sure why this was so. Perhaps sometimes we can be highly self-reflective and critical without truly examining the ins and outs of the internal. But there it is. Perhaps, somehow, this makes me a product of my generation. Pres. Clinton promoted teamwork and so I inhaled those waters like a sand-dweller, fire-dweller or bird of flight. It began to come naturally – but I never (to my knowledge) take it for granted. I enjoy it so much, and it is in such rare supply these days that it seems no one really knows any more what it means to rely on another person. We are so entrenched in “what about me” mentalities that we have forgotten what it means to sacrifice. Gandhi once said religion without sacrifice is no religion at all.

Which brings me back to the library.

Again, I’ll admit I am a product of my time. Like Adam of old, I don’t lament the “newer” model of Eve. I rejoice in her, calling out, “Whoa!” every time I see her. But still, I am that I am and here we both be. And when I find myself in a place like the Clinton Presidential Library, it is a temple of sorts to teamwork – entire rooms devoted to Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and the teamwork necessary to build a better world with names like Tony Blair, George Bush, Ted Kennedy, Ehud Barak, Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela. Each of the prime-time players were powerhouses unto themselves, but Clinton somehow found a way to unite them for a common cause and open channels of intercultural dialogue which were logger jammed previously. Whatever your political persuasion, whatever your view of his personal conduct, here was a man who aggressively sought reconciliation. I, for one, was impressed with the ways that the library focused their attention on teamwork and not the man, the legend, the savior of the world, William Jefferson Clinton.

To provide a bit of context, I was not always a Clinton supporter. Quite the opposite. My family was so conservative/Republican that my father cried the day Reagan left office. True story. And I naturally grew up suspicious of “the liberals” like Clinton and Gore. (ex: “Global warming? That’s for stupid weed-smoking hippies who need to get a job. Peace in the Middle East? Let the rag heads blow themselves up. Diplomatic relations with China? Fuck those slangy-eyed bastards.”) It was, shall we say, quite the volatile series of conversations around the dinner table when I chose to speak out against my father’s political and racial beliefs and call them what they were – ignorant, misinformed, and racist.

Here’s the funny thing: I don’t know where I got all my “crazy” ideas about teamwork and a better world. For years, I thought I had picked it up from reading X-men comic books. And then I thought maybe I was just wired differently than my father. Maybe he wasn’t even my father?!? (that’s impossible. we look exactly alike… except I have hair *haha*) But the last few years, I’ve really tried to figure this out and the only conclusion I can draw is that my parents taught me to read (educational literacy was another program Clinton was behind, by the way).  They taught me to read and that changed everything. There were books, of course, which I’m sure influenced me. Documents. Internet articles. All of these leading to conversations among the idealists I knew. But there’s one thing I could never resolve: The world Clinton talked about, the world of teamwork, looked a lot like the one scripture talked about. It was a world that began with Hope.

(cont. in part II)