#30: a quick rant about the NFL

In some ways, it’s nearly impossible to know where to start with this mess. So, let’s just start rambling. A lot of response to the latest development in the Ray Rice debacle focuses on whether or not the NFL saw the video from inside the elevator and if the NFL has covered up this fact. This concern is, frankly, not relevant.

The sole reason finding out if the NFL viewed the video prior to determining Rice’s initial suspension is to decide if the NFL is lying to us now. But, again, that’s actually irrelevant. It doesn’t matter because there isn’t anybody who didn’t already know that Ray Rice slapped his wife and knocked her out because that’s what the police report said; that’s why the changed the initial charge to aggravated assault–a felony. The NFL elected, for whatever reason, to suspend a guy for 2 games after seeing–at the very least–visual proof of a knocked out woman being dragged out of an elevator by the man who was charged with knocking her out. The inside-the-elevator video does nothing but confirm what we already knew, what the Ravens and the NFL already knew, and they chose to do jack shit up until the moment the rest of the general public knew. It’s not a cover-up, it’s not ignorance, it’s not a lack of moral fiber; it is a complete failure by the NFL to understand that domestic violence needs to be addressed, and because they did not understand this, because they did not care enough to understand this until the public started to rage against their decision-making, they created a cover-up and showcased ignorance and a lack of moral fiber.

Of course Roger Goodell should lose his job; any argument against it is not a defense for due process–it’s a defense for allowing a person who failed to perform the role his position requires: to uphold the NFL to a specific standard of conduct. He should be fired not just for his failure in the Ray Rice event, but because the NFL has done nothing regarding Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, two players charged with domestic violence this fucking offseason during which the Ray Rice shit went down. BOTH OF THEM PLAYED THIS PAST WEEK AND WILL PLAY THIS WEEK AND WILL CONTINUE TO DO SO FOR THE FORESEABLE FUTURE.

The NFL does not care; it will not care. The only way for the NFL to address this issue is to force them to reconsider what the NFL is: remove the anti-trust protection that Congress has bestowed on them; take away the public financing; and do not allow owners to take cities hostage in order to get taxpayers to fund their stadiums; and fire Goodell. The NFL will never care about this; they will only ever care about how it makes them appear. They want–they need–angry, over-muscled, over-stressed, players who must conform to a Manliness Culture, in order for their league to continue to bring in billions of [untaxed] dollars in profit. ‘Protect the Shield’ doesn’t say ‘protect the players and the people involved with the players.’ It says protect the money. The NFL is a mafia, and any one who thinks otherwise is a fool.

And there’s nothing worse than seeing all this and still realizing how much I like to watch football. I’m exactly what the NFL wants.

#29: zen and the art of discovering you have way too much anger

It is a disquieting moment, the realisation that one’s anger has reached an uncomfortable level. Mine occurred when I tackled our dog, Dude, a Great Dane who had elected to lose his mind when he saw people and a dog walk by our window. I have lately been frustrated with his continual downward spiral into a dog-aggressive pet, and, when the chance to take out these frustrations happened, I, sadly, was far too brusque with him in my attempt to subdue him. The thing we don’t want to admit about dogs as our pets is that they are a reflection of how we have trained them; yes, they have personalities, and yes, they will see what they can get away with, but, in the end, Dude losing his mind at other dogs is because I’ve failed him in some way, and that failure is a bitch to admit to.

I have long clung to the notion that I am a chill dude, a misplaced beach bum or something along those lines. I’ve worked at developing such a personality, honing it over the past 15+ years, and placing far too much emphasis on the belief that acting like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo is a worthwhile endeavour. The idea, I think, was that limited reactions to the stimuli around me meant I was in control, but I didn’t want to be a control freak, so the best of both worlds equals surfer stoner or something. Clearly, the entire premise of this paragraph is to set-up the following sentence: it’s pretty much all a farce. The problem, if one sees it as such–and clearly I do–is that the enduring belief in chillness coincides with a major problem of mine: an inability to emotionally relate to pretty much any emotional moment. Algebraically, the equation would go something like this: Inability to React to Human Emotions + Anger is a Bad Emotion = Don’t Express Anything.

G. likes to joke that I’m a sociopath, including sending me online quizzes testing my psychopathy. These are all in good fun, but are also because we have had fights created because I completely failed to understand the emotional gravitas of a situation, and, therefore, have basically railroaded right over her emotional upheaval. It’s embarrassing because objectively I’m aware of how a person is supposed to react, but I have no idea how to actually do it. To each other, we call it my emotional retardation. To the outside world, they’d probably call it ‘being an asshole.’

It’s weird to hear people say anger is a ‘human’ trait, because it’s almost exclusively a masculine description. Angry women are never just angry–they’re ‘crazy.’ Anger exists as an expression of one’s manliness. Of course we question when anger becomes overblown, too violent or out-of-control, but that is often seen less as a negative and more of a man who has been ‘driven too far,’ once again finding a way to create blame on someone or something other than the man expressing the destructive anger. We find ways to celebrate ‘controlled’ anger–just look at the glorification of football players. And then we act shocked when they do something like punch the shit out of their girlfriend in an elevator. It was shocking in the terms of an unbelievable thing to witness, but not actually shocking. These are men who have been taught, over and over, to use their anger as a motivating tool, to harness it in an effort to prove themselves better than the rest on the field; in what way is it surprising that a response to a non-football situation would be one of typical football violence? I don’t even react when I watch football players swing at each other (aside from wondering how daft you have to be to swing at a dude wearing a helmet); this is the sport where Albert Haynesworth stepped on a dude’s face because, well, he was pissed, I guess. But, if you can’t handle it, it’s not because anger is bad, it’s because you are not a Man.

When the NFL suspended Ray Rice for only two games after knocking out his girlfriend [now wife], plenty of idiots defended the decision. Stephen A. Smith, ESPN blowhard, managed to suggest that women shouldn’t provoke attacks in order to prevent such situations from occurring, a typical male response that fits right with the ‘don’t do things that might make a guy want to rape you’ mentality. In the simplest terms, a man is incapable of controlling himself, which actually means that a man can never have out-of-control anger because he is apparently incapable of controlling himself in general. And, yet, a man also expresses no emotions, but we don’t actually mean that; what we mean is, a man doesn’t express feminine emotions–does not showcase fear or vulnerability or neediness. Except, of course, a man has needs and therefore there is inherent neediness, but those needs are ‘rights,’ and therefore, it’s not the same. The absurdity of all this, despite the benefits afforded me by my race and sex, makes it difficult to navigate the terrain of daily manhood.

What we actually want is to confine anger/manhood/emotions to specific regions. The Angry ‘Murrican is not the Angry Black Male. The Angry Teenager is not The Angry Adult. The Angry Woman is not the Angry Man. We create definitions that work for us because that way our emotional reactions can be defended. It’s wildly unfair, hypocritical, and makes life far more difficult than it has any need to be. Douchebag extraordinaire Sean Hannity spent quite a while defending the hell out of Angry ‘Murrican Cliven Bundy who threatened federal agents with violence and guns over land rights; then Hannity defended the cops after they shot a teenager in Ferguson, MO, while also saying the protestors were out of control. Angry white guy with guns desiring violence against the government = okay. Angry non-white people desiring an explanation for, and change in, violence against their community = threat. The way we justify anger often highlights how we actually see the world. And, clearly, Sean Hannity is a racist dickbag.

The problem with anger, especially in light of finding ways to justify it, is its cathartic nature; in underdog movies when the bullied person explodes in a fit of rage and ends his torment, it’s a celebratory moment. When G. and I fight, I waver between feeling ashamed of my anger and feeling righteous in it. When I yell at Dude or video games or Michigan football, I can’t help but feel like I’m ridiculous and that I’m powerful. But things that are important where being angry might actually be justified in some fashion? That’s when I bail. It’s a bullying mentality–yell at only those things which I am confident cannot come back at me, and it’s fucking pathetic. Dude needs trained, not yelled at. Video games can’t hear me, and Brady Hoke isn’t going to hire me to run a better offence [even though he should]. G. doesn’t need me stomping around a room showing her my frustration with whatever fight we’re having; she needs me to communicate. And all of that seems simple to follow through on, up until the point where it happens again.

While this is a rather weak defense, it is the only one I have: a lot of this derives from my inability to emotionally connect with people. Anger, even unjustified anger, is an ‘acceptable’ emotion for me to express. It’s also a very easy one. Combined with a constant cynical view of life and a total dependence on sarcasm for dealing with emotional moments, it creates a personality that is aloof at best, caustic at worst. I’m not and probably never will be a chill dude. The problem is, the general consensus of leading a happy life is to ’embrace who you are.’ But if who you are is a difficult person, should you really embrace that? I’m a lazy perfectionist, a guy who wants chores done a specific way, but who also doesn’t want to do chores, wants them to, like, magically be accomplished. It’s unfair to and difficult, especially to G. I want to be a chill dude because it seems like that makes life easier, but I’m not. I’m a guy who has difficulty with hugs with anyone other than G. and my mother. I’m a guy who just called a Fox News pundit a racist dickbag. I’m a guy who goes on weekly rants to G. about the unfairness of corporate political influence, but I’ve never actually voted. Maybe the easiest way to not be angry is to admit to the things that make you angry and then work on fixing them. But, seriously, fuck Sean Hannity.

#28: Joe Carroll, The Lord Voldemort of bad serial television

When it comes to staying dedicated to terrible television, I am a savant. I will, despite all indications to it being terrible, watch a show for at least one season. Because of this special dedication, I have watched such gems as Men at Work on TBS, Under the Dome, The River, and, of course, The Following. For the uninitiated, The Following pretends to be a serious show about a serial killer so charismatic he ends up with a cult. Because he really likes Edgar Allan Poe and has a British accent, or something? I really have no idea. But Kevin Bacon is involved as our hero, and it was created by the dude who wrote most of the Scream movies, so I thought it might be, you know, not completely moronic. I was wrong.

Charisma is, of course, a rather indefinable attribute. How one portrays it in a tv show must, in turn, be pretty much impossible. The Following tackles this by simply having people fawn uncontrollably over Joe; this means, as the viewer, we get no real understanding of the relationship between Joe and his followers, simply because the entire relationship is based on a charisma that cannot actually be felt. So, the show devolves into a really strange experience for the viewer: a boring dude who apparently likes to kill coeds expounds high-school-sophomore-stoner-philosophy about Poe and death, and this stirs the inner soul of a bunch of serial killer wannabes. Or something. And, in turn, they flock to him and do his bidding like lemmings, but we are supposed to see them as a terrifying group of “Anyones”: these people are everywhere and could be right next to you, aghast! Anyone, everyone, is a psychopath!

It should not be so easy to mock the basis of this show; instead, it should actually frighten the viewer. It highlights a near baseline human fear: with the possibility of any one person being evil, no one can actually be trusted. Unfortunately, instead of terror, we get incompetence. In order to prove the genius of Joe Carroll and his followers, the show elects to showcase the sheer stupidity of the F.B.I. Having one organisation be stupid does not create a scale on which the other side immediately becomes intelligent; instead, it reinforces the overall lack of intelligence of everyone involved and, thus, highlights, again, the failure of the writers to create an understanding for the viewer about why this person, Joe, matters so much. This is not just a horror show; this is supposed to be a meta-commentary on how the world functions: we are all obliged to fear that which we don’t know. If the show could successfully comment on that fear and how such fear rationalise judgment and bigotry, that would be exciting.

If you really want to understand The Following, then, you only have to read Harry Potter. At the end of the fourth book, Harry reveals that Lord Voldemort has regained his powers. Most wizards do not want to believe this because, if true, it means they can no longer trust the world as they wish to. The idea of evil here is not just demonic and otherworldly, but one of minutia: the day-to-day trivialities take on larger meanings–is that person acting in such a way because s/he’s evil or cursed? do I know my neighbor as well as I think I do? who do I trust with even the most mundane tasks? The terrifying aspect of such evil is that it [possibly] lies within the very people we consider ‘normal.’ Joe Carroll (Lord Voldemort) and his followers (the Death-Eaters) battle Kevin Bacon [Ryan Hardy] (Harry Potter), who not only is the main protagonist, but to further the Potter parallels, is actually scarred by Joe when Hardy interrupts an attempted killing, barely surviving, and thus shoots to fame for being The One Who Stopped Joe Carroll; the scar/survival in turn marks Hardy as ‘important’ to Joe and his followers–the necessary component of Joe’s games and the person for whom all evil planning must revolve around and whose death must be performed by Joe. The Ministry of Magic and the F.B.I. remain incompetent in almost all facets of resolving the issue, culminating in the denial of return of Joe/Voldemort, only to be proven wrong. There are evil insiders at all levels of the F.B.I. and others who have been coerced into helping (i.e., Imperius Curse). Here in season 2 we even have our own Hermione in Hardy’s cop cousin who actually provides most of the intellectual muscle Hardy needs to continue his pursuit for proof of Joe still being alive and his remaining, now under-ground, Death-Eaters (clearly, the Emma character is Bellatrix Lestrange).

The divergence is in our understanding of the central evil character and why he has drawn such people in his grasp. For Voldemort, people clearly fear him; they wish to act upon evil impulses, but in a way that demonstrates they do so for the purpose of winning favour from him. He gathers those to him who can benefit his singular ideal: to be the best, the most powerful, and to avoid death. Joe Carroll on the other hand draws people to him through a perverted notion of love and gift-giving; his speeches about death describe it as a gift that the murderer bestows upon the lucky chosen. This idealisation of death renders it much harder for the viewer to grasp the relationship between Joe and his followers. Voldemort falls squarely into our general understanding of the evil, power hungry demon; Joe Carroll’s evil requires us to get past the bad philosophy and worship to a far murkier, ethereal understanding of evil–his followers wish to commit crimes because he has cultivated their inherent sense of evil, but they do not commit them to appease him; they do so to prove their love and gain his.
There are two ways of looking at this:

1) J.K. Rowling successfully portrays the common understanding of evil to her readers, and, as such, creates a real villain. There are no ambiguities; evil people are drawn to the power of the utmost evil, craving power of their own, and willingly giving up some in return for the freedom to be evil. This evil is then undermined completely by love–in that Harry is protected from Voldemort by his mother’s loving sacrifice, as well as the fact that the insider who enables the good guys to know as much information as they do and who sacrifices himself for the good of the cause, Snape, did so for a life-long unrequited love of Harry’s mother. This fits inside our prototypical vision of how evil acts, and while it doesn’t challenge our understanding of evil’s possibilities, it makes sense to us as outsiders participating in the story–Voldemort isn’t just bad, he’s oppressively bad, driven by a desire to basically no longer exist within the confines of humanity. He’s at once both Other and the personification of the Id gone wild, which means he somehow is someone/something we can’t see as human and an example of our base humanity without confines.

2) The Following, in an attempt to create a more, let’s say, holistic version of evil, grinds against this ‘normalcy.’ The evil here is one built out of a desire to feel a sense of belonging that goes beyond a simplistic Collection of Evil People–it is, paradoxically, about the emergence of emotional connections between individuals who sense they fail to belong in the real world; they are not drawn to Joe Carroll because they fear his power; they are there because he grants them the space to be themselves. By going against what we have come to understand as the prototypical version of evil, this should be intriguing, a notion of evil with something to say. Unfortunately, the show has nothing to say; it just wants the viewer to be scared by the ‘unknown,’ and, in the end, that’s why the show disappoints.

The real discussion, then, should focus on how we, as participants in these works of fictions, psychologically respond to something we often consider so easily defined: ‘evil is bad.’ But what we consider to be ‘bad’ often morphs according to context, giving layers to the meaning of evil–the contextual understanding of an action creates an opinion, one which we don’t necessarily recognise as malleable, i.e., if I were to steal your data, that would be considered a criminal act; when the government does the same thing, that’s considered [by some] to be an act to preserve our safety. The act itself is the same; it’s our understanding of why the act occurs that changes it–it is assumed I would steal your data for personal benefit, whereas the government does it for protection. The idea that safety is, in fact, a type of personal benefit doesn’t register because that type of benefit lacks the key component of greed, at least on the surface. It’s within this schism that the Voldemort/Carroll split occurs: Voldemort is the data hacker, performing deeds for his own personal gain; Carroll is supposedly not doing this just for himself but because he wants to create a ‘safe haven’ for the psychopath misfits he cares for; it doesn’t matter that it’s a long con, just like it doesn’t matter that government data collection at this point has almost nothing to do with terrorist prevention, because the veneer of safety creates, contextually, the reason for specific actions.

My guess is people don’t inherently like the idea of evil being malleable; they want it to be concrete, a highly specific thing to point at and declare with utmost certainty, ‘that is evil, that is wrong,’ i.e., the Devil. Yet, we do this all the time: mass murder, bad; dropping 2 nuclear bombs on cities, okay because it was during a war, despite it instantly killing tens of thousands of people. We constantly create justifications not just for our specific actions, but for what those actions mean. This is why Joe Carroll is a closer reflection to what evil in real life is, philosophically (not necessarily in action), because the idea of evil constantly changes and/or adapts to the current situation, but Voldemort is an easier, and, thus, stronger, character; Voldemort’s vision of evil always remains concrete; we can, without hesitation, point at him and declare him bad.

What this means then is not that evil can be contextualised or rationalised, but that evil is determined by other people and their decision to either accept or deny the rationalising for such an act. This is the basis of the American model of the justice system: a criminal act is argued and other people–a judge, a jury–determine the context of the act according to a set of laws; the act itself, oddly, is less important than its place within the context of laws and other people’s response to an explanation for the act. Both a defense lawyer and a prosecutor will attempt to rationalise whatever happened within the confines of the decision they wish to get. The interesting aspect of all of this is how the job of being a defense lawyer has created an entire stereotype of lawyer and is almost entirely the reasoning behind lawyer jokes, complaints, etc. Their defense of perceived evil people means evil extends to them, despite, objectively, people knowing they are performing a necessary component of our justice system. Evil becomes a coat anyone can wear, even those whose job we inherently understand as needing to exist.

And, so, it seems what we really need is a devil. A devil, within all possible configurations and capitalisations of the ‘d,’ represents an extraordinarily concrete vision: a creature against the good of humanity. The notion of ‘good,’ of course, is a fluid and dynamic thing, which makes a devil so ingenious: it can be anything or anyone who obstructs us from our particular brand of good. Too often, then, the construction of evil starts with a simple pretext: fear–the fear that what we know as good has changed, is changing, or will change (fear, clearly, is an all-encompassing urge with no regard for the boring logistics of ‘time’). It would make me happier, mostly because it would help justify why I keep watching the show, if I could label Joe Carroll a devil. I mean, I guess he is, but his brand of evil bores. Perhaps Voldemort’s obvious association with Hitler and the Death-Eaters/Nazis/Muggles/Jews/Pure-Blood lists, etc., creates a tension surrounding a fictional character that, while purposeful, makes it much easier to forgive a fairly stereotypical villain. Voldemort, once you remove the concept of magic, is simply a narcissist suffering from a rather crippling dichotomy of self-hatred and ego; he just so happens to exist with a little extra flair because, you know, wizarding and such–green flashes, talking to snakes, whatever. His drama is a fantastical fiction. Joe Carroll on the other hand is supposed to exist, to be a person whom we, the viewer, actually worry may roam our reality.

As I sit here I realise what bothers me the most is this: Voldemort’s followers don’t love him; hell, they don’t even like him. They fear him and desire to be judged as good enough in his eyes. Carroll’s following has nothing to do with fear. I think this should be an interesting concept, but the show just sucks. It fails to explain why these people are drawn to him. Perhaps I’ve watched too many CSI and Criminal Minds episodes and what have you, and so I have that awful faux knowledge of killer psychology and crime scenes that these shows have concocted and have, thus, turned all of us into (bad) aspiring detectives, but my understanding is serial killers are pretty isolated individuals, not in the sense that they all live in the woods like the Unabomber, but that they cannot connect emotionally with people in a real way; their ego and narcissism prevent real human contact. The notion that a serial killer cult forms because of ‘love,’ then, makes no goddamn sense, and it especially makes no sense when the guy whose supposed to be the leader mostly seems like a whiny drama queen who thinks stabbing people makes him a god. Maybe I’m overthinking this and should instead focus on poor script writing and bad acting. But there’s no need to destroy my whole premise in one sentence. Maybe this is all some elaborate con and Joe plans on killing all his followers in some Jonestown like self-massacre. My guess is that with the introduction of a secondary serial killer group–Lilly Gray and Family–we’re going to have some convoluted situation where Joe rescues Kevin Bacon from Lilly’s band of merry killers because, of course, Joe and Kevin are destined for each other like some sort of horrible recreation of the Devil tempting Jesus and nobody other than the Devil gets to mess with Jesus like that or something and then Complex Conundrums start for Mr. Bacon: Stage 1: confusion; Stage 2: anger; Stage 3: overt resignation to the Joe/Mr. Bacon psychopath parallels already hinted at by Joe’s ‘teacher.’ [If none of this makes any sense to you, you’re probably much better off]. Maybe what this all means is that I want my evil with a dash of oxymoron–to fit safely inside the confines I already understand. And, maybe, really, what this all means is the best combination of ‘safety’ evil and challenging evil is Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal, and I just keep expecting The Following to figure this out. Alas.

#27: I’m Better Than You: a Narcissistic (non)Defense of My Inability to Try, part 1

[02/17/14]
The sun and blue sky lie about just how damn cold Ohio is right now. We will use this as a metaphor, a symbol, because we might as well. We will use this because such contradictions are apt for Joel. He awaits this interview with something akin to Tourrette’s–constant moving, feet bouncing up and down, an inability to stop touching his beard, to not use his hands when answering questions. He often stops talking during the middle of answers to shake his head. When asked about this particular tic, he says he can’t stop himself from finding ways to criticise his responses, which means he can never give a real response because all of his responses have been vetted through some sort of internal-as-external-voices process. The world, it seems, is always just about to break his words into atoms.
Even by appearances, he’s a bit of a contradiction: he wears v-neck sweaters and ties with Red Wing workboots to his job in insurance; his idea of comfort wear is a collared shirt, tie, and a zip-up hoodie. He swears by his boots. He can’t seem to decide if he wants to own a Ford Focus or F350. He fantasises about moving off the grid in Montana or moving to the beach on the Gulf Coast or moving to the desert in Arizona or moving to the perfect weather of San Diego or moving to Dubai because doing so would be, to him, some sort of defiant rebellion about what he’s not supposed to do. He makes no sense, and he’s all too aware of it. The awareness haunts him; it’s why he can’t answer questions without stopping–a crippling self-consciousness, not about what he does, but about what he says and how it could be construed and how it seems that ideas evolve in the middle of sentences. The world, he knows, never stops.

At one point in your life, all you wanted to do was be a quarterback, yet you never actually played organised football. Do you consider this a rather symbolic explanation of who you are?

I mean, I can’t really say no to that, can I? When I was young, I played football all of the time; when we lived in Pittsburgh, I would use a balled-up sock in the living room and throw passes to myself. When we moved, I would play in the front yard, being both teams, driving up and down the yard, throwing passes to myself, running hand-offs, narrating the action. I loved football. I would make my dad run patterns in the back yard. I wanted to be John Elway. I begged for these football uniform things that came with cheap helmets and cheap shoulder pads; I think they were in the JCPenney’s catalouge. My obsession with cleats and mouthpieces–had to have the same one as Bo Jackson–was a bit ridiculous. I remember one time in winter, I was walking somewhere with my mom and I wore a pair of my football pants; I kept telling her I had to get used to the cold just in case Green Bay drafted me. It was a serious consideration in my head.
Sports was easy when we lived there. I was a superior athlete, and I knew that. Like, the day of Little League tryouts, my dad walked me up to the field and on the way he basically told me not to be arrogant just because, even at 9, I was better at baseball than most of the older kids. I had been participating in Little League practices since I was 7, two years before I would even be allowed to be on the team. I never thought about it, but I still knew it, you know? But, there wasn’t a youth football league there. It was all backyard football. After my parents divorced and we moved back down to the Pittsburgh area, there was a youth football league, but I was no longer a superior athlete–I was a typical athlete, and suddenly football was scary–kids were bigger, I could get hurt, maybe I’m not good enough, etc. And I had no drive to challenge that fear and actually find out for myself. I chose to play youth basketball instead.

In the end, though, you quit on basketball as well. The only sports you never quit on were baseball and golf.

I guess it really depends on your version of quit. I didn’t quit playing baseball until I got too old to participate in proper leagues, but, I mean, I didn’t try to play in college or anything. And golf, I’ve continued to play to this day. I really like golf. But in both cases, I have let myself be content with my inherent abilities. Like, I was awesome at baseball, just awesome. But as I got older, I didn’t continue to be awesome because I never worked at it, I was just enough better than others to be considered ‘good.’ I didn’t do drills, train myself, or try to become better. I just allowed myself to be as good as I was inherently. That’s sad. It’s the same thing for golf–I never pushed my parents for actual lessons, I never tried to be any better than I was the first day I picked up a club. I got better over time just from playing, but that’s more to do with the benefits of just playing more often, not because I pushed myself.
Golf is a game I understand, psychologically, as in, it suits me. It’s a loner sport within the socialisation of competition. There’s power, there’s finesse, there’s mental adjustments to the course, the weather, the distance, etc. It involves walking, which, weirdly, I find to be soothing. But I’ve never wanted to be anything other than ‘decent enough.’ Or, rather, I’ve always wanted to be great, but not enough to actually try at it. I am, to this day, convinced that I could be great at golf, or that I could have been great at golf–that I could have played college, gone second-tier pro or something, with the ‘right training,’ that I should have convinced my parents to spend money on training and travelling and the sports pyschologists or whatever. It’s all rather naive of me, but I still think I could do that if I invested the necessary time and money. It’s like having a ghost follow you around everywhere: there’s this person who could have existed and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about that ghost.
And the real sad part is, like, I gave up on organised basketball after 8th grade, but I still played all the time. It’s probably been my favourite sport to play. I particpated in intermurals in college every single semester and I loved it. And I was damn good, but I always had excuses for why I had quit in 8th grade–I wasn’t tall enough, I wasn’t part of the ‘basketball crew,’ I wasn’t going to given a fair shot, blahblahblah. Basically, I was a chickenshit, scared of what it meant to be challenged by other damn good players, and I could not handle the idea that I might fail. It was way easier to make jokes about practice getting in the way of my pot smoking than it was to risk failure. And so the ghosts just keep queuing up behind me. And I can’t stop myself from thinking that my views on my skills in any sport are way over-inflated, that I’m pulling an Al Bundy, creating grandious ghosts as some sort of bizarre excuse for that fear.

We pause. Joel almost looks like he’s smiling, like the only way to respond to himself is to find a way to laugh about it. The twitching continues, the legs move even faster and then suddenly stop. He stares down at his hands and just waits in silence. It’s hard to know how much of this is true; qualifying ‘good’ when it comes to sports is a difficult process. He says he remembers his dad saying he was ‘scary good’ at being a quarterback, but that’s not from an objective observer. He doesn’t have stats or figures or championships to back up any claim, and the way he stares at his hands almost looks like he thinks they, somehow, hold that objective truth.
The real truth is, sports aren’t an objective truth–the only clear truth in any game is winner and loser, and, yet, even that gets argued sometimes. We hear things about who should have won or a team should have lost a game because of mistakes, yet somehow didn’t. It’s as though sports cannot have any defintion, that the act of participating in a game means you have elected to join a fluid universe where subjective views will determine who you are. And that by moving in the fluidity, you will never be able to assess yourself because the only opinions that matter are other people’s.

#26: let’s rant about crappy movies: the Only God Forgives edition

Many keyboards have been wounded discussing Hollywood and its apparent desire to remake / redo / sequelise and prequelise pretty much anything and everything, leading to a derth in originality and quality. What this ignores, however, is that Hollywood [for the most part] makes their decisions based upon optimal return-on-investment factors. They keep releasing Fast and Furious movies because people keep paying to watch them. They aren’t releasing your brother-in-law’s ethereal portrait of the human condition which is, of course, super brilliant and deep, because people are not going to pay to watch it. There are times when such R-O-I decisions backfire–The Lone Ranger, say–and people take particular glee in seeing such movies fail, but, in truth, the glee derives from the cemented notion that most of these movies actually succeed. Hollywood, the bully, wins more than it loses.

The fallacy of the serious-minded-cinema-viewer is the assumption that Hollywood, the behemoth, wants to produce both critically and financially successful movies; Hollywood wants to make money, quality be damned. It’s the same reason we no longer just have the ‘summer blockbuster;’ all major movies are now pushed like blockbusters because blockbusters have the greatest chance to draw in consumers. Movie consumption has little to do, then, with your serious-mindedness, and has mostly to do with what will make you remove your credit card from your wallet and hand it to the person in the ticket booth. And, for most of America, that means Vin Diesel in fast cars and superheroes causing trillions of dollars in property damage.

I don’t know what makes a good movie; I think, in general, that is really the blame for all of this. I don’t think Fast and Furious movies are worth watching, but I’ve seen every Friday the 13th movie. What does that mean? I think it means I have a particular bias when it comes to watching awful films. Horror, yes. Fast cars, no. But, what does it mean when people tell you the Fast and Furious series is good, that they find the movies compelling, entertaining, and–aghast–quality filmmaking? What do you say if a person were to claim the series contained his favourite movies of all time? Do you direct him to Gone in 60 Seconds and see if this cures him, or do you just nod and wonder how many times he has been hit in the head? And what do you say when this person asks you to tell him why the movies aren’t good. There’s the standard tropes: lack of originality, the ridiculous plots, the over-the-top emphasis on being a rebel = being right, etc., etc., etc., but when you break down your own favourite movies, how many of them fall into the same tropes, but in a way you feel confident in defending? I love horror movies because of the inherent simplicity in most of them, an almost calming certainty to how each will play out–sins committed, deaths to follow, escape for our main protagonist(s), possible-sequel-ending. They are a drumbeat to which I can detach myself from my ‘real’ life and allow to comfort me in its predictability. Everything in that list of certainties exists in the Fast and Furious series. There are also tons of horror movies that I can’t stand, mostly ones involving Rob Zombie, not because the drumbeat disappears, but because I don’t find them entertaining. So why would I give room for horror movies to fail that I will not to some other dreck?

The answer is simple: being entertained = a good movie. Now, we may enact some critical faculties, announce that a movie we liked isn’t actually ‘good,’ in the critical sense, but, in the end, the critical sense means absolutely nothing when it comes to entertainment. We, of course, want it to because otherwise what’s the point of having an opinion, but at its most base, entertained and good are the exact same thing. If you have enjoyed watching a movie, it means it was good. The critical assessment only exists later, once you have looked back on it, compared it to the canon, if you will. Did the entertainment also consist of enlightenment, did it force you to question the world in some way, did its entertainment reach a higher level beyond just enjoyment. But none of that actually matters when you are actively watching a movie.

That being said, Only God Forgives is a horrendous movie. I haven’t looked at any actual reviews of it, but I’m guessing its defenders will claim its deliberate pace showcases a deep, underlying message that cannot be articulated, or that its over-emphasis on hands has symbolic meaning that coincides with the slow movements of everyone involved, that somehow that hands are ‘hands of time’ ready to be severed as the world around us continues to move. My guess is there will be defenders of the limited dialogue, that the space between words hangs heavy with meaning, that all of these things coalesce as a buffer to the violence, a way of atmosphere melting into blood and death, a way to describe how, no matter how slow, our ends are always pre-determined: you will die. Your choices will still be the choices you made. Movement forward is inescapable. You cannot hold time. Etc., etc., etc. These people are wrong.

Only God Forgives is painfully slow to behold, its grating color schemes and over-reliance on contrasting noise with lack of movement not just an annoying quirk, but a serious flaw. Ryan Gosling’s brooding seems less psychopath-ready-to-deliver and more mentally retarded. The police detective is a sociopath, plain and simple. He chops of people’s hands, derives pleasure from torturing a suspect, including blinding him with needles then finishing the guy off by sticking another needle into his brain via his ear. All the moodiness of the movie is supposed to give way to great bouts of violent explosion, but, sadly, the violent explosions have not been earned by said moodiness; instead, the violence becomes the only parts of the movie worth watching simply because at least something is happening. The detective literally shuffles everywhere; at one point I thought my Netflix was lagging. This does not scream art to me; it screams I-wish-to-be-art.

The ponderous pace does, however, cover the fact that the movie really could be about 30 minutes long. There is nothing here when it comes to the plot: it’s kind of a revenge movie, but even the revenge is stupid. Gosling’s older brother butchers an underage prostitute. In retaliation he is killed. In retaliation to that, Gosling’s overbearing druglord mother demands revenge. As a viewer, are we supposed to want that? Are we rooting for revenge for a butcher of a young woman? There are inklings that Gosling is some kind of violence-savant, having fled to Taiwan or wherever the hell this movie takes place, after killing his father (at his mother’s request). In turn, his mother tries to weasel out of police punishment in Taiwan by declaring Ryan a psychopath. Revenge begets murder begets turncoat begets death by sword. The world of Only God Forgives is one of contrasts–silence/non-motion v. karaoke/violence, but those contrasts do not create tension, they create boredom. The heavy-handed symbolism reaches its epic point when Gosling comes upon the dead body of his mother, proceeds to stab it a couple of times, then nearly reaches his hand into her stomach. Of course his character wishes to reach into his mother’s uterus; of course he wishes he had never been born; of course his life is one born of violence and silence: he was never meant to exist. His mother had said so earlier, that she had been told to abort but didn’t. We are all but flashes of rage pondering our existence. Or something.

From what I understand, artistic movies ask big questions, but what I also understand is big questions do not have to be boring. Sadly, Only God Forgives fails on all accounts, conflating violence with meaning, silence with depth, and, worst of all, symbolism with emotional development. If I’m going to watch a pschyo shuffle annoyingly slow and torment people, I’d prefer he was wearing a white mask and answered to the name Michael.

#25: a quick rant about Harry Potter

Despite being an adult, at least according to age, I enjoy reading Harry Potter. I also know there’s no real reason to act defensive about that because millions of adults have read Harry Potter. Not all of them can be total nerds. Or, perhaps, I’ve superceded their nerdom because G. and I elected to order all the Potters in hardcover in the original British editions. So, okay, we’re nerds. And as such, it makes me wonder if Draco Malfoy / Slytherins get a bad rap.

Consider: While the 4 houses all have their rivalries, Slytherin at no point has allies outside of itself. Such isolation has to make them defensive. Draco Malfoy expects to be in Slytherin because it’s his family’s legacy; however, how much of the legacy is derived from a stereotype that feel they must live up to? According to the books, all (ALL!) evil wizards and witches in the greater British area come out of Slytherin. I find this to be incredibly difficult to believe. It implies that only a specific type of person has the possibility to commit evil and overlooks the inherent intricacies of humans. Let’s say you are a Muggle-born first year, and just like Harry, you’ve never heard of / known about / had any inkling about the wizarding world, but unlike Harry you receive no information on the train to Hogwarts by others to indicate that Slytherin is the ‘evil’ house; the Sorting Hat elects to put you there because, when sat upon your head, it picked up a drive for power–a drive powered not by a desire to be ‘evil,’ but a desire to prove yourself in the wizarding world. This hypothetical person would then be cast as ‘evil’ by the rest of the houses, despite having absolutely no allegiance or standing inside of Slytherin, simply because of the stereotype of the house. This first year is then immediately put on the defensive, making him/her not only overwhelmed beginning his/her wizarding schooling, but also overwhelmed by the stance against him/her through no fault of his/her own. S/he merely showed up at the school, sat upon a chair, and waited for the hat to declare his/her fate, as it were. Slytherin, the snake house, consumes itself in a vicious circle of stereotypes and defensiveness.

While I understand the need for a (mostly) children’s book series to create ‘blocks’ of people in order to establish the Good v. Bad, I also think Rowling spends a lot of time working to the greater psychological understanding of her main characters. Even Draco in the last book gets some introspection–via other character’s looking at / hearing about him–as he grapples with his task of taking out Dumbledore. The struggle Malfoy goes through, both personally and physically, only highlights the cost of being in Slytherin: the expectation to perform evil because you are told that being in Slytherin means you have to live up to some kind of Higher Evil Purpose. Unlike Gryffindor, the House of Slytherin not only contends with other houses, it contends with the legacy of itself. Any teenagery acts–pranks, rebellion, combustible emotional outbursts, all things others do in the rest of the houses–are seen through a lens of horror; ‘THEY COULD BE DEATHEATERS, AHHHHHHHHHHHH,’ essentially. The most impressive character arc in the entire series is how Draco, after seven years of having to look at himself as a pre-destined monster, actually struggles with that destiny and eventually crumbles in front of it. We all want to glorify the resurrection of Harry because of his parents’ and other’s love, but Draco must deal with being an assumed evil wizard for seven straight years. How hard would it be to look at yourself with any real analysis when the rest of the school looks at you through that lens of assumed horror? He is throughout most of the series a caricature of his father, and, yet, by the end, he overcomes that. Of course he’s an annoying, snobbish git–he’s been handed a silver spoon, something that most people will always hold against him; the assumption is he doesn’t need upward mobility because he’s already reached the upper tier, the 1% if you will; yet what Draco most needs is the upward mobility of socialisation, a wide circle of friends who expose him to the world outside of the Slytherin stereotype, something that everyone else blocks him from achieving because of the stereotype. And, unlike any of the other main characters, he is not allowed to make mistakes; such mistakes become glaring announcements of his perceived evil.

Imagine living your teen years knowing you were supposed to become a specific type of person. In movies, the audience is often set up to feel empathy for the character who doesn’t want to become the lawyer, the doctor, the ‘serious profession’ that his parents want / demand him to become; in Dead Poet’s Society this point gets hammered home by the kid who wants to be an actor shooting himself in the head when his father pulls him from school, demanding the son pursue the serious profession the father wants for him. We are to feel sadness for the son and shame for the father. In this case, we hold it against Draco that he wants to become his parents; yet, in general, is that not realistic? Don’t most of us want to impress our parents? Of course we go through rebellious phases, but that doesn’t mean we abjectly desire to disappoint them. When Draco confronts this dilemma in the final book, he loses weight, he loses sleep, and he confides his fears to Moaning Myrtle. His social circle is so incomplete that he actually has to find comfort with a ghost in a girl’s bathroom. Imagine, again, that you have no one to actually talk to; imagine your psyche as you grapple with who you are at 17 and are convinced the world, on all sides, is against you–from Slytherin, the assumption that he is too weak to perform his assigned task and live up to his destiny; from everyone else, the assumption that he is a Dark Wizard looking to wreak havoc on all of them. The world for Draco is such a cold place, he finds comfort in a person killed by the very embodiment of his house, a basilisk. In not holding it against Draco that the Serpent of Slytherin killed her, Myrtle is the only person who shows him compassion. That has to be psychologically damaging to realise almost no one out there shows a willingness to just listen to him. And, lost in all this, is the immense pressure he’s under with his task to kill Dumbledore–not because, you know, Dumbledore, but because the fate of his life and his family is to be determined by his success or failure. It is an actual life or death situation for him. And nobody shows any care.

Okay, his mother does, but we have no insight into the family dynamic, in terms of how much weight his father and mother each have in leading Draco; the assumption, though, has to lean towards his father having the power because of how much Draco solely references him in previous books. Second, I realise Snape constantly asks Draco to let him help, but we also find out that Snape is a double agent whose true mission is to continue his guise until he can release Draco from his task by performing it himself, as determined by Dumbledore and him in prior meetings. Essentially, Dumbledore allows Snape to make Draco think that his task has been completed, further scarring Draco even as Draco has elected to not death-curse Dumbledore; Draco believes he alone is responsible for killing Dumbledore and that Snape did so just to ‘help’ him. Again, imagine the psychological cost of believing you’re responsible for the death of the ‘greatest wizard in the world,’ when you weren’t even sure by the end that you wanted to follow through on the task [Also, how do we know Dumbledore is the greatest wizard in the world? There is much to be said about the blatant exceptionalism expressed, something that I’m sure could align with the former British Empire notion of self / colonialism and current Unites States assumption of superiority. Hogwart’s basically stands at the center of the wizarding world according to this, with no indication of the (I guess, possible) globalisation of it. We get a Tri-Wizard tournament, but that only includes two other schools, both from European neighbours].

In the real world, there is a cultural and political battle over how to handle poverty / crime. While approaches to solving the dilemma differ, the goal remains the same [sorry, I have to insert here: would there be a way to make a documentary about this using Led Zeppelin music, as in The Goal Remains the Same / The Song Remains the Same?]: to create upward mobility–to move people into better schools, better jobs, better environments. The fight people have, however, has to do with stereotypes: that poor people are lazy; that some groups are somehow ‘more prone’ to crime; that people believe they are entitled to free handouts rather than working their way up the social spectrum. Such stereotyping ignores reality because the stereotypes are often self-fulfilling prophesies: the stereotype prevents a person from serious consideration when that person attempts to better himself. Schools lack funding, educational divides become gulfs, better jobs get harder and harder to obtain, environments continue to wither as the jobs and schools get worse–destiny, if you will, becomes a version of survival, not mobilisation. And, while Draco obviously has the benefit of being part of the 1%, and while he relentlessly takes pleasure in announcing it, his personal character has no social spectrum to move in. As he grapples with his supposed destiny, his only friend is a dead person. Imagine.

#24: a quick rant against stupid political articles

For those of you who care what I read, I spend a lot of time on Salon. Too much time, I’m sure. It has, obviously, much to do with my leftist leanings. In general, I think they do a decent job. However, sometimes the choice to run an article makes me question if the editors periodically elect to hand their jobs over to a group of monkeys, possibly during a breakfast or lunch break. Case in point: this.

It’s from a staff writer at Salon, Andrew Leonard. I understand the function of “headlines” is to create page hits; however, the following article borders on gross misleading or just plain stupidity. A Silicon Valley head honcho changes his twitter pic or whatever, and suddenly this means all of Silicon Valley’s libertarians are suddenly backpedaling into some version of left-wing thinking. Not only does the article fail to actually address the headline, it uses a picture change as an excuse to bring up the divide between two different lines of political thought. In doing so, it only highlights the degree to which “journalists” will go in order to create controversy. Political journalism’s controversy should develop from actual reporting–of facts, of grounded opinions, of articulated thesis; instead, with this shoddy attempt at discrediting a libertarian view (which, mind you, I disagree with most libertarian stances, except for the end to the drug war and the reduction of our military presence), we get, at best, a sad overreach at interpretation, and, at worst, just a desire to get site clicks. Included in this is the author’s assumption that the change of pic from Ayn Rand to Alexander Hamilton is because the head honcho ‘has discovered that disrupting the existing taxi monopolies in the world’s great cities is easier said than done. Safety and health regulations, insurance issues — there are all kinds of nasty hoops to jump through if you want to make a big business of transporting citizens around urban metropolises. Like it or not, Silicon Valley’s most ambitious start-ups will be forced to work with government, instead of blowing it up.’

I don’t disagree with the sentiment; I wildly disagree with the starting point that then manifests itself into this sentiment. It’s poor analysis–a way to drum up interest in one’s personal opinions without actually announcing its one’s personal opinion. If you want to write about why Alexander Hamilton’s thoughts on governance are superior to Ayn Rand’s, then just own it. If you want to bash the inherent fallacies of the libertarian approach, then write an article about it, feel free to use A. Hamilton and A. Rand all you want in it, go bonkers, mr. journalist. But don’t try to create an overarching description of an entire subgroup of political participants; it’s the same type of shoddy journalism that Salon constantly tries to debunk coming out of Fox News. It’s shameful and contributes nothing to the political discourse we so greatly need to improve.