Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Glitch Dynasty: The Best of 2013

In the annals of years, 2013 was one. I railed against guns and had a scene in the movie "2 Guns." I spent an entire calendar year without most of my belongings. My recurring back problem recurred again. Oh, and I moved to Reno to continue the more solid of my two careers. But for the most part, in 2013 I did what I do best: write about the year as seen through the prism of my wizened, becontacted eyeballs. And be way too into the Saints. 

As always, enjoy this compilation of my favorite writing of the year, broken up into categories because I like making banners:

Best of 2013: My Own Private IMDB


Most of the movies I worked on came out this year. Some featured me prominently and others cut me out altogether. Here are the ones where I got at least a few frames of face time:

My brief stint as a Beautiful Creature (Beautiful Creatures — 2/15)
Besides the twin perils of dehydration and heatstroke, we also learned that there would be real explosions. One of those explosions, which can be seen in the trailers, hurt my ears and rained sawdust all over my face. Also, despite being warned not to aim our rifles straight but upward (especially the guys behind my front row), someone shot their blank straight ahead behind someone's head. That person wasn't hurt, but it did lead to our commander yelling at that person. No one slipped up after that. (Incidentally, that particular take for me was the awesomest.)

A movie worth self-examining (The Hot Flashes — 8/24)
Unfortunately, none of my uncharacteristically crack pool-shooting got in. But they did make me appear to have at least some rhythm. Hollywood is magic.

Ian infects another film (Pawn Shop Chronicles — 9/10)
This movie shouldn't have been direct-to-DVD. On the other hand, maybe it is destined to be a cult film. I don't know. I'm the kind of guy who tends to like the flavor of chips they pull from the shelves due to lack of demand. I'm also heavily biased toward most of my own movies. Though again, this one is pretty strong by itself. And you can trust my word, because I'm barely in any shots here.

This scene, which starts with Mark Wahlberg talking on a cellphone in a diner and pans to Denzel Washington across the street (with me striding in between), opens the film. In fact, I was present to watch nearly the entire pre-title sequence being filmed.

Bonnie & Clyde & Ian (Bonnie & Clyde — 12/10)
At night, we shot a festival scene at a gazebo, which is disrupted by our titular outlaws and their friends, who shoot a pair of cops dead and peel off in stolen period cars. I was all over the gazebo scene, visiting with friends, clapping at the dancers while leaning on a column and at one point even taking someone's place in the band. Then I react to the gunshots and run off screaming with my fake girlfriend while dodging the getaway car. None of that got in the final print, except for part of my scream.

I met Markie Post on the set of "Christmas on the Bayou." She's very friendly and approachable, and probably the most famous actor ever to say my name.

I added Nevada, Oregon and Washington to my personal been-there map in 2013. And refreshed California.
My immediate reaction to the tweet was not laughter, but neither was it outrage. And this is where I'll defend The Onion. In the aftermath, people reacted exactly how they’d be absolutely justified to react had some misogynist pedophile said the same thing. Or a politician. Or anyone else whose stock in trade isn’t provocative comedy.

My magnum ordinary opus was a show that I (and I'd imagine millions of Americans) would watch even today: Ordinary Wrestling. The concept was simple: pro wrestling with celebrities. And I don't mean those WWE cameos where a famous person shows up and gets dramatically fake-demolished between rounds — I mean, real celebrities get real pummeled. Because to my elementary brain, wrestling was real. And apparently, I thought anyone could do it.

Ultimately, the only experiences we can know 100 percent are those that happen to ourselves. But since time began, that hasn't stopped us from trying to relate to one another. Some people don't even try. Others do try and get rebuffed by those they're trying to understand.

People are like video games. And there are two types of video games.

At our first hotel, the toilet flooded on the first flush. I called for maintenance, only to be told that there was no maintenance working that night. I asked for a plunger and the desk clerk said they didn't have a plunger. She offered us a new room. I accepted but informed her that the toilet was still surging and was likely to flood the room. After several seconds of thought, this clicked with her. "OH!" She rushed to find a plunger. When she returned a few minutes later, plunger in hand, she asked me why I was there. I pointed to the plunger. "OH!"

My life has been a constant chorus of, “You missed out.” In practically every situation I’ve ever been in, someone who preceded me is there to wistfully reminisce about the glory days that are now over. Apparently, I was born too late to experience anything at its peak. If they’re to be believed, of course.

Let's talk about motivation. A mother with a GED working two full-time jobs to feed her children is highly motivated. I'm motivated to excel in everything I do — my writing, my career, my friendships, my self-improvement — regardless of the financial reward involved. The people pushing the cruelest absolutes about success are motivated by a fat pocketbook and ego. Most people are brimming with motivation in some form. The question is, are we as a nation ensuring that such motivation is properly channeled?

Whenever I'm tempted to go crazy with the camera, especially at public events, I remind myself that those pictures will be less interesting than the memories. You might think you're saying, "Look where I was sitting when Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham connected on that touchdown," but really you're adding, "I was taking a picture of it. Hoping not to cheer too hard and ruin the shot." Don't worry. Plenty of others are doing it far better than you. And who knows — you might get in the professional shot too. That's something that will endure forever. Do you want to be remembered as a cheering fan, or as just another obscured face behind a smartphone?

The mistake is to assume that, when I received the participation trophy, I thought of it as the championship cup. Even when I was six and seven years old, getting trophies for showing up for T-ball, I didn't think any differently of those than I did about my jersey and the team picture. It was just another cool, colorful piece of evidence that I'd been part of that team.

There are people I'd throw out of my home immediately if they showed up on Thanksgiving. Strangers brandishing knives, for example. A friend with an apple pie will be accepted very, very warmly. Why? Because I love apple pie. Hell, even if they bring food I don't like instead, or nothing at all, they're still more than welcome. And not just on Thanksgiving, but any day. Because I'm not a jerk!

Let the funeral reflect my life. By that I mean, fast-paced, cheap and chill. I didn’t live my life listening to hymns, so don’t play any at my funeral. Play Coldplay’s “Clocks” or “The Only Moment We Were Alone” by Explosions in the Sky if you want an accurately poignant song. If you absolutely must quote from the Bible, quote the parts about love, peace and being a religious hypocrite. Better yet, quote the AP Stylebook. That’s the journalist’s bible (and one that truly guided my actions and stoked my fears).

So you could say my clean-shaven face is not a sign of being unable to shoulder the weight of being a man, but a tribute to the ultra-modern 1980s.

Best of 2013: Journalism, Sports, High Blood Pressure

(I know. It's not particularly high blood pressure.
This was not taken during a Saints game.)
These days, journalists and editors debate furiously over where the media is headed in the age of the Internet and social sites. I submit that Ebert had it right — he brought tremendous expertise to his particular beat, writing informed (yet accessible) reviews, and was just himself online. He was simply an articulate human being, who saw the world as compelling a spectacle as anything on screen. He succeeded not because he reviewed movies, but because he reviewed life.

The truth isn’t necessarily a matter of being open to all things for its own sake; it’s being open to that which steers you closer to the truth. Wherever you fall, whatever you believe, you should be there because it’s the most accurate place to be. In a world of false absolutes, accuracy is a real absolute. Anyone who wants to make an anarchy of accuracy lacks respect for the truth. Don’t buy anything they’re selling.

Specifically, many are objecting to this suspected killer's face adorning a prominent spot on a popular magazine. Every time something of this magnitude happens, we revisit this debate — and given how often mass killings occur and how much media we consume nowadays, it's amazing we ever leave it. For the record, I have no problem with this cover.

Commatose (7/22)
After enough time both writing and editing, I went from loving the Oxford comma to wishing it would drown in its own ink. That feeling suited me perfectly for graduate school English courses. (For those of you who have never taken a graduate English course, that was a literary device called "irony.")

If oil ever ceased to be profitable, people would stop drilling for it. If computers were ever supplanted by a more advanced technology, IT people would stop servicing them.

But no matter what happens on the ledger side of journalism, people will still get into it. Why? Because like teaching and similar pursuits, journalism is a calling. It's something that will be done as long as society exists (and even if anarchy were to reign). There will always be an audience for investigations, informed editorials, breaking news and other goings-on. And there will always be people inclined to seek out such information and present it in a professional manner.

It's one thing to see Drew Brees being stuck at ESPN's front gate while driving a float in a silly SportsCenter promo; it's another entirely to see the president of Jefferson Parish delivering the Advocate with a smile on his face. Newspapers are supposed to pledge allegiance only to the truth. Sometimes that truth is unflattering to newsmakers, and that's most often true of politicians.

It is in no way exploitative, prurient or invasive. But it does put in stark visual terms what people otherwise might gloss over in their minds. Some of the most arresting images in history, such as Emmett Till's disfigured corpse (which his mother wanted everyone to see) or Vietnam's multiple atrocities, are painful to see. But sometimes those images are what we need to see most.

We are Saints fans. Vibrant, irrational and unsinkable — much like New Orleans itself. All teams say their fan bases are the most rabid, but few are as organic as the one you'll find right here. The Saints have never belonged to anyone else, nor could they. And the feeling is mutual — many players settle in this crazy town for life after they've played their last, and they're family.

Our fanhood often blurs the line between team and city — and beyond. When was the last time you saw a T-shirt with a spiked helmet that read, "Defend Cincinnati"? Would Dallas Cowboys fans ever call their quarterback Romosus? How many citizens, ravaged by one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, would promptly think, "Please don't let our team vacate to San Antonio"?

Goodell: "Men, there's no excuse to start Tim Tebow. Winning, despite the cliché, is not the only thing. Persecuting Christians always comes first! That's what our fans care about on Sundays ... and Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and two extra weeks if we can hack it."

Tom Coughlin: "Ah, Tebow is mediocre! If he played better, none of this would matter. In fact, I guarantee that we'd all clamor for the guy if he improved. Superstar skill combined with name recognition? Are you kidding me?"

E(Other)CIU: "You're in the wrong conversation! This is the sarcastic one!"

Coughlin: "Er, I mean, Tebow is a boss! But as a head coach in the NFL, I do not do what it takes to win at any cost."

Collins, on the other hand, is black and gay, a member of two groups that face very real hate all the time. People who have no inkling of Collins' career stats or presence on the court would be happy to spit in his coffee, call him a scumbag to his face or worse. Very little of the criticism I've seen against Collins this week has anything to do with his game — it's all about his announcement, which gave homophobes a new guy to hate. That's real hatred, and Collins refused to let its perilous potential keep him from being true to himself.

Tebow, to his credit, has also been true to himself. But he suffers far less in terms of innate hate. Were he on par with Roger Staubach, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham or other religious legends, Tim's religiosity would barely matter. But no matter how hard Collins plays from here on out, he will always be the gay NBA guy in a nation still coming to grips with homophobia. The difference is stark.

The Saints mean so much to south Louisiana. When New Orleans was underwater, the team became a rallying point for the city, a metaphorical and literal symbol for rising up. And part of that was that we'd stuck with the team for 40-plus, mostly losing years. Resilience. Mention Drew Brees here and you might as well be talking about your socks. And sometimes, they'll hate your socks.

Three days later, I hunkered down at home (I was living with my parents then) to watch the game. My sister, then 16 and not yet a Saints die-hard, was in her room with her boyfriend. Dad was watching the game in his den, as he preferred to do. Mom was still at work. A typical Monday night. I thought about grabbing a snack from the kitchen. Then, this happened.

For the most part, people aren't demanding the Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Indians or Atlanta Braves change their names. Why? Because they manage to encapsulate the "strength, courage, pride and respect" of America's indigents without dwelling on skin color.

Winning should be an enjoyable experience, even when expected. Too much a good thing — when the only question over the decades is, how thoroughly will we slaughter this week? — leads only to exaggerated heartbreak when they lose. And all that much more first-world-white-people-problem snickering from the outside world as a result.
Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is a stacked competition from the outset. Bob Costas once said that the league might as well have a two-tier structure with a few major-market teams competing, and the rest just selling ballpark ambiance. Owners are free to buy stacked rosters, which the then-Florida Marlins notoriously did in 1997, and the New York Yankees pretty much always do. Teams like the Kansas City Royals rarely inspirationally surmount such obstacles. They can't afford to. That's too close to real life for a lot of us.

ESPN — along with everyone else — should give the Ragin’ Cajuns the dignity that they deserve. No more “Lafayette,” “ULL,” “LAL” or whatever else they use either out of ignorance, confusion or political pressure — call the team what’s on their uniform. Just like everyone does with every other team.

Feeling bully (11/04)
A lot of factors make a team (or other organization) a champion. Hazing isn’t one of them. It doesn’t make anyone better at their job and it doesn’t foster equal relationships. It exists solely for the thrill of the executor, who in most cases has had the same thing done to him previously. There are plenty of ways to foster team cohesion that don’t involve actions like Incognito’s. Maybe the Dolphins should try some of them out. Clearly, they need to.

Best of 2013: Views of the World

From what I can tell, 95 percent of white pride is bitching about the two or three privileges that whites don’t have, all of which exist to compensate for centuries of white oppression. And 99 percent of the other five percent is sneering defiance of those who are so mean as to make racism some kind of hate crime.

There's nothing natural about proposing, announcing an engagement, purchasing artificially expensive rocks on rings, sending out invitations, establishing a gift registry, holding a wedding and reception, sharing legal rights and all the other trappings that come with the institution of matrimony ...

Principal: "This is a direct attack on our school athletes and we cannot allow it to stand."

Coach: "Teague runs track. He's an athlete too."

Vice Principal: "Doesn't matter. He made a mild crack at sports and there's honor for us to defend."

Science teacher: "Why?"

Band teacher: "Yeah, why?"

Vice Principal: "Because as the most popular group in this school or any school, they have such delicate sensibilities."

Principal: "We'd do the same for any group if they were the coolest in school."

Brokeback Fountainhead
A Very Anti-Brady Sequel
Stop or My Mom Will Shoot Because That's the Point of America
The Nightmare Before the War on Christmas
Harold & Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay Criticism
Boyz N the Hoods

The My Way or the Highwaymen
For-Profit Medicyndi Lauper
Let the Eagles Soar
Wings Take Dream
Joe McCarthy and Wingnuts
SUV Halen
Inhuman League
Panic! It's San Francisco

"Tolerance" is the idea that we accept different cultures and viewpoints. We may or may not identify or agree with such expression, but it's allowed and welcomed in society. The idea behind this, aside from general humanity, is that learning more about others makes us better people. What it doesn't mean is that we have to be tolerant of intolerance.

“What does the GOP have to attract blacks? Or, for that matter, women and youth?”

“We want them to have the opportunity to succeed on their own merits, without government interference.”

“So, nothing.”

“Right. It’s an incentive to succeed.”

We’re in a new age of discouragement, telling students not to expect too much. Perhaps that’s preferable to the apparent bait-and-switch that blindsided this generation, but it still seems wrong somehow. It’s one thing to acknowledge reality; it’s another entirely to resign oneself to it. We should always strive to improve, no matter how much of a struggle that is. Past generations didn’t settle, and neither should we.

Snowden isn't sharing a bombshell intended to startle the public without regard for personal consequences — he's telling us specifically classified information to reinforce what we already know, and is now trying to evade the fallout of that illegal action. There's nothing particularly courageous or enlightening about that.

Someone insisted to me the other day that racism is over. Finished. With an absolute straight face. Why would anyone make this argument?

To be any kind of equivalent story to Trayvon, the court would have to prove that the perpetrators targeted the man because of his combat status or his race. And even then, they’d have to go free due to a flawed prosecution or other inherent advantages that the system gives black teenagers who confess to murder.

I'm used to austerity and all the self-defeating trappings that go with it. I'm not sure the feeling will ever entirely go away. People I know who have made lots of money for years after decades of struggle still exhibit extreme thriftiness.

It’s almost as if you have an itchy trigger finger and think you can solve all of your problems with violence and firearms. Where ever did you get that idea? Such a bad way of goin’ about things this time.

I've sat in many a meeting and press conference where branders have gone off in mind-numbing detail about what each tiny change to a design signifies. Because of course every curve and serif has to have some deep meaning that makes The Da Vinci Code look like Green Eggs and Ham. Somehow, those meanings are always news to me. Maybe I'm just not the target audience ever.

“Congress had to be forced into taking Obamacare! If it was good enough for them in the first place, they would have taken it to begin with.”

“Sigh. Again, Congress wouldn’t need it in principle, because the point of the legislation is to provide options for those who don’t have them, not for those who do.”

“What business does Congress have, legislating our lives like that?”

None of the rich people who complain about high taxation and regulation ever seem particularly tempted to give it all up. Occasionally they'll whine about how lucky poor people have it; but at the end of the day, all the red tape in the world isn't going to keep them from their capitalistic pursuits. I can't think of a time it ever has. It's hot air.

When the poor and middle class get an income boost, they go out and spend that money. When individuals and families can meet their needs, that makes them healthier and happier, and thus more productive and self-sufficient. The money they earn and spend then boosts the economy, benefiting retailers and the rest of the business community. It also shores up the tax base, which helps improve public services and infrastructure. Everyone benefits on every level.

If these guys were on a Comedy Central show as an example of the worst Halloween costume ever, being presented as satirical specimens of how low humanity can go and getting a massive, well-deserved comeuppance at the end, it would still be hard to laugh at this. Regardless of where one stands on the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman confrontation, who on Planet Earth would think it’s funny to dress up as the overzealous watchman and the blood-stained, unarmed, dead teenager?

And that’s not even taking into account the blackface that would probably compel Al Jolson to ask that guy to tone it down a bit.

I remember years ago when Obama assured insured people that they wouldn't have to give up a plan they liked. It was a response to fears that Obamacare was going to be a centralized, government-run plan that everyone was going to be forced into. The remark was a clarification that the act was meant for those who couldn't afford or secure insurance before. The debate is completely different now.

Can smoking pot be considered a form of free speech? No, it can't.

Today, we have 24/7 news, the Internet, Twitter and smartphones. We're used to unrest, political polarization and endless war and danger. Our hope every day is our leaders, not to mention the rest of us, aren't shot while going about the day. No tragedy is completely unexpected. And when it happens, conspiracy theorists will inevitably rise up and huff about us not knowing The Real Truth. We're all inherently jaded at the possibility of chaos. I'm too young to know for sure, but I suspect the events of 50 years ago represented the biggest leap toward this in our lifetimes.

I am almost never impressed with religious leaders. By and large, they are overly dogmatic, controlling and right-wing. There are always exceptions, of course, but they’re rare and their voices are often drowned out (when not snuffed out). As far as Christianity goes, we hear far more often about the need to worship Jesus than to live by the lessons that he taught. There’s a huge difference between the two, and the wrong one too often wins.

Phil’s freedom of speech has in no way been infringed. He spoke his mind, and both critics and defenders have exercised their speech in return. That’s no travesty — if anything, this is what makes America great.

"This video examines angles that the mainstream media won't."

"Because they're fringe views legitimized only by selective editing."

"Maybe. But hey, the video at least made you think."

"Think about what? How crank conspiracies have become mainstream in our attempt to deny that we have a problem with guns? Or a black president?"

"It led to some interesting discussion."

"No. It lent credence to ideas that don't deserve it."

Your gun has nothing to do with my free speech.

The Second Amendment doesn’t guard the First Amendment. Each amendment is lateral, a course in a complete meal. That said, the First Amendment holds a particular importance because the Constitution itself is the ultimate act of free speech. It (along with its attendant Bill of Rights) is an audacious document written to combat tyranny and protect inherent rights, including the right of defense. I’m not up on the metric system, but I’m sure the Constitution is not a bullet. If weapons were all we needed to form and protect a nation, then pieces of paper would be moot. But the Founding Fathers were interested in establishing something far more solid than an armed anarchy.

Gun rhetoric is not about moderation. Anything to the left of all access, all the time, for everyone, is un-American. Gun enthusiasts have turned the Second Amendment into a bunker to hide behind, not welcoming even the slightest probe into its wording. Forget liberals and other gun-control advocates — these people can't even tolerate one of their own wanting to tap on the brakes ever so slightly.

Fire extinguishers are exactly like guns.

People who own fire extinguishers are constantly harping on how having one is the definition of being a homeowner. And that everyone who enjoys the ability to live in a structure in America does so thanks to the efforts of those smart enough to stockpile fire extinguishers.

I have an idea for a collective resolution for 2014. Let's bury the saying, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I take this back

Everyone who knows me (or has scanned any byte of any information I've ever unleashed on the Internet) knows that I am an irrational Saints fan.

The above status, posted at the final gun of last Sunday's Saints-Panthers game on Sunday, is typical of the steaming fare you get from me on Twitter whenever I live-tweet a terrible Saints game (which itself is a product of watching alone and having no one in person to complain to). And like everything I write about the Saints in real time, it requires context. Which is lost when people read the statement any more than four seconds after I post it.

For the most part, I confine my game-time statements to Twitter, though Snapchat might be a better forum. Ninety percent of what I say, I immediately regret (though the negative tweets seem to work mojo in a weird way).

This past Sunday, I breached my warped version of online etiquette to post the above status on Facebook. Unlike most of my statuses, which typically garner double-digit likes and multiple comments, this one got a much more muted response. As it should have.

A scan of similar statements by others online generally begets such reactions as, "you can't possibly mean that," "don't get so worked up" and (my favorite) "get off the bandwagon," just to name three.

For my part, the above statement was an instant reaction done at the height of emotion. It's not like I came back five hours after the game ended and said it (though reading it five hours later, it could come off that way, and I did still feel that way then).

Second, the only reason I wouldn't want New Orleans to make the playoffs is because playing the way they've been playing this month would only prolong the agony. The Saints I don't want to make the postseason is the inexplicably egg-laying team that turns my head into a heated headquarters for future regrets and my heart into a trampoline. It's just bad for my health and sanity. 

But that's just selfish of me, and football is a team sport. So I'll declare here that I want the Saints to go to the playoffs. The good Saints, that is. Not the dead-eyed team that travels so poorly. (That part I meant.)

As a wild card, they could easily take on some of the deep seeds. Anyway, a wild-card berth is better than nothing, even if the Saints did epically squander a four-game division lead with seemingly no problem whatsoever and did you see the lack of drive in their eyes and...

There I go again. Sorry. Moving on...

Few people have ever accused me of being a bandwagon fan (those who have are strangers misreading a single tweet, and I'm always quick to correct them). No one did this past week either. But those echoing similar statements online were often met with the bandwagon rebuttal. That is ridiculous. Bandwagon fans, by definition, only care when a team is winning. They don't care when they slump, certainly not to the point of railing about it. If anything, people like us should care less, because we can't do anything about how they play, but we can preserve our own circulatory systems.

So let's go, Saints. Make the playoffs, then own the playoffs. If that doesn't happen, I've already written a blog for the occasion. Please ensure that I wasted my time on it, as I do on so many tweets and statuses. 

Either way, I'm taking deep breaths for you. And for me.

Complicated division

No, this isn't another blog about Phil Robertson. I've scratched that itch. Instead, I'm sharing this Facebook statement because it wouldn't recognize its reflection if it fell on itself.

What do I mean by that ludicrously mixed phrase? Just this: If you're going to bash someone for being divisive, it can't be in the defense of someone who is also divisive.

This reminds me of my Bush-era college days, when I heard many a person tell the Dixie Chicks to shut up and sing, then turn around and praise Charlie Daniels for his political statements. The Dixie Chicks, they'd argue, were divisive. Daniels, on the other hand, was a patriot with an unassailable, universal stance that no one could deny. The irony of this never registered with them.

To Wayne Dupree, Robertson is above reproach. Why? Because he's a man of GOD who loves everybody. Who could possibly be against that?

That question has an answer. A lot of people (myself included) aren't down with the "love the sinner, hate the sin" definition of love. Nor do we define God as a rigid deity whose dogma just happens to be aligned perfectly with the major tenets of today's Republican Party. In fact, there are multiple definitions of love, God, sin, patriotism and everything else that fundamentalists insist they have a definitive lock upon.

As for divisiveness, that's not defined by politics. I like some things Jesse Jackson stands for. I also agree that he is divisive. Hell, I'm also divisive on some things. So is anyone who stands up for anything, because there will always be people who disagree. That's not bad, and it's virtually unavoidable.

Robertson is also divisive. Again, that's not bad in and of itself. I happen to think he's wrong to the point of bigotry on a variety of issues, so I'll decry him for that. 

I'm tired of the false outrage over "divisiveness" that so often rears its head from people who support the most divisive figures in America. They should at least acknowledge their own sources of divisiveness. To have anyone claim the trophy of holy truth is to wreck any rational debate before it even begins.

That about sums it up.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Just to be clear about Christmas...

People who say "Happy Holidays" aren't dissing Christmas. It's merely an acknowledgment that most religions and cultures have some sort of celebration around the winter solstice, and it's not always known what, if any, of these another person observes. So saying "Happy Holidays" is a thoughtful catch-all.

Also, no one is afraid of or resents the word Christmas. If the word is being dodged, it's for the same reason above: inclusivity. Anyone who is specifically referring to the holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus (regardless of faith) will say Christmas or one of its other popular names.

Which brings me to Xmas. It is not an attempt to take Christ out of Christmas. X is the first letter of Christ's name in Greek, and ancient Greco-Roman catacombs often sported a giant X both to celebrate Jesus and to resemble the cross on which he was crucified. So instead of being blasphemous, Xmas is actually as holy an abbreviation as it gets. It's surely more majestic than C-mas, which sounds like a censored abbreviation that should itself be censored.

There is no war on Christmas, at least one that two sides are actually fighting. Wars on high prices? Definitely.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Putting the nasty in dynasty

Here’s my breakdown of the Phil Robertson brouhaha, and of all the culture-war posturing that has resulted in its wake:

• Phil’s freedom of speech has in no way been infringed. He spoke his mind, and both critics and defenders have exercised their speech in return. That’s no travesty — if anything, this is what makes America great.

• Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom of consequence from that speech. We’re all responsible for the things we say, and must be prepared to deal with any adverse effects they have upon family, friends, employers and the public.

• A&E didn’t suspend Phil because of his religio-political stance. Obviously, the network thought his conservative Christian family was ratings gold to start with. His suspension arose from the specific nature of his comments, which A&E thought might be damaging to the brand. It was a business decision.

• His comments aren’t worth defending either biblically or sociologically. Selective quoting of scripture to justify bigotry is as old as the Bible itself, and does much to diminish the holy book for those who might otherwise be open to its more positive teachings. As for equating homosexual love to bestiality, that has no grounding either in the Bible or in reality. Phil’s remarks on gays and blacks are indefensible, period. Those who know and love the man don’t have to throw him under the bus, but neither should they feel obligated to condone ignorance and hate in his name.

• I doubt Phil has lost a single fan as a result of his comments. His defenders will defend him and his detractors were probably detracting already. And it’s not likely that anyone, pro or con, is surprised at Phil’s stance. (Judging by the sympathy movement I’ve seen already, I’d say his fan base just got stronger.) So chances are, this will blow over, Phil will land back on Duck Dynasty in short order and this incident will be mostly forgotten. And/or he could hit the values circuit and command big money. But even if the worst-case scenario occurs and Phil never lives this down, he’s always got that multimillion-dollar duck-call business to fall back on, bankrolled largely by people who enthusiastically agree with his comments. And even if that doesn’t pan out for some reason, he’s still got more money in the bank right now — never mind the royalties from multiple revenue streams constantly pouring in — than most of us will ever earn for the rest of our lives. That’s an exponentially better fate than most of us face, regardless of whether or not we run our mouths.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

An expert blog about beards

Before beards became a trend, I never felt the need to write about facial landscaping. It seemed to me like just another personal choice that doesn’t require explanation. But with the Internet being what it is, beards are suddenly a hot topic. Driven, of course, by guys with beards and the women/men who love them.

Beards are very hip these days, and it’s not difficult to find a list of reasons why every man should have one. Many of those reasons are steeped in machismo with the inevitable hint of insecurity. (Funny — the link I intended to share there has gone private. It's like they know I'm clean-shaven...) On the other hand, many guys genuinely rock beards, and it’s cool that we have such a natural and ever-flexible fashion statement at our disposal.

Just don’t expect me to ever have a beard. For one thing, unlike most guys (and even myself a few years ago), I prize my baby face. I have no desire whatsoever to look older than I am, an age that gets higher with every passing year. I work harder and harder every year to maintain what angles I still have in my face, and I’m not ready to cover those up just yet.

Also, I’m not a naturally hairy person. It takes a week to look like I have dirt on my face, let alone to fully wolf out. Three days’ growth is usually enough to make my face feel too prickly to press on, anyway. (One day’s growth, on the other hand, I often do on purpose to look like the mystery man I’m most definitely not.)

The closest I’ve ever come to serious facial hair is having muttonchops glued on my face for my frame or two as an unidentifiable speck in the movie Beautiful Creatures.

There's a reason for that.
The final reason I’m not big on beards requires a little bit of backstory. From the early 1980s on, my dad was clean-shaven. But in my earliest years, he often cycled in mustaches and beards (following nearly a decade of constant facial hair). Anytime I saw him with it either in person or in pictures, I thought he looked terrifying. I’m not sure why, but it might have tied in to why helmet-clad football players used to scare me too — I thought they were a different type of human being.

This was also the period in which my parents began stockpiling Atari games. One of them was Othello. This was the cover illustration.

That Mount Rushmore of manliness frightened me so much that I broke open our Othello cartridge in an attempt to kill it. At 3 years old. I tried to do the same thing to a broken Atari cartridge as an adult, and I couldn’t, even with a screwdriver. I must have been really scared of Othello.

To me, Dad’s clean-shaven face was his correct face. It was a sign that he was no longer in the hairy, dirty, disco 1970s, and had joined the ultra-modern 1980s, when I came along.

So you could say my clean-shaven face is not a sign of being unable to shoulder the weight of being a man, but a tribute to the ultra-modern 1980s.

Kenny Loggins aside, that is.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How not to be diverse

Saturday Night Live recently held auditions for a black female cast member.

The show needs one badly. But it needs something else much more: a sufficiently diverse worldview to where it doesn't need to hold auditions for a specific demographic.

I've said often that this is a major difference between today's Democrats and Republicans. A black Republican makes news, because such a person is rare, and their rise is mostly contrived. The GOP's effort to reach out to African-Americans is largely a reaction to the party being outed as a bastion for white male privilege. Party leaders, earnestly or otherwise, are hoping a few faces can neutralize public concerns and cover the fact that not much will otherwise change.

SNL is much the same way. Despite the occasional Eddie Murphy, Chris Rock and Kristen Wiig, the show has been dominated from day one by an upper-class, male, WASPy sensibility. In fairness, many of those WASPs have been uproarious, and Lorne Michaels' philosophy has served him well over the decades.

But times have changed, and attitudes should as well. Any single, dominant cultural view is ultimately stagnant for an institution enjoyed by so many Americans. While the WASP-PTB can't (and shouldn't) change who they are, they can consciously work to bring more sensibilities to the table. That starts with knowing how to do it. Seeking a black female member is an awkward way to do that, though I guess I should be happy that at least something is happening.

Still, is it really progress to say, "Let's get one of those black girls on the show?" Or is it actually more diminishing to take this approach?

This is too often the debate about affirmative action, that it's forced diversity for its own sake. That's an incorrect view. Forced surface diversity, wherever it happens, is wrong. Affirmative action is actually about ensuring that government institutions consider minorities on equal meritorious grounds with whites — an initiative intended to counter the racial bias that has plagued colleges and workplaces for generations. It's meant to give a fair shake to deserving people, not elevate unqualified people for its own sake.

SNL should keep the difference in mind. It's better off (if the tryouts don't pan out) not hiring a substandard performer just to have a black woman in its cast. Instead, it should cast a wider net when casting time comes — an endeavor that starts with hiring more diverse (and qualified) talent scouts, and having an inclusive and open-minded operation in general. Then it will naturally attract a staggering spectrum of talent, and such specific casting stunts will never again need to be an issue.

That's true of everything, by the way.

Put this phrase out of our misery

I have an idea for a collective resolution for 2014.

Let's bury the saying, "Guns don't kill people; people kill people."

First off, it's reflexively redundant. It's like saying "old people are old." Literally, it's true, but it doesn't ultimately say anything. After all, no one argues that guns are sentient, anthropomorphic beings that hold jobs, raise families and sometimes snap unpredictably. Anyone who does believe that isn't likely to be swayed by a platitude in any human tongue, anyway.

Also, we never say this about anything else that's dangerous. "Kids, drugs don't kill people. Only if people take them." No, we pretty much take the opposite extreme on drugs — even when they're relatively harmless and/or serve a legit medical purpose, we'll throw people in jail for decades for possessing them with intent to distribute. And yet, anyone can buy or sell a firearm and legally skirt the rules at a gun show. Even though, unlike most drugs, guns have no purpose that isn't lethal. No, abuse of drugs is a problem, whereas use of guns can be as bad or worse.

Guns are a uniquely convenient means to take one life (or a lot of lives) in an instant. They require little to no discipline or training to use, don't require close quarters and are incredibly easy to obtain. Hell, we even have a constitutional amendment insisting packing heat is a God-given right (at least insofar as it's been interpreted by those who gloss over the words "well," "regulated" and "militia"). Any attempt to rein in our anarchy of arms is seen by gun advocates as the height of treason, so they apparently agree that guns are unique objects.

I've really tried to see this from the gun camp's point of view. The best I can come up with in that regard is that we need to clamp down on the problematic people who use guns. I agree with that. But I also can't help thinking that if we also clamp down on gun availability itself, then all these crazy people would just be crazy people instead of crazy people with easy means to kill others (and themselves, which sort of undermines being able to solve their problems).

So let's end the use of "Guns don't kill people; people kill people." Even if not for the reasons above, than simply because of all these mass shootings ... and any shooting deaths at all.

It's long past time to care at least as much as people as we do about guns.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The affluenza paradox

“Ignorance of the law is no ... uh ... something like that.”
— Cletus Hogg, Dukes of Hazzard

Ethan Couch, a 16-year-old Texan, killed four people with his car in June while driving drunk. He got probation over jail time because his attorney claimed that, as a rich, coddled teen, Couch had no understanding of real-world consequences.

By learning that rich people can buy their way out of their problems, however, Couch now has a sharp understanding of how the real world works. So can it be said now that he deserves to get off? But if he doesn’t after all, doesn’t that render the lesson invalid?

Ah, the affluenza paradox.

Personally, I was inoculated against affluenza at birth. It was the strongest stuff they had in 1980, but medical advancements have improved remarkably since then. Like millions of Americans, I make sure to get my booster shot every fall, despite the alleged link between affluenza vaccines and artism.

All snark aside, I can’t think of a better representation of America’s problems right now than judges taking “affluenza” seriously. We hear endlessly from the 1 percent and their apologists about how it’s wrong to point fingers when life treats you badly. Responsibility! Accountability! Individualism! Kids these days are coddled! Everything is always your own fault!

And yet...Ethan Couch. I hope the Randians among us disparage this slap on the wrist as much as the rest of us do. I won’t hold my breath.

But it seems to me that anyone, regardless of political stance and/or perspective on the criminal-justice system, should be against this ruling. The legal precedent of someone being too far outside the realm of reality could have massive consequences for the criminal-justice system.

After all, poor people often take extreme actions to meet their most basic needs. Could it be argued that survival mode causes people to toss aside their understanding of civil society?

Can drug addicts no longer be punished for crimes because, as addicts, they’re so far gone mentally that they can’t function normally?

Will people who have lived in impoverished neighborhoods their whole lives, had negligent parents, never got an education and have bleak job prospects also get the benefit of the doubt after a quadruple homicide?

I’d add a hypothetical for drunken driving, but that isn’t necessary.

I’d like to see more drug addicts get help instead of prison time. And I’m all about not sentencing someone who, say, stole food from an abandoned store after a storm leaves them stranded. But we can’t let people off of major crimes for not understanding society. That describes most people who belong in prison. As well as many who don’t.

A society that lets wealth, and the astounding ignorance it supposedly creates, be an excuse for deadly behavior should be beyond anyone’s understanding.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A pope for us yet

Pope Francis is Person of the Year.

Not because Time magazine said he is. He just is.

For the record, I’m a fan. Since assuming the papal throne, Francis has dialed down the typical indulgence in Vatican opulence, has driven his own old car, has allegedly gone out in disguise to serve the downtrodden at night and has taken an aggressively progressive stance on a variety of world issues. Overall, he comes across as someone who adheres to the most basic, merciful teachings of Jesus, even when doing so seems at odds with what we’ve come to expect for world leaders.

I am almost never impressed with religious leaders. By and large, they are overly dogmatic, controlling and right-wing. There are always exceptions, of course, but they’re rare and their voices are often drowned out (when not snuffed out). As far as Christianity goes, we hear far more often about the need to worship Jesus than to live by the lessons that he taught. There’s a huge difference between the two, and the wrong one too often wins.

But Francis’ papacy marks a return to being humble, helping the least upon us and shunning greed — something that’s been absent for too long. That’s huge.

It’s a start. I can’t emphasize that enough — it’s a start.

That’s important to understand, because just like any other figure of his stature, Pope Francis has his detractors. Naturally, right-leaning Catholics aren’t too thrilled with him. But he also endures criticism from among the ranks of his most pleasantly surprised supporters on the left.

Yesterday, I came across this post on Facebook, from an atheist who decries the pope as “a propaganda machine for the Catholic Church” and whose record in Argentina during the Dirty War will convince you that he’s not “such a great guy.”

I’ll admit I don’t know much about the Dirty War. The worst Wikipedia notes is that the then-Jorge Bergoglio might not have done enough to keep two priests from getting kidnapped and tortured (though for the most part, it plays up his role in defending them and keeping them alive, and notes his official exoneration for any wrongdoing).

As for Francis being a propaganda machine, I doubt that, simply because the Catholic Church is too averse to sea change. Even if it did want a progressive pontiff for PR purposes, I doubt the church sought such drastic changes. (It’s entirely possible that Francis was elected for this purpose, without awareness of how fast he’d shake things up, a la Pope John Paul I.) Besides, why would the church alienate its traditional base? Even its outreach efforts center on having people change, not the institution (“Catholics Come Home” indeed).

Francis is indeed the best kind of PR for the Catholic Church. But that’s a byproduct of being the kind of person I think the pontiff really is, not vice versa. That’s to his credit.

No, Pope Francis is not perfect. Some of his stances are as retrograde as those of his predecessors. No one will agree with him 100 percent of the time. But that isn’t the point. The point is that Francis has opened the doors for someone to come along later who will make him seem like a relic by comparison. That’s his greatest accomplishment of all.

A selective sense of struggle

A while back, I wrote a blog about how no one makes jokes about the holes in Ben Affleck’s hands because he doesn’t have holes in his hands. The point of the piece is that if you want to share an opinion about something, it should be grounded in some semblance of truth instead of an entirely imagined reality.

I revisited that sentiment upon discovering a vile letter that has gone viral. (Indeed, I have to link it from Snopes to spare you the indignity of everywhere else it appears.) It’s a letter written by a single mother living in Texas who is just scraping by in these tough economic times. It’s an earnest plea to President Obama to make life easier for her, her children and the millions of others in her circumstances. Well, it’s a plea at least.

Have you ever struggled to pay your bills? I have. ...

Have you ever had to tell your children no, when they asked for something they needed? I have.

Have you ever patched holes in pants, glued shoes, replaced zippers, because it was cheaper than buying new? I have. Have you ever had to put an item or two back at the grocery store, because you didn't have enough money? I have.

Have you ever cried yourself to sleep, because you had no clue how you were going to make ends meet? I have.

My questions could go on and on. I don't believe you have a clue what Americans are actually going through and honestly, I don't believe you care. Not everyone lives extravagantly. While your family takes expensive trips that cost more than most of us make in two-four years, there are so many of us that suffer. Yet, you are doing all you can to add to the suffering. I think you are a very selfish and cold hearted man, who does not care what is best for the people he was elected by (not by me) to represent, but more so out for the glory of your name attached to history. So thank you Mr. President, thank you for pushing those of us that are barely staying afloat completely under water and driving America into the ground. You have made your mark in history, as the absolute worst and most hated president of the United States. God have mercy on your soul!

Yolanda Vestal
Average American

A couple of things here. First off, the “(not by me)” is redundant. Anyone who thinks Barack Obama is the worst, coldest-hearted and most hated president of the 21st century, never mind of all time, is someone who clearly didn’t vote for the man. No qualifier needed.

(Really. We get it. There’s this weird sect of Americans who act as if their hatred of Obama is from his failure to fulfill his biggest hopes, when it’s obvious they’re actually steamed over his election, period. That ruse makes Scotch tape look opaque. Drop it already.)

Second, as far as presidents go, Obama wasn’t exactly raised licking food off of silver spoons. I’m pretty sure he knows what it’s like to be poor, to make ends meet, to extend the life out of things and to put groceries back on the shelf because he couldn’t afford them. That’s pretty much his story, isn’t it?

He certainly had a far more hardscrabble upbringing than the textbook definition of third-base legacy that preceded him in the Oval Office. Given George W. Bush’s aristocratic roots and his brutally regressive policies both in Texas and in the White House, he seems like a much better recipient for a letter from this struggling single mother. I wonder if Yolanda wrote him the same letter during his presidency. Or if she’s CCing this one to Rick Perry, her current Republican governor, who chose not to open state health care exchanges, thus playing a more direct hand in exacerbating her (no doubt) multiple difficulties as a poor resident of the Lone Star State.

No? OK, I guess that’s forgivable, because we’ve all been guilty at some point of partisanship and/or inconsistency, right or wrong. And I’d never call anyone out either for expressing themselves or for trying to improve their lot in life. Both of those traits are universally human.

But the holes in her premise are even more gaping than the holes in Ben Affleck’s hands, which (despite not existing) are more evident than any link her assessment of Obama has to reality. That’s all kinds of wrong.

It frustrates me as an American that so many fellow citizens are struggling to get by in this day and age. It frustrates me even more when they so actively think and vote against their own interests, thus perpetuating the cycle.

Seeing that fallacy so acutely represented in one place is most frustrating of all.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pretty easy to snuff out

Yes. Fire extinguishers are exactly like guns.

People who own fire extinguishers are constantly harping on how having one is the definition of being a homeowner. And that everyone who enjoys the ability to live in a structure in America does so thanks to the efforts of those smart enough to stockpile fire extinguishers.

They scoff at people who aren’t as quick to pack the big red barrels and insist those who don’t dwell constantly on worst-case fire scenarios are inviting flammable conditions. They ridicule those who say that flames can be averted with common-sense precautions and other methods that don’t require such a messy, last-resort form of defense.

They claim they need an extinguisher when (not if!) someone decides to break into their home and set it on fire. And it’ll be even more important when (not if!) the government decides to flex its muscle and go door-to-door burning down every living unit in America. When that time comes, will they ever be ready to counter Big Brother’s jackboots with their household Kiddes!

They claim with a straight face that fire is drawn to schools without fire extinguishers in every room. That if extinguishers got outlawed, only outlaws could extinguish forest fires. And, of course, they remind naysayers that fire extinguishers don’t put out fires; people put out fires.

In their fantasy scenarios, of course, they forget that fire extinguishers are incredibly dangerous, being just as likely to start fires as put them out. That kids who pull the pin on an unsecured fire extinguisher run the risk of burning their own heads off. They forget that a fire extinguisher in the hands of a mentally ill person can result in the deaths of dozens in a very short time. Not that any of that matters, because when extinguisher tragedies happen, the answer is always more extinguishers. To put out the fires that the fire extinguishers start.

Yeah, fire extinguishers are nothing like guns.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Bonnie & Clyde & Ian

On Sunday and Monday, the A&E, History and Lifetime networks simulcast the new two-part miniseries Bonnie & Clyde, starring Emile Hirsch, Holliday Grainger, Holly Hunter and William Hurt. And ... who else? Yep!

I'm in the middle, which apparently I have to point out.
I'm at the top left talking with a guy. Inset, HOLY COW IS THAT BONNIE PARKER?!!
Bonnie & Clyde was directed by Bruce Beresford, best known for helming Driving Miss DaisyDouble Jeopardy and Tender Mercies. He gave me instructions on the scene directly above, specifically the nudge. The guy with me thought I was trying too hard at times. As usual when people tell me that, he had a point. I suspect that had a lot to do my complete exclusion from a climactic scene, as well as two other scenes they shot with me (and, for that matter, everything in the courtroom scene at top that wasn't that single frame) that didn't make the cut.

At night, we shot a festival scene at a gazebo, which is disrupted by our titular outlaws and their friends, who shoot a pair of cops dead and peel off in stolen period cars. I was all over the gazebo scene, visiting with friends, clapping at the dancers while leaning on a column and at one point even taking someone's place in the band. Then I react to the gunshots and run off screaming with my fake girlfriend while dodging the getaway car. None of that got in the final print, except for part of my scream. Funny how that works — the more I think I get in something, the less I ultimately see. That doesn't bode well for two films of mine that have yet to come out, where they'd pretty much have to burn holes in the film for me to not get in. But hey, Hollywood is magic!

Not that I blame them, though. Bonnie & Clyde was well-done and riveting, managing to tread as little old ground as a biopic of one of American history's most-told tales as possible. Too much of my Internet-famous face would have marred the 1930s dial-up-modem vibe. The miniseries is worth a look, if you haven't seen it already. It's hard-edged and surprisingly steamy for its respective channels. It's got classic Missouri and Louisiana license plates in it, and old-school journalism, so you know I'm going to show up eventually. In a hat! I mean, come on.