Friday, July 31, 2015

The last thing you see before you face-plant

The shame of shaming

This story from Slate tells about the suicide of a young girl after her father shaved off her hair in an act of public shaming.

Public shaming online is a particularly awful trend that is the 21st-century equivalent of the parent who makes a big production of whipping their kid in public (not that that's gone away). The parents might be thinking, "Look how terrible my child is and how hard I'm not putting up with it." But I actually think, "The real shame lies with who's taking the picture."

Online shaming has very real (and sometimes tragic) consequences. It can destroy relationships between parents and children. It often overrides the magnitude of the transgression, assuming there's even a real transgression. And, again, it says more about the mindset of the shamer than the shamee. What it says is not good. So knock it off and deal with such conflicts in private, where they can solved and not linger in photo form forever.

As for pet shaming, that's just ... weird.

Going blind

Think of the children! You know, the ones who are too engrossed in their smartphones to look up anymore and are overprotected and helicoptered, not like the older generations who grew up dangerously without namby-pamby seat belts and political correctness and, by gosh, aren't lily-livered for it! 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously defined pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio as such: "I know it when I see it." Some people don't consider Playboy proper pornography. Others think Cosmopolitan belongs in a protective sleeve and should be placed under a trenchcoat. Kirk Cameron saw porn in Growing Pains scripts in scenes where he and his girlfriend would lie next to each other fully clothed in bed, talking. We know it when we see it, and our eyes are all differently calibrated.

The effort to obscure Cosmo at the checkout counter is nothing new; Walmart's been doing it for about a decade, and other stores have since followed suit. They employ plastic black shields to block each side of the cover, where all of the copy blocks each month scream SEX SEX SEX (and the occasional "BE HAPPY AND IN CONTROL AT WORK").

To be fair, the checkout counter is a place full of idle children, and you don't want to turn it into a firestorm of awkwardness by exposing kids to concepts that they may be far too young to understand. Maybe stores should buck the psychology of the last-minute impulse purchase and place the magazine a little higher and/or a little farther away.

On the other hand, I was a kid once, and I don't recall ever taking even the slightest interest in Cosmo (I was too busy begging for the National Enquirer). But had there been blinders obscuring the cover, I might very well have asked my parents about it. And they probably would have pulled it out and said, "Because they don't want children reading about sex." And then Mom would probably have bought the issue, as she so often did, and left it all unlocked on the living-room table. And I would have been totally fine, because I was raised to understand that there was a big, mysterious, uncensored world out there, so maybe I should be mentally and emotionally equipped to handle it. Beats trying to block it all out.

When that doesn't happen, you really know it when you see it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

An open letter to Key & Peele

Hello Keegan-Michael and Jordan,

My name is Ian and I am a huge fan of Key & Peele. I was bummed to learn that you guys have decided to end your instant-classic show after an all-too-brief run on Comedy Central. I thought I’d let you guys know what your show has meant to me. Here to help me out is my anger translator, Spike.


I have loved your show since it stormed onto the air in 2012. It expertly blends satire and smarts with laugh-out-loud humor in a way few shows ever manage.


You say you’re leaving the show to pursue other endeavors, by which I assume you mean Hollywood. Many a talented actor has found great fame and fortune on that path.


I’m sure that, given your comic sensibilities, you both will find considerable mainstream success.


I look forward to seeing what you guys have in store in your future projects.


I guess I can understand how putting on such a sketch show can become tiresome after a while, and perhaps prove stifling of other avenues of creativity. In any case, best of luck in your upcoming projects. Thanks for the laughs. I eagerly await seeing you guys again and I’ll miss your show.


Your friend,
I-A-un McCringleberry (AND SPIKE)

When "your time" is not your time

Whenever I hear about someone beloved dying too soon, my reflexive thought often is, “And yet, [redacted] is still alive.” How unfair, right?

It’s not my finest thought, to be sure. It doesn’t match my beliefs about vengeance or about humanity in general. But it is something I think about on occasion. I suppose such a thought is part of what makes spirituality so attractive — the idea that there’s a plane where these karmic injustices get ironed out. “Your friend is reigning in heaven forever, exactly as you remember her, whereas Johnny Jerk had to live as Johnny Jerk until he was 95, and now in the afterlife, he’s paying interest.” It’s a nice thought.

But on Earth, at least, there’s always the chance that someone will die too soon for no good reason, and there’s no guarantee that this isn’t all there is. On one level, it makes perfect sense — of course a deranged person with an instrument of death can kill someone who is not expecting it. And health problems can befall anyone, because we are frail, living creatures. In other ways, it never will make sense. Why is death so arbitrary? Why do mentally ill and hateful cranks get to take away decent people? Why?

I didn’t know Jillian Johnson, but I knew of her, because she was often in local media and in mutual friends’ Facebook conversations. I remembered her name in particular because I knew a Jill Johnson in high school, and I would always check to see if they were the same person (they weren't). Many, if not most, of my friends knew her. Her husband and I once ran in the same journalism circles. By all accounts, she was a force in the Lafayette business and cultural scenes, and was also a fun person to be around. The more I read about her and her impact on my friends’ lives — and, for that matter, just glance at pictures of her in her element — the more it feels like I lost someone I know.

Mayci Breaux was also tragically taken down well before her time. She was slated to begin radiology school, was engaged and seemed excited about the future. Nothing feels quite like knowing something big is ahead for you. It gives you an energy and purpose that I’ve never quite felt at any other time in my life. She’ll never see it come to fruition now. That isn’t right.

They’re dead, why? We may never know for sure, but we do know that the guy who did it felt very insecure about his standing in the world — and that he had a history of mental-health issues. And, on that night, he had both a gun and (apparently) a feeling of nothing left to lose. The deadliest combination.

What can you do?

That question isn’t rhetorical. It has answers. We just have to have the courage to face our shortcomings when it comes to mental health, poverty, firearms and prejudice. Maybe you can never stop all such tragedies, but we can cut into them, at least. And to the degree that we can, we should.

It’s not fair. Life isn’t fair.

Death, even less so.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A shooting that especially hits home

Tonight, there was a shooting at the Grand 16 movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana, and as you can probably imagine, I’m feeling all the feelings about it.

It’s not enough of a zoom to say that this happened in my hometown. The theater is a short bicycle ride from my parents’ home. My elementary school is within walking distance. A restaurant where my sister worked for years is within striking distance. I applied for my current job in Reno while sitting at Johnston Street Java, the coffeehouse next door to the theater. That day, my car was probably parked right where news cameras were planted to document the tragic scene, because it so often was.

Every day from kindergarten through third grade (when I lived farther away), my school bus passed by that site, which was at that time the Real Superstore. When the Superstore closed down in 1996, the site — despite its prominent location in the middle of the city — remained vacant and blighted for the next eight years. When the Grand opened in 2004, it excited the community and raised the bar for all other movie theaters. Stadium seating! Huge screens! Top-shelf concessions! Daiquiris! I’ve seen dozens of movies there, sometimes with dates, sometimes with friends, sometimes with young children. I took my mom there to see Flight.

I saw something else there in 2005. While standing in the concession line with several friends before a movie, I heard a commotion. We turned around to see two guys chasing each other in circles in the crowded lobby. I think one had a knife. They were quickly subdued and apprehended by police officers. Bystanders freaked out for a moment, but the ruckus ended quickly, and we said to each other variations of, “Did you see that? Wow,” before proceeding into the sanctuary of the darkened theater, where we’d be safe. And we kept on coming back.

How close this shooting hit home freaked me out once more, all the more so in the social-media age because I saw the conversations happen in real time. Everyone was checking in. Several friends and acquaintances of mine were near the scene, perhaps either at Java, Mellow Mushroom or at Corner Bar. At least one person I know was planning to be at the Grand at that time and had decided against it. At least one other was actually there. Chances are, I know of, or am acquainted with, some of the victims. I even may know of the killer. We’ll see when their names emerge.

On top of all that, it was jarring to look up while at work in a newsroom 2,100 miles and two time zones away and see what has always been a familiar, reassuring sight staring back at me — one most commonly associated with happy bus and car trips — cordoned off with police tape and sirens and a CNN banner of the breaking, and heartbreaking, kind.

But it also hit home in a metaphorical sense, the same way all such incidents do with me. I can’t think of a word, or even a term, that can adequately describe how awful it is that innocent people ever get murdered. This is especially true in a nation that prides itself on its freedom of association and movement — a country that, in theory, doesn’t live in fear of violent death at every corner. And yet, is increasingly prone (and, even worse, increasingly blasé) to such incidents. Preventable incidents that all too often highlight a perfect storm of our worst problems — personal divestment from society, untreated mental illness and access to instant instruments of death that, thanks to a turn of history, we treat inappropriately leniently. Not to mention whatever other issues help abet spikes in shootings where bullets have no business being.

In that sense, I’m not shocked that it happened in Lafayette so much as I’m saddened that it can happen anywhere. That’s the biggest tragedy of all.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

All prides are not created equal

All too often, the question is asked: “Why can’t whites have White Entertainment History Pride Month?”

Here’s why.

Let’s say there’s a house, and you live in it. It’s a majestic spread, the biggest and best on the block. In it resides a cloister of people dedicated to living in peace and harmony. Everyone has free reign of common areas such as the living room, kitchen, backyard and any of the several bathrooms. On top of that, everyone has their own luxurious bedroom.

Except for you. You have to live in the cellar. The cellar is dark, dank and decrepit, well beneath a decent standard of living. But you’re pretty much stuck in it, because anytime you dare to venture upstairs, your housemates are suspicious of, if not outright violent toward, you. Walk into their bathrooms and they’ll follow you, lest you steal some toiletries. Don’t even try to go into the bedrooms, because your kind isn’t welcome there. They don’t even want you in the kitchen, unless you’re making them sandwiches. You’re relegated to a mini-fridge, a hot plate and a bedpan in your cellar. (Though you are able to use the washroom, a privilege for which your housemates seem to expect constant back-pats.)

This despite the fact that you pay rent. Oh, do you ever pay rent! But most of your housemates see you as a leech because one time the stairwell in the cellar fell apart and everyone had to chip in to fix it. You’d move out if you could, but good bedrooms are hard for people like you to find. So you make do.

Because of all this, you wind up spending most of your time sitting in that cramped cellar. And you make it the best cellar anyone’s ever seen. It’s your sanctuary, where you can paint, write, perform, laugh, cry and pray in peace. Sometimes you invite over your similarly marginalized friends, and you all develop an intense cultural bond while reclaiming the dignity you’re denied everywhere else. Even the other residents can’t help but see and hear your efforts as they pass by your door. Sometimes they copy your style and try to pass it off as their own at house gatherings. Not that they invite you to those shindigs. That’s not your place.

It’s not fair, but you make the best of it. In fact, you do such a terrific job of it that pretty soon, your housemates are resentful. They wind up spending many sleepless nights pacing around their expansive living rooms and lengthy corridors and fully stocked kitchens and well-manicured yards grumbling, “Where’s MY cellar?!!”

Finally, one day you reply: “The reason I take pride in my cellar is because you banished me there, and I made it my own. You have the whole house, and that is why you don’t need a cellar.” To which they retort, “So why can’t I take pride in my space like you take pride in yours?”

“Because in my space, I can thrive amid the chaos of an unfeeling and hostile household. You want to be proud of having a giant house where you forced someone to live in the cellar.”

Does that answer the question?

Friday, July 10, 2015

When symbolism isn't so simple

Here's something I didn't know until just now: The fleur de lis, the official symbol of New Orleans, was once branded on runaway slaves (as was done in other French-governed areas). This has some reconsidering it just like the Confederate flag.

The branding fact is troublesome and shameful. But this reminds me of the counterpoint the recent flag debate brought out: "If we're going to take down the Confederate flag for its racist connotations, shouldn't we also take down the American flag? After all, it once stood for slavery too!"

To that I say, no. Not because it isn't true (technically, it is), but because that isn't primarily what it's known for. You could say the American flag stands for any litany of dubious things, because our country's history is messy. But at its best, the banner stands for freedom and a nation that is constantly striving to live up to its ideals. The flag that once flew over a slaveholding nation now flies over one led by an African-American president, an imperfect nation that has progressed on civil rights in a way that was unfathomable 50 (and even 10) years ago. Whatever your stance on patriotism or America's track record, chances are you see the Stars and Stripes as, ultimately, an earnest symbol of liberty and good.

The Confederate flag, on the other hand, is primarily about celebrating a history of slavery and racism and rebellion related to both. That is its purpose and always has been. Others might have used that banner in more benign contexts, but those meanings are secondary to what most people associate with that particular image.

The distinction is important with regards to the fleur de lis. It was a French symbol first, and later became a positive representation for one of the world's most diverse cultural epicenters, New Orleans. In between, it was briefly co-opted by terrible people for a terrible purpose. That's a shameful (and previously obscure) chapter in its history, but that was never the fleur de lis' raison d'etre, even most likely at the time that such cruelty was being inflicted.

(That's not to say co-opting can't permanently change a symbol; the Nazis turned the swastika from a peaceful character into the literal caricature of evil. But, again, that became its primary meaning. Not the case with the fleur de lis.)

There's nothing wrong (and, in fact, a lot of things right) with re-examining our national symbolism through the lens of social progress. But that pursuit should be about confronting our aggressively divisive symbols, not about letting the bad guys win on our beloved logos.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Proof that I was a good boy (on paper)

So this is going around Facebook, as it often does:

I don't think any of my friends who have posted it have had less than a triple-digit sum. Mine is $40. Yep, seriously, $40. ($70 if you count meeting a musician more famous for being an athlete, which was awesome, but that's generous.)

Not that I'm ashamed. Hell, I'm proud. Because, let's face it, most of this stuff is sociopathic hell-raising. Most people grow out of it, but I was never in it. Among other reasons, because I was more likely to be a victim of a prank than to prank someone else. Also — and I got teased for thinking this as a kid, even though it took me until early adulthood to articulate it — I didn't want to face serious consequences for the equivalent of a weak sugar high. 

This isn't to say that I was a prude — add truly subversive acts like changing minds, exercising critical thinking and helping pull metaphorical fire alarms on public wrongdoings, and I'm making it rain.

Some of these things, though, I wish I did — like travel outside the country. That and — well, that, mostly.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Where the harm was never meant

So TV Land has yanked Dukes of Hazzard reruns due to the Confederate flag on the General Lee.

I hate the Confederate flag and everything it stands for, and pretty much always have. I didn’t at first, as the show was my first-ever exposure to the flag, and it was on most of my favorite toys of the time. But once I realized the flag represented something other than a design flourish on a cool car — and that the “something” in question was half the nation spilling a whole nation’s blood in an attempt to secede over slavery — I still enjoyed the show but didn’t condone the flag (much like you might love a relative even if they hold some views you wish they didn’t). After all, it’s not as if the show was about the flag, right? The banner was there, but none of the baggage that went with it was apparent in the characters or the plot lines. Really, Hazzard was an idealized microcosm of the South, a place that flag defenders could point to as what the Confederate flag really stands for. Unfortunately, real life is a tad different, and the history of the banner that many real-life Southern counties continue to fly can’t be swept under the rug quite as cleanly.

My immediate thought upon hearing the news of the cancellation was, “I hope someone gets to work on digitally erasing that flag so we can have Dukes back.” But wouldn’t that play into the hands of people who accuse us of erasing history? There’s a difference between “erasing history” and evolving against the public display of the nation’s most shameful symbol. That distinction could get muddier if we took the Photoshop tool to the show.

On the other hand, it seems wrong to call for the flag’s removal from the public square, yet turn a blind eye to the reruns. On the other other hand, removing Dukes from the airwaves hardly seems on par with removing the flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds.

I’m trying to control for personal nostalgia here. I have loved Dukes as long as I’ve been alive. And ever since the mass shooting in Charleston, I’ve seen many people express love for the Confederate flag than can only be a function of nostalgia. Anytime I’ve seen that, I’ve rolled my eyes. Likewise, I realize that some who read this might similarly roll their eyes at me.

But unlike the Confederate flag, Dukes remains pretty much universally beloved. I don’t know anyone, regardless of race or political affiliation, who has any serious issue with the show. It’s been in heavy rotation in syndication since it ended and has spawned both a series of recent films and, even more recently, a series of AutoTrader ads featuring Bo and Luke. Unlike a lot of cultural touchstones of its era and even later, Dukes holds up as a solid, watchable show that at times extolled some impressively progressive values. That’s what makes its use of the flag all that more frustrating in retrospect.

I hate that the Dukes ever adorned that flag. Even more importantly, I hate that the hateful actions behind the banner were ever a thing. I can’t believe I have a mixed feeling on anything involving the Confederate flag, but there it is.

But let’s be clear — this is the only mixed feeling I have.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Today in fake news

Study: Caring about two issues possible

BALTIMORE — Researchers at Johns Hopkins University announced on Friday that humans can indeed think and care about as many as two separate issues.

This was the conclusion of study findings that will be published in the autumn issue of Common Contrarian Quarterly. The study tracked a representative sample of Facebook users over a period of eight years.

“Up until now, popular consensus has dictated that anyone who is discussing an issue cares about that issue and that issue only,” a researcher involved with the study said. “It was assumed, therefore, that anyone who talked about anything other than world hunger, the environment or other social inequities at all times didn’t care about those things.”

This, the researcher said, led to scorn from others who never let up on the big issues regardless of context. Previous research had concluded that human beings could mentally fixate on only one subject, and thus it had better be the most important one.

But the new research dispels this notion.

“The takeaway from this is that someone talking about, say, football or the Confederate flag, might not be as deserving of a verbal lashing as previously suspected,” they said. “Those insisting that others talking about these topics might not, in fact, be a sheep at the mercy of bread and circuses offered forth by corporate overlords. Instead, they might be simply mulling another thing for a minute.”

The study cited one test subject, identified only as Aaron, who wrote a detailed rant about the personnel decisions of the Atlanta Braves. When called out by a friend for “being distracted by trivial matters while Big Banks continue to fleece the American people,” Aaron replied: “I, in fact, addressed that issue in my previous status.”

“This exchange was pivotal in reversing our hypothesis,” the researcher said. “Aaron’s friend couldn’t believe he was capable of talking about both baseball and banks, and neither could we. But the proof was right there. Further tracking showed that Aaron was indeed able to bounce between the topics. This is a game-changer.”

In light of the findings, social networks and other websites with profiles are now expected to expand their “interest” fields to allow more than one answer. The new developments could also lead to a reduction of smug comments by people with obnoxious superiority complexes.

“Though I don’t think that’ll happen,” the researcher said.

Further studies will attempt to discover whether a person can juggle three or even four topics of interest.

“We still haven’t yet seen that, but it’s possible,” the researcher said.

Band now beloved by hipsters is future punch line

BROOKLYN — Fumblebee, a rising band currently beloved among hipsters, is expected to be a national punch line within 15 years, pop-culture analysts say.

The five-piece ensemble, which plays what fans describe as “a hybrid of emo and trancecore, as far as labels even apply,” is currently the darling of the Brooklyn scene. Frequent show-goers often sport the band’s signature T-shirt, a bright-yellow getup featuring the band’s logo that will be worn only ironically once the future single “Freeze” becomes a frat-party staple.

“It’s the same trajectory we see with many bands, and trends in general,” said Matt Dickerson, a critic and analyst for Rolling Stone. “In this case, Fumblebee has such a unique gimmick that appeals to hipsters in this specific time and place, that it will go mainstream only long enough for its short shelf life to work against it as a fond memory.

“The band is essentially the current equivalent of loud 1970s leisure suits. Future generations will ask, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ rather than recall them fondly. Fumblebee’s only hope to return to favor in 15-20 years will be if hipsters are as ironic then as they are elitist now.”

At a recent Fumblebee concert, Jeff “Typewriter” Cartwright, a Brooklyn hipster who describes himself as “anything but a hipster,” raved about the fledgling outfit.

“These guys, man, you can’t even begin to understand,” Cartwright said of the band that his future children will regard at Vanilla Ice levels once its 15 minutes come and go. “They have this one song that I can’t even describe. It’s like ‘Bang Baby’ and ‘Fixieation’ wrecked into each other and had a beautiful baby song.

“Not that you ever heard of those songs either,” he added. “I don’t know why I’m even bothering with you right now.”

The community’s love for Fumblebee is expected to end suddenly once “Freeze” becomes an international smash. Even fans of the song will quickly tire of its sugary hook and inevitably dated fashion and dance associations.

“‘Freeze’ will land sharply into guilty-pleasure territory, but in that subcategory where you only listen to it alone with the windows up,” Dickerson predicted. “It will never find new life like ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ or even ‘Ice Ice Baby.’ At best, Fumblebee will show up on YouTube searches when people are searching for better bands of the 2010s.”

As of press time, “Freeze” had debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard pop chart.