Category Archives: Original Nonfiction

Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?

5

Bodily Changes and Other Minor Tragedies

            If you’re a fan of pretty much any professional sport outside of golf or bowling, you’ve probably heard announcers lamenting the increasing age and declining skills of once-great athletes. Recently I read an article about a Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback, referred to in this instance as “the aging Terrance Newman.”  According to Newman’s Wikipedia entry, he was born on September 4th, 1978. That means that in roughly three weeks from the time of this writing, he will turn 33 years old.

            Randy Couture and Dan Henderson are considered exceptional specimens in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, not just because they have won multiple championships in multiple weight classes but also because they both competed at high levels into their 40s. Couture finally retired in 2011 after losing to former Light Heavyweight Champion Lyoto Machida via front kick to the face (think Daniel-san’s crane kick in the original Karate Kid, a move heretofore thought to be purely fictional). Couture is in his late 40s. Henderson, the current Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion who is likely headed back to the UFC, is around 41.

            Sticking with the MMA world, for a moment, we should consider the case of Rashad Evans. Until his recent TKO of Tito Ortiz, Evans had been out of action for 14 months. Most people thought he would struggle with so-called “ring rust,” the condition stemming from long layoffs. Train all you want, the philosophy goes, but if you aren’t actually competing, you don’t know how your body or your mind will respond in the heat of battle. Dana White, the bombastic UFC president, said of Evans, “He’s 31. He’s not 26.” You’d think that Evans had turned gray and wrinkly overnight, that he used a walker or a wheelchair, that he might knock over the glass containing his dentures on the way to his fifth bathroom trip of the night.

            The conventional wisdom in the NFL is that running backs decline sharply after their 30th birthdays. Gymnasts and swimmers enjoy an even shorter shelf life.

            All of this has always seemed patently ageist to me. But at the same time, it seems to be true. For every Randy Couture or Brett Favre, there are thousands of athletes who never play past their mid-30s, when their “advanced” age and allegedly declining skills make them unappealing at best, completely disposable at worst.

            Yet, for all of my grousing about the ageist trend in athletics, I also can’t exactly argue with its logic. I am currently 40 years old and no longer an athlete. And even I suffer from aches and pains that my 20-year-old self—hell, even the 35-year-old version of me—did not believe in and had never experienced.

            I often tell my students that I have the perfect evidence of life’s unfairness, and it is this: at 40 years old, I get both gray hairs and pimples.

            Oh, I’m no silver fox, at least not yet. But every day I find more gray hair—in my beard, at my temples, even on parts of my body that had always been covered with downy dark hair. Everything seems to be bleaching out, slowly but inexorably. Yet as I look at those stray gray hairs, I often find new zits in my hairline, on my head, even on my face, as if I were still a teenager readying for a date. It’s just not fair. If you have gray hair, you should be too old for pimples, and if you must regularly use Clearasil, you should be too young for gray hair.

            My goatee is probably the most startling evidence of my hair’s transformation from young person’s to that of someone who might reasonably expect a recruiting letter from the AARP. Once it reflected all the aspects of my heritage. Mostly the hairs were dark, almost black, though in some cases they looked blonde or red. My beard epitomized America: democratic, diverse. Walt Whitman would have been proud of it. Now, though, it consists mostly of two colors: dark brown and gray, with the gray quickly gaining prominence. If I still have it at 50, it will probably look like I just stepped out of an arctic blizzard.

            Athletes’ faces undergo similar transformations. It happened to Brett Favre. About the same time that gray began to appear on Favre’s hair and on his chin, his face got a little more wrinkled every year, and for every interception he threw, more and more people questioned how much longer he could compete. Never mind that he kept taking teams deep into the playoffs and breaking records; because he had passed some tipping-point age, he would forever after be suspect.

            Of course, part of the reasoning was that he felt the hits more than he used to, that it took him longer to recuperate. And again, here is where I cannot argue with the logic of the age factor.

            Before I reached my mid-30s, I had undergone surgery on a diseased appendix. I had had perhaps four cavities. I could engage in pretty much whatever physical activity I wanted and move reasonably well the next day. But around my 36th year, I suddenly started feeling pain in places where I didn’t know I had places.

            I had to have my wisdom teeth removed. Though they had come in years before, they had never really bothered me. Suddenly they made my jaws ache. I had two very minor procedures to remove a surface-level basal-cell carcinoma from my chest. I discovered that I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome, though not the highly embarrassing kind that plagued poor J.K. Simmons in The Ladykillers; it bothers me just enough to make travel uncomfortable. My ear, nose, and throat doctor discovered that I needed a septoplasty and a turbinate reduction. After that procedure, I could breathe normally for the first time in my life, which is when I began to snore. A trip to the neurologist and a couple of sleep studies revealed that I had mild-to-moderate sleep apnea.

            None of these conditions were serious or life-threatening. But they piled up in a relatively short time, and after a life of good health. They were particularly disturbing in light of my family medical history, which includes cancers of various kinds, heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One of these days I expect a Riley newborn to skip all the preliminaries and just spontaneously combust.

            I’ve taken precautions against these and pretty much every other major issue that my doctors and I can think of. But there’s only so much you can do to prevent health problems as you get older. It’s not really fair. Most of us go from never having to think about our health, or exercise, or what we eat and drink, to worrying about all of it all the time. It’s like being in a car that goes from zero to near-death in five years.

            Then there are the aches and pains that accompany getting older. Right now, my right shoulder inexplicably hurts at the joint, especially when I raise the arm above chest level, and most especially when I have to raise it and lift something, or even remove a tight pull-over shirt. I’m not sure if the problem lies in the bone or the muscles or the ligaments and tendons, but something’s wrong, and time—plus lots of exercise or the lack thereof—hasn’t helped. My neck is stiff most of the time and pops painfully when I turn it too far to the right. And now even my jaw hurts a little on one side. Where do these problems come from? What did I do to cause them, if anything? It’s all a mystery, and the only way to solve it is to go to the doctor yet again, to undergo even more tests, and/or to take even more medication.

            Speaking of which—I currently take a pill that lowers my cholesterol. I take another that helps my stomach and my poor sleep patterns. A third helps regulate my triglycerides. And I also take over-the-counter medication for joint pain. I fondly remember the days when all I needed was a Tylenol or a BC powder.

            When I look at how my body has changed regardless of circumstances, I believe that it’s a miracle that athletes last as long as they do. If I had to spend every day getting punched in the face or body-checked into the boards or feeling my ribs crunch under a linebacker’s shoulder pads, I’m not sure that I could get out of bed at all. And I’ve been pretty active most of my life.

            What must aging be like for those who were never in shape? Or those whose lifelong medical conditions have prohibited them from even trying to exercise? In this day of medical miracles, why can’t we all live long lives free of pain and discomfort and, yes, the gray hair-pimple combination?

            Still, I’ll take aging over the alternative every day. I’d rather be gray-haired and above-ground than a young-looking corpse.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.

Catch-Up: Random Thoughts #nonfiction

Catch-Up: Random Thoughts about Events and People in the News

            So thanks to the end of the semester, I haven’t written anything here in nearly two weeks. In that time, lots of things have happened—some incredibly important, some less so. I cannot possibly comment on everything, so to get back into the swing of things, I decided to write about whatever struck my fancy at the moment. Here, for better or worse, are the results. Hopefully I’ll be back to more coherent and cohesive posts soon. I should also note that for the most part, I don’t spend a lot of my blog time on political commentary, but sometimes I feel the need. Feel free to skip over whatever section below doesn’t catch your fancy.

Amy Winehouse

            Much has been made of the dreaded “27 Club,” populated by such notables as Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse joined that august group recently, not long after a terribly disjointed and ultimately abortive return to the stage in Europe. The tributes piled up immediately, as well they should; whenever anyone dies, he or she leaves a hole in the world, and when a talented artist leaves us, the hole is all the bigger for their having touched so many lives.

            I was never a huge Winehouse fan. Her look frightened me; her music was not the kind I tend to seek out. But having heard her tracks and seen some of her televised performances, I was well aware of her talent. The music she released demonstrated her songwriting ability, the bravery she drew upon in laying her life bare in lyrics, and the smoky voice that distinguished her from so many other pop starlets. One can only wonder what kind of art she might have produced in the future.

            Her death was hardly surprising, and yet I was stunned when I heard about it. I offer my heartfelt condolences to her family, her friends, and her fans. And I beg the young and the talented to stay out of that goddam club.

The National Football League Lockout

            Since my last post, the NFL lockout ended, with concessions given on both sides. If only our politicians could take note on how real compromise works, they might learn that neither side is ever likely to get everything they want. To achieve compromise, each side has to gain something, and each side has to give something up. While I have not studied the complexities of the new collective bargaining agreement, I have heard enough to know that some progress was made along these lines.

            Generally, in any strife between labor and management, I side with labor. History is crammed full of examples of corporate excesses enjoyed at the expense of workers; unions help avoid that and, by doing so, help stave off the kind of proletariat revolution that Marx predicted. You would think, then, that political conservatives and bourgeois managers would thank God for unions. But that doesn’t happen in America, at least not often.

            Sure, sometimes unions indulge in excesses of their own, and sometimes labor leaders seem more intent on keeping their constituents happy than in enacting lasting, positive change. The film Waiting for “Superman” details problems in teachers’ unions, for instance; watch that movie and you may find yourself ready to hire union-busting thugs to work over your local math instructor. But the film glosses over why those unions are needed in the first place, the unstable and inequitable and unfair and underpaid conditions under which people labor when management goes unchecked. It would be nice if we could do away with unions and government regulations, but until corporations and administrations act responsibly, putting people’s lives and happiness above their own greed, we simply cannot do without unions. Read your history, or listen to your common sense instead of your lobby-funded representative, and you’ll see that.

            When I heard that owners wanted a bigger slice of the revenue streams, more games in the season without any subsequent and equitable rise in health care and job security, and no new resources for retired, injured, and debilitated players, I sided with the players’ union, knowing as I did so that professional athletes tend to be spoiled, overprivileged, selfish prima donnas. Even when all of that is true about an individual player, you can’t paint everyone with the same brush, and you can’t abandon the broken players who gave their best years (and body parts) for you.

            So I hope that the players really got enough concessions from the lockout. I hope they (and their barely-able-to-walk forbears) can live with the new CBA. I hope that the practice squad player and the guys who sign for the league minimum can live happy, productive lives. And I hope that our nation’s leaders—especially you, Republicans—learn that none of us win when somebody refuses to engage in reasonable negotiation.

            Frankly, I don’t want to think about such weighty matters when somebody brings up football. I just want to see Peyton Manning throw a beautiful, crisp pass, or DeMarcus Ware pulverize a quarterback (preferably Michael Vick, Eli Manning, or whoever starts for the Redskins this year), or Andre Johnson pull down another touchdown pass that appeared just out of reach.

The Debt Ceiling Debate

            Sigh. Ever since September 11th, 2001—when so many people in our country seem to have dropped the very pretense of moderation from their political beliefs—I have found innumerable political events, figures, and concepts that have stomped all over my very last nerve. The latest seems to be the debt ceiling debate, a fake issue brought about and writ large by an increasingly radical, out of touch Republican Party.

            Time was that most Republicans seemed like basically good, reasonable people with whom I simply disagreed ideologically. Though I was, for instance, pro-choice and they were (and here’s a term I loathe, as if pro-choicers embrace death) pro-life, all but the most radical factions on both sides could discuss the issue with reason and respect. The same could be said of gun control, capital punishment, foreign policy, and just about anything else you could name. Sure, the right had its racist, xenophobic, homophobic, classist, religiously intolerant warhawks, and the left had its cuckoo birds who employed right-wing militia tactics in order to tout their allegedly left-wing ideologies. But most of us seemed to live somewhere between those extremes. Now, especially on the right, moderation seems to be as endangered as the animal species Republicans’ corporate masters seem intent on obliterating in the service of the great god Profit.

            You can’t just blame the so-called Tea Party, another term I hate because it co-opts historic American dissent in favor of those who would perpetuate a dangerous stratification along racial, sexual, class, and religious barriers. The Tea-Baggers (now there’s a term I love) mostly seem like a gaggle of loonies who live in their own world, a place I wouldn’t even like to visit, but you also have to fault mainstream Republicans for giving in to their insanity, as well as Democrats who won’t stand up to them for fear of offending a voter. This voter is likely imaginary anyway; anybody who would vote Democrat is highly unlikely to vote for the Tea-Baggers under any circumstances, and nobody in the Tea Party’s going to cast a vote for a Democrat no matter how milquetoast the candidate appears. Frankly, the two-party system is strangling this country, and until we throw them all out and move past the either-or dilemma we’ve gotten ourselves into, nothing is likely to change.

            What we need is a peaceful revolution in which we vote in people who are interested in service and in making this country better for every single person in it—white or black, rich or poor, legal or otherwise, gay or straight, Christian or otherwise.

            Why? Because our politics have degenerated into a schoolyard tussle between rival gangs of spoiled brats. As numerous columnists have pointed out, the debt ceiling “crisis” was manufactured by Republicans who want to look economically tough in the eyes of what they see as an increasingly radicalized base. They don’t tell you that George W. Bush (who I still have trouble labeling as a “President” of anything, much less the nation) raised the debt ceiling several times. They gloss over the fact that the conservative demi-god Reagan raised it something like 18 times over eight years. Republicans don’t have a problem raising the debt ceiling; they only have a problem doing it when it might make some Democrat look competent.

            They also blame Barack Obama and Democrats for the system that calls for raising the debt ceiling in order to pay for critical social and infrastructural programs, as if Obama invented that system. But the system has been in place for decades, and used by Republicans as much as Democrats, possibly more so. If you don’t like the system, then by all means, advocate for change, as long as you’ve got a solution in mind beyond eliminating all taxes, an unreasonable demand that ignores the facts of America’s economic structure. But don’t use the system when it benefits you and then hypocritically hold the country hostage so that you can metaphorically fellate a radical minority on your side of the aisle.

            The most blatantly hypocritical part of this debate is that Republican policies and administrations (including the trickle-down lovers in the Bush and Reagan years) caused the crisis more than anyone else. Then they refused to work with Obama and the Democrats to fix the economy—unless, of course, the Democrats agreed to bypass the very nature of democracy and give the right every single thing it wanted. Then they blamed Obama for the problems and the lack of a solution. I’d admire the sheer chutzpah of the right if they weren’t taking us all into such dangerous waters.

            We need the right to abandon its lunatic fringe and reach back across that aisle. In the absence of such a step, we need Democrats (notice I don’t call them “the left”) to find the guts to stand up for themselves and the rest of America, even if that means telling unpleasant truths about the opposition. We need the American people to stop taking what their politicians say at face value, to investigate things on their own using a variety of reputable and objective sources, to vote for everyone’s good instead of selfish reasons.

            If we don’t, then one of these days we really will see the fall of the American empire, and it won’t be Barack Obama’s fault, or John McCain’s (how radically right do you have to be when McCain is too liberal for you??), or even Osama bin Laden’s. We’ll each have to look in the mirror and blame the person we see there.

Captain America

            I saw the movie. It wasn’t the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but it was far from the worst, especially for a super-hero flick. I’d give it a solid B on the sliding summer blockbuster scale.

            In my summer II course, one of my students asked me what I thought about the film. I responded as I did above, while admitting that I haven’t read a comic since the mid-1990s, when the stories’ quality took a nosedive, and death became a cynical commercial vehicle, and no tale had stakes anymore because everybody came back from the dead. When the major companies copped out by replacing many of their heroes with new, poorer versions and little things like plot and characterization took a back seat to how cool the penciling looked.

            My student then said, “Well, it’s not like they based the story on what’s happened in the last fifteen years.”

            No, but in large part, they based it on the needs and desires of the last fifteen years’ audience. And I am not part of that audience. I don’t pretend to know the tone and flavor of today’s Captain America, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a film that catered to them and their sensibilities, not to mine.

            For me, Captain America was always something of a conundrum. You couldn’t find a squarer character; the guy made Superman look grim and edgy. Steve Rogers was sincere, patriotic, faithful, honorable, ethical—all the things you wish your politicians were. He never seemed to represent a particular political viewpoint (well, except in those execrable 50s “Captain America—Commie Smasher” comics, and we’ve long known that the guy in those comics wasn’t Steve Rogers). He never threw his weight behind any particular administration. Instead, he truly seemed to represent the America where most of us lived—sometimes a bit conservative, sometimes a bit liberal, but mostly just human. He encouraged dissent, yet he believed in institutions.

            I thought the film did a pretty good job of representing that Cap. As written in the film and played by Chris Evans, Steve Rogers is the guy who joins the army because it’s the right thing to do—because in those days, everyone believed that they knew who the enemy was and why we were fighting and what was at stake. We didn’t fight in the best possible ways; the poor were still overly represented, and women and non-whites weren’t treated well, but it was about as united as the nation has ever been, including, I think, during the Revolution. Rogers doesn’t go in as a mouthpiece for Roosevelt or the minority leader. He doesn’t champion a corporation or an ideology beyond a firm belief in America itself.

            Truly, if Captain America were real, I’d probably write him in on the Presidential ballot. I came away from the film feeling like I had seen at least a version of the guy I knew from the comics. Perhaps that’s about as much as we can ask of our film adaptations. I won’t advise you to run to your nearest theater and catch it if you haven’t already, but give it a shot on DVD at least. You may find yourself wishing that Cap could swoop in and save us from the machine we’ve built to govern our lives, the same one that seems to be chewing us all up in the gears.

Fedor Emelianenko, Dana White, Chael Sonnen, and Rashad Evans

            In the world of Mixed Martial Arts, everything seems to be in flux. Aging warhorses like Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Matt Hughes, the Nogueira brothers, and Tito Ortiz, though only in their mid-30s, seem to be showing the effects of all their battles. Unable to take punches or dominate as they once did, they now face the roles of gate-keepers to the championships, rather than serious contenders. All these men are young enough to reach the top again, but like an NFL player of the same age, they can no longer be penciled in to dominate. It’s always a shame when age and the limitations of one’s body catch up with a great athlete, but it happens to everyone eventually. It happened suddenly to Chuck Liddell. It finally caught up to Randy Couture. Even the current exception to the rule, Dan Henderson, can’t go on forever.

            UFC president Dana White has stuck behind most of the men on that list. He dropped Ortiz from the roster once, but that was due more to their personal conflicts and Ortiz’s desire for more money than eroding skills. As every MMA fan knows, he was about to cut Ortiz before a recent out-of-nowhere submission victory over young gun Ryan Bader. At that point, you could hardly blame White; he had given Ortiz every chance, and while Ortiz had not been dominated since his last loss to Liddell years ago, he had not won a fight since 2006. The victory over Bader saved Ortiz’s job, and his stepping up to face 205-pound title contender Rashad Evans on short notice only endeared him to White. But since Tito lost that fight, one wonders how many more chances he’ll get.

            Matt Hughes has admitted that he only has so many fights left in him, but White keeps matching him with top competition. Cro Cop might not get another shot in the UFC if he loses his next fight, but he won’t be battling a no-name; he has to fight former IFL champ Roy Nelson, himself a veteran with a two-fight losing streak. White has stated his desire to “Liddell” Wanderlei Silva into retirement, referencing how White had to browbeat Liddell into stepping away from the sport for his own health’s sake; he has shown no desire to cut Silva or demote him to prelims. No one has stated that the Nogueiras’ jobs are in jeopardy—especially Big Nog, whose losses might have been attributable to the nagging injuries that have kept him out of action for over a year.

            The point here is that Dana White has, to the best of his ability, stood beside each of these men whenever they’ve lost and/or contemplated retirement and/or asked for more shots to get back on the winning track. Of course, they all fight in the UFC, meaning that White has a vested interest in their careers and a sense of loyalty to them. He doesn’t stick by them strictly because he’s such a nice guy.

            All of which brings me to the case of Fedor Emelianenko. Long considered the greatest heavyweight fighter ever to step into an MMA ring or cage, Fedor has struggled of late. He lost by submission to one of the world’s best jiu-jitsu artists, Fabricio Werdum. He lost by TKO (doctor’s stoppage) to a much larger opponent, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, when one of his eyes swelled shut between rounds. And then he lost by knockout to Henderson, one of the greatest fighters in history. No shame in any of those losses, but in the “what have you done for me lately?” world of MMA, three losses in a row bring out the haters. “Fedor should retire,” they said, even after his second loss. “He was never that good in the first place,” they said, ignoring how he went undefeated for ten years and won titles in several organizations, including PRIDE.

            No one has been more vocally critical of Fedor’s losses than White, who seems to take personal satisfaction in another human being’s misfortune. Oh, he makes sure to say that he doesn’t hate Fedor, but it’s hard not to read malice into White’s venomous tirades. In one internet video, White runs through a list of Fedor’s past opponents, trying to punch holes in the myth of the man’s greatness. And the opponents he names in that list are certainly unimpressive. But he leaves out a lot of names, too: Semmy Schilt, Heath Herring, Big Nog (three times), Mark Coleman (twice), Cro Cop, Kevin Randleman, and even less decorated but respected veterans like Gary Goodridge and Kazuyuki Fujita.

            You can’t say that Fedor fought only tomato cans when the list of people he beat includes three former UFC champions, one of the most feared strikers of all time, some strong wrestlers, and a bunch of plain old tough guys. And that’s ignoring his wins over both Tim Sylvia and Andrei Arlovsky, who have certainly fallen on hard times themselves but who are also former UFC champs.

            White’s vendetta against Fedor seems to stem from the latter’s refusal to sign with the UFC, to put more money in White’s bank accounts. White is correct in saying that the UFC is the only place where the best fighters always fight the best competition and that Fedor (or his management team) has tarnished his legacy by avoiding the UFC. But White is dead wrong and just plain vindictive to ignore Fedor’s accomplishments, especially since most of them happened in what was, at the time, the best heavyweight division on the planet.

            Whatever Fedor’s reasons for not signing with the UFC, the fact is that he didn’t. He seems at peace with himself and his career, even his recent setbacks. White should make peace with it too, because all his gloating only makes him seem like an ungracious bully.

            I don’t have much to say about Chael Sonnen, who seems unable to grasp the fact that Anderson Silva beat him. Certainly Sonnen dominated the fight for well over twenty minutes, but Silva caught him in a triangle choke, and he tapped out. I saw the fight. I saw him give up. He can call himself the uncrowned Middleweight champion all he wants, but no one in their right mind believes that. He fought a good fight, but he lost. End of story.

            Except that it’s not. Sonnen has always had such a big mouth that it’s impossible to take him seriously. You get the feeling that even he doesn’t believe most of what he says, but that doesn’t stop him from saying it. He blathers and brags, but he has yet to achieve the kinds of results that would to some extent justify his brashness. Where is Sonnen’s years-long win streak? Where is his UFC championship?

            Lots of fans try to excuse his poor sportsmanship and the sad example he sets of how to be a decent human being, but you can promote a fight without being a completely unlikable jerk. Since returning from suspension for performance-enhancing drugs (a suspension compounded by his role in money-laundering), he’s been more vocal than ever, but his hijinks seem even more desperate than usual. He’s now insulted the entire country of Brazil and just about every other fighter in the UFC. Nice guy.

            If you take him seriously, you’d have to point out that he’s never accomplished anything near what the objects of his bile have achieved. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has won championships in both PRIDE and the UFC, and is always a top contender. Wanderlei Silva destroyed all his competition for years and held the PRIDE middleweight title all that time. (And for all his talk about Wanderlei, one has to remember that Sonnen is talking from a distance. If you’re an MMA fan, you’ve probably seen the video of Wanderlei and Sonnen on a promotional trip together, sitting in the same vehicle as Wanderlei takes him to task for disrespecting the Nogueiras.   “When you show respect, you keep your teeth,” Silva says, and literally all Sonnen does is nod and say thank you. Yet when Silva is nowhere nearby, Sonnen becomes a tough guy?). Jose Aldo is a UFC champ. Anderson Silva is a UFC champ. Lyoto Machida is a former UFC champ. Even non-Brazilians have felt the sting of Sonnen’s sharp tongue, but Quinton Jackson is also a former UFC champ, and Jon Fitch is every bit as accomplished as Sonnen. Perhaps moreso, since his unsuccessful title shot did not end in his submission.

            But Sonnen keeps talking, even though his speeches are now largely considered a joke. Perhaps Brian Stann will knock some sense into him. If not, he’s probably going to meet Anderson Silva again, and then we’ll see if he can keep all his teeth. Perhaps Sonnen should join the WWE, where his utter lack of sportsmanship and decency would be welcome.

            As for Rashad Evans, he wonders why people keep booing him when he’s really a nice guy. Allow me to take a page out of Dana White’s recent interviews, in which I look into the camera and speak directly to Rashad, WWE-style.

            Rashad, I’ll tell you why people boo you. It’s not because some of your fights are dull. Most fighters have dull fights every now and then. It’s not because you brag on yourself. All fighters are confident. It’s because you showboat. You did it back on The Ultimate Fighter, and though your style has matured since then, your in-ring personality hasn’t. When Forrest Griffin was beating you for two and a half rounds, you weathered one flurry and then grabbed your cup and blew him a kiss. Really, Rashad? Are you that insecure? Are you that immature? You’re 31 years old now, man. Grow up.

            Once you get over yourself, perhaps more people will back you. Maybe then they’ll recognize you for the nice guy you really are. Until then, keep on expecting those boos.

QUICK UPDATE: Matt “the Hammer” Hamill has retired from MMA. The sport has just lost one of its finest ambassadors and best human beings. Hamill, for those who don’t know, is deaf. Yet he was a D-III national wrestling champion and went 9-4 in the UFC, including victories over Tito Ortiz and Mark Munoz. He also beat Michael Bisping in the eyes of everyone but the ringside judges. Always humble and sweet of disposition, a classy person and a tough fighter, Matt Hamill will be missed.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com

 

Whose Hands Are These? #nonfiction #writing

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?

4

“Whose Hands Are These?”

            A few months back, Kalene and I were watching an episode of Strange Addictions. The subject of that week’s program was a young woman addicted to tanning. She went to several different tanning beds every day, divvying up her visits to avoid the safety limitations that each individual salon imposed. Then she would go home and lay out by the pool, her only sunblock a bottle of baby oil. This woman didn’t have a tan; she fairly glowed orange, rating about an eight on the John Boehner-Hulk Hogan scale. You could have used her for a nightlight.

            At one point in the show, she visited a dermatologist, who, of course, told her that she had been playing Russian Roulette with her life, given the increasing prevalence of skin cancer. He also took one of her hands and pointed out all the wrinkles, the spots, the dryness. The woman called them “old people hands,” though of course the presence of that condition did not deter her. When she found that she had no major skin issues at that point in her life, she took it for a sign that she was making sound decisions and that she could rub the results in her concerned friends’ and family’s noses.

            The fact that she would probably look like a piece of beef jerky by the time she was thirty-five apparently did nothing to persuade her, and neither did the fact that, you know, she might develop major health problems in the future. I suppose that most smokers in their late teens to early twenties probably don’t have emphysema yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re making healthy decisions.

            You just can’t tell some people anything.

            For me, though, that image of her hands stuck out the most. They were as deep brown/orange as the rest of her; fittingly enough, her nails looked like five alabaster tombstones sticking out of rich newly-dug earth. Deep wrinkles covered her finger joints. You could see the beginnings the splotches people call liver spots or age spots. And she herself used that phrase “old people hands.” Of course, I looked down at my own hands at that moment, and I found that, while my skin tone remains at the polar opposite of orange, the rest of the symptoms presented just fine. The wrinkles at the joints. The increasingly-large freckles. The out-and-out splotches that I had heretofore only noticed on retirees.

            I had old people hands.

            None of this has to do with my own current tanning habits, which rate somewhere just above Dracula’s. I don’t burst into flame on contact with sunlight, but it’s pretty close. My pale skin reddens after less than half an hour of sunlight, even after I use SPF 85. It turns boiled-lobster red if I stay out longer than that. I have been known to stay out for a few hours with insufficient sunblock and spend the next days in agony, my blistered skin feeling as if a million needles were being jabbed into it ceaselessly, my shoulders and upper back covered in water blisters. Most of that happened when I was a kid, before anyone knew the potential effects of sunburns, and only three or four times at that.

            But even now, against Kalene’s advice and the recommendation of dermatologists everywhere, I don’t moisturize every day, and I don’t wear sunblock on my way to work or the grocery store. I haven’t refused to do so out of some entitled sense of my own immortality or sheer stubbornness. I just don’t remember. And as a result, my currently forty-year-old hands look forty years old.

            But it’s not just my hands. My face has changed, too. I now know the definition of “crow’s feet,” a fact that dismays me more than I can explain. I have a deep wrinkle across the bridge of my nose right between my eyes and another one a half-inch or so down, evidence of how much time I apparently spend scowling and angry. Even when I open my eyes as wide as I can and shove the skin back with my fingers, I can still see the depths of those wrinkles. I’m afraid that by the time I’m eighty I’ll look like a bulldog—a very pale, almost translucent bulldog.

            See, here’s the thing: I couldn’t tan even if I wanted to. I learned that the hard way when I was younger. I never really cared what anybody else thought of me, but for some reason, I wanted a tan, probably so that I could wear shorts in the summer without having to fight every self-styled wit with a pocketful of “fish-belly” jokes. So I would lay out in the back yard, at the public pool, down at the river when my friends and I drove out for a day of swimming. I fondly remember the look on my father’s face when he came home for lunch one summer day, looked out his back patio door, and saw nothing but a ladder and a few pairs of dangling legs. My friends and I had decided to sunbathe on the roof. And once, I ruined a perfectly good fishing trip with my father as I struggled to maneuver around in the boat so that I could “tan” equally on both sides.

            Oh, I used sunblock—SPF 2.75 or something like that. But as early as my mid-teens, I learned that the pain of even a mild sunburn did not seem worth the pathetic results I achieved. I never tanned; I just got a bit less white. If the Twilight films had existed back then, they could have plucked me off the street and sent me out as Vampire Henchman #4 without any makeup.

            These days, I don’t even care. When I go to the beach or the pool, I spray or slather on the sunblock until I am encased in a solid layer on which bugs lose their lives. Throw a Frisbee at me and it just might stick fast. I have read too much and experienced too much of the scary effects of tanning, only one of which is the premature aging of your skin.

            Nevertheless, whenever I look in the mirror, I can still see aging’s effects in every wrinkle, every freckle that has morphed into something the size of a penny, every liver spot that has had the temerity to show up so far before its time. And though I am perfectly comfortable with aging gracefully—no plans for any plastic surgery for me—I just don’t understand why someone so young would take so many chances with their appearance, their health, their very life now that we know everything we know.

            I mean, if I could say one thing to that woman on Strange Addictions, I guess it would be this: if my hands look their age, you’ve got to remember that I grew up in the seventies and eighties, when nobody really knew about the dangers of second-hand smoke, or ultraviolet radiation, or letting your kids climb all over the inside of a moving vehicle, or eating deep-fried everything.

            What’s your excuse?

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.          

On Feline Philosophy #writing #nonfiction

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?

3

On Feline Philosophy

                Sometimes I wonder what it’s really like to be a cat. Then I remember that, as I get older, I probably already know. They spend most of their day sleeping and far too much of the night roaming about, breaking into cabinets with the efficiency of a safe-cracker and pouncing on unsuspecting dreamers and eating too much. I can relate.

                Not long ago, I woke up late. I mean really late, nearly one o’clock in the afternoon. True, I had had a rough night; I was up till nearly five. I had worked and played until two am, and then I tossed and turned for another two and a half hours or so, trying desperately to get comfortable on my aching muscles and sometimes-creaky bones, to breathe through my nose that constantly clogs every time I lie down, to stop thinking about the things I didn’t get done and all the things I’d need to do the next day.

                I knew that I would wake up late, and that no matter what I did or how hard I tried, I would remain groggy all day, out of sorts, my already screwed-up biological clock thrown even farther out of true. And sure enough, it all happened just like I imagined. Up at 1 pm, eating lunch at 5, eating supper at 11, back to bed at a time when most people have already sunk deeply into their REM sleep, dreaming weird dreams and drooling onto their pillows.

                I have, over the past couple of years, trained myself to take one or two short naps during the day, partly because I need to make up for the sleep I didn’t get at night and partly because I just can’t go without sleep like I used to. I started experiencing sleep problems when I was a teenager. I would go to bed around 10 pm, but for whatever reason—a surplus of young-person energy? Budding anxiety disorder? Lewd sexual fantasies?—my mind would race as soon as I turned off the lights. Soon enough, I learned that I could solve this problem to a certain extent if I left my radio on all night; then I would concentrate on the music, the lyrics, the mix of genres and styles, and eventually I would drift off, still not right away but earlier than I would have otherwise.

                Of course, then my dreams would often take on an even more surreal quality. Once I dreamed that I was walking through my neighborhood, which had somehow been turned into an Asian market. People thronged everywhere, their eyes on the road or the market wares, their shoulders bumping against me as I made my way through them, looking for someone whose name I could not remember. And through it all, David Bowie’s “China Girl” blasted from unseen speakers. The sacred cow he mentions kept wandering through people’s yards and taking enormous shits on driveways. I woke up in the middle of the dream and heard the same song on the radio.

                So my sleep schedule has always been weird. And that weirdness has become more and more of a problem as I’ve gotten older. Once, I could stay up for days and still perform at high levels. Now I can go for about four hours before I at least wish I could take a short nap.

                I first discovered that age plays havoc with your ability to cope with sleep deprivation not long after my daughter Maya was born. I was still married to her mother then. My then-wife was breastfeeding Maya, which had never presented a problem; but we never considered what might happen if that food supply was suddenly eliminated.

                My ex had decided to have her tubes tied after her second pregnancy, which was fine with me. We weren’t getting along at all by then, and I already had three children, so I was pretty tired. The procedure was supposed to take place in the morning, and, we were told, she would get to come home that afternoon. So before we took her to the hospital, she didn’t stockpile any milk for Maya. I saw the unused breast pump lying on a shelf in our closet and shivered, as if I had glimpsed through a crack in the universe a very specific kind of hell. Then I forgot about it and took her to the O.R.

                During the allegedly routine procedure, the surgeon found a cyst on one of her ovaries, and it alarmed him enough that he went ahead and removed it. When a physician risks a lawsuit by performing a procedure without familial authorization, you know he must have been concerned. This extra procedure obviously increased the surgery time, but it also necessitated a longer hospital stay, as did the doctors’ feelings that further tests would be necessary. To avoid infection, they gave her more, and different, antibiotics, plus more pain meds than they had originally planned, all of which would have been secreted through her breast milk.

                And so a few hours’ stay turned into a multiple-day ordeal. The hospital kept her for further tests and observations. Meanwhile, I was stuck at home with a hungry baby and no breast milk. I had no choice but to give Maya formula, but she hated it. When some of that stuff dribbled into her mouth, you’d have thought that I had given her a lemon rind and alum sandwich. She screwed up her face and screamed at me, as if to say, “You asshole! Are you trying to kill me?” She also responded badly to the artificial nipples and the different feeding position she had to assume. She would barely eat, and because she was so hungry, she cried. Loudly. Interminably. I cannot imagine that victims of the Spanish Inquisition cried louder than she did. I think they heard her on the space shuttle.

                I tried everything. I even tried leaning down next to her ear and making a heartbeat sound, which fooled her for about two minutes. But she simply would not take the formula from a bottle. I tried giving it to her with an eye-dropper; she spit it back out. I tried powdered formula and canned formula and every other kind I could find; she would have none of it. And because she was crying constantly, she barely slept, which meant that I didn’t sleep either.

                Eventually I reached my wits’ end. I asked Kalene—my third and final wife who was, at the time, a very good friend of ours—to come over and watch Maya so I could get a couple of hours’ sleep; she obliged, but that two hours did me little good. The world began to take on that too-bright quality, where the light looks weird and voices sound muffled and life takes on the characteristics of a Dali painting. You start saying things in a deep, slow voice just to see how weird you sound: “HEEEEEEEEElllllllOOOOOOOoooo, nurse!” Yet when I went back to the hospital, they wanted to keep my ex even longer.

                “Doc,” I said, “please understand that I want you to do everything you need to do. Make sure she’s safe and healthy. But if what you’re planning is in any way extraneous, let me tell you this. I’ve been up for days. I’m on the verge of having a psychotic episode. My daughter needs breast milk, and she can’t get any if you keep pumping drugs into my wife. What I’m saying is that if these tests aren’t really necessary, then I urge you, for the sake of three people, don’t run them.”

                They ran the tests but did not give her any extra drugs, noting that they were being as cautious as possible but that she would almost certainly be fine without the extra antibiotics. We went home, and she was fine, and my daughter ate, and I slept for about six months.

                I can no longer stay up for days at a time, for necessity or fun. I can still go a day or two on little sleep if I have to, but it isn’t easy or pleasant anymore. Yet my sleep schedule remains as screwed up as it has ever been, and short of getting one of those machines that re-align your Circadian rhythms, which my doctor has actually recommended, I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t just go to bed earlier; I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable or stop thinking about things. I can go to bed at 9 pm and still won’t fall asleep until at least 2 am, regardless of circumstances. So I might as well just stay up.

                Having lived with cats for the past ten years, I’ve noticed how much I have in common with them. The way they live their lives mirrors, in many ways, how I live mine.

                What are cats interested in? What do they do? Well, they eat, and sleep, and excrete bodily wastes. They occasionally snuggle up to you in search of affection, and when they’ve had enough, they leave, regardless of your feelings. If you leave human food where they can reach it, they will often sneak snacks that they shouldn’t have, so you have to remain vigilant around them. And when they feel like it, they want to play, no matter what you’d rather be doing. Some, like our cat Cookie, will even punish you if you don’t comply.

                I think about more than these things, of course. I don’t reduce my existence to basic functions like eating, drinking, and pooping, and if you don’t agree to have fun with me exactly when I want, I probably won’t attack the printer or paw at the flat-screen TV or knock something off a shelf. But in many ways, I have, as I’ve aged, come to resemble our cats, in philosophy if not appearance.

                For instance, I tend to nap at odd hours. I can usually sleep anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours pretty much whenever the sun is out. I can lie down on the couch, my head resting on Kalene’s lap, and fall asleep fairly quickly. I can stretch out on our bed and crash as long as sunlight peeks in through the blinds. I can’t curl up in an office chair like a cat, nor can I use my own arms and legs for pillows. But naps have become an important part of my daily existence. They leave me feeling refreshed most of the time and give me the energy I need to make it through the rest of the day.

                I know what you’re thinking. “If you’d just stop taking naps, you could get to sleep at night earlier.” But that doesn’t work. Naps are a comparatively recent part of my routine, but I’ve always had trouble sleeping at night, even when I’m exhausted.

                Another way my older self mirrors our cats is that I eat too much and don’t work it off as easily as I used to. When I was younger, I had the willpower to avoid unnecessary snacking. I would eat something until I no longer felt hungry, and then I would stop. Yet, ironically, my metabolism fired so quickly that I didn’t really need any willpower. I could shovel in heaps of whatever I wanted to eat and remain thin and wiry.

                Now, my willpower has faded. If somebody hands me a cheesecake, I want to eat as much as I possibly can. If I force myself to stop at one piece, I soon find myself standing at the open refrigerator, looking longingly at the fruit and yogurt and ice cream and snack veggies piled in there. Sure, most of that stuff is healthy, but all of it contains calories. Moreover, I have become increasingly attracted to the kinds of snacks I have always been able to take or leave—Little Debbie snack cakes with enough fat and caloric content to serve as half my day’s allowance, sodium-heavy trifles like potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches as snacks instead of lunches. And as my willpower has faded, my weight has steadily climbed north. When I was in high school, I weighed perhaps 130 pounds. When I was thirty, it was more like 160. Now, at forty, I am nearly 200 pounds. Sure, I eat a little more than I used to and have a harder time turning down sweets, but the main reason for the weight gain is that my metabolism has simply slowed down. I noticed in my early 30s that my stomach was starting to protrude more than it used to; now I sometimes think I look like I’m six months pregnant. True, I don’t have a lot of body fat; I can pinch perhaps an inch on my waist. But my body has changed in ways that I don’t like and that I can seemingly do nothing about.

                Our cats have gone through a similar change. When Judas—our beloved companion of nearly two decades, who died a year and a half ago—was still alive, she pigged out quite often. As a result, her belly hung down until it dangled perhaps an inch and a half off the floor, and when she ran, it flopped from side to side, striking her in the middle of her ribs like a scourge. Similarly, Cookie has gained weight since she realized that she’s a cat, not a dog or a human. In her former household, she lived with a lively little dog and an energetic little girl. She was always on the go. Here, our youngest visitor is Maya, who’s going on twelve years old now, and we have no other pets. We play with Cookie as much as possible and run her half to death with her favorite feather toy, Da Bird ™, but she now chills out more than she used to. She takes more naps, stops at her food bowl more often, and generally acts like a cat with nothing particularly important on her mind. And as a result, she’s a fraction heavier than she used to be. I get the feeling that when her own metabolism slows down in her old age, she’ll be quite the little butterball. Sometimes I feel the same way—not that being a bit overweight is so bad, but that a change that I didn’t authorize has occurred and that I’m helpless to change it.

                What other ways has my daily life come to resemble my cats’? Well, I’m grumpier than I used to be. I’ve never been one of those people who constantly need to be surrounded by others. But I find that, more and more, I’d just as soon stay home as go to that party, that football game, that concert. Someone asked me not too long ago why I don’t take advantage of my university connections (whatever they might be) and attend more college football games. I said, “Why would I want to go out in the weather and battle close to a hundred thousand drunks for the pleasure of seeing the part of game that happens close to my seats, when I could just stay home and eat my own food, use my own bathroom, and see the whole thing on TV?” And often, when I go out to eat or to a movie, I have to sit on my hands to keep from punching somebody in the face. When did people get so damn annoying?

                Cats tend to hang out with people only when they want to, regardless of what the people themselves want. Cats rub on your legs or jump in your lap and demand affection, and when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they tend to wander off by themselves. We used to find Judas sleeping behind curtains, in the closets, in our office chairs. Cookie likes the office chairs too, but also digs the tops of the refrigerator and kitchen cabinets or sunny windowsills.

                Cookie will stop doing pretty much anything if she suddenly realizes that she needs a bath. I’ve seen her dash madly after a toy, freeze in her tracks, and stick one hind leg straight up in the air so that she can clean her asshole. Apparently some itches just have to be scratched. As for me, I’ve gotten less tolerant of being sweaty. I’ve got to shower every day, even if I don’t go anywhere or do anything in particular. On the other hand, Judas’s hair got duller as she got older and lost interest in grooming herself. Mine now feels oily and greasy if I don’t wash it every twelve hours or so.

                When you have more in common with your cats than you do with most people, you might be in trouble. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more insular, impatient, and easily annoyed. I’ve seen my hair start to turn gray and my belly swell out like I was malnourished. I get sore every time I work out or play some sport for more than five minutes. I rail at life’s little injustices—what kind of world is it when you can have both gray hair and pimples? Shouldn’t having the one preclude the other??—with less motivation and more passion. I spend a lot of time by myself or with only Kalene and my kids; I’d just as soon wait for a movie to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray instead of listen to somebody’s brat caterwaul over the opening credits or watch that idiot two rows down answer the cell phone he was supposed to have turned off twenty minutes ago. Where once I lost myself in the Dionysian pleasures of rock concerts, I now spend half the time wishing that guy would stop stepping on my foot or that that stupid woman would get off her boyfriend’s shoulders so the rest of us could frickin’ see.

                In short, I would, nine times out of ten, find more pleasure in curling up in the warm sunlight for an afternoon nap than in losing myself in a human biomass accompanied by loud music or pretty pictures on a screen.

                At least I don’t take my dumps in a box or lick myself, right?  But then, I’m only forty. I wonder what eighty will bring.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.

 

“I Don’t Like Old Movies”–nonfiction #writing #nonfiction

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?

2

“I Don’t Like Old Movies”

            When you’re a teacher, sometimes nothing makes you feel older than your students.

            Take the average college freshman. He or she is likely eighteen years old, the official age of adulthood as recognized by the United States military, legal system, voting booths, and so forth. When you reach that age, you assume all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of adulthood—except, as my students would likely point out, in the eyes of parents who continue to treat them like kids and the local bars who won’t sell them a beer, even though they can fight in a war and be tried as an adult in a court of law.

            Of course, many of these “adults” want all the privileges without any of the responsibilities, but putting that point aside, I face classrooms full of grown-ups every day, even at the lower levels of university education.

            The problem? Given that it’s 2011 as of this writing, these students might have been born as late as 1993. How, in the name of all that’s holy, could that be possible?

            In 1993, I was twenty-three years old. Even with a false start that put me behind by a year, I was only a couple of semesters away from earning my Bachelor’s degree. My daughter Shauna would turn four that year; my son Brendan would not be born for another two years, and Maya, bless her heart, would take another six. Kurt Cobain was still alive, and Seattle grunge ruled the music business. Some hair metal stalwarts kept on plugging, but those with rock-star fantasies had traded in their eyeliner and spandex for flannel shirts, dirty jeans, and cardigan sweaters.

            These days, you can turn on certain classic rock radio stations and hear bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. And when that happens, I always feel like someone has just stomped on the world’s brakes, the globe’s squealing tires nearly drowning out my cries of indignation. I mean, come on—the early 90s now qualify as “classic rock”? What acne-sprouting, voice-changing, wet-dream-having pubescent punk made that rule?

            Me, I beg to differ. Kids—and if you’re under twenty-five, somebody still thinks you’re a kid, no matter how unfair it is or how loudly you protest—just because something’s older than you doesn’t mean it’s actually old. And even if it is old, it might not be bad.

            Perhaps the disparity between what eighteen-year-olds think “old” means and what’s actually old becomes clearest in terms of their attitudes toward cinema. Plenty of exceptions exist, of course, but in general, people my students’ age seem to demonstrate a lot more patience with CGI-heavy trifles like Van Helsing and the Transformers franchise. And they seem much more willing to eschew minor considerations like a coherent plot, characterization and character development, editing, and understandable cinematography. If it blows up or flies into outer space and looks really pretty, younger folks seem to like it. Me, I want to know how the explosion fits into the story and how it deepens the plot or the character development. If it doesn’t do either, I don’t care what it looks like.

            Beyond the special effects, though, many of my students seem to judge a film’s merit based solely on when it was released.

            Not long ago, I was discussing the film Titanic in class when I realized that most of the students present that day were two or three years old during its theatrical run. Just a few years ago, Titanic was a cultural touchstone, a special effects triumph, a heart-breaking romance loved by people of all ages. Now, many of my students view it as quaint, a dismissible chick flick, a model of how things were done back in the old days. But at least they haven’t started calling it old…yet.

            The Breakfast Club has not enjoyed such a kind fate. A couple of years back, I referenced it, likely to make some point about how it both perpetuates and critiques high school’s clique culture. Much like Glee, it utilizes stereotypes and archetypes of high school existence, sometimes for important cultural commentary, sometimes in ways that seem dangerous. But no one got my point; when I finished making it, I looked out into a sea of blank, bored faces, and realization dawned.

            “None of you know what movie I’m talking about, do you?” I asked.

            “Isn’t that the old movie about those kids in Saturday detention?” one student responded. He was the only one who even tried to join the conversation that had, unbeknownst to me, become a monologue.

            “Old movie?” I said. “It came out in 1985!”

            “Yeah,” somebody said. “Way before we were born.”

            Wow, I thought. 1985 has somehow become ancient history, right up there with the Spanish Inquisition and the birth of Christ and the discovery of fire. If you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey closely, you might see John Hughes cavorting about the monolith with the rest of the knuckle-draggers. I suppose I’m probably there, too, but I’ve shaved since then.

            I had long since gotten used to students’ rejection of movies made before they were born, but I admit that their attitudes about The Breakfast Club surprised me. It is, after all, a film about high school—the triumphs, the pain, the stupidity of some teachers and administrators, the way that parents just don’t understand. Having just come from high school, freshmen should have been able to relate. But because the movie came out way before they were born, they didn’t care. They weren’t even curious. So on that day, I learned that anytime I make a cultural reference, from any period, I have to explain it. I can’t assume they know anything about it, or that they want to.

            I can also tell you that, if you grew up in the 1970s and found yourself afraid even to take a bath because of Jaws, don’t share that with kids today. They’ll laugh at you, as if the idea of a film’s having enough power to affect your real life is just plain silly. That’s a dumb movie, they say, because it’s old. That shark looks fake. It doesn’t compare to what a CGI tech could do. Never mind the courage and artistry it took to build a fake shark and dump it off the shore of Martha’s Vineyard. Never mind the deep emotional impact that the film had on a whole generation, the way that it basically invented the summer event movie, the cultural nerve it touched in terms of how we see sharks (hey, kids, what do you think we should thank for Shark Week?). That shark just doesn’t look right. It’s old, man. Watch Deep Blue Sea instead. Now that’s a classic.

            I don’t know about you, but I remember when imagination trumped special effects every time—when the effects served to jumpstart your imagination, not replace it. By and large, though, my students don’t seem to get it. And so they dismiss Bruce the shark, and Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion genius, and the way that Charlie Chaplin somehow staged a cabin falling over a cliff. Sure, the cabin looks like a model, but we get the idea, right? And how did he manage to make that little figure jump out of the cabin right before it falls?

            And, of course, Chaplin invokes the black and white era of filmmaking, from silent pictures up to the ubiquity of early color prints. Ask most of my students and any black and white film can be ignored; it’s simply too old to care about.

            Such an attitude leads to a minor American tragedy, as a generation misses out on the great art and cool entertainment that came before. Instead, they have to discover it all later in life, even as hundreds of other films come out every year, leaving them only so much time to catch up. What will they miss because they think “older than me” equals “too old to matter”?

            Of course, sometimes students just get it, like the recent freshman who admitted that Jaws ruined her beach vacation, or the one who ruefully confessed that Psycho scared her silly, so much so that she couldn’t finish watching it alone. On days like that, I smile a little wider and contemplate introducing them to Apocalypse Now, or Nashville, or Manhattan, or Scenes from a Marriage, or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or Night of the Hunter, or Bride of Frankenstein, or Citizen Kane, or Casablanca, or City Lights, or even Sixteen Candles. You know, one of those ancient, dusty movies that suck, that have nothing to do with today’s youth, that speak to no one but ancient, dusty people like teachers and parents who were never, ever kids themselves and can’t possibly understand why Transformers 3 represents American cinematic art at its finest.

            On days like that, I dare to hope, and I feel a little younger, in spite of having been born before 1993.

            Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

            Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.

 

“They Grow up so Fast”–#nonfiction

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?

1

“They Grow up so Fast”

            Sometimes, nothing makes you feel older than your own kids.

            One day, you’re watching them come into the world. The next, they’re studying for their driver’s exam or asking your advice on mutual funds.

            When my oldest daughter Shauna was born, I was eighteen years old. That same year, the Berlin wall came down, but not before George Herbert Walker Bush’s inauguration as the United States’ 41st president. Stamps cost twenty-five cents. The San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl; the Oakland A’s won the World Series. Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club was published. Rain Man won the Best Picture Oscar; luminaries such as Lucille Ball, Robert Penn Warren, Salvador Dali, and Laurence Olivier died. And sitting at the top of the music charts? Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and George Michael’s Faith.

            In the time since, we’ve already experienced a second Bush’s (so-called) presidency. Stamps have more than doubled in price; don’t even get me started on gasoline. To my children and most of my current students, a divided Germany seems like ancient history, right up there with the Crusades and the invention of the wheel. The San Francisco 49ers can’t even win a division that, in 2010, sent its champion into the playoffs with a losing record. The A’s? Aren’t they that team that keeps dumping its talent for cheaper versions of same? Or am I thinking of the Florida Marlins, who didn’t even exist in ’89? And who the hell are Laurence Olivier and Robert Penn Warren? Meanwhile, both “Don’t Worry Be Happy” and George Michael have become cultural jokes, even though Faith is a damn good album.

            Oddly enough, my son was born in 1995, a year in which San Francisco won another Super Bowl, this time over the San Diego Chargers, whose coach cost me twelve hundred dollars in our local pool by going for two at the end of the third quarter. But that seems like the only holdover from 1989.  The times, they were a-changin’, as Bob Dylan said (I can hear next year’s freshmen saying “Who?” already).

            Brendan came into a world that seemed less certain and more violent than the one we had lived in just six or seven years earlier. Conflicts in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Croatia fractured the globe—except in those regions where nobody cared what was happening to a bunch of foreigners. O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Right-wing military groups gained national infamy when Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. Forrest Gump won the Best Picture Oscar; the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame opened. Mickey Mantle and Jerry Garcia died. So did Howard Cosell, leaving Muhammad Ali without a verbal sparring partner.

            What about 1999, when my youngest daughter Maya was born? Well, the world didn’t end, meaning that we could no longer trust Prince as the major prophet in our lives. Nelson Mandela took over as President of South Africa, righting an enormous historical injustice; on the other hand, Yugoslavia imploded. Since Prince was wrong, computer scientists scared us all silly, prophesying that the dreaded Y2K bug would send us all hurtling back to the Stone Age. The Senate tried to impeach Bill Clinton for getting a blowjob in the White House, leaving the rest of us to wonder if they were jealous or just plain bored. John F. Kennedy Jr. died; racist asshole John William King was convicted of dragging a black man to death; and two disgruntled Columbine High School students massacred fellow pupils and teachers, prompting us all to revisit our notions of school security and the roles guns play in our lives.

            Well, all of us except the NRA, which kept insisting that guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Maybe so, but guns sure do help. One wonders how soon Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris might have been stopped if they had been armed with automatic switchblades, or a two-by-four with a nail in it.

            Gene Siskel and Stanley Kubrick died. Jerry Falwell’s homophobia extended to a Teletubby. The Blair Witch Project scared some of us half to death and bored others to tears. Shakespeare in Love won the Oscar that, with all due respect to a fine film, should have gone to Saving Private Ryan. George C. Scott died, meaning that Hollywood had lost one of its most gutsy, individual performers.

            So what does all this mean? Well, in some ways, nothing ever changes. Some guy (and it’s always a guy, and usually a white one?) moves into the White House; a bunch of people celebrate, while others throw tantrums. Great art is produced even as great artists die. Someone somewhere blows something up or shoots somebody; sports teams rise and fall and rise again.

            If you live long enough, you start to notice these similarities, patterns, and cycles. And once you start noticing them, a disheartening realization crashes in on you. “Jeez,” you might say, “I’ve been around a long time.”

            With some exceptions—Byronic teenagers, people with specific untreated mental or emotional conditions, a certain brand of religious lunatic, Wile E. Coyote (who by now has to realize that the boulder’s always going to fall on his head, not the Road Runner’s)—most of us want to be around a long time. But none of us want to face old age, do we? That first liver spot on the hands, the crow’s feet around the eyes, the gray hair, the aching back, the prescription reading glasses that sit on the end of your nose—these things send us running in blind panic to our mirrors, our cosmetic counters, our plastic surgeons. Our bodies function as Age’s roadmap even as it drives its steamroller directly over us, and when we consider all the events great and small that we’ve lived through, it only underscores how long we’ve been here. In turn, these realizations make us wonder how long we’ve got left.

            Our kids remind us of whom we used to be and what we used to look like—young, flawless (except for that zit that always seems to erupt on your nose on school picture day), energetic, idealistic, and vital. When Shauna was born, she looked purple; when I asked why, the nurse said, “Because the temperature in here is somewhere in the seventies. She’s used to 98.6.” That made sense. Then the nurse put her on the scale and said, “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”

            “How the hell should I know?” I said. “You’re supposed to know how to work all this junk.”

            If you’ll allow me to use a cliché here, I can tell you with all sincerity that Shauna’s birth doesn’t seem to have happened twenty-two years ago; I remember it like it happened yesterday. But the evidence stands in front of me every time I see her. She’s grown, with a life of her own—an apartment, a job, an educational outlook, a political sensibility, a boyfriend, this last even though I told her a thousand times that she’s not allowed to date until I’m dead. Kids today just don’t listen.

            The scary thing is that she’s old enough to have a family of her own, and though she wisely doesn’t seem to be in a big hurry to do so, I know she could change her mind. A note to everyone reading this: I am too young to be a grandfather. Don’t even try to argue with me, or I’ll come to your house and staple your lips shut. Too young, do you hear? Too young!!

            My son’s now almost old enough to drive by himself. I distinctly remember what that was like—the freedom, the sense of adulthood, the deep red rage when I realized that my new milestone had doomed me to “run to the store” a million times. He’s also a football player, just like his old man. Well, not just like me—he’s much bigger than I was. When I played, I was a 120-pound wideout with okay hands and speed. I also had the vertical leap of a professional—professional sumo wrestler, but still. Seriously, I could clear six inches easily. But ask me to snag a pass much higher than that, and we were both going to come away sorely disappointed. And I would probably stagger off the field gasping from that linebacker who planted his helmet in my floating ribs.

            Brendan, on the other hand, weighs about as much as I do now—north of 190, south of 200—and he’s pretty fast, too. He’s currently playing defensive end. If he keeps growing without losing any speed or dexterity, he’s going to be a handful, even for the meatiest offensive linemen.

            So when I look at him, I often see a stronger version of my younger self. More dedicated to sports, too—I loved the games but hated practice. Hated it. When I was his age, I went to practice with only slightly more enthusiasm than a death-row inmate walks toward the electric chair. If somebody had told me that I could play in the games without practicing if I agreed to get publicly flogged and caned, I’d have had to think about it seriously. That’s why he’s almost guaranteed to be more successful than I was. He loves the whole experience. He’s the kind of player I wish I could have been. I’ve done well for myself academically—Ph.D., people!—and that started in grade school. But when I wish I could go back and tell my younger self to shape up in practice, I think of Brendan and know that he’s doing better without all the hindsight I’ve stockpiled.

            Still, knowing that my son’s playing varsity this year—not Pee Wee or Pop Warner, not eighth grade, not junior high, but varsity—I look in the mirror and wonder how it got to be so late.

            Sometimes my kids are quick to remind me about the chronology of my life. When Shauna was graduating high school, I and several other members of my family—Kalene, Brendan, Maya, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt Sandra, my cousin Holly—went to the ceremony. At the hotel, Brendan’s face lit up, as if he had just figured out how to bend the space-time continuum. Then he said, “Hey, Dad. If Shauna’s eighteen, and you’re thirty-six, that means you had her when you were—”

            “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said. “Now you decide to use math in the real world? Let’s drop it.”

            Yes, Shauna got her diploma four and a half years ago and is, as of this writing, contemplating a return to college. Brendan enters tenth grade this year. And Maya will be twelve in November. She’s almost a teenager. I have no more babies.

            It’s odd how being around my kids can make me feel so young and so old at the same time. I feed on their energy even as it exhausts me. I revel in their lives even as I shrink in horror at how those lives are moving so quickly away from me. With Shauna’s job and the physical distance between us, we can only see each other a couple of times a year. Brendan is at the stage where his friends and social life seem more important that hanging with Dad; I’ve been there, so I understand, but it’s still tough. I’m glad he still comes for holidays. As for Maya, she spends the summers with us, and that’s always fun, but I’m sure the time is coming when her own friends, and interests, and those fearful romantic stirrings take precedence.

            And when the nest is empty, when the kids have all finished their educations and gone off to live their own adventures, even a non-custodial parent like me will probably feel ancient. It’s a moment that will fill me with pride and regret. And when that moment passes, I will probably sit down next to Kalene in the matching rocking chairs we’ve recently bought. I’ll probably take a nap during the ball game. I doubt I will ever catch her knitting or doing those other typical grandmother things, but I’m sure she’ll be reading a good book as our life enters its early afternoon.

            And when I wake up and stretch my increasingly creaky bones, I’ll probably look around me and say, with a mixture of pain and satisfaction, “Where did the time go?”

            Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

            Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.

            Thanks to www.infoplease.com for reminding me of what happened when, especially from the following pages: http://www.infoplease.com/year/1989.html; http://www.infoplease.com/year/1995.html; http://www.infoplease.com/year/1999.html.

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth? Introduction #nonfiction #writing

Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?

 Introduction

             On October 26th, 2010, I woke up and realized that I was forty years old. Now understand that I was an English major, so any time I find myself doing math, I have to apologize in advance. But I’m pretty sure that means I’ll be forty-one this year. My fifth decade on Earth has begun. I have three college degrees: a B.A., an M.A., and a Ph.D. I’ve been married three times and divorced twice. I have three children, the oldest of whom is twenty-two years old as of this writing. I first moved out of my parents’ house twenty-three years ago; I got my first job that same year. I’ve been writing my whole life, though only trying to make it good and sharing it with others for perhaps three years. I have taught in colleges and universities since 1996. I’ve stockpiled all these experiences, and now, at what I hope is not even the mid-point of my life, I have found that one question seems to override all the others.

             How the hell did this happen?

             How did I get to be forty years old? Don’t get me wrong; I’m grateful to be alive and healthy. I hope this ride continues for at least another fifty years. But forty? Me? How did it happen so quickly? Just yesterday I had just turned twenty-one! I specifically remember going out to a restaurant and ordering a drink, mentally daring them to card me. But nobody did.

             Heck, only two years earlier, my oldest daughter Shauna was born. I can still remember seeing her come into the world, hearing her first cry, asking the nurse why she was so purple. I remember stepping out into the hospital hallway with her in my arms and spotting my school chum Jennifer Tedder, who was there visiting someone. All that couldn’t have happened so long ago.

             No, scratch that. Only yesterday, I turned eighteen. I did so too late to vote in the 1988 elections, but still, I vividly recall feeling proud when I knew that I could go to a polling place and participate in the Great Democratic Experiment. Yes, Ronald Reagan may have come and gone without having to worry about my voice in the opposition, and maybe George H.W. Bush squeaked his Presidency in before I could do anything about it. But from then on, buddy, you’d better believe that I would stand up for what I believed! Unless, of course, I ever convinced myself that my vote no longer mattered, that politics had become too corrupt and the process too labyrinthine to seem worthy of my involvement. After all, one vote couldn’t possibly make much difference, could it? If only I had been able to foresee Florida in 2000, I might never have gotten so complacent. But back in 1988, I embodied the spirit of American youth—optimistic, fiery, opinionated, and arrogant.

             But wait—just yesterday, wasn’t I actually twelve years old? Hadn’t I just had my heart broken for the first time when my first serious girlfriend (hi, Angie!) dumped me, wrongly thinking that I liked her best friend? Of course, that relationship could hardly be termed “serious” in the context of adulthood, but back then, it seemed like the most important thing in the world. I remember sitting in my parents’ driveway, the gravel warm under my ass, sweat dripping down my face and back as I scanned the rural neighborhood we lived in. I could honestly not understand why people thought that life was so damned charming. I moped so much that my mother tried to intervene, God bless her, stopping my now ex-girlfriend in the street and telling her that I still liked her.

             Boy, was I mortified. When you’re a kid on the cusp of teenagerdom, the last thing you want is for someone to remind you that you’re still a child. And watching my mother stick up for me made me feel like a pre-schooler whose favorite toy had been confiscated by the local bully. She meant well, of course, and as a parent, I honestly don’t know what I would have done in her place. Probably the same thing. And that’s another way you know you’re getting older; you realize that, about some things at least, your parents were right.

             Hang on, though. I can’t possibly be forty because I can still remember the first time I went to tee-ball practice, and my first day in kindergarten, and my first “girlfriend,” a neighbor’s child who often came out to play still carrying her pacifier. All these memories don’t seem so far away, so how can they have occurred so long ago?

             Other things seem to have happened to someone else. The time my cousin broke my leg and knocked me out by running over me with his mini-bike. The time I got shoved into a water-filled ditch and came up covered with welts, some sort of chemical interacting with my sensitive skin—the panic that came crashing in as my body started to change, the feel of my parents’ hands on me as they dragged me to the car for the speedy trip to the emergency room, the look on my best friend Steven’s face as he wandered in the yard to see what I was up to, only to watch me being carted away, screaming like a criminal run to ground. The time I shoved a kernel of popcorn up my nose, just to see what would happen.

             But they all happened to me, and all of them—the good and the bad, the somber and the silly—helped shape me into who I am today. I accept them all; I need them all to be me. But still—forty? Soon enough, forty-one? Where did all those years go?

             Any of the aforementioned events would make a good subject for a reflective essay. I could write a book on what it’s like to be a parent and to have become one at such a young age. I could tell you about my marriages and how I’ve succeeded in some ways, failed miserably in others. I could tell you about my early encounters with racism and religion and sex and alcohol and the searing pain of losing people close to you. I hope to write about it all and more one day, Lord willing.

             What concerns me here, and in the series of essays that will occasionally follow, is the idea of aging itself—the comedies, the little tragedies, the absurdities. Mostly these writings will ruminate on ways that you can tell you’re getting older, even if your body still feels pretty good and your mind tells you that you’re still the twenty-one –year-old kid who can drink all night, work the next day, come home and play video games with your friends, and get up the next morning, ready to do it all again on two hours’ sleep out of the last forty-eight. I’d like to examine the paradoxical attitudes we take toward aging—how as children we can’t wait to grow up so that we can do what we want, the way that our young adult selves strive to break from our role models and build a life of our own, and the later realizations that suddenly we are the role models, the standard that has to be surpassed. How we wish we were kids again, so we could do whatever we wanted.

             Mostly, I’d like to share with you my shock at finding myself forty-plus years old and an authority figure—a grown-up, a teacher, a father—when inside I still feel as fresh as a spring morning.

             What you will read, should you choose to walk through this series with me, is a set of thematically-linked but not necessarily chronological ruminations. And you will read them in early-draft form, warts and all. I will likely engage in one revision and some sentence-level editing, reserving the right to revise much more thoroughly later.

             What this means is that you, reader, can participate in the creation process. Do you have questions that I haven’t answered? Tell me about them and, should I ever revise these works for a book project, I’ll take your advice into consideration (even if I self-publish—I can’t see ever abandoning the prestige and potential benefits of the publishing industry and its passel of excellent editors, agents, readers, and writers, but with some projects, self-publishing appeals to me greatly). Do you find that the organization or sentence-level writing needs some work? Tell me about it and I’ll take a look. Do you really, really want me to write about a particular thematically-related subject? Tell me about it, and, if I think I have something to say, I’ll oblige. In other words, this project in its current stage can be, to some extent, interactive. The writing will be mine; the life I write about will be mine. But you can help shape it if you like.

             If you don’t, I hope that something in the work speaks to you. I hope you find it worth your time. If not, well, maybe my next post, or story, or poem, or book will reach you better than these do.

             As for aging itself, it’s certainly better than the alternative. Besides, forty isn’t old. Heck, I refuse to call myself middle-aged until I’m at least fifty. In this way, at least, I’m an optimist. I’ve got too much to do and see; I can’t get old for a long time, God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, as we say in the south.

             Still—forty? My parents, maybe, but me? Forty? Already?!?

             Ah well. For now, I must finish this little introduction and get on with my day. It’s getting late, and I still have to eat before I take my fiber and cholesterol medication, fire up my C-PAP machine, and get some sleep. Now…has anybody seen my teeth?

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com

Whose Language Is It, Anyway? #nonfiction

Whose Language Is It, Anyway? Musings on Words Fair and Foul

     Several years ago, I found myself in an annoying online conversation with one of my oldest daughter’s friends. It started out civilly enough, but eventually, due to the sensitive nature of the subject, I had to let him know that what we were discussing was really none of his business. At that point, like many keyboard warriors of the Information Age, he got awfully brave, knowing that he lived what he considered to be a safe distance away from me. His messages began to border on the disrespectful, at which point I advised him to stop talking. His reply should be familiar to anyone who has tried to tell a teenager that he or she should watch his or her mouth: “I have free speech, so I can say what I want to.”
“Son,” I replied, “just because the government won’t come and arrest you for saying something doesn’t mean I won’t show up at your door and kick your ass.”

     The problem with this kid’s thinking was that he believed “free speech” means that anyone can say anything at any time. But “free speech” does not mean “speech without consequence.” Whenever you say something to anyone, in public or interpersonally, you have to gauge the possible consequences of your language. Otherwise, you might find yourself in jail (if, say, you yell “fire” in a crowded theater when no fire exists) or expelled (if, say, you use hate speech in a university classroom) or beaten to within an inch of your life. Other possible consequences include losing friends, being socially censured, and having to defend your ideas and diction.

     As a writer and an academic, I am hyper-sensitive to language, its uses, the forums in which it is used, and its consequences. I firmly believe in a free press, in free speech, in freedom of expression. I hate censorship in any form. But I am also aware of the difference between censorship and disagreement, between free speech and rudeness or hatefulness. I don’t believe that I can control others’ language or that I should try, though I do often call attention to how that language might be perceived and whether or not it should have been used. In the example above, I wanted to stop the discussion about private family matters because they were private, and I wanted him to reconsider his tone not only for my sake but for his; after all, if I didn’t bother to kick his ass, someone else likely would in the future if he kept trying to hide his rudeness behind an imagined shield of unimpeachable “free” speech. I’m still waiting for him to thank me for the lesson.

     Another example—my students are, by and large, decent and smart enough not to use words like “nigger” or “faggot” in class, knowing that such words constitute hate speech and that such language would create an uncomfortable learning environment for everyone else. I want to believe that they don’t use such words because they know that doing so would be morally and ethically wrong, but even if they avoid those words out of their own sense of self-preservation, at least that’s something.

     They often don’t consider the implications of more innocuous hate language, though. I still hear them say “that’s so gay” when describing something that they consider stupid or ridiculous. Somehow they don’t make the connection that using “gay,” a state of being, as a synonym for “stupid” or “silly” is just as offensive as calling someone a “faggot.” I have a friend who asks her students, “Would you be comfortable talking about the same thing and saying ‘that’s so black!’?” Most of them have never really thought about it like that before, and some of them reconsider their use of the phrase in private or in other social situations, having learned that the ability to say something legally does not always mean you should do so ethically or morally. If they still choose to use such language in their homes, at their parties, and the like, I have two choices: 1) keep trying to educate them and hope they eventually see the light, and, failing that, 2) avoid them. I can’t force them to be good people at heart; I can only make a good case and hope.

     If they do use language that is universally considered hate speech (except, of course, among bigots, who often firmly believe that they aren’t bigots, evidence and common sense be damned), they are rightly subject to discipline. If you call someone a “faggot” in class, for example, I will ask you to leave (and call security if you refuse) and report you to the administration. The university will determine your punishment. We, the faculty and administration, are not forcing you to like and accept gay people; we are not prohibiting you from using such language on your own time or in other forums. We are simply saying that hate speech is unacceptable in our forum, not because you don’t share our values (though if what you value is hate, you don’t speak my language anyway) but because you make LGBTQ peoples and their allies feel afraid or uncomfortable in an environment where everyone should feel safe and cared for and nurtured.

     Similarly, take a major publication like The New York Times or Rolling Stone magazine. They are not guilty of censorship if they refuse to provide column space for, say, a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard or a neo-Nazi leader or a Republican like Sarah Palin, Rick Santorum, and so forth. They are not obligated to give everyone a forum, just as the New Republic is not required to provide space for Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow. They are not guilty of censorship if they run columns and articles against those with whom they ideologically disagree. They are not guilty of censorship if they refute alternative ideas and suggest that other people shouldn’t support such concepts.

     They are only guilty of censorship if they try to quash—not question, but actually stop— the opposition’s ability to produce their own forums, to disseminate their own ideas in their own spaces, and to make their own lingual and ideological choices in private.

      For an example of how to cross this line, take the Parents’ Television Council—please. This conservative, allegedly Christian watchdog group scrutinizes television shows and reports on any “objectionable” content. Objectionable according to whom, you ask? Why, according to the Parents’ Television Council, who seem to believe that they speak for the rest of us. Now when they watch those TV shows with their own agenda in mind, that is not censorship. That is their right. When they publish their findings on their own website and their own newsletters, that is not censorship. That is their right. When they tell us that we shouldn’t watch these shows because the programs don’t evince the right values, that is not censorship. That is their right. They are expressing an opinion and allowing people to consider their point of view.

     However, the PTC often does not stop there. They often try to organize boycotts of the shows’ sponsors and write to the networks, demanding that the shows be removed from our TV screens. At this point, they cross the line into attempted censorship. They don’t want to provide an alternative viewpoint; they want theirs to be the only viewpoint. They don’t want to influence my choice; they want to take it away. This is wrong. It’s unethical and un-American.

     Much of the debate over what we should or should not be allowed to think comes down to the language we use. A lot of those “objectionable” shows use so-called adult language—though, having once been a kid, I can personally testify that adults aren’t the only ones who use such words. And no, I didn’t learn the words from popular culture or art; I learned it from adults.

     Someone recently raised the question of what is or is not acceptable language on Facebook. One of my friends, a 63-year-old Christian politician who often disseminates progressive ideas on his personal page, used the phrase “Life’s a bitch” in a status update. The consequent debate over the word “bitch” should fascinate any linguist; were that my area, I’d probably write and publish a paper on it.

     Many of his conservative Christian friends attacked him—not questioned or debated him, but attacked him—for his use of the word, even going so far as to question his own religious beliefs. I personally don’t remember the Biblical passage that says “bitch” is an affront to God, so I didn’t really see their point. I’ve been lectured to more than once about using so-called “foul” language on Facebook; my usual response is that you’re questioning my use of the word on ethical or moral grounds, and I don’t agree with your ethical or moral definitions, so your argument doesn’t convince me. In fact, I think that “foul” language represents some of the most versatile words in English. Let’s look at a few of them.

     The word “fuck” is often unpleasant for people to hear, but it has become almost ubiquitous due to its adaptability. Taken on its own, it is a verb, one that means “to have sex,” though people often contrast it to “making love,” which has a tenderer connotation. Put a “you” after it, though, and it becomes a combination insult/aggressive response. Follow it with an “off” and you have an imperative sentence that, at the very least, seems unfriendly. If you preface it with a “to” or add an “-ing” suffix, the results are verbals that can act as nouns, meaning that they can function as sentences’ subjects, direct or indirect objects, and so forth. Pair the “-ing” form with a helping verb and you get a different verb tense than if you simply add “-ed.” Take the word by itself and put an exclamation point after it and you get a popular interjection. The “-ing” form can also function as an adjective, as in “holy fucking shit,” a phrase you often hear in the movies. Yet that form can also be an adverb, as in “fucking gross.”

     Are these expressions crude and, in certain situations, impolite? Sure. But sinful? That’s debatable. Unless “Thou shalt not say ‘fuck’” is the lost eleventh commandment, it seems that the only way to call this word “sinful” is if you stretch the definition; one might argue that since the word as a noun refers to a sexual act, and not necessarily one that takes place inside a monogamous marriage recognized by a church, then using it might—might—be sinful. But still, it seems to me that using the word itself is no more sinful than using the word “lying” or “stealing.” We might consider its use uncouth because talking about sex in public settings goes against certain social conventions, but that does not necessarily indicate sin.

     The same is true of words like “shit” and “piss.” They refer to bodily excretions, or to things that we compare to bodily excretions, and they are blunter and cruder (to some listeners, anyway) than more euphemistic words or scientific-sounding terms like “defecation” or “urination” or “excrement.” Perhaps they aren’t pleasant for some people to hear or contemplate, but that hardly makes them sinful. “Crucifixion” is unpleasant to contemplate, but we don’t censor people for using that word in public. Again, it seems to me that we’ve conflated sin with something else, whether we want to call it impoliteness or crudity or bluntness—or simply the use of colorful language.

     “Bitch” and “bastard” are considered acceptable if used in certain contexts—i.e., to mean “female dog” and “illegitimate child,” respectively. But if we talk about someone’s bitching about something, or mention that bastard at work who keeps stealing our stapler, or say that “life’s a bitch,” then the words become, to some people, unacceptable. But it’s still tough for me to understand how they can be considered sinful.

     The term “god damn” or “goddam,” as some writers (like me) spell it, could be considered sinful from a Christian perspective, given the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain. So I suppose I could understand if self-appointed lingual guardians took issue with it. When I use it in my fiction, though, it’s for purposes of realism or emphasis, not because I or my character is asking God to damn something or someone. Is that still sin? This word seems to exist in a moral gray area. Of course, for non-Christians, using the term is likely a non-issue.

     My point here is that the complainers on my friend’s Facebook page seem to be arguing for a version of Christianity that might not exist and is certainly not universally agreed upon. This makes their implications that my friend is somehow less Christian than they seem especially offensive. You might find his word choice blunt or crude or impolite, if you are of certain mindsets, but that’s as far as I’d take it. To the best of my knowledge, no one tried to have my friend exiled from Facebook, so no one is guilty of censorship; but I would suggest that there are better, more conciliatory ways of making your point about his language than deriding his faith. To judge him as less of a Christian based on his use of one word in one context seems too judgmental and unlikely to make your point; it would probably only anger him and lead to his de-friending you.

     In fact, the nature of Facebook as a social networking site implies that you are there voluntarily. No one’s holding a gun to your head and forcing you to be friends with anyone. It’s not a shared, paid-for, goal-oriented community like a college classroom. Thus, if someone’s language offends you, you should feel free to take issue with it as long as you do so in a way that makes your point, that encourages discussion and debate rather than destroying the possibility for them. And if you can’t convince them with your logic and evidence and reasonable arguments, if they still want to use language that bothers or offends you, you can always hide their posts or de-friend them. If the consequence of their language is that you will no longer be their Facebook friend, and they are willing to accept that consequence, then you have little recourse.

     What you shouldn’t do is try to censor them; it’s their page, and you don’t have to read it. You shouldn’t insult them; to do so is to react to a possibly controversial word or idea in a definitely unacceptable way. You shouldn’t assume that you know what God (or, for that matter, Mark Zuckerberg) wants and thinks better than they do just because their ideas are different. And you shouldn’t expect everyone to share your definitions of what is moral, ethical, or sinful. It simply won’t happen.

     We should not use language that devalues someone based on their states of being—language that is homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, and/or xenophobic, for instance. Everyone has a right to be who they are without someone’s using language, laws, and/or violence to oppress them. If you disagree, I won’t try to censor you from spouting your views, no matter how dangerous and sickening I find them. But I will choose to debate you civilly or ignore you. That is my choice, my freedom. Likewise, if I say “bitch” and it offends you, feel free to tell me why, as long as you’ve actually got an argument, not a knee-jerk emotional judgment. In that way, perhaps we can learn something from each other. If not, there’s always the “de-friend” button.

     Hateful and bile-ridden responses, though, teach us nothing. They leave us all in the dark, grasping for illumination. To echo Full Metal Jacket, they leave us in a “world of shit,” an ugly metaphor for an ugly situation.

     See? Sometimes the “bad” word seems like the right word, even if it makes you cringe.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com.

A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind #nonfiction

     My next nonfiction piece here was going to be about language fair and foul. That column is still coming, but I felt that this one was more pressing. Thanks for indulging me.

A Hole in the World: Life, Death, and What We Leave Behind

     Yesterday, Kalene walked into the room, her eyes filled with tears.

     “What’s wrong?” I asked.

     “Tom Pilkington died,” she said, her voice broken by deep sobs.

     I felt shocked like I suppose you always do when someone you know dies. I began calculating his age and knew that he was, by my standards, far too young; I think that with today’s medical technology, anybody’s too young to die unless they’re at least 85. Tom was much younger than that, and, I had assumed, healthy. But after her crying abated for a time, Kalene told me that he had in fact been severely diabetic, a condition that likely contributed to his death. It’s too soon for us to know all the details, but the very suddenness of his passing seems too tragic and frightening to ignore. I guess we’re all truly living on borrowed time. To echo Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, we’d all better get busy living, because we’re already busy dying.

     I suppose that’s morbid, but it’s also true. I think about what I’m doing with my life all the time—the work I’m doing, the effects I’m having or lack thereof, and so forth. We probably all do it, especially when someone we know dies.

     I didn’t know Tom Pilkington well. I met him once, ten years or so ago. He struck me as a fine man—kind, generous, intelligent. He was an academic who took his profession seriously, yet he did not strike me as the kind of man who only thought about overblown theoretical abstractions. More to the point, he served as Kalene’s professor, Master’s thesis director, mentor, and friend. She thought the world of him, and that’s good enough for me.

     Word of his passing spread quickly. Kalene found out from a friend’s Facebook post. She called her other friend and mentor, Dr. Mallory Young, and together they commiserated, sharing information and memories. I did not listen to their conversation, but knowing both of these wonderful people as I do, I know they were supportive of each other and devastated that such a good friend and colleague had passed on.

     Tom’s death has left a hole in the world. People like Kalene will miss him greatly for the rest of their lives. He made a positive impression on people. He leaves behind a body of academic and critical work that will keep his name and spirit alive. His death created ripples that touched everyone who knew him and set off a chain of Facebook posts, phone calls, and, undoubtedly, emails and face-to-face conversations in which the news spread quickly, running just ahead of the sadness and pain.

     By contrast, let us consider the case of Yvette Vickers, the 82-year-old former actress and pin-up queen. On April 27th, the same day that tornadoes ravaged Alabama, a desiccated, nearly mummified corpse was discovered in her home. According to Entertainment Weekly and other sources, the body is believed to be Vickers’, though its condition will slow identification. Authorities believe that Vickers, if the body is indeed hers, may have died nearly a year ago.

     At the end of the fall 2010 semester, I took a portable DVD player to school during finals week. I also packed a cheap collection of old horror films, just to pass the time as I waited for students to show up and turn in their final papers. I reached into this collection, which contained some true gems like Metropolis and Nosferatu but mostly covered B- and C-pictures, and randomly pulled out Attack of the Giant Leeches.

     This film just happened to star Yvette Vickers.

     She played Liz Walker, the hottie cheating wife of a local store owner. If you should ever have the misfortune to watch the film, you’ll probably find that Vickers’ portrayal of a backwoods cuckoldress is about the only memorable part. The acting is forgettable (including much of hers); the “monsters” look less like leeches and more like men dressed in poorly-painted garbage bags. At barely over an hour, the film’s running time doesn’t even qualify it as feature-length by today’s standards.

     But Vickers’ character is much more interesting than the rest—the annoying lover who glad-hands the cuckold husband until they get caught, at which point he happily throws his lover under the bus; the overweight husband who, the audience is encouraged to believe, should never have been with this woman in the first place for all kinds of reasons; the bland hero and heroine, who seem to have nothing better to do than paddle around a swamp all day. Vickers’ Liz Walker dismisses her husband as the hick buffoon that he is, her voice dripping with condescension. It’s a mostly one-note performance that calls for little else beyond a bit of screaming and lolling about in underwater caves, pretending to be exhausted from all the blood-letting. But she plays the one-note well enough to stand out in such a crummy film.

     Vickers starred in other cult films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and even had a part in HUD. She was hardly Elizabeth Taylor or Meryl Streep, but she worked in film and TV for years. She was not homeless; in the news articles I’ve read, neighbors described her as a quiet person who kept to herself, who seemed to love her flowers and her privacy. She was not, unless I’m mistaken, a shut-in, given that people had seen her outside her home enough to recognize her.

     In the age of Facebook and Twitter, of cell phones and Skype, of iPads that can track your location and GPS systems available for cheap on the Internet, how does a person like Yvette Vickers disappear for nearly a year without anyone noticing?

     Though we should be disgusted and saddened at the fact, we would understand if she had been homeless or a completely isolated agoraphobe. Our society seems to view certain people as disposable; in fact, we seem to have implicitly agreed to a hierarchy of existence. Somehow, even though she was white and financially solvent enough to afford a house, Yvette Vickers fell through the cracks. She lived; she died; she shriveled up like a piece of jerky. And for almost a year, no one noticed.

     Even if the body in her house turns out not to be hers, she has still effectively disappeared; in fact, that would mean that two people have vanished as if they never existed—Vickers and whoever lay in her house for all those months.

     How is such a thing possible? How could we have let it happen? Are we so self-involved that we don’t even miss people when they’re gone unless someone calls us or leaves a message on our walls or waves a sign in front of our faces?

     Whenever we think about our deaths, it is, I would imagine, difficult for us to picture the world without us in it. After all, we’ve never known life to go on without ourselves. Sure, we know logically that the universe existed before us and will keep on going long after we’re gone. But it’s one thing to know logically and another to understand on a deep emotional level. When we die, we will leave people behind. Our houses and our cars will still stand where we left them, and someone will have to deal with them. But we all hope for more of a legacy than that.

     For some of us, our kids will be our legacy. For others, the work we do will resonate in the post-us world. I am lucky enough to have both three children who are all turning into good people and careers in teaching and writing. Though nothing is guaranteed, I’ve got a better shot than most people do, the kind of shot Tom Pilkington had.

     But it’s also similar to the kind Yvette Vickers had, and I believe that even the most jaded among us don’t want to end up like she did. We hope people will remember us fondly. We hope they will remember us, period.

     Vickers worked in the horror industry, so I think it’s fitting that I end this piece with a reference to the best horror-romance-comedy-adventure universe in the history of television—that of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In a classic episode of the Buffy spin-off Angel, our main character and his frenemy Spike have ventured into a subterranean realm in an attempt to cure their friend Fred, who has fallen victim to the vengeful spirit of a demi-god. Afraid for Fred and saddened at their failure to find a cure, Angel and Spike find themselves looking down the throat of an enormous cavern that, allegedly, goes all the way through to the other side of the planet.

     Spike, his voice much more somber and restrained than usual, looks at Angel and says, “There’s a hole in the world. It seems like we ought to have known.”

     Tom Pilkington left a hole in the world, and everyone who knew him is standing beside that hole, wishing that he were here to fill it. Yvette Vickers left no such hole; her passing barely made a ripple.

     How will we end up? Who will notice when we’re gone?
Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites
Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com

**UPDATE** This week’s Entertainment Weekly has a feature article on Vickers, in which they provide subsequent details. It seems that, suffering from dementia, Vickers did become a shut-in during the last months of her life; the woman who found her reports that she had barricaded herself inside the house. Still, I think the point holds; how could no one realize that she had been dead for so long?**

Another Storm of the Century #nonfiction

Another Storm of the Century: A Voice from Tuscaloosa

     Back in August of 2005, I sat in my second-floor Baton Rouge apartment and watched Hurricane Katrina swirling over the Gulf of Mexico. The monster storm angled ever closer to the Louisiana coastline, headed, it seemed, for New Orleans, my favorite city in the world. Like every other person who gave a damn, I could only watch in helpless horror as the coasts of not one but three states—Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—crumbled before Katrina’s fury. In my part of Baton Rouge, we lost power for thirteen hours or so. Some of our refrigerated foods spoiled. An hour away from New Orleans, I listened to the rifle cracks of trees splitting in half around our complex and could only imagine what it must be like at the sites of landfall. I ventured outside to check on my car, performing the mime “walking against the wind” routine, only with actual wind; I had to lean forward nearly forty-five degrees and plod along as if I were knee-deep in swamp mud. When I ascertained that my car had survived the floral carnage in evidence all around me, I turned back and found myself high-stepping along like a cartoon sprinter, the hurricane-force winds now at my back. For a moment, I felt as if I might lift off the ground and sail away.

    Later, when the levees broke and flooded the city, I screamed in frustration. As the remaining inhabitants of New Orleans stood on rooftops and small concrete islands just above the putrid waters, as those stuck at the Superdome and Convention Center stewed in their own filth and died while waiting on an absent government to help them, Kalene and I donated to shelters and prayed for the city. We waited fearfully for word from our friends who had been stuck in town or stayed out of a sense of duty. We watched the news religiously and saw Hollywood actors and pro athletes arrive to help, long before the President showed up. We heard tales of lower parish officials welcoming members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who somehow arrived before FEMA. A week after most people had finally gotten out of the city, we saw a good friend who had stayed behind at his university in order to help students with nowhere to go. He had easily lost thirty pounds and told tales of returning fire while unknown assailants shot at him.

     Six years later, New Orleans still needs help. And as I sit in Northport, just across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa proper where I work and spend half of my time, I have to wonder what the state of Alabama will look like in 2017.

     I’ve heard a lot of comparisons between the tornadoes that ripped apart the south last week and Hurricane Katrina. I suppose some of these comparisons are apt. Both storm systems devastated enormous areas of the south. Having lived through both, and having been lucky or blessed enough to experience only a near-miss each time, I would have to say, if you put a gun to my head and made me choose, that Katrina seemed worse to me; it crushed the coasts of three states, put an American metropolitan center under water, and destroyed millions of people’s faith in the American system itself. The death toll was higher; the victims waited much longer for aid.

     But such comparisons are, I believe, ultimately pointless. The fact is that both storms unleashed almost unimaginable power. They both trashed homes and took lives indiscriminately. Argue that Katrina is worse until you’re blue in the face, but I defy you to do so in front of those who lost loved ones to the tornadoes. Tell that to those standing outside the giant piles of kindling that were, just a week ago, solid homes that people had spent lifetimes creating. Suffering is suffering; death is death.

     What I am more interested in talking about today are the lessons that Katrina taught us and how I’ve seen those lessons in action over the last several days.

     It all began so similarly. Again, I sat in my second-floor apartment, watching as an apocalyptic storm system bore down on my home region. With Kalene and our cat Cookie McSnowshoe already ensconced in the illusory safety of a bathtub, our electronics and important files piled around them, I watched the tornado sweep into Tuscaloosa. I was sitting in the center of my couch as the local news showed footage from their tower cam. They panned the camera until the tornado churned in the center of our television screen, the debris cloud clearly visible even in the distance. The wedge tornado split my screen so efficiently that, sitting before its bifurcated symmetry, I knew what an animal must feel like when the hunter looks through his or her scope and centers the target, crosshairs nestled just behind the forward shoulder. It seemed that the storm was coming straight for me.

     “Sweet Jesus,” I said to myself as rain drove against our balcony doors and forks of lightning split the sky outside. On screen, the city lay in the path of the tornado like a model Tokyo waiting for the man in the Godzilla suit to step on it.

     Soon enough our cable and internet failed. I joined Kalene in the bathroom and listened as my father, calling from a South Carolina hotel room on a business trip, narrated the tornado’s path. He stayed on the line, calling back whenever we lost the signal, until he heard that the storm had moved past Tuscaloosa and had headed on to Birmingham. At that point, Kalene and I emerged from the bathroom and into a different world.

     No, our apartment had not been damaged. We never even lost power. But as more and more reports came in about the devastation, we knew that things were different. We often think of our time in Louisiana as occurring in two periods—before Katrina and after. Now we would mark our lives in Alabama the same way. Our cable and internet came back on early Friday morning—probably the only good thing that Comcast has done for us in our five years here—and we saw the first images of what we had only heard about. Whole neighborhoods flattened. Businesses wiped away. A gutted Hobby Lobby stood beside a pile of rubble that had once been Big Lots. The Alberta neighborhood had been reduced to matchsticks. Forests of mighty trees had been crushed flat in odd patterns, like crop circles in corn.

     We would soon learn that some of our friends were homeless. Others learned that their lives had hung by the thinnest of threads. And some, like us, somehow escaped the carnage entirely. The tornado took a right turn and angled away from us. If it had kept on its course, it might have hit our apartment directly. And then they probably would have found me in Georgia, Kalene in Kentucky. We heard tales of young people dying—the three students who clung to each other in a bathtub until the storm was over, two of them surviving, the other found a quarter mile away. The four people who hunkered down in a closet until, the tornado having passed, one of them stood up and realized that he was the only one left, the others whisked away like so much straw in the breeze.

     Why were some killed and others spared? Why were some homes leveled and others not even touched?

     I don’t pretend to have those answers. What I do know is this: what I’ve seen so far inspires me.

     In the finale of Treme, season 1, Steve Earle sings, “This city won’t wash away. This city will never drown.” In spite of all the natural, political, economic, and sociological obstacles in their way, New Orleans and her people have endured. I am now seeing the same resolve all around me in Tuscaloosa.

     Trucks loaded down with bottled water, young workers and college students stacked in like cordwood as the vehicles roll into the teeth of the disaster. The sound of chainsaws and human voices singing their songs of labor as trees are removed from rooftops and living rooms. Low murmurs of comfort in contrapuntal relief with the wails for the dead. The hopeful calls of searchers as they dig through the heaps of refuse that were once houses, everyone hoping against hope to find more survivors. An outpouring of sympathy and money and labor and love.

     These are the best lessons from Katrina—that in this life, the only thing we can really count on is each other. Working together is always better than working alone. Pain shared is pain overcome. Helping one’s neighbors, and even one’s enemies, is the right thing to do, no matter the cost. I have seen a President appear two days after the storm, not a week, and rather than making a long speech in an empty square that he attempted to fill with false promises, he took action. I have seen federal monies allocated quickly. I have seen insurance companies acting responsibly—at least for now—rather than exploiting every possible loophole that might allow them to piss on the injured and the destitute. I have heard of FEMA sightings, which in Louisiana were as rare footprints of Bigfoot. I have seen a people rise from the debris to take the hands of other human beings who stepped outside their own spheres of plenty long enough to help.

     And so, thanks to the human spirit and their people’s own indomitable wills, I believe that my current home, like New Orleans (city of my heart), will endure. It may take time and effort and money, but it will happen. And I hope that in New Orleans and Tuscaloosa and numerous smaller towns ripped apart by wind and water—including Vilonia, Arkansas, where my two youngest children live—we will all continue to do our part. Let us take each other’s hands long after the television cameras are gone. Let us support each other even when there’s no profit in it. Let us look past our ideologies and into each other’s eyes. If we can hold each other’s gaze, we’re probably doing all right.

     To do so is not conservative or liberal, socialist or communist, democratic or republican. It’s the decent, human thing to do.

     And if we can do it in the aftermath of a storm, why can’t we do it when the skies are clear? Why can’t we apply these same principles and acts to the problems of disease, poverty, racism, homophobia, sexism, education, and homelessness? Why do we refuse to come together, to take care of each other, until nature tears us apart?

     Some would say that to do so would be to be un-American. If that’s true, we should be ashamed of ourselves. To me, the true American spirit can be witnessed in the former graduate student who’s coming back to Tuscaloosa on his own dime, bearing water and food and a chainsaw, because he cares. We can see it in the lives of those who take in the newly-homeless, who donate their time and money and the strengths of their backs to assure that this storm does not define Tuscaloosa’s history.

     We can see it in each other, if only we bother to look.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.
Email me at semioticconundrums@gmail.com