I’m happy to announce that my personal essay entitled “Past, Present, Popcorn” is forthcoming in Wild Violet. Thanks to God, Kalene, the editors, and all my friends and readers.
Depression sometimes feels like drowning. You’re wading in a river, and the bank drops from under your feet, and you realize that someone filled your pockets with stones. Perhaps it was you. You fight with all your might, trying to surface, but your lungs burn and your muscles ache and the light gets dimmer until darkness seems like an old friend.
Another take: David Foster Wallace, the great writer and suicide, once said that depression is narcissistic. Though I doubt he meant it as a universal truism, and I certainly don’t take it that way, I understand his point. When you feel emotionally crippled and physically ill because of your life, your career, how people perceive you, and so forth, it’s easy to dismiss your reactions, your very emotional health, as navel-gazing. Admitting that there is a certain amount of narcissism inherent in depression, though, I think such a blanket dismissal of its legitimacy would be a mistake.
If you’re not going to dismiss it or just try to “suck it up” and ignore it, though, what do you do?
I’m a writer, so my first instinct is to write about it.
Going DFW one better, I think there must be an element of narcissism in any personal essay or memoir. It’s far from the only or most representative element in those genres, but it’s there. To believe that some story from my own life might be entertaining or enlightening to others is to assign myself value. The same is true when I “write for myself,” at least when I subsequently publish those works.
I suppose that this project therefore represents a double-dose of narcissism, but those who know me can tell you that, like much of my work, it also originates in a deep and well-earned sense of self-loathing. I am not doing this to make myself look good or sympathetic, nor am I doing it to punish myself. I am writing it to understand and deal with my depression. At the very least, I hope my doing so can help remind other depressed people that they are not alone.
I first proposed this project as a kind of dark joke on Facebook. “I am thinking of honest-blogging about my struggle with depression,” I wrote, “but my depression tells me nobody would read it or care.” I expected to get a few “ha-ha” reactions and, perhaps, a couple of well-wishes. The status update hardly went viral, but it produced more responses than I imagined. Between comments, which are still appearing as of now, and personal messages, at least two dozen people have encouraged me to share. “Perhaps,” I thought, “there’s a space for something like this, maybe even a need.” More specifically, since the depression blog/memoir could well constitute its own sub-genre, maybe there is a space for my contribution.
As for what that contribution will be, it’s anybody’s guess. I don’t have a specific structure or form in mind. I would imagine that some entries will be long and detailed, like book chapters or personal essays. Others will probably read like journaling. Sometimes I may tell you about what I’ve fought through on a given day; sometimes I may recount an experience or a hope/fear for the future. Some posts may be only one or two sentences long, or contain only a single image, or read more like a prose poem. If I solidify my own conception of what this project is over time, I’ll let you know.
What I can tell you at this point is that it’s not my only focus. I teach five English classes a semester. I am working on several writing projects besides this one: several stories and essays, a potential novel, and a script I’m tinkering with. I’ve got a wife, three kids, a son-in-law, a granddaughter, a cat, and a dog. And as a narrative junkie, I read and watch movies and television all the time. If some time passes between entries, keep checking back, or join my mailing list. I’m probably just buried in work. I’ll be back eventually, God willing.
I can also predict that, like most of what I call my “freebies”—works I post on my site, rather than trying to publish them traditionally—these entries will be rawer, not as exhaustively drafted and edited, less organized. I’m trying to do something that’s very difficult for me—share intimate details about my life and emotions—and if I think about it too much, I may well dilute or even ruin the work.
Now, a warning. Some of my content may be disturbing. You might find descriptions of live-wire nerves, rock-bottom anguish, poor behavior, harsh language, violent acts, sex, and more. I hope you’ll also find humor and love and light. Life is, after all, good, and I am quite lucky and blessed. That’s one reason my depression is so maddening. That’s one reason I need to understand it.
Join me, won’t you? The waters are choppy and filled with jagged rocks, but if we work together, you and I, we might just find our way back to shore.
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A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.
10. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry.
McMurtry himself once dismissed the Pulitzer he won for this book, saying it was a newspaperman’s award. Nevertheless, this book is an American classic—a western, a journey narrative, a coming-of-age saga, an adventure story, a doomed romance, and more.
The characters are indelibly stamped on the imaginations of everyone who has read the book—Gus McCrae, the jokester with the heart as big as Montana. Woodrow Call, the gruff ex-lawman who never met a task he couldn’t finish before dinner. Newt, the son of a dead whore whose absent father might not be so absent after all. Jake Spoon, cardsharp and outlaw whose careless words and actions haunt all the characters. Deets, the African-American scout and the real heart of the Hat Creek Outfit. Laurie, the whore who follows Jake Spoon into the wilderness, her heart set on San Francisco. And Clara, former lover of both Gus and Jake, whose resentment of Woodrow Call runs almost as deep as her love for horses—and Gus.
As Call, Gus, and company drive a herd of mostly stolen cattle from the U.S.-Mexico border to Montana, some characters live. Some die. Some turn outlaw; some find torture and pain where others find love. The journey thrills us, wounds us, and never lets us forget the personal price of ambition.
The made-for-TV film starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones is almost as good as the book. If you’ve seen it but haven’t delved into McMurtry’s doorstop of a novel, give it a go.
Other texts that would work well: Terms of Endearment; The Last Picture Show; Texasville.
9. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor.
Flannery O’Connor, an American novelist and master of the short story, once said, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” Keep that in mind if you are an O’Connor newbie.
And while you’re at it, be on the lookout for one of the sharpest, most incisive senses of humor in the history of letters. Today, humor that makes you uncomfortable while you laugh, that makes you fear going to hell because you’re laughing, is all the rage; see Family Guy for exhibit A. O’Connor’s humor is much more focused, though, and it has an edge all its own.
Many of the tales have been widely anthologized—“A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the tale of a family trip that takes a left turn into terror; “Good Country People,” a fractured romance that deconstructs the insipid and egotistical way we read other people; “Revelation,” one of the best stories about a seemingly mundane day you’ll ever read; and more.
I’ve chosen the collected tales here, rather than one of the individual collections, because it will allow you to immerse yourself in the deep waters of a great southern writer, a great American voice, a keen observer of humanity’s darkness and hilarity.
Other texts that would work well: any of the individual collections, or her strange artifact of a novel, Wise Blood.
A very different writer than O’Connor, Hemingway is no less a driving force of American fiction in the 20th century. A Nobel prize winner who wrote according to his own “iceberg theory”—that most of what happens in a story goes on beneath the surface of the text—Hemingway looms large for anyone who has ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Any number of book-length texts could have served here, but for me, Hemingway is never better than when he’s working in short fiction. In fact, many of these stories could serve as an example of how to work with minimalist form for maximum effect.
Read the stories in order if you want. If not, maybe start with the Nick Adams stories, the most famous of which is probably “Big Two-Hearted River.” Move on to the war tales, including “A Soldier’s Home.” Delve into the existential ambiguity of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
Two of my favorite Hemingway works are also among the longest stories. “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” details the last moments in a couple’s marriage. As a hunting trip grows in intensity, so does the bitterness between Macomber and his wife. You’ll see the end coming, but it still feels like a surprise. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” is also about an ending, but it also resonates deeply with my own anxiety about my writing, about time, and about the way life passes by much more quickly than you could imagine. Tragedies and missed opportunities compound until you feel as overwhelmed by them as our protagonist.
“A Very Short Story” condenses the deepest of emotions into just a couple of pages. Flash fiction writers could do much worse than study that story.
“The Light of the World”; “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio”; the devastating “Hills like White Elephants”—Hemingway’s short fiction is truly a treasure chest of beauty and pain. Open it up and see what you can find.
Other texts that would work well: The Sun Also Rises; To Have and Have Not; A Farewell to Arms; The Old Man and the Sea.
7. The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds.
Years ago, I discovered this book in Wal-Mart, of all places. Its jacket described a novel set in a religious separatist community. The church’s name? “The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind.” I could not resist. I bought it, took it home, and opened it. I’ve been in love with it ever since.
The novel traces the story of Ninah, a teenage girl growing up in a highly fundamentalist religion. Her Grandpa is the church’s preacher and its patriarch. He makes the rules—and the judgments.
Of course, part of her upbringing entails a blanket denial of sexuality for purposes other than procreation within a marriage. So when she and her prayer partner, James, realize that their bodies are responding in a heady, ecstatic way to each other’s presence, they mistake their burgeoning sexuality for religious fervor. And, they reason, how can something that makes them feel the presence of Jesus be wrong?
Soon enough, Ninah is pregnant, and the community is in an uproar. As Ninah and her grandmother butt heads with Grandpa, as James struggles with his deep sense of guilt, as Grandpa debates what to do with the baby, the emotional tension builds. Throughout it all, Ninah’s voice is always genuine, always compelling.
It also has perhaps the funniest version of the Rapture that I have ever read. No kidding.
A book that wrestles with serious questions about religion, sex, family, and stories themselves, The Rapture of Canaan will leave you, well, rapturous. I have read it many times. I wrote about it in my dissertation. I have taught it to eager students that have loved every page. Even if Sheri Reynolds had never written anything else, this book stands as a fine contribution to literature.
Other texts that would work well: Bitterroot Landing; The Homespun Wisdom of Myrtle T. Cribb.
6. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
One of best novels about the intricacies of race relations in the 20th century, which is only one of its many subjects, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon is also one of the best works from one of America’s best writers. A Nobel Prize winner, Morrison has produced plenty of work about race, gender, class, and family. Song of Solomon marries all these topical concerns with a truly heart-rending story about one man’s growth.
Milkman Dead (the story of his name is alone worth the price of admission) is born in the shadow of a white hospital that refuses to treat his mother. His birth coincides with the death of a man who leaps from the building, certain that he can fly.
Milkman is fascinated with flight for the rest of his life. His own flight—the figurative one he undertakes as he seeks his family’s origins and the literal one he might well be taking in the possibly magic-realist ending—helps to structure the novel.
Along the way, Milkman must navigate the troubled relationship between his parents. His father, the unyielding Macon Dead, looms large in Milkman’s life. His mother—well, let’s just say that Milkman’s name stems from a rather unusual relationship with her. He often finds himself in conflict with his sisters, First Corinthians and Magdalene.
Even more conflicted is his relationship with his Aunt Hagar, her daughter Reba, and Reba’s daughter Hagar. These three women live apart from the rest of their family, and in a very nontraditional way. Milkman is drawn to them. They fascinate him; they repulse him. Milkman’s romance with Hagar, and its devastating termination, make for some of the novel’s best passages.
Milkman is also very much a part of the racial tensions of his time. His best friend, Guitar, eventually becomes a member of the Seven Days, a shadow organization bent on evening the tally of racial violence, no matter who must pay their price. As Milkman and Guitar take very different paths, Morrison explores a topic no less important than how young black men might respond to the virulent racism of their country.
An important book that wrestles with national issues even as it personalizes them, Song of Solomon rewards repeated readings as much as it does the very first one. When my daughter Shauna was young, I gave her a copy and told her to put it on her shelf. “It might be a little intense for you right now,” I said, thinking of the sexual and violent passages. “But when you’re older, you’ll appreciate it.” I don’t know if she ever read it, but you should. And often.
Other texts that would work well: The Bluest Eye; Beloved; Sula; Tar Baby; Paradise; Jazz.
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With the recent release of World War Z and the upcoming season four of The Walking Dead, zombies in pop culture are harder to kill than the (ahem) real thing. So are “best of” lists. Even Rolling Stone made a “ten best zombie movies” list, so what follows is hardly original in conception or content. Still, some of you asked for it, so here it is—my list of the ten zombie films you have to see before you reanimate and try to eat your kids. Feel free to disagree, kvetch, and counter-argue. I’m pretty sure I’ll forget approximately six hundred movies that should be on this list.
First, a few rules: believe it or not, I haven’t seen every single zombie film ever made. I will therefore decline to cheat and put anything on this list that I haven’t experienced first-hand (sorry, Fido and Plague of the Zombies; I’ll get to you one of these days).
Second, I won’t list any movies that are what I like to call “zombie-adjacent”—films in which the hordes often act like zombies but are not, in fact, reanimated corpses. That forces me to leave out several movies I really dig and would still recommend that you see before you shuffle off this mortal coil, come back as a zombie, and spend all your time, uh, shuffling around this mortal coil.
Such movies include 28 Days Later and its good-but-inferior sequel, 28 Weeks Later; Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s excellent modern-day grindhouse flick; and the Evil Dead films. I have seen Raimi’s trilogy on some zombie lists, though I’m not sure why. Sure, a couple of corpses come back and make trouble, but mostly, it’s about spirits and what they do with live bodies.
Other films that are worth watching but have no place on this list: George A. Romero’s The Crazies and the 2010 remake starring Timothy Olyphant, two more zombie-adjacent flicks; and Drew Goddard’s fine meta work The Cabin in the Woods, which features zombies but also a couple dozen other supernatural baddies.
Third, I can’t in good conscience write about anything I saw years ago but was too drunk or exhausted to remember. Thus, at least one staple of zombie top ten lists, Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, doesn’t make the cut, through no fault of its own.
You could easily argue that Return of the Living Dead should be on here, given that it is generally credited for introducing zombies that hunger for brains, not flesh (a stereotype that does not hold in most canonical texts) and, according to some critics, the concept of fast-moving, even intelligent zombies. It’s fun in its own way, but it deviates so strongly from the visions of people like George A. Romero that I would only be putting it on the list because of its difference. I’d still advise you to watch it at least once, and if you’re a fan, feel free to substitute it for either #9 or #10 below.
On to the list…
This movie, which many viewers still find creepy, features an interesting performance from Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, long before he torpedoed his career with drugs and starring roles in Ed Wood movies. One of the taglines: “See them dug from the grave and put to work as slaves to murder!” Set in Haiti, the film locates zombies in exotic locales inhabited by dark-skinned people, which allows for the continuing comfort of the first-world viewer. It also both contributes to and reflects the early 20th century’s problematic racial attitudes in ways that later zombie films engage more directly and complexly. Madge Bellamy’s very white protagonist, Madeline, is reduced to a zombie slave on a Haitian plantation, providing an interesting wrinkle to any allegorical readings of race. Some critics believe that the movie can be read as an anti-imperialist text; they suggest that the characters’ attitudes toward Madeline, the nature of zombification, and the plantation itself mirror Western colonial attitudes. All that is well and good. But this movie is on my list mainly because it is widely considered the first zombie film, and if you’re going to delve into the canon, you might as well start with cinema’s version of Patient Zero. You might love it or find it cheesy, badly acted, and horribly dated, but you should experience it for yourself before the inevitable zombie apocalypse.
Purists may well cry foul here and accuse me of breaking rule #2. They may well be right, and if you think so, feel free to strike this one out and replace it with what you feel is my most egregious omission. I, however, am giving [REC] a pass that I did not give films like 28 Days Later for a couple of reasons: a) the antagonists act like zombies, including through their stubborn refusal to die from anything but a head shot, and b) the film itself leaves their exact condition ambiguous. While the movie pretty much tells us that their illness seems to be viral, such that it can pass from animals to humans, many zombie outbreaks in cinema are similarly sourced. [REC] suggests, near the end, a possible non-zombie cause of the outbreak, and it is often unclear whether the victims are truly reanimated or if their zombie-like condition is merely the last stage of some illness. Enough ambiguity exists for me to include this film here.
And, as horror films go, it’s a doozy. A Spanish movie, it may well test your ocular and cognitive abilities while you watch the action and read the dialogue simultaneously. The plot centers on a young female reporter and her cameraman, Pablo, as they cover a local fire company’s night shift. When the company answers an emergency call about an ill woman who won’t come out of her apartment, the reporter and cameraman tag along, only to find themselves quarantined inside the building as the occupants and would-be rescuers are transformed into vicious creatures that rip into human flesh.
The film is probably best known for its cinematographic conceit. We see the entire film from Pablo the cameraman’s perspective; his handheld camera is the only camera used, which immerses the viewer in the characters’ experience. We only see what Pablo films; we only hear what he can pick up on his camera microphone. It’s unsettling and scary, perhaps even more so than The Blair Witch Project.
The acting here is much better than you’ll see in White Zombie or the Romero movies, which you have to grade on a sliding scale. You can’t expect Academy Award-winning performances when you’re working with an unknown cast and a 73-cent budget. [REC] has more to work with, but it’s still a horror film, so don’t expect to discover the next Olivier or Brando.
One of the movie’s taglines— “Whatever You Witness….. Never Stop Recording”—might well be the basic direction for any reality TV cameraman. [REC] was remade in America as Quarantine, a nearly shot-for-shot remake. But I would seek out the original and watch it first. Tell Netflix I sent you.
Some zombiephiles feel very strongly that this movie is the second-best Romero entry in the canon. Here, it appears at #8 mainly because I’ve seen it less than the others and don’t feel comfortable placing it higher.
In Day of the Dead, the apocalypse has already happened. The plot focuses on the few survivors holed up in a military bunker. The scientists there conduct gruesome experiments on the zombies as the survivors try, with varying degrees of success, to cope with the realities and tensions of their lives. The scientists are convinced that the dead can be reconditioned, and much of the film is spent exploring zombie physiology and psychology. In fact, much of the fanboy love for the movie stems from the explanations for why zombies eat human flesh and so forth.
That’s all well and good, but you’ll also be treated to some old-fashioned zombie attacks. Come for the blood and guts; stay for the course on zombie motivation.
Elsewhere I have already expressed my admiration for this movie’s pulse-pounding action sequences, for how it represents an evolution in zombie methodology (the swarming behaviors that mimic certain animals, the idea that zombies can tell the difference between a good meal and a bad one), the way the production managed to snag a prestigious director and star (Brad frickin’ Pitt!!!). I have also articulated my problems with the film’s character development and its over-dependence on CGI. Plus, there’s this issue, to quote Kalene Westmoreland: “a lot of these problems wouldn’t have happened if they just had a can of WD-40.” Seriously, they spend five minutes talking about how the creatures are attracted to sound, and then they take the world’s squeakiest collection of bicycles to the plane? Every door in the WHO facility has to creak like it belongs in a haunted house?
Here, though, the positives truly outweigh the negatives. World War Z lives up to its title; it takes a global view of the zombie apocalypse, demonstrating that these filmmakers truly understand the scale implied in the term. Philadelphia collapses. Israel is overrun. And after all that international carnage, the climax is surprisingly intimate and intense, providing both a break from and a logical extension of the larger issues.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet and you’re a fan of zombies, action movies, apocalypse narratives, or Brad Pitt, get thee to your local theater. If you have seen it, spread the word.
World War Z had an Oscar nominee in Brad Pitt. Zombieland has four: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Abigail Breslin, and Bill Murray, who plays himself in a hilarious small role. The other major star, Emma Stone, is a Screen Actors Guild award winner and one of Hollywood’s hottest young actors. Therefore, if you’re looking for A-list acting and recognizable faces, you can’t find a better zombie flick than this.
The premise: zombies have taken over the world (or, at least, America). Our young protagonist, Columbus (so named because that’s where he wants to go), decides to see if his parents are still alive, so he takes to the road, where he encounters the eccentric, zombie-hating, Twinkie-loving Tallahassee (Harrelson); the beguiling Wichita (Stone); and young-but-not-helpless Little Rock (Breslin). Columbus has survived because of his “rules,” which could double as a meta lesson on what every dumb character in horror films never does: limber up before you enter any unknown territory, in case you have to run. Work on your cardio. Always “double-tap” seemingly dead zombies. Always look in the back seat, etc. Echoing Randy’s rules for surviving a horror film as seen in the first Scream, these rules are winking, self-referential, and absolutely true.
Characterization here runs deeper than in most of the genre’s entries. We know backstories. We understand motivations. Even though the characters sometimes seem to come from central casting—the sensitive but competent geek, the snarling tough guy with a secretly soft heart, the love interest who might be a femme fatale—they transcend their stock origins and become living, breathing, wisecracking people you will care about.
Zombieland is more funny than scary, although parts of the film do provide genuinely frightening scenes, especially near the end. This is not a criticism. The often lighthearted tone provides a nice counterpoint to the highly serious, doom-and-gloominess of most zombie films. Plus, Zombieland features an awesome soundtrack: Metallica! The Black Keys!
Fun, often funny, and sometimes gory, Zombieland deserves its place in anyone’s top ten. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to have a lot of fun.
We enter the top five with what is, by far, Snyder’s best film to date. Though fanboys and -girls say that Romero’s zombie classic did not need to be remade, I really like this movie. Sure, it lacks the social consciousness of the original. Romero’s Dawn was set in a mall to critique our out-of-control consumer culture, while this film seems to appropriate the setting merely because it’s logically safer than the other options. But you know what? That’s fine with me. I still have the original when I want to think. This movie, by contrast, is an exercise in inertia, in pure kineticism.
The cast doesn’t quite equal Zombieland or World War Z in terms of A-list prestige, but the actors are all game. Ving Rhames plays, well, pretty much every Ving Rhames character you’ve ever seen. Sarah Polley provides a strong performance as our protagonist, and Ty Burrell kills as the absolute polar opposite of his Modern Family character. Throw in Jake Weber as an unlikely hero, Mekhi Phifer as a troubled family man, and excellent character actor Michael Kelly as the meanest mall cop you’ve ever seen.
You like gore? This film’s got it. Watch out for chainsaws, dude. You want fast zombies? There ain’t no shufflin’ goin’ on here. You want zombie mob scenes, gallows humor, strong uses of lighting? Check, check, and check. Plus, the worst newborn since Rosemary’s baby (well, not counting Trainspotting)!
Bottom line: this film isn’t high art, but it’s good. When it starts out with Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around,” you hope the rest of the movie will live up to it. It does. Stick around for the super-bleak ending over the credits.
Not the one that started it all, but it sure seems like it. The first Romero zombie flick, it came with this tagline, among others: “If it doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” There’s some truth to that.
If you’ve never seen the film, well, it pretty much establishes the tropes for every other zombie movie you’ve ever seen. Outbreak of the dead rising and eating the living, with scientists providing, at best, a working theory as to what started it? Yep. A core group of characters thrown together by chance? Got it. Internal strife over how to handle the situation? Check. Our heroes finding themselves trapped and surrounded by the dead? Uh huh. Zombie infestation of the supposedly safe zone? Right. And if you think it took more contemporary texts like Snyder’s movie or The Walking Dead to trot out the zombified children, you’re wrong.
NotLD starts out in a cemetery, with Barbra and her dickish brother Johnny visiting graves. When Barbra feels creeped out, Johnny says, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!” Little does he know they’re real, and they’re coming to get him, too. When Johnny buys it five minutes into the film, you aren’t sorry, but you’ve got to feel sorry for Judith O’Dea, the actress playing Barbra, because she has to spend the rest of the movie playing either catatonic or whiny. Throw in the bickering couple Harry and Helen Cooper and the more likeable but also more forgettable young couple Tom and Judy, and you may actually find yourself rooting for the zombies.
The main character, Ben, is extraordinary, considering the time period’s attitudes. Played by Duane Jones, Ben is our protagonist, and when the ever-angry Harry Cooper gets out of line, Ben slaps him around until he shuts up. Ben also acts as Barbra’s caretaker, and, when Harry finally goes too far, Ben’s method of dealing with him is both shocking and inevitable.
Why is all this so unusual? Because Ben is the only black member of an otherwise lily-white cast. Many critics, including one of my grad-school colleagues, have written about NotLD as an allegory for American racial attitudes in the Civil Rights era, and the characters’ different generational attitudes toward a strong black man seem to support such readings, as do the searing images of pale-white zombies mobbing Ben throughout the film. The ending’s indelible imagery will disturb you, and this, I think, is part of what Romero intends.
Add in to all the social commentary a lot of good zombie action (Romero, of course, only uses the shuffling kind) and some unintentional humor (see the sheriff’s hysterical line, “Yeah, they’re dead. They’re….all messed up”) and you’ve got a film that has fascinated generations of viewers. Much like most of the movies on this list, you shouldn’t expect stellar acting or writing, but this one transcends its limitations. See it now, if you never have.
Two words: zombie Nazis. That should be all you need to know about this Norwegian film.
A group of friends takes a vacation to a remote cabin. The one who was planning to ski cross-country through the mountains, alone and at night, never arrives, but soon, a mysterious stranger appears, warning our core group of a local legend about cursed soldiers and missing Nazi treasure. You can imagine what happens next.
Much like Scream, Dead Snow is postmodern in its metatextual references. One of our main characters is a film buff, who immediately recognizes the threat for what it is and warns the others not to get bitten. To say that the plan doesn’t work out very well is an understatement.
Unlike a lot of zombie texts, this one often sets the action in the daylight. In fact, the snowy landscape lends a near-blinding sheen to the gore, so that you see nearly every spatter of blood and almost every flesh wound in detail. As plan after plan fails, as the most competent characters succumb, as you view one of the grossest and most hilarious gags involving a crotch in cinematic history, you’ll laugh and grimace in disgust, sometimes simultaneously. In tone, it’s closer to Cabin in the Woods than Night of the Living Dead; you can decide for yourself if that’s good. Just watch the movie. Like now.
This one is Romero’s best, and it’s possibly the most loved and respected film in the canon. Starring one of Romero’s trademark cast of stars you’ve never heard of, featuring B-level acting and lines that run the gamut from good to dripping with cheese, utilizing the most absurd and nonsensical use of a blood pressure machine ever, Dawn of the Dead has nevertheless transcended its genre roots.
Like the remake, it’s set in a shopping mall. Unlike the remake, the mall here is infested with zombies, who shuffle by the locked doors of the shops our heroes inhabit. The monsters here look not all that different from your typical suburban consumer, and these images likely resonate now more than ever, given how we all do the “cell phone zombie shuffle,” staring at our handheld screens as we walk into fountains and trip over potted plants. This critique of consumerism foreshadowed the “more is more,” “greed is good” decade to come.
Beyond all the scholarly hooey, though, stands a really good genre movie, one with all the usual trappings plus the addition of a bloodthirsty biker gang that may be more dangerous than the zombies. If Snyder’s film is an exercise in pure forward motion, this one is more contemplative, but as a movie that extends what a zombie movie can be and do, it’s more important.
Dawn of the Dead isn’t as flashy or ironic or bloody as some movies on this list, but you absolutely must see it before you reanimate. And always, always, always pick a good time to check your blood pressure.
I may well catch some flak for putting this movie on top of my list. I don’t care. Shaun of the Dead does so many things at once that it may well be the only movie here qualifying for high-art status.
Is the movie a parody of zombie flicks? Yes, but like the best parodies, it completely understands its source material. Wright and his co-writer, star Simon Pegg, referred to the movie as a “rom-zom-com”—a romantic zombie comedy. It’s all that and more. It’s uproarious, often at zombies’ expense, and yet it is at times a gory, genuinely frightening, tension-saturated zombie movie. It’s a romantic comedy; the only thing more important to Shaun (Pegg) than surviving the apocalypse is repairing his relationship with his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield). It is poignant; witness the scenes near the end with Shaun’s mother, his stepdad Phillip (Bill Nighy (!!!)), or his best friend Ed (Nick Frost).
Shaun of the Dead is, in other words, several films in one, all of them excellent. It brought Pegg (most recently seen as Scotty in Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Frost a cult following. It led to further collaborations between the stars and Wright in the underrated Hot Fuzz. (Pegg and Frost would write and star in Greg Mottola’s Paul in 2011, while Wright would direct the energetic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World without his stars. Wright is now at work on Marvel’s Ant-Man movie, of all things.)
If you are among those who have never watched this movie, run—don’t walk—to your computer and Netflix it right now, or buy it and watch it tonight. I highly doubt you will regret it.
So there it is, folks, for better or worse: my top ten zombie films of all time. Feel free to post replies or email me with comments, complaints, or praise. And remember—they’re coming to get you, so there may never be a better time for a movie marathon. Stay up late and scare yourself silly. Live a little before your spouse gnaws your arm off.
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In his obtuse, frustrating, beautiful poem “The Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot writes, “Life is very long.” That idea goes against what most of us have heard—that life is short, that we must make the most of every day, that every passing second leads us that much closer to dying. I’ve always wondered which is true. Does life stretch out and out and out, or does it flash by like a film montage where pages fly from a calendar, floating off-screen and disappearing forever, moving us toward the action that matters, the conflict that advances the story?
In my forty-second year, I have decided that the answer is both.
Some days, even weeks, of my life creep by on their bellies like snakes that have lain too long in the sun. Time seems interminable—the in-class activity that shuffles along until it ends in a whimper, the grading session that drags on and on and on, the dinner where the waiter pops by every twenty minutes to make sure we haven’t died of thirst while he took his smoke break.
But other times are different. They don’t creep or shuffle or drag. They zip past you like the purse snatcher that steals your valuables without ever breaking stride, so that you don’t even realize what is missing until the thief has turned the corner and disappeared forever.
These moments fly.
The hell of it is that these latter times aren’t bad, at least not all of them, maybe not even most of them. Often, the moments we would love to cherish are the very ones that we cannot hold onto. They disappear in the space of a breath, leaving us gasping in their wake.
I’ve been thinking about all this lately, not because I’m forty-two, which isn’t that old. No, I’ve been pondering the passage of time because my children are growing up. One, in fact, is no longer a child in any sense of the word, and another stands on the cusp of adulthood. My youngest is thirteen. And as they grow up and perhaps have children of their own, I have been thinking, even more than usual, about what kind of father I’ve been. What kind of man I am. What kind of people they’ll be, and how much I influenced their evolution, for better or worse.
Anyone who knows me well would tell you that I have never been good at sharing my feelings. The only-sparsely-revised, not-all-that-carefully-edited nonfiction on this blog represents more confession than I’ve ever made to most of the people I’ve met in my entire life. I am trying to be honest here, because if you are going to write any kind of non-fiction, you have to be honest to the point of brutality, of rawness. The audience will recognize your bullshit. They will crucify you for it. So you try to be true, even when it hurts, even when it angers those closest to you, and you pray that the art (if there is art) in what you say will eventually salve those wounds.
So I come here again, as I usually do, to open up a part of myself that I have never been able to express, except, perhaps, in some oblique fashion through my fiction. I come to speak from the heart, directly and honestly. I come to speak about my kids.
More specifically, I want to talk about my oldest daughter, Shauna. I want to say things about all my kids, of course, but I cannot say everything, even if I wrote nothing else for the rest of my life. And I cannot speak about all of them at once, because the very facts of their being overwhelm me. Thinking about them is like standing on a ship’s deck in the middle of the ocean, nothing but expanse and majesty all the way to the horizon. I have to take them one at a time, one piece at a time, and if I do this occasionally throughout the course of my life, perhaps they will know me better than they would have otherwise. Perhaps they will not be sorry that it was their fate to spring from me and the better parts of myself.
So. One at a time, whenever I can muster the courage and, hopefully, the words. Starting here, with the first about Shauna, others to come in the future, given world enough and time.
But really, what can I say about her that would be sufficient? Saying something in an honest, hopefully new way is part and parcel of the writer’s job, but sometimes language seems insufficient in and of itself; to truly know the thing about which one writes (or reads), one must experience.
We named her Shauna, but we might have named her other things. My first reason for living. My North Star that guided me through the darkest part of my life. My friend. My daughter. String bean, lovely woman.
I would like to start here by telling you that the person she is, the woman she’s grown to be, staggers me. At twenty-four, she is a better person than I have ever been. She has always been better, right from the start. And in being nothing more than herself, she has made me better.
She is a child of divorce—of two parents who became parents too young, who got married too quickly, who bulled their way into adulthood as if some Matador were waving a red flag that attracted them when it should have signaled a warning. I lived with her for the first several years of her life, before her mother and I finally did what we should have done in the first place and got away from each other. After that, every parting was a little tragedy marked by tears and sighs and regrets. Because of the divorce’s timing, I never got to take her to school or pick her up. I seldom got to help her with her homework. I never hosted a sleepover or helped her build a school project. I did not teach her to drive. I did not get to embarrass her in front of her boyfriends. Now that she is grown, with a life and job of her own, I get to see her roughly once a year. In so many ways, our story is about pain and missed opportunities, about how the little aggravations that typical fathers and daughters experience were lost to us. When I think of all that we missed and are still missing, I can barely lift my head.
And yet. And yet . . .
For many years, until she matured enough within herself and in her social relationships to let go of her father’s hand and fly on her own, we maintained a ritual on the night before I had to take her home. As that last day progressed, she would grow quieter and quieter, and nothing I could do or say would draw her out of that silence. Eventually we would go to bed, and I would lie there, dreading morning’s arrival, until I would hear it coming from her room—tiny little sniffles, choked-back sobs, the sounds of someone in pain, of someone who wants to keep that pain to herself. Of someone who did not want to bother anybody.
I would always get up and go to her room, and there, for minutes or hours, we would talk—about why she had to live so far away, about why I couldn’t just get a job where she lived, about why she couldn’t come see me more often, about how she didn’t want to go home. Not, I always hoped, because she did not want to see her mother, but because she knew we would miss each other.
During these conversations, I would never allow myself to weep. It was her time to hurt and my job to salve it in whatever way I could. It was not about me, would never be about me. I had no right to share my tears with her because, knowing her as I did, I knew that she would push aside her own pain and try to stop mine. To weep would have been selfish and egotistical and wrong. Our children should not have to bear our burdens. They should not have to fix us.
One day, though, in the middle of our end-of-visit ritual, I said to Shauna, “I’m really, really sorry you’re so upset.”
She looked at me for a long time, her eyes filled with tears, before she said anything. Then, finally, she asked, “Do you ever get upset?”
This question poleaxed me. I had never considered that my calm-on-the-surface demeanor might have been suggesting that I was perfectly okay with her leaving. That I would go back to bed and fall right to sleep as soon as she let me off the hook for the night. That she might not realize that I lived every single day of my life in fear that I was failing her in ways both fleeting and fundamental. That she might one day wake up to the fact that, in spite of all his efforts, her father was not a good man and might never be one, and that for evidence she need look no further than how I had failed to remain an everyday presence in her life.
Of course, I could no more tell her all that than I could burst into tears and ask her to comfort me. All I could do, all I had the right to do, was pull her close and hug her as hard as I could without cracking her ribs. All I could do was kiss the top of her head and say, “Of course I get upset, every time. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is you.”
I suppose that if I could say only one thing to her that would sum up her place in my life, it would be the same thing I would also say to my wife and my other two children, and yet it would be just as true for each of them. “All that matters is you.”
I don’t mean that nothing else matters, of course. I cherish my art and glow with pride every time something is published, every time someone tells me something touched them or made them laugh or think or curse my name. I want my work as a writer, a teacher, and a human being to survive me and matter to the world. I want to make the world a better place, not a worse one. I want to give my family the best life I can possibly give them, and if I can’t give them what I want, then I want to be able to say, honestly, that I tried hard to do it. These things matter more than I can say.
But these things are tied inextricably to my love for and duty toward my family. It is a Gordian knot that I have no interest in untying. In this case, being bound is the greatest kind of freedom. And before I knew Kalene, before Brendan and Maya existed, Shauna taught me that. She was my first graduate program in being a better man.
I cannot possibly tell you about everything we did and what it all meant and what it all taught me. But I can tell you some things.
* * *
I remember when her mother announced to me that we were likely going to be parents. It was the summer before our senior year in high school. We had broken up, as we often did, and this time, I was determined to make it stick. Even then, the relationship was turning me into someone I didn’t recognize and didn’t like, and I had finally had enough. I was out, and I was determined to stay out. I had taken back my class ring, that great high school symbol of commitment, and wore it myself for the first time since buying it. I had even gone out on a date with an ex-girlfriend with whom I still had a connection, and I felt pretty sure we were going to get back together and live a long, happy life together.
Then Shauna’s mother-to-be showed up at my house and knocked on the door to my room. I opened it, saw her standing there, scowled. I had nothing to say to her and felt no interest in hearing what she had to say.
“I’m late,” she said.
“Here,” I said, giving her my class ring back.
We were married a few weeks later, and we spent every day together until the moment when I left, heartsick and wrecked and wondering if I were doing the right thing.
I don’t regret marrying her. We were miserable and at each other’s throats day and night and poor and stupid, but at times, we were also happy and in love and rich in ways that most of our classmates would take years to discover. Mainly, I don’t regret it because it gave me years with Shauna that I would not have had otherwise—feeding her, changing her diapers, watching the same videos a million times until the VHS tapes broke. It was all as glorious as a sunrise over the sea.
* * *
I remember the trip home from a high school football game—Malvern? Pine Bluff?—where we had gone to watch my former teammates play. I had loved the games and hated the practices, so it was no great loss for me or the team when I had to go to work and miss playing in my senior year. Still, whenever we were both off on Friday, Christie and I would go to the games, where I would cheer on my friends and part of me would wonder what might have been.
I was driving through the dark, the road unspooling in front of me, Christie in the passenger seat and asleep for all I knew. I was thinking about what I might have done on that long pass that just missed the receiver’s outstretched hands; in my head, I would have caught it, though in my heart, I knew I probably would not have been fast enough either. I was watching the road and daydreaming and listening to some hard-rock song on our car stereo when Christie reached over, turned down the volume, and said, “I just felt the baby kick.”
Something turned over in the deep pit of me. Some creature that had been sleeping in the darkness and dreaming in its own primordial way. It woke up and whimpered and crawled away from the crack of light that had suddenly appeared.
Never taking my eyes from the road, I reached my right hand over and Christie took it, placed it low on her stomach, pressed it harder than I would have advised. The car had grown silent; it seemed that even the regular thrum of the tires, the whistle of the wind as it blew past us, faded, until all that I could hear was my own heartbeat.
Then I felt it—a tiny, almost imperceptible tap against my palm. Like placing your hand on a taut tent wall and feeling someone brush against the other side. Just a millisecond, just once, but undeniable, and very, very real.
And light flooded my eyes. It wasn’t until that creature in the deep pit of me screamed and vanished that I realized it was my own ignorance, my own sense that, even though we had gotten married and had begun compiling cribs and plastic bottles and onesies, we could not possibly be parents. I had known Shauna was real, but I had not believed it on some vital level until I felt that tap, the touch of a person who was not yet a person but who one day might be anybody.
Five miles or so down the road, I felt my face hurt and realized that I had been smiling for a long time. And for perhaps the first time in my young life, I was truly happy. Terrified and incompetent and ignorant, yes, but happy.
* * *
I remember her birth, the moment she was pushed out into the world, screaming and purple and covered in goo.
“Why is she purple?” I asked, alarmed.
“She’s cold,” said the doctor. “Where she’s been, it’s nearly 99 degrees.”
“Want to see me weigh her?” asked a nurse. I walked over to the scale with her. She eased Shauna onto it and waited for the readout. The numbers appeared; the nurse looked at me. “Nine pounds, thirteen ounces? Is that right?”
“How the hell should I know? It’s your scale.”
By this time, the doctor was pulling out the afterbirth while Christie grimaced and grunted. When he got it out, it looked like something you might see on the side of the road in the deep South, a creature that dozens of tires had squished beyond all recognition. I mentioned that I had once seen something like it on Nightmare on Elm Street. Nobody laughed.
A few minutes later, still clad in the disposable gown they had pinned on me, I walked into the waiting room and presented Shauna to her grandparents. She was wrapped in a blanket and looking about curiously, acclimating herself to her new world. Everyone ooohed and aaaaahed and grinned and slapped me on the back and passed her around like they were playing Hot Potato.
Later that night, as Christie slept in her hospital bed and Shauna dozed in her bassinet beside me, I took in the silence, the sheer peacefulness of that room compared to the chaos of the birth, and wondered, not for the first time, if I were remotely qualified to be in charge of this little person who would look to me for everything.
* * *
I remember one night, a few months later when I had been at home alone with Shauna. It was time to pick up Christie from work, so I loaded Shauna into the carrier-thing that also doubled as a car seat. I strapped it down and got in the car and backed out of the driveway. About halfway to Andy’s Restaurant, where Christie was working at the time, I held the steering wheel with my left hand and stretched my right hand into the back seat. I touched Shauna’s tiny little bird hand and she jerked it away.
“Huh,” I said. Against all reason, it hurt my feelings. I wondered if it meant something, knowing in my head that it was probably a reflex or evidence that she had not yet learned to control her body, any of which would have been perfectly natural. But in my heart, a voice whispered, She knows about you. She knows you are not a good person. She wants nothing to do with you, which just proves how smart she is.
All of this happened in perhaps two seconds. And then, before I could pull my hand back and grasp the steering wheel and start feeling really sorry for myself, that tiny bird hand settled on mine and wrapped itself around my index finger. And in that moment, like the Grinch’s, my heart grew two sizes.
I drove all the way to Andy’s like that, my right arm cranked painfully backward and twisted and stretched. I smiled through the pain and the numbness and kept on driving, and Shauna did not let go.
* * *
I remember watching the same videos hundreds of times, everything from Disney classics to Scruffy to stop-motion California Raisin shows. I had them all memorized. So did Shauna. She never just sat in front of the television for hours at a time, and we never used the television as a de facto babysitter. But when she wanted to watch, she would sit there attentively while those same dogs did and said the same things they had always done and said. It never seemed to get old.
I can no longer quote those movies and shows verbatim. I don’t even really remember the plot. But just hearing the word “scruffy” sends my mind down those same roads, and I wind up back in that mobile home, sitting on that couch and watching Shauna watch TV. In times like those, that trailer was a sanctuary, a garden where the sun always shined and things grew in rich black soil.
* * *
But like most places, there was nothing intrinsically good or bad about our first home. Its nature depended on the people in it and what they did for, or to, each other. I also remember the fights, the screaming matches that often devolved into physical confrontations.
Just as when Christie and I were dating, our marriage was a study in extremes. We were giddy and joyous and thrilled at life’s possibilities. We were hateful and violent and heartsick. I loved her desperately and wanted her to love me back, but she never did, at least not like I loved her. At times, she seemed to value me; at times, she would speak and act with nothing but contempt, as if I were a bug that she wouldn’t bother scraping off her shoe. I never knew which Christie I was going to get, and I didn’t understand the one that seemed to hate me, and so, once I learned to lash out, I let that part of me take over when I felt hurt or threatened or useless or stupid, which was most of the time.
When our arguments became physical, they threatened to rip that trailer in half. We were like a storm that blew in out of a cloudless sky, tearing sturdy buildings off their foundations and scattering trash for miles around.
Every time this happened with Shauna in the house, she would do something unexpected while we were raging about her. She might fold the basket full of clean laundry that we hadn’t gotten around to yet. She might pick up the clutter in her room. She might grab a rag and dust. Whenever I would see her trying to impose order on the chaos surrounding her, my heart would break, and I would try to stop the argument, shut down the swirling negative emotions filling the house like acrid smoke. Sometimes it even worked. But it never fixed the underlying problems.
One day, in the middle of a huge fight in our kitchen/dining area, I happened to look down. Shauna was hiding under the table, knees drawn up to her chest, arms wrapped around her legs. She was crying and rocking back and forth. And in that moment, something broke inside me. What spilled from that break were pain and guilt and the sudden, dawning realization that my marriage would never last. I knew that Christie and I were too different, in our goals and our worldviews and our values. I knew that as long as we lived together, the fights would never stop, and that every single day would bring about the possibility that Shauna would wind up under that table, sobbing and wishing that her Mom and Dad would just love each other.
I stayed a couple more months and tried to fix things, but eventually, I did what I had always known I would have to do. I packed my things and moved out. I initiated divorce proceedings that would drag on for several months as we all wept and wailed and fought and tried to patch it all back together and eventually moved on.
It was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done, leaving that trailer and the woman I still loved and the daughter I adored. I was afraid and depressed and so very, very angry, none of which would change over the next two years of my life. I was entering the darkest period I have ever been through, but I had to do it. I could no longer abide the sight of that sweet girl hiding under a table, the knowledge that I bore half the responsibility for putting her there. I was changing things in the only way left to me. But every night, for months and months and months, my heart would break all over again, and I hated the world for letting things come to this. I hated it, but even more, I hated myself.
What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
* * *
I remember when Christie’s mother informed me that Christie was getting remarried and moving to Pine Bluff. Until that time, I had seen Shauna whenever I wanted, which meant any time that I was not in class or at work or trying desperately to get some sleep. Now, the original custody agreement would be enforced—visitation every other weekend and alternate holidays.
The prospect of not seeing my daughter daily finished shattering what was left of my heart. In fact, it nearly killed me.
I got this news with only a couple days’ notice. I was supposed to work that night. I had an American Novel test the next day. I knew that I would not keep either commitment. Not when my world had just been turned upside down again.
I picked up Shauna and brought her to my parents’ house. I found her something to do. Then I went back to my parents’ room, closed the door, and grabbed their phone. I called my workplace and got an assistant manager.
“This is Brett. I’m supposed to work tonight, but I….I…” And then I burst into tears.
I couldn’t stop. The pain and confusion poured out of me in deep, throaty sobs. The manager listened quietly, and when I finally calmed down a bit, he said, “What is it?”
“It’s my daughter,” I whimpered. “She’s moving away, and I…”
“Don’t worry about coming in,” he said. “Take care of yourself. Take care of her. Let us know when you can come back.”
This small act of generosity—of taking me at my word, of putting my obvious breakdown ahead of whatever inconvenience the store might feel at my absence—nearly sent me into hysterics again. But I managed to swallow it. I thanked him and hung up.
Now for the test. I tried to look up my professor’s phone number, but it wasn’t listed. So I checked the number of another professor, one I had taken classes with several times. She was friends with the American Novel professor. I was in good standing with both of them; I was honored to know that they considered me one of their best students. I was hoping that Professor #2 would give me Professor #1’s number.
I dialed Professor #2 and waited as it rang. I took deep, slow breaths, determined to calm myself this time, to handle things better. I didn’t want to look like a fool, and I wanted to make the best case possible for myself.
“Hello?” said Professor #2.
“Hi,” I said. “It’s Brett Riley. I’m sorry to bother you at home, but I….”
That was as far as I made it before it all ripped out of me again. I burst into sobs that were just as deep, just as uncontrollable, just as wrenching as those that came before. It took me at least a couple of minutes to calm down.
“What’s wrong?” said Professor #2, and I was grateful for the concern that I could hear in her voice.
“It’s my daughter,” I said. “My ex-wife is moving away, and I’ve only got two days, but see, I’ve got this test in Professor #1’s class….”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Professor #2. “I’ll talk to Professor #1. She’ll let you make up the test.”
I thanked her about a hundred times and hung up, feeling a bit better because at least I could spend those two days with Shauna without worrying about all the other things in my life. Not until I became a teacher myself did I really understand what Professor #s 1 and 2 did for me. It wasn’t just being generous enough to give a make-up exam to a student with a real-life problem. It was how they worked together. Professor #2 had made a promise about how Professor #1 would handle a situation in class. Professor #1 lived up to that promise, even though she hadn’t made it herself and would have had every right to be angry with me and Professor #2. I have worked with several professors—little martinets who run their fiefdoms with iron fists, regardless of circumstance—who would not have been so generous. Who might have failed me for seeking aid from a colleague. Who would have resented the colleague for speaking out of turn. But somehow, Professor #2 had conveyed the depth and sincerity of my sorrow. Professor #1 honored both me and her friend. To both of them, I have ever been grateful.
When I came out of that bedroom, I had dried my eyes and blown my nose. I would not cry in front of Shauna until she was in her 20s. But when she asked me if I ever got upset when she had to leave, I thought back to those first departings, the ones that knocked my world off its axis and left me a blubbering mess in front of my co-workers and my teachers, and I think, “Yes. From the very beginning of all this. But that was not your cross to bear. It was always mine, and mine alone.”
* * *
I remember leaving work once a week and driving an hour and a half to Pine Bluff. I would pick Shauna up from her new apartment and take her somewhere—a restaurant, a movie, a mall, some combination—just to get some extra time. I would have to drive back home, crash for a few hours, and get up early the next day for work or school.
One mid-week visit found us at the mall’s arcade, playing all those carnival games that spit out tickets based on your score. We managed to cobble together enough tickets to purchase the kinds of crummy prizes those places stock, garbled and hastily-constructed bits of plastic and rubber that would either survive a tactical nuclear strike or break within two days.
After she picked out the prizes she wanted, we had a few tickets left over, just enough to get a plastic Sheriff’s badge, gold-ish and hard as a rock, a clip-on job. You could barely read the writing on the front. It was the very definition of a throwaway toy. It was not, strictly speaking, a toy at all. It was tacky decoration, the kind of thing only a little kid would be drawn to.
I remember wondering why Shauna wanted it, what appeal it possibly could have held. She took it and clipped it to her shirt, where it hung like a dead man from a tree, weighty and shifting with every movement, threatening to drag the neck of her shirt halfway down her torso.
Nothing about her outfit or bearing connoted “Sheriff.” She was not dressed in western garb. She was obviously not wearing a county sheriff’s uniform. She might as well have been wearing a football helmet or a pair of boxing gloves.
There was something about the incongruity of the badge—her wanting it, her wearing it unselfconsciously—that struck me as such a little kid thing to do that I found myself misty-eyed, a lump in my throat. It was the sweetest thing I had seen in months.
I still think about that day, that badge, her wearing it while holding the rest of the loot we had won. It still chokes me up. Meaningless to anyone else, probably forgotten by her. Yet it has stayed with me in ways that other, seemingly more memorable events have not.
From little moments like this, we piece together our lives.
I remember how once, when I was taking her home from a weekend visit, Shauna asked me to stay the night. “You can stay at our house,” she said. “I bet Mom won’t mind.”
“Yes, she would,” I said. “She would definitely mind.”
I left that night after another bout of tears. Our visits during those years were always punctuated by Shauna’s tears and my sleeplessness, my nightmares. I don’t care what Shakespeare said. When it comes to your kids, there’s nothing sweet about the sorrow of parting. Nothing sweet at all.
* * *
I remember moving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to begin my doctoral program. I had to do it. I am a writer, but I am also an educator, and you cannot work in the college/university system without a terminal degree, not if you value decent pay and the possibility of job security and benefits. I had to go, for myself and for my family. And so the every-other-weekend-and-alternate-holiday visits became six-weeks-in-the-summer-and-alternate-holidays-and-sometimes-spring-break visits. Even less time than before.
Thus, the end-of-visit anguish intensified, for both of us. We had great times during the visit. It always seemed like we had never been apart. We still knew each other as well as ever; we still loved each other just as fiercely.
But the time. Always the time, and never enough of it.
The night before her leaving was always like a little funeral, not for us or our relationship but for every missed day, missed conversation, missed opportunity to share our lives.
We have survived so many little deaths.
* * *
I remember living in Baton Rouge and hearing her ask tearfully if we could at least arrange it so that we could see each other more.
“Six weeks just isn’t very long,” she said.
“Yes,” I said. “As soon as I can save up the money for the court costs and get things settled enough to impress a judge. We can absolutely do that.”
“Okay,” she said.
It never happened. By the time I saved that money and settled my life, everything had changed. Now she had friends, boys, a social life, activities—the things that every healthy, well-adjusted kid has, the things that no decent person can begrudge them.
“Six weeks is an awfully long time,” she said when she told me that she wanted to cut those six weeks down to two. The two would eventually become none, and then she was grown, and working, and dating seriously.
Time flies, and all your good intentions fly with it. When it all goes, you are left with empty rooms, the silence that always descends in the wake of loss. People call it Empty Nest Syndrome, and it is no less painful when that nest has only been occupied part-time. It is natural and good; it is progression, evolution, maturation. It is the very essence of the word “bittersweet.”
What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
* * *
I remember Shauna’s high-school graduation. I watched her walk across that stage and take her diploma, and I felt as proud as any parent ever does. I felt relief, because she had not only survived all the mines that her mother and I had dug for her; she had thrived. She was moving on to an adult life full of possibility. She could be or do anything. And whatever she might do, I no longer had a say in it. More bitterness, more sweetness—that moment when your child moves past you into a world truly their own. Visitation dependent not only on desire and convenience but also work schedules and vacations.
Graduation is beautiful and agonizing and scary and part of the natural order. It is like the moment when the baby birds finally jump out of the nest, exhilarated and flapping their wings as hard as they can, hoping to catch the right updraft before they splatter on the ground. Meanwhile, the older birds sit in that nest, suddenly alone, time stretching before them all the way to the horizon. They want to scoop up those children and usher them safely back to the fold, knowing all the time that they cannot, must not. That they would not be allowed.
* * *
I remember Shauna’s surprise visit on my birthday. I had not seen her in a year. I walked into Kalene’s office one Friday afternoon, tired and grumpy and ready to go home. Shauna was sitting in a chair, smiling.
I was thunderstruck. I said the only thing I could think of: “Holy shit!”
It was one of the best presents I’ve ever gotten. I remember once, when she was a little girl, she drew a picture for me and presented it to me on my birthday. I can’t even remember what it was. All I know is that it was hand-drawn and colored and said, “To Daddy.”
“It’s all I have to give,” she said.
“It’s all I want,” I replied, hugging her. “I can’t imagine getting anything better.”
What do you do for someone who has so often given you all she has to give? When you have so often failed to give her what she asked for, what she needed? How do you sleep at night? What do you dream about? What happens when she finds out that you are not a good man?
I suppose that the only answer is that you try again. That, even when you can barely stand to look at your own reflection, you stand up and walk. You write her on Facebook. You text her. You invite her to your new home and let her know that she always has a place there, that she never has to ask. You remind her that if she needs something and it is within your power to give it, you will, for this is your duty and your privilege.
And when you screw it all up, you pray that she has one more ounce of forgiveness in her heart.
Do I ever get upset? Oh, yes. God, yes.
But I don’t dwell on those things. I dwell on the blessings I’ve been given—to know her, to be whatever kind of father I’ve been, to spend time with her, to influence her in ways that are, hopefully, more positive than negative. I look at the woman she’s become and hope that her goodness is partially because of me, not just in spite of me. I thank God for her presence in my life—a presence that saved me in very tangible ways.
And then I move onto the next task that will take me through the next minute, and the next hour, and the next day, until she gets off the plane and everything is like it should be again, for just a little while.
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If You Ask Me
Nirvana’s Nevermind as Cultural Bomb
I suppose every generation has at least one do-you-remember-where-you-were-when-it-happened event. Some are Earth-, or at least nation-, shattering: the storming of the Bastille, the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, the first shots over the walls of Fort Sumter, the Nazi invasion of Poland, Pearl Harbor, the launching of Sputnik, the moon landing, Watergate, the World Trade Center attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan.
Some are moments when world leaders die unexpectedly, changing our lives in less cataclysmic but still important ways—Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Princess Diana.
Still others mark a change or absence in the art and culture that we experience every day. Take the realm of music for an example and you could pick several names from the last forty years: Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Lennon, Presley, Wallace, Shakur, Jackson. And if you made such a list, you would be remiss if you failed to include Kurt Cobain.
Other people have written about Cobain. I don’t suppose my story is much different than theirs. It might go something like this.
“And lo, the 1980s came to pass, and in this time the land lay enshrouded in the shadow of a dark and evil force, an entity that ensured the unequal distribution of power and wealth and a return to the personal politics of a bygone era, and that force was named Reaganomics.
“And the popular music of this era would uncritically reflect the thirst for material goods and economic excess for its own sake. The artists of the day would often symbolize the conspicuous consumption that prevailed throughout the land. And in the fullness of time this music would be called Hair Metal.
“And many Hair metal bands would garnish their stages with enormous set pieces, models, blow-up figures, and laser lights, and they would dress in tight leather and spandex and multiple bandanas and thick make-up and whole cases of hairspray, and in their lyrics they would register their desire for never-ending parties and limitless sex and the unfettered flow of drugs and alcohol.
“When these bands first appeared, they heralded the expansion of music into new and interesting directions, and their charming fin-de-siecle attitudes super-charged the youth of the land. But as the wealthy hoarded more and more of the land’s resources and the poor became more desperate and those in the middle disappeared, the land’s taste for Hair Metal transmogrified into a yearning for something new—something angrier than New Wave and more accessible than Punk.
“And in the latter part of the decade, those who yearned discovered bands such as the Melvins, and later, the Pixies, Sonic Youth, Mother Love Bone, and Dinosaur Jr. And new bands formed under the influences of these forbears, and their names included Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam. With regular rotation on MTV, these bands grew in popularity and mainstream acceptance. And perhaps their success is best epitomized in Nirvana’s second studio album, the 1991 release Nevermind.”
I’ve got much love for 80s Hair Metal and the other bands mentioned above. But when Nirvana released Nevermind, few people were probably aware that the band had actually detonated a cultural bomb, one that would change the musical landscape and the youth of America. Nevermind is nothing short of a watershed moment in musical history, and now that we are twenty years past its release (!!!), I feel that I must consider it and its place in my life.
Nirvana formed in 1987, and in 1989, when I graduated high school and saw the birth of my daughter Shauna, they released their first album Bleach on the famous grunge label Sub Pop. I was aware of this album and liked it quite a lot. As many critics pointed out, Nirvana’s sound emulated the Pixies’ in many ways, especially the LOUD-quiet-LOUD structure of their songs. For influences, you could certainly do much worse, right? And I remember really liking songs like “About a Girl,” the simplified growl of “School” (“Wouldn’t you believe it? / Just my luck. / No recess!”), the metal-like anger of “Blew,” the speed-metal-ish “Negative Creep.”
But with Nevermind, I went from being aware of Nirvana to being obsessed with them. The album sounded like a mélange of many things I’d heard before, but at the same time, it sounded completely new. It was angry in a way that you could only find in the punkiest punk or the speediest metal; it was sardonic; it was sincere and heart-wrenching; it was critical. I listened to each song and felt myself falling deeper and deeper in love with the album.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” the song for which they are probably most famous, is the borderline-incoherent scream of a new generation. Songs like “In Bloom” and “Come as You Are” demonstrate Nirvana’s range—the one hard and heavy, the other like something The Police could have recorded. “Breed” could be a punk song. “Lithium” and “Drain You” rock like metal, though neither shares the typical subject matter of the most prominent hair bands. “Polly” is, quite frankly, one of the creepiest songs I’ve ever heard. And the dirge-like “Something in the Way” is simply, completely different than anything else on the album. The repeated lyrics are both haunting and mystifying: “Underneath the bridge / My tarp has sprung a leak / And the animals I’ve trapped / Have all become my pets / And I’m living off of grass / And the drippings from my ceiling / It’s okay to eat fish / ‘Cause they don’t have any feelings / Something in the way, mmm…”
As a band, Nirvana also looked different. We had already moved from bands like the Beatles, who first came to us in button-down shirts and ties, to long-haired, leather-clad, hirsute rockers to the 80s-era spandex and make-up. Nirvana, by contrast, looked as if they had just fallen out of bed at a college dorm. They wore faded jeans and t-shirts and cardigan sweaters. On stage, they leaped around as if they had just come from the mosh pit themselves, or else they stood still; they had no elaborate set pieces or enormous scaffolding that spanned the arenas or massive fireworks displays. If they tended to destroy their instruments a la the Who and countless other bands before them, they could not always be counted on to do so safely or in a way that seemed practiced; witness bassist Krist Novoselic throwing his bass into the air, only to have it land on his own head.
In their televised performances they seemed to exude a barely-controlled anger perhaps restrained only by a distaste for excess. They could rip your spine out with their crunching chords or soothe your aching eardrums with an almost-melodic detour into a song like “Something….” Their music seemed to have been made by people who knew what had happened to America in the 80s—the false siren call of “family values” that marginalized alternative family paradigms and modes of being; the “prosperity” that stopped at the very top and trickled down to the rest of us not at all, in spite of the political rhetoric at the time; the belief in American exceptionalism that still hamstrings us today. Nirvana’s music seemed to rise up from the middle-class-to-poor spirit that had been trampled on. Starting off as a marginal voice from a marginal movement, it took center stage with Nevermind and reminded us that music could be more than what it had become.
I will always love my Hair Metal bands, both the fun ones like Poison (yep, I’m not ashamed of that) and the more serious ones like Dio. But I can honestly say that Nirvana reminded me of what rock music could be, beginning with Nevermind. Kurt Cobain’s death was every bit as important and traumatic to me as John Lennon’s. Cobain might not have reached Lennon’s level as a songwriter, but as a voice crying out in the wilderness of our lives, Cobain has no superior.
In this, the twentieth year since that watershed moment, I salute Nevermind all over again, and its three creators, whose collaboration was, like Cobain himself, gone too soon.
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Has Anybody Seen My Teeth?
“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.
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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.
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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?
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**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?**
I make no claims that what follows is a great piece of writing. It is, however, highly personal, and it’s something I’ve needed to say for longer than I care to think about.
Hard to Say I’m Sorry: an Open Letter to Someone I Miss
As a doctor of American Literature, I am well-acquainted with the fact that most people don’t know much (or care to know) about Modernist poetry. But if I had to bet my paycheck that almost everyone had heard of at least one Modernist poem, I would wager on Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” In case you haven’t read it since high school, I hereby quote the final stanza, in which the speaker, having been presented with two possible paths, finally makes his choice.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Once, during my Master’s program, I heard one of my professors say that he had always read “The Road Not Taken” as satirical. He had a hard time believing that a poet of Frost’s caliber would simplify to such a degree the difficulties in navigating life. After all, as we make most of our choices, we see not two paths but several, often looking much the same, the end never in sight. Try as we might to apply logic and foresight to our decisions, we often result to the mental equivalent of flipping a coin; “I’ve got to try something,” we say to ourselves, and we plunge ahead, hoping that we don’t sail over some cliff hidden in the foliage.
Of course, some choices are more important than others. In the end, who really cares if you choose Taco Bell over Burger King on a given day? Does it really matter if you watch Movie A instead of TV Show B, especially in this age of Netflix instant access and DVRs? Possibly not. But some choices can literally change lives. I discovered that as I have discovered most things—through painful experience.
Back when I was much younger—before fatherhood, before marriage, before graduate school and a truly adult life—I had to make a choice. I cannot get into specifics in a public forum, and so I am left with generalizations, half-descriptions, and facades. I hope that if the person I’m talking to ever reads this, she will recognize herself and understand what I’m saying. I have never been good at talking about my feelings, so if I lose my way, I apologize to you, reader, and especially to her for whom this is meant. She deserves better.
If you’ve found your way here, you probably feel like I’ve blindsided you. We haven’t spoken in many years, a situation for which I am solely to blame. I wish I could go back and talk to my younger self; I could avoid so many mistakes that way, including one of the worst—losing touch with you. I cannot, of course, turn back time or reach across the years and fix things. I can only apologize, and believe me, I know how much there is to be sorry for.
We met at a tumultuous time in my life. I had experienced things that devastated me emotionally. After that, I made some dumb decisions about who to care for and trust; these people piled their own kinds of damage on top of what had already been done. I had been convinced that I was worthless, that I would never be happy, that at best I would not drive my car off a bridge. Some days, I hated getting out of bed, and I always teetered on the edge of grim mania, barely stopping myself from punching people in the face for the flimsiest of reasons.
Then, on yet another gray day, I met you.
We hit it off quickly. Something about the way you smiled made me feel warm, and for whatever reason, you seemed to smile at me a lot. We talked. We saw each other socially. Soon, in a moment of unbridled and spectacular surprise, we came together in a kiss that was as desperate as it was passionate. Perhaps you were looking for something, too. I don’t pretend to know. I only know that it happened, and that it shocked both of us, like something out of a movie. When we broke apart, we stared at each other for several weighty moments. Then you said, “Oops,” and I could add nothing more profound. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We didn’t mean for it to. But it had happened, and we would have to deal with it.
We embarked upon a relationship. Your family didn’t like me (and in this, they were not alone); I was the very definition of “damaged goods.” You could have done better. But for us, it worked, at least for a while. I remember that you ended it once, knowing that things were too complicated, that the timing wasn’t right. I accepted your decision with disappointment, but also with understanding. After all, I wouldn’t have wanted to be with me at that time in my life, and I wanted you to be happy. So I watched you walk away. If I recall, I went out with one of my best friends and got drunk and pretended that I was fine.
But I was miserable. I felt a roaring inside me, a howling emptiness that you had begun to fill, and while I was willing to let you go, I didn’t want to. I wanted to call, to drive around until I found you, to beg you to come back. I did none of those things; I was strong enough for that, at least. But I missed you. And the really odd part? This separation only lasted a few days.
Because you did come back. You told me that you had made a mistake, that you knew the problems and the risks of loving me and that you didn’t care. And even though I knew I was too unstable to give you what you deserved, I weakened, because I loved you and wanted to be with you so badly. So we started up again.
But in the end, you can’t run away from your problems. I was too broken for anybody to fix. Only time and a lot of self-analysis would do that. My guilt over some things I’d done and my desire to be a better person in the future led me to break things off. I’m here to tell you that I didn’t want to do it. Walking away from you was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and that’s saying a lot, especially now that I’m forty years old and have been through two divorces, family deaths, long separations from friends and loved ones. But I did it, because I knew that I had a lot of work to do on myself and that you deserved better than I could give. I simply could not ask you to wait until I got myself together.
But because I was afraid, I handled things wrong. I let the situation drag out over a period of weeks in which you wondered what you had done wrong, why I was holding myself at a distance, when things would go back to normal. I tried to tell you the truth many times, but every time I opened my mouth, the words would fail me. The prospect of losing you scared me, and I have never frightened easily. By the time I finally told you that I would need time, that there were things I’d have to do in order to live with myself and be worthy of anyone’s love, I had hurt you. You were very understanding, but any amount of pain I might have caused is unacceptable.
For my poor handling of our relationship and its conclusion, I apologize, from the bottom of my heart. Everything negative that happened was my fault. I tried to be a good person, but you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell. I truly loved our time together, and if circumstances had been different, I would never have done what I did.
For my silence in the years since, I also apologize. Of course, I don’t know if you even wanted to speak to me; I just know that I wanted to speak to you. But I was ashamed, and I was both hopeful and afraid that you’d moved on. So for any moment, no matter how fleeting, that I left you sitting near a silent telephone, I’m sorry.
I’m with my soulmate now, someone who loves me both for what I am and for what I’m not. We’re deliriously happy, something I never thought possible. I would not give that up for the world. I’m trying to be the best father I can be. I’m still trying to be the kind of man I can admire.
But my healing started with you. Your love showed me that I wasn’t worthless, that happiness was possible. For that, I can never repay you. The point I’m trying to make here is that my feelings for you were real. They still are; for me, that kind of love never goes away. No matter the circumstances, I’ll always be here for you. And even in your absence, you’ve always been important to me.
I know you’ve moved on. You’ve got a family of your own now, a life, a career. You seem happy, from what I’ve heard. And no one could be happier for you than I am. For any part I might have played in delaying that happiness, I’m sorry.
I’ve hoped to say all this to you personally, but I can’t seem to get in contact. I’ve thought about this, and I’ve come up with three possible reasons why you don’t want to talk to me. 1) You still love me, even after all this time, and fear what might happen to your life if I come back into it. 2) You’ve realized you never really loved me at all and simply don’t care if you ever talk to me again. 3) Your own feelings (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, you’re afraid that I have some kind of agenda, that I will make trouble for you.
But I’m not egotistical enough to think that you still love me, at least to the extent that you, as an older and wiser person, couldn’t control yourself around me. I don’t think you’d run and leap into my arms, consequences be damned. So I’m crossing out #1. As for #2, I hope it isn’t true. But if it is, I wouldn’t blame you. I can only repeat that my feelings have always been genuine, and that I’d like to be in your life in whatever capacity you’d allow. In terms of #3, I’m not the guy I used to be. I’ve grown up. I’m not selfish enough to cause you problems. I’m no longer confused about who I am or what I can offer. Know that I would never hurt you or the people you care about.
What I’m trying to say is that I miss you, and I’d like to be your friend. I’d like to introduce you to my wife; I think you’d like her. I’d like to tell you about my life and how you’ve affected it. It’s a pretty good story.
But you have more than earned the right to say no. If you don’t want me in your life, I don’t blame you. I will only say that I will always be here. If you ever need or want anything, call or write me. If it’s within my power to give it, I will. In the meantime, just know that I’m sorry for the way I mishandled things, and that I have thought of you often over the years, always fondly.
Saying this has been hard. Thinking about your potential silence is harder. But I made this particular bed, and I’ll lie in it as long as I have to.
I hope this finds you and yours well.