Monday, May 28, 2012

The Show that Could...Not

I know it's jumping the gun a little bit to write a review of a show when the season is not quite over yet, but I figure giving it 90% of a season to turn into something is enough.  To that end, here are my thoughts on Starz's Magic City.

I was frankly excited to see this show proposed because it's a near-perfect premise: Boardwalk Empire meets Mad Men.  Honestly, what could possibly be more watchable than that?! And the trailers that Starz bombarded me with seemed to back that up.  It looked slick and thrilling and snazzy and exciting...all the things I've come to expect from a Premium-Channel Series.  But, I guess HBO set the bar too high or Starz just can't seem to find the quality of writers a show like this absolutely requires.  Let's face it: a Boardwalk Empire/Mad Men show needs and deserves a Martin Scorsese-caliber expertise; anything less is just sad.  That's why Magic City is just..not there.

First up, the main character Ike Evans:

this guy is dull-as-toast, despite the sharks he's swimming with.  Evans is written as a stand-up businessman--at least when he's not taking money from gangsters--who just wants to have the most successful hotel in Miami.  We're supposed to see him as a poor-boy-made-good who is trying hard to keep his nose above water and navigate the seamy-personalities that are attracted by success.  It's just too bad that Evans seems to be failing at that all of sudden.  We're given the impression that he's been amazingly successful up until now, but for some very hazy reason he's borrowed $100k from a crazy local gangster.  Is it to pay a mortgage? Is it to pay the taxes on the giant, white, post-modern monstrosity he's built?  We don't know.  But we do know that whatever Evans needed the money for, it only required $55,000, because he blows $45,000 on a boxing match he thought was rigged but actually wasn't.  Being in debt to the tune of $55k to a violent nut-job is bad enough..why voluntarily make it $100k?
     And almost as an aside, the writers seem to want to make his (and other characters') Jewishness a "thing"--as if they're trying to say, "it's Florida, you know *wink wink*".  Unfortunately, Jeffery Dean Morgan and the actors who play his sons are all about as Jewish as bacon on white bread...and thus, the writing for that is half-hearted, a bit confused, and never comes off (see also, Cubanness as a "thing" that never happens).
     And since we're on Jeffery Dean Morgan: this man is unarguably a really tasty piece of eye candy (I mean, just look at him up there!), but he has the Keanu-Reeves Disorder--the man emotes like a block of wood.  When I found that out, I became a little depressed.  Morgan's so nice to stare at, but if this piece of work is anything to go by, he's a crappy actor!  Maybe he should stick with overblown action flicks with miniscule plots. You don't really need emotional range for overblown action flicks with miniscule plots--something Keanu learned (hello, Matrix!).

Next up, is that crazy gangster loan shark I mentioned above, Ben "the Butcher" Diamond:

This is actually an interesting character; someone with the moniker, "the Butcher", can't help but be diverting..I would hope.  This character is an attention-getter because the writers made him as mentally balanced as Henry VIII. He's filthy rich, locally powerful, and a dangerous pervert with a weird kind of God complex.  Ben Diamond is quite obviously under-medicated, so you've got to wonder why someone as level-headed as Evans is supposed to be would borrow a huge chunk of change from THIS guy.  It's also obvious that Danny Huston is having a lot of fun playing this role and is to be congratulated for shaping an unbalanced, larger-than-life, yet still believable character prone to petulant outbursts of violence from the precious little good writing dedicated to Diamond.  ..And now I no longer want to run into Danny Huston in a dark alley.

Another major character is Ike's wife, Vera Evans:

overly gorgeous, though oddly approachable/relate-able (a feat if ever there was one), and you gotta love the Russian accent on a Romanian character--because on tv it's all the same...but, at least it's not an English accent.  Vera Evans was a showgirl Ike met in Cuba (pre-Magic City backstory) and now she's playing Miami first lady with visions of state dinners that she just can't seem to pull off because Jackie Kennedy keeps ducking the invites.  This subplot is flimsy, a bit silly, and entirely unimportant to the main story; but Olga Kurylenko manages to carry it with a pleasant bit of classy dignity (she was a Bond girl, after all).

Next we have the Evans boys, Stevie and Danny: there's nothing much here at all.  First up, Stevie Evans

The oldest one, Stevie, is selfishly dumb, a definite fuck-up, and possibly a sex addict--what other explanation could there be for his engaging in a torrid (not to mention, mortally dangerous) affair with Ben "the Butcher" Diamond's latest wife?  The writers made this character head-shakingly stupid and this "affair" subplot gets launched with all the subtlety of a pie to the face: their eyes slam into each other..and then they slam into each other--in dressing rooms and hair salons--for the rest of the season.  Apparently, the point of this is to keep us waiting around for these two to be caught and tortured to death by her insane husband, while being entertained with gratuitous soft-core in the meantime. This has been going on since the very first episode. Yawn.

Then there's Danny Evans, who is as boring as khaki pants.

He's the "good one" and is smart only compared to suicidal Stevie. Danny's in college with aspirations of law school because he doesn't want to do things the street-way that Ike and Stevie follow; and so the brothers clash.  This trope is so used up, it's a hollowed out husk of its former dramatic self.  Not to mention the fact that the writers have made Danny so virginally Boy-Scout you half expect him to sprout Captain Marvel's costume at any moment.   

The last important character is Jack Klein:

here is the only other character actually worth watching (aside from "the Butcher").  Klein is your standard ruthless prosecutor, which could have been tedious--and very nearly was--except for the inconspicuous nuance that Matt Ross brings to this role.  Ross portrays Klein as cutthroat, instead of as a hard-hitting do-gooder.  The writers can be credited with making this character competitive, but smart enough to play the game very well.  This is possibly the only rather well-written (comparatively speaking) subplot.  Klein goes after Evans to get to Diamond and is using Danny--and everyone else--to do it.  Klein doesn't just want power, he wants to win.  I get the feeling that Klein knows it's all a giant chess game, but he's the only one that sees the board. He'll do whatever it takes to beat his opponents, but not to an idiotically self-destructive extent. He obviously believes he's smarter than everyone around him and he's proving it.  At this point, I'm willing to keep watching just to see this guy win.  *and, not to put too fine a point on it, Big Love's Matt Ross was the perfect choice to play a competitive control-freak*

After all of that, I hope I managed to illustrate some of what is to blame for this sadly lackluster show.  Starz has tried--and failed--with other overtly serious shows that couldn't deliver (Camelot comes to mind). And Starz has also delivered a mystifyingly successful, though embarrassingly gratuitous, MMA-trainwreck of a series (*ahem* Spartacus).

Magic City was supposed to be the network's introduction to serious adulthood/intelligent entertainment, but the one-off premium channel just can't seem to pull in and hire the great writers necessary to accomplish this.  This is yet another example that Starz is not yet a generic HBO (unlike Showtime, with its Tudors and Borgias successes).  I really and truly wanted to love this show.  I hung on after the dreadfully dull pilot in the hopes that I would just come to like the show.  Then I hung on because I wanted to see Diamond go completely off the deep end while Klein cleaned house.  I was not hate-watching this (that was Spartacus), but I was watching this.  *shakes head*  Maybe that's Starz's secret: it's not what it could be, so you stick around to see what all it wasn't supposed to be.    

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Facebook, I want to break up.

Facebook, I want to break up.  I just don't think I'm getting much out of this relationship anymore.  In the beginning, it was great! I reconnected with a lot of friends, kept in touch with family, discovered Farmville....  But all of that has changed; I guess the honeymoon is over.  After all these years, you've changed, I've changed.  We're just not the same as we were.  It's over.

It's over, but not for the reasons other people are talking about breaking up with Facebook (namely, privacy issues).  It's not even because of the increasingly intrusive (and laughably mismatched) ads eating up screen space.  It's because of my NewsFeed.  At first, I thought it was just mine, but reading FB critiques, I learn it's happened to many people's news feeds.  I'm not talking about the regular restructuring updates that invariably ignite a FB-hating flame war.  I'm talking about news feed content.  It's almost all junk news now.  It's gotten so bad that I began to whinge when logging on--the same whingeing I have when opening my (real life) mailbox, knowing it'll be crammed with scattered junk mail.  And so, I left Facebook about a month ago.

Warning up front: this blog post consists of an examination of my news feed-dysfunction as a way of engaging in relationship purging (sorry to air our personal issues, FB).  So, what is that junk mail in my NewsFeed?  It's a mish-mash of stuff that, in small enough doses, is fine.  But when it co-ops the entire day's feed, it becomes mind-numbing.  It's mostly comprised of the following:

Political Rants--I have a lot of politically tuned-in friends and I love them, but....  I will allow, however, that this is an election year; therefore, I can let these slide.

Pregnancy Woes/Potty-training Anecdotes--Over the past several years, I've been subjected to more of these than any one human being should be in a lifetime.  Quite frankly, it's like attending a daily baby shower.  *shudder*

[     ]Ville Game Invites--I admit, I played Farmville for a while, until I realized that it was internet-crack: the first little bit is free, until you're hooked, and then it leeches your bank account.  Ditto [___]Wars.  I do believe more people log in to FB to play these scam-games than to engage in actual Facebooking. I'm not sure if that's sad or telling.

Funny/Goofy/Sarcastic Pics/Videos/Charts--I actually don't mind these so much; they're great for procrastinating and most of them are actually entertaining.  Having said that, memes do get old..very old..very fast.

Amateur Cellphone Photography--this is my biggest gripe next to the pregnancy/parenting complaints.  I'm not the only one to develop a distaste for amateur cellphone photography a la FB.  Unless you are a college freshman (who only take pictures of drunk people who will later get fired), these pictures consist of 2 things: children and food.

          Children cellphone pictures--I know parents love their rugrats like they're the greatest rugrat ever to crawl on a floor; but endless, context-free cellphone photos aren't actually necessary to convey your parental pride.  Over the past 365 days, I have had delivered to my news feed 128 amateur cellphone pictures of kids with dogs, 83 pictures of kids in yards, 67 pictures of kids on, wait, make that 68.  I understand that there is a natural parental urge to document every minute of your child's existence, but cellphone photography is not the way to go.  Your kid may be mind-bogglingly cute in that instant, but that very rarely translates onto the internet.  You tap your phone and what gets posted is yet another blurry, impromptu picture of child doing something that isn't readily apparent.
But even giddy amateur parent-photography isn't as bad as....

          Food Pictures--People post amateur cellphone photos of what their significant other ordered for dinner last Saturday, what they and their colleagues had at lunch on Monday, and a picture of the appetizers delivered 5 minutes ago.  When did this become a "thing"?  Why would anyone on Earth care?  Seriously, if you didn't shed your own blood, sweat, and tears to make that dish...if you don't own the restaurant...if you aren't dating the chef, put the cellphone down and just eat the thing.  I don't actually know anyone who needs to see a picture of what someone else ordered to eat last Thursday, unless it unexpectedly was shaped like Elvis's head--in which case, they'll probably be selling it on Ebay and I can view it there.  

We all have cameras in our hands now, but that doesn't mean we should be flooding Facebook with photos every second.  Think about it: if we wouldn't hire a professional photographer to record the event, buy 3x5 glossies, and distribute those to in-laws, co-workers, bosses, and school children, then we probably shouldn't bother with it--whether it's the donut you just ordered, or an up-close and personal photo-spread of your bff giving birth (actually happened to my news feed!); don't force your friends' list to sort through all of that to get to the graduation pictures.

Facebook, whatever happened to momentous status updates?  Whatever happened to posts of funny anecdotes?  Why has my news feed begun to read like someone's day planner?  It's like people are emptying their pockets and desk drawers onto my screen and I have to sort through wrinkled receipts, jumbled post-it notes, crumpled newspaper clippings, reject photos from the abandoned scrapbook, garbled phone messages, inflammatory pamphlets, etc.  Interacting with you, Facebook, has become a daily, collective yard sale--I've seen most of it before, I already own some of it myself, and none of it is particularly interesting.

I began to question why I was spending time and energy on that.  Then one day, I just quit.  That was about a month ago and few, if any, have noticed.  Yes, it was weird at first--not hard, just strange.  I'm still dealing with a Pavlovian impulse to want to post things on Facebook, but that's waning.  And I have actually regained at least 2 hours each day.  That's 14 hours a week that I now spend reading real news, reading real literature, or just relaxing.

I realize now, Facebook, that our relationship had just become a habit...and habits can be broken.  Facebook, I want to break up.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Classic Rock or Classic Rubbish?

Lately I've been re-evaluating something that was once so fundamental to me: Classic Rock.  Since I've started really listening to the songs played on the ubiquitous classic rock radio stations, I've discovered something quite shocking: I actually don't like nearly as much of it as I always assumed I did.  And they were definitely assumptions.  I recently realized that my affinity for classic rock stems less from actual enjoyment and more from a deep familiarity with the songs and musicians played in endless rotation. 
Per my personal musical exploration: I'm now ready to admit that I don't like Journey--I'm an 80's child and Journey is just cheesy, make-out music that teenagers in movies had on the radio in the background while they made out and waited for the killer/parents to arrive and interrupt them. Also, in my humble opinion (which I've harbored all my life), neither Rod Stewart nor Lita Ford have any talent to speak of.  Of course, that does not apply to Lita Ford's tenure in The Runaways--I'll forgive anyone who was in that band any later silliness or mediocrity--and Lita was definitely silly in the 80s (anyone remember her humping her guitar while dressed like Jane Fonda's workout videos?). 
 The Eagles, The Doobies, The Allmans: I almost hesitate to say that none of them have anything remarkable or interesting about their music--it's purely background stuff (and yes, I admit that it was different for those bands in the 70s, but this ain't the 70s no more). I feel like I'm uttering a mild sacrilege..I don't think I like Rush or Skynyrd..but that's just an initial verdict, I'll reserve final judgment.
I also don't like 38 Special, Aerosmith, and a growing number of other rock groups that form the indispensable stable on classic rock stations around the country.  Now, there are in fact quite a few classic rock staples that I happen to truly love: The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Stones, and many others..including Chicago.  *I would like to register a complaint that classic rock stations don't play NEARLY enough David Bowie.  Just something to take under advisement.*

You're probably wondering what started all of this (admittedly pointless) retrospection.  I haven't listened to non-Pandora radio in years..because I have a short attention span, I can't stand commercial breaks while I'm on the interstate and I Absolutely HATE morning radio babbling-shows (they're NEVER actually entertaining).  So, when I recently turned my car radio on (it was, of course, pre-set to the classic rock station), it was like I was hearing the stuff from a distance.  The time spent not listening to it allowed me to hear it with more objective ears..and I realized that I actually didn't like what I was hearing. So much of it seems cheesy, mediocre, or even just annoying. Don't get me wrong, in my opinion there's far more good stuff on a classic rock station than on a pop station..but that doesn't mean that all of it is worth listening to.

I'll continue to revise my list of good vs. familiar classic rock..and in the interest of gender equality, I'll end this blog post with a slightly updated, chick music reconsideration: I admit that I prefer Veruca Salt and Bikini Kill to Ani DiFranco and PJ Harvey. I only like a small fraction of Tori Amos's work. And..*gulp*..I have never liked The Indigo Girls....  And now every female friend I've ever had gasped, clutched her throat, and fell over. I may have forfeited my Girl Club membership card with that last one.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

I Heart Hughes

About a couple of weeks ago, I took the opportunity to re-watch the 1983 Michael Keaton comedy Mr. Mom.  I hadn't seen this movie since I was about 8 or 9 years old and I laughed as much now as I did then, but of course I watched it with a whole new perspective. 

Nearly 20 years ago, I watched Mr. Mom as a kid who knew Michael Keaton as Beetlejuice and Batman, so I was quite familiar with Keaton as a comedian and an action guy.  But when I re-watched this comedy, I actually paid attention to the credits and was delightedly surprised to find that it was written by none other than the 80's icon, John Hughes.  Thinking about it now, it kinda makes sense that Hughes would write such a complex, funny, and pointed film; though it is a bit of a departure from his other 80's classic hits like Some Kind of Wonderful and Weird Science. 

John Hughes is carved on the psyche of Generation X like a tattoo of a former favorite cartoon character that goes in and out of popularity as it alternates between cheesy and ironic.  No one managed to capture 80's teenage-hood better than this man, but it ended up rather inescapably dating his work.  Who could forget Ferris Bueller's lament of getting a computer (a green screened beige lump working off of DOS--yeah, it's THAT old), Sixteen Candles' John Cusack not getting sued for sexual harassment when he and Anthony Michael Hall obtained Molly Ringwald's underwear, and the categorically stereotypical teens of The Breakfast Club (none of whom were goth, or hipster, or rapper..or even ethnic).  John Hughes IS the 80's for me *even though I was actually in elementary school, but I lived a viacarious teenage pop cultural life through my significantly older siblings*. 

That's why I was so surprised to find that Hughes penned a comedy for and about adult life.  I knew he did The Great Outdoors, European Vacation, and *poor man* the Home Alone movies (AAHHHHH!), but for me Hughes had no connection with real adult life until I sat down and watched Mr. Mom one more time. 

Seeing this movie with my new perspective revealed a fascinating look at the recession that occurred in the first two or three years of the decade and hit the American automotive industry rather hard, a hardship that would be repeated precisely 10 years later.  Keaton's character, Jack, loses his job as an engineer at a car maufacturing plant.  I remember from childhood having gleaned from the adults in my life that American car makers were in a lot of trouble (interesting how things go in cycles, isn't it?).  They were in so much trouble that they were laying off their educated, credentialed managerial staff--something that usually happens just before the end.  So, Jack loses his midlevel job, and to make ends meet, his homemaker wife gets a job in the advertising business (apparently she had a degree in advertising).  Admittedly, this part of the plot is shaky at best--I mean, how does a housewife who had little or no resume land a job in less than a week; and not just any job, but a rather highly placed, sub-executive one!  But, it was understandably done for the sake of setting up the plot of a clueless dad becoming a home maker.

Keaton's Jack manfully rises to meet the challenges of homelife with three kids (one in diapers), obviously assuming that it "couldn't possibly be that hard".  Oh, But It Is.  Shortly after his wife leaves with his briefcase, Jack is screwing up school drop-off, screwing up the house, and screwing up his wife's carefully created daily routines. The most shallow interpretation of this being, Of Course He Screwed It All Up--He's A Guy.  At least, that's all that a lot of the arm-chair opinionizers got out of it then and now.  I've seen thinly veiled and openly contemptuous comments about this movie, from parenting blogs to movie sites.  The interesting thing, once I began to think carefully about this movie, is that this reaction is the main one I suspect John Hughes was deliberately aiming at.  He quite effectively pegged everyone's gender biases with Mr. Mom.

The main complaint against Mr. Mom seems to be based around the assumption that it denegrates stay-at-home dads, which in turn re-inforces gender stereotypes.  This is such a shallow and prejudicial view of what is actually a neatly packaged indictment of a nearly static society--from the obsessively self-interested, unethical supervisor to the Ike-Era-esque gender roles.  I see nothing deliberately derogative of a man who is clearly out of his element trying desperately to adjust to his new (and nervously unwelcomed) circumstances.  How is the chaos that Jack invokes any different from that which develops around all 'new' parents, moms in particular?

So, the assumption is that Mr. Mom shores up stifling gender roles.  I call b***s**t.  Mr. Mom actually highlights the prejudices and the hardships that accompany the stereotyping of all social roles.  Once Jack finds his feet and establishes his own daily routine (personalizing it for his own skill set, rather than trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, so to speak), he creates a smooth flow in the home and gains perspective on what housewives traditionally experienced: trying to, basically, schedule time with their spouses while everyone rushes in opposite directions. 

By the end of the film, Jack doesn't go the predictible route we see in most Baby Boomer movies: decide that the "Rat Race" is inherently destructive and chose to stay in suburban-land and have his life revolve around his household.  Think about how many movies from the 60s to today have that as a message, which is cheesy and naive at best.  Hughes *thankfully!* doesn't insult our intelligence by going that route.  Rather, he has Jack discover the values of homelife that even Jack had been dismissive of, but Jack doesn't decide to forgoe a work life altogether.  Neither does Hughes go the overtly feminist route and have Carolyn decide that working outside the home was the truly fulfilling thing.  Hughes finds the happy (and more realistic) medium by having Jack gain a deep, new respect for house-folk and Carolyn decide that a part time job would be fulfilling enough.  Hughes has his suburban couple find a balance without having his own creation fall prey to a whole different set of stereotypes. 

Hughes' savvy uses Jack as the camera that uncovers inveterate social stereotyping.  Jack experiences the social snubbing that dismisses home makers in general, not just the male ones; particularly at Carolyn's boss's lawn party.  But this is where Hughes shows his talent: the patronizing of Jack not only highlights the dismissive attitudes toward housewives, it also reveals the multifaceted sexism of American society that maintains the rigid, post-WWII images of masculinity--images that have no room for house-dads (think about it, you never saw John Wayne or any member of the Rat Pack pushing a stroller, and there's a reason for that). 

Hughes exposes the fact that men like Jack are as trapped by stagnant masculine social roles as women are by traditional feminine roles.  Carolyn's boss is representative of those chauvanistic male roles as he condescends to Jack now that Jack is a housedad (read: unemployed/failure). This is particularly played up in an overtly Cro-Magnon way when the boss feels free to make passes at Carolyn; because after all, her husband has been emasculated, right? and she needs a real man.  Hughes is showing us that Jack's male gender doesn't make him inherently privileged in all circumstances.  *That's a dialogue this country still needs to have, in depth.*

Another thing to remember in this movie (and you'll miss it unless you're paying attention) is that Jack's work friends completely disappear the minute after they're all fired and they don't reappear for the rest of the movie.  Jack loses his male comrades, which highlights a sense of suburban exile.  You only find out from a couple of brief mentions that his fired co-workers were having as much trouble as he finding new jobs, but there is no indication that they too had become housedads. 

Back in fatherhood-land, Jack is absorbed unquestioningly into Carolyn's suburban group of women.  Again, Hughes is brilliant because this group of women could have easily objectified Jack same as most of the characters in the film.  They don't.  Instead, they accept him as he is now, a housedad; only Joan sexually objectifies him.  These women don't see Jack as an embarassed failure (as Carolyn's boss did), nor do they see him as a novelty act.  They absorb him into their group as an equal and not as a freak or a new toy as we would have expected.  I'm still uncertain what all Hughes was highlighting there, but he obviously wanted us (through Jack's presence) to see this suburban house-group as friends and individuals and not types.  And isn't it fascinating that Hughes has the women in Jack's life accepting his changed social role without judging him?

I have always had a shelf in my pop cultural childhood reserved just for John Hughes.  I love the man's 80's perspective on suburban American life, particularly suburban teenage life.  Until I actually paid attention to all those little words filmmakers throw up on to the screen before and after the movie, I never realized that Hughes had turned his camera on 80's adult life as well.  I'm glad I did my reading, because now my John Hughes Shelf has a valuable addition.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Warning: Other Drivers on Roadway

Driving these days seems to have a lot in common with the running of the bulls in Pamplona--you're in the middle of a high-speed mass of unfathomable and potentially deadly creatures (because what's more unfathomable and scary than other people encased in speeding metal?)..and these creatures could, at any given moment, randomly and perversely decide to trample you..with no warning.  Nowhere is this more true than on Southern highways. *I confine my observations here to the South-eastern United States, but chances are you've encountered these drivers elsewhere too.

When I was a teenager, driving = freedom..even if I'd been commanded to go to the store for the parents. Surely the Founding Fathers knew that liberty would truly manifest in a metal box on four wheels! I used to love driving, but now I hate it. What once was sweet sweet freedom is now an asshole-rollercoaster..but I'm not yet sure if that means I'm getting decrepit or if other drivers (me excluded, of course!) are getting worse. 

I've driven as far west as Mississippi, as far east as the Atlantic Ocean (that's a whole other story), as far south as Savannah and as far north as Charlottesville. I've never driven in Florida, but there are enough Floridians on the roads in the rest of the South for me to realize that it's better if Floridians stay in Florida. But to drive where I currently live, I have to put on my game face on like I'm heading into combat.  So, to distract myself from the battle-frenzy, I began pondering the different types of drivers I observe.   

I've noticed that more and more people appear to lose their minds just because there's someone in front of them on the road.  I've been behind people in no particular hurry and watched them speed up suddenly and start tailgating furiously when another driver appears in front of them. It usually happens whenever someone merges or turns onto the road a good 3 or 4 car lengths ahead, which ignites this particular type of driver.  I can almost hear them screaming at their windshield: How DARE you drive in front of ME!  I call this person the Sovereign Space Driver--this is the driver who treats the length of road in front of them (to the extent of their vision) as their own personal private space. They don't really care about the road behind or beside them, but NO ONE is allowed in front of them. If I didn't want to appear all stalkery, I'd follow a Sovereign Space Driver to see if they're also a Sovereign Space Moviegoer or Sovereign Space Line-hog. I kinda suspect that the woman in L.A. who pepper-sprayed other Wally-World shoppers on Black Friday was a Sovereign Space Driver.

Over the years, I've driven through at least 7 Southern states and out of all of them, I liked Mississippi the best for driving.  Mississippi interstates may not have seen a roadcrew in at least decade, but Mississippians know how to drive with some etiquette.  Slow drivers stay on the right and leave the left lane for the people willing to break traffic laws and everyone uses their turn signals actively and effectively. It works..except for Tupelo...trying to navigate Tupelo, MS is like trying to get somewhere on a Möbius Strip (i.e., it only works for David Bowie).  But, most people in Mississippi can get where they're going without a stroke or a wreck.

Mississippians, by and large, put great emphasis on being polite, even behind the wheel. Bless them.  Tennesseeans..not so much. Alabamians...oh mah gawd.  Let me explain that omg: Southerners have this subconscious assumption that Northerners (New Yorkers usually, since in the Southern mind all Northerners are from NYC) drive really fast..way too fast.  I don't know where we got that idea because every image I've ever seen of New York City is of a traffic jam.  But, Alabama interstates..oh mah gawd.  Now, I tend to drive like the speed limit is merely a mild suggestion that can be ignored. A number of Alabama drivers I've encountered on AL interstates, however, seem to view speed limits like open challenges--as in, can you get this many years in jail for violating a speed limit. When I drive through other Southern states, I'll spend the majority of the trip in the left lane passing the other drivers. When I drive through Alabama, no force on this earth can get me into the left lane because I don't feel like dying in a ball of fire and twisted metal.  I call these homicidally-fast AL drivers the 95-Drivers--because they drive like they're trying to outrun cops on the I-95 drug corridor.  In my opinion, it's best to just stay out of the way and let them get their drugs to market.

It can be truly terrifying to drive in Alabama, but driving in Virginia is a lesson in mind-boggling frustration.  I have literally criss-crossed Virginia on highways and interstates and it's mostly the same--Virginians drive like student drivers, white-knuckling the steering wheel with a clueless look that says: "I'm not sure how I got here and I don't know what to do about it."  Virginians, by and large, drive like they're some creature caught out of their element and they're not sure what the rules are, but they keep going anyway.  They speed up and slow down and randomly change lanes because they forgot which one is the slow one and just generally behave like they're lost in the supermarket.  These are the Lost Drivers.  On my many trips across Virginia I've learned how to handle them in light traffic--pass them as soon as you can and keep them behind you.  In heavy traffic, they are a forced lesson in patience.

Then there's the type of driver that is quite possibly going to kill you: the Frightened Rabbit.  There are two types of Frightened Rabbit--the standard FR who trembles as soon as they enter a motor vehicle; and the situation-specific FR. 

The standard Frightened Rabbit is scared of their own car, terrified of other drivers, and forever being startled by things off the side of the road that have no bearing on the traffic at all.  This FR is actually trying very hard to be a good driver, but they're cowards and have no driving common sense.  Their good-natured attempts at common sense on the roadway is usually antithetical. And so, they alternate their speed somewhere between slower and slowest, often driving 20 or more miles below the speed limit..even on interstates..because in their minds slower = safer, therefore slowest = safest.  They slow down to the barest crawl through green lights; and I can't help but think that somewhere in their past they believe they've been tricked by a traffic light and so they don't trust them anymore.  They also have a tendency to hit their brakes every time they spy something in their peripheral vision that is either car-shaped or moving. You can image what this does for not only the drivers behind them, but basic traffic flow as well.  As with the Lost Driver, the standard Frightened Rabbit is a lesson in patience and considerable distance..between your bumper and theirs.

Now, the second type of Frightened Rabbit is the situation-specific FR.  All drivers are situation-specific Frightened Rabbits. Don't shake your head at me and proclaim yourself the living incarnation of Dale Earnhardt. You have an FR lurking in your gut, same as all of us. Case in point: you're flying down the road and you spot a cop car. I guarantee that your leg jerks spasmodically from the gas pedal to the brake before you even consciously recognize that a cop just popped up.  Cops bring out the FR in all of us, even would-be 95-Drivers. Cops know this, because like dogs and spiders, they can smell fear and bulls**t. That's why they toy with us on interstates.

For example: I was headed down I-26 to Columbia when I came up on a line of cars stretched for at least half a mile, all lined up like ducklings behind a cop..and he knew it too. He was vacillating between 10 and 15 miles below the speed limit..back and forth..and his ducklings matched his speed exactly  (I know for a fact that cops do this for fun when they're bored, because one of them actually confessed it to me). All those drivers, that would have totally ignored the speed limit otherwise, had been transformed into situation-specific FR's and were as pliant as sheep being led to slaughter. Just for kicks (and because I was in a hurry) I got in the wide-open left lane and drove at exactly the speed limit past all of them..and every driver gave me the "Oooo, you're gonna get in trouble!" look. The cop didn't blink. 

We are all situation-specific Frightened Rabbits and that's perfectly normal..usually. My own sister becomes one at 4-Way Stop Signs; they paralyze her to the point that she'll wait until the other three directions are clear to the horizon before she'll edge her bus-sized SUV into the intersection. 
But, when the Frightened Rabbit takes over a Lost Driver, you have a situation that would make Jason Statham's Transporter sweat. Image being boxed in behind a Lost Driver-turned-Frightened Rabbit in front, an 18-wheeler behind, going downhill in a tunnel underwater and underground. Yeah. 

It's called the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel in Norfolk, Virginia..and it's hell.  The speed limit through the tunnel is 55 mph; but it's single lane, dark, and your radio goes out. I can understand how that can freak some people out, which is why on the road leading up to the tunnel V-DOT has exits and signs saying "Last Chance to Exit Before Tunnel" (translation: "If you're the type to panic, get off this road RIGHT NOW").  And yet, the LD-turned-FR doesn't heed any of these prominently placed warnings, because they don't know (or forget daily) that they're about to unleash hell in an underwater tunnel. 

The locals who use the HRBT twice daily (and know the alternate routes around it, by the way) slam on their brakes as soon as it gets dark in the tunnel--so that the HRBT is lit with the eerie hellish red glow of local LDs riding their brakes in daily panic through the tunnel. It really does look like you're descending..albeit slowly and nerve-wrackingly..into Satan's Den. It's that antithetical Frightened Rabbit attempt at common sense again: "it got dark suddenly, I should stop", which is followed by the equally panicked realization that they really shouldn't stop. So the compromise is dropping suddenly from 55 to 30 mph..regardless of the tractor-trailers that use the tunnel 24/7.  The LD-turned-FR does this the entire length of the HRBT, including the uphill trek at the end, completely ignoring the signs posted every 10 yards in official large black letters that yell "MAINTAIN 55 MPH IN TUNNEL."   
 I think I read somewhere that V-DOT will soon post signs on the HRBT that caution against people with heart conditions..not because of the tunnel, but because of the people who have to drive behind LD-turned-FRs.

Everyone knows the Distracted Driver, the Asshole Driver, and the plain old Bad Driver. But these other drivers are quite prevalent across the South (i.e., the entirety of Virginia). If you ever find yourself on a Southern road, remember these might save your life! Or at least amuse you for a few seconds before you die. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Lose More Friends That Way...

People with kids are crazy.  Sometimes even bat-shit, stark, raving mad-hatter kind of crazy; and those are the ordinary ones.  And our society prefers us this way.  That's because of a perfectly academic, intelligent, psychologically meaningful term I just made up off the top of my head: Parentism.  Parentism is an irrational social bias in favor of parenthood, but the real focus of the bias is the children, aka mini-consumers [but that's a whole different blog]. 

Over my lifetime I've paid attention to the kinds of discussions people have when embarking on the road to crazytown *ahem* parenthood.  They consider all kinds of logistics like executing the Better Homes & Gardens nursery, which hospital or doctor to grace with their offspring, when to the start the Harvard fund, etc.  But the one question I almost never hear posed anymore is, should we do this right now/should we do this at all.  I've known people with zero spare time [and I do mean the mathematical integer of 0], and/or in deep debt, discussing the logistics of child-bearing, but never ask themselves if it's something they need to be doing right then.  That's because our society says: whatever you want to do, just start doing it; even if you aren't carefully considering the full scope of what you're pursuing [go back and look at the emphasis on full].  And it isn't about being young or stupid. It's often intelligent, responsible people engaging in this.  I've begun to wonder if they really want to do this, or is it just some sort of "next step" that they have to take for some un-iterated reason.  

So, I started looking around at American culture to try to find an explanation for the insanity.  I didn't have to look far.  How many movies or tv shows can you think of that show how heart-warmingly funny it is to be a clueless and totally unprepared new parent?  These movies/shows neatly forgo the whole messy question of "should we do this" by having many of these characters be totally ignorant of modern contraception so that they can be pleasantly surprised by an accidental pregnancy that they can totally afford.  And all they need to succeed as a new parent is for us the audience to just watch long enough [for the syndication contract to be inked].  Our pop culture so thoroughly trivializes the difficulties of being a parent--either in pursuit of cheap entertainment or to further pro-natalism--that parenthood is myopically and detrimentally defined as quirky, goofy, and the only fulfilling thing you can do with your life.  [If that isn't propaganda....]  Parenthood is depicted as whimsical instead of terrifying and inherently uplifting rather than potentially soul-crushing (yours, the kid's).  The image we're sold is one of a quirky theme-park ride filled with amusing gaffs from which everyone has valuable life-epiphanies, mild disappointments that never require professional psychiatric help/medication, and the (incredibly insulting) ubiquitous reconciliation and happily ever after ending that assumes nothing negative ever happens again...and the kid goes to Harvard. 

But there's another, subtler (and quite insidious, in my opinion) theme to these retarded [term used knowingly, so don't start THAT discussion] films and shows: the theme that having children fixes all the things that you didn't even know were wrong in your life.  It's the "I didn't have any values until I had a baby" message. How many times have you heard: "Until little Timmy/Susie came along, I never knew what was really important."--As though non-parents are destructive, selfish anarchists roaming around and randomly destroying stuff while abusing drugs, eating fattening food, having indiscriminate sex all the time while running over endangered animals. I mean, Come On! Us childless people don't run over endangered animals, we know to swerve around them!

And that brings me to the term "childless". In Victorian times, that was used as a social insult. Even today it's at least mildly prejudicial--it suggests, flagrantly, that the person is missing something fundamental, like a nose; as if we're working with negative numbers, our books are in the red.  But its use does, helpfully, signal the presence of a member of the Parent Cult to those of us who have yet to lose our grip on reality [I'm joking! *not really*].

Members of the Parent Cult--these are the bat-shit, stark, raving, mad-hatter crazy folk who are so common today.  It's a type of insanity that's considered normal now.  These are people who are so obsessed with their children that they quite disturbingly resemble the citizens of Jonestown: they drank the kool-aid and lost their minds and any sense of perspective or propriety. It's the person who puts her infant on t-shirts and gives them as Christmas gifts, to her mailman. It's the one who tells his co-workers every week a different potty training anecdote, complete with graphic details and sound effects. It's the people who are totally incapable of conversing about anything other than their offspring and what they're doing with him/her.

How this appears to outsiders, us lowly childless folk--your cult won't allow you to talk about anything other than your child because it supposedly paints you as a bad parent or you're so brainwashed that you literally can't. [there's a reason why kool-aid is marketed to parents as well as kids]  I've noticed that when people I know become new parents, our association/friendship just dissolves. It confused me for years, but then I became aware of the cult-veil that I can't seem to penetrate without an OBGYN. When I meet parents (particularly new parents) socially and they learn that I'm *gasp* childless, the polite interest vanishes from their faces.  They don't even try to hide it. I'm summarily dismissed to the peripheries of the conversation or group like some kind of social interloper.  It's reminiscent of being a plumber at a high-society cocktail party: "What is it that you do? ...oh." "Do you have kids? ...oh."  It happens so often that I don't even try anymore. This is the full extent of my conversations with (new) parents now: "Hi, I'm G.  I don't have kids. It was nice meeting you, have a good evening."

I lose more friends to parenthood than I do to anything else, and that includes the fattening food and random destruction. There is a similar though less prolonged version of this that happens with newlyweds. But at least that only lasts until the new couple gets sick of each other, remember that there's an outside world, and resurface from their love-nest, having only temporarily lost their minds.  The time lapse with that gets shorter every year, and in some cases takes only weeks; while the parenting version can last well past kindergarten.  When someone excitedly tells me they're pregnant, I say "Oh that's so wonderful!" and we go through the social niceties. At the end of the conversation, I say "Ok, I can't wait to talk to you again! like 5 or 10 years!"

Don't get me wrong, I'm not 100% down on parenthood...maybe just 99% [yes, that was an OWS plug].  I think a lot of the obsessive behavior that has become normal parenting is in fact socially imposed.  [So when I said you were brainwashed....] Parenting is difficult and important, but we need to stop thinking and speaking of it in hyperbole--i.e., "the most important", etc.  I think young parents today act like deranged cultists [it's descriptive imagery, not derogatory; chill out!] because they are being influenced by a society that has blown parenthood way out of any proportion.

The Parent Cult is a direct result, in my humble and historically well-informed opinion, of conscious social action arising out of WWI and WWII in order to encourage the replenishment of depleted populations and to artificially create the nuclear family as a social stabilizer.  [I did warn you that I was an academic, right? Take a deep breath.]  For much of western civilization prior to the 20th century, the parent and child were more signifiers of two social roles within the larger family and community.  It wasn't until after the World Wars that parent and child became the most/only important social roles.  Prior to this epoch, parenthood fit into a much larger community and social dynamic, which gave it a perspective in the midst of many. [Hang on, I'm almost done lecturing.] Today the pedagogy is that parenthood is or should be the dominant perspective. This displaces the larger family and community and emphasizes the private/nuclear household at a period when people have significantly less time than ever before to even be parents.  [Whew.] 

Ok, do you get it?  That means that parents are subconsciously encouraged to obsess over their children, when they don't really have time to, and are supposed to do it without any real help.  This has inconceivably [yes, it does mean what I think it means] been deemed "traditional."  Traditional child-rearing [if you really want to open that can of historical worms with me] involved a large and extended network of family and community that would have Rush Limbaugh reaching for his Oxy-C while screaming, "COMMIES!"  The post-World Wars pro-natalist...wait, I keep using that word and I haven't defined it yet. Ok, hang on....

Pro-natalist policies: policies that favor human reproduction by discouraging abortion and contraception while providing financial incentive to reproduce.  Ok, now that that's out of the way finally.... 

The post-World Wars pro-natalist policies and propaganda didn't get phased out like they should have. Instead, they grew and became subsumed into their own commercial industry. [Which is perhaps why we're now squeezing 7 BILLION people on this ball of rock]  But, who wouldn't love to have an entire society propagandize you as the most vital part of it (second only to the kid, of course)?  Unfortunately, the results haven't been uniformly positive, *she sarcastically equivocates* [now, that word may not mean what I think it does].

My point in all of this is...that I don't think I had one to begin with.  I've hammered home that I think parents are nuts.  I've made my arguement that I think society is to blame.  I gave Occupy Wall Street a gratuitous shout-out.  What else can I say, other than, some s**t gotta change.