Friday, August 15, 2014

What country is Ferguson in?

I'm glad to see that the mood in Ferguson, Missouri, seems to be improving. Though, I find it frustrating and troubling that it took so long and such upper-level intervention (i.e., the state governor and the president of the United States) to do the totally obvious thing of, you know, speaking with protesters about their grievances.

Generally, if people are protesting something it is because they feel their voices are not being heard. So, the way to calm them down is not necessarily to march a load of storm troopers at them, choke them with tear gas, and tell them to shut up and go home. I thought most of us already knew this. I find it distressing that an entire police force in America didn't know it. 

But extending forward, beyond the specific issues of Ferguson, the thing that frustrates me most about this embarrassing episode is that it effectively vindicates the batshit crazies.

You know all those people who shoot up schools and movie theatres and workplaces in America? The reason they are armed to the teeth is that a number of other people have worked very, very hard to protect (and, in my opinion, misinterpret) their right to own such hardcore weaponry. Each time one of these mass shootings takes place, however, the rather obvious question comes up: "What American actually needs these kinds of firearms?"

After all, you don't hunt deer with a TEC-9. And, arguably, a good ol' fashioned shotgun is a more effective tool in protecting yourself against intruders because the scattering nature of buckshot takes some of the pressure out of having to aim properly. Machine guns and semi-automatic handguns are really only good for a military-style assault.

Publicly, the gun nuts will talk around these points and try to hold to a philosophical argument about the nature of freedom. We're free, they say, and we shouldn't give away freedoms just because something bad happened. Because bad things always happen, and eventually you'll find yourself completely without freedom.

But pull a gun crazy aside, into a private conversation, and he or she will often say that one of the reasons it's important to interpret the Second Amendment as broadly as they do is so they have the means to defend themselves against a tyrannical government. That's certainly the view of Cliven Bundy and the whole sovereign citizen movement. Those dudes are ready, yo. Ready to stand their ground against the unmarked helicopters and faceless jackbooters that haunt their dreams.

I used to live in the American West, so I've encountered a number of these dudes, or, at least, dudes who sympathise with them (it is almost always dudes, by the way). And when they would tell me they needed high-powered rifles so they could defend themselves against a an evil police state my reaction was usually along the lines of: "What? You are a paranoid nutcase. We live in America, man. We live in a functioning democracy. It's not some strange, terrible dystopia where you need to protect yourself against everyone, especially your protectors."

I mean, really, those guys are crazy, right? 


Scenes from Ferguson, Missouri, offer vindication to every batshit crazy, confirming their belief that the government has detached from its purpose and turned against its citizens for reasons unknown. Because, honestly, where's the reason behind responding to unarmed protesters the way Ferguson has done? 

Look at that picture above. Click on it to make it bigger and take the time to examine it. I'm counting no less than seven faceless officers stomping toward a single individual. At least two of the officers have their weapons trained on the guy. One is brandishing a nightstick and has a pepper spray cannister. All of the officers have more body armour than the soldiers who invaded Iraq. All have weapons holsters on their thighs. The single individual, meanwhile, has long hair and a flowery man bag.

Who wouldn't think of arming themselves against this kind of thing? Hell, to be honest, I am surprised by the incredible restraint shown by the citizens of Ferguson. And I am enraged by its police, who have given people good reason to fear and distrust them.

On a somewhat related note, I wonder how those Open Carry boneheads who flaunt their "rights" by shopping at Target with a rifle over their shoulder would respond to the sight of dozens of black people doing the same thing...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The guy I wanted to be

"There's three things in this world that you need: Respect for all kinds of life, a nice bowel movement on a regular basis, and a navy blazer." -- Robin Williams (as Parry in The Fisher King

One of the stories that holds strongly in the canon of childhood memories is of the time I got sent to the principal's office for wanting to be Robin Williams.

I was in first grade and our teacher was having us draw a picture of what we wanted to be when we grew up. We were drawing these pictures to then have them posted in the hallways of the school for an upcoming parent-teacher night. As almost always happened when given an assignment that required creativity, I found myself sitting at my desk, stumped, and staring at a blank piece of paper.

This isn't because I lacked creativity as a child but because I was egotistical and competitive; I wanted my idea to be better than anyone else's. I wanted the parents wandering the halls on parent-teacher night to look at my picture and think: "Lord, I wish this were my son. Instead, I produced an idiot who wants to grow up to be a cowboy."

One of my biggest challenges in this task was that I had no interest in growing up. My father was a newsman and I had already picked up that quite a lot of grown ups are dicks. Many others, I knew, were unhappy with how being a grown-up had turned out. Growing up meant going to work, and work was the thing that prevented my parents from taking me swimming all day. To some extent, I saw my parents having to work as the reason I had to go to school. I didn't like school; I didn't want to have to grow up; I didn't want to have to go to work.

Still, I sat there at my desk, forcing my 7-year-old brain to tackle the great and burning question of What I Want To Be. My initial thoughts were that I wanted to be Superman. Because, you know, Superman. He is the best. I love Superman. One of the great tragedies of the modern comic-book mindset is that seemingly no one understands Superman. In films and such they're always trying to make him edgy, or desperately relying on kryptonite to portray some element of weakness. The quintessence of Superman, what he is and should be allowed to be, is Better Than Everyone. Always.

And that was essentially why I liked him. Sure, he was strong and could fly and shoot lasers from his eyes and create wind storms with his breath (every time I blew out candles I imagined myself as Superman extinguishing a forest fire), but the thing to love about Superman is that he is really good at what he does. His only real flaw is the fact he doesn't exist.

Robin Williams, however, did. I had seen him on "Mork and Mindy" and Johnny Carson and some other things. At that age, there was, of course, quite a lot of his stuff I had not been permitted to see but somehow I was aware of his reputation -- that he was the guy no comic wanted to follow. That he was better than everyone else at what he did. He was frentic and funny and those were things I liked being. So, I told my teacher I wanted to be Robin Williams and asked for guidance on how to convey this in a drawing.

"You can't be Robin Williams," my teacher told me.

Well, yeah, obviously. I couldn't somehow inhabit his body and be Robin Williams, but "stand-up comic" wasn't a part of my vocabulary and "actor" seemed too broad and inaccurate -- television was littered with actors I had no interest in being like. My attempt at explaining what I meant was ignored and my teacher stood fast to her conviction that I could not be Robin Williams.

"He's a filthy person," she said. "Why not be something else? Like a fireman."

Firemen don't get to be guests on Johnny Carson. Besides, what's creative about being a fireman? I stuck to my guns and said I wanted to be Robin Williams.

So, I got marched down to the principal's office. Mr. Green. A strange, spindly man whose belt was too high up his waist and whose favourite joke/nugget of wisdom was to point out that a way of remembering how to correctly spell "principal" is to think of him as your "princey pal."

He stressed to me the importance of choosing something else to be when I grew up, so I could draw a picture of it and have it up on the wall like everyone else. Because I wouldn't want to upset my mama and daddy, now would I? I have never once referred to my parents as "mama" or "daddy," and something about those terms annoys the hell out of me, but I couln't help but concede to Mr. Green's logic. I went back to class and claimed I wanted to be a pilot, solely because I was good at drawing airplanes.

Robin Williams, Bill Cosby and Steve Martin have always been my holy trinity of comedy and storytelling. Unquestionably, the Cos has had the greatest influence on my own style, but no one would argue the fact that Williams is the better actor of the three. Put a pint in my hand and I will happily spend the next hour or so explaining to you, in excruciating detail, why Good Morning Vietnam is one of the best films ever made. Popeye is considerably better than people give it credit for being. Williams' role in Aladdin singlehandedly re-defined what we expect of a Disney film. The pathos is so well done in What Dreams May Come that I wept for a solid 40 minutes after seeing it. And if you haven't seen The Fisher King you are a damned, damned fool.

There were times when Williams missed the mark, but the truth is that humans often do. Babe Ruth is famous for hitting homeruns, but he also struck out a fair few times. Overall, Williams hit a lot of homeruns. A lot. In his acting, in his comedy, and in his ability to be a guy you wished you could be.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Veinte años

That's right, y'all. I've always been this awesome.

My 20-year high school reunion is this weekend. The cliché of life makes me feel I should have something to profound to say about that, about the passage of time or some such thing. I'm not sure I do, though. I think this is primarily because I remember so little of high school.

Not because I was on drugs or anything; I just have a really bad memory. Or, well, no, that's not true. I have a limited-space memory -- only so much can fit in there. These days, my brain is being used primarily to store useless information about pro wrestling story lines, the technical aspects of various motorcycles I will never own, and some dying bits of the Welsh language. To make room, I have jettisoned most of my knowledge about life and experiences from 20 years ago.

Over the past few weeks, people from my high school have been posting to Facebook various embarrassing photos of themselves and others with captions about hair or awkward declarations that those days were the "best." Occasionally I get tagged in one of these photos, thereby allowing me to look back in admiring wonder at my incredible style foresight, having come up with Macklemore's haircut decades before he did.

Mostly, though, I tend to feel a sense of confusion. I'll look at pictures and not have any idea of the stories to which they are tied: Where was the picture taken? When, exactly? Who took the picture? What are we all doing? And so on.

The above picture, for instance. That's me, my best friend Paul, and Steph, a girl both of us dated at different points in our lives. We're at a restaurant; that much I can guess from the soda and chequered table cloth. TGI Friday's, perhaps? We used to go there a lot. 

I'm making that face because I've got hard candy in my mouth, a strange addiction I carried through high school for fear of bad breath. And because it struck me as quirky. That's what you do as a teenager: you find something no one else is doing it and own it as part of your personality simply because you're the only one doing it. The candy. The hair. The tendency to wear purple. The pen around my neck.

I always wore as a necklace a pen hooked to a bit of leather shoestring. You know, because I was a writer. I felt the need to communicate this visually. Had tattoos been within my personal aura of acceptability I probably would have had the word "Writer" emblazoned on my forearm. The necklace broke in my senior year when someone used it as a means of tackling me in a pick-up football game, so I'll place the picture as having been taken in my junior year. 

That makes sense. That was the year I was pretty hot for Steph. I'm willing to bet this pose was instigated by me -- not because I wanted to throw an arm around my best buddy but because I wanted to achieve cheap physical contact with Steph. If that's correct, I'd guess the picture was taken in spring 1993, during the height of my infatuation with her. And I'd suspect the photographer was my friend Sara -- primarily because she's the one who posted it to Facebook.

OK, well, perhaps I remember some things better than I thought. But all those are generalities. I can't tell you the story of this picture. I can't tell you anything about what any of the people in the photo were thinking/feeling at or around the time it was taken. Who's Paul looking at? Who else was there? Why were we there? I don't know.

So, I look at these pictures and feel confused. I feel a sense of amnesia, as if someone has shown me these and said, "Look, here's us when we were young." And I am left to nod befoggedly, feeling these pictures are not helping to fill in the gaps, but instead create new gaps. Silently thinking: "I recognise the faces but I don't know who any of these people are. Including the person who looks like me."

There is, too, a feeling of sadness. That is more a reflection of my present self and present circumstances.

I live today 5,000 miles away from where these pictures were taken. These pictures reinforce my feelings of disconnectedness, that others look at the silly-haired kid in the photo and think: "Well, I recognise the face but..."

I won't be at the high school reunion, of course. Check the cost of a flight from London to Minneapolis for a clear understanding as to why. Many of my old friends will be. And I suppose the appeal of the thing is that it is like Thanksgivings when all of us were in college: everyone rolling back into town at once. All these faces come back to collectively help piece together the tales of old pictures, to help you piece together who you are by reminding you who you were.

And I wonder if perhaps that's part of why I sometimes feel I can't figure out who I am. Because I'm so far away from anyone who can remember who I was.