In Memoriam: David Letterman

David LettermanAside from the occasional sporting event, it’s very rare that I watch live television anymore.  Hulu often makes me wait a week for many shows, but that’s well worth the convenience of watching them whenever I want.  Meanwhile, Netflix makes me wait the better part of a year and charges me $4/month (I split it with a friend), but that’s well worth never having to watch any goddamn commercials.

Plus, you know, the joys of binge watching a series.  It’s like going face down into a bowl of chocolate pudding and nearly suffocating in the most wonderful way imaginable.

But last night I fired up the flatscreen and fiddled with the rabbit ears to catch David Letterman‘s grand finale.  And I’m glad I did.  Despite the commercials. Read more »

A Love Letter from Baltimore

Baltimore postcardLast Wednesday I wrote an essay on the Baltimore riot, not the protests that followed or the de facto police state Baltimore has become since then.  I grappled with the conditions in Baltimore that led to the riot, and talked about rioting as a form of social violence.

However, now that the most immediate tensions are winding down, the curfew has been finally lifted, and the soldiers are melting from our streets, I would like to offer a more personalized reaction to the events of the past two weeks: fragments of thought and experience amid the choppers circling overhead, parks filled with protestors, streets lined with soldiers. Read more »

What David Brooks Gets Wrong About Poverty in Baltimore (and Everywhere Else, for that Matter)

Daivd BRooksNew York Times columnist David Brooks wrote the kind of piece today that really infuriates me.  It angers me not because it’s completely wrong.  Stuff without any redeeming value is easy to move on from.  Rather, Brooks’ essay gets me in a tizzy because in some ways it’s very good.  However, at the end, it completely goes off the rails in ways that are not only quite wrong, but really damaging as well, despite Brooks’ sincere efforts to make a positive contribution. Read more »

My Baltimore Riots

Note: On Monday afternoon, several days of protest in Baltimore over the police killing of Freddie Gray transformed into a riot that lasted through the night.  As of Tuesday, there was no longer a riot to speak of.  Rather, it had become a military occupation of West Baltimore, which saw the return of protests, and de facto martial law in the rest of the city during the nighttime, which is scheduled to last until next week.  This essay concerns the riot, not the ongoing military occupation or protests against it.

I.

On Monday afternoon I was at my dad’s nursing home here in Baltimore.  One of the residents, Miss Annie, was celebrating her 108th birthday.

You read that correctly.

Despite her daunting age, Miss Annie stands straight as an arrow in her crocs and pajama pants.  She has no need of a wheelchair, walker, or even a cane.  Born ten years before the U.S. entered World War I, she is, so far as I’m concerned, Baltimore royalty.

This nursing home is just over a mile from Mondawmin Mall, where the first riots broke out that day while I was finishing my visit with my father and admiring Miss Annie.  Read more »

On Failed Punchlines and Silence: Adam Sandler’s Dumb Indian Jokes

Adam SandlerA friend asked my thoughts on the recent controversy surrounding Adam Sandler’s new movie, The Ridiculous Six, which is currently in production.  In case you haven’t heard, it’s a comedy, a spoof of Westerns (a reference to The Magnificent Seven, get it?).

It seems about a dozen American Indian actors, mostly Dene (Navajo) walked off the set because they felt the script was racist, costumes were inaccurate, and that their concerns were not addressed.

My friend, who like myself, champions equal opportunity offense in comedy, wanted to know if I thought their concerns should be addressed or if they’re being overly sensitive about what are just some bad jokes.  My email reply began getting a bit long, so I decided to post it here.

I think this issue stands at the oft overlooked intersection of comedy and cultural capital, which is a fancy term for being able to throw your weight around in society.  Let’s start with the comedy.
Read more »

Considering God’s Plan

Oprah quote“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

That’s bad enough.  But I go a little nuts whenever someone says: “Everything happens for a reason.”

After all, if you actually believe that we’re all just mortal puppets dancing on a divine string, then there’s really no point in us having an adult conversation about cause and effect.

But unlike God’s plan, “Everything happens for a reason” does not suggest a deep detachment from reality, which is precisely what makes it far more exasperating than assertions of, say, childhood leukemia being an important cog in God’s grand machinations.

Rather than embracing wild delusion or concocting a fantastic blend of paternal benevolence and cruelty, “everything happens for a reason” suggests a far murkier and depressing version of surrendering reality.  Like the “God’s plan” adage, it indicates the speaker just can’t live up to the horrors of life, and is wont to soothe oneself with the balm of inevitability.  But it also leads me to suspect that while the speaker is sane enough to dismiss sadistically intricate divine plans, s/he has been reduced to hiding behind the gauze of unstated and unknowable “reasons.”

Everything happens for a reason.

In other words, the worst of it can be justified, even if we don’t know how.

To say childhood leukemia is part of God’s plan is to give that reason a name.  Specifically, God’s plan is how one justifies the horror.  That’s pretty awful.

But to say childhood leukemia happens for a vague, unnamed reason is to accept that it’s justified in some way, but to not know what the justification is.  That seems even worse.

Both proverbs, to my mind, are patently dishonest sentiments.  But while I can easily dismiss the former as delusion in the face of pain, the latter reveals just enough self-awareness to anger me.

God’s plan is the refuge of those who, unable to face up to harsh realities, opt for fantasy.  But to recognize that childhood-leukemia-as-God’s-plan is a form of lunacy, yet hide your own weak-kneed desperation behind claims of “reason,” is really insulting.  It’s one thing to dismiss rational thought altogether when attempting to face life’s horrors.  It’s quite another to bastardize and mangle rational thought to create a shield against life’s horrors.

Or so it seemed to me when I first considered these aphorisms. Read more »

Execution by Firing Squad

Cuban Batista Fire SquadYesterday, Utah became the first state to bring back execution by firing squad.  Once a common method of state execution, firing squads gave way to electrocution during the early 20th century, which in turn gave way to lethal injections later in the century.

However, some of the chemicals crucial to lethal injection are manufactured by European companies, and the European Union bans capital punishment.  These companies have stopped selling relevant drugs to state governments in the United States.  Half-baked efforts to find substitutes have led to a series of gruesome, botched executions.  Thus, Utah embraces the firing squad as an alternative.

My own feelings on the death penalty are complicated.  In an abstract sense, I don’t actually have a problem with killing someone who intentionally commits a brutal, unjustifiable murder.  But at the same time, but I do oppose state executions.

The vagaries of a U.S. justice system, which is plagued by institutional racism, classism, and occasional incompetence, is enough for me to say there should not be a state-administered death penalty.  Furthermore, I don’t actually think the state should be in the business of killing its own citizens, even its most reprehensible members.

But if there is going to be a death penalty, then we as a society should confront the violence of it instead of pretending that we’re “civilized.” Read more »

Let’s Pretend: Life Has Meaning

Sad cakeLast month I offered about 2,000 words on the meaninglessness of life.

“Life is meaningless,” I said.  “Nothing matters, nothing at all.” 

I suggested that “meaning and truth are just illusions that humans chatter about incessantly because they can’t stomach the sheer meaninglessness of it all.”

Indeed, your birth was an act of unfathomable randomness, as is the very existence of life on Earth and the rise of humanity.  We delude ourselves by creating and embracing meaning.  But the absence of truth is the only truth I know and meaninglessness is the only thing I have.

“And today,” I said last month, “I just can’t bring myself to pretend otherwise.”

But 5 Mondays ago isn’t everyday.  The fact is, many days, perhaps most, I do pretend that things matter and that truth exists and that morality is real.

I pretend even though I know I’m pretending.  I can’t help myself.  I’m not a guru of nihilism with single-minded purpose of pulling back the curtain to reveal the empty chair where you thought sits the wizard.  I’m not a sociopath incapable ascertaining that anything might matter beyond me.

I’m just a regular person for the most part. Read more »

In Memoriam: Spock

Mr Spock by ZootCadillacThere are many obituaries of Leonard Nimoy being written and published in light of his passing today at the age of 83.  I will not add to them.  I won’t pretend to offer insights into his life or even his career as an actor and director, which spanned six decades.  Instead, I will mourn the passing of his most famous character, Mr. Spock from Star Trek.

I watched a whole lotta Star Trek growing up.  Way too much, no doubt.  When I was in elementary and junior high school, it was running fast and furious in syndication.  In New York City that meant every evening before or during dinner on WPIX channel 11.

Probably about 200 nights per year for several years I watched an episode of Star Trek.  There were only 88 total episodes, so you can do the math.

The peak of my devotion came in late junior high school.  My friend Erik and I took the subway from the Bronx down to the Penta Hotel in Manhattan, across the street from Madison Square Garden on 7th Avenue.  They were hosting a Star Trek Convention and Nimoy was the guest speaker.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  All I knew was that I loved the show and was curious about delving deeper into it. Read more »

Year of the Sheep

Pic: Phil McClean/solentIt’s the Year of the Sheep!  Step back!

This is my year.  The Chinese restaurant paper place mat told me so.  And I’m gonna own it.

I used to be sheepish about my sheepiness.  I used to mumble when people asked me what my Chinese sign was.  I used to suffer with silent envy when someone else mentioned that they were a Horse or a Tiger or, gasp, a Dragon.

Why couldn’t I be a Monkey, I thought to myself.  Monkies are comic gold.  Or a Rooster, giving me a handy excuse to say Cock! in polite company.  Even a Rat would’ve been better.  Much hated, sure, but they’re crafty survivors.  And living here in Baltimore, they’re like the unofficial Spirit Animal of the city.

A snake’s badass.  I woulda loved to be a Snake.  I’m a Scorpio in Western astrology, so I know the pleasure of being badass and  having the deadliest sign.  In quiet moments I dreamed of being a Scorpio-Dragon.

I dunno. Maybe it’s too much to have the coolest sign in both, to be a Scorpio-Dragon.  Maybe the world just can’t handle that.  Maybe I’d be too badass.  Anything else, though, would’ve been better.

Rabbits are cute.  Pigs are tasty.  Dog’s are better than people.

But a Sheep?  Dumb mutton.  Something to be ordered around and shorn of its self-respect. Read more »

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