|Jan/Feb 2003 • Salon|
It is becoming a yearly "family" tradition. Julie and I just spent our second Christmas in Puerto Rico, frolicking in the warm Caribbean waters, downing pina coladas, and taking in the weird, anachronistic cultural mix that is, essentially, our 51st state. Given the time and place, it was a chance not only to reflect on this past year, but also on what it means to be an American. It was a great vacation, and it topped off a pretty good year, albeit one that was tragic on a personal level with the passing of my grandmother. Through the course of this year, I've come to understand and appreciate my life, wife, and country a little bit more than I did before. Below, randomly interspersed with snapshots Julie and I took in Puerto Rico, are some of the resulting thoughts.
Last year, the September 11th tragedy was fresh in everyone's minds. In fact, we were able to afford the trip to Puerto Rico the first time because so few people were traveling. As part of the open-wound mentality, Hollywood and the rest of the entertainment industry were pledging to scale back on violence in an effort to show some kind of good taste. America had been scarred forever. We would now be a bit more thoughtful. A year later, we've had plenty of crap movies like Collateral Damage and The Sum of All Fears, with Hollywood shamelessly and gleefully profiting from the terrorist threat. Some of these efforts to exploit our psyches and wallets have been better than others—the highly entertaining second season of 24, for example—but overall, the entertainment industry and the society it simultaneously reflects and informs may be no less tasteless and exploitive than it was two years ago, and maybe more so.
Speaking of entertainment, Julie and I didn't get to see many of the movies that are up for awards this year, but we did see Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, and the title comes close to how we felt about his performance. A gaggle of elderly ladies who had come to see an "Adam Sandler" movie asked, as we were leaving the theater, how we could possibly have liked the film. "That was, by far, the worst movie I have ever seen!" declared one lady with extreme indignance. All we could do was smile and say we loved it, because it would've taken a lot more than a casual conversation while exiting a theater to get them to understand the value of a movie that actually takes you places you don't expect to go. The fact that we were openly saying we loved it was enough to send them to their Lincoln Town Cars in consternation. These women seemed to us like solid examples of middle America—middle-aged, middle-income, Midwestern—and if they are any indication, the average American is unwilling to deal with anything not neatly packaged, labeled, and exactly fitting expectations.
An unexpectedly good movie that we rented recently was Lathe of Heaven, a made for tv movie on A&E that is actually a remake of a 1980 Public Television adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's novel by the same name. As people who knew nothing about the novel or the first film (and, it turns out, there's a lot to know), we were convinced to rent the DVD because of the cast: Lukas Haas, James Caan, Lisa Bonet, and David Strathairn. We weren't disappointed. Even Julie, who harbors a great dislike for most science fiction, enjoyed it (she pointed out that she liked Gattica, too, though). Anyway, I mention it (Lathe) as a good option when it seems like you've exhausted the supply at the local video store. If you aren't one of the old ladies we encountered at the theater, or anyone like them, there's a pretty good chance you'll like it.
I bought Julie a book on The Sopranos for Christmas, and we read it on our balcony overlooking the swaying palm trees and (no kidding) azure sea that comprised our view. We're both already going through Sopranos withdrawals, and the fourth season has only been over for a month. In the book (The New York Times on The Sopranos), J. Madison Davis says, "Americans... are, as a whole, a violent people in a great many ways. We do believe that violence solves problems, or at least we fantasize it does... Turning the other cheek is an ideal we rarely live up to." He goes on to observe that Americans admire just about any "rugged individual" who has the freedom and the self-sufficiency to operate on his own terms, inside or outside the law. These are our heroes and anti-heroes, and it occurs to me that maybe the reason we have so many anti-heroes in America is because we won't be satisfied until our protagonists are free of all constraints, including law, morality, and good taste. We'll take outright criminals if we must, like Tony Soprano, but perhaps even closer to our hearts are people occupying positions within the "establishment" that can operate with equal impunity. Crooked cops like The Shield's Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) or Training Day's Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) are much more interesting—meaning, worthy of ratings and acting awards—than clean ones. The character of Jack Bauer on 24 is perhaps the acme of what we're looking for, because even though he's essentially a good man trying to save the world, the extreme 9-11-esque situation gives him license to shoot a man, cut his head off, and deliver it to some bad guys in a bag. The loss of his wife in the previous season has him primed for vengeance, and we get the sense, especially after the head-chopping episode, that Jack is capable of anything and everything. The sense of freedom Davis was talking about is downright exhilarating.
By the way, if you want to see an entertaining website, check out 24's Episode Guide.
It's time for Tom's annual rant about kids these days. Sorry. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the development of our young people in this country is suffering at every level, and it's not because there's something inherently wrong with our education "system" per se. It's because there's something wrong with our society. We are a society that constantly models and rewards stupidity and boorish behavior. Our education system struggles mightily to undo, overcome, and compensate for these anti-intelligence factors, but there's only just so much that can be done.
American children are, as a general rule, horrible. Don't get me wrong—I have a great affection for my students, and I do believe that at heart each and every one of them means well and is essentially a good person. But in terms of maturity, self-discipline, responsibility, social graces—in other words, qualities that should have been inculcated in them by their parents—too many of my students are no different from the rest of America's legions of simultaneously spoiled, neglected, abused, and over-indulged young people.
Nowhere is it more apparent that American children are horrible than when they are traveling. When parents take their bratty offspring with them to the Hiltons and Carnival Cruise Ships of the world, they send a message loud and clear: we Americans are so self-involved, the rest of you are little more than casting extras in our own personal, digitally filmed biographies. We are this way because we raise our children to think they are the center of their own universes, or we are this way because our parents raised us to think we are the center of our own universes. Either way, the cycle continues. We love our kids, yes, but primarily because they remind us of ourselves: spoiled rotten and juvenile. We never had to grow up, and neither will they. In fact, we'll make certain they wind up with even less moral fiber than we possess, because we're going to use whatever gumption we've got left to shower them with unwarranted praise, over-kill Christmas gifts, and all the attention they can ever demand.
It's Christmas Day. Julie and I are splurging on dinner at Mark's at the Melia, the nicest restaurant in Ponce. Locals are arriving clad in suits and dresses, and we're feeling bad, wishing we could have dressed more formally out of respect for the occasion and the other diners. The host seats us at a romantic table for two, right in front of the large, beautifully decorated tree. We've ordered wine and are just about to toast the occasion, when a family of three enters the restaurant. "No, we don't have reservations," says the mother. "We've just come from the Hilton."
Their little boy, who looks to be about five or six, sees the Christmas tree and makes a beeline across the restaurant for it. His mother yells, "Tyler, come back here," but Tyler is oblivious. He is oblivious to everything but the colorful, sparkling tree. It doesn't matter that his mother has called to him a second time (but with a voice that somehow betrays how used she is to Tyler ignoring her demands), or that he is in a fine restaurant, or that he is now pushing his way around the two of us, in mid toast. In fact, the beauty of the tree doesn't matter either, because while I thought that was what had attracted his eye, it turns out that all Tyler really wants to do is see what presents are under the tree for him to open. Sadly for Tyler, there are no presents, so he wanders back to his mother on his own good time.
We will see Tyler again later at the hotel, his parents standing by helplessly and pleading for him to follow along or stay away from that or come back here right now. Tyler is not too young to understand what his parents want, nor is he too young to have developed some sense of propriety. He isn't mentally retarded, either, that he won't do a single thing his parents ask of him. No. He has merely learned, through five years of reinforcement, that he can do anything he wants to do, and he doesn't HAVE to do anything he doesn't want to do.
On the plane coming back, we're seated next to a mother and her two little boys, aged between two and four. The father is behind her with an open seat for one of the boys, but they're both up with Mom, because she has the portable DVD with the Disney movie playing. One of the boys squirms away from his mother and goes running up and down the aisles, yelling at the other passengers. It's a five-hour flight, and many of the passengers are trying to sleep. The mother is dealing with her other boy, who is screaming now about something, and she asks her husband to take care of little Geoffrey. Jim, the husband, thinks the whole spectacle is too funny to stop. He delights in the way his little boy is tearing up and down the aisle, making all that racket. "Jim," the mother pleads, "can you stop him?" He will not, though, and eventually she manages to catch little Geoffrey as he passes by. At this point, I am feeling sorry for the mother, who appears to be doing everything she can to keep her kids under control.
Later, however, when we begin our descent into O'Hare, the mother shows her true colors. The boys are supposed to sit in their seats and buckle up for the landing, but they don't want to do this. Geoffrey is particularly unhappy. He doesn't want to sit next to Daddy, he wants Mommy to hold him. He's really starting to fuss. The mother flags down the stewardess and says, "Tell my sons that they have to sit in their own seats until we land." The stewardess, supposedly, possesses more authority in her kids' eyes than she or her husband. The ploy appears to work for a few minutes though. Then Geoffrey really starts to complain. What does the mother do? She unbuckles Geoffrey and holds him in her lap as the plane lands. The lesson here for Geoffrey is that not even the mighty stewardess' commands must be followed, and even Geoffrey's own safety is not so important as his getting his way. A few more years of this, and he'll be a true American in every sense of the word.
In TV sitcoms, people talk loudly because they're actually on stage, acting in front of a studio audience. Unfortunately, many Americans live their lives this way. They speak as though everyone in the room, on the plane, or in the general vicinity is there to be their own personal studio audience.
The movies Home Alone and its sequel present the prototypical American family, not so much dysfunctional as it is just plain obnoxious. So obnoxious, in fact, that the protagonist, a young child, is actually thrilled to be able to spend Christmas by himself! While most viewers sympathize with his point of view, one has to wonder why it's so easy for his character, and by extension the audience, to accept this extreme ambivalence toward one's family by so young a child.
An article we read in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (we switched planes there) illustrates some of what I feel is wrong with Americans in general, and by that I mean the oblivious, hypocritical, loud-talking variety with whom I take issue—the ultra visible majority. The article is by Betty Cuniberti, and in it she describes stringing lights on her tree with her 12-year-old son, listening to "The Little Drummer Boy" by the Vienna Boys' Choir. Actually, she isn't stringing lights with her son, technically, as he's playing a video game. And he isn't her son, technically, since he was adopted from "a single mother in an impoverished country" who "could not afford even to buy him asthma medicines."
As the column unfolds, we learn that the boy's "Dad has not lived with him for several years, and he misses him." We learn that Betty "adopts needy families" by bringing them Christmas dinners. We learn that Betty usually gets goosebumps when her boy plants raspberries on her neck, but that on this occasion she gets them from hearing the beautiful voices of the choir singing "I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum." Which sets up this exchange:
"Because the little boy is poor, but he wants to bring the baby Jesus a gift. He can't bring him a fancy gift. So he plays his drum for him. It's the best he can do. It just gives me chills."
This was catching his fleeting attention, silencing the police chase on the screen.
"You were born poor," I said.
"No matter how many times he hears his adoption story... it always seems to surprise him. He is not a communicative child, and I honestly have very little idea how he feels about being adopted. Or much of anything.
"Why was I poor?" he asked.
"Because almost everybody in your country is poor. That's just where you were born."
During the holidays we talk a lot about being thankful for all we have, and about giving. But it's mostly me saying that, and him saying, "I want this. I want that."
"Jesus was born poor, too, just like you," I said. His face brightened. "This song reminds me of you."
And I say, what the hell?! Why don't you unplug the damned video game and have a conversation with your kid, if you want him to be more communicative? Maybe if you stopped preaching and pandering, and listened to what he had to say, he might be more inclined to form an opinion about something and share it. And since you adopted him as your own, why don't you quit reminding him at every opportunity that he isn't your kid? What's this about harping on how poor he was born, how poor his mom was, how poor everybody in his "real" home country was? And now you're going to suddenly equate this kid, whom you've described as attention-deficit, incommunicative, and selfish, with Jesus?
I'll cut myself off there, but before I go I wanted to say a few words about this issue. We're off to what I think is a truly great start to 2003, particularly with respect to fiction. Jon Fried's story "Troddy" is unlike anything I've ever read. It and the other stories in this issue really illustrate how a character's unique point of view can breath more life into a story. In the case of Gokul Rajaram's "The Boy with the Hole in his Head," each character gets to exert its influence on the story. Stanley Jenkins' "The Dreamer" has a repugnant narrator whose point of view is nonetheless mesmerizing. Samuel deFayette uses the omniscience, both within the story and in the telling of it, to chilling effect in "Dave and Melinda." Be sure to check out these and all the other great stories, poetry, miscellany, humor, and reviews in this issue, along with the regular installments from Jenkins, Sampson, and Chaffin.