Saturday, March 19, 2011

Know me, mortal. Know me, and know fear.

It's been a pretty intense morning of self-loathing + self-indulgence that's seen the arrival-by-post of my 19-inch Galactus action figure...

...mixed with a breakfast-through-lunch marathon of LOUIE, trying to watch the entire series before it's zapped away from Hulu Plus after today.

I've owned a lot of action figures in my time, but never one so large, that also talks. Pictures of Galactus and my cat (for scale!) surely to come.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

You bet your pointed ears I am.

A lot's been written on Star Trek and sex since the original series aired, was cancelled, was re-discovered and resurrected, but in re-watching the first season at an episode-a-week pace I'm pleasantly surprised at how damn sexy it is.

The pop culture understanding of Captain Kirk is that he was hopping from planet to to planet, doin' it with any green-skinned alien he could find. But about 2/3rds of the way through the first season, the truth is subtler and more interesting -- he's a character of barely contained sexual desire. Early on he confides in Dr. McCoy (not yet rebooted as Karl Urban, still the pleasantly, crotchety DeForest Kelley) about his secret yearning for Yeoman Rand, the lady with the great hair who brings him his meals of brightly colored cubed food. Yeoman Rand clearly has the hots for Kirk, and when Kirk is split into two beings in "The Enemy Within" his "bad self" tries to force himself on Rand. But when he's a complete being, Kirk is committed to his ship -- even though he clearly wants more, kind of from everyone, kind of all the time. The best example is the infamous back rub scene from the cold open of "Shore Leave"... which our Captain enjoys what he thinks is a vigorous backrub from Mr. Spock, then immediately loses interest when he finds out its from unnamed Yeoman. No wonder there's so much slash fiction on Spock and Kirk. They're pretty smoldering together.

It's not just Kirk. One of the earliest episodes to air was "The Naked Time," which saw the crew with their most secret desires unleashed. It's the episode where the iconically greasy and sword-wielding Sulu comes from, but even before that we see Sulu trying to sell another male crewman on the benefits of fencing as they tend to alien plants -- one of which is clearly someone's puppet-hand. There's just a tension in the air on that ship, man.

Those are some of the instances when the sexuality of the Enterprise is overt. In every episode you get soft-lighting, eyeshadow on everyone, big leather boots, dark pantyhose and little skirts. In "Arena," when McCoy announces that he's looking forward to a meal that's cooked and not "reconstituted," Spock accuses him of being a sensualist -- to which McCoy responds "You bet your pointed ears I am."

There's no doubt that a big source of the under-the-surface sexuality from the original Star Trek is Spock -- and I haven't even gotten to the second season's "Amok Time" when Spock goes into heat. What the most recent Trek movie does to turn up the sex is to marry Spock's devotion to logic with Shatner's version of Kirk and his constant struggle to keep is sexual desire in check. I think it makes them both less interesting characters.

I had a passing familiarity with the original Star Trek as a kid. My brother was a big fan, but I only became invested in it with The Next Generation series. I would sit in a lounge chair with a pillow across the arms and pretend to pilot the ship -- just like Data! -- every time it was on. I would get so excited to be watching TNG that I would literally run circles around the room during the commercial breaks, to the point where my mom would threaten to turn off the TV if I didn't calm down. But it was pure nerdy excitement -- as much as I love TNG to this day, I can't say the show was all that sexy. Even if I had a big crush on Lt. Tasha Yar, those uniforms just don't have the same base appeal as the original.

And even in the episode where Riker falls in love with one of the genderless J'naii, it's nowhere near as kinkily titillating as Kirk hiding in a cave from the dude who played Lurch, waiting to attack him with ... um, a stalagmite.

It's impossible not to lean forward and beg these impossibly restrained, impossibly attractive, Starfleet officers to just get it over with and kiss already. Each other, aliens, anyone. Though it's true that Kirk does give in to those baser desires from time to time -- including the famous, first-televised interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura in the third season episode Plato's Stepchildren -- it's the restraint and the innuendo that makes the original series so enjoyably, tensely sexy.

When the 2009 reboot put Kirk right into bed with a green alien, it was direct and it was used for comedic effect. It played on our memories and feelings about Star Trek more than it respected or recreated what Star Trek really was.

And worst of all? It just wasn't that sexy.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Memory & Monsters

These days I'm spending time with On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears by Stephen Asma, a book that explores the idea (so far) of monsters and memory. I'm not very far, but one of the things it addresses -- an idea I ran into first on a History Channel/Discovery Channel entertainment-doc about monsters -- is that the myth of the cyclops -- a giant, one-eyed man -- might have come from people in antiquity digging up mammoth bones.

It seems almost too simplistic to consider, but, you know -- you're a dude, you're digging in the ground, you don't know anything about dinosaurs or mammoths or species-gone-extinct. You find this in the ground, you do your best to explain it. That's not to say people in antiquity were stupid or any less imaginative than we are in 2011 -- it's just to say that they had a different foundation for understanding the world around them. Asma also theorizes that the idea of the satyr may come from reports of monkeys in India ("India" apparently meant "anything in Asia where something weird happens"). Dog-faced men from lands beyond may have been baboons (I think). It's all a way of understanding the world. An interesting anecdote comes from Pliny the Elder, who discounts the idea of the werewolf (as DZ might call them, the wolfmans), because according to the story, a man goes into the woods, becomes a wolf for nine years, then becomes a man again only if he's managed to evade any human contact for that near-decade. Then he puts his clothes back on -- the same clothes that have been hanging on a tree for nine years -- and returns to civilization. Pliny, who believed in satyrs and manticores and cyclopses, found the idea of clothes just hanging from a tree for nine years beyond the ken. And the thing is, I totally agree. Better a dog-faced man than a shirt that's just going to hang there for nine years. Nine years!

O Brother Where Art Thou, probably not the best Coen Brothers movie but the one I think about the most, has a cyclops. He's played by John Goodman with a Southern drawl. The movie kicks off with a claim to be adapted from The Odyssey, by Homer, which is honest and direct. I don't know if I've ever written a single thing that I didn't steal from someone else, knowingly or not. O Brother is about a captain of men trying to get home to his wife, having adventures that waylay him, and then when he gets home, he has to battle his wife's new suitors. In my bones I love the archetypal story that is retold in another time. O Brother might not hit the Odyssey beat for beat, but the heart of it is there. It might even reach different conclusions -- but that's part of the struggle. Take this story that is in our bones, tell it right now (even if it's set in a time not our own, we are telling it now), and see how it's different.

Amanda Bynes dressed up as a boy in She's the Man, which is based on Twelfth Night, and which sticks too close to its source for its own good. It's not a bad movie, but it's not a surprising movie, either. I felt the same way about Rango this weekend. Both movies are charming in their own way, both take their stories from stories we already know in our bones (in Rango's case, it's a more general American Western place), but neither of them move beyond their inspiration to talk about what that story means today, the way O Brother does. And that's what I'm trying to talk about -- it's important to tell our stories again, often and imperfectly, and to change them a little bit every time.

I was going to try to tie this all into making shopping lists, and how I do it for groceries and should do it whenever I leave the house. I know I need to buy new pants and new shirts, but when I go out I talk myself out of it, because spending the money seems silly, and buying clothes feels indulgent. But when I go to the grocery store -- it says "oatmeal" on the list, but I don't want oatmeal right now, on a Sunday afternoon, and though my guts tell me not to buy it, I am going to honor the covenant of the list and the wishes of my past self, and I am going to buy oatmeal. And then, Monday morning, all of a sudden I am grateful that I bought that oatmeal after all. Had I listened to my bones, I'd be stuck with just toast.

But I'm not sure how that relates anymore.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Papa Dies Many Times

This is one way Papa died.

We’re on the bridge and he’s telling me stories of his life.

You know. Uncle Roy, twenty dollar bills, true things and false things also. A kid approaches, black and poor like Elvis would sing about, dribbling a basketball. No -- it was a pink bouncey-ball like you’d buy for three dollars at a Rite-Aid, from a wire bin, only he didn’t buy it, he stole it, because like I said, black and poor.

Anyway. He’s bouncing it down the sidewalk and it’s giving him his only joy in life. He’s never even smiled before today. The ball hits a rock on the sidewalk -- the ball ricochets out into traffic -- but I spring into action to save the black boy’s happiness. I don’t even realize I’m flinging my own self into danger as I grab the ball and bounce it back to the boy. I have no regard for my own safety or future.

But Papa knows.

“Noooo!” he cries, leaping after me, grabbing me in mid-air, flinging my body back onto the sidewalk. He bellyflops onto the road, where is body is crushed by semis, giant vans, and a carriage drawn by eighteen horses. His body is pulped and destroyed.

I am orphaned. But I will revenge him, I swear it.

* * * * *

This is one way Papa died.

Same as the one where he’s crushed by horses, except there is also a hail of gunfire. Probably from gangsters passing in a limo.

I will revenge him, etc.!

* * * * *

One night at supper, he suddenly burst into flames. He burned down to ash, blacker than broiled crumbs.

* * * * *

This is one way Papa died.

He leaned on the bridge and looked down at the sick river. He had one knee up on the curb and both elbows rested on the railing. I tried to imitate his posture. He spit down into the water, releasing a thick clump of phlegm that he watched all the way down. I tried to spit too, but could only muster a thin streak of saliva that stuck to my lip. The wind blew it back into me, splotching my shirt. I wiped my chin and looked over at Papa, but it didn’t look like he saw me.

“What else about Mexico?” I say.

He doesn’t look at me, but he answers. “There’s a lot about Mexico. What do you wanna know?”

Sometimes when he asks that it means he’s willing to tell a story, but he wants you to pick it. Sometimes it means he doesn’t want to talk.

“I don’t know,” I say.

He shrugs his shoulders. He smirks but doesn’t smile. He arches his eyebrows down to the brown water beneath us. “I should tell you about your destiny,” Papa says.


He turns to face me, crosses his ankles, and leans one elbow on the railing. “I ever tell you I’m a merman?”

“No,” I say, trying to wrangle my lips not to smile.

“It’s true,” he says, holding his hands palm-to-palm, and wriggling his arms like a fish. “Breathing underwater and all that shit. You know what that makes you?”


“Half merman.”

“I thought I was half Indian.”

“You’re half all sorts of shit,” he says. He slips out of his leather jacket and rips his t-shirt right off of himself. He has tattoos most people don’t ever see. There’s a lady on his forearm, knees together and hands on her hips, wearing a dress. Farther up, on his bicep, there’s another lady, in swimsuit bottoms but no top. On his bicep, over his heart, written in small cursive letters, it says Rosa.

“I ain’t saying you should go jumping into rivers,” he says, “maybe not today.” He stands on one foot, and then the other, pulling off his black cowboy boots. He unbuckles his belt and his bluejeans fall down to the ground. His legs have gone scaly and silver. And when your mama and sister asked what happened here today, you make something up. If you tell ‘em I went back to sea, your mama’s likely to join the navy and go looking for me. And that ain’t what I want.”

He steps up onto the railing and his toes have all melded together, making his feet end in slithery fins. His legs have started to fuse together too. His chest and his arms still look the same. His head is still Papa. But by the time he hits the water he’ll be fish from the waist down, sliding and slithering through the water.

“What am I supposed to do?” I say. My face is getting hot and my throat feels scratchy. “Am I going to turn to a merman some day?”

Papa shrugs and smiles. He says, “It’s a mystery, man.” He leaps off the bridge and doesn’t a sound when he hits the water. It’s raging whitewater now, for some reason, and he’ll get away with the current in no time.

Son of Merman, I guess. That’s me.

* * * * *

Friday, March 04, 2011

So You Are 30

Congratulations! Despite what everyone in grad school said behind your back, you finally made it. Well, I have some good news and I have some great news.

The good news is that you are finally, undoubtedly a grown up. Someone resembling Sean Connery is going to approach you any second now to explain how tax codes work, tell you the best ways to cook meat, and give you a money clip and a drink mixer set. He will either approach you from behind and hug you by surprise, cupping one of your breasts with one hand and your nutsack with the other, or he will approach from the front and simply say hello. Either way -- make sustained eye contact with everyone you see for the rest of the day.

The GREAT news is that you make the rules now. You can give unsolicited advice on subjects like tie-tying and road trip directions , you can set bedtimes, and you can vote -- not in the regular, general elections, but in secret ones that decide important stuff, like if there should be a revolution in Egypt, or what network shows get cancelled, or if Justin Bieber gets a Grammy (better luck next year, Biebs!).

I can tell you from personal experience that your life has just automatically gotten better. You will never have any more troubles, you will always know the answers to everything, and you will get along with your wife forever. Here, look at me, back when I was 29:

Pretty gross!

But look at me now, on the verge of 32:

Drinking a tumbler of whiskey and wearing xmas sweaters in March. I make the rules!

Happy birthday, brother. May we forever duet Islands in the Stream.