Archive for January, 2012

OK, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s moon base proposal is the catalyst for this post. But first, I’m going to throw out one important caveat. My purpose here is NOT to judge the proposal, or Mr. Gingrich himself.

The reason I’m so adamant about that is because I work as a newspaper reporter. I cover politics for a living, including the current presidential campaign. While I do have opinions about candidates and their proposals, I make a point of never expressing them publicly.

And as you’ve probably ascertained by now, this blog is just a goofy thing I do to entertain myself. (If you really want to see some of my political analysis, feel free to check out my journalist’s Facebook page here.

So. Newt Gingrich proposes a moon base. And he’s taking a lot of flak about it from both Democrats and Republicans.

The reactions, though often more eloquently expressed, basically come down to: “A moon base? A freakin MOON base? Come on! Do we really need any more evidence that this guy is a couple burritos short of a combination plate?”
I’m not surprised at those reactions. But I do find them interesting, for what they say about where we’ve gone as a society.

See, I’m 45. I’m old enough to remember a time when the idea of an American base on the moon come the 21st century wasn’t considered wacky. In fact, it was generally regarded as pretty much inevitable.

I’m too young to remember the 1969 moon landing. But it was still very much a part of the collective consciousness when I was in kindergarten. The other kids and I would sit in open-mouthed wonder as teachers told us about our own future. How when we were grown-ups, we’d be able to take regular flights to the moon the same as people could then ride airplanes to other cities. (In this alternate future, I wonder if the poor quality of rocketship food would have become a staple for lame standup comedy routines.)

I guess it’s one more example of just how impossible it is for even the most prescient minds to predict the future. For me, a particularly amusing example of this principle can be found in the science fiction movies of decades past — featuring spaceships zipping effortlessly between star systems, equipped with clunky wall-sized computers that include reel-to-reel tape spools.

It’s interesting how the very proposal of a moon base, widely regarded as manifest destiny in my early childhood, has transitioned to “Exhibit A” that a politician doesn’t have his head screwed on right.

That’s mainly because of cost. We just don’t seem to think it’s worth the expense anymore.

Why the change?

There was plenty of practical reasoning behind the space program, of course. Potential military applications, made all the more urgent by the Cold War. Scientific research. The possibility that we might find resources that would be of use to us down here on Earth. And let’s not underestimate the pure, adrenaline-pumping awesomeness of being able to say “We put a man on the moon, baby!”

Still, I assume that a lot of the public enthusiasm for space exploration from previous decades stemmed from a widespread misunderstanding of just what was out there.

I’ve already mentioned science fiction, which (get ready for a big revelation here) is different from science fact. But I truly believe that a science fiction-informed mindset inspired a lot of the early national enthusiasm for space exploration — among the general public, if not among the scientists involved in the space program.

It still amazes me when I read science fiction from the 1960s, featuring unsuited and unhelmeted space explorers having adventures on the earthlike surfaces of Jupiter or Mercury. Hell, the 1960s weren’t THAT long ago! Didn’t people know any better by then?

Similarly, the surrounding cosmos was going to be an exciting, romantic place. It would be chock-full of earthlike planets featuring exotic creatures, dazzling landscapes and hot space babes in silvery bikinis and beehive hairdos.

In truth, outer space turned out to be a lot lonelier than that. There are no earth-like planets within reach. We”ll just have to live without those beehive-hairdooed space babes.

In some ways, I see those dreamy visions of a space-faring civilization as hearkening more to the past than the future. The very arrival of the space age, with the advent of satellites, brought a final end to an activity that had been part of the human experience for millenia — speculating about the mysterious lands beyond the explored edges of the map.

Even in the 1930s and 40s, it seemed entirely plausible that there might be some vast civilization as yet undiscovered out there. A Lost City of Z waiting in the dark reaches of the South American jungle for some intrepid explorer to cross that one final rise and find it. It’s an exciting concept that’s denied us these days. For a while, I think people tried to project that fantasy on a cosmos that ultimately couldn’t accommodate it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of space exploration. Yeah, it’s a hard sell these days when it comes to the expenditure of public funds (unless you happen to be making a campaign speech in Florida) but I suspect we’ll see the private sector getting more and more involved. And who knows? We might even get that moon base one of these days. I already mentioned how the future has a way of defying the predictions of even the smartest people. (I’d be the first to admit I’m not one of the smartest people.)

For now, though, I’m willing to put the moon base — along with the personalized jetpack and the robot butler — on my list of neato future stuff that I daydreamed about as a kid, but that I don’t expect to get anytime soon.

The following is a list of actual items that have turned up on the walls of Cracker Barrel restaurants as decorative antiques:

A lithograph featuring a full frontal portrait of a naked Theodore Roosevelt.

The sled owned by William Randolph Hearst as a child, which served as the inspiration for “Rosebud” in the movie “Citizen Kane.” But Hearst’s actual name for the sled was “Bootylicious.”

A vegetable slicer from the first McDonald’s restaurant opened in 1940, with a severed human thumb still wedged in it.

The poison dart gun disguised as an umbrella used to assassinate Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London in 1978.

A tome once owned by Aleister Crowley, bound in human flesh and written in human blood in the language of a savage ancient race whom legends hold to be something other than human. Curiously, it appears to contain mostly household cleaning tips and pastry recipes.

A Victorian-era chastity device known as the “iron pelican.”

The skull of Gale Gordon, the actor who played Mr. Mooney on “The Lucy Show” from 1963 to 1968. Rumored to have mysterious healing powers.

Happy Friday the 13th everyone! Ever wonder how Camp Crystal Lake kept getting an operating permit? “Well, we’ve implemented a new safety course for our counselors called ‘Machetes: Useful but Dangerous,’ and established a sign-out procedure for all chainsaws and other sharpened power tools. With these measures, we’re confident of attaining this year’s goal of a 65 percent counselor survival rate. Hey … did all of you board members get the fruit baskets I sent you for Christmas?”
I think the question is why the owners would WANT to reopen Camp Crystal Lake. Ethical considerations aside, the insurance rates on that place must have been through the roof.

Ever watch clips from one of those old-timey film comedies featuring a Stepin Fetchit-style black stereotype — a bumbling, slow-witted black man drawling lines like “Yaaaas boss!” — and wonder how the people of the time could watch it and NOT be offended?

Sometimes I’ve found myself wondering what it would be like for somebody whose sensibilities changed with the times. Maybe he saw one of those movies in the 1930s and laughed at it, then saw it again in the 1960s and thought: “Damn. How did I not notice how wrong this is?” What would that feel like?

Well, now I know exactly what it feels like. It’s disorienting and more than a little disturbing.

I recently rewatched the 1984 comedy “Revenge of the Nerds.”

I saw that movie in the theater when it first came out. I was in high school at the time. It was no comedy classic, but I enjoyed it.

It was a riff on the “Animal House”-style college comedy. But I thought it had a bit more depth than most, with its message that it’s OK to be a misfit as long as you have friends and you believe in yourself. It was fun and it had heart. I’d never bother renting it. But if I was flipping around the channels and caught it on cable, I’d always watch.

I don’t know when I saw it last, but I’d estimate that it’s been in the neighborhood of 20 years. I guess times have changed, and so have I.

Because when I watched it recently … Holy shit! How did I fail to notice the TOXIC levels of misogyny in this movie? I felt like I needed a shower afterwards!

I don’t need to reiterate the entire plot here. I’ll just give you the basics.

A couple of ostensibly lovable nerds, Lewis and Gilbert, go away to college. There, they befriend a bunch of other ostensibly lovable nerds and outcasts. They end up forming their own fraternity.

But they get picked on by another fraternity made up of bullying jocks. The jocks are abetted by a sorority of their snooty cheerleader girlfriends.

The nerds strike back through a series of pranks, and all kinds of wackiness ensues. It culminates with the nerds using their superior brains to best the jocks at the Greek Games. Then after a final confrontation, the movie ends with a rallying speech for nerd empowerment. Keep in mind this was 1984, before the concept of “nerd empowerment” became pretty much moot.

Anyway, it all sounds pretty harmless, right? Kind of cute in that winning, unironic way of 1980’s comedies?

Except … some pretty ugly stuff happens, the full ugliness of which never struck me until just recently.

To get revenge on the cheerleader sorority for a prank, the nerds stage a panty raid on their house. But that’s just cover to install hidden cameras, from which the nerds watch over closed-circuit TV as the young women undress and shower. Later, the nerds win the fund-raising portion of the Greek Games by surreptitiously selling topless photos of one of the cheerleaders that they got with the hidden camera.

Keep in mind, we’re supposed to be rooting for the guys who do all this. Because, y’know, it’s OK to sexually harass and exploit women. As long as the women being harassed and exploited are snooty bitches. Because then they deserve it.

But the REALLY ugly part comes later. Lewis, the head nerd, lusts after one of the cheerleaders. At the Greek Games, he puts on a costume and fools her into thinking he’s her boyfriend so she’ll have sex with him. Immediately afterward, he shows her who he really is. But by that time, she’s fallen in love with him because the sex was so good.

OK. Let’s clarify something. He raped her.

No, he didn’t use physical force or threats. Rape doesn’t have to involve force or threats. Rape is sex without consent. That’s why sex with unconscious people or children is considered rape, even if there’s no real or implied violence involved.

But hey, according to the movie, a rape victim will forgive you and even fall in love with you if you just give her a good enough f**kin’ that she enjoys the experience.

See what I was saying about the misogyny?

Now some of you may read this and think: “Geez, Tom, it was only a harmless comedy! Lighten up!”

Let me say for the  record that I don’t consider any subject to be taboo where comedy is concerned. Comedy is meant to be transgressive.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two jokes about rape that I had no problem with. One was in the sketch comedy show “Snuff Box,” and the other in the British version of “The Office” that was a precursor to the American version.

But there’s a crucial distinction. In those shows, the jokes were meant to be disturbing and provocative. In each case, the context of the joke was predicated on people’s uncomfortable reaction to an inherently ugly subject.

In short — the writers were aware that rape is wrong. They weren’t, like the screenplay writers of “Revenge of the Nerds,” apparently under the illusion that rape can fall within the category of zany highjinks.

And keep in mind that the aforementioned Stepin Fetchit stereotypes were once considered harmless comedy as well. They didn’t turn out to be so harmless after all, did they?

Recently I wrote about Santa Claus. Now I’m going to address a couple of related subjects — Little Red Riding Hood and grade school marijuana education courses. Bear with me.

I mentioned Santa Claus while writing about a (very good) Finnish movie called “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.” It’s a Christmas-themed horror movie that draws on some of the earlier, darker Scandinavian versions of the Santa Claus legend.

My buddy Chuck (Hi Chuck!) asked a question that got me thinking. Which depiction is closer to the original stories of Santa Claus — the scary one in that movie, or the more benevolent one that dominates in America? And what do both variations of the Santa legend say about the societies that told them to their kids?

As far as I can tell from my admittedly limited research, there were two basic themes when it came to the winter visitor.  You had variations on Father Christmas, Jolly Ol’ St. Nick, etc. He’s the nice guy who rewards good children.

Then you had menacing characters whose job wasn’t to reward good children, but to punish naughty ones. And we ain’t talkin’ coal in the stocking here. You had creatures like the Yule Goat, who would gore naughty children. Or the demonic Krampus, which would carry them back to its lair and eat them.

Does the fact that the former variation won out mean that we as a society go easier on our kids? Or is it because Krampus cards are unlikely to be a big seller in Hallmark stores? Maybe a little from Column A and a little from Column B.

And lest we be too judgmental of those Scandinavians from previous centuries who terrified their children with the Krampus, consider that they came from a rather inhospitable corner of the globe, climate-wise. This likely gave rise to a culture where everyone’s cooperation played a role in surviving the winters, and allowing disobedient children to run wild could result in consequences more dire than irate phone calls from neighbors.

Break out the Krampus.

And it’s not like those Scandinavians had a monopoly on cautionary tales meant to terrify children. Take a look at Little Red Riding Hood. The first printed version came out in the 17th century, but the folktale that inspired it has almost certainly been around for centuries longer. And not all the versions have a happy ending, either. In some, the wolf eats Red Riding Hood. The end.

I’ve heard the modern-day interpretations of it, based on the Jungian idea of mythological archetypes. The wolf represents the girl’s discovery of sexuality. He’s a male figure, duplicitous and dangerous as he lures her into bed. The color red is clearly an oblique reference to menstruation, which further reinforces the blah blah blah …

Want to hear my theory? The sexual undertones got added as later embellishments. And in the core story, the wolf represents — Are you ready for this? — a wolf.

These stories originated at a time when wolves were a genuine, physical threat to European villagers. And children were in particular danger of being carried off. So the adults came up with a story designed specifically to scare the crap out of kids, lest they get the idea of carelessly wandering into some potentially wolf-infested woods.

But our society doesn’t do anything like that, right? We’re civilized enough to realize that terrifying our children into obedience is wrong. Better to reason with them.

That may be true, to an extent. But I’m 45 years old, and I recall a few institutional efforts to scare the living crap out of me. For example, grade school drug education classes that informed me about marijuana’s hazards as an insidiously addicting gateway drug that would send me plummeting headlong into the dark maw of insanity and death.

I’m also old enough to have actually seen those now-legendary gore-soaked driver education films, depicting mangled corpses of unfortunates who drove carelessly.

No doubt, both educational programs were overblown. But were they wrong? Would a single toke off a joint at a party turn me into a depraved, doomed addict? No. Would violating the speed limit guarantee that I’d end up as street pizza spread across a highway somewhere? No. Were drug abuse and traffic accidents genuine safety risks for myself and other young people growing up around me? Absolutely.

So his tactics may have become more subtle, but the Krampus was evidently still around on a metaphorical level during my childhood. And I have no doubt that he’s lurking out there in one form or other today, trying to scare the kids onto the straight and narrow.

You better not shout. You better not cry.