Saturday, November 27, 2010

Dropkicked Your Jacket

What do you do when you have 22 invariably terrible essays on morals in an obscure short story to grade, a paper to write, editing to do on December's center spread, a blog post to think up, revisions on the end of your second novel, and an internship journal to write? Duh! You use Wikipedia and YouTube to research Mr. Belvedere and walk down memory lane. This is an hour and a half of my life that I'll never get back. Sure, I was watching West Virginia lay the smack down on Pitt on behalf of the Huskies at the same time, so I won't consider myself a total loser, but it was procrastination at its best; that's for sure.

What sent me down this road is inconsequential, but what I found was freakin' astonishing. Mr. Belvedere was edgy. In just five seasons, Mr. Belvedere was kidnapped and tortured by an obsessed woman, little Wesley was molested by a Boy Scout leader, Kevin date-raped the supposedly trashy girl at school, and Heather was nearly raped herself (not in the same incident; that would be really edgy!).

Apparently, though I barely remember any of these episodes, these types of shows were so popular in the 80s that they had an industry term for them--very special episodes. These were episodes of family situation comedies that took a break from the silly to highlight a serious issue in society. They were promoted far in advance, and they inevitably brought about controversy. There were racy episodes of almost every 80s situation comedy you could think of. We're talking fairly tame--Punky Brewster's friend getting locked in an abandoned refrigerator--to Alex P. Keaton using speed to help him stay up and study. Did Alf ever have to go to rehab? You can see a top ten of these very special episodes here:

While these kinds of episodes, and the lessons they taught, were cutting-edge in the 80s, they are basically nowhere to be found on today's televisions. Wait, that's because we don't have family television anywhere on TV today! Let's sit down as a family and watch CSI or The Good Wife. Yeah, right! Basically, if you want something you can sit down and watch with your children, you need to flip to Disney Channel and watch Hannah Montana or The Wizards of Waverly Place. (Phinneas and Ferb happen to by my favorites!)

Do you think we'll ever see edgy Disney programming like Hannah Montana's abortion episode or Alex on The Wizards of Waverly Place gets drunk and loses her virginity to a vampire/ware wolf hybrid on Halloween? Not gonna happen. We even had awesome PSAs that really meant something back in the 80s. Who can forget "this is your brain on drugs?" Classic. Today, if kids want to learn the harsh realities of life and how to deal with situations like your British housekeeper helping you through being molested by a camp counselor, where do they turn?

I imagine if a show like Family Ties or Rosanne existed today, we'd be seeing huffing and cutting episodes--very special ones--all over the place or didactic shows exposing the ills of "the pass out game" or internet predators. What strikes me, though, is that as corny as some of this might sound, I think they really did help. I grew up aware that these things could happen, knew to look out for them, and somehow felt like even if I was going to do something stupid, I at least new it was stupid and could take precautions and know if it got out of hand. Today's kids have nothing.

Some argue that these things are so out there in the media today that they don't need to be educated. Kids know this stuff is going on, and they don't need anyone to show them. Well, maybe so. But it doesn't mean they don't need someone to guide them through it. I have so many students that have deadbeat parents or just no real relationship with their parents, that they could use a Mr. Belvedere or a Heathcliff Huxtable to help them through the confusing times in life. Today, they have Google and their friend Terry that masturbates stray cats for fun to help them understand the complexities of moral America.

Part of the issue is the entertainment industry in general, or at least the way kids choose to get their entertainment today. Video games. Internet. They don't sit and watch TV that much anymore anyway. If there were shows like Growing Pains today--which did an episode on eating disorders--there would be no kids that wanted to sit and watch them. I guess the parents could make them from a young age, but I don't know if that would happen. I long for the days when life was simple. When child molestation, date rape, drug use, eating disorders, masturbation, teen drinking, abortion, suicide, and drunk driving could all be solved in a 60 minutes very special episode where families were shocked together, cried together, and then talked about it afterward. Good touch and bad touch were as simple as good TV.

Is this the niche that the edgier young adult fiction is filling? I don't know. I don't know that a ton of kids are reading this type of book and sitting down and discussing the issues with their parents. The reality of the novels also make it hard to have that cheesy moment at the end where we all learn our lesson, where Dr. Seaver makes a difference. Not to mention, I'm sure those 80s sitcoms had better ratings.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Teens talk funny. They say things like "yer" to mean "I agree wholeheartedly" and "sketchy" to mean "suspicious and possible a rapist." Now, while every generation has it's own lingo, and spending so much time with teens has led to me adopting plenty of these speech patterns, there are a few things that they say, along with some adults, that some feel are extremely, even if accidentally, offensive. Those are "gay," "fag," and "retard."

We'll attack "retard" first. It's almost universally accepted that when someone says you are a retard or are retarded that it has nothing to do with an actual mental disability. It simply means you're being dumb, doing something stupid, or both. Everyone knows this, yet some are still offended by it. I, personally, am not offended, but I realize why some would be--especially those with family or friends with mental disabilities. They're used to people making fun of their loved ones by using these words. I'm torn on the subject. The technical terminology has been changed to several more PC terms like "mentally challenged," "mentally disabled," and even "exceptional." So retard is almost always NOT a direct attack on the mentally challenged. Times have changed. Maybe it's as acceptable as stupid, dumb, or idiot. You can't constantly worry about who you are offending, and it's become so much a part of our daily verbal ejaculations that it's hard to yell at every kid that says "retard." But, I do worry that I might be wrong, and if that's the case, I apologize.

Next comes "gay." Gay almost never means homosexual in today's teenage lexicon. It just means lame or boring or sometimes too feminine. Now, while we do not refer to the mentally challenge as mentally retarded anymore, we do still call homosexuals "gays." In fact, most homosexuals I know refer to themselves as gay. So, in my opinion, there is a difference here. I have to admit, I've let a "gay" slip here and there. I was an insensitive teenager once upon a time, and it's hard not to just let old habits slide. But I've come to be annoyed by those who use the term "gay" a bit. I understand they don't mean it, in most cases, as a slight to homosexuals. They simply don't think at all. I will, from time to time, let them know that they should say what they mean and mean what they say, but I will forgive the transgression from time to time. I'm a very forgiving person.

Finally, we come to "Faggot." Faggot was never an acceptable term for homosexuals--it has always been an insult. Sometimes teens use it as an insult for a friend jokingly having nothing to do with homosexuality, but usually it is a sign of homophobia. Even when not used on a gay or lesbian individual, it is a way of saying "you're just as bad as those foggots who I hate for being gay." There's historical context for it, too. It originally came from burning mass quantities of homosexuals to death for being different. Some students joke, "What? It's just a bundle of sticks for burning. That's what it says in the dictionary." Then I follow up with "Do you know why that term became used by some to homosexuals?" And, of course, they don't. I liken "faggot" to "nigger" in that the words just conjure up feelings of violent hatred and a history of murder, torture, and pain. They are ways to dehumanize. They create victims. I don't say it. I don't like others saying it.

This is an issue for me because I am so anti-censorship it hurts. Also, fear of a word only increases it's power. There are those that say we should overuse the words in order to "take them back" and lesson their impact on society. I'm not so sure. But, as usual, I can see both points. I don't know.

I was teaching Kohlberg's stages of moral reasoning to my students in order to use them to judge characters, something I do every semester because I find it fascinating and it helps students to find sympathy for characters who may not always be perfect. Kohlberg's point was that morality isn't embedded in an act but rather the reasoning behind the act. It's not what you do but why you do it. So, if I truly believe that, which I think I do, I would have to say that using those words, any of them, in itself is not immoral. It's the way they're being used and why they're being used that matters. That, of course, would force us to judge every time we heard those words why they were being used. So, maybe I'm being retarded or gay, maybe I'm a big faggot or even a pussy, but if you have another word you can use instead, why not chose that word and avoid the whole damn controversy in the first place?

That being said, however, we have to be careful when it comes to these words being used in literature. Even if you believe using these words makes a kid the Antichrist, you can't deny that some do talk like this. Some talk like this constantly. So when characters in a work of literature use them, let's not attribute them to the author. We can't confuse the ideas and thoughts of characters with the author. Somebody wrote the Saw series of movies. Is he a serial killer? (Maybe subconsciously if we want to get into Freud and all that.) What about Mark Twain? Was he a racist for using the word "nigger" 2.7 billion times in his writing? Some think so. They are dumb. So if a character drops a few "retards" and "fags," let's not crucify the author. It's a short jump from making that mistake to total censorship.

Down with the man.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cutting the Cutting

What a mess we human beings are.

I just finished reading the book Cut for my Individual Aesthetic and Process class, and I began thinking about what I've been writing recently. I've finished one novel and the first draft and some light revisions of a second, and one thing that keeps coming up is self-harm (or self-mutilation).

"Self-mutilation" has sort of gone out of vogue because it becomes confusing if you're talking about things like tattooing or piercing or actual, harmful mutilation. So, we'll call it self-harm. I'm not an expert by any means, but I have a little experience from my own past that I could share. I also have some experience with it due to issues I've discussed with students, and I also did some quick research in conjunction with teaching The Catcher in the Rye where some might see Holden as involved in cathartic self-harm. He get's himself beat up twice when he could easily have stopped the abuse, punches out windows of his garage, and admits his favorite person in The Bible is the "lunatic" that sits alone in a cave cutting himself with rocks.

What I've learned is that most of what we think about "cutters" is false. There are some shocking facts out there.

1) All cutters are not Marilyn Manson listening, black leather wearing creatures of the night. In fact, there's cases of teens from all walks of life participating in self-harm. And it's not always cutting. Some use hot water, some punch walls, some poke themselves with pins or flick themselves in sensitive areas with rubber bands. Some bite themselves. Some rub at their flesh with all kinds of objects that cause pain. All teens are going through the toughest time of their lives, and all teens have problems that are important to them (even if they seem shallow to us). Princess Diana was a cutter. Google celebrities that have come out as cutters; you'll be surprised. The research when I checked, three years ago, was something like a third of all college students have participated in some type of self-harm at some time in their lives. That's a lot.

2) Cutters are not looking for attention. On the contrary, most are extremely ashamed of their habit, their compulsion. They WANT to stop. They just can't. Some people can't stop drinking, some smoking, some doing drugs, some eating, some having sex. Well, cutters can't stop cutting. The most common of the two big reasons is a sense of anxiety and stress that can only be temporarily relieved through pain. It's a release, endorphins and all that, and momentarily all that crap that's freaking them out goes away. The only problem is, the self-hatred from the cutting leads to more of those anxious feelings, more of that confusion and worry, and the the need to cut more. The other reason is dissociative feelings. The feeling that you don't exist. The feeling that you can't feel. These cutters feel they are so far removed from reality, that it's going on around them and they aren't included, that they cut themselves subconsciously (or sometimes consciously) just to feel that they are real. They're so dissociated that a pinch isn't enough. Either way, the last thing these people want is attention. They hide the scars. They put them in hidden places--upper thigh is popular. They make up excuses when they can be seen. "I run into a lot of doors" is one I've heard.

3) Self-harm is not harmless. Those committing self-harm are not suicidal (at least not most of the time). But it doesn't mean that if you find out a friend is doing this, you should just let it go and be happy they aren't doing any "permanent damage." What might be more harmful if untreated than the symptom of self-harm, is the condition causing it. The feelings that lead one to self-harm could be some severe psychological issues and disorders. Sometimes we forget that our psychological health can be as important to us as our physical health. They are, in some ways, interconnected. You should be just as worried about your friend's mental health as his or her physical health. And accidents can happen. When someone is routinely doing something like this to his or herself, chances are, eventually it will go too far. They need someone to talk to. They may need medication. But most of all, they need to stop the compulsion.

When I was 17, I remember a few straight days of just lying in bed all day listening to mixed tapes, wondering what the point was. I was madly in love with one of my best friends who had no idea, or if she did, she was happy pretending she didn't so she wouldn't have to hurt me. She wasn't interested. I was like a brother. My other friends seemed to lead such exciting, happy lives. I just lay in bed wondering why I wasn't part of it. While feeling particularly dissociative, I remembered reading about Marilyn Manson and his cutting. Remembered seeing the lattice work of scars across his chest when I saw him live in concert. Remembered him breaking a wine bottle on stage after taking a swig, and drawing it across his ribs, letting the blood leak out. I read about how it was such a release and how Princess Diana did it, too. I went into the junk drawer, grabbed a box cutter, and went at the back of my calf where I had a scar from something else in childhood. Nobody would notice. I started to drag the blade across the muscle, wondering if it would actually help.

The blood came out in gobs. I never expected so much. I'd barely done anything. It wasn't even that deep. The cut was less than a half inch long. But it bled. It bled a lot. Doogie, my miniature poodle who was wallowing in my depression with me, pounced on the floor and began licking it up. Apparently, I tasted pretty good. A roll of paper towels, a Band Aid, and a quick doggie snack later, I sat on the bed laughing at myself. What a scene. I couldn't even mutilate myself correctly. But I would never do that again.

From then on, I did find solace in hurting myself from time to time--but I limited it to punching myself really hard in the legs, leaving pretty harsh bruises. I can talk about it now--no problem. I know why I did what I did, and I know it wasn't a smart way to deal with my issues. I also know that I wish I had someone, something to make me not feel so alone. I wish I had Cut to read, or one of my own novels.

This was only a couple months, if that, of my life. The "cutting" was just one stupid kid experiment, and I never then or now considered myself a "cutter." But I will never judge or stereotype teens who participates in this behavior. They need help. They need to talk. And we should all try to understand and help the right way, not by ridiculing or dismissing it as "teenage angst."

The end. Go Patricia McCormick.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Clone Wars: Freedom vs. Keith Olbermann

Why does life have to be so complicated? Keith Olbermann has been suspended from MSNBC indefinitely for donating to the campaigns of Democratic candidates. Taken at face value, it would seem to be an egregious violation of Mr. Olbermann's rights. I'm free to donate to Republican candidates even though my union always endorses Democratic candidates. No biggie. Not that I ever would, mind you.

The problem is that Keith is a member of the press. The press is supposed to be impartial and tell all sides of the story, n'est pas? Well, that's what we've always been told at least. But it seems somewhere in the 90's the rule book was rewritten. Now we chose to get our news from he or she that supports our own political beliefs. What's the harm in that? If I'm a liberal, I tune in to Keith's Countdown and listen to his rants against everyone from George Bush to Rupert Murdock.

And if that offends me, I can turn to FOX News and listen to the Huckabees and O'Reillys of the world spewing their hatred for anyone not old and white. That's perfectly fine. See, equal opportunity. The liberals have their havens and the conservatives have theirs. Sure, it's not the traditional idea of equal, unbiased coverage, but it's basically the same idea, right?

WRONG! What this new media polarization has left out is...The Undecided Voter. The Moderate. The Independent. I, being a registered Democrat, would of course like more of those wishy-washy flip-floppers to tune into MSNBC to hear the news from Keith, Rachel, and Chris rather than hearing the evil messages of Bill and Mike. But the truth is, when Mr. or Mrs. wishy-washy tunes in to what they think is unbiased news, they are likely to be swayed based on the station his or her boob tube is tuned in to.

But maybe the wishy-washy flip-floppers have a point. Maybe we should take each individual circumstance and candidate as a completely separate situation and realize that, at times, both sides have good points. And in such cases, it seems to me, that both sides are wrong.

Should taxes be as low as possible and the government let us live our lives? Yup.

Should programs be in place for those who need them and health care be provided as a right, not a privilege? Yup.

But, sadly, you can't butter the bread on both sides without making a mess. Something's gotta give. This is why I have to ask, why does life have to be so complicated? Do evil people sometimes deserve to die in my mind? Probably. Is it somehow hypocritical, icky, and immoral to kill someone even if he or she did commit unspeakable acts? Um, yeah. I think so. Why can't the world realize that there's no clear-cut answer in any case. We all have our opinions on what's the right way to live, but who knows for sure? Nobody.

I'm left wondering what to do with my political life. I used to be an Independent, but I always voted for the Democrat, so it seemed like I was a Democrat. But I sometimes wonder if I'm wrong. Then I think, what I'm really trying to decide is what politicians I agree with--the Dems or Repubs. Guess what. It's neither. What I'm realizing is that NO politician is truly a representative of my ideals. What we do in this country--no, in this world--is elect those who want to be elected; that is, we give power to those who are not looking out for our best interests but who simply want power. That's why they run. They're not me. They don't represent me. They're greedy, power-hungry turds. I wouldn't want to "have a beer" with any of these uptight scum bags.

I am, in a small way, part of the press myself now. I advise a high school newsmagazine. Through an amazing turn of events, my editor-in-chief, a brilliant young lady, had the opportunity to interview both Tom Foley (Republican candidate for governor of CT) and Dan Malloy (Democratic candidate for the same office) in consecutive months. After getting to hear their conversations with her, I decided they were both full of shit up to their eyeballs. In fact, not only did I get the impression they weren't in it for the right reasons, I got the impression that neither of them put much thought into their own beliefs. That their beliefs weren't theirs to begin with. They don't even know what they stand for. They stand for either a donkey or an elephant and that's about it. They were pawns of an ideology they'd been spoon fed since they chose one of only two paths offered to them as young men.

Even in a relaxed conversation with a 17 year-old, the cliches were shooting around the room left and right. They were programmed machines. By whom, I don't know. It's like archetypes in literature. I feel like each Republican candidate for any office is just another Reagan and any Democrat is Franklin Roosevelt 2.0. We just keep hearing different packagings of "Trickle Down Economics" and "New Deals" over-and-over and none of it works a damn. WTF.

So what does that leave us? Nothing. We might as well define ourselves as one side or another and vote straight down party lines because that's the only choice we have. All Democratic politicians are the same and so are all Republicans. They all fall in line. All with the same message. No new ideas. No thinking outside the box. No thinking at all. The truth is, the minds that are making the decisions aren't qualified--they were simply the people that wanted the power, so they ran. They erased everything that made them an individual and became Reagan or Roosevelt just so they could be the head of something. Depressing. Therefore, we might as well separate our news coverage. There's no in between.

Until this world puts those in office who are not seeking office (a logical impossibility), we are doomed. No hope. Truth is, I have more faith in my journalism class under its current structure to run this country than all the jokers plodding around trying to scrape up a little more power in Washington and every state and local government combined. And my guys and gals are only high school students. But at least their hearts are in the right place, and their minds are free of corruption. They believe in what they believe in, not what they had to believe in to gain power.

So, Olbermann, a Teddy Roosevelt, gave some money to a few other Teddy Roosevelts. Not a big deal. Certainly, not a new deal. So what if all the FOX News Reagan clones give to other Reagan clones. They're all the same. All we need is one Republican and one Democrat sitting in one room together to make all the decisions for the entire world and the results would be the same. Nothing would happen.

I'm too old and too indocrinated into the system to stop now. I'll keep voting Democrat hoping I can get more Roosevelts in power than Reagans. But maybe the new generation can find a way to create a revolution that leads to leadership that deserves it, not leadership that simply wants it. Fat chance. The system has been good to Reagans and Roosevelts and they will fight to keep it the same, even if they don't understand why.

Maybe a true independent will run for president some day and win--then we can have three archetypes in the room making decisions, a tie breaker. Maybe then, only then, will anything get done--for better or worse.

Oh, and MSNBC, let Keith back on the air. He's entertaining.