Essay Eighteen – GI Joe

Essay Eighteen

GI Joe

I consider myself very lucky to have been a child in the 80s. The music was peppy and fun. television was arguably at its height, and the movies were, and still are, iconic classics. However, there were two slices of 80s culture that really resonated with me, namely the animated television shows of the era, as well as the toys of the era. Indeed, these two were often intertwined in the 80s, thanks to Reagan deregulating television, allowing a cartoon to exist mainly to sell action figures, and, sometimes, even the other way around. My favorite of these cartoons was GI Joe, an update of the old 60s toy franchise into a typically 80s format. It was stylish, silly, patriotic, and cheesy, yet also well-written, with a host of fun characters and creative design. However, it is the show’s diversity that has always been its strength.

In fact, the best thing about GI Joe was the diversity of its cast, both hero and villain. Some people may point out some of the more offensive stereotypes portrayed by the show, such as the resident Magical Native, Spirit, and his pet bald eagle, Freedom (which is as subtle as everything else from the 80s), and the Dreadnoks, who were all apparently droogies from A Clockwork Orange, or the Baroness, a weird combination of Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle and every Russian ballbuster that ever existed, up to and including Brigitte Nielsen from Rocky IV.

However, that doesn’t take into consideration the many other relatively very progressive takes on minorities that can be found in the show. This really shows in a character like Doc, who manages to be a by-the-numbers combat medic without being a jive-talking caricature, or Alpine, whose real name is, according to his ID card on the back of his toy packaging, Albert Pine (get it?), and who was born in Idaho, is a mountain climbing expert, and just happens to be black. Just how non-stereotypical can you make a black character without turning him into Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? It is almost like in this cartoon they were really, really trying very hard not to be stereotypical. (Compare this to other shows of it time, especially its sister show Transformers, where a robot named Jazz is voiced by legendary black actor Scatman Crothers.)

This reluctance to stereotype characters can be seen in a lot of the female characters on the show as well. The best example of this is Scarlett, one of the main Joes that gets a lot of screen time in the cartoon. First off, it must be noted that she is fully clothed, not clad, as so many modern female characters in such stories today, in a cleavage-baring or butt-baring light bondage outfit. Secondly, she is often allowed to have character traits other than just being the “Team Girl” character that most of these shows have. She is often shown to be resilient, clever,  and tough, and none of her teammates treat her as anything but a capable fellow soldier. This extends to many of the other characters on the Joe team, such as Lady Jaye, who is arguably more sultry a character than Scarlett, owing perhaps to her background as a spy, but is allowed to be similarly respected as an equal. Granted, Lady Jaye is showing a lot more cleavage, but it is peeking out from standard-issue army fatigues. Interestingly enough, but Scarlett and Lady Jaye use weapons from ancient history, the crossbow and spear respectively, which actually makes them come across as more primal combatants, which again goes against gender stereotyping, or at least it always did in my mind.

I think this diversity, however, extends not only to battling racial and gender stereotypes, but also character stereotypes as well. Most of the characters are given a backstory and a unique personality quirk or two. So we have Quick Kick and his obsessive quoting of old movies and shows, and Bazooka being a big klutz and kind of a doofus, and Roadblock being a chef, and Lifeline being, of all things, a pacifist. None of the many, many characters on the show were allowed to be cookie-cutter heroes; everyone in this show seemed like an actual person. A lot of credit obviously goes to Larry Hama, the original creator of most of these characters, who seemed to treat this characters of the show as if they weren’t just in a 30-minute advertisement for an action figure line, going beyond expectations to give us “Real American Heroes” that actually accurately represented the diversity of America.

Essay Seventeen – Walking

Walking

By Brian Stacy Sweat

People need to walk more, but not just for their health. It is a sad truth that in this constructed reality that we live in, this land of neat confinement, that we are actually in our own little worlds, either ensconced in our homes or organized neatly into cubicles at work. It is amazing how our brains get accustomed to such a life, yet this familiarity with created space has happened to most of us. We are all safe behind four walls. But this is not true at all. We are always in the world, even if we lock it outside.

You always relearn this fact every time you go for a walk. You learn that everything is contiguous on the Earth. You learn that you are connected to everything on this planet (Well, at least in your town). It is refreshing. Normally, your brain tricks you into thinking that you are in a corner somewhere, but you are not. You are in a world of infinite possibilities and circumstances, and when you are walking, you are not hiding from them in your cave. You are facing them on your feet. Walking reminds you to go forward, to not be afraid. Walking wakes you up.

Just today, I walked to the store to pick up some coffee, which was a trip of around a mile and a half. The air had a delightful chill to it as I strode happily down the road, appreciating as I went the silhouettes of bare tree branches straining upward into the cotton-candy-colored sky like beautiful dark fingers. Even though there were cars on the road, you could still hear the sound that the wind makes through the trees, and, far above me, a hawk circled in slow motion, defiant.

I started to notice that my responses were starting to change. Instead of hurrying here and there, treating other humans like annoying obstacles to avoid, I started to greet people that I passed. I live in a very diverse town, so I said hello to people from nearly every demographic you could imagine. I do believe all seven continents were represented on my little walk. And yet we were all as one, striders of the Earth. Hello, all. How do you do?

I also noticed that I started to feel the enormity of the Earth, and I became very aware of the curvature of the surface I was walking on, and aware that the it curved under my feet in all directions to everywhere on the planet. I started to relearn the concept of big. I understood how vast the sky was, miles and miles of it that I otherwise never look at.

I got reacquainted with the wonder of this boring old world, and it made me smile.

I encourage you to do the same. Get out in the world. Look around and talk to people, or at least say hello. Turn your cell phone off for a while. Leave your cave.

Copyright 2013 Brian Stacy Sweat

 

Essay Sixteen – Our Side

Our Side

by Brian Sweat

I have this theory that the whole of human society is generally equivalent to the opposing fans at a football game. We know what kinds of rivalries are born of football, especially if you live in the South. Take the legendary rivalry between the Georgia Bulldogs (sorry, but as an English teacher I just cannot call them “Dawgs”) and the Florida Gators. Around Halloween each year, screeching tailgaters in Red and Black yell at their opposite numbers in Orange and Blue from across a giant field, while, antlike and insignificant compared to the throngs of people, little characters below them in Red and Black and Orange and Blue toss a ball around and jump on each other. Of course, whatever color scheme you are wearing determines your particular worldview, which pretty much casts you and your team as noble, infallible heroes and the other guys as no-good, cheating, effeminate commies who probably, if they are winning, are sleeping with the officials.

The real color scheme here is not Red and Black, but Black and White, the color of extremes. It seems that we have not left behind our ancient ways, where yelling clans in loincloths hated and feared similar yelling clans in loincloths. Extrapolate the idea of caveman clans further, and you have nations, each one telling itself how superior it is to every other nation.

This kind of oversimplification of the Universe is common among our species. Always, we put ourselves and our people on a pedestal and reinforce the rather circular idea that we are great because we are not THEM. Who is THEM, you ask? Well, it depends. If you are an Evangelical Christian, it’s the Secular Humanists, and vice versa, and if you are a Republican, it is the Democrats, and vice versa. If you are a “patriotic” American, it’s all those little countries you can’t quite spell or find on a map, and if you are an acolyte of Rush Limbaugh or Fox News, it’s Barack Obama. If you are a well-armed militia guy in the forests of Minnesota, it’s the “Government.” If you smoke a lot of pot, it’s “the Man.”

I could go on for days, but you get the picture: for every category of person, a supposed villain exists, the THEM, who are WRONG. Yes, WRONG….all caps, baby. No exceptions.

By the way, I think that’s bull. Very few things are all bad or all good. For example, is “Big Government” bad? Should the FDA stop testing drugs, for instance? Should the health inspector be banned in deference to the “rights of small business owners,” which apparently include being filthy? (But then again, look at what happened when Bell stopped being a state-allowed monopoly and other companies came in to fill the void. How lame would it be nowadays to only get your phone service from Ma Bell?)

Here’s one for you. Look at the increasingly dualistic views of our current President. On the one hand, he is seen almost like a modern-day Moses, sent out to guide us all to the Promised Land. On the other, he is a lunatic Muslim con artist with dangerous ties to foreigners and a perverse vision of normalcy. Which one is right?

I think neither. I have found that reality, which consists of facts and statistics and things that can be rationally and objectively understood without bias and emotion, is usually sitting squat in the middle, waiting patiently to be discovered while people howl and roll around at either far end like distraught hyenas.

It doesn’t help that so much impassioned rhetoric is flying at us from the media. It seems we rarely think critically; we just swallow what an “authority” says without using our brains to analyze 1. what is actually being said, 2. whether or not what is being said is actually verified, and 3. what agenda is being served. I really question the fact that so many people need to have some other brain filter and arrange the facts for them. Why not get the facts for yourself, and then figure out what is going on? In short, why not think?

That’s the bottom line for me: thought. If you are just angrily regurgitating what someone else had said, then you are reacting, not thinking. The two are not related. Thought is a creative process, not an imitative one.

Copyright 2013 Brian Stacy Sweat

Essay Fifteen – Percussion

Percussion

The only musical instrument that I every really was interested in playing was the drums. I should say “percussion,” however, since that handy term covers any musical instrument that you strike, hit, or otherwise wallop. I played a lot of percussion instruments in band class, such as the marimba, the timbales, the bongos, and the tympanis, plus a whole lot more obscure ones I can’t remember the names to. (And yes, my fellow internet trolls, I also understand the eternal power of “more cowbell!”.) I always thought that percussion was cool, and now that I am older and I have gotten to know myself better, I think I understand why.

I think that it is the aforementioned diversity of instruments that really fueled my interest in percussion. With nearly every other instrument, you learn that one instrument and that’s it, or, if there are options, there aren’t the infinite options that are available to percussionists. There are all sorts of actual percussion instruments, but the wonderful thing is that nearly anything that makes a noise when struck can be a percussion instrument. The old image of little kids banging pots and pans together isn’t far off the mark; I remember playing all sorts of oddball items: railroad track segments, wooden planks, bird whistles, boxes of glass, slide whistles, tire rims, coffee cans, you name it. This made it hard to get tired of percussion, and this is coming from someone who got tired of a lot of hobbies.

This diversity also means that a lot of percussion music sounds weird to most people, who are more accustomed to hearing more prevalent instruments, like guitars and pianos. Maybe it is also because most of the notes produced in percussion are short and sharp. Indeed, there are very few mellow percussion instruments, the marimba being probably the softest I can think of, and percussion music can sound very stark and jarring at times. A good example of this is the theme music to the subject of my previous essay, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, where it sounds like the cast and crew got together with pieces of metal and glass found in the back of someone’s pickup and jangled and rubbed them together at random intervals. The effect is unsettling, to say the least.

But percussion music is also powerful. It has a kick to it, literally. Those that have seen live marching bands know especially what I mean. Drum music can be felt as well as heard; the sound waves make a real physical impact on the bodies of anyone in attendance, like waves buffeting a beach. I remember that whenever we had a problem with people in our way as we were marching into the field for our pre-game performance, all of us in the drum line would just begin playing our marching cadence. Suddenly, windows were shaking, car alarms were going off, and the chain link fences vibrated as if they were accompanying us. People sure got out of our way then!

Writing this now, and thinking back to my days as a drummer in high school, I realize what a gift that time was. I was very lucky to have gone to school back when Art and Music were still considered important subjects. Looking back, I realize how much of band was a learning experience. I learned not only about the many technical aspects of music, but I also developed a feel for how sounds and tones interact to evoke a certain mood or feeling, and I also learned how to interact with groups of people to accomplish a shared goal. While a lot of people probably would look at percussion as just hitting things and making noise, I saw it for what it is, an artform.  However, it was also a way for me to interact with a lot of people that I probably wouldn’t have had anything to do with otherwise. We forget that part of the appeal of making music is playing it with others.

Copyright 2013 Brian Stacy Sweat

Essay Fourteen – Leatherface

Leatherface

Why do I find Leatherface likable and hilarious? What is wrong with me that I watch the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and find it strangely bemusing and charming? I understand that I am an unusual person by a lot of people’s definitions, but I am not (for the most part) evil. In real life, I am (for the most part) considerate and gentle. . . I swear I am! I don’t even like a lot of other horror movies, especially the more modern “torture porn” type of films like Saw or Hostel (especially Hostel! That movie’s gross!) So what is the appeal of TCM in general and Leatherface in particular? After careful and deliberate thought, I think I may have figured out this conundrum. . . for the most part.

What actually makes Leatherface special is how he differs from his later slasher breathren. Unlike the slashers that would come later, which all had some sort of supernatural basis (Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and all those lesser-known B-grade slashers), making them relentless forces of nature that can never be truly stopped, Leatherface is quite clearly a human being, even if he is a total maniac. He can be hurt, and he can actually be ourtrun. (In contrast, try to outrun Jason! He can casually walk behind you, with all the speed of a mall-walking grandmother, and still end up in front of you!) Also, Leatherface seems to have some actual relatable human emotions. After Sally’s boyfriend is the third to enter Leatherface’s house, and the third to get killed, Leatherface is obviously agitated and confused, peering nervously out of a window to see if any other dumb kids are going to waltz up to his house. What other slasher gets nervous?

You really get to see how human Leatherface is during the finale, where it is revealed that the Hitchhiker and the Old Man are Leatherface’s older brothers, and, in an interesting inversion, Leatherface becomes the abused rather than the abuser. One of the sickest laughs in the film is also one of my favorite lines in the movie, where the Old Man gets mad at Leatherface for his shenanigans with the teenagers, and he starts beating Leatherface with a stick after uttering the immortal line: “You. . . you damn fool! You ruined the door!” It is funny because it is such a non sequitur, but it also seems like a real response, like the kind of ironic priority an actual killer would have. This scene also makes sense of why Leatherface was nervous earlier. He’s not bothered about killing people; he just doesn’t want his older brother to abuse him for messing up the house. Instead of a soulless monster, we have here a human, twisted to be sure, but worried about his family relationships like all of us are.

The scene at the end where they go get Grandpa from upstairs to have a sick version of a family dinner with a tied-up Sally shows further Leatherface’s concern for his family. Watch carefully how tender and loving Leatherface is towards Grandpa, kissing him gently on the forehead at dinner and helping him patiently with the hammer as he tries limply to kill Sally at the end. Of course, it is a horrific scene, but it also has a psychological reality to it. To Leatherface, this is family night.

Leatherface, who before was an abstract horror concept, becomes a kid that has been abused since birth, an innocent child deformed emotionally by the madness of his family and physically by the unfortunate kink in his inbred genetics, a product of a family of horrors that he nonetheless loves and tries to protect. And isn’t this how a lot of maniacs start out in real life, as kids twisted into something terrible by their own kin? While not remotely redeemable, he is at least partially understandably human, and in a celluloid world of purely evil supernatural boogeymen, this humanity makes him safer and more accessible, yet also scarier. Other slashers are reassuringly fake, but Leatherface and his sick family are based in our world, where people are the monsters. After all, we will never face a magical murdering hobgoblin like Freddy, but we could go down the wrong road and get invited to dinner with Leatherface and his family. They’re out there somewhere, and that’s the real horror.

Copyright 2013 Brian Stacy Sweat

Essay Thirteen – Education

Education

Plumbers clear drains, mechanics fix cars, and cooks make good food, but what is the result of teachers teaching classes? There is a clear, quantifiable, and indisputable result with the first three, but what is the end result, the payoff, with teaching? How can we tell if teachers have done a good job or not?

Some would say that we do this with grades and test scores, but is it really that simple? Yes, teachers give grades to assess performance, but those grades are based on standards that always seem to be in a state of dispute and flux. The term “grade inflation” describes the modern tendency of lessening standards to artifically increase observable success. Since teachers now are accountable for every student’s success, even the lazy and indifferent ones, it makes sense that schools either A: set the curriculum at a low bar so more people can get over it, or B: teach only what is going to be on the standardized tests that gauge teaching effectiveness so that everyone passes them.

Here, then, is the real issue, this indeterminacy of results. When you can skew everything in your favor, how can you have standards at all? I mean, why not teach what is on the test? If students pass the test, they’ll know the material, right? Well, maybe they will know it just enough to pass these tests and no more. Maybe they will cram it into their short-term memory and regurgitate it onto the answer sheet. But will they actually know any of this stuff, aside from being able to pick the right answer on the test?

I remember a discussion we were having in one of the English classes I taught where, for reasons lost to time, the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was brought up by a student who had obviously remembered this for a test in high school with the mnemonic device “22nd = 2 terms.” She even had a little hand gesture where she held up two fingers in a peace sign when she said it. I, however, had forgotten the number of the amendment, but I knew the relevance of it, so I of course started talking in detail about the 22nd Amendment, beginning with the 2-term tradition set by Washington, and talking about FDR’s four terms as president, which was the reason Republicans pushed for this amendment, and how Republicans later regretted it when Reagan came along and was a very popular president. I stopped, of course, when I saw her eyes were blank and I realized she had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.

See, all she knew was “22nd = two terms.” I didn’t remember the number, but knew every other detail of it. If I had taken that test, I would not have gotten the answer right, even though I knew everything else besides the exact number. But hey, that was what was on the test, the two fingers. Technically, she knew what the amendment was, so the standards are upheld, right? However, could you really say that she understood what it meant? To her, wasn’t it just a soundbite, a meaningless factoid? Can you really know historical facts without knowing the history behind them?

Here is the real question, though: if education is reduced to a test to pass, a hurdle to jump, then why should students care about their education any more than they would care about passing their driver’s exam? Who cares about meaning and comprehension and internalization anyway? I mean, I passed the stupid test, didn’t I? Give me my keys so I can drive the hell out of here!

I am sure that somewhere, either in a roomful of bureaucrats in Washington or in a board meeting in New York, the fact that she got that answer right on the test validates the system. I am sure that somewhere, some tabulator of data is looking at a bank of statistics and is pleased at their rosy numbers. But I urge you to look around you and ask if these newer and more formulaic systems of education are making America any smarter. Gauge for yourself whether or not this country is on an intellectual upswing. Use your own analysis to figure out whether or not education is working. Look down that pipe and see if it is clogged.

Copyright 2013 Brian Stacy Sweat