Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Great expense

I’m no stranger to guilt, so much so that you can pretty safely assume that there’s a moderately broad streak of the stuff running as subtextual undercurrent to everything I babble about here. If I grouse about the indignities of my 9-to-5 job, I simultaneously feel guilty about it because I know there are unemployed and underemployed people out there struggling to make ends meet and compared to whom I really have nothing to complain about. And if I vent about home repairs or yardwork or traffic or any other inconveniences, I’m acutely aware of the excruciatingly first-world, upper-middle-class bo-bo nature of these petty grievances. But that’s who I am, and this blog is about my life, and I just figure it would get real old real fast to put that boilerplate disclaimer in each and every post.

There’s actually a sharper edge to those concerns in this particular phase of my life, too, given the three-and-a-half year old little guy who lives in my house. My wife and I are trying to make the most of these formative years and teach him to be conscientious, or at the very least not egregiously wasteful. All well and good that he has internalized the importance of washing his hands after using the bathroom, but we often have to remind him not to spend forever doing it, the admonishment almost always taking the form “don’t waste water”. Same goes for his eating habits, whereby we’re rightfully proud of him for his willingness to eat a reasonably healthy array of fruits and vegetables and grains in addition to his staples of peanut butter and chicken nuggets, the only problem arising when he asks for food, is given a serving, has one bite and then asks for something completely different. “Don’t waste food” comes flying out right quick about then. And as far as the little guy is concerned, wasting something is bad primarily because mommy and daddy don’t like waste, period. Meanwhile in the back of my mind I’m thinking of countries suffering under famine conditions, or villages that don’t have ready access to clean drinking water, and in dire moments the places contending with both of those things at once and more.

Of course there’s a standard coping mechanism I’m very familiar with which basically says guilt isn’t necessarily the most appropriate response to the existence of deprivation elsewhere. I’m lucky I was born to well-off people in the developed world, I’m grateful to have been blessed with such luck, but I shouldn’t feel guilty about it because I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything at all in creating those circumstances which gave rise to me, anymore than I personally did anything to create generations of wealth disparity and/or unbalanced resource allocation in the geopolitical reality we live in. It’s all a gross oversimplification, sure, but it can help one sleep at night.

But then there’s the matter of actively participating in doing harm, which shouldn’t really be separated from guilt at all, because that’s pretty If A And B Then C. And this too has been coming up more and more lately, and I find myself ill-equipped to answer it.

Again, in the realm of constant thematic underpinnings, maintaining a blog that’s really an outlet for all of my obsessive overthinking of popular culture is kind of a double-edged sword, as it gives me some needed space to air out my thoughts creatively, but I sometimes find myself feeling guilty for expending so much time and energy on it in the first place because, really, how does any of this actually matter? That line of thought certainly didn’t originate with the blog, either, since I’ve long struggled with reconciling a general feeling that the purpose of a life well-spent is to make the world a better place against my innate tendency to want nothing more than to lose myself in narratives, be it via a video game or a heavy metal opera or a multiplex blockbuster or a dog-eared comic book. Sometimes I’ve told myself that I’ve been known to tell a halfway decent story myself now and then, and if I can spread a little joy here and there, make the world a more magical place, or even simply generate a tolerable amount of distraction, I can take solace in that. But as a passive consumer of other people’s creations, the best that can be said about it is that at least it isn’t hurting anybody.

They say things often come in threes, and evidently that applies to counterexamples as well. Last week Junior Seau committed suicide, I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for the 1001 Film Blog Club, and the Avengers movie opened in the states. Somehow all of those things became emblematic of how problematically complicated everything seems to be.

Let’s start with The Avengers, which I actually haven’t seen yet because I couldn’t justify going to a late-night movie and staying out until 2 a.m. when the little girl has been prone to waking up screaming in the middle of the night so much lately. (That’s an entirely different kettle of guilt-fish, and of course once I resolved to put off seeing the flick for a while, the little girl began sleeping through the night with very few problems, because of course she did.) And I almost certainly will go see the movie sooner rather than later, but I haven’t been entirely immune to an interesting line of conversation that’s been floating around the internet in the movie’s wake. Specifically, that the comic book industry’s business practices are kind of morally screwed up. They’ve gotten better this century, but especially at the dawn of the Golden Age they were less than admirable. Basically comic book companies facilitate the mass production and distribution of creative work, and the corporate entities reap massive profits and the responsible creative types get very little share of it. The person who has gotten the richest off the Harry Potter phenomenon is clearly J.K. Rowling, and that’s as it should be. The persons who have gotten richest off Superman are emphatically not (the estates of) Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two guys who dreamed the character up and wrote and drew his earliest adventures. To a large extent that’s the difference between how things got done in the 1930’s and how they’re done now; back then, Joe and Jerry and lots of other young guys like them did work for hire at miniscule payrates, which all seemed appropriate because they were cranking out literally disposable entertainment for kids, and getting paid to do so at all seemed like a swell deal. Comics became a bigger and bigger (and more bankable) concern, but the ink on the contracts was long-since dried by then. And no corporate entity has ever said “We should really compensate these guys who breathed life into these creations beyond what we’re legally obligated to them for.” So basically when one buys a ticket for the Avengers one is giving money to the theater-owner, Walt Disney Pictures, Marvel Studios, and Marvel Comics, but not to the families of creators who worked on the source comics for the past fifty or so years, most notably Jack Kirby, the artist and co-plotter all the way back to issue number one. It’s all legal, it’s all very much “just the way it is”, but I admit it gives me pause.

(Some people have been suggesting that anyone who goes to see the movie might also make a donation to The Hero Initiative, which is a charity dedicated to helping ease the financial burdens of comic book industry vets. I can hardly argue with that formulation, and I gave. Not saying you must, as well, but there you go.)

So Marilyn Monroe has been on my mind recently, which might seem odd given how my pop culture universe has been about 78% cowboy westerns lately and that genre was not one in which Ms. Monroe operated. But there’s a larger rumination on Americana in general that’s been my brain-backdrop recently, and surely Marilyn Monroe deserves to be included in that just as much as the John Wayne and Clint Eastwood archetypes. I’ll talk more about her performance in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes tomorrow, but the connection here has to do with her iconic stature being reinforced by her untimely death. She may very well have been damaged goods before she ever made it to Hollywood, but getting there clearly didn’t help very much. It’s difficult to consider her at all without grappling with ideas of female exploitation – and frankly, it’s difficult these days to consume almost any pop culture at all without that kind of grappling. I’ve never claimed to be anything much above ape-like in terms of susceptibility to the allure of titillation, whether it’s the risible tween-friendly kind in evidence in Smallville’s shameless pandering or the (arguably) more artful but still prurient pay-cable nudity in Game of Thrones. But the older I get (or maybe more importantly, the more birthdays my very own daughter celebrates) the more I feel like the line between harmless and harmful exploitation is shifting on me.

And finally we come to the death of a football star, and the chilling realization that there seems to be a growing trend not just of former NFLers taking their own lives but of them choosing specifically to shoot themselves fatally in the chest so that their brains can be autopsied for ongoing investigation into repeated injuries and brain damage and so on. Which makes pulling the trigger out to be the mere culmination of a long, slow suicide that begins when a player is drafted. It makes professional football significantly less entertaining. (Behold my gift for understatement.) I know a lot of people summarily blow this whole topic off with an argument along the lines of “Those guys make millions and millions of dollars playing pro ball and thus get no sympathy from me” but that has really never held much sway in my mind. If we had voluntary gladiatorial bouts in this day and age, where people were willing to literally fight to the death on pay-per-view in exchange for millions of dollars for their families, would it be morally acceptable to be a paying member of the audience for same? Assuming the answer to that is “no”, how many shades away is the NFL’s body count now? Plus considering that, more and more as I get older, I’ve come to believe the leading research that posits human brain development (especially judgment re: self-preservation) isn’t fully complete until age 25 or so, and most football players go pro right around age 22 … to what extent is my enjoyment of a Sunday’s worth of gridiron contests unfairly exploitative? How much, exactly, should I hate myself for feeding the machinery?

I hadn’t even been vocalizing a lot of this stuff, but my wife (unsurprisingly) was right there with me, at least on the NFL question. She posed the question in equation terms: Seau’s death makes her feel pretty strongly that she could never let our son play football, because it wouldn’t be worth the risk to his health and well-being. On the other side, she’s always loved following professional football, rooting for the Steelers and generally appreciating the game enough to tune in for Sunday Night or Monday Night Football regardless of who’s playing. Can those two contradictory stances be reconciled? Is it fair to say “no child of mine” but complacently allow other people’s children to risk themselves for a technically non-essential diversion? My wife tried posing that question on Facebook but it seemed to get misinterpreted with a fair number of people not even addressing the question of whether or not to abandon the NFL but actually arguing the case that youth football isn’t that dangerous and the little guy should be allowed to suit up for Pop Warner or high school varsity or whatever if he so desires.

And I get that kneejerk reaction, I do. A wise man once told me that baseball may be our pastime, but football is our national sacrament; that’s why the Super Bowl gets played on Sunday. Saying you don’t follow the NFL because you’re just not a sports person is unusual, but forgivable; saying you don’t like pro football because the reckless physicality ruins young men’s brains forever makes you sound like an insufferably smug scold who nobody likes. So the choice seems to come down to hypocrisy versus party-poopery, which is never a fun set of options. I suppose a third option is to try, to whatever extent you can, to continue enjoying the things you enjoy while honestly (and quietly) working to change the things about them you have a problem with. Maybe fixing what’s already all around us is just as important as adding to it with brand new contributions. Maybe that can ease the guilt somewhat.

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