Yellow Gunk on My Pancake Heart

The Simpsons celebrates twenty seasons of satirical splendor tomorrow.marge0291

I’ll be tuned in.

Yet when it all started, more than twenty years ago, I had no time for television. I was working thirty hours a week at a newspaper in addition to taking college courses and raising three kids. Spare time was a fantasy.

Even so, The Simpsons seeped into my consciousness, in part because the half hour during which the show aired once a week was one of the only times my three children and their father would sit down and watch something together. The sound of them all laughing would float up the stairwell to the kitchen where I was cooking dinner. And that was good enough for me.

The Simpsons lexicon — Homer’s “d’oh!,” Nelson’s “hah, hah,” Flanders’ “okely dokely”, etc., crept into daily conversation. I knew what they looked like. I had a vague sense of the show’s skewed humor. But seriously, I had no idea how truly cool The Simpsons were until I got hooked on the reruns.

This was long after my kids had left home and gone out into the world to forge their own paths. That’s when the house got quiet. Too quiet. So, one evening, I turned on the tube and after flipping through the channels in vain for a few minutes I settled on The Simpsons. What the hell, I figured. My son had always urged me to give them a try. My daughters assured me I would like them.

How right they were. It didn’t take long for me to identify with Marge, to feel for Lisa, to forgive Bart for all his mistakes, and to love Homer in spite of his many flaws, because his heart is true. I make no mention of Maggie because, let’s face it, she’s an adorable baby; there’s no getting around it.

When I grew up, kids were expected to like cartoons. Saturday mornings were prime time. And the cartoons were lousy. No doubt there are people somewhere who thrilled to the antics of Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner. But I never saw the point of repeated gags about violence, greed and petty cruelty. The Simpsons’ “Itchy and Scratchy” segments are hard for me to watch only because they remind me of the inane antics that were provided as appropriate childrens’ fare in the late fifties.

The advent of more sophisticated shows like “Rocky and Bullwinkle” heralded a change in the culture, but there has never been anything like The Simpsons. In its ability to both mirror and mock the world in which we live, to inspire emotional connection without being sappy, and to provide insightful commentary on current issues, The Simpsons stands alone.

Here in Seattle, many locals point to the episode in which Springfield votes to build a monorail to boost its economy as an example of telling cultural criticism.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite episode. I’m not even sure if I’ve seen them all yet. But I think one of the Top Ten for me would have to be the episode titled “That 90s Show,” in which Homer starts a grunge band called Sadgasm after he thinks he’s lost Marge to a college professor.

I’m sure there will be college courses on The Simpsons in the future, if there aren’t already, and theses may be written on such tormented characters as Comic Book Guy and Moe the Bartender. But if I were still writing those kind of papers I could write a book about Marge. There’s a world of complexity underneath that blue tower of hair. As Homer put it so well in his timeless song “Margarine”: “Country churned girl in my grocery cart/ I paid for her dreams, she taught me to cry.”

Thank you, Matt Groening.

The Paws That Refresh

Forget RinTinTin. Forget Lassie. And weep no more for Marley.

In this bright New Year, my heart belongs to Tillman, the snowboarding, skateboarding, surfboarding bulldog extraordinaire.

I first saw Tillman skimming along on his skateboard a year or so ago in a video clip. Cute, I thought. Little did I know that millions of fellow Americans would share my fondness for the squat, chubby, daredevil pooch.Tillman the Wonder Dog

Seattle is full of dogs and it’s not uncommon here to see dogs going the extra mile to please. Some pull their owners along on skateboards, others accomplish acrobatic feats with Frisbees and whatnot. But I have yet to see any canine equal Tillman for sheer charm and entertainment value. So this morning, when I crawled out of bed with a dull headache to face the New Year, and went down to watch a bit of the annual Tournament of Roses Parade, I was delighted to see Tillman and three of his pals boldly sliding where no dogs have slid before, down a specially constructed record-breaking long float.

Man. I don’t know what it is about that dog. I have never had the slightest desire to snowboard myself, and I tend to feel that skateboarding is best left to those with a lower center of gravity, but watching Tillman in action just makes me smile. Say what you will about Americans being a bit unbalanced when it comes to pets. I don’t care. The modern world is full of peril, problems and petty bickering. Yet if a dog like Tillman can banish gloom, even temporarily, that gives me hope for us all. Perhaps we can’t all move through life with the kind of grace and resilient good cheer that Tillman exudes.

But this year I’m going to give it a try.

Mad Men, Madder Women

The other day I saw a guy, a kid really, wearing artfully paint-spattered pants, a black T-shirt, and a pout, crossing the street while I waited in my car for the light to change. At first I smiled to myself, thinking how predictable it is to see the next generation go through its rebellious stage. But then as he passed by I saw the back of his shirt, which read “Kill All The Hippies.”

The light changed and I drove on, but I have to say that kid’s shirt harshed my mellow. I mean, come on, dude, what did we ever do to you?

Well, perhaps if I had grown up in a world which seemed to be overflowing with casual fun-loving peaceniks I might have yearned for a darker future. And I can certainly respect that the endless playlist of “classic rock” could be viewed as a sort of psychological torture. Later that same day I saw another guy, also wearing a black T-shirt, only his slogan was on the front: “Who the F**k is Mick Jagger?”

And I thought to myself, is this a trend? Has the next generation had enough of the Woodstock alumni? And, if so, will they remain content to express themselves through fashion?

Rebellion is a rite of passage, of course. But if the kids today want to get a sense of what the hippies were up against, they should tune in to the AMC original series “Mad Men.” Set in an advertising agency in New York City in the very early ‘60s, the show presents a remarkably nuanced and accurate portrait of the way things were before I became a hippie.

The first thing that struck me about the show was how everyone on it smokes. Cigarettes. All the time. Doctors, pregnant women, in the office, on the plane. The rumors about tobacco’s dark side were effectively buried by the power of advertising. Everyone on the show also drinks alcohol as if it were water. Pregnant women, doctors, in the office, etc. And the women in the show wear clothes that dramatically accentuate their physical differences from men, as if to underscore the validity of the social and professional barriers which loomed large before anyone ever thought of burning a bra.

The show is brilliant in its depiction of the era. But what makes it great is how it explores the anger and discontent brewing beneath the surface of all that slick style.

These days we’re so acclimated to living in a world where advertising is a part of life that it’s hard to imagine there was a time before people watched the Super Bowl and voted on the best ads. Modern advertising has become so seamlessly embedded in our lives that we walk about in logo-emblazoned clothing without a thought. With pride, even. We’ve all become enchanted by the power of the slogan. Slogan-speak is so pervasive it shapes the way news is delivered, in easily swallowed nuggets of “fact” which go down so quickly there’s no way to judge whether or not they have any value or truth.

In a way, all of this advertising bears a parallel with medieval magic. It’s all about belief. If you believe you will succeed if you wear the right shoes, maybe you will. And if you don’t, you can always blame the shoes.

My favorite character on “Mad Men” is Peggy Olson, the spunky copy writer played by Elisabeth Moss. Peggy isn’t content to play the hand she was dealt, to dress like the other secretaries and to engage in the kind of self-defeating back-biting over men that keeps most of the women in the office in their “place.” Peggy is smart and creative and unwilling to let others define her. When the men try to diminish her work, she smiles and surpasses them.

She doesn’t waste time worrying about her shoes. She understands how the advertising magic works. And she has the power. You can see it in her face. She’s not interested in getting mad. She’s going to get even.

Write on, sister.

Finding My Nietzsche

I take comfort in geology.

It wasn’t a science in which I excelled. Let’s face it, there is no science in which I excel. However, among the handful of science-like subjects I studied in college, only geology spoke to me. And what it said was: “Don’t worry, be happy.”

Actually, what it said was more like, “There’s no point in worrying about the future of mankind, Con, because in another million years or so humanity will be gone, the only evidence of its brief existence a slim stratum of compacted plastic and radioactive waste in the layer cake of geologic sediment.” Yum.

My geology professor said that humans were a “niche species,” likely only to be around for a million years or so, the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. In the 80’s, I found this idea strangely liberating. Back then there were plenty of experts predicting the end of life as we know it (though none of them seemed to see the internet coming, or reality TV, so, once again, we find that the world is full of experts, whose sound and fury don’t necessarily count for much). Yet in spite of the gloom sayers, the greater number of Americans were blithely consuming non-renewable resources as if they were serenely confident that, when the time comes that we actually do run out of petroleum, clean water, air, etc., there will be another planet coming on the market in our price range, fully furnished, with cable.

Yeah. The Reagan years. Good times for some.

But though I, too, am a hopelessly deluded escapist, even I know that a Battlestar Galactica finale isn’t likely.

Nope. I’m all about acceptance now. President Obama recently compared the task of trying to change the direction of the economy to trying to turn an ocean liner—a slightly more complex maneuver than reversing a rowboat. But, even if that were true, it’s impossible to turn anything around if the people holding the steering wheel won’t cooperate. And, in our current financial and social mess, an unholy alliance of corporate and congressional “experts” have driven our ship of state into pirate-infested waters and the prospects for a happy ending look slim.

I love humanity. Really. I’m just enough of a sap to feel a shiver of hope and courage whenever William Shatner, as Captain James T. Kirk of the original Star Trek, launches into one of his trademark, “what makes humans great is that they thrive on challenge” speeches. I believe it’s true often enough to make it worth holding onto—the idea that when the going gets tough, the tough get going and all. But, I also think that when the going gets tough, the tough damn well ought to lend a hand to the ones who aren’t quite tough enough to stand on their own yet.

There’s no doubt in my mind that when we put our minds to it we humans can accomplish great things. But unfortunately our best intentions don’t protect us from making catastrophic errors. Sure, we put a man on the moon. That was pretty neat. But meanwhile, back on Earth, in our efforts to “improve” the food supply, our corporate farming policies in the last forty years have driven almost all of America’s family farms off the land. And our new “improved” food supply hasn’t solved the problem of hunger in America, although it has led to making us more obese and increased the risk of food-borne diseases.

Still, I guess it doesn’t matter, since in the long run, geologically speaking, we may be on our last legs. I never studied Nietzsche in college, when the phrase “God is dead” got a lot of lip service. These days more people seem to be calling on the god or gods of their choice to help us find our way back to the glory days of peace and prosperity that some like to think of as America the Beautiful. I don’t know if God is dead, but He sure doesn’t seem to be returning His calls these days, so I think it might be up to us to sort this mess out ourselves.

Yeah. It looks pretty bad in places. But, you know, we humans, we do our best work when the stakes are high. Sure, one person alone can’t do it. But if we all push really, really hard, maybe we can turn this beast around and ride it into the sunset. Now that’s a finale William Shatner would pay to see.

Bright Lights, Dim Wits

Okay. I confess. I never watched Survivor. Not even once.

I also never watched Joe Millionaire, The Apprentice, The Great Race or The Swan. Are we seeing a pattern here? Yes. Not a big fan of “reality” shows. I did, though, find myself snared when a friend chose to participate in one. Each week I would tune in, and watch in a kind of mesmerized horror as she was put through a sequence of humiliating ordeals and trials. Although she is a person who is kind to animals and children, gives back to the community, doesn’t spit in public, etc. etc., by the end of the show my friend had achieved the dubious distinction of being labeled the so-called villain of the piece.

You couldn’t pay me to go through something like that. But, clearly, in our richly diverse and endlessly inventive culture, there are legions of people who want nothing more than to be allowed a chance to sit on the dunk tank seat in front of all America.

This in itself is probably not that surprising. After all, as we all know, Andy Warhol predicted the whole 15-minutes-of-fame phenomenon decades ago. He’s famous for it. However, in the curious evolution of the reality show we have now reached a disturbing new level of vacuity. Last night I sat though the first episode of Battle of the Network Reality Show Stars. Arguably not the most creative title ever, but then, reality shows don’t demand creativity from the producers. It’s the feisty, fearless competitors who are tested.

However, in the original Battle of the Network Stars on which the new reality show is loosely based, most of the contestants had some prior claim to fame which earned them the privilege of competing for the camera’s attention. In this new version of the “battle” we have people whose entry credentials consist of the fact that each of them has managed to play this made-for-TV game successfully in the past. We’re in the funhouse now.

Of course, you can see where, from the networks’ viewpoint, this is a win-win. They’ve already got these commoditized characters ready and willing to ad-lib until they run out of expletives, or repeat same indefinitely. The networks don’t have to hire writers, and editors can manipulate raw footage to ensure that some sort of narrative arc develops. And this is where “reality” really gets unreal on these shows. Because, it’s apparent as you watch these ordinary people, that, thrown into this nationally televised incubator of emotions, each one of them, perhaps unconsciously, chooses a role.

Some want to be heroes. Some choose to be whining victims. Others elect to be cunning schemers, hiding up in the trees until all the alpha apes have bludgeoned each other senseless. Although, honestly, it seems a fair number of them enter the thing without a lot of sense to begin with. Take the guy last night who promised, on camera, that he was going to pee in the dunk tank if he fell in. Sure, this was just some ordinary bozo swaggering for the crowd. But, haven’t we seen this guy at the local pool? I, for one, will never feel the same about going to a water park.

A distressing number of the female contestants seem to consider breast baring a competitive sport. Who am I to judge? I found myself thinking my friend might have been smart to invest in some quality implants before she went on the show. Ah well. Maybe with the money she gets from this show.

One would like to think this whole reality show trend will run its course, but I am not overly optimistic. Those bright lights seem to bring out the worst in a lot of people. And, the result is gruesomely compelling, like a bad accident on the freeway. You can’t help slowing down to take a look. And you drive on, slowing down just a little perhaps for a few minutes, in your relief that it didn’t happen to you.