Posts Tagged ‘English Faculty’

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Political humor is a wonderful and necessary rhetorical tool in shaping our perceptions about politics and politicians.

Growing up in the 80s/90s, I was shaped in part by the many hilarious impersonations of politicians by one of America’s most notable comedic institutions: Saturday Night Live. A number of SNL’s most famous impersonations have become more ingrained in our culture than the actual politicians.

Still today, when I hear George H.W. Bush I first think of SNL’s Dana Carvey:

And Carvey again for Ross Perot:

Ross Perot

“Can. I. Finish?”

And Jon Lovitz as Michael Dukakis:

 

These days, it seems nearly impossible to separate Sarah Palin from Tina Fey’s brilliant impersonation of her:

Sarah Palin

When done well, political humor reveals critical truths about politicians, policies, laws, and societal injustices, all in a way that makes us laugh and makes topics a bit more palatable and approachable. Even scorching criticism can be made to seem charming in the right hands; Fey’s Palin is a good example. In some ways, so is Jimmy Fallon’s Trump impersonations, like when he played Trump with the cast of Full House.

 

Or back in the 90s when Phil Hartman’s Bill Clinton stopped in McDonald’s to sneak food off of customers’ plates:

phil_hartman_clinton

In this way, humor invites a larger audience into important discussions. Upon taking over The Tonight Show, Jimmy Fallon was advised by his predecessor Jay Leno to lengthen his monologue because it isn’t just a source of laughter, but also as a way to inform people about the news of the day. And the same can be said for other famous sources of political humor like The Daily Show and The Onion.

However, I wonder if our round-the-clock access to social media, communication, and information has created a detrimental excess of political humor.

This week provided one possible example.

On Monday night, Donald Trump’s wife Melania spoke at the Republican National Convention. By the time I woke up early Tuesday morning, reports were posted everywhere that she had plagiarized a portion of her speech from a Michelle Obama speech. By the time I arrived at work, I had already seen countless posts across social media making fun of Melania and the situation. When I checked social media at lunch, the flood of jokes had not even slowed, nor had they when I checked social media again in the early evening. The jokes were coming from all levels: from regular folks to major publications and shows.

Not even 24 hours removed from Melania’s speech, I already thought, “Okay, the jokes have been absolutely beaten to death.”

Just to be clear, I have no allegiance or affiliation to either political party or candidate, and my example is not a veiled defense of Melania or the situation. I am all for anyone and everyone calling out any politician or any of their associates who do or say anything wrong, and I want people to be able to have productive dialogue about important issues. And that’s really a major part of my concern with the excess of humor.

Political humor, when done well and delivered in the right doses, inspires productive dialogue. But the well done doses are now surrounded by floods of other material, much of which is unfunny, and some of which can even be insulting and inflammatory, which just serves to shut down dialogue, not inspire it.

Partly, the poor material is a product of the “writers”; there is obviously a world of difference between John Q. Facebook trying to be witty and the professional writers developing material on shows like SNL, The Tonight Show, and The Daily Show.

Plus, on social media, many of the posts are just playing to the lowest common denominator to get attention and more ‘Likes’ while having zero concern for promoting thoughtfulness and dialogue.

Ultimately, the comedic congestion can turn important issues into white noise, meaning the inspired political humor that is aiming to be informative and transformative is getting partially (or completely) lost in the buzz. And if the flood of voices “kill the joke” so quickly, are people burning out on subjects before ever taking time to give the subject some proper thought and conversation?

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

(This post is a response to “Superhero Movies are Rarely Super” by Michael Stelzer Jocks.)

Yesterday, my dear colleague Michael Stelzer Jocks wrote about how superhero movies are rarely super, and I feel compelled to respond. I am a lover of superhero films (the only thing I want for my birthday on May 5 is to see Captain America: Civil War that night), and I am familiar with the genre both as a fan and as a writer/teacher of Science Fiction (SF) & Fantasy. However, I am not an apologist for the genre. So, allow me to respond to some of the points made by MSJ.

“There seems to be no end in sight to our nation’s endless desire for…the spate of ‘superhero’ movies that just keep racking up box office records.” – MSJ

First, the desire for SF & Fantasy films (of which superhero films are a subgenre) is not restricted to the United States. Of the top ten films with the highest worldwide grosses of all-time, eight are SF/Fantasy films. The highest grossing superhero movie is Marvel’s The Avengers, which earned $1.5 billion dollars. Of that total, 41% was domestic, which means it grossed nearly $900 million outside of the United States.

Avengers Poster

Also, while we are in a golden age of superhero films, cinematic adaptations of comics are certainly not new. Just to name a few, there is the classic Adam West Batman TV series of the 60s, Richard Donner’s Superman film in the 70s, and Tim Burton’s Batman film in the 80s.

The success of superhero films, like all films, has been dictated by the quality of the film’s writing, direction, and acting. Countless comic book adaptations have been financial and/or critical disasters, such as last year’s Fantastic Four, Halle Berry’s Catwoman, Ben Affleck’s Daredevil, and the infamous Joel Schumacher Batman films of the 90s. So, you are correct: not all superhero movies are super.

However, what has driven this golden age of superhero films is not a blind interest in comic book stories, but rather studios finally treating these stories with care.

A great example is Deadpool, 2016’s surprise hit. The Deadpool character was, prior to the film, virtually unknown to the general population. Even to comic book fans, Deadpool would classify as a C or D-level character in the Marvel universe. For iconic characters that all people know, like Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, audiences will flock just based on the name value of the character. Deadpool’s success was not due to a craving for comics; it has a sharp, hilarious script that is well-paced and well-acted. Positive word of mouth drove that film’s success, not opening weekend name value (like Batman v. Superman).

Deadpool

The same can be said of Marvel’s Iron Man. Now, in 2016, Iron Man is well-known to all moviegoers, but when the first Iron Man film was released in 2008, Iron Man was a character known largely only to comic fans. There was plenty of skepticism even among comic fans about how a “lesser” character could carry a film; yet, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. made a wonderful movie that caught fire and led to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“Putting [Batman and Superman] in the same film would be like plopping Indiana Jones down in a James Bond movie. What is the point? It reminds me of when Scooby Doo would inexplicably team up with Sonny & Cher or the Harlem Globetrotters. Come on! Why are these people hanging out with meddling kids and helping solve mysteries? I say again, ‘ridiculously asinine’.” – MSJ

Superman and Batman sharing a film is not at all like Indiana Jones and James Bond appearing in the same film. The general movie-going audience has become accustomed to superheroes being segregated into their own films, but that is a product of film studios and business, not the source material.

Superheroes have always shared the same “universe” and regularly interact in all mediums (comics, cartoons, video games) except films, where dollar signs and film rights had kept characters separate until Marvel Studios started their cinematic universe in 2008 with Iron Man, which paved the path to The Avengers in 2012. The first time “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” combined in the comics was 1963, nearly 50 years before it finally happened on screen.

Batman and Superman appeared together for the first time in a comic book in 1952, a whole 64 years before the Batman v. Superman film.

Sup and Bat

Indiana Jones and James Bond were written by different authors for different mediums and never had a connection. They were never meant to share a story or screen, unlike comic book characters.

A better analogy would be to take the process in the opposite direction. Imagine if George Lucas had written Star Wars initially as a book, but Warner Bros. purchased the film rights to Luke Skywalker and 20th Century Fox had purchased Han Solo. Then, for 50 years, the studios made films independent of one another in which Luke and Han could never share the screen, because it would result in endless legal battles. After 50 years, casual moviegoers who weren’t familiar with the source material would find it perfectly normal that Luke and Han aren’t sharing the screen; they’d be their own, independent SF/Fantasy space opera franchises. Meanwhile, fans of the source material would be left daydreaming about seeing Luke and Han together in the Millennium Falcon up on the big screen just as was always intended.

Han luke

“Why are Batman and Superman fighting?” -MSJ

Let me make something clear: Batman v. Superman is a terrible film. I saw it twice in the theater, and was not biased against it. I love the Batman character and wanted the film to work. However, the writing, direction, and editing are all terrible. The acting has some horrible failings, as well. In total, the film failed miserably to properly represent why Batman and Superman would ever come to blows.

However, let’s look to other superhero films that have tackled this concept successfully.

Whether in superhero films, other storytelling genres, or just real life, it is very possible for “good guys” to have ideological differences that put them in different camps, if not outright conflict. This has been well-depicted in a number of superhero films, particularly both Avengers films and Captain America: Winter Soldier. Throughout these films, the heroes all mean well, but they do not see eye-to-eye at all times about what is right. The growing tensions of what’s right and wrong are what precipitate the conflicts in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War

Thus, heroes being in conflict is not absurd – it’s good storytelling. It is actually a sign that the characters are well-rounded, that they have personalities and beliefs that make them much deeper than just their SF/Fantasy superpowers.

“But my real problem with most superhero movies…is the fact that they center around boring, lifeless characters. Action movies must be more than just action. Adventure movies must have interesting, complex protagonists that face and overcome challenges. In other words, human beings need to run the show. Superman? The Hulk? Thor? An all powerful alien, a freakish monster, and a god? There is no complexity here. There are no challenges these beings can’t easily overcome.” – MSJ

Oh, Michael. Your limited viewing of superhero films is really showing on this statement. One of the most important reasons that we are in a golden age of superhero films is because of precisely the opposite of what you claim here. As you stated, “Give me a ‘superhero’ movie in which the hero is more human than super!”

They’re all around you. You cited two wonderful examples in Netflix’s Daredevil and Nolan’s Batman series, but those just scratch the surface.

In any SF/Fantasy story, the key is to speak to the human element. As readers or moviegoers, we marvel at and enjoy the lightsabers and high-tech suits of armor, but those aren’t the elements of the story we, as humans, connect with. It’s the emotions, relationships, and themes we grab hold of. Likewise, in superhero movies, there is always the “supervillain” but the best superhero movies have much deeper, human conflicts. Here are some examples of the human emotions and conflicts:

  • Peter Parker is dealing with his love life and regrets over how he failed his family. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 is a love story about Peter struggling with how his life and responsibilities always seem to prevent him from being with the woman he loves.
  • Tony Stark is tormented by his consciousness after the death and destruction that resulted from his actions (which is somewhat Dostoyevskian, Michael, which you should appreciate). Tony even deals with PTSD in Iron Man 3. A famous story-arc in the comics, Demon in the Bottle, deals with Tony struggling with alcoholism.
  • Scott Lang in Ant-Man is an ex-con trying to regain the life he lost due to his troubled past, and all of his “heroic” actions are prompted by wanting to be a good father to his daughter, who lives with his ex-wife and stepfather.
  • Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy struggles to hold onto the memory of his mother who died of cancer when he was a child.
  • Bruce Banner in The Hulk is struggling with his own isolation from others.
  • In the popular TV series The Walking Dead, which is also a comic book property, fans understand that the the real danger is not the zombies; the zombies are sort of peripheral, especially since they’re slow-moving and easily dispatched. The real danger is other humans, and how some people and societies can fall to pieces when pushed into a corner.
  • Captain America is a kind-hearted, scrawny guy who feels powerless to help others when that’s all he wants to do. Michael, as a History Professor, you should love a tale about a guy who wants nothing more than to serve his country in WW2 as he watches everyone, including his best friend, get shipped off to war.

I even like to use Captain America as an example of leadership in my classes. In The Avengers, there is genius Tony Stark, Norse god Thor, the monster Hulk; yet, it is Steve Rogers, the guy who was born scrawny but with a big heart, who is the leader. Even with his superpowers, Cap isn’t the smartest, fastest, or strongest of the group. He is sort of the Average Joe of the team, but he is the one who commands the respect of the group, because he does what any real person can: be a good person, have conviction, and fight for what you believe in.

Avengers Cap

Moviegoers will never have real superpowers, but we understand these human moments, and the better comic book films/TV shows are packed full of them. Superhero movies are no longer just mindless action set pieces with empty scripts and ample explosions…they’ll let Michael Bay corner that market.

“See, I like some superhero movies/shows; I just don’t care much for most superheroes” – MSJ

I am biased in favor of superhero movies only in that that I will often give films in the genre a chance before casting judgement, but then I judge them on their own merit. This year, Deadpool was outstanding; Batman v. Superman was terrible. I am thrilled for Captain America: Civial War; I am extremely skeptical about X-Men: Age of Apocalypse. The best superhero films are funny, heartfelt, emotional, resonant, and exciting. They are no longer just “good” genre films; they’re great films, period.

Give some of the better properties a chance, Michael. If you need a viewing list for homework, let me know.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

My senior year of high school, I vowed to get in shape. At that point, I had been playing the role of “fat kid” since at least 5th grade, and I was tired of being uncomfortable in my own skin thanks to the teasing and invisibility to girls.

I decided to workout each day after school. I would go home, say hi to my mom, and then disappear into the basement, where I would lift weights and run tiny 25 foot laps across the room for 30-60 minutes.

I had always been athletic despite my weight, but the chubby kid will always get picked last for teams in gym class regardless of his abilities. My short basement laps weren’t just to get in shape; they were also to prove a point and train for a specific goal. Thus, my fitness coming out party was the day in gym when we had to do the PACER test (or “Beep Test”), which has everyone lineup on one side of the gym and run to the other end to the sound of beeps that set the pace.

Pacer test

Children being tortured by the PACER test.

It was back and forth in bursts, just like in my basement. As the test goes on, the beeps increase in frequency, and most people cannot keep up. Once a person fails to make it across the gym before a beep sounds, they are eliminated from the test. After more than one hundred beeps, the handful of runners remaining were typically stars on the track, cross country, and basketball teams.

Beep Test

Normally, I dropped out around 30-something beeps. But this time, I finished the entire test with the other fit kids, to the shock of everyone in the gymnasium.

I kept running for a while after achieving that goal, but I found it hard to stay motivated, because running was hard to measure on my own. We didn’t have a treadmill at home, and there was no track near the house, so measuring time, speed, and distance was difficult. I tried to make up arbitrary courses to time myself on with my handheld stopwatch, like running down the street around the cul-de-sac and back in the fastest time possible. It worked for a time, but ultimately it felt unsatisfying. I tried driving over to tracks to run, but it all seemed too complicated.

I fell away from running for almost a decade, and when I got back into it, one of the biggest motivators to help me succeed was my smartphone and MapMyRun app. Suddenly, I could run anywhere I wanted and know how fast and how long I was going. It also tracks all my data, so each time I went out to run, I could push myself to run a little faster and farther than before. In no time, I went from someone who dreaded running a mile or two, to someone who was running half-marathons. I could have always been running outside, but the app was that extra little push to motivate me.

Technological innovations that inspire and motivate us aren’t new, necessarily – they just continue to evolve and improve. For example, like many people, my fiancee is currently obsessed with her FitBit. There have been days when I find her walking circles around our kitchen table so she can make her daily goal of steps. The device’s accompanying app allows FitBit users to compete in daily steps challenges, and during her first challenge against family members, I thought she might attempt walking to the moon in order to claim victory.

fitbit-logo.jpg

That FitBits are so popular seems odd when broken down to its most simple function: it’s a pedometer, which is nothing new at all. But the FitBit is a fancy, elaborate, 21st century pedometer that will get someone like my fiancee to demand we go for a walk at night in freezing temperatures just so she can win her FitBit challenge.

Likewise, last week, I downloaded an app called “Productive” that is intended to build habits. Users input what habit they would like to form – such as exercising daily – and the app delivers notifications to encourage the behavior, as well as tracks data like successful/unsuccessful days and streaks of successful days.

I have five habits in my app, including exercise and writing. For writing, I felt I had fallen off the wagon pretty hard in recent months. Now, within five days of downloading the app, I have written and performed a nonfiction story at a local live lit show, penned an Op-Ed article that I submitted to the New York Times, and wrote this piece for the Flaneur’s Turtle. I’d say the free app has been worth it so far.

Of course, all of the apps and devices can only work if we support their missions with our own willpower and action. No app can do the exercising or writing for me; well, not yet, at least. There are also plenty of arguments that can be made that technology is making us lazier and more dependent, rather than self-motivated and independent. (See: Wall-E.)

wall-e-2.jpg

I understand the satire, but I still kind of want a floating chair…and a soda.

Yet, sometimes it takes only the tiniest spark of motivation to spur us to keep pushing forward with our goals, and if that spark is a notification on our smartphones – a device we all have in front of our faces at all times – then it’s all the better and easier to be inspired.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

What’s your favorite Michael Jackson song?

Think about it for a second.

Okay, what’s your answer?

Today, I tested a hypothesis of mine by texting and asking a number of people this same question. Everyone, without exception, responded within seconds:

“‘PYT.’ No question.”

“I like ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

“Probably ‘Billy Jean.’”

“I like ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘I Just Can’t Stop Loving You.’”

“‘The Way You Make Me Feel.’”

“‘Thriller.’”

“Oh – ‘Man in the Mirror.’”

For me, my answer is “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Now, why am I asking?

About five years ago, I had an idea to have popular music playing in my classroom as students arrived for our 8:00am class. I thought it would be fun and inject a bit of energy into a group of very tired people (myself included) who had just woken up.

However, I balked.

Generally, people are very judgmental and combative about music. Not just students – all people. I started to envision people would arrive and, rather than enjoy the music, there would just be gripes like “I hate this song?” or “Who listens to this?” or “This singer is terrible!” So, I abandoned the idea.

Instead, I spun it into a class activity. I broke the class into groups and asked them to come up with songs that would appeal to 90% or more of the entire diverse Robert Morris University community, which includes students, staff, faculty, and administrators of all ages, races, and backgrounds. Each group presented their best option to the entire class, and then we voted on which song was the best fit to appeal to that diverse audience.

In the years since, I’ve done this same activity with around 15-20 classes, and the answer in all but one instance has led us to the same artist:

Michael Jackson.

Around 75% of the time, the specific answer is “Billie Jean” with an occasional “Thriller” sprinkled in.

Billie Jean

A few years ago, after years of getting Michael Jackson as the answer to this experiment, I tried out my original concept just to see what would happen. I got to my classroom early and setup a playlist of “Blurred Lines” and “Get Lucky” at the height of their popularity. I then left the room so the “teacher” wouldn’t be present. Just before class started, I peeked in. The music was playing and nearly everyone in the room was dead silent and motionless. Some of them even looked like they were reenacting A Clockwork Orange.

clockwork-horror

“This isn’t lucky at all!!!”

It confirmed my original fear, especially when I got into the class and some students started to gripe about those (at the time) extremely popular songs. This means that even the most popular contemporary songs and artists have no chance at appealing to 90% or more of an extremely diverse audience. But Michael Jackson always does.

Which leads me back to my experiment today.

When I talk about my favorite artists and bands, typically the discussion starts with, “Have you ever heard of this band?” or, “Do you like this song by this group?” Through years of this classroom activity, and through many discussions with friends and colleagues, I realized that Michael Jackson is the only artist for whom you can immediately assume that everyone will know, everyone will like, and everyone will have an immediate response to what their favorite MJ song is as if they have thought about it many times before (which they have).

So, I tested the hypothesis. As I asked a bunch of people today, “What’s your favorite Michael Jackson song?” no one said, “Eh, I don’t like him,” or “I don’t really know his music.” Everyone had an immediate response, literally within seconds.

It isn’t strange that people would love “The King of Pop,” but it is amazing that the love is so universal and unquestioned.

However, strangely, almost no one these days identifies Michael Jackson as their favorite artist. That age has passed, and perhaps just the generation of people who grew up during the time the Thriller album was released would be in play to identify MJ as their favorite artist, but the music remains unquestionably popular to everyone.

My next idea was to wonder if there are any other artists, in any other medium, that are on the “Michael Jackson Level” in this 90% appeal scenario. While sharing this whole topic with my colleagues today, we kicked around a few names. I thought perhaps Steven Spielberg; everyone has to love at least one movie from his catalog, be it Jurassic Park or Indiana Jones or Jaws or E.T. A colleague then proposed The Beatles. Both were good options, but unlike Michael Jackson, we were able to immediately identify ways in which those two would not have the 90% appeal.

Thus, the “King of Pop” really is the king of universal appeal.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty.

I watched a lot of movies over the holidays. I went to the theater, visited Redbox, logged onto Netflix, and watched DVDs and Blu-Rays I own. However, there is one thing I didn’t do:

I didn’t go to a video store.

Whenever I visit my parents out in the Chicago ‘burbs, I pass by Orland Video. It’s the video store my family would go to when I was a kid, and it’s one of only two brick and mortar video stores I know of that are still open.

Whenever I drive by, I wonder how – or even why – it is still open. With on-demand digital content and video rental kiosks, who are the customers that are keeping this store alive? Even my parents, who admittedly dislike technology and were the last people I knew who still went to video stores, migrated to Redbox years ago.Orland Video

Yet, the video store is still open, with its same yellow sign glowing at the end of a stripmall – a symbol of different, older times.

I first tried Netflix during my college days. Back then, Netflix mailed out physical copies of DVDs. It was a slow and obnoxious process. Netflix had some perks, but it was still far easier and faster to drive over to the video store. When Netflix first started offering streaming services, technology hadn’t quite caught up with the concept yet. Internet speeds weren’t fast enough – at least they weren’t in my house, or anyone else’s I knew. The movie would take a dreadfully long time to load, then about ten minutes of the movie would play, and it would go right back to the loading screen. Trying to watch a 90 minute movie was more of a three or four-hour process.

However, anyone with common sense knew that as soon as streaming content got faster, the old ways – the video stores – were going to die. And this was before Redbox emerged, adding just one more nail in the video store’s coffin.

These advancements in movie-viewing technology are great: they’re easier, cheaper, and more convenient than the old ways.

Still, we’ve lost something with the demise of the video store. They were more than just a place to rent movies and video games.

They were a part of the family. On Fridays, once the school week was over, my dad and I would go to the video store to wander the aisles. I could rent movies or video games, and he would rent a movie for him and mom to watch. He’d notoriously pick anything that was labeled as “Funny” on the box, my mom wouldn’t like it, and he’d defend himself by saying, “But the box said it was hilariously funny.” The weekend was then coming to a close officially when someone, usually mom, would ask, “Did anyone remember to return the videos?”

Video stores were a part of the neighborhood community. At their peak, videos stores were everywhere, so each drew from the neighborhoods immediately around it. Thus, there was always a good chance of bumping into neighbors and friends. Also, the employees and owners would get to know all the regulars. The video store was a place for familiar faces.

Video stores were a hangout for friends. Especially in my teens, I made countless trips with my brother and his friends, or with my friends, to the video store. The trip wasn’t just about picking a movie – usually a B-movie that we suspected would be so bad it would be good. The trip was about being together, discussing movies, arguing over what to pick, and figuring out who could rent the movies since most of us had late charges on our own accounts that we didn’t want to pay.

With the rise of smartphones, there are plenty of people and studies that bemoan how the technology – which is incredibly beneficial – has led to a decrease in social interaction. I, like most anyone else, wouldn’t give up my smartphone, but it’s hard to ignore some of the negative effects the technology has had, especially for those of us who lived before smartphones were in everyone’s hands.

Similarly, video stores are another, less-often cited, example of a decline in community due to an increase in technology.

Just as I wouldn’t give up my smartphone, I wouldn’t opt to go back to the old ways of the video store. At its most basic function, the video store was to rent movies, and we now have better, faster, easier ways to do that.

But, whenever I see that old yellow sign on the video store, I can’t help but get a bit nostalgic about the fun times that have been left behind with our technological step forward.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

During the first Sunday of the NFL season, I did a lot of “grown up” chores in the morning: I graded papers, cleaned up my house, did a little yard work, and went grocery shopping. Around 11:00am, I was on my couch doing some more grading with the NFL pregame programs on as white noise, all while having a big kid, low-cal breakfast of Greek yogurt and water.

In nearly all areas of my life, I can identify ways in which I’ve grown and evolved as a person from childhood to where I am now as a 32-year-old. Being disciplined enough to get up and be productive on a Sunday morning is just one example.

Then at 12:00pm, as the NFL season kicked-off, I devolved into a child.

Though I have lived my entire life in Chicago, I have been a huge Miami Dolphins fan since 1991-92. (Just accept that and move on. Explaining it would take a whole separate post.) My emotional investment in Dolphins games takes me from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Tantrum.

From Week 1, here are some of my person highlights:

  • Kick-off: I am on my couch, knees pressed into my chest, and shaking like I’m awaiting terrible news. (Which, as a Dolphins fan, I normally am.)

    A candid picture of me at kick-off.

    A candid picture of me at kick-off.

  • Dolphins up 7-0 early: I jump off my couch and swing my fists like I’m in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out.
  • Dolphins down 10-20 at halftime: I slump into my couch, mumbling about how it’s the same old Dolphins who are going to break my heart like every other season, and how I’ve lost faith in life, no one loves me, and the sun no longer shines.
  • Dolphins sack Patriots QB Tom Brady and force a fumble: I scream and pump my fist while saying a bunch of words to Tom Brady that he can’t hear and I can’t repeat on the Turtle.
  • Close game in the 4th quarter: I am in a half-squat position with my hands on my knees like I’m playing linebacker for the Dolphins, all with my face about two feet from my 50” TV screen.
  • Dolphins make a defensive stop against Brady: I have more choice words and perhaps a one-fingered salute for Tom, while still acknowledging that he is unfairly handsome, which may be part of why I am giving him the finger.
  • Dolphins win: I walk aimlessly around my house clapping. I begin commenting aloud on the team’s effort as if I’m in their locker room.

This behavior hasn’t changed at all from younger Paul, such as two incidents in 1997 when I was 15:

  • Monday, October 27, 1997: The Chicago Bears (0-7) defeat the Miami Dolphins (5-2) on Monday Night Football in overtime for their first win of their season. I stay up past midnight depressed and skip school to save myself the abuse from Bears fans.
  • Sunday, December 28, 1997: The New England Patriots crush the Dolphins in a Wild Card playoff game. I throw the TV remote across the room and watch batteries fly through the air.

This is all despite me not being a terribly emotive person. Though I am a very emotional person, I (often) exercise great restraint in demonstrating any real highs or lows, which has been noted at work where colleagues comment on how easy-going and even-keeled I seem.

However, the results of any meaningful Dolphins game will turn me inside out, putting all of those meaningless, superficial, game-related emotions out into the world. If the Dolphins win, I’m pleasant and cheerful; I’ll go out, do things, make friends, bake you a cake, whatever. If they lose, I am a grumpy terror, I hate the universe, and I may run over mailboxes with my car just so everyone else can feel some of my pain.

Check your mail for ads, bills, and evidence of my heartbreak.

Check your mail for flyers, bills, and evidence of my heartbreak.

This is all likely why my dad calls me after every Dolphins game. He loves pushing people’s buttons, and it surely delights him that there is at least one topic he knows will always elicit a reaction out of me. Even if the Dolphins play well, he will still poke at me by asking if I left the windows open in my house so “all the kids in the neighborhood could learn a bunch of new words.”

I’m not ashamed to admit any of these behaviors, because I know I am not in the minority. This type of over-invested, over-emotional response to sports is par for the course. If anything, I am one of the tame fans! (Just go look around YouTube or Twitter for all of the evidence of fans from all sports who have had complete, epic meltdowns after their teams lost.)

Why does all of this happen, though? Why do fans get so worked up? So invested?

The truth, I believe, is that the vast majority of us aren’t THAT invested. Sure, I love my Dolphins. Sure, I want them to win. But, in truth, if I was writing a list of the biggest priorities in my life, my seafaring mammals would be well down the list after food, water, shelter, health, family, friends, work, and lots more. Yet, externally, my reactions make it seem as though I’m more concerned with the Dolphins than the rest of the universe.

ESPN talk show personality Mike Greenberg hit on one of the keys reasons for this sort of emotional outpouring in his book Why My Wife Thinks I’m an Idiot: The Life and Times of a Sportscaster Dad. To paraphrase, he comments on the value of sports as a great piece of distraction and fun from reality. During the bulk of our week, we are caring for ourselves and others, working tons of hours, and hearing a never-ending cycle of bad news from around the world.

In normal circumstances, especially at work, we have to keep our emotions in check. But with our teams, what a relief and joy it is that we can scream, yell, complain, and wear our hearts on our sleeves without any real consequences.

Unless you’re a remote control or mailbox…then there may be some consequences.

By Jenny Jocks Stelzer, English Faculty. 

I know that I’m most likely overthinking, overreacting, and overstating this, but I find myself constantly on the defensive over my love of football, probably due to the unrelenting pace of my Facebook posts with tiny hearts and hashtags like #lovethenfl #lovecollegefootball, #adrianpetersonissohot, etc., etc., etc.

21spoy1223I’m a woman. I’m a feminist. I’m an annoyingly self-righteous progressive. So, in light of the social, ethical, and safety concerns brought about by the sport, I’m supposed to be a hater. My love of football is oxymoronic. It befuddles some. It irritates others. It appalls a few. So, I love it.

Like any form of entertainment, art, or sport, football creates a cultural and social space. It’s an integral space where men can be “men” in ways that are stereotypical and sometimes repellant, to be sure, but also kind of awesome. Our society expects men to maintain the precarious balance of command and cooperation, strength and tenderness, primal physicality and intelligence. All of this happens on the football field.  The players we talk about most are aggressive, unrelenting, self-aggrandizing, and Superman-tough, and I usually love those guys, so I catch a lot of shit for it. I’m supposed to oppose this kind of hyper-masculinity, because it upsets the social expectations of my feminist-liberal position. Certainly, I’m not supposed to enjoy the muscles and the trash-talk and the brutality. So, I love it.

Not only is it unrealistic to expect men to maintain the difficult primal/social balance of appetite and acceptable behavior, it is simply NO FUN if we demand that they adhere to such a strict social protocol at all times. Football creates a spacepatrick-willis wherein men can growl, pound their chests, and smash into each other with primal aggression, and I get to watch. Now, THAT is fun. They get to channel animal urges toward a common goal and I get to enjoy, unapologetically, watching men with superior physical strength and mental acumen crash their big, strong bodies into one another and out-think their opponents. Then, they do awesomely cute little dances, flex their muscles for the camera, and slap each other’s asses adorably. So (of course), I love it.

Now, I realize that this celebration of hyper-masculinity is not securely contained within the cultural space of football. I know the serious social and interpersonal problems that present when a man is encouraged to be aggressive and self-important, when physical violence is the go-to solution to a problem, when putting one’s health and future at risk is expected toward the aim of winning a superficial game for money and fame and to enrich a few a-hole owners and a grossly flawed system. These are problems, and I know I should be repulsed, but it makes football dangerous. So, I love it.

I know, football promotes many of the negative aspects of stereotypical masculinity, and it subsequently facilitates serious social problems like domestic violence, economic inequities, and mental illness when those aspects creep from the cultural space of the football field into the social space of the actual world. I get that, and it disturbs me. I don’t mean to embrace or forgive any of these social problems, but football is complex enough, and compelling enough, and fun enough, that these dangers create, for me, a conflicted set of feelings. I’m supposed to hate it. So, I love it.

For these dangers, and the sex-appeal of athletic bodies in strenuous battle, come with another level of complexity. All of these “negative” aspects of masculinity bring with them impressive and undeniable displays of camaraderie, cooperation, intellect, and, yes, tenderness. When eleven men are on the field together, on offense or defense, they must operate withNFL: Atlanta Falcons at Detroit Lions absolute connectedness to meet their goal and to protect themselves and their teammates from serious harm. Teamwork is real, and it works: WE win when we work together and protect each other. That connection, and the insanely hard work that teammates do together, makes football a space of intimacy and brotherhood, and THAT is beautiful. Intimacy and cooperation is subtly discouraged among men in our culture, which expects a certain level of rogue individuality to achieve an unrealistic masculine ideal: I win; you lose. Cooperation toward a common goal in football demands a level of intelligence and intellect that is often overlooked in discussions of athletics.  Football players are rarely given props for their intellect, but, in order to reach their common goal, these men have to study, collaborate, and think critically about their own, their teammates’, and their opponents’ strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. Teamwork, hard work, and smarts: now, THAT is sexy. I love it. And you should love it, too.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Ear blowing has been a hot topic in the past couple days.

On Wednesday in Game 5 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals, Lance Stephenson of the Indiana Pacers was caught blowing into the ear of Miami Heat star LeBron James while defending him on the court. It was all part of Stephenson’s continued tactics, both on the court and in the media, to try to get under James’ skin and throw him off his game.

lance-stephenson-lebron-james-blow-ear

The tactic, and the image of Stephenson mid-blow, has been all over sports media in the days since. Nearly everyone – from players to analysts to fans – has panned the tactic, such as Ray Allen of the Heat who called Stephenson’s antics “buffoonery.”

The incident has also prompted former players to share the oddest form of defense ever played on them. On ESPN, former player and head coach Avery Johnson said an opponent once tried to pull his shorts down during a game.

Yes, the reaction to Lance’s gentle blow in the ear has been negative.

But I will defend it.

In high school and college, my life revolved around basketball. I was particularly obsessed with competing in 3-on-3 streetball tournaments. One such tourney was Hoop It Up at Chicago’s McCormick Place in 1999.

On my tournament teams, I was always the shortest player at only 5’10”. However, I was also typically the strongest player on the court for either team. This often resulted in me guarding the other team’s biggest playing, meaning I regularly matched-up against guys a half foot or more taller than me. With looser street rules in tourney games (“no blood, no foul”), I could use my strength to push these taller players away from the basket like a football lineman. Not only did I get the big guys away from their spot on the court, but I also frustrated the hell out of them. For one, it was irritating for them to be pushed around like that by a “little” player. Also, I used my pointy elbows to do much of the pushing, which meant I was inflicting a tiny bit of pain. I frustrated plenty of opponents straight out of the game, to the point that all they wanted to do was try to shove back at me (unsuccessfully).

Then came Hoop It Up, when I got paid back in an odd way.

My team won our first round game in dramatic fashion, eeking out a hard fought game against a good team. Then, in the second round, we came out on fire. Our opponent was simply no match for us.

Yet I will never, ever forget this team.

Once again, I was guarding the tallest opposing player, who happened to be a big guy with a sweet, well-coiffed fro that had a pick in it the entire game. It was almost like he acknowledged that he wasn’t a good player, so he was going to make sure he at least had his style in place.

This particular game was perimeter-oriented, as my teammates kept making deep shots. This led me to spend lots of time tangled with this big guy under the basket for rebound position.

And the whole time we battled, he was tickling me.

Tickling. Me.

I don’t mean he grabbed me while trying to get position and he just happened to tickle me. He was straight up, blatantly tickling me. And he made no attempt to deny that’s what he was up to.

Apparently, if you can’t beat them, tickle them.

Despite the description, I was not being guarded and tickled by Questlove. Now that would be one hell of a story.

Despite the description, I was not being guarded and tickled by Questlove. Now that would be one hell of a story.

I spent most of the game wondering if the tickling was actually happening or if I was imagining things. I was more than accustomed to getting hit during games: elbows, hands, knees, hips. Anyone who has played basketball knows how deceptively physical and violent the game is.

Yet, for all the contact I was familiar with, I had never been tickled.

I kept boxing out and grabbing rebounds and I never said anything about the tickling, mostly because it was clear he trying to get in my head along with my ticklish areas. I figured acknowledging it in any way would be a win for him, a sign that it was throwing me off. And it was throwing me off. I never expected I’d spend a half-hour getting tickled that day.

Thankfully, it turns out that spending the entire game tickling an opponent is an effective method for psychological warfare, but is a horribly ineffective method for grabbing rebounds. I was a horrible rebounder, and yet I never grabbed so many as I did that game.

After the game, a blowout win for us, I asked my teammates if they had seen what was happening. They didn’t even hesitate: “Yeah, he was tickling you the whole game.”

All of these years later, I have forgotten most of the specifics about many of my tournament games, but I will always remember that guy. In that sense, the tickle technique was remarkably successful: it totally got in my head. On the other hand, when it comes to stats and victories, the tickle test did not earn a passing grade.

So, back to Lance Stephenson. I applaud his blowing in LeBron’s ear. In the video of that moment, as Lance is puckering his lips, LeBron shakes his head and smirks – visual evidence that Lance was getting in both his ear and his head. LeBron had a terrible game (arguably more due to the officiating that the ear blowing), and the Pacers won.

When it comes to sports, any (legal) way to get an advantage is something worth trying. Maybe tickle guy used his method in his first round game and it worked well. Maybe he persevered while tickling me figuring that at any moment I would snap and be thrown off my game. However, that clearly didn’t happen.

Or maybe he just thought I was adorable and deserving of tickles, which I suppose I am. In that case, thanks for the compliment – I’ll never forget our momentary basketball tickle bromance.

Ultimately, wins are what matter most in sports. If odd little tactics can provide some small advantage, then I say tickle and blow away.

By Jane Wendorff-Craps, English Faculty.

When the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts began our curriculum meeting one winter’s morning with a kitty meme from the internet, I thought, “No, no, not here, not now…” though internally I was clapping vigorously with my fingertips. It was so stinking cute I could puke right there in my auditorium chair with the pull up desktop, which strangely (and totally from a 70s timewarp) had a pencil etching of Kilroy.

Coincidentally, or not, our CLA (College of Liberal Arts) team put it upon themselves to have running jokes about kitties, their cuteness, and the sometimes pathetic human need to share and overshare this trendy feline phenomenon: cat memes. It is worse than the cute baby memes, in my opinion, because the baby pictures and videos are real time cuteness, and who doesn’t like to see babies doing what they do best: smile, burp, pass gas, and giggle.

It seems kitty memes have no proverbial line drawn in the sand. Each day on social media, and the televised news programs nonetheless, kitties are doing more than what kitties do. People are setting kitties in baskets of fruit with a title of “Still Life Cats.” Or, kitties are playing the piano with phantom human hands from underneath guiding poor Garfield’s paws as he tickles the ivories. Or, good ole Rover is curled up for a nap in the sunbeam with little tabby furball scrunched under his slobbery jowels… aw, ain’t that cute.

But oh, that is the least of our perturbed psyche expose; animal memes date way back… even before the invention of the internet by Al Gore. When I saw, as the article describes it, the “morbidly adorable work” by 19th century Walter Potter of Sussex, England, I had the Roger Rabbit double-take, eyes bulging out of sockets then springing back on coils, OMG WTF is this kind of reaction. I’ve heard of taxidermy, and I know many people with deer heads on their walls. I’ve read of people who stuff their pet dogs to have a continual remembrance of them after they pass. Heck, every museum I’ve ever visited had stuffed animals on display for whatever exhibit in whatever section, you know, as a learning tool for patrons. However, let us think about what Mr. Potter had to be doing in this image.

kittens1

Tea Time for Kittens?

We have what looks like 12 cute and adorable kitties having tea. No, those are not Beenie Babies set upon Barbie chairs. This is Victorian era craziness at its finest.

It makes one wonder… If the kitties are real, albeit stuffed, are the tiny foods real too. Did the “artist” bake mini crumpets, pour drops of tea in the miniature china tea service, and are those real biscuits on that diminutive Wedgewood?

The worst pursuit of realistic wonder would have to be where he found 12 kittens, all of the tiger variety, and what kind of person would expire a tiny living creature and then stuff it for a bizzaro tea party only more out-weirded by Louis Carroll. Is it a coincidence the two men are from the same era, and even lived their adult lives just miles apart in Surrey and Sussex? Just what is it about south England residents in the Victorian era?

I imagine psychologists are having a hey-day over this one. I’m searching for an article by Freud to show the connection of sexually repressed Victorians and stuffing animals. Or not, I’m not sure I could sleep well after that enlightening read.

kitten2

Fluffy bunnies exhibiting test anxiety.

What is it that humans are fascinated by in the “recreation” of a dead animal and posing it in some form? Hunters do it with their prey, saying something to the extent of “I killed this animal, and it was great, and I am great, let’s show this greatness to all who come into my living room.” Yet, what Mr. Potter did is a step further down the yellow brick road. He didn’t pose the animal in its natural form but in human situations. Was he the perverse(er) version of “the cat lady” who needs companionship of herds of animals in her living quarters? But dead ones. That’s the key point here. I’m alive, you’re dead, therefore I have power over your domain? Could it be the simple reason that Potter wanted to show how humans and animals are so similar? Yet when do cats ever elect to have a tea party? Or bunnies go to school to learn their ABC’s?

I’m having a hard time understanding how Potter is paying homage to the natural world by repositioning tiny animals in typical human activities. For some reason, when men of the past stuffed the now extinct dodo bird for posterity, I feel like that might have been of some service to the human race. Having a museum of kitties, bunnies, and hamsters eating and playing like they were the maker’s faux children seems a bit off (a bit Victorian cray-cray, so to speak). But that’s just one gal’s opinion.

By Paul Gaszak, English Faculty

Our first 21 years of life are stacked with milestone birthdays, like:

16 (Driving!)
18 (Voting! Oh, and smoking, and armed services, and such.)
21 (Drinking and Gambling! responsibly….)

Today I turned 32, meaning those milestones have long since passed.

Through my mid-20s, one of several reasons why I fell out of love with birthdays is that the milestones are mostly gone. Well, except for when I turn 35 and run for President. And 65 when I collect social security. And 100 when I get my face on a Smucker’s jar courtesy of a then 148-year-old Willard Scott.

Coming in 2082!  Thanks in advance to Willard Scott.

Coming in 2082! Thanks in advance to Willard Scott.

Last year, I changed my thinking. I wrote on The Flaneur’s Turtle about making my birthday special by running my first half-marathon on my 31st birthday. By any normal standards, 31 is not a milestone birthday, but I made it one. I don’t remember what I did on many of my birthdays, but long after my face is on the Smucker’s jar, I will always remember where I was and what I did on my 31st.

Thus, as we get older, the milestones aren’t gone; they’ve evolved.

It is like assigning an essay in an English class. If I limit a class to a single prompt for an essay, many students will find that boring and will be displeased with the limited options. However, there will be little confusion about what is expected of them. The final products will be solid but unspectacular, because I haven’t allowed them the opportunity to do something unique.

On the other hand, if I give a class freedom to select their own topics, many students will be stymied by having unlimited options. Some of the papers will be a mess; yet, others will be brilliant and unique, and those papers wouldn’t exist had I dictated the topic.

The regular milestone birthdays are the essay prompt: we know exactly what we’re expected to do on birthdays like our 21st. The entire event is already prescribed for us. And though many people think their 21st birthday of getting trashed was THE definitive, unique 21st birthday – I’m sorry to say it wasn’t.

All other birthdays are like having no prompt: there are no directions and nothing is determined for us. It may not be easy to find something special and unique to do that day, and the possibility for failure is there. However, there is also the potential for doing something special that goes well beyond the predetermined paths of our traditional milestone birthdays.

For this birthday, I have spread my celebrations around. I once again ran the half-marathon, and a few days before that, I performed on-stage at a Live Lit venue for the first time doing a creative nonfiction/humor piece.

For me, “special” means a challenge, a new experience, a victory, and I will continue to seek out ways to make my birthdays special even though they are not milestones and no predetermined path has been set for me.

At least until 2017 when I am set to start my Presidential campaign.