Monday, September 28, 2009

Our Bumbos Our Selves

Recently my kids received a Little Rascals / Our Gang DVD, which has been a delight to see. I’d loved these shorts as a kid and can recall watching them in the basement of our old Long Island home on our old black & white RCA. However, one of these shorts, The Kid from Borneo was one that I’d never seen before. Much to my kids' chagrin, I turned it off half-way.

Understandably (according to Wiki), this had been pulled from circulation in 1971. It portrays a “savage” named Bumbo, replete with spear, shield and bone-through-the-nose, played by African American actor, John Lester Johnson. The gang mistakes him for Spanky’s Uncle George, whom no one had ever met before. As the kids circle this mysterious wide eyed character, it’s Stymie (believe it or not) who’s given the line: “he looks like a gorilla ape.”

Bumbo then proceeds to chase the kids around, eating everything in sight. His only line is “Yum, yum, eat ‘em up, eat ‘em up!.”

Obviously, since this film was made in 1933, a bit of filtration needs to be considered when we discuss it. And I honestly know that my children’s laughter was derived from the slapstick action in the film and not from the negative stereotyping of a mentally ill, demeaned individual.

Later over the weekend, I sat my son down to talk to him about why I chose not to let him watch it. Granted, it’s near impossible to encapsulate race, discrimination and popular culture in a way that it can make sense to a seven year old, but I tried. I just said that at the time they made that film, African Americans were treated really badly in America and that by creating Bumbo, they weren’t just trying to be funny – they were also trying to make fun of people who were having tough enough time as it was.

I went back and forth afterwards, worrying that I’d been too knee-jerk uber-liberal, but I dunno. I’m still trying to get this parenting thing figured out. As my kids get older, explaining Planet Earth to them gets exceedingly more difficult.

Not too long ago, my dad and I were rummaging amongst some of the pictures and family artifacts he’d had passed on to him. One of these items was a flyer from the 1920’s for an evening of entertainment sponsored by an organization nebulously called “Our Selves”. Our Selves –what did this mean? A perusal of the evening’s agenda shed a little light on the connotation behind the name – Our Selves were hosting an ‘olde timey minstrel show’. Further reading of the flyer indicated that my great-grandfather emceed the event. It’s my hope that my son will be older when I have to explain this one to him.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

1997 Revisited (sort of)

In 1997 I had a stress fracture in my heel that required six weeks on crutches. Male injuries require causal stories of megalomaniac-like exuberant acts. Yeah, I broke my fibula biking off that cliff. My knee? Oh, I did this in that bar-fight with the Oakland Raiders back in that summer I was touring with The Stones.

My fracture had no such story. I was walking two miles a day in Manhattan toting about a laptop and audit files everywhere I went. While wearing a pair of unforgiving Johnston & Murphy shoes, my heel essentially let my body know it did not appreciate all this walking while hauling that extra weight.

Anyway, that same ankle had been feeling tight lately after I’d play my weekly pick-up soccer game. But after last night’s schmoz, it ballooned such that memories of 1997 came flooding back.

If you’ve never played soccer, I’d like to emphasize that soccer cleats are essentially ballet slippers with knobs at the bottom. Very little is done to cushion the pounding your feet take during the three or so miles of running which your standard 90 minute game requires. Come to think of it, it’s not unlike walking about Manhattan sidewalks in a pair of J&M’s.

When I reflect on 1997, I see so many things I wish I could recreate – oceans of spare time, disposable income, thick non-grey, non-receding hair. 1997 was also the year I met my wife and we whisked off to Hawaii for the first time. The stress fracture is most certainly dead-last on my list of 1997 highlights, yet here it is.

Two years ago, I had a slight tear in a ligament in the other ankle. It came right in the middle of when I was on a real roll – playing well, scoring goals. Suddenly I wasn’t feeling like Guy Who Sits in Cubicle. I had a swagger and it felt good to be good at something other than accounting and chasing after small children. I was raging against the dying of the light. And then pop. Next thing I knew, I was laying on the ground looking up at a circle of guys, all also in their thirties or forties, looking down at me. I could read their faces: Shit, glad that’s not me down there.

I remember hobbling off the field and then back to my car, taking a moment to turn and look back at the game that had continued without me. Driving home, it felt less like bad luck and more that something had been taken away from me. It wasn’t fair.

Then something happened that made all of this meaningless. A month after my ankle blew, my cousin Kevin’s wife died suddenly. He’s a teacher. She was a social worker, 30 and the mother of their twin toddlers. It wasn’t fair.

That whole winter, work started to implode on me. My bi-polar right hand (wo)man started a coup that dragged on for months until she eventually resigned. Everything felt like it was coming off the rails and all I could do was impotently watch things unravel. While waiting for my ankle to get better I found myself simultaneously fighting an intransigent, tenacious depression.

I was talking to my cousin Joe about Kevin’s ordeal. “Karma gets you nothing, I guess”. It was true, things seemed to blow up in such a way that I couldn’t help but admit that the universe was ruled only by random, senseless indifference.

Since then two summers have come and gone. My ankle healed, and I’d play soccer again. And now I’ve injured the other one. I think about what my friend Dave said when he picked me up off the ground after my injury from two years back: “You know when I blew out my knee, I took it as a wonderful opportunity to drink beer, eat pizza and smoke cigarettes.” Maybe that’s the key to life – in between the injuries we sustain amid the chaotic unfairness, we make the best of things anyway we can.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Insomniac Movie Reviews - Part 3

Director Terrance Malick's The New World was on IFC last night. Again we meet the story of Pocahontas and John Smith and aside from portraying an unsubstantiated romance between these two historic characters, the film does present what appears to be a very accurate portrayal of the Jamestown colonies.

Early in the film, the dashing maverick John Smith (Colin Farrell, of course) becomes separated from his comrades while searching for provisions. He is taken prisoner by the Powhatans and when presented before chief Wahunsunacawh, Smith's life is spared by the chief’s daughter, played with earthy elegance by the actress Q'orianka Kilcher.

Not only is Smith’s life spared, but his captivity becomes a sort of friendly coexistence with his captors. His days become filled with friendly, almost initiation-like excursions with his hosts. Most importantly, however, he and Pocahontas establish a connection that swelters into romance.

Considering the last big screen adaptation of these two was done by Disney, this film really could have gone off the camp cliff pretty quickly at this point. Instead, Malick beautifully uses a series of long, meditative sequences. The film departs into a dream-like phase where Smith and Pocahontas take long, quiet walks interspersed with moments either seated in the forest or chasely lying in grassy fields. With Kubrick-esque unobtrusiveness, the camera either floats around Farrell and Malick or simply rests next to them as they dreamily gaze off.

The soundtrack during these sequences is either taken from classical compositions or (even more refreshingly), the unaltered sounds of nature providing a beautifully textured auditory background.

But just as Pocahontas and Smith commit to one another, Smith is sent back to a Jamestown in complete deprivation and social disarray. He reluctantly now must govern the starving colonists who ultimately are saved mid-winter by provisions from Pocahontas. Their leader Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) arrives and Smith is sent back to England. Eventually Pocahontas emerges from the depression caused by Smith's departure. She then becomes the bride of John Rolfe played by an understated, refreshingly non-megalomaniac Christian Bale.

Despite the occasional colonist-native American battle scene, this is a very peaceful, meditative film that’s unafraid to simply allow viewers to open, quiet stretches of time with these characters. Amid the silence you find you’re brought into their rich inner world, especially with the numbingly beautiful Q'orianka Kilcher. It’s a rare treat to have a filmmaker who’s not obsessed with beating an audience down with plot and canned dialouge.

Two Thoughts on Tea

I heard this wonderful piece on NPR about the Tea Exchange in Mombasa, Kenya. I had no idea that Kenya exports more black tea than any other nation. The exchange upon which it is traded has a timeless air of decorum and tradition owing to its East Africa colonial roots.


Switching gears towards the utter void of decorum, last weekend saw a large turnout in Washington D.C. due to the “Tea Party We Don’t Like Taxes or Government and Muslim Marxist Socialists Are Taking Over” thingy.

I have no problem when people voice their dissent about ballooning government deficits (or course…it would have been nice if they’d voiced similar outrage during the rapid government expansion from 2000-2008. But of course, during those years we were supposed to shut up, wear a flag pin and go shopping).

I guess I struggle with the whole concept behind this thing. I just think that if you’re holding up a sign calling for the abolishment of the IRS, in turn you should never do things like – I dunno - drive on an interstate. And while you’re at it, you should really take the magnetic ribbon off the Hummer that says you support the troops.

Check out some of these signs from the protest. Scary stuff.

Can we be honest here? When you’re claiming that the president is a Marxist Muslim, you’re not upset about healthcare reform are you? (Thank you Jimmy Carter for saying what needed to be said). And when you hold up a sign that says “We’re not armed…THIS TIME!” – you’re not looking to engage on a healthy debate, you’re looking to….well frankly, I don’t know what you’re doing.

My favorite tidbit from this aimless bag of unintelligible jackass? - Check out the guy holding the sign decrying President Obama for having “More Czars Than the Soviet Union”. (Pssst…the communist regime that established the Soviet Union killed the last czar so technically…the Soviet Union didn’t have any czars). Oh, those pesky books with their messy facts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pop Tunes, Summer Avenue - Part 2

Recently The Shelf has enjoyed a nice bit of traffic from readers in Memphis. This, of course, is attributable to The Memphis Flyer featuring my post on the Pop Tunes Record Shop on Summer Avenue. Now it appears as though the end is near for the original location on Poplar Avenue. Very sad.

It did give me a chance to take pause and eek out one last look at that closed Summer Avenue location. I’ve posted it below (courtesy of Bing Maps). Apparently Bing Maps (with its amazing “Bird’s Eye” view) was drawing upon an old satellite photo file. Here you can see the old store and more importantly, that Iconic sign:

BTW - I can't recommend The Memphis Flyer enough - here's a great article about suburban sprawl in the city.

Monday, September 14, 2009


It’s Monday which means I played soccer tonight. Although I am nursing my usual post-game state of bodily disrepair, I'm satisified because our fall games have a different location…under the lights…on real grass.

That’s right. No more artificial turf until next spring. I hate that turf. This is perhaps the only matter upon which Beckham and I agree. “The next day you feel like you’re in bits!” Well said, Golden Balls. Well said.

Played my usual muck of central defender without much to note. Except...oh yeah - the lights never came on and we had to line up our cars to have the headlights illumniate the field a la Point Break. Odd tribute to Patrick Swayze, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Another Mets Injury

If you're not a Mets fan, I'll give you the short version of what's happened lately - our all-star center fielder, our all-star third-basemen, our all-star shortstop, our first baseman (my favorite Met) and countless pitchers and other peripherally supporting team members have all fallen to injury. Our team is so depleted - I essentially spend my days staring at the telephone waiting for the Wilpon family to call me up, begging me to play.

As an aside, I got a phone call today from my wife saying that she was taking our son to the emergency room. Apparently the lad (was goofing around and) fell, causing some massive laceration to his elbow.

As my car was doing 85 mph heading to the hospital, it struck me.

My son's little league team name...for which he was an outstanding 3rd baseman? The Mets.

That's right. My house is plastered with photographs of the little guy in his orange jersey and blue cap. He's #12 and a standout player no less.

Whatever cosmic voodoo is floating about, it has now come to my home, perhaps drawn by the kinetic neurosis I project for this team. I can not be angry by what has is merely a continuing exigence, something that clearly no one - not even the finest major league baseball physicians - can fight off.