Friday, March 15, 2013

My Life in 100 Anecdotes

I write slowly, I know it. But as I look back on the almost five years that I’ve had this blog, I am grateful that, slow as I was, I did write.

Today I close Czardoz Contra World with my 100th post. With this nice round number, it’s time to conclude this blog and start another (link pending).

I believe that lives are lived in anecdotes, not necessarily in days or years. And though it is tempting to think of “the best day,” a la City Slickers, I don’t remember full days, only moments. And that’s why I made my blog a collection of anecdotes about my life.

Over the years, there were many things I wanted to write about but never got to. Some articles were begun but never made it to the blog, usually because I couldn’t find out what I was trying to say, or because it took me so long to sort through my thoughts that they were no longer timely. Some articles got close but died for lack of some kind of relevance that would make them more than just self-indulgent words. Sometimes, I realized that I just didn’t have anything to say.

For this last post, I’ve included some anecdotes that mattered to me, and though I didn’t know then what to say, and may not know much better now, I found in each of them something about my life that I wanted to remember.

If I die tomorrow, I hope these items and the 99 posts that came before will be sufficient to explain who I was and what I valued.

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February 2009: In Defense of Grimlock

I was luridly fascinated by the DVD audio commentary for Transformers: The Movie, perhaps because it matched the shambling mediocrity of the animated film itself. The hilarity began when director Nelson Shin started talking. He seemed to have only the barest command of English, and his comments, ranging from bemused to befuddled, had me doubting the level of control he had over the movie. He seemed only dimly aware of what was going on and why. Here’s Shin explaining a scene near the beginning of the movie where Unicron is shown sucking up a planet:

“Inside of the Unicron, this is organic, he gets the juice out and he’s getting lights [life], so he’s now the uh, he can survive, he can activate.”

Fun fact: Shin is now president of a Korean animation company that supplies animation work for numerous American shows, including The Simpsons

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August 2012: How many guys does it take to throw away a perfectly good hamburger? (Answer: Five Guys!)

Regular readers of my blog will probably think that I eat fast food way too much. To that, allow me to emulate a charming Southern gentleman and say, “Guilty as charged!” (Yes, I know it’s a stale joke now, but trust me, this was a big deal back in August!)

In August, I went to a local Five Guys that I had been to a few times. Five Guys, to me, was the new kid on the block, an aggressive challenger from the East Coast that had made significant inroads in Southern California over the past few years. I think it had gained a sort of cult following based on complimentary all-you-can-grab peanuts in the store, messy burgers wrapped in foil, and that magazine article of Lebron James endorsing Five Guys that seems to be framed and posted in every store.

They make good burgers, and seem like sort of a more expensive cousin to In ‘N’ Out, bigger and sloppier, but with just as much hipster cred and everyman authenticity.

So on this occasion, I mistakenly grabbed someone else’s order, which I only realized when I had returned to my seat and peeked into the grease-stained bag. I brought the bag back to the counter and explained my folly. The server told me, “Oh, well we can’t take it back.” Fair enough. As a customer, I wouldn’t want to feel like I had to accept a plate of food that had previously been handed to someone else. She and the store manager exchanged some words to the effect of, “Make a new one for that customer, STAT!”

And then the three of us, the manager, the server, and I, we all just walked away, as if the bag contained a time bomb. I sat down and glanced somewhat uncomfortably at the bag of perfectly edible food that had been abandoned for the moment on that counter.

And here the questions began. Did they mean for me to take the bag, as a bonus, since they couldn’t? Were they going to retrieve it and maybe give the food to an employee later? Were they going to follow the most likely possibility and just throw it away? Should they have at least offered it to me? Or should I have said something, even though it seems sort of presumptuous to claim a free burger after my mistake had rendered it unservable to the rightful purchaser? What exactly was the right thing for me to have done?

Even though I told my brother as we sat there, “They’re just going to throw that away,” I somehow wasn’t prepared for the sight of the store manager chucking the entire bag right into a trash can not three feet away from me.

Even though I figured this was just store policy, and probably the policy of almost every restaurant you could name, I was dumbstruck. It was obscene. Children are still dying in Africa, aren’t they? I should hope so. Well, not “hope,” but I should think so.

When I was very young, there were often television commercials in the afternoon and evening for various outreach programs, asking for donations to help poor people in Africa and South America. You know the type, “just 48 cents a day will feed a child like Maria, and provide her with clothing, medicine, and a good education.” One time, according to my mother, I was watching one of these commercials, and I asked my mother, “Can we give them some food?” Apparently, I thought it was possible to just grab some delicacies from our refrigerator and pass them through the television screen to the rapturous enjoyment of these children. Or maybe I didn’t really believe that, but what I wanted was about as much a fantasy as that would have been. I wanted to help those other kids, and I thought that if I wanted it badly enough and spoke up about it, then every child in Africa would get three square meals a day, a pair of Nike sneakers, and a beautiful new schoolhouse.

Everyone had a good laugh over my naïveté and presumably we moved on with our lives. Hopefully those children in the developing world are moving on with theirs as well. The next time this happens, perhaps my choice is simple: I’ll speak up and say, “So can I keep this one, since it seems a shame for you to just throw away all this food?” I’d like to see them throw it in the garbage in front of me then.

And so, a noble burger was sacrificed so that I could learn a lesson, right? Not on your life. As soon as the manager’s head was turned, I reached into that trash can and nabbed that rudely discarded bag. And did I eat the food inside? Of course. And how was it? It tasted great. Like justice. 

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August 2012: “a Tony Scott joint”

I wanted to add a few words to the funeral mound of observances of Tony Scott’s death, something different from the consensus in the media, which intoned, somewhat condescendingly, that we had lost an energetic maker of films that were critically unremarkable but commercially viable. I really don’t see why every critic had to chime in if they were all going to say the same thing. I guess keeping all these movie critics on staff saves the country’s unemployment figures from going even higher.

I never saw Tony Scott’s magnum opus, Top Gun, but I was a big fan of Man on Fire (which, along with Hide and Seek, had me convinced that Dakota Fanning was one of the very few child actors who could “bring it”). Undoubtedly, when you watch a lot of Scott’s films, you start to think they were all basically the same film, but the same criticism could be leveled at critical darling, Wes Anderson.

Scott’s movies had panache without the pretension. He managed to navigate a treacherous middle path between the Scylla and Charybdis of earnest self-seriousness and smirking irony. And with mild apologies to Spike Lee, I believe that if any filmmaker should have been using the word “joint” to describe his films, it was Tony Scott.

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August 2012: The Bamiyan Buddhas

Around this time, I read a news item about the preservation status of the Bamiyan Buddhas of Afghanistan. Sadly, “preservation” is generous, as there hasn’t been much left to preserve since the giant Buddha statues (the largest two were some 53 meters and 35 meters tall, respectively) were dynamited into the afterlife by the Taliban regime in March 2001.

I first learned about the Bamiyan Buddhas when they made international news in 2001, as talk grew about the Taliban’s intent to destroy the statues, which had been crafted in the 6th century. I was affected by the notion that a work of art, though admittedly a work of religion in the eyes of those who hated it, could be treated so callously by a government. I thought to myself that any government, any people, who could do something like this would be capable of even more astonishing crimes against the living. 

Indeed, the Bamiyan Buddhas were close to my mind after the crimes of September 11, 2001. I’m not saying that 9/11 would have been averted if the “civilized” nations of the West had just bombed the hell out of Afghanistan and the Taliban, and saved these Buddhas early on. But no one should be surprised that these were the monsters who harbored Osama bin Laden. Destruction of artifacts, art, and cultural objects is perhaps the bellwether of genocide and murder. The Taliban were all too eager to destroy something that a competing culture held dear, if only because it was easier than hunting down every last person who still held those things dear.

I’m not a Buddhist, and I’m not sure I even know anyone who is a serious adherent to Buddhist ideas. But I recognize the value of religion and spirituality as an impetus for human creativity. No matter how strong one’s adherence to secularism, it would be hard to deny the glorious artistic achievements that were influenced, financed, or otherwise directly attributable to the existence and vehemence of religion.

No matter how technically impressive or aesthetically beautiful, I am aware that many monumental human artistic achievements, whether religious or secular or somewhere in between, were created by blood money and slave labor, and devoted to oppression in kind. After all, the Colosseum, so revered today, was but a temple to carnage and the institution of murder as entertainment. And as Thoreau said about that last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,

As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.
– Thoreau, Walden

Nevertheless, the objects exist, and they represent a past and a people who can no longer represent themselves. As a humanist, I am appalled at any wanton destruction of the irreplaceable works of a past culture.

Today, I hear snippets of a similar rampage against art, culture, and human life in Mali. I know next to nothing about the ancient glories of Timbuktu and the present conditions of life in Mali. But I know that anything that can rile up fanatics so desperately that they go out of their way to destroy it is probably something worth saving. At the very least, the destruction of a statue or a manuscript or an entire library is a sign of worse things to come.

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September 2012: To “pull a Goran”

When Andy Murray won the 2012 U.S. Open tennis tournament, I wondered if he had divested himself of the title of “best active player who hasn’t won a Slam” only to take on another dreaded title – was this Slam the first of many for him, or would it be the career highlight of a man destined to become a “one-Slam wonder”? Rather like Homer Simpson shedding the “stone of shame” only to be shackled to the even larger “stone of triumph.”

And much like Andy Roddick, whom I had lauded during his last, anticlimactic run at that same U.S. Open. In the journalistic aftermath of Roddick’s career-ender, I stumbled upon this informative slideshow of all the tennis players in the Open era who have won only a single Grand Slam tournament.

Looking at the names, I realize that it’s sort of a compliment when certain pundits cackle that Roddick underachieved or that he needs to have won more Slams to be considered among the greats. After all, do you think such a debate even comes up in reference to a Thomas Muster? Roddick wasn’t a fluke Slam winner, like Richard Krajicek or Anastasia Myskina. After his U.S. Open victory in 2003, he appeared in four more Slam finals over the next six years, and for some of those years, it was not outlandish to think he might win another big one. I doubt anyone looks at a Thomas Johansson and says, “What a disappointment. We expected a few more Slams from him.”

I think Roddick will be remembered very favorably alongside Michael Chang, a fellow American who won his Slam early, gave hope to every Chinese immigrant mother that her American-born son could become a big man in this country (okay, this part is not so similar to the Roddick career arc), then trailed behind the legends in his wake, all the while winning many lesser tournaments, keeping his nose clean, and contending well enough to make fans think a second major was probable, perhaps inevitable.

Roddick also calls to mind another player on the list: 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanisevic. I mentioned in a previous post that my favorite Slam final was the Federer-Roddick Wimbledon 2009, but Ivanisevic’s 2001 Wimbledon ride was just as memorable.

I remember it primarily because I was traveling in China at the time, riding down the Yangtze River on a cruise ship, watching Wimbledon on the tiny television in my room, because I was waylaid from some local disease brought on by a bug bite. With my head woozy and my hand swollen to roughly the size of an inflatable raft, I lay in bed watching tennis and listening to the lilting accents of a couple of announcers named Alan and Vijay who squandered no opportunities for hyperbole (“Too good!” “He’s playing like a shattered man!”).

Ivanisevic was a three-time Wimbledon finalist with a game tailor-made for grass, but he had never won, and though an eventual victory once seemed inevitable, by 2001 it seemed like his chances had passed him by. Having dropped in rank to 125th in the world and no longer considered an effective full-time contender, he only got into the tournament because he was granted a wild card. What he did with that wild card was unprecedented, winning the championship and giving his career a storybook capstone.

Wimbledon 2001 had no shortage of drama. It saw Justine Henin reach her first Grand Slam final, losing in three sets to Venus Williams. A 19-year-old Roger Federer upset defending champion Pete Sampras in the fourth round, a loss that more or less sent Sampras into a downward spiral into irrelevance until he finally emerged with a surprise victory in the U.S. Open 2002, after which he wisely retired.

This tournament was probably top British player and favorite son Tim Henman’s best chance at making a Wimbledon final, as he took a two sets to one lead over Ivanisevic in the seminfinal. However, rain delays turned the match into a three-day ordeal and seemed to wash away Henman’s rhythm and resolve; Poseidon had thrown his godly weight behind Ivanisevic.

Ivanisevic beat four Grand Slam winners on his way to the championship (though, like Goran, victims Carlos Moya and Andy Roddick are also one-Slam wonders, and Marat Safin and Patrick Rafter each won but two).

I remember watching Ivanisevic demolish Roddick, who at the time was a young gun known primarily for his cannon of a serve. Here he was, still quite green, and getting schooled by an over-the-hill wild card who simply fired ace after ace at him. It was a performance not just overpowering but distinctive, and I remember uttering “Roddick got Goran-ed!” for some reason.

Sadly, Roddick did not “pull a Goran” in his last tournament. I haven’t followed any tennis since the 2012 U.S. Open. The Australian Open just happened in January, and I couldn’t find it in me to care; I didn’t even look up highlights. First went team sports, and now perhaps even tennis holds no appeal for me any longer. 

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November 2012: Fire the Critics

For a long time, I wanted to write a post about Pixar films, because they’re kind of a big deal, and for a long time, I held out because I didn’t think it was particularly useful, and indeed, it felt obnoxiously self-indulgent, to disparage any particular product or company just because I could. But there is something even more obnoxious about movie critics, as an industry, regarding their reviewing of Pixar films. This at least is worth a cursory dissection (vivisection? evisceration?).

A sampling of online reviews and editorials about Pixar and, primarily, their latest release, Brave:

“When it comes to Pixar, the worst is still so much better than most of the other junk being churned out by Hollywood.” (IGN)

“Still, Monsters, Inc. is fun and better than most of its non-Pixar peers (how many times do we have to make that distinction today?).” (IGN again – and to answer your question, you didn’t have to make that distinction at all)

“Arguably the worst of the best, the film [Brave] is simply decent (which ranks better than half the animated films released in a year).” (

“If the Walt Disney Studios logo were the only one on Brave, this film's impeccable visuals and valiant heroine would be enough to call it a success. But Brave is also a Pixar Animation Studios film, and that means it has to answer to a higher standard.” (LA Times)

“Pixar’s own history of excellence has effectively painted the studio into a corner. If Brave were a straight-up Disney release, people would be hailing it, at the very least, as an end to the princess movie as we know it. Because it’s Pixar, they get to whine, ‘What? Princesses again?’” (Slate)

I’m quite tired of this blandly uncritical view that insists on starting with the premise that Pixar films must be judged by some rarified standard that eludes all other animation. If the role of the movie critics is merely to tell us that the gum that gets stuck to the soles of John Lasseter’s shoes is more beautiful than even the finest film that any other studio could produce, then really, what is the point of having the critics?

To praise Pixar’s track record is justified, but to go out of their way to defend the studio against any serious criticism is to undermine their own critical judgment. This seems to me a kind of moral cowardice, and moreover, it ignores the reality that other studios have started to make some very good movies that stand up well to what Pixar is dishing out.

To take one example, to my mind, Brave is not nearly as good as the Disney movie it most resembles – Tangled. For more examples, I’d rank Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs alongside the best of what Pixar has made.

Richard Corliss’s Time magazine review of How to Train Your Dragon offers a historical perspective. While he acknowledges Pixar’s edge in box office, awards, and prestige, he has the audacity to compare the Pixar-DreamWorks rivalry to an animation rivalry of yore: Disney vs. Warner Brothers:

“‘Each year I do one DreamWorks project,’ actor Jack Black told the crowd at the 2009 [Oscars] ceremony, ‘then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar.’

That was also the case 60, 70 years ago, when Disney shorts had a monopoly on the Oscars, while the funnier, livelier cartoons from Warner Bros. – which today are treasured – were ignored. In that sense, Pixar’s features are closer to the old, elevated Disney style, while DreamWorks’s films are flat-out cartoons, proud to carry on the fast, cavorting Warner tradition.”

Not just DreamWorks, but Fox, Sony, and all the other companies that delve into animation have tended to shy away from the “elevated” epics that have become Pixar’s signature. This certainly feeds into the perception that Pixar makes “prestige” movies, while its competitors are making the animated equivalents of Michael Bay’s Transformers.

Moreover, we are meant to believe that animated movies by DreamWorks or Fox are churned out by wage slaves in a Korean factory (perhaps Nelson Shin's), whereas animated films by Pixar are willed into existence by an auteur, whose vision is rendered by a handful of artistic true believers. But whatever happens behind the scenes, the results don’t indicate such a strong ideological divide.

The Kung Fu Panda, Ice Age, and Madagascar franchises can be just as sentimental and (sigh) heartwarming as Pixar films, and Pixar’s movies are just as heavily laden with slapstick and low-brow comedy as their counterparts from the wrong side of the tracks.

My goal is not to heap scorn on Pixar for its well-earned success, but to argue that the divide between it and its competitors is narrow, and getting narrower. And though perceptions of Pixar’s superiority persist, especially in the critical community, these perceptions are not always supported by evidence. Pixar is the Apple of the film industry, and fittingly so, since it inherited its creative ethos from its founder, Steve Jobs. But that doesn’t mean that other companies aren’t making products that are just as intricate and enjoyable. 

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January 2011: Grand Theft Auto IV

I basically inaugurated this blog with an anecdote about Grand Theft Auto III.  It seems fitting that I should end it with an anecdote about Grand Theft Auto IV

When I jumped back into Liberty City with GTA IV, I thought I’d get a few chuckles from driving over pedestrians, maybe roughing up some unwitting innocents in the street, and in the process find out if the Grand Theft Auto experiment had gotten more playable since my last foray into this urban wilderness.

The good news is that the addition of interior spaces, a speaking role for the player’s character, and “life” scenarios like going on dates with a girlfriend do enrich the feeling of “play.” The bad news is that driving is still an ordeal with no happy medium. Either you’re crawling slowly to grandmother’s house, or you’re zigzagging down straight roads and sideswiping pedestrians and lampposts with every turn. Shooting while aiming still requires a finesse I’ll never master. And committing random crimes will once again have the police hounding your ass very quickly, and you are never a match for their killing prowess.

Despite its flaws, I got a lot of enjoyment just from exploring the game’s possibilities, the many “what if” scenarios. What if I kill the bowling alley attendant? What if I kill the girl working at Burger Shot? What if I join the stripper on stage at the strip club? What if I run over some fools while driving Michelle home from our date? What if I kill someone on the street, wait for the ambulance to come, then kill the paramedic after he gets out of the ambulance – will another ambulance show up?

And on and on until I realized the irony of the GTA games: there is ultimately no liberty in Liberty City. In attempting to create the illusion of freedom and seamless immersion, the game ultimately draws attention to the limitations of its technology and all the restrictions imposed on the player. I can kill a hot dog vendor, but then I can’t take any of the hot dogs he was just selling? That don’t make no sense.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the artificial boundaries imposed on the game map. As in previous games, you are stuck on one island in this fictional world, and only after meeting a set of achievements do you open up access to the next island. Funny thing is, there is a bridge to the neighboring island, and it exists the whole time you’re playing, but access to the bridge is blocked by concrete barriers and a fierce police presence, all under the guise of, I don’t know, construction or an investigation or martial law or some similarly ludicrous excuse. And yes, these coppers would unleash a lethal torrent of bullets if I stepped foot on that bridge.

Days passed. Days filled with the monotony of blowing off steam at the pool hall with my brother Roman. Going on dates to the bowling alley with Michelle and “trying my luck” when I took her home. Muscling low-level hoods and capping rival gangsters. And every day I’d drive by that bridge and those badge-wearing pigs and think to myself, “You don’t own me.”

What was on the other side? What was so important that they went to such extreme lengths to keep me from it? This was Shell Beach in Dark City. This was the painted sky at ocean’s end in The Truman Show.

There is a freedom out there, true freedom that exists without structures, and beyond artifice. The bubble world they created for me was not the world I wanted to live in, so I would make my own world, or die trying. “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

I became convinced that if only I could get on the bridge and drive to the other side without getting shot to pieces, then that island would exist, just like the one where I was standing now. It would be real, with real people, and a real life. I just had to survive.

And so, I decided that, come heaven or hell, I would cross the bridge.

There was no sense in trying to drive through a concrete wall, so I knew my only chance was to run through the gaps in the barricade and steal a squad car that was already on the bridge. Once in, they couldn’t stop me. So I ran, taking heavy fire when the astonished goons realized I was actually going for it. Hot lead pierced any flesh that wasn’t covered in body armor, but I made it to the car, pulled the driver to the ground, and immediately I was flying!

Everywhere around me, I heard voices yelling, “Yes, yes! He made it! He can get through!”

The bridge felt like it went on forever. The first few hundred feet were breezy, with a few lights and sirens giving pathetic chase, but then the fuzz lowered the hammer. One after another, black police vans barreled head-on toward me at top speed on the threadlike bridge, trying to block me or crush me. They would take me dead or alive, so long as they ended my run.

But for the first time, my driving skills attained a sort of blissful elegance. It was as if I were controlling my car with my mind, not my hands and feet. Armored van on my left – I dodged right. Another van trying to squeeze me against the wall – I hit full throttle and drove past him straighter than I ever knew I could. I had attained automotive nirvana and eluded them all!

My supporters renewed the rallying cry, “Yes, yes! You did it! They can’t stop you!”

The bridge’s end drew into focus, with the massive skyscrapers of my destination coming into view. And then I saw the wall. There was never just one barricade. The police had a second one waiting for me this whole time, at this end of the bridge.

Every fiber of my being told me to stop the car and end this madness. But it was too late. This was my Thelma and Louise moment. At full speed, my speedometer about to crack from the strain, I slammed headlong into the concrete, the impact shooting my limp body through the windshield like a rocket, sailing past the front lines of cops and cars and landing like a broken doll tossed by a wailing infant. I had made it this far only to collapse under shattered glass and pitiless mortality.  

And yet my eyes opened!

I stand up, pat myself down, amazed. I had been shot, I had flown, I had crashed, and yet I live! And then I look about me and realize that I have crossed the bridge and am on the new island. It is real. And it is beautiful. I had made it. My dream was not in vain.

All I have to do now is grab the nearest police cruiser, as I had at the beginning of my escape, and drive. Always drive. And then I am free.

At least, that’s what I was thinking when my vision turned murky white, and my knees disappeared beneath me. I felt a warm moistness all over my chest, like I was bathing in salty water. And then the world went dark and I felt . . . nothing at all.

. . .

It was probably ten years ago that I played GTA III, but I still remember the Great Siege of Ammo-Nation. Ten years from now, when the many sordid misadventures of Niko Bellic in GTA IV have faded from memory, all we’ll remember is one glorious moment when I hurtled through a police barricade, jacked a squad car, and hightailed it across a facsimile Manhattan Bridge, crossing the Rubicon, making my own freedom.

*          *          *

Here we are at the Ides of March. As Caesar goes, so goes Czardoz, dying today, only to live forever . . .

1 comment:

Henry said...

I never understood why merely getting too close to the bridge would instantly max out your "wanted" rating. If there was a narrative explanation for that, I must have missed it. Just seemed like a cheap and lazy game-y thing.

I wish they really had included a Truman Show angle, where, if the game sensed you heading for the bridge, maybe Roman would call you and say he needed you somewhere else, which happened to be far from the bridge. Then, if you stayed your course, maybe Michelle would also call you saying she needed you. And, the closer you got to the bridge, the more frantic the calls you would get from every character in the game, until finally Ed Harris would call and explicitly try to persuade you not to leave the game world.