Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Reindeer, Brian Griffin, a Pencil Named Steve, and the Psychology of Storytelling

One day I was in a grocery store here in Southern California, and I saw a display of some Christmas
decorations -- two reindeer who were being sold at a deep discount because their antlers had broken off.

I felt sad for them. I did not cry, and I did not feel badly enough for them to buy them. But my sadness, however fleeting, was spontaneous and genuine.

I quickly asked myself if I would have felt the same sadness if the ornaments did not have eyes and mouths, if they had not represented living creatures. Suppose they had been Christmas coffee mugs with broken handles. Would I have felt sad?


One of the truly strange things about human beings is our ability to form emotional attachments to so many different things -- other humans, animals, even objects that resemble humans and animals. Perhaps most strange is our ability to form strong emotional attachments to things that do not even exist.

Brian Griffin for example.

He is a dog, who acts like a human, and who does not exist.

Brian's non-existence did not stop many viewers of Family Guy from getting very upset when that show recently killed him, the family dog who had been on the show from the beginning. He was run over by a car, and the family quickly replaced him with another talking dog. This one was named Vinny and he sounded like a cast member from The Jersey Shore.

Social media was quickly abuzz with surprise from all and anger from some at this narrative turn.

Someone posted a picture of the tattoo that memorialized Brian. Soon there were petitions calling for the show's creators to resurrect Brian.

And they did. Though it was done so quickly that his death clearly was never intended to be permanent. His best friend Stewie has a time machine, after all, so changing Brian's fate was easily within the show's realm of possibility. The story of bringing him back most likely was being animated at the same time as the story of his death. (I have not heard what the Brian-tattoo dude plans to do now.)

The outcry reminded me of the famous death of Little Nell, a frail little girl from the Charles Dickens novel The Old Curiosity Shop. Dickens serialized that novel in a magazine in 1840-1841, and his audience could see her death approaching (unlike Seth McFarlane's audience). Readers begged him to spare Little Nell, and many were heartbroken when she finally died. William Macready, a famous actor of the time, wrote in his diary: "I have never read printed words that gave me so much pain."

One of the many powers of storytelling is its ability to tell us false things and evoke true emotions. Although the deaths of Brian Griffin and Little Nell were unreal (as were their lives), the audience reactions were very real.

Storytelling depends upon the very human and psychological process of identification. When someone says,"I could identify with that character," we usually take that to mean "I could see aspects of myself or my experiences in that character's personality or experiences." But identification is more complicated than that.

Identification can also be called a type of introjection, which is the process by which someone absorbs into their psyche, behavior, or beliefs some aspect of the outside world. That is, a character on the big screen or the small page may experience a great deal of fear, and then members of the audience feel something very similar -- even though they are under no threat. Similarly, they might feel anger, even though nothing bad has happened to them; but something bad has happened to the character in a story, and the audience absorbs those sensations into themselves, even if only temporarily.

But this process also involves an element of projection, which is the psychological process by which a person believes his/her own emotions or ideas are possessed by another person. This can be positive or negative. A person could reject his own feelings of guilt and project them onto another person, assuming the other person is behaving in a guilty manner when he is not. Conversely, a person could feel happy and assume the people around him are happy too, even though they are not.

In the example of representations of living things, this is a strange, mirror-like dynamic. In the grocery store I saw the broken reindeer, and since they resembled living animals that I would feel sympathy for, I was able to project onto them what I would have felt in that situation -- sadness or vulnerability, as if they were those lonely inhabitants of The Island of Misfit Toys on the Christmas TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having projected those human experiences onto non-human objects, I then identified with that sadness and vulnerability.

When I talk to my classes about the powers of storytelling and its dependence upon this human obsession with relating the world back to ourselves, I illustrate it with a great example: Jeff Winger's "Steve the pencil" speech in the pilot episode of Community (watch the speech here).

Winger tells his friends that "people can connect with anything." To illustrate this point, he says, "... I can pick up this pencil, tell you its name is Steve and go like this [breaking pencil] -- and part of you dies just a little bit on the inside."

So true, Jeff. This type of gullibility -- this desire to be told lies in order to experience real emotions - makes humans different from other creatures and gives storytelling its greatest power.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Fix the NFL -- Limit Substitutions

Is it worth the cost?
Football is my sport.

I like it so much that I was even a fan of the USFL.  That is, until Donald Trump got hold of it and, like his hair, made a mess of things.  Before he stepped in, the USFL played during the months that the NFL did not, and that gave me pretty much year-round football. Trump helped move the league to direct competition with the NFL, which quickly killed it. But while it lasted, I loved having two football seasons, and the USFL even gave me a pro team in my hometown: The Oklahoma Outlaws played in Tulsa.

However, even though I love the game, I do not want people to sacrifice their health for my entertainment.

Many sources have reported the number of concussions in the NFL and their long-term health effects.  Some reports have asked whether the size of players has contributed to this problem (such as this NPR report).

So if the NFL cannot find a solution to the problem of concussions and brain degeneration among  former players, I propose this possible (but very unlikely) solution: Allow limited substitutions so that most players play both offense and defense.

Nearly all of the rules would stay the same, but changing the roster rules would change the players and the play on the field.  I am not proposing the details of how that limited substitution would work; there are many possibilities.  And I really doubt my idea would ever implemented, but the plan is something to think about.

(The Arena Football League does something similar, and I must admit I never have been a fan of that game.  But that it because its game is significantly different from traditional football.)

Alan Page, DT, 245 lbs., 1967-1978
I doubt a 300-pound lineman would have the stamina to play for nearly the entire game. He would need to shed weight in order to play that long. If the game were changed this way, we might see player weights closer to those in 1960s and 1970s. Offensive linemen then weighed about 250 pounds.  Today they consistently weigh 300 or more. The same numbers are true for defensive linemen.

For example, Alan Page was a Hall of Fame defensive tackle who played at about 245 pounds in the 1960s. He was even voted the league's Most Valuable Player at one time.

Linebackers and running backs have gained weight. Wide receivers and defensive backs have perhaps gained the least weight, yet even those players are heavier today than in the past.

How might lighter players reduce concussions?


Warren Sapp, DT, 300 lbs., 1995-2007
The force generated by the collision of two men weighing close to 300 pounds is greater than that of two men weighing 250. The force of today's collisions influences injuries to the brain.

Alternatively, the NFL could simply limit the size of players: no one on the team above 250 pounds. But would that result in a lawsuit claiming discrimination?

I think limited substitution also would change collisions because of self-preservation. At various points in the game, players would need to conserve their energy. So bringing a ball carrier to the ground would be sufficient; there would be no need to "blow him up" on every play. Watch game film from earlier decades, and the tackling was different; it was more often a matter of form than force.

In general, I think that would hold true for other parts of the game -- form over force. Technique would be more important than brute force.

I am old enough to remember the players from the 1970s. I cannot say that I enjoyed the game less then than I do now. I cannot say the increased violence of the game has enhanced my enjoyment of the sport. I think the game is most enjoyable when players demonstrate skill more than strength -- when they leap, dive, change direction, spin, etc.

One also could argue that my change would turn NFL players into "true" athletes, in the sense that they would need well-rounded skills. There would not be the specialists we have now -- like pass rush specialists who are in the game for 15 plays, perhaps.

Without those specialists, some might say, the quality of the game would drop. An analogy: Those who compete in the decathlon in the Olympics probably cannot win medals in the individual events, so in that sense they are not as good as the specialists. But specialized athletes cannot compete in as many sports as the decathletes. There would be trade-offs. But hopefully there would be one big advantage: fewer concussions.

Other changes would come about. Team rosters would be smaller. There would be no need to have 53 men on a team. So the players union would not like the new rule; it would mean fewer jobs.

However, smaller rosters might mean players are available to form new rosters. That is, the league could be expanded to a couple of new cities. Or we could bring back the USFL and have year-round football again.

I could go for that.  

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Walking Dead: Forget the Math, Close Your Mouth

Dave Stopera at BuzzFeed feels that AMC's The Walking Dead is bad at math.  The zombie apocalypse should be over by his calculation, which he presents in "Here's Why The Walking Dead Doesn't Make Any Damn Sense."

Swinging in the Rain
While he presents an enjoyable puzzle to consider, I think one of his basic assumptions is proven
wrong by the show.  He assumes that 99 percent of the population has become zombies, but the show indicates more than that have become the walking dead. We have seen several episodes where the humans are outnumbered more than 99 to 1.

But I am not worried about the math.  I am more worried by the flying zombie goo.

Watch when the humans attacks zombies with a knife, baseball bat, ax, or some weapon other than a gun.  They do so at close range.  And they do so with a grimace on their faces and their mouths open -- frequently grunting like Monica Seles on the tennis court.

This bugs me for two reasons.

The Fine Art of Fencing
1. By this time each person has killed dozens of zombies. It seems that this would be rather routine, perhaps even tiresome.  Even when they kill zombies through the fence at the prison, when they stand no chance of being bitten or scratched, they grimace and grunt.  Why?

2. More importantly, why are they not concerned about getting zombie goo in their eyes or their mouths?  Not only would the putrid fluids be unpleasant, they would pose the threat of turning the humans into walkers, no?

We know from the group's time spent in the Centers for Disease Control that all living humans are infected.  We know that everyone who dies is reanimated as a walker.  We also know that humans who are bitten will soon die from the bite and turn into walkers -- unless the bite is isolated from the rest of the body, as Rick did for Herschel when he chopped off the bottom portion of the older man's leg after it had been bitten.

Rick's action tells us the zombie virus is something like snake venom.  It travels through the victim's blood stream, perhaps to the brain, where it takes over the host (as we learned from the CDC episode).  Let us assume the introduction of a new infection from a zombie will somehow trigger the pre-existing infection. Since the new infection seems to originate from a zombie bite, we can assume that the zombie virus is transferred through a bodily fluid -- saliva or blood.

So, why does the flying goo from the various zombie battles not cause new infections in the humans?  At that close range, there must be zombie goo spraying into their open mouths and open eyes.  There it can easily get into the blood stream.

And if the zombie goo does not cause the humans to turn, it should at least cause them to turn away.

We should hear complaints of "Ooh, I got some in my mouth!"

And one more thing: anatomy.

I'm fine! Thanks for asking!
Many times the humans dispatch zombies by stabbing them in the eye.  They stab them in the eye and the zombie falls.  But not all such attacks would reach the brain.  The Governor is proof of this.  He was stabbed in the eye, and his brain is fine (relatively speaking).

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pop Go the Indians

Holy Trinity by Derek No-Sun Brown
I recently attended the annual American Indian Arts Marketplace at the Autry National Center.  For this event, a giant tent is erected and filled with dozens of American Indian artists. They display works that include jewelry, baskets, clothing, painting, and sculpture.

It is always a great event, and I saw one trend that I especially enjoyed: an increase in popular culture imagery in the work by American Indian artists. You know, Star Wars vehicles running alongside horses.  Sitting Bull in a Versace scarf.  Pixelated portraits of Navajo people.

Three years ago, when I attended my first Arts Marketplace, I saw just one booth that featured this blend of "traditional" arts with popular culture.  This year I saw four.  I know that is not a lot, but it is sign of a trend that is evident elsewhere.
War Songs Circa 1986 by Derek No-Sun Brown

For instance, Derek No-Sun Brown was at the Autry show for the first time.  In fact, it was the first show ever for the recent graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.  I really liked his big canvasses that featured American Indian men in war bonnets and on horseback, in the midst of the Great Plains -- with one man holding a large, silver boombox on his shoulder. [Update: I added the Holy Trinity image after the original posting.]

Derek also had the large portrait of Sitting Bull that I mentioned.  In it he wears a Versace scarf and has gold chains hanging below that.  Chief Blinging Bull?

The image I have included here is from Derek's website.  It is titled "War Songs Circa 1986." He had it with him at the Autry.  (Out of respect for the artists, I did not take pictures of their work in the booths.)

Dallin Maybee was at the Autry too.  His work featured Star Wars imagery, as well as vintage automobiles, and cartoon characters.  One of his paintings blended a popular genre in American Indian art -- ledger art -- with some updating.  Contemporary ledger art revives the style of drawings made by American Indians in the 1800s on ledgers (old accounting books).  Those images continued a Plains tradition of drawing and painting on animal hides.  Artists today take the same kind of paper and create images that build upon that rich tradition.

Image provided by Dallin Maybee.
Maybee's booth featured ledger art that included the usual male warriors riding dashing ponies, but among the horses were cars and motorcycles. And in one work, the procession was being led by an AT-AT, those four-legged assault vehicles used by the Imperial forces against the Rebels in The Empire Strikes Back. Oh, and Spongebob is in the procession too.  Riding a sea horse, of course.

Dallin Maybee playing his Spongebob drum.
Speaking of Spongebob, Dallin also had a hand drum he had made in the shape of that aquatic hero. The arms detach to become the sticks for beating.  (You can see a YouTube video of him playing it.)

Jeremy Singer was the first artist at the Autry show I saw mixing popular culture imagery with his paintings of more widely expected American Indian themes.  (I bought one of his paintings that year; it is a geometric study that blends shapes commonly found in native weaving with the graphics of the old Atari Asteroids game.) This year his work concentrated on portraits made in triplicate, mimicking the way 3D images appear when not viewed through 3D glasses.

I have included the poster of a recent show of Singer's to illustrate the appearance of his portraits.  You can see examples his work at his website.

These artists all stated that the popular culture images and themes were extensions of their lives. The artists had grown up with these images, or their children loved these characters, and they had been important influences. Brown, Maybee, and Singer are part of a growing trend in contemporary American Indian art that combines visual vocabularies from two fields generally thought of as distinct from each other (at least in the art marketplace and mainstream art criticism).  They combine the signs and symbols from American Indian representational traditions that predate contact with Europeans with signs and symbols that came after that contact.  These contemporary signs and symbols almost always originate in the last few decades, when these artists were children or were raising their children.

An entire exhibition of such works was created in Santa Fe in 2012 -- Low-Rez: The Native American Lowbrow.  (FYI: "rez" is slang for reservation.)  You can see an excellent blog entry about this show here.  Jeremy Singer was an artist featured in it.

The Heart of the Indian by America Meredith
One of my favorite images from the Low-Rez show is by America Meredith.  The Heart of the Indian features a drawing from the 1580s, a PowerPuff Girl (I believe this is Buttercup), and, according to Meredith, a Cherokee pottery stamp design.

The words on the painting are from James Mooney, a white anthropologist famous for writing about his experiences in American Indian communities in the late 1800s; this line is from Historical Sketch of the Cherokee.  It reads: "There is change indeed in dress and outward seeming, but the heart of the Indian is still his own."

On the one hand, one could say the drawing from the 1580s represents the appearance of the American Indian at the time of first contact and Buttercup represents the way a 21st century American Indian might imagine herself as an empowered female.  The Cherokee stamp between the two figures could suggest the native bond that links the two figures, and the Mooney quote could emphasize the similarities between the two images rather than their differences.

On the other hand, one could see the 1580 image (by John White) as among the first images that started a long history of misperception of American Indians by Europeans and misrepresentations of them.  The image is called "The Conjurer," but here the figure looks to be fleeing rather than conjuring -- perhaps he is running away from Buttercup.  (She does look angry, doesn't she?)  This reading would suggest that Buttercup, despite not being readily recognizable as "Indian," has been chosen by an Indian artist for her self-representation, and it is chasing away the image that does deploy the more easily understood signs of "Indian" but which is a representation created by someone else. In this sense the native artist is claiming her own agency.

Regardless of which reading one chooses, the Mooney quote suggests that the image speaks from an American Indian experience no matter the surface appearance of its imagery.  Simon Ortiz, a distinguished poet from the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, had something to say about such things.  In his essay, "Towards a National Indian Literature: Cultural Authenticity in Nationalism," Ortiz writes that some people feel that speaking and writing in English, that participating in cultural practices that originated outside of their native communities, are somehow less Indian.  He denies this. American Indian artists have not been forced to "forsake their native selves." Ortiz claims "it is entirely possible for a people retain and maintain their lives through the use of any language." I would add: Whether that language is verbal or visual.

No Locks by April Holder
An artist from the Low-Rez show, April Holder, said it well: "If Native Americans live in two worlds, then Native Pop is the bridge between those two worlds. Native pop art is the combination of the essence of traditional identity and the embrace of the ever changing world around us."

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Some suggestions for Esquire's list of books for men

Esquire recently posted an item on its website: "The 80 Books Every Man Should Read."

One thing I have to give the staff credit for is its honesty about the nature of the list: "An unranked, incomplete, utterly biased list of the greatest works of literature ever published."

That confession leaves them free from the standard response to such lists -- How could you leave off [insert personal favorite here]?!?!

For instance, I could complain that they include Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums rather than On the Road.  I am not arguing quality, just the perceived essentialness to American masculinity.  If read at the right age, On the Road can send young men off into fantasies of hitting the highway and seeing the country and having adventures.  If read at a later point in life, the novel can make men grateful they got rid of friends like those a long time ago.

But I cannot really make that complaint because the producers of the list did not make claims of objective quality or worth.  They simply made a list of books they think men should read.

However, I did notice a couple of peculiarities.  There is just one book by a woman.  It is a collection of short stories, A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor.  It seems that men, heterosexual or homosexual, should want to read about the world from a female perspective, since they make up about half the population.  I would venture a couple of suggestions. Perhaps Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.  For something less grim or stark, the list could include a personal favorite, Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, which is a funny, bi-curious coming-of-age romp set in the 1960s and 1970s.  (I could say Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, but then everyone has heard of that one. Alther's book is funnier and less well-known.)

The other peculiarity: The absence of a book by an American Indian. I say this because three of the books have Indians in them: Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, and Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall. [Correction: Five books have American Indian characters.  The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien features one American Indian soldier. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey is narrated by an American Indian character.]  I have not read Harrison's book, so I cannot comment on its depiction of American Indians.  But McMurtry's most famous novel has the problematic character of Blue Duck, a psychotic killer who is a mixed-blood Comanche man who is a major obstacle for the novel's protagonists.  Blood Meridian has no major Indian characters, and their depiction is no worse than that of the murdering, soulless leaders of our band of "heroes."  But the creators of the Esquire list produced an odd blurb with which to praise the novel and suggest its tone:

Just try sleeping after the scene in which the Apaches thunder over the hills wearing the dresses of the brides they have killed.

Every page of that novel drips with blood, it seems, but of all the scenes of terror and butchery perpetrated by the band of Americans making their way across the West to the Pacific Ocean, the list-makers chose a scene that suggests the Apaches are the scary ones.  I would say, try sleeping after reading any page of that novel, which is one of the grimmest, most nihilistic exercises of naturalism I have read in American literature.  In my Goodreads review of it I said this:

This is an exercise in nihilistic naturalism with prose that is sometimes poetic and other times a rambling trainwreck of sentences pretending to profundity. If Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Sam Peckinpah had congress in some kind of demonic three-way, this novel would be their child.

The events are sometimes engaging and compelling, but just as often they are predictable. Just about any thing (human or animal) introduced will be shot, stabbed, scalped, or hanged within a few pages. It has some memorable characters, but it offers too little insight to the workings of their minds (at least for me).

In the theater of masculinity that Esquire presents with this list of novels, the American Indian plays the role of savage.  But American Indian men have experienced trials and triumphs that are worthy of inclusion in this list.  They have had experiences other men, regardless of race, could relate to.  If I could add one novel that would match the general tone of other titles in this list -- the titles tend toward alienation, moral struggle, and conflicted relationships with wives and fathers -- I would add James Welch's Winter in the Blood.  Published in 1974 it is the story of an American Indian man fighting his way through the grief over the separate deaths of his father and brother years before, struggling
against the alcoholism in himself and his family, and regaining his sense of worth after the failure of his love relationship.  And it manages to be funny at times.  Coincidentally, there is a film version of the novel now playing the festival circuit.  Learn more about it here.

If I could add, instead, my favorite James Welch novel, that would be Fools Crow.  One thing I like most about it is its setting: Its events take place before the Crow Indians have been overwhelmed by the Americans.  There is no major white character in it. This is a story about an Indian world -- it is being invaded by another world, granted, but the natives are the center of the story. It is the story of two young men who choose different paths: one who chooses life, love, and family; and one chooses pride, anger, and revenge. It is filled with sex, violence, comedy, tragedy, hope, and history.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Taking the Chris out of Columbus Day

Jonathan Twingley/The Los Angeles Times
Perhaps I am naive, but I assume that serious debates about the merits of Columbus Day have been settled.

I hear no firsthand defenses of the holiday.  I hear no one seriously defend him as a person or praise his "discovery" of the Americas as anything other than a kind of accident that was fortunate for him and unfortunate for millions of others.  So I do not give him or his holiday much attention.

But then, since I teach American Indian literatures at a university, I am not surrounded by people prone to defend him. On my campus, people are more likely to talk about the door he opened for the importation of commercialized slavery, apocalyptic diseases, and conquistadors than about anything positive he may have been credited for in the past.

The Los Angeles Times, though, ran a defense of sorts for the holiday in Sunday's edition. The op-ed  piece by an emeritus professor from UCLA, "Curiosity set sail with Columbus," attempts to credit his journey with "prying loose European curiosity from the vise put in place by the medieval church."

The claim strikes me as ironic since so much of the ensuing colonization of the Americas was enabled and empowered by the Catholic Church, including the enslavement of Indians.

Although the article mentions the "unintentional holocaust" caused by diseases that crossed the ocean with the Europeans, it does not mention the intentional holocausts of mass slavery, imperialism, and genocidal warfare.

In fact, the newspaper itself may have been a little ambivalent about the retired professor's opinion. The op-ed is accompanied by an illustration that conveys a message (intentional or not) that undermines the words.

Granted, the image shows Columbus on top of the world and a generic church figure on the bottom; this suggests that he has perhaps upended some balance of power in the world.  But Columbus has a really creepy hand holding his stomach; it looks rather skeletal.  And his face is strangely obscured along his jaw and neck, with odd markings in the air by his face and shoulder -- are they insects?  I do not know what the artist intended, but to me Columbus looks a bit like the Lord of the Flies.

Rather than representing the Light of Knowledge, he looks like the Specter of Death. The op-ed suggest he was some kind of vanguard of the Enlightenment, but the illustration suggests he was harbinger of Doom.

The church official below him looks somewhat skeletal himself, and his red robe suggests something hellish as much as holy.  Rather than looking like opposites, the two figures look like partners in crime.

I have no problem if the retired UCLA professor wants a new holiday to celebrate Europe's emergence from some intellectual black hole.  Let's just not call it Columbus Day.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Battle for L.A.: Cheeseburgers, Frappuccinos, and Strawberry Donuts

I have lived in the Los Angeles metropolitan area for 20 years now, and until this week I hade never seen a strawberry donut.

I did not even know they existed.

And yet that very concoction from a store called The Donut Man was recently elected "L.A.'s Iconic Dish."

This made me think about the meaning of the word "icon."  The word gets used many times to mean something more like "famous" or "important" rather than its truer definition, at least in this situation.  "Icon" is derived from a Greek word meaning "likeness, image, portrait, semblance."  The Oxford English Dictionary states that an "icon" is a "person or thing regarded as a representative symbol."

For an icon to function as a symbol in this way, it must resemble the thing it refers to.  And in its function as an icon, it must signal something much larger than itself.  No food literally resembles a city, but we can think of city/food combinations.  San Francisco and sourdough bread.  Kansas City and barbecue ribs. Philadelphia and a cheese steak sandwich.  New York City and a slice of pizza on the sidewalk with a cigarette ground into it.

These foods "resemble" those cities because they are found so commonly there that they have become closely associated with those cities.  This is especially true when the food indicates a lifestyle or a particular culture or region.

When one sees that particular dish, one thinks of the city and a host of other associations.

Not a donut.
I think if we traveled around the United States, we would find no one who thinks of strawberry donuts when they think of L.A. This is because strawberry donuts are not seen on every street corner. They are not featured in song nor film. James Cagney did not rub one into Mae Clarke's face in Public Enemy. Randy Newman did not praise them in "I Love L.A."  They do not "resemble" Los Angeles because when you look around the city you do not see them.

If any donut is famously associated with Los Angeles, it is one you cannot eat -- the giant one atop Randy's Donuts, not far from Los Angeles International Airport.

I should not be upset about this.  The  process by which strawberry donuts were selected was not
Now that's a donut.
scientific.  It was bound to be skewed.  It was the result of a poll taken by public television station KCET, which provided its audience with an NCAA-style bracket of culinary options.  As the votes came in, various foods were eliminated.

I doubt the number of voters would be impressive or very representative of the region.  I think if the voting had gone beyond KCET's fairly limited demographic, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles would have made it to the final round -- and a burger from In-n-Out would definitely have been on the charts.  Roscoe's is perhaps peculiar to Los Angeles, and even those people who have not eaten at one know about them.

Meanwhile, In-n-Out Burger restaurants ARE ubiquitous in L.A., and people who eat at them can be
Los Angeles: Burgers, palm trees,
 and smog-enhanced sunsets
rather zealous in their devotion.

One reason the strawberry donut cannot be an L.A. icon: They are not associated with cars.

Los Angeles is a city built for cars more than people.  It is impossible to imagine the city without them.  Remember Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons telling us that  "Only a nobody walks in L.A."?  I do not know whether Donut Man has a drive-thru window, but I do not think anyone tries to eat a strawberry donut while driving. Meanwhile, one of the main appeals of In-n-Out for Angelenos is the ability to order and eat without leaving one's vehicle.

In fact, In-n-Out is just as famous for the long lines of cars waiting to reach the drive-thru window and the clerks with their white paper hats and headphones taking orders from the drivers in line.  Indeed, some franchises do not have inside seating available.

Honestly, I think the Final Round in the competition should have been between an In-n-Out cheeseburger and something that may not technically be food: an iced coffee drink from Starbucks (especially in a plastic cup).

My last nominee manages to mix L.A.'s car culture with Hollywood (both in terms of famous celebrities and its fakeness).  Think about how many times you have seen images of a celebrity with a plastic Starbucks cup in hand? This seems part of a TMZ ritual.  When a Hollywood starlet wants to show herself to the common people, she rides to a Starbucks in her Bentley or Escalade and runs inside for a dozen ounces of hyper-sugary caffeine, even though a personal assistant could have done this with more ease -- the paparazzi do not swarm PAs.  But, of course, getting swarmed is the point of going.

Can you get more L.A. than that?

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Some Syrian Talk Sounds Familiar

I am not saying that Syria is likely to turn into a new Vietnam for the United States.

And I am not saying whether or not I believe military intervention in Syria is warranted.

But I am saying that some of the saber-rattling of recent days sounds familiar.

This came to my mind on Saturday because at the same moment President Obama was explaining why he felt a U.S. military strike on Syria was warranted, I was reading about President Nixon explain why he felt invading Cambodia was necessary in 1970.

Nixon said that the United States needed to respond to increased attacks from North Vietnam,
especially those coming from across the Cambodian border.  He said that failing to act would have dire consequences: "If, when the chips are down, the world's most powerful nation acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world."

Rhetorically, he tied a war fought in a distant corner of the Third World to the fate of the Free World, regardless of whether this was true.  The way he described it, the safety of the world depended upon the United States attacking North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia.  It was as if the United States was doing a favor for non-communist nations by invading.

On Saturday, President Obama began making his case to Congress for a strike by U.S. military forces against the Syrian government.  This strike would be a kind of punishment to Syria and its leader, President Assad, for "crossing the line" and using chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus.  To make his case stronger, Obama tied a limited strike against Syria to an almost unlimited string of negative consequences if the United States did not act.

He said: "Make no mistake — this has implications beyond chemical warfare.  If we won’t enforce accountability in the face of this heinous act, what does it say about our resolve to stand up to others who flout fundamental international rules?  To governments who would choose to build nuclear arms?  To terrorists who would spread biological weapons?  To armies who carry out genocide?"

If Obama does authorize a strike against the Syrian government, I imagine it will consist of cruise missiles.  Perhaps they will be launched from the U.S.S. Deja Vu.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Undead? Perhaps. Unfashionable? Never!

In a recent issue of Esquire, I saw this image in a full-page ad for Adriano Goldschmied jeans.

Its strategy for selling jeans puzzled me.  A common interpretation of how advertising works, especially glossy magazine advertising, is that it appeals to the viewer's fantasies -- owning this product can help you attract or be like the person in the image.

But what if I do not wish to date nor be a 20-something hipster zombie?

Honestly, this couple looks like something Rick and his band of misfits from The Walking Dead would encounter if they made it as far west as Santa Monica.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Mayflower Mayhem: Laughter vs. Land Claims

Cartoons about Indians and Pilgrims constitute a genre of their own, and the conflict they depict tends to follow a pattern: they turn large cultural conflicts into a comedy of manners.

I thought about this recently when I saw one of these cartoons, by David Sipress, in The New Yorker.  It is an example of what Henri Bergson would have called "the reciprocal interference of independent series."

Although Bergson wrote "Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic" (in 1900), you can tell from his writing style that he did not invent the term "ROFL."

Bergson was describing stage comedies when he coined that phrase, but it is a principle that applies to many cartoons, especially those in The New Yorker.  (Look in the magazine's online Cartoon Bank under the heading of "Thanksgiving.")  He is describing comical dramatic situations that exist among different sets of characters. When those different sets meet, the audience realizes that "the actions and words that belong to one might just as well belong to the other."  (This is evident in several of Shakespeare's plays, for example, when the plot of the upper-class characters is mirrored in the plot of the lower-class characters.) But for cartoons, the common dynamic is that a statement (the caption) totally appropriate in one situation is placed in a situation that, at first, seems inappropriate -- until the reader realizes it is uncannily appropriate.

He also describes an example that could be applied to this particular category of cartoons, Indians & Pilgrims. Bergson writes that comedy can ensue when we witness the combination of "one series of events belonging to the past and another belonging to the present."

Another New Yorker example of humor arising from this juxtaposition is a recent Thanksgiving cover that illustrates the common analogy between current debates about "illegal immigrants" and Pilgrims.

At the heart of this comedy (and of much comedy) is incongruity. The audience realizes these things do not belong together, which produces an element of surprise, but the audience also realizes there are some startling similarities, which produces another element of surprise.

In Sipress's cartoon, we have an event that might be experienced today, when a stretch of beach is reserved for the use by residents of that community. Then there is the awkward encounter when someone must tell the unwelcome visitors that they must leave.  
Today is juxtaposed with the past when this moment of summer beach "trespassing" is made analogous to the arrival of Europeans in New England. However, the awkwardness comically alluded to here is epic rather than quotidian. The trespassing tourists in this case, we know from our history books, stay and eventually take possession of the beach.  (Smallpox Beach Towels for Everyone!)

Sipress's image interested me not simply because it touches on a common trope in modern cartoons but because it made me think about the truths it is built upon, truths that, depending upon your perspective, it acknowledges or avoids.

While Bergson tries to understand what makes some things funny, Avner Zev tries to understand what makes some funny things useful. In "Humor as a Social Corrective," Zev ponders a couple of possibilities for the social function of laughter.  One idea is that laughter is a way to punish people who transgress social mores. This idea understands laughter as mostly mockery.  Since few people enjoy receiving that kind of laughter, Zev writes, avoiding it will encourage people to conform to society's expectations.

A second idea, which Zev finds more attractive, is that laughter relieves social pressure. This release of pressure is especially important for people living in undesirable circumstances: In every repressive regime there is this kind of underground humor, and it fulfills an important function: Laughter shared by the oppressed as the expense of the oppressor reduces fear and helps people to go on living under the regime with more ease.

We do not need to discuss repression to discuss the pressure-release theory of laughter. Many forms of laughter acknowledge a real social problem while at the same time allowing the audience to laugh about the situation; indeed, the laughter may allow the acknowledgement to take place, since without it the discomfort of the problem would create the incentive to avoid the topic. And there are times when a group of oppressed people make serious critiques of their oppressors in the form of jokes. They are allowed to make a forbidden comment ("You suck"), but pass it off as a joke; the oppressor may not realize the jokers were not joking. If the comment had not been disguised as a joke, it could never have been made -- the Trojan Horse becomes a kind of Trojan Rubber Chicken.

But one problem with applying Zev's idea to this cartoon is that it appears in The New Yorker, not Indian Country Today. What social pressure is being relieved when cartoons like this appear in a magazine the is closely associated with elite members of the dominant culture?

Zev says humor can allow an oppressed group of people "go on living under the regime with more ease," but, on the flipside, humor can allow a dominant group of people go on living despite the injustice of a system or event from which it benefits. The joke acknowledges a sense of guilt without changing anything.

Cartoons such as Sipress's acknowledge the problem with land claims made by the dominant culture -- in this case, the United States of America, which considers itself descended from those Pilgrims depicted in the cartoons who landed at Plymouth in 1620 (never mind the Englishmen who had been in Virginia since 1607). The beach is for residents only, the Indian man tells them, which mirrors current regional laws that limit such beach use to local residents.  But we know from history that these interlopers do not go away, despite the legitimacy of the Indian's claims; hence, their claim to own the beach today is dubious.

Cartoons make this tacit confession, and yet the news frequently contains examples of the United States denying the legitimacy of land claims by American Indians, even those land claims that have moved successfully through the legal system created by the United States.

The irony of Sipress's cartoon came to mind because I had just seen two articles about American Indian land claims.

I saw an article about Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut renewing his opposition to changes in the process by which American Indian tribes are granted federal recognition. He gained his fame as the state's attorney general and for his role in reversing federal recognition of two tribes in Connecticut (those reversals were unprecedented). If those tribes had gained federal recognition, they could have expanded their land bases, which would have meant a loss of land for those currently occupying it.

I also saw an article about the Agua Caliente tribe in Palm Springs, Calif., taking action against the water district there. The Agua Caliente are asserting the legality of their claim to those water rights and claiming the water district is abusing and contaminating the water supply. While this case is just getting started, I will not hold my breath for the court system to rule in favor of the Agua Caliente.

Don't get me wrong: I love cartoons. That is one reason I subscribe to The New Yorker, and the door to my campus office is covered in them. And I love to laugh, even at very serious topics. But I do think it is useful to keep in mind the issues raised (and buried) by our laughter.

Friday, July 5, 2013

The Lone Ranger's Black Veil

[Update: The story has been published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Yellow Medicine Review.]

The following is a short-short story I wrote awhile back but which has not found a publishing home.  But with the release of The Lone Ranger, I thought I would go ahead and give it a home here.  Honestly, it was written before I had heard Johnny Depp was working on the movie.  It was inspired after re-reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Minister's Black Veil."  I have not posted anything recently on Depp's portrayal of Tonto because others have posted plenty, and I already made some comments on the issue after pictures from the set were first leaked: "Tonto Shops at J. Crow."  An interesting difference between my story and the film is Tonto's tribal affiliation.  The film has made Tonto a Comanche, but in the radio and TV series, Tonto was either Apache or Kiowa (sources differ on that).  The Apache and the Comanche were bitter enemies through much of the history of the Southwest, and my story hinges upon that.

The Lone Ranger’s Black Veil

LR is serious about the mask.  No one can touch it.  No one can ask about it.  I am the only other person who knows its story.  My name is Tonto – that’s not my real name, not my Apache name, just some stupid name he made up because he thought it sounded more heroic.  He is such a drama queen. 

And now he is lying on his deathbed – shot in the back – and still wearing his mask.  He has his gun out, keeping the doctor away because the doc wanted to remove the mask.  He’d rather die than be revealed.  Geesh.

His mask is not what everyone imagines, the one that makes him look like some stupid raccoon.  Don’t you think you could recognize someone if he was wearing that mask?  No one looks at a raccoon and wonders, “What is that?  Is that a dog?”

No, his mask is a piece of black gauze hanging over his face.  He can see through it, but you can’t clearly see his face beneath it.  And he never takes it off in front of anyone.  Not even me.  But I know its story.

The Texas Rangers were created to kill Indians, and they were good at it.  They were ordered West, to fight Comanches, and that is when I came looking for them.  But first they ran to East Texas and killed a bunch of Cherokees and the like who were farming, minding their own business, living in wood houses, wearing shirts and pants and dresses, going to church, not causing anyone any trouble.  Other than being Indian. 

When he saw the innocent people he had killed, he came to his senses and went crazy at the same time.  LR put on the black mask and killed the men in his unit.  That story of him being the only survivor of his unit after an ambush?  Just part of the myth.  That mask was a sign of his sinful nature.

“We all see the world through a veil of our own sins,” he told me many times.  He had the habit of sounding like a preacher.  “And I am here to remind people that we cannot escape that fact.  Nor can we escape the Lord’s justice.  That is why I have dedicated myself to hunting down bad men, bad men like myself.  For who knows their ways better than I?” 

“That’s great,” I told him just as often.  “There are plenty of bad men out in West Texas.  They’re called Comanches.”

But the only bad men who caught his eye looked like him.

On his deathbed now, with a gang of white folks trying to talk their way past his pistol and into his room, he keeps muttering, “Expiation.” 

I spent a lifetime wasting my energy, trying to get that old fool to do what he was originally so good at.  But I could never cajole, coax, or coyote him to West Texas.  What did I care about his redemption?  I wanted my revenge.  They killed my brother.  They kidnapped my young cousin.  Probably married her off to one of their own or sold her to some Mexicans.  They even took my dog.   They probably ate it.  I wanted him to come out West and kill some goddamned Comanches. 

Stupid white men.  You can’t count on them for nothing.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Committed: "This Is the End" Goes All the Way

Spoiler alert: I discuss the conclusion of This Is the End.

Unless there are categories for "Most F-bombs" or "Biggest Demon Penis," This Is The End is unlikely to contend for any Academy Awards. Yet there is one thing the film, written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, does better than many Hollywood films: it sticks to its premise 100 percent.

I already have noted my delight in apocalyptic films and in Hollywood's penchant for destroying itself in many of them.  In "At the Corner of Hollywood Boulevard & Death Drive," I discussed the attraction of films such as 2012 and Battle: Los Angeles.

I suggested there that Hollywood seems bent upon self-punishment for a variety of sins, and I noted that this has been a theme since the 1930s.  Myron Biring's 1933 novel, The Flutter of an Eyelid, ends with Los Angeles sliding into the Pacific Ocean after an earthquake -- and sweeping all of the characters to their deaths.  Nathaniel West's 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust, concludes with a riot that sweeps away his main characters (who are not very likable).

The Day of the Locust resonates well with This Is the End because the novel's characters are involved in the shallow, soul-killing world of movie-making, and because it describes a large painting titled "The Burning of Los Angeles." In This Is the End, the actors play themselves as vain, stupid, pot-addled man-boys. And we see Los Angeles burning -- and falling down open pits into lakes of fire and being terrorized by demons.  As with the characters in The Day of the Locust and The Flutter of an Eyelid, the people in This Is the End seem to deserve their fates.

The notion of "deserving" is important since the film depicts the Rapture; this is Judgement Day.  The Hollywood B-listers in the film who fall into the open earth are literally being sucked into Hell. No one at James Franco's wild party gets taken into Heaven before the mayhem begins.

What I respected about the film was that it did not back off from its premise, despite its epic scale.

How many apocalyptic films imagine the end of civilization but also imagine some way to save it?  How many films, apocalyptic or not, set up the almost-certain death of central characters only to snatch them from doom however improbably?  How many films depict horrible events that, thankfully, turn out to have been a dream?

I believe Pauline Kael somewhere said something about the difficulty of making a satisfying conclusion to a film.  She said she had seen many good middles of movies but not that many good endings.  (If you can find it, could you let me know where to find it?  I have looked high and low for it.)  She said that the film creators were clever enough to create elaborate problems but not clever enough to make believable solutions.

This Is the End does not suffer from that problem.

The film does not end with our main characters awaking from a bong-induced dream.  Our characters do not somehow save the world, or even just Los Angeles. The world really ends. The gang of celebrities, including Rihanna, really do fall screaming into Hell.  Jonah Hill really has been possessed by a demon.  James Franco really has been eaten alive by a roving band of cannibals. Danny McBride, however, thrives in the new chaos, though he cannot survive long with a giant, anatomically correct demon stomping about. Ultimately, only three of our "heroes" -- Craig Robinson, Seth Rogen, and Jay Baruchel -- make their way to Heaven, which, in this imagining, turns out to be a slacker paradise.  The film ends with a big dance number there.  As it should.

But down below, for Hollywood there is no redemption.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the F-bomb

James Gandolfini's death last week generated a lot of retrospectives on his role as Tony Soprano and the influence of HBO's The Sopranos on television and American popular culture.

If nothing else, that show was influential for making the f-bomb commonplace on the small screen.  In the 1980s and 1990s, American audiences were growing accustomed to that word on the big screen, but then came January 10, 1999, and the debut of The Sopranos.

That special word appeared in the first season of The Sopranos more than 400 times.  In the second season, more than 700 times.  There are several online homages to the F-bombs on the show, such as this.

Then came The Wire, a show more respected among TV critics than even The Sopranos.  It debuted in 2002, and it is famous for a scene in which two detectives examine a crime scene and the f-word is the only thing said between them -- numerous times with different inflections and meanings.

Then came Deadwood, which debuted in 2004. In its first season, the f-word was used more than 800 times. Season two: more than 1,000 times. Someone calculated the number of the f-bombs in the series' three seasons: 2,980.  That is 1.56 FPM.

In a 2010 report titled "Habitat for Profanity," the Parents Television Council claimed that between 2005 and 2010, prime time television experienced "a significant increase in both the number of instances of use of profanity and the harshness of the profanity used." Thanks, in part, to The Sopranos.

Most times, I believe, the f-bomb is used too cheaply.  It is used to give a character a veneer of coolness or distance or anger, but often times it is just that: a veneer, an artificial surface used to disguise the actual material underneath, to make particle board look like pine, for instance.  And the f-bomb can used by many writers as a simple way of generating tension or drama -- rather than creating real tension and drama through the personality of the characters or the quality of the dramatic situation.

Having said that, despite Deadwood winning the F Crown on HBO, I would say it was the best written show among the three I mentioned.   (I know that is not the consensus.)  For me, the f-word didn't stand out on that show; it seemed more of an ornament on the already convincing and compelling speech of its many well-imagined (though dark) characters.  An ornament enhances, whereas a veneer conceals.

Some people argue for cursing because they feel it adds a sense of realism to a story. But keep in mind that the stories are fake to begin with, and realism is only an illusion created by the writer/director.  Some might say that the three examples I have cited -- mobsters, police detectives and criminals, tortured souls in the Wild West -- would lend themselves quite easily to profuse profanity.  And they would.  But if that is done in the name of realism, why do those same shows flinch away from other realisms? Such as blood.  One of the characters in Deadwood likes to cut throats.  That is a rather messy way to kill someone, yet the victims leave hardly a puddle on the floor.  What is "real" on the screen is whatever I am convinced to believe is "real."

David Milch, the creator of Deadwood, even has addressed the artificial nature of the cursing in the series.  The curses used are not the curses of the late 1800s, he admits. But his characters would have sounded silly spouting the language considered foul in that era.  So to make the show seem "real," he had to resort to "fake" cursing.

The topic of potty mouths came to mind this week after I saw This Is The End -- apparently the world ends from the fallout of all the f-bombs dropped by a troop of stoner comedians. But before the movie started, I saw the trailer for The Heat, the buddy-cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.  A surprising number and variety of f-bombs exploded in that two-minute trailer, and even I felt a little assaulted.  (I heard it so much in This Is The End that I tuned it out.)  I hadn't recalled hearing such cursing in a movie trailer. Perhaps the trailers were R-rated because I was in the theater to see an R-rated film, but I had the impression that previews were prepared for "all audiences."

Sometimes in class I use a short story by Kurt Vonnegut titled "The Big Space Fuck."  It was published in 1972 and is a dystopian imagining of the planet's future -- and in some regards it was rather prophetic: "This was a period of great permissiveness in matters of language, so even the President was saying shit and fuck and so on, without anybody's feeling threatened or taking offense.  It was perfectly OK."  (I cited the story also when I discussed the advent of another word in "The Big Bitch Theory.")

As I have said before, I am not a language prude.  I do not shy away from using the right word for the right purpose.  But I can't help but think the proliferation of cursing in our popular storytelling can be a sign of laziness -- and it disregards the fact that most Americans do not talk like a Quentin Tarantino character nor do they want to spend time with someone who does.

I can't help noting this: When was the last time someone complained about the LACK of cursing in a film or television program?  No one has finished watching Raiders of the Lost Ark or Sherlock and said, "You know, it would have been better if there had been more cursing."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

America at War: Who Pays and Who Plays?

In the wake of 9/11, America was saturated in flags and patriotism.  They came again after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.  But after each outpouring, it seemed, the flag-waving fever died down, and the nation went back to its usual priorities of Twitter, TMZ, and Target's weekly specials.

Of course, not all of the nation did -- the families of those serving in the Armed Forces remained acutely aware of the fighting overseas.  But the rest of the nation seemed to hardly notice at all, in large part because it was making no sacrifices -- outside of placing "Support Our Troops" magnets on the vehicles.

Despite the hagiography of The Greatest Generation, the soldiers and civilians who made success in World War II possible, the nation seemed unprepared for its own current role; the Greatest Generation may be our saints, but they are not our role models.

We laud the bravery of those soldiers, sailors, pilots, and nurses from the 1940s.  We praise the sacrifices of the civilians who lived through rationing of gasoline, rubber, and other consumer items needed to fuel the war effort.  Flash forward 60 years and witness the hysteria that followed any rapid increase in gas prices.  Witness tax cuts when the nation was at war.  Witness the total absence of daily sacrifice -- or even inconvenience -- by civilian America.

Witness the disconnect between the sacrifices asked of one group (soldiers) on behalf of another group (civilians) asked to make none.

Ben Fountain
That disconnect is a dominant theme of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a novel by Ben Fountain that was a finalist for the  National Book Award in 2012.  I have just finished reading it as I prepare to teach a course in the Fall that will compare the literature of America's war in Vietnam with the literature of its war in Iraq.
was a finalist for the

The novel takes place over the course of a few hours, when a squad of U.S. soldiers attend a Dallas Cowboys football game to be honored for their bravery.  They participate in a halftime performance by Destiny's Child (including Beyonce), and in the process they are overwhelmed by the bloated corporate enterprise of the NFL, Hollywood, and the music industry -- and by the simultaneous patriotism and cluelessness of the spectators and executives that surround them.  Fountain shows the soldiers as the symbols of American pride, as decorations for a hypersexual media circus, and as commodities to be bought and sold.  By the end of the novel, they are almost happy to be going back to Iraq, as they have been assaulted emotionally and physically by Hollywood's greed for their story, by stage managers who view them as props, by civilians who won't stop asking stupid questions, and by a gang of roadies from the halftime show.

And here is the passage that I want to emphasize, when Fountain powerfully captures Billy's awareness of the disconnect I note above.  As Billy escapes the corporate spectacle of Texas Stadium, he realizes the balance of power.  He realizes that the stark reality of war, the death and the pain, are overpowered by the spectacular unreality of America:

For the past two weeks he's been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force.  His reality is their reality's bitch; what they don't know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he's lived what he's lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects.  To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Land bridge? We don't need no stinkin' land bridge!

Students in my American Indian literature class are required to make a brief presentation on a tribe that I assign them.  Among the questions I have them answer is this one:

Where does the tribe live today? Where did they live at the time of contact with Europeans?  If there is a difference in locations, tell me why the people moved.

This gives the students an opportunity to discuss the  forced relocations that some tribes endured, or the loss of land for those tribes that remain in or near their homelands.

Yet each semester I get one or two presentations that include information about American Indians migrating across a land bridge from Asia.  This is despite my specific instructions to NOT tell us about some ancient road trip through Sarah Palin's front yard.

Also, there is no way discussing that migration answers the question.  I do not ask about entire migration histories of the tribes; I ask about their location at the time of contact, which means the farthest anyone has to go back in history is 1492, and that is only for the group that presents on the Taino, the first people Columbus encountered on this side of the Atlantic.

Some of the earliest European accounts of Indians claimed they were cannibals.  If only they had been.   If the Taino had been hungry for human flesh instead of such amiable hosts, perhaps history would have turned out differently.  If they had eaten Columbus and his men, this hemisphere would have enjoyed a few more years free from decimating diseases, commercialized slavery, and uncomfortable shoes.

Recently, a student presentation included information on the land bridge.  When it was finished, I reminded students to ignore the land bridge.  Yet the very next week, a student presentation brought us back to the land bridge.  Like a bad penny or America's Got Talent, it would not go away.

Why is that?  Why is discussing something that might have happened tens of thousands of years ago so tempting to talk about?  Why is it so tempting to the students when, for our purposes, it is irrelevant?

Knowing about that ancient migration does not help us understand any particular group of people better.    The land bridge will not help us better understand Hopi, Creek, or Mohawk societies.  If we visited the home of a Navajo family, we would not find a map of Mongolia on the wall with the caption of "Home Sweet Home."

Besides, I tell the students, that is not the story those cultures tell about themselves. You can learn more about those cultures by listening to the stories they tell about their origins.  Pueblo groups, such as the Hopi, will tell you they came out of the ground on what is now called Mount Taylor in western New Mexico.  That is their creation story, and knowing it can teach you something about them.

Whether the creation story is true in a literal sense is not important.  The cultural truths they contain are useful.

Look at the creation story for the United States.  It is filled with mythologizing and untruths.  Most of the folks on the Mayflower were not pilgrims.  Most people were not coming here to "escape religious persecution." The ship was supposed to go to Virginia, and those on board had signed contracts to do so.  No one set foot on Plymouth Rock as they got out of the boat. And so on.  However, the story's lack of literal truths does not take away from its power. Knowing it can be useful for knowing things about American culture, about how American society has imagined itself and how it can be expected to behave.

I do not blame the students for being tempted to report on the land bridge.  (OK.  I do blame them for not reading the assignment instructions carefully.)  Many sources of information discuss the land bridge as if it were relevant.  Even the Associated Press Style Book still states that "American Indian" is preferred over "Native American" because "the ancestors of American Indians migrated from Asia."

Lucy, australopithecus afarensis
But why stop in Asia?  If the American Indians came from somewhere around Mongolia, why stop
there?  Where did the Mongolians come from?  And where did those ancestors come from?  Eventually, we all wind up together back in Africa's Olduvai Gorge with Grandma Lucy.

I found a National Geographic source that says the first Europeans migrated from Asia, too.  I doubt any student presentations on France or Germany start with that information.  Doing that would probably seem ridiculous to a student.  So why does it seem reasonable to do the same thing with a presentation on American Indian nations?

The answer that makes sense to me is this: The migration story appeals to the American conscience.  The land bridge theory supports a narrative that is important in American history and culture: America as virgin territory.

Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth is a foundational book for American Studies.  Published in 1950 by Henry Nash Smith, the book explores the myth that the continent was relatively empty of people, and those people who were here had left little mark upon it -- it was waiting for the Europeans to arrive and start changing things.  The notion of the land as virgin helps alleviate any guilty conscience the Europeans and then Americans might have had, since the degree to which the land was unoccupied was the result of the direct and indirect efforts of the newcomers to evict its residents.

Despite all of the evidence of successful and widespread agriculture by American Indians (the first pilgrims would have starved if the local tribes had not possessed surplus corn to feed them), Europeans and Americans insisted on thinking of all Indians as nomadic, as wandering hunters who made no permanent claim on the land.

In other words, the Indians were just passing through, so they were not being truly dispossessed of their land; therefore, there was nothing really wrong with taking it.

The land bridge story supports that larger, national narrative.  After all, the Indians were immigrants, too, just like the Europeans.  They were not native, as the Associated Press reminds us.  So the land was up for grabs.

Here we see a demonstration of the difference between fact and myth.

Is the land bridge migration true?  Perhaps.  Is it useful for understanding American Indian cultures?  No.

Is the virgin land story true?  No.  It is useful for understanding American culture? Most definitely.