Sunday, January 29, 2012

You Had Me at 'Meat Tornado'

Everyone has a hero.

The choice is generally dependent on an individual’s age, lifestyle, social status, economic status and pop culture interests, but it’s true nonetheless. It can be a superhero, an athlete, a celebrity, a rock star, a public figure, a family member, a family friend or a deity. Seeing as how it’s a personal decision, a hero can really be anyone.

Mine is Ron Swanson.

I know what you’re thinking: He’s fictional. He’s a television character. Heck, there are probably a lot of people that have never even seen Parks & Recreation and therefore have no clue who Ron Swanson is. (These people are awful.) But it’s all irrelevant. He’s a perfect hero. He’s Ron Effing Swanson.

Why not one of my parents? I have amazing parents, but referring to them as “heroes” doesn’t begin to do justice to the time and effort they had to put in just so I could become a slightly tolerable human being.

What about God? Same deal. The designation of “hero” doesn’t do nearly enough to describe all that God has done for me. That’s why we call him God.

To me, a hero is more someone that we look up to and idolize in some way, while knowing that this person probably doesn’t care too much or concern themselves with us as individuals, or even know who we are at all. It’s not insensitive, it’s just the characteristics of being a potential hero – they are probably going to be far too famous or important (or fictional) to acknowledge every single person that looks up to them. And the best kind of hero is one that lives forever.

The term “superhero” is not a misnomer. These are a collection of (artificial) superhuman beings defined by their immortality and propensity to always do the right thing in the end. Every kid wants to be Superman or Batman or Spiderman at one point or another, because they recognize the inherent and ever-present good in each of them. In fact, despite the obvious childishness in venerating a fictional character, this is actually one of the most mature and culturally cognizant decisions that young people will ever make. It’s when they begin idolizing those that actually exist that they will inevitably be let down. To err is human. To make a mortal your hero will only lead to disappointment.

I love Bob Dylan. I’ve been known to refer to Dylan as “The Greatest American Hero.” But he is not perfect, and he has been known to disappoint (have you ever listened to Self Portrait?), even if on rare occasions. I could say practically the same things about Michael Jordan, another mortal that has been deified by people of my generation. These are amazing men that have done many great things. But in the end, they are merely men.

Ron Swanson is more than that – or I guess, in a sense, less than that, but it still benefits him all the same. Portrayed by Nick Offerman on Parks and Recreation, Swanson is the Director of the Parks Department for Pawnee, Indiana. He’s also a Libertarian that despises government and believes the very department for which he works for is entirely unnecessary.  He revels in poor management, bureaucratic stalemates and anything else that slows down the government. He thinks everything should be privatized, adopting a Chuck E. Cheese model for how the government should operate (“Drop in a token, go on the swing set. Drop in another token, take a walk. Drop in a token, look at a duck.”). He even says his ideal concept of government is, “One guy who sits in a small room at a desk, and the only thing he’s allowed to decide is who to nuke.”

But that is what Ron Swanson believes, not why Ron Swanson is awesome. In fact, his personal and ideological beliefs have nothing to do with his heroism; it is in the way that he conveys these things that make him awesome. Even the staunchest liberal cannot deny the phenomenon that is Swanson. He transcends ideology, philosophy and religion (his views on religion?: “I’m a practicing ‘none of your (bleeping) business.’ ”). He transcends greatness.

I could spend pages upon pages and Youtube links upon Youtube links on the best Swanson quotes out there, all of which would simply reinforce my qualifying of him as a hero. Whether it’s his love of steak and breakfast food, his Pyramid of Greatness (“Skim Milk: avoid it”), his best pick-up line (“I think you would make an incredible brunette – Ron Swanson”), the fact that he only cried once during his entire childhood (when hit by a bus at age seven), or the single greatest speech in the history of mankind – it’s all just fuel to the “Ron Swanson is amazing” fire. He’s a man’s man, the straw that stirs the drink, the Arthur Fonzarelli without the frills and flash. He is cool without even trying, which we all know is the coolest kind.

And despite his obvious and explicit distaste for emotion, compassion and human interaction in general, he’s a man that discretely cares for those close to him. He has a beautiful and mutually respectful friendship with Deputy Director Leslie Knope (played by Amy Poehler). He has a paternal protectiveness and adoration for April Ludgate, a mentoring interest in Andy Dwyer and a quiet appreciation for Tom Haverford. As much as he despises government regulation, he’d do whatever he could to help his co-workers (especially Leslie) without expectations of anything in return. He’s as covertly considerate as he is explicitly awesome.

But the most important thing about Ron Swanson, and the main reason he is my hero, is the fact that he will never give way to any disappointment. Similar to the superheroes we all idolized when we were young, Ron Swanson is fictional, living on forever in the new and repeated episodes of Parks & Rec. He won’t die or fade away or fall into the same traps as the mortal men of our society. He will always be there for the other fictional characters around him, will always ultimately do the right thing, and will never not be awesome, even when he isn’t acting or trying to be. And in all of that, he will never let me down.

He’s Ron Effing Swanson.


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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Going Green

I recently watched the Terrence Malick film Tree of Life. The one starring Brad Pitt as Sean Penn’s father. The one that has been simultaneously lauded as inspired genius and panned as artsy-fartsy rubbish. And it was an interesting experience to say the least.

I went into the viewing with low expectations. Based on what I had heard, I feared that it would be a tad too existential and contrarian for me to enjoy, but I wanted to judge for myself. Plus, I enjoy the acting efforts of both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, so I gave it a shot. What I came to find was a film that I found to be incredibly creative and interesting. It was smart. It was thought-provoking. It was original and unique. It was comforting and sad and mind-numbing all at once. And in many ways, it was beautiful.

At no point did I completely understand what I was watching, but in a manner that I somehow enjoyed. For a movie that was so frequently over my head, it was also oddly personal, relatable and identifiable. I couldn’t always explain what I was seeing, and yet still felt connected to it in a very intimate way.

Terrence Malick delved into the concept of life and existence, exposing the questions and musings we all ponder at one point or another. He didn’t so much ask what the meaning of life was, but rather examined it, from various angles and origins and points of view. Malick scrutinizes over life and death and relationships, mainly through the eyes of Jack O’Brien – during his childhood and his adulthood (Sean Penn) – but also through the visual and artistic genesis of life and creation and conscientious thought. His relationship with his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) represents the earthly affiliation to grace and nature. Jack is the vessel through which life is contemplated, but he’s also the example through which life is conveyed. He embodies subsistence and evolution and religion, both in a literal and theoretical sense.

The abundance of (incredible) imagery and the lack of context or a linear narrative came together to form this amazing film – amazing just as much for what it does show you and tell you as it is for all the things it doesn’t. It’s far from my favorite movie, but it could very well be the most creative or mentally stirring one I’ve ever seen. And it is because of all of this that I found the ending to be somewhat disappointing. It wasn’t bad, but I suppose I was hoping for something more substantial, based on all that I had watched over the previous two hours. I found myself expecting something that wasn’t there. But maybe that’s what the film was trying to tell me.

The 2011 Cincinnati Bengals will always hold a special place in my memory. A team that had an aggregate pre-season ranking of “garbage” but still ended up making the playoffs. A team that started a rookie quarterback, rookie wide receiver, rookie offensive coordinator and a bunch of no-names and cast-offs on defense and still pulled off a winning season. A team that was young and inexperienced and without the luxury of offseason programs that still came together and competed as a team.

I went into this NFL season with low expectations for my Bengals. It had all the makings of a re-building year with some young players in place to contribute in the future, but who would probably need a year or two of taking their lumps before things got rolling. Our once franchise quarterback was sitting at home. Our team identity was in flux. A 3-13 record seemed to be a realistic prediction. Laughing stock of the league appeared to be the likely outcome.

Instead, something intriguing and interesting and incredibly unexpected happened. A franchise mired in decades of futility, cursed by the stars and destined for humiliation…actually began to catch some breaks.

We won the first game of the season on a fluky trick play. We came back from 2nd half double-digit deficits three different times. We got defensive touchdowns, special teams touchdowns and flip-over-the-defender’s-head-in-mid-air touchdowns. It’s not like everything went right, but there were a heckuva lot of things that did, which is a massive change from years past. It was amazing. It was shocking. It was constantly haunted by worry and incredulity, the fear that at any moment it could all dash away. But it never did. And in many ways, it was beautiful.

At no point did I completely understand what I was watching, but it was in a manner that I enjoyed. For a season that was so frequently unfamiliar to my general expectations, it was just as personal, relatable and identifiable as the Bengals always manage to be. I couldn’t always explain what I was seeing, and yet still felt connected to it in a very intimate way.

Marvin Lewis, a man who I have praised and criticized at different times, was making a team of children look like men. Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer were coordinating an offense and defense in a manner that seemed to extract the maximum amount of success and achievement. And Mike Brown – the confounding, mystifying and historically frustrating-to-no-end Mike Brown – was looking like a genius for the veteran contracts he extended in the offseason, the drafting of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and the draft picks he swindled from the Raiders in the Carson Palmer trade. Yeah, I said it. A genius.

The paltry expectations and subsequent postseason bid came together to make this season and this team amazing – amazing for everything it was and everything it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t the best or most talented Bengals team, even of my lifetime (’05), but it could very well be the most likeable, surprising and impressive. And it is because of all of this that I found the ending to be somewhat disappointing. Yeah, making the playoffs was incredible, but I was hoping for that ever elusive playoff win, something that has escaped the Bengals since the first turn of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After everything that had taken place, all the improbability that had occurred, I had essentially convinced myself that it was going to happen. And in that shortcoming, I found my disappointment.

But maybe disappointment isn’t always a bad thing.


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