Saturday, 13 February 2016

101 Day Nation

It’s official. As of yesterday, Justin Trudeau made it past his first hundred days as Prime Minister.

CBC ran an in-depth analysis and opened a public forum to get public feedback on the overall impact of the changes since Trudeau’s nouveau majority took over from Harper’s long-reigning Conservative government. Granted, the forum was little more than an open-ended comments section but apparently Trudeau’s 100-day anniversary warrants a fancy title that empowers Canadian readers. It is 2016, afterall.

Those who bought into Harper’s “Just Not Ready” election campaign are probably surprised Trudeau made it this far at all, as if they expected him to step down from office in favour of a snowboarding trip to Nelson, BC. The guy is in his mid-40s, has a wife and three kids, and is a six-year veteran of parliament. Yet, throughout the election and even into these first hundred days, his critics still try to paint him as some young, artsy hipster; a laissez-faire Prime Minister who’s soft and terrorism and thinks legalized marijuana is ‘groovy’.

“Question period is such a drag! Come on, Soph’, let’s pack up the kids and blow this popsicle stand,” he implores, snowboard in one hand, Mountain Dew Code Red in the other.

Critics want you to think Trudeau’s first hundred days, much like his political career, are defined by his relatively young age, his flawless hair, the legacy of his name, or his natural, effortless charm. Certainly, those things all help in developing the much-needed cult of personality. To that end, he’s thriving in Canada’s pallid political landscape for two simple reasons: 1) He acts human; and 2) He treats Canadians like people. He offers both scripted and non-scripted responses to reporters. He shows excitement over geeky stuff, like when his family was treated to an early screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. He interacts with members of the general public using what I’m sure Harper would describe as ‘an alarming level of natural human emotion’. These aren’t radical concepts, but Canadians have been so conditioned by a decade of Harper’s robotic speeches, pre-loaded media statements, and metallic blue gaze, that Trudeau’s warm smile is a welcome reprieve. Compared to the former --- I love typing that --- the former Conservative Prime Minister, yes, Trudeau is the young, hip, artsy Prime Minister: Harper was a Blackberry 8700 with a sliding keyboard, the phone of the business class; Trudeau is an iPhone 6S with a handcrafted, sustainably-sourced, bamboo case. Canadians opted for the upgrade.

Depending on how you measure successful social and foreign policies, yes, you might see Trudeau as a big softy. Do you think military force is the only reasonable approach to dealing with strained foreign relations? Do you consider every dead terrorist a moral victory for democracy? Is Reefer Madness your favourite documentary about the scourge of marijuana on society? If you answered “Yes” to all of the above, you’re probably not particularly happy with Trudeau’s first hundred days in office --- I’ve never claimed to be psychic or anything, but you’re probably not going to be thrilled about his next hundred days… or the several hundred after that.

As far as old school politics goes, Trudeau’s campaign and political outlook have already ruffled a lot of feathers: he’s advocating for transparency within government, he’s giving government-funded scientists the right to publish and promote their findings, and he’s taking a pro-active approach to social issues such as gender equality and decriminalizing marijuana.  No, I’m not here to give Trudeau a reach-around; I’ll leave that to the international media, who seem to court him like Canada’s Next Top Debutante --- swooning as he enters the ballroom, showered in soft light, an innocent glimmer in his eye. I’m simply pointing out that he ran on a platform of changing how things were done politically, and he seems to be following through, despite what will certainly be a monumental level of resistance from the old guard.

In the three-plus months since the November election, Conservatives have finished licking their wounds and attempted to regain their footing by pointing out imperfections in the Liberals’ armour. Interim-Conservative leader Rona Ambrose certainly deserves credit for her sustained and multi-faceted opposition tactics in parliament, but it’s hard to take her seriously when most of her criticisms can be directly attributed to ten years of federal Conservative mismanagement. Meanwhile, Canadians --- both supporters and detractors --- seem to think Trudeau’s stance on various social and political issues, from gender equality to the plight of Aboriginal communities and Canada’s military role in international conflict, is little more than far-left idealism. In reality, these policies are only game-changing relative to the rules established by the Conservatives during their time in power: deny wrongdoing, be divisive, maintain the status quo.

For a lot of political pundits and conservative critics, Trudeau is becoming somewhat of a political iconoclast.  In the face of the Conservative’s “Just Not Ready” election campaigns and jealous jabs at his undeniable boyish good looks, he was unflappable. Since being elected, it’s been more of the same. When his political opponents get past the ageist and superficial criticisms, the new Liberal style of governance is still causing a significant ideological rift. He’s making promises that, on the surface, seem to be geared towards improving all Canadians’ lives, rather than bowing to corporate interests and towing the line of historically oppressive social structures. His message has been fairly clear and consistent: “The Conservatives were in charge for ten years; we don’t like what they’ve done with the place and neither do a majority of Canadians. You’ve given us this chance, and we’re trying to do things differently.”

As a testament to that, his first real decision as Prime Minister was to establish gender parity in parliament. For better or worse --- yes, there’s room for debate over the merits & experience of specific cabinet appointees --- Trudeau promised equal representation among men and women in the Liberal government, and he delivered. He also cobbled together a decent level of diversity, including members from aboriginal/First Nations heritage, Middle Eastern and Central Asian descent, and those with physical disabilities. When asked why he made a point of doing this, his simple, mic-dropping response was, “because it’s 2015,” to which Canadians overwhelmingly responded, “OH NO YOU DIDN’T!” and snapped their fingers sassily.

Similarly, where the Conservative government played up the complexity of the Syrian refugee crisis by politicizing its tenuous --- nearly non-existent --- connection to national security and domestic terrorism, Trudeau approached the issue in simple, matter of fact terms: A) Syrian refugees are being murdered and displaced by ISIS and the Syrian government; B) If we use our money and resources to bring them here, they won’t be murdered; C) We should bring them here. It’s the Canadian thing to do.

And maybe that “agent of positive change” attitude is indicative of where we stand after the first hundred days under the fresh-faced Liberal majority. They remain undeterred by the closed-door politics and isolationist sentiments still lingering in the wake of Harper’s time in office. Although they’ve already fallen short on a couple of promises --- even the most optimistic, pro-immigration supporters saw the “25 000 Syrian refugees before the end of 2015” as an unrealistic projection --- it seems their overall goals are bigger than any individual policy. Rather than governing Canada in a traditional sense, they seem legitimately dedicated to using their leadership status to, well, lead Canada towards a brighter, equitable, and more inclusive future.

Whether or not Trudeau will succeed in reaching those lofty goals remains to be seen.  Has he surrounded himself with the right people to ensure they stay on message with mounting public scrutiny? Can he leverage what’s left of the tar sands money to pull the economy out of its tail spin? How will he react to the added pressure once the Conservatives finish the rebuilding process? (Not to diminish the role of the NDP, but I’m pretty sure the first time I’ve seen Mulcair since the election was when he popped his head out his burrow, saw his shadow, and declared six more weeks of winter).

Realistically, the first hundred days of any government are more of a test drive than a significant measure of success --- if we’re being honest, it’s been barely enough time for the Liberals to roll down the windows and steam clean the old Harper stank out of the seats.  It’s hard to say what will happen in the coming months, once the alluring new car smell slowly fades from Trudeau’s luscious locks. But I figure, we gave Harper nearly 3600 days before we sent him to the shop for his regular oil change, we may as well give the Liberals another hundred or so.

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Pro-Wrestling, Politics, and Playing Donald Trump

“Well, I’m done.” 

The words slip out of my mouth before my brain has a chance to properly process what my eyes are absorbing. 

For the first half of my life, I thought Donald Trump was a character specifically designed to fill the loud, rich New Yorker stereotype.  Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, he made cameos in everything from “The Mickey Mouse Club” to “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. At that time, my still developing brain recognized all the defining attributes of “Donald Trump” the character - the suit, the hair, the attitude - but failed to understand that Donald Trump the human being existed outside of his interactions with Kevin McCallister and Will Smith.  

Now, I’m watching three young girls --- maybe 8, 9, 10 years old --- wearing glittery, American flag-inspired skirts and halter tops, dancing and singing on stage at a Donald Trump political rally. Luckily, I’m not attending the rally in person. I’m sitting at my computer watching the video on YouTube. Had I been there live, I would have promptly been asked to leave when the no-doubt uber-conservative attendees heard my initial reaction. 

“Wwwwhat… the… ac-tu-al… fffuck?” I say aloud as I type the words in the comments section.  With the words immortalized on my friend’s Facebook wall, I can go on with my day, knowing that my perfectly concise opinion will be available to all future viewers in perpetuity. “Thank Christ,” I sigh, as the video comes to a merciful end. 

Immediately, I click ‘play again’.

By the time I finished high school early in the new millennium, Donald Trump had developed an object permanence within the collective pop-culture psyche.  His dystopian caricature of American entrepreneurship became a staple of reality TV via “The Apprentice”, where he berated up-and-coming professionals while ignoring the fact that his own record as an investor and entrepreneur is one of the worst of any “successful” businessman in modern history.  Around the same time “The Apprentice” was hitting its peak viewership, Trump diversified his media image by developing a scripted feud with the owner of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), Vince McMahon, another rich businessman with iconic hair and a big mouth.  Throughout the 90s and 00s McMahon had created a reality-blurring TV persona and developed an antagonistic on-screen relationship with WWE wrestlers and fans.  In January 2007, McMahon was giving a self-indulgent “Fan Appreciation Night” speech on Monday Night Raw --- the WWE’s weekly, primetime event --- that was eliciting wave after wave of jeering and booing from the live audience. Out of nowhere, Trump’s spray-tanned visage appeared on the big arena’s big screen.  Trump berated the WWE President, claiming that he was out of touch, and that there was one thing the fans wanted but which McMahon would never give them: his money. With that, thousands of dollars --- yes, actual American currency --- dropped from the rafters of the arena into the audience, which erupted in cheers and whoops.  The hook was that Trump had stolen McMahon’s money, but in re-distributing it to the WWE fans, he had stolen something much more valuable: McMahon’s spotlight. It wasn’t that Trump was playing a ‘face’ --- wrestling shorthand for ‘good guys’ --- so much as he was trying to out-do McMahon’s megalomaniacal self-indulgence. Having been sucked in by McMahon’s ‘heel’ persona, the ensuing Trump-McMahon feud was the first and only time I would ever campaign in Trump’s favor.  

As I hit play on the YouTube video for the third time, I can’t help but wonder how many child labour laws have been bent, broken, or ignored in the process of creating USA Freedom Kids, the collective name of the three child performers on stage. I think back to old VH1 music documentaries and A&E biographies describing the tyrannical Joe Jackson, manager and patriarch of The Jackson 5. The stories of his strict rehearsal sessions include forcing his children (most famously, Michael and Janet) to practice for hours without breaks, depriving them of sleep, and administering physical and emotional abuse at the slightest misstep or forgotten line. I have no immediate evidence to assume the Freedom Kids are subject to this type of exploitation, but my mind is already playing through hypothetical interview clips of their “tell all” Netflix documentary, tentatively set for release in 2030. Then again, it’s appropriate that Trump would hire these pint-sized performers to open his rally. He is promising to create American jobs, after all.

When Trump announced that he was running for the Republican nomination for the 2016 US elections, I was actually excited. The on-screen and in-ring conflict between him and McMahon --- dubbed the "Battle of the Billionaires" --- culminated in a “Loser Shaves His Head” bet at “Wrestlemania 23”, the WWE’s premiere pay-per-view, in April 2007. Trump bet on the winning wrestler that night and famously shaved McMahon’s head in the middle of the ring, much to all WWE fans’ delight. Now, after years of watching various self-promoting cameos on the big and small screen, I’d finally get to see the real Trump, America’s favorite tomato-in-a-five-dollar-wig, make a proper ass of himself on a national stage. Throughout his public career, he’d already exhibited a trademark pig-headedness by pushing the “Obama Birth Certificate” issue long after it had been put to rest by right wing media and even the most stubborn Republican supporters. I hoped that giving him a headlining slot in the US political circus would be equivalent to witnessing a fireworks factory burning to the ground: chaotic, explosive, and wholly self-destructive.  And, if we were really lucky, maybe Trump and Ted Cruz would have a similar, WWE-style ‘Loser Disappears from Public View Forever’ bet. 

By the fourth viewing of the YouTube video, I’m swaying my head back and forth to the droning beat of the song. It’s categorically generic and inoffensive, yet catchy in a nursery rhyme sort of way. I imagine Trump’s campaign manager asking a focus group to decide which key they feel is ‘most patriotic’ and which time signatures appeal most to uninformed white Americans: “Mr. Trump, constituents in your key demos seem to have the strongest connection to A Major… Yes, sir. I’ll inform the Freedom Girls.”

Trump’s persona - and, by extension, the foundation of his political platform - is a genetically mutated abomination consisting of American imperialist ideals, Cold War-era patriotism, and a wild west mentality. He promotes himself as a successful, independent businessman, despite the fact that he’s filed for bankruptcy, received government bailouts, and invested in a professional football organization with the intent to compete head to head with the National Football League. (Spoiler alert: It failed miserably.) His supporters applaud his ‘tell it like it is’ attitude, even when his version of telling it like it is involves flagrant misinformation and thinly veiled racism bookended by phrases like “Make America great again!” 

At viewing number five, I catch myself singing along and start laughing uncontrollably at the horrible propaganda being spewed by these smiling, pre-adolescent children. As you’d expect from a troupe called USA Freedom Kids, about 50% of the song’s lyrical content is comprised of the words “Freedom” and “USA”.  What you might not expect are lines that demonize “cowardice” and calls on “our boys” to “take down… enemies of freedom” while promising to stand up for “Ameritude” - which, according to Trump, is totally a word.  As the song goes on, the whole situation - the flag-themed outfits, the sing-song melody, the vague pro-America lyrics - reveal a canvas that’s alarmingly reminiscent of World War 2-era USO tours, where the flashy outfits and dance numbers distracted troops from the fact that many of them would never see their cherished homeland again. Fortunately, this is also the point where I convince myself that the girls are lip-syncing the song, and I take some solace in the idea that maybe they never actually had to learn the pro-Trump lyrics.

The WWE and other professional wrestling organizations brand themselves as “Sports Entertainment”, because they blend the physical endurance of legitimate sports with the long-form dramatic narratives of classic soap operas. The storylines and outcomes of the matches are predetermined far in advance of the actual ‘fight’, but the choreography of each match is generally left up to the individual wrestlers. Yes, the moves are mostly fake, but one of the key contributors to a wrestler’s success is his or her ability to ‘sell’ these loosely choreographed moves in the moment.  “Selling” a phantom punch to a live audience of 20 000 rambunctious fans requires the perfect balance of physical impact (stomping your foot on the mat to make a crashing sound as you throw the punch) and emotional melodrama (dropping to the ground while groaning in exaggerated agony). I can’t help but wonder how many hours the USA Freedom Kids spent practicing each arm-wave, hip-shake, and twirl, in much the same way professional wrestlers spend hours practicing to ‘sell’ dropkicks, clotheslines, and finishing maneuvers. Whether these Freedom girls are aware of it or not, they’re selling something much more dangerous: Donald Trump, the phantom candidate, and “America”, the phantom dream. 

I watch the video for what must be the tenth consecutive time and begin to envision a world where Trump wrangles enough fear-based votes from misguided patriots to win the election, becoming the supreme tomato-faced overlord of our neighbours to the south. The USA Freedom Girls become the top-selling artists of all time, putting Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles to shame. “The Trump” hairstyle sweeps across the nation, becoming 2016’s answer to the “man bun”. 

I close the YouTube video before these thoughts spiral out of control.

“Okay, now I’m definitely done.”

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Removing the Star from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Considering a lot of the serious global issues out there, it might seem trivial to bitch about a fictional movie character being left out of cash-grabbing merchandise. But, the pervasive influence of toys and games (as an extension of the greater influence of pop culture) in childhood development is hard to deny.

The Force Awakens is a great, fun movie. Rey, played perfectly by Daisy Ridley, is a strong lead who, despite her intentionally mysterious and vague backstory, will clearly be a lynchpin in the new Star Wars mythos. Moreover, she's a multidimensional, nuanced character who breaks a number of female stereotypes over the course of the movie.

Knowing this, it's an absolute travesty that Rey, a key character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is being left out of a number of game and toy lines tied to the movie, namely a set of Target action figures, and now the newest incarnation of Star Wars Monopoly.

Under normal circumstances, even the most incompetent toy/game manufacturers would still include the top 3-4 characters in any line of merchandise so fans can have a chance to collect, own, and play using their favourite characters. As io9 points out, it seems like manufacturers are intentionally leaving out primary female characters, which would be laughable if the same was suggested for a male character of similar stature. Think of not including a Chris Pratt figure in a Jurassic World playset.

Okay, yes, I'd bet that there are still more boys playing with male action figures than girls playing with female action figures. So, without getting into the gendered toy/gendered play side of things too much (that's a debate for another day), I'll admit the case for representation can quickly become a chicken-or-egg debate.

BUT, if we're really supposed to believe that The Force Awakens is a step in the right direction for relevant female representation in sci-fi/action and blockbuster movies, that representation has to translate to merchandise as well. Sure, there are lots of better ways to empower little girls that are less focused on consumerism, but as long as we’re playing the consumerism game, they should at least have the opportunity to play the game with strong female characters as well.

Update: After the internet lost its collective mind at the absurdity of leaving out the protagonist of a movie, Nerdist is reporting that Hasbro has announced that Rey will now be included in the game. While Nerdist tactfully states "Unless there are any other changes, she will be the only female character token," I think Hasbro would prefer to say, "Things will not change and she will be the only token female character."

Monday, 4 June 2012

3 Words: Jesus Goddamn Christ

One of the hardest things in the world for me is making small talk.  I love having long, drawn out conversations with friends that wander from social issues to pop culture to being an armchair psychologist (or patient), but somehow the need to spout a few informal words with a boss, classmate, or friend of a friend usually leaves me tongue-tied and tugging at my collar.  So when one of the guys at my new job asked me to describe myself in three words, I thought it was great. It’s an in with a new coworker, and it’ll both speed up the post-lunch kitchen clean-up and help ignore the dual smells of Comet sink cleaner and freshly wrapped samosas currently fighting for dominance in my nasal cavity.

As my mind went into a paralytic coma, I realized it’s not just initiating the small talk that kicks me in the balls; it’s the entire concept of returning the serve. All I could think was “Jesus Goddamn Christ, not again.” To his credit he jumped back in – apparently sensing that the small child operating inside my head was having an extended recess – giving his three words in with clarity and eloquence. Clearly, he was more prepared for this pop quiz than me.

Now, I could call bullshit on the ‘three words’ icebreaker as exactly that: an icebreaker, as opposed to an actual starting point for a conversation; I could also play holier-than-thou by saying that it’s impossible to accurately sum up anyone, not just me, in three words; but the truth is throwing either of those back in a decent enough guy’s face when he’s just trying to fill the silence would make me another three words: A huge dick.

Ice breakers and small talk are the open window that let in a fresh breeze of new ideas. It’s not his fault I’m too busy swatting flies to enjoy the fresh air. So, in the interest of encouraging small talk everywhere, and since my brain works in such a way as to be a blank slate in the moment, but one of Russell Crowe’s chalkboards in A Beautiful Mind over the next week, I’ve come up with a not-too-short list of ‘three words’ that describe me perfectly, depending on my mood, diet, or level of insomnia.

Plagued by Irreverence

Reluctantly Water Absorbant

Self-Assured Underachiever

Quiet Outgoing Hermit

Continued Irrational Amendments

Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (err, wait…)

Rough in Diamonds

Curious Wayward Traveler

Realistically Skeptical Hippie

Absurdist Plus One

Stubborn Contrary Conceding

Irate Man-Child

Sweet Zombie Jesus

Couch Potato Olympian

Bulk Barn Apathy

Home Made Bread

Rarely in Moderation

Music Comedy Food

Check Back Later


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

No News is Good News

It’s official. I’m done with the news.

This has been a long time coming; Five, maybe six, years ago, I remember watching the final segment of the NBC late-night news (it was a lead-in for Conan, I think) where they reported on a brutal assault on an old lady in suburban Detroit: some dirtbag broke into her house, she confronted him, he smashed her in the head and left her on the floor, where a neighbor eventually found her. It’s an all-too-familiar example of just how low people can go.

So, how did NBC follow this terrifying and heartbreaking story? PUPPIES! Yep. A local dog gave birth to a slightly higher than normal number of puppies. Cute, cuddly, roly-poly, and just adorable enough to make viewers in Detroit forget that somewhere in their city there was a scumbag who only hours earlier had broken into an old lady’s house and bashed her in the skull when she tried to stop him from stealing her collection of antique porcelain cats.

This was in no way the first time I’d questioned the validity or intentions of broadcast news. Growing up watching the CBC evening news, you wonder just how many times they can run a story about a housefire back-to-back with this week’s senior citizen birthday greetings.  The NBC story simply stands an example of how legitimate news stories are undermined by their attempts to placate audiences with heartwarming, local interest pieces and nonsense.

Oddly enough, while I’ve continued to notice this trend on virtually every news network, recently I’ve been having the opposite experience.  Between the budding US Presidential race, the corrupt circus that is our current Canadian government, the impending crash of Europe’s economy, and the ever-evolving, alternating tornadoes of war and uprising overseas, there’s just too much negative crap.  No matter how many talking dog YouTube videos they show, they can’t build a levy big enough to withstand the unending wave of doom.  It’s overwhelming. It’s depressing. And it’s ruined too many otherwise cheery mornings or late nights that I could have enjoyed reading a comic book about corrupt governments and impending disasters.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for being well-informed. Between the internet, 24hrs news networks, and literally thousands of print and digital publications, there’s really no excuse to not know what’s happening in around you. Still, in my lifetime, especially during my time spent as a teacher and anytime I’ve found myself interacting with others at various parties, concerts, coffee shops, etc., there have been more than a dozen different occasions when I’ve nearly had a rage blackout upon realizing the level of ignorance among otherwise functioning members of the general public.  Christ, you don’t have to know the seat-by-seat breakdown of Parliament, but at least know that Harper is the first Prime Minister to be made of 28% recycled dishwasher parts (reference needed).

Sadly, though, I’m starting to understand why people choose to be uninformed. It’s not that their lives are really that busy.  Of the thousands of people we meet in our lifetime, maybe 1% of them are really as busy as everyone else claims to be.  Nor is it the fact that nonsense reality TV like Fake-tan Douchenozzle Shore and Intervention are especially interesting, enthralling forms of entertainment. They’re not. At best, they’re distractions; at worst, they become a bloated corpse of a role model for a misguided generation.

That said, as awful as some of these justifications for personal ignorance are, they’re almost a necessity in the increasingly globalized and inconceivably complex world we’re living in.

This brings us back to the news; not just the morning news, or the evening news, or the ‘updates every hour on the hour’ news.  Even hourly updates won’t cut it in this age of disposable information.  With the world at its fingertips, the one hour evening news broadcast has transformed into a 24 news cycle – or, maybe more accurately, a 24 hour recycle.  We supposedly live in the information age, but the information is first boiled down to the most compact, tweet-worthy package possible, then rehashed throughout the day with minor updates revealed by each subsequent anchor. 

As a man who enjoys making up statistics, I can say with absolute certainty that on any given day the news is comprised of approximately 86% negative, terrifying, or depressing content.  Broadcasters have tapped into the only proven form of sustainable energy known to mankind: Anxiety.  Whether it’s the local news warning that drunk driving accidents are up, the national report with Peter Mansbridge simultaneously comforting and scaring the b’jesus out of the country, or international correspondents assuring us that day 73 of civil bloodshed was only slightly more horrifying than the previous 72 days of violence and unrest, the message remains essentially the same: We’re more or less screwed.  

It’s an ingenious form of marketing that we’ve all bought into to some degree or other.  It’s basic human nature to empathize with the suffering of others.  I wish bad things didn’t happen, and I’d love it if the answers to the big problems weren’t so goddamn complex. But the problems seem to be getting bigger and those in charge seem to have resigned themselves to communally ignoring any solutions that might crack the status quo. And while I’ll admit it’s important to acknowledge that we live in an amazing world that allows us to transmit this information across the globe within seconds of the actual events occurring, the news cycle is using a fire hose to fill our cups with information.  

Unfortunately, my mind, and my heart, can’t take it anymore. The tension is too much, so until the captains of the ship decide to right its course, I’m gonna sit back and soak it all up through the most absurd, most ridiculous filter imaginable.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life…. Anyone know if Storage Wars is on?

Sunday, 6 May 2012

An Ill Communication

The world is a little less ill today. 
This past Friday, we lost one-third of one of the most influential hip-hop group in the past thirty years; Adam Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys, passed away after a three year battle with glandular cancer. 

The Beastie Boys formed as a hardcore punk act in 1979, when – and this is mind-boggling – Yauch was only 15 years old. While they had success opening for Misfits, Dead Kennedys, Bad Brains, and other legendary names from the late-70s punk scene, what would ultimately put them on the map is the eventual melding of that raw punk energy with the multi-layered sampling, heavy beats, and scratchy, high-pitched rapping that became the trademarks of their sound. 

 “Fight for Your Right to Party” was my first introduction to the Beastie Boys.  I have vague memories of seeing the video on my grandmother’s 13-channel, floor model TV when I was a little kid. At the time, being six or seven years old, I probably couldn’t have explained why I liked the song; I’m not even entirely sure I could read the title on Much Music (though, maybe that’s because the TV screen had the resolution of a ‘check engine’ light). But even little kids understand energy; so, when you’re seven-year-old brain hears “Kick it!” and that opening guitar riff, you can’t help but want to throw your arms in the air, shake your head like a wet dog, and jump on the couch until one of your parents yelled at you, or until you fell and cracked your head on the coffee table – and your parents yelled at you while simultaneously trying to scoop your brain off of the living room floor. 

It’s really impossible to overstate just how big a mark Yauch and the rest of the Beasties have made on the musical landscape.  The fact that a group of white kids from Brooklyn could make a splash in a predominantly black genre of music – at a time when hip-hop/rap was still itself in its infancy – was absolutely improbable; but it wasn’t just their convergence of hip hop sounds with punk rock sensibilities. They also integrated science fiction, comedy, geek culture, and nods to retro-cheesiness into their lyrics and videos.  If you’re a part of my generation, you’ve probably shouted along to the chorus of “Fight for Your Right to Party”. Even if you’re not a fan of hip hop or rock, you at least remember the hyper-stylized videos for “Sabotage” – by far the best 4-minute, 70s cop drama ever filmed – and “Intergalactic”, an homage to Japanese monster/robot movies.  

Yauch himself branched out into other forms of the artistic community, directing numerous music videos and independent films under the super-pretentious, tongue in cheek pseudonym “Nathaniel Hornblower”, setting up an independent record label and film company – Oscilloscope Laboratories and Oscilloscope Pictures, respectively. On a personal level, he also harnessed his success to try to enact a positive change in the world. A long-time Buddhist, he helped organize the Tibetan Freedom Concert in the late-90s to promote awareness of the sovereignty and human rights issues surrounding China’s treatment of Tibetan people.  

In April, only three weeks before Yauch passed away, the Beastie Boys were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, becoming only the third hip-hop group to receive the honour, after Run DMC and Grandmaster Flash.   His death comes a year, almost to the day, after the release of what would be his final album with the Beastie Boys, Hot Sauce Committee Part Two.  The album itself was delayed several times due to Yauch’s medical problems, but the final product stands as a testament to the band’s style, relevance, and energy. 

After thirty years in the business, the fact that the Beastie Boys showed no sign of slowing down, even in the face of Yauch’s long, arduous, and unfortunately ill-fated battle with cancer, is perhaps the most fitting sign of the legacy he leaves behind.

Adam Yauch, aka MCA, was one of the good ones. He will be missed, but not forgotten.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Overeem's Overture

Alistair Overeem is a beast; a physical specimen; a tall, dark, charming Dutchman with almost 15 years of professional MMA and kickboxing experience. During the heyday of Pride Fighting Championships (mid-2000s), a baby-faced Overeem went to war with Chuck Liddell, Vitor Belfort,  and Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua.  In 2010, he won the K-1 World Grand Prix - the biggest kickboxing tournament in the world - becoming the first professional fighter to simultaneously hold titles in major kickboxing and MMA organizations. He joined the UFC in late 2011 and in December of that year he single-handedly (or, single-footedly) retired Brock Lesnar with a kick to the liver that would disintegrate the internal organs of most normal human beings.

For the past several years, Overeem's meteoric rise in the K-1 and MMA circuits has been dogged by his equal rise in weight and muscle mass. While he began his career fighting at Light-Heavyweight (205lbs), in 2007 he made a concerted effort to move to Heavyweight (265lbs maximum).  Since 2007, his lean, lanky 6'4 frame has bulged to a nearly cartoonish stature. He now tips the scales at approximately 260lbs, his shoulders are as wide as a Cadillac's grille, his biceps look like medicine balls, and his neck is a registered missing person in nine countries.

Alistair himself claims to be a clean fighter, and credits his ridiculous growth spurt to a steady diet of hard work, diligence, and horse meat - a high-protein, low fat delicacy in Holland. However, in a world where high level athletes are regularly busted for using over-the-counter and prescription steroids, human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), and other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), rumours have plagued every one of his fights in the past three years. These rumours persist, despite the fact that he continually passes all pre- and post-fight drug tests.

The Ball Drops

In March 2012, after a press conference promoting and upcoming title fight between Alistair Overeem and HW Champion Junior Dos Santos, the Nevada State Athletic Commission approached all six attending fighters and requested a random drug test.  The supposed 'randomness' of this test was instantly questioned by MMA fans. Overeem had agreed to submit to a random, non-licensing test, but this was far enough removed from a major event that any fighters juicing between fights wouldn't have begun their pre-fight flushing to get rid of any traces of steroids and beaver hormones.

A week later, in what many agree was one of the least surprising announcements in MMA history, the NSAC revealed the results of the tinkle-tests: five of the six fighters passed with flying colours, their pee a pristine specimen. The sixth, however, didn't fare so well. An average guy walks around with a Testosterone-Epitestosterone ratio of 1:1. That's considered normal hormone levels in an adult male. The NSAC takes into account that professional athletes operate on another level and put an extreme level of stress on their bodies, which from time to time can throw their hormones out of whack; because of this, they allow a T/E limit of up to 6:1. Overeem, it turns out, registered a testosterone level of 14:1, more than twice as high as the allowable limit in Nevada, and 14x the average guy on the street.

Turns out Overeem not only looks like Superman: apparently, he's got Superman in Kryptonite shackles in his basement, and regularly harvests his blood during training camps.

That Doctor is a Silly Goose

While most MMA bloggers and keyboard warriors went into a "Told ya so!" offensive frenzy, the two most important people involved in the debacle - Overeem and UFC president Dana White - remained uncharacteristically quiet.  White, known for his lack of internal censor and no-bullshit style, said he was "pissed", but refused to go into details; Overeem, meanwhile, put his money on silence. A smart move from a legal standpoint, but in the court of public opinion a cloak of silence may as well be a sandwich board that reads "Guilty, BEOTCH!" spray-painted in neon green.

On April 24th, nearly a month after the not-so-random pre-fight test, Overeem was given an opportunity to tell his side of the story in front of the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Based on the live updates provided by numerous on-hand MMA journalists, what transpired resembles a bad SNL skit than a structured hearing.

According to Overeem, he had been nursing a nagging rib injury. His doctor administered an anti-inflammatory injection to ease the discomfort and lessen swelling. This is a normal, legal practice that many fighters and athletes in general take advantage of when training. On this day, however, the doctor must have been feeling a little mischievous because he decided to lace the injection with testosterone - best pre-April Fools' joke ever?

Overeem claims the doctor didn't tell him what was else was in the syringe. A damning accusation, one might think. Not so, or at least not when you're Dr. Hector Molina - who, it turns out is the real-life amalgamation of Dr. Nick Riviera and Dr. Leo Spaceman.  Molina, instead of defending his professional integrity and his personal dignity, says he "doesn't remember" if he told Overeem what was being injected into his body. And Overeem, the naive, fresh-faced rookie that he is - he only has 48 professional fights, afterall - didn't bother to ask if there was anything that might affect his ability to be licensed for an upcoming fight.

Despite the absurdity of his "Aw, shucks, how was I supposed to know, mister?" defense, the Commission was not only lenient with Overeem, but down right complimentary. They commended a well-argued defense, said they respect him as a fighter and a champion, and, perhaps most surprising, issued a 9-month suspension instead of the normal 1-year duration. 

The Fallout

In the time leading up to the April 24th hearing, the UFC 146 heavyweight main event was in limbo. Dana White seemed to be holding onto his last thread of hope that Overeem would magically circumvent the NSAC regulations and be licensed to fight Dos Santos despite all the supposed 'evidence' that the Dutch striker was 'jacked to the gills' (I think that's the medical term).  Just days before the hearing, however, White either lost hope or regained rational thought because he replaced Overeem with perennial heavyweight contender and professional limb-snapper Frank Mir.

Notably, though not surprisingly, White hasn't cut Overeem from the UFC altogether. There's still a dollar to be made on Overeem's name when he's served his suspension, so White will happily keep the fighter in purgatory until the NSAC reinstates his license. He's definitely pissed from the perspective of a businessman: having a 6'4, well-spoken, chiseled monster with weaponized granite in his fists is a cash cow White and the UFC wanted to milk for years to come; more notably, however, is that he seems genuinely disappointed and betrayed by Alistair. The UFC president is a smart cat, so he no doubt had the same PED concerns prior to signing him in 2011. Nevertheless, he took Overeem at his word, put pen to paper and made a mutually beneficial deal in spite the persisting rumours. 

The Road Ahead

Even though justice has been served with Overeem's suspension, the whole situation is a zero-sum event. It's a strike against Overeem and it calls into question just how 'clean' he's been since moving to heavyweight. On top of that, it seems to validate MMA fans' worst fears: these super-athletes who put their personal health on the line to entertain us on a Saturday night are stacking the deck with illegal chemical supplements. We are left to wonder how many fighters are legitimately clean versus who simply tests clean or squeezes through the cracks in the system.

The failed test and subsequent suspension is not only an inconvenience to White and a financial black hole for Overeem, it's also become a catalyst for the larger issue of substance use and abuse in MMA. Public and professional demand for UFC-issued random drug screening has never been louder. While some have projected the cost of such a program would run the UFC a couple of million per year - not unrealistic considering their global value as a brand hovers around one billion dollars - White believes it would be financially and logistically unfeasible.  He remains open to Olympic-style testing as implemented by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but is non-committal at best.

Ironically, most have ignored the silver lining of this whole story. Six fighters were tested following the UFC 146 press conference in March. None of them, as far as we know, had any previous knowledge of the test. Yet only one fighter was busted for being outside the limits of NSAC's rules and regulations. That means five of the six main card fighters were legitimately clean.

MMA is still a growing sport. The efforts of the UFC over the past ten years have slowly been chipping away at long-held public misconceptions and helped legitimize the sport on a global scale. The use of PEDs only fights against the work of people like Dana White and Marc Ratner. In a sport where highly trained athletes attempt to punch, kick, choke, break a limb, or otherwise incapacitate other elite athletes, one in six is still too many to be fighting with an unfair, unregulated advantage. But every time we catch that one in six, we can only hope it makes it that much harder for the next one to slip through systemic loopholes.