Jonathan Fitzgerald

Jonathan Fitzgerald is writer, web developer and perpetual learner living in Jersey City with his wife Stephanie, a painter. He has written for a number of periodicals and journals both online and in print focusing on such diverse topics as peace studies, literary criticism, religion and politics. He recently found out he needs glasses to see.

Goodbye, Sally Webster

A few weeks ago, after 10 years of running a bed and breakfast, my parents sold their inn, their home. In a way, that was always part of the plan. A ten-year plan.

I was a freshman in college when they called me with the news that they were considering buying an inn. I think I laughed at them, not because I didn’t think they could do it; I was sure they could. Rather it struck me as funny, I suppose, because, who does that? Who compensates for an impending bout of empty nest syndrome by filling the nest with strangers?

The Sally Webster Inn

And yet they were serious. Within weeks, my sister, then a junior in high school, and I were visiting beautiful old houses in the town of Rockport, Massachusetts. We had family in Rockport, had spent summers there, and the fact that my parents wanted to live there was perhaps the least surprising thing about the whole ordeal. I don’t remember the specific factors that led to their choice, but my folks eventually chose an old gray colonial with maroon shutters on Mount Pleasant Street. The Sally Webster Inn it was called, after the last surviving child of the house’s builder.

My parents were natural innkeepers. Even before they moved to the inn, they were known for their hospitality. My mom is an ever-flowing fountain of conversation. She has a particular penchant for eliciting the most intimate of details from her conversation partner, never in an “I-can’t-believe-I-admitted-that” kind of way, but rather a “thank-God-I-have-an-outlet-to-speak-what’s-on-my-mind” way. This is why many visits to the Sally Webster, for many travelers, ended with a hug from the innkeeper. My dad, though less of a conversationalist, knows how to turn it on. He’s a charmer who can transform his whole body — facial expressions, posture — into a welcome sign. Though, most often, the smile became more real when he was no longer required to wear it.

For our part, I’m sure my sister would agree that being in college and having an inn for a home had many benefits, and a few downsides. The downsides were obvious and easily overcome: strangers in your house, the necessity to be quiet. But the benefits were enormous. As my college was a 20-minute, scenic drive from the inn, my friends and I were there often — to hang out, do laundry, eat free meals, and for many of us, to work. My parents employed nearly every one of my friends in college and, in some cases, for years after as well.

During those years and the several that followed, the most significant, as well as many seemingly insignificant, events of my life played out against the backdrop of the Sally Webster Inn. In college there were late night conversations that launched lifelong friendships, cigarettes smoked on the roof to the rhythm of college-deep thoughts, beach days that had their beginning and end at the inn, annual parties when the business was closed in January, and even concerts in the living room. Later, graduation parties, birthdays, and weddings of friends and, eventually, of me to my wife, and my sister to her husband, happened at the inn.

In my memory, the inn was more than the location of these stories; it was a character in them. And, of course, there’s a great tradition of houses as actors in literature. From the insidious house in Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart,” to the summer house in Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse, and into film like the great building in Wes Anderson’s Royal Tenenbaums, or the analogous father/house in Life as a House.

Sally, as we affectionately referred to the inn, was alive with anthropomorphic personality. There was a picture that hung in the living room of Sally Webster herself, mean as hell and scary. And each of the rooms were named for her and her siblings, Caleb and Rhoda, Esther and William, Prentiss, Apollo, and Hannah, and decorated in such a way that gave each a unique persona.

An artist's rendering of Mount Pleasant Street and Sally Webster

Over the years my parents redecorated each of the rooms, keeping with the décor of the time period, but infusing Sally with a bit of Kathy and Fitzy. In this way, the inn provided the most physical embodiment of home possible. When my wife and I visited we sometimes felt like we had gone back in time due to the age of the house and the antiques, but more than that, we felt that we were literally inside our family, living within my parents. Certainly there is some Freudian satisfaction in this, but call it what you want, it felt like home.

The last time we visited, I found myself inadvertently avoiding the inn. I didn’t drive by it if I could help it, which meant I only saw it once. Already, I noticed, it felt less like home. My parents stayed in town, moving only a few houses down the street, and it was as if that Old Testament cloud that represented the spirit of God to the Israelites had lifted and begun to move on. Over the time, I suspect, this feeling will grow as the new owners remake Sally in their image, and my parents settle into their new home.

And that is one of the great things about old New England houses — every individual or family that inhabits them leaves their impression on the place. Maybe it’s something about the materials used, perhaps wide plank pine floors absorb personality better than the composite materials used in many new houses. There could be something to the old adage, “They don’t build them like they used to,” if the way they used to build them had some kind of mystical quality. Maybe that’s not it at all, but there was something extraordinary about the Sally Webster Inn, I think, something not quite explainable.

There will be other houses that live like characters in my life; I suppose when my wife and I finally get around to buying a place of our own, that’ll be a big one, but I find it hard to imagine a place with more personality, more spirit, than the Sally Webster Inn. Goodbye, Sally Webster.

Regarding the Garden State

For most of my life I have delighted in my identity as a New Englander. At different stages, this meant different things. When I was very young it meant I came from the place in America where the history was made. I remember feeling prepubescent pride as my Cub Scout troop traveled to Plymouth, Massachusetts to see the Mayflower and Plymouth Plantation, a replica of the pilgrims’ settlement there. In my backyard I dug for what I hoped would be arrowheads from Native American tribes, and even created short stories about the history of my hometown.

There is life on the other side of the Hudson.

As I got a bit older I loved being from the same place as John F. Kennedy. I loved that my name referenced his. I was proud of my part-Italian, part-Irish ancestry and fancied myself the very embodiment of a Bostonian — not the Boston Brahman type, of course, but the working class, fresh-off-the-boat-and-now-we-own-this-town kind of Bostonian.

In college I moved further north of Boston and claimed the beaches, the rocky cliffs, the wooded forests, and open fields as my own. In autumn there was apple-picking; sledding in the winter. The spring couldn’t be appreciated, I was sure, without having lived through a Nor’easter or two, and the summer brought with it boiled lobster dinners and night walks on the beach.

When my wife and I moved to New York City (well, Jersey City, really) over two years ago, I felt strongly about bringing New England here with us. We proudly told visiting friends as we toured them around the city that our favorite places were those that most reminded us of Boston. And in the summer and fall we made near-weekly trips back to our former home so as to not miss what we loved best.

Recently, though, a change is beginning to take place in my perception of my identity. It’s not that I’m becoming a New Yorker. No, in fact I probably have a stronger aversion to that word now then I ever did while living in Boston. I could never feel pride in being a New Yorker as, it seems to me, I could never truly be a New Yorker. None of us transplants can. The only New Yorkers are those people who were born and raised here. But those aren’t the people who like to tell everyone that they’re New Yorkers. Rather, it’s the transplants who so perpetually self-identify. They come to the city, spend a few years dressing up and going to work, before returning home, back to the South or Midwest to live out the rest of their days reminiscing about when they were New Yorkers.

I could never be a New Yorker. Rather, there’s something about living in New Jersey. There’s something about living in a place that is always the brunt of a joke — a punch line — that really grows on you. I’m tempted to say that this effect is particularly felt by a former self-deprecating Bostonian, but I see it taking hold in all kinds of people that move here from all over the country. I never cared much for Springsteen, but I love him now. My wife and I admire the raw and unexpected beauty of the rows and rows of those shipping cranes that hunch over Newark Bay as we drive south down the New Jersey Turnpike.

There’s a dull shine to the people who were born and raised here, like brushed metal. They’ve heard all the jokes but, at the end of the day, they love living in a place that has easy access to New York City and Philadelphia, the Shore and the Poconos. Mock all you want, they say to the rest of the country; it is your aversion that keeps us pure.

Here in Jersey City this “Jersey-ness” manifests itself in not quite a chip on the shoulder, but an understanding: we are all here for the same reason. We don’t need to feel cool. We want more space. We love to have a good time, but want it quiet where we sleep. And, most importantly, we’re here for the long run. People in Jersey City aren’t here to fulfill a life-long dream of living the city life, or, if they were, they’ve changed their mind. You don’t have access to any of the superficial benefits of living in New York City. If someone asks you where you live and you say New York, you’re lying. If you say New York City, you’re within your rights (I say I grew up in Boston though I grew up ten minutes outside the city), but the follow-up question is always “What part?” and Jersey City is never the right answer. If you live here, it’s not for the cool factor.

And yet, there’s plenty to feel cool about. Read Junot Diaz or marvel at the way life-long Garden State resident John McPhee describes his home state. Listen and identify with any of the angsty Jersey performers, from the original, Frank Sinatra, to Springsteen, to the punks like The Misfits or Patti Smith, the Fugees to The Gaslight Anthem. Hell, if angst ain’t your thing, Jersey even gave us the Jonas Brothers.

But none of that is really the point for Jersey residents. You can see this in the way they welcome newcomers. I’ve heard stories of how people never fully integrate into some states, Maine for example. I used to try to convince my wife that we should move to Portland, Maine until a friend who grew up there advised against it. “They’d never accept you,” he assured us. Jersey residents, on the other hand, have this subtle kind of welcome. It says, “Okay, you’re here now. Don’t make a big thing of it.” This is precisely why we hate “Jersey Shore.” We get it. People come from all over to vacation on the shore — just be quiet about it.

Eventually, my wife and I often think, we’ll head back to our beloved New England, back to Massachusetts. That is, after all, where our families live, where our roots are. But I can say with a hint of certainty: if, by some chance two years ago, we hadn’t made the decision to forego Brooklyn, Manhattan, or Queens, if we had spent these past couple of years trying, fruitlessly, to convince ourselves that we were New Yorkers, we would’ve packed up and moved home by now. Instead, we find ourselves identifying with the families more and more that have made Jersey City their permanent home; we visit open houses “just to see” and spend lazy afternoons browsing real estate websites, thinking, We could start our family here, maybe.

Facebook Morality

The other night I found myself in a conversation that I may have found rather ordinary between 2004 and 2007, back home north of Boston or some other semi-cosmopolitan place, but which felt completely irregular in 2010, in mid-town Manhattan. A friend was trying to decide if he should join Facebook.

“I only entered my email address and name and somebody already found me,” he complained.

His wife, my wife, and I, all of whom have been on Facebook for years, played along. We worked through the pros and cons. Keeping in touch with old friends that so frequently come and go in New York City: pro. Inevitably losing countless hours of productivity at work due to incessant status-checking: con.

In due time, the conversation moved to the inevitable gripes of those of us who are Facebook junkies. We complained about the users who are guilty of indulging too much information, the moms who don’t understand the difference between a public wall post and a private message, and the “friend invitations” you’d rather not receive. Aloof to all of this, our newest potential member listened in and asked the question that really is at the heart of social media: how do I know what I should and should not post on Facebook?

A recent essay in The New York Times Magazine considers this question, though in a round about way. The article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” by Jeffrey Rosen, laments that the Internet has made it next to impossible for a person to control his or her identity or identities.

The piece begins with the oft-told story, well on its way with a few years and a few embellishments to becoming urban legend, of teacher-in-training Stacy Snyder who, weeks before she was supposed to be certified as a teacher, was booted from her school because salacious photos showed up on her MySpace page (this was 2006, so, okay). From there, Rosen goes on to identify the crisis: the difficulty in this brave new world of redefining oneself, particularly in different contexts. He follows his exegesis of the problem with a variety of potential solutions; from something called “reputation bankruptcy” to expiration dates for files so that after a number of years troublesome photos like those that got Ms. Snyder kicked out of school, will just disappear.

Facebook Morality isn’t an attainment of the ideal good; it is a reach toward our collective survival.

Rosen takes the reader through a brief survey of humanity’s relationship to self-identification, explaining that throughout most of human history, it was nearly impossible for one to change the way he was perceived as his identity was wrapped up in community, occupation, or class. Then came the blessed Enlightenment. Finally mankind could free himself of the pesky need for community and stand on his own as the “self-made man.” Equipped with this new ability to easily identify and re-identify one’s self, scores of Europeans emigrated to the United States, stuck flags in the ground, built McMansions and office buildings, put up fences, created cubicles, kept secrets, had affairs, and got away with it.

When the Internet arrived on the scene, some thinkers began to imagine how this network of connected computers could continue to keep us apart. But the opposite has proved true. The social network is the new village and a collection of photo albums, blogs, status updates, tweets, and fan pages have unified our disparate identities, even matching rather accurately our offline selves. With this, the public square, once a literal location but most recently the stuff of nostalgia has been resurrected, albeit online.

The bulk of Rosen’s article is dedicated to ways to fix this perceived problem. How can we get back to the good old days when I could be one person to my family, another to my friends, and yet another to co-workers? How can we regain the ability to redefine ourselves as often as desired? He wonders will the solution be “technological? Legislative? Judicial? Ethical? A result of shifting social norms and cultural expectations? Or some mix of the above?”

Did you catch that one right in the middle, ethical? Note it, because it’s nearly the last time a solution that involves personal responsibility is mentioned. What expiring files, companies hired to monitor one’s online identity, and even an onscreen anthropomorphic widget giving stern glances as a reminder to be careful online, have in common is: outsourcing responsibility. There’s nary a suggestion that amounts to if you’d be embarrassed if your co-workers saw you doing this, don’t do it, or, at least, don’t post it online. Rather, Rosen suggests that the Internet’s memory should be erased, noting that even the God of the Talmud forgives and forgets. Here, he nears an ethical answer, suggesting that our society could benefit by being more forgiving. And perhaps we will, not despite our permanent online identities, but because of them. We’ll all have one or two embarrassing pictures in our wake.

But what truly is missing from Rosen’s article, and indeed, from much of the conversation surrounding our new online identities, is the opportunity that this presents us to enter into a new morality. Call it Facebook Morality. When my friend who is considering joining Facebook asked how he should know what is appropriate to post online, I offered him this methodology:

“Imagine Facebook is a room filled with everyone you know,” I suggested. “And then imagine shouting whatever it is you consider posting at the top of your lungs. Or,” I continued, “think of the person in your life who is most likely to be scandalized by a picture or a link, a grandparent or former teacher, and then imagine showing it to him or her.”

This new morality, then, is not one dictated by individual conscience. You may think, “Sure I had a wild night last night, but I don’t regret any of it.” But that is different from thinking,”I had a wild night last night and I think everyone should have to experience it.”

In her essay “On Morality,” from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes of a kind of “wagon-train morality.”  This she defines as the social code that dictates our collective responsibility to each other. To Didion, morality is not created in an individual’s conscience and thus relative from one person to the other, rather it is “a code that has as its point only survival, not the attainment of the ideal good.”

Facebook Morality isn’t an attainment of the ideal good; it is a reach toward our collective survival. Perhaps it is wrong to drink to excess, but Facebook Morality is not primarily concerned with that. Rather, it is concerned with the way in which the portrayal of a person drinking to excess may compromise his or her community. Therefore, Facebook Morality makes the decision to post or not to post, a moral question. It also opens up the opportunity to question behavior, providing a practical standard for one’s actions before sharing is even an option.

There is a new morality on the rise in American culture. It goes hand in hand with a new sincerity. And it is these, rather than new technology, which will provide the solution to our “collective identity crisis,” as Rosen calls it.

Here a parting word, a kind of benediction from a great moral teacher, the late Kurt Vonnegut, from his last collection of essays before he passed away, A Man Without a Country, seems fitting:

“Save our lives and your lives, too,” he writes. “Be honorable.”

Go Ahead, Change My Mind

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been teaching arguing, or persuasive, essays in my freshmen composition courses. I save this format, along with evaluating essays, for last because in some sense they utilize all the skills that the students have picked up through the practice of writing, remembering, observing, and explaining essays in the previous weeks and months.

That’s one reason why I save these types for last, and it’s the better reason. The other reason is that I know from experience that it’s hard to keep everybody’s attention – the students’ and my own – focused in the waning weeks of a semester, particularly a spring semester when the weather is warming and summer vacation is on the horizon, and arguing and evaluating essays are my, and often my students’, favorite types to read and write.

I assign several readings for each essay form, chosen because they are prime examples of the particular type and though they often change, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” has a permanent home in the arguing section of my syllabus. For those readers who have not sat through a semester of class with me (or any countless other composition courses that utilize King’s classic text): it is an epistle written while King was in the city jail in Birmingham, Alabama after being arrested for taking part in non-violent protests there. The letter is a response to “A Call For Unity,” a statement published by eight white Alabama clergymen in which they conceded that injustices were taking place, but that protest, even non-violent, was not appropriate and that proper, legal means should be pursued.

King states his case in no less than nine points (he even apologizes at the end for writing so much and makes reference to the fact that there’s not much else to do when one is in prison). There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the greatest arguing essays ever written, offering some of the most airtight arguments ever made. The now famous line, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” appears in this text.

What I have never known about this essay, and still to this day cannot say for certain, is what effect this text had first on its intended audience, the signatories of “A Call for Unity.” I know that every time I read it I get chills and that most of my students come to venerate it, but as far as I can tell from my admittedly very limited research on the topic (Google “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and, most unfortunately, over 95% of the results are for free term papers on the essay) there is not much written about whether or not it “worked.”

Now, of course, to a certain extent it did work, as did MLK’s social action, speeches, and sadly, his death, in addition to the work of countless other civil rights advocates, but whenever I think specifically about the impact of “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” I can’t help but wonder if it actually changed any of the clergymen’s minds, or had a life-altering affect on any residents of Birmingham.

And I wonder about this in regard to many arguments I hear made, debates I witness, and apologists I read. Do all these words, all this time spent building a case, ever actually work to convince somebody that the position that they hold is wrong and that they should exchange it for another, more correct stance?

And yet, I know that people do change their minds. I don’t know how I would describe myself politically prior to 2001, but I know that whatever it was (must’ve been somewhere between far right and right of the center, as that’s where my parents, church, and educators were coming from), by 2002, my views were very different from those of the people that had an influence on me in my youth. I can point to a few definitive books I read (Franny and Zooey, On the Road . . . yeah, I know), and some very important people I met, conversations I had, and things I experienced (studying in Kenya was big in this regard), but I can’t point a finger to any one thing as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I’ve come to realize that, for the most part, I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, semester after semester I make my students read and write arguing essays. And then I evaluate them on the clarity of their writing, certainly, but also on their ability to form a cohesive point and defend it. I teach them about three different kinds of arguments: traditional (I’m right, you’re wrong), constructive (I’m right, and I want to help you see why you’re wrong), and Rogerian (I’m right, but you may also be right, let’s compromise), but more often than not they choose the traditional style. And I’ve had some good writers over the years, but not once has one of them convinced me of anything I didn’t already believe. Nobody wins the argument, yet I still make each student do it.

Why do I continue to believe that learning how to make an effective argument is important when I really think it’s not a good argument that changes a person’s mind but a series of events, experiences, and lessons learned? Perhaps some of those influential books, essays, and stories that I read back in 2002 were argumentative in nature, and certainly my views grew more nuanced and I became more certain of what I was coming to believe through arguments, but not to the point where I feel comfortable saying an argument changed my mind.

It’s a scary thing to change one’s mind, to admit that the beliefs and values one clings to may not be as deeply held as once thought. And for a person so often prideful as I am, it is also a deeply humbling experience to reevaluate and to be found wrong. I know this is the case not simply based on 2002, or even on any of the hundreds of minor changes and course corrections that I’ve made in the years since, but because I fear it may be happening again.

I’m halfway through famed (infamous?) evangelical author Brian D. McLaren’s latest offering, A New Kind of Christianity. The book has attracted a lot of attention, mostly because of the overwhelming wave of extremely negative reviews it is garnering from other evangelicals. I’ve read McLaren before but, based on some of the commentary I’d heard about this book, even I approached it with some trepidation, with a bit of fear that he may have gone too far.

McLaren’s book is an argument, an apologetic. If I had to classify it for my class I would say it’s somewhere between a traditional and a constructive argument. The details of his case for a new kind of Christianity are the subject for a different sort of essay, but suffice it to say, his argument is made well. His points are clear and rational and, most importantly in an arguing essay, he appeals to what the reader may have already thought or believed though may never have given voice to.

This is a tactic I encourage my students to use, one that Martin Luther King, Jr. used miraculously. It involves knowing your audience and making an appeal to them that is both respectful and transformative. McLaren knows me. Like King knew his fellow clergymen, McLaren knows his left-leaning evangelical.

I can’t say where this will all end up, or where I’ll be when the pieces land. But I can say that I’m beginning to believe more fully in the power of the arguing essay. I can say that I’m beginning to change my mind.

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Several Selves

When I was a child, I wore many hats – in precisely the way the clichéd expression means. Early photographs show me sitting on my father’s lap, arms outstretched, driving a pretend fire truck with the red, oversized backward cap of a fireman digging into my dad’s chest with each imaginary bump that my truck encountered.

Other days I was a policeman, my grandfather’s old Massachusetts Registry police cap balancing precariously on my tiny head. As I grew older, the hats became more creative. Gone were the days of occupations that I could actually grow to become; the hats turned to masks of Spiderman, Optimus Prime, Batman, and so on. And there were costumes as well, for those characters that didn’t don a hat or mask. I was Luke Skywalker, Michelangelo of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an officer on board the Enterprise, Peter from the Ghostbusters, and at one point I even brought back the hat as Dick Tracy.

I wore these hats, sometimes several within the same day, but there was one rule that I never broke. When I was wearing my Batman mask, I couldn’t also be Spiderman. When dressed like Luke Skywalker I would never encounter Captain Picard. The Ninja Turtles and the Ghostbusters, though both inhabitants of New York City, would never meet. This is all to say that I was only ever able to understand my identity as one character at a time.

If you ask Steph, my wife, not much has changed from this little hat-wearing boy to the present day me. I still wear many hats, and as was the case then, often all on the same day. At any given time I can be a writer, professor, web developer, scholar, or tutor. But just as two characters from different stories could never meet when I was playing dress up as a child, so is it near impossible for me to join my many identities today, an awkward situation since they all are, obviously, linked. With the exception, perhaps, of web developer, there is a direct correlation between each of these hats, and yet I still struggle to self-identify.

I constantly ask myself that familiar question: What do I want to be when I grow up? Which of these hats will win the day and define me throughout life? I actively ignore what I know to be true every time Steph insists that how I live now, with all my various identities, is probably how it’s going to be.

I fall victim to a situation that plagues many more of my generation. In his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman explores this problem in light of what probably is its actual cause: popular culture. For Klosterman and his generation the source of this desire to typecast oneself is the long-running MTV series The Real World.

His essay “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” explores the way in which people he knows have become more and more like characters on that hit television show as the years went on. He gives some leeway to the first season as perhaps the only time when the characters didn’t start out as a certain type, but acknowledges that it is precisely those first cast members who, by the end of the season, set up the archetype that the would define future casts, and, eventually a generation.

Klosterman rightly identifies the heritage for the “Real World” brand typecasting as the films of the recently deceased screenwriter and director John Hughes. Certainly the teenagers that shared a Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club were written not so much as fully realized, complicated people, but as specific character types which, through a strange intermingling of their continued use in movies, television shows, and books, and the easy adoption of these stereotypes by actual people, have come to represent the sum of personality types for Americans under 35 years old.

The advent of these character types (and arguably they have been around in some form or another long before Hughes or MTV crystallized them and made them fixtures of the 20th century) has created a reality in which genuine, living, breathing people do not need to ever go through the life-long process of discovering who we actually are.

Rather, I can simply choose: “I’m the rebel.” Presto! All I need is a new wardrobe, which, fortunately, costume designers have already created and a certain demeanor, which can be adopted, and suddenly I am the Rebel. And, just as I was only ever one character as a child, so too, need I only ever model one archetype.

Since the 1980s, we can probably identify successful media by the extent to which they introduced a “new” character type to the popular consciousness. Certainly we have come a long way since those five Hughesian character types. The Real World created variations on them, as have many other popular books, movies, musicians, and television series. Now, if everyone around you fits into some variation on the “jock” model, by following the “artist” model, you can actually feel like an individual.

Though in America it is perhaps easiest to illustrate this identity crisis in light of popular culture, I am particularly interested in the way that it manifests itself in other parts of the world. I am currently immersed in the long process of writing a paper to be presented at an academic conference (that’s my scholar hat you’re seeing) about the various “new” cultures that are emerging among contemporary African youth as seen in the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of, most famously, Purple Hibiscus.

Very generally speaking, for post-post colonial Africans, this struggle to self identify is certainly tinged with influences from American popular culture, as it is throughout the rest of the world, but more seriously it involves the reconciling of long-held traditional cultures with the imposed culture of whatever colonial power occupied a particular African country until, in most cases, the 1960s. In many ways, this tumultuous struggle is also embodied in the lives of immigrants who must work out the way in which their former selves can coexist with their adopted country and new identity. But it is particularly interesting to see this play out in African countries, as the new identity was not chosen, but thrust upon people. And the implications of this continue to be dealt with almost half a century later.

In Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus, the way in which her characters interact with Catholicism, the religion of their former occupiers, is particularly fascinating. Throughout the novel, it is clear that those characters that can more fully connect Catholicism with their cultural heritage live more balanced and fulfilled lives then those who cannot find a point of reconciliation. These characters recognize that they are never just one thing. At any given moment they embody the traditional culture that is their inheritance as well as the imposed Western culture that is slowly taking over. Rather than struggle to resist and allowing several selves to occupy one body, these characters and the generation of Africans for whom they are avatars adapt and in the process create a new, hybridized culture and, often, language. A fantastic example of this is Kenya’s “shang,” which mixes Swahili with a kind of street-English.

So it must be, albeit less dramatically, with us, with me. Despite the fact that it is easier to adopt one archetype or another as the starting point of my identity, I am not just one thing or another. I, too, am made up of several selves.

Don’t Just Do It

In the late 1980s, a popular ad campaign created by the advertising agency Weiden + Kennedy transcended its given purpose of selling sneakers and lodged itself permanently in the annals of popular culture.

Just Do It.

But what it did was more, even, than become a household phrase. For many in the United States, including those in the small, charismatic church my family attended when I was growing up, it synthesized all that was wrong with the world into three short words.

And Nike wasn’t the only company to turn the sixties credo – “If it feels good, do it” – into a marketing slogan. To this day, the refrain, “Why ask why, try Bud Dry,” echoes in my head, long after Budweiser ceased production of the beer the ad was hawking.

These ads and the countless others espousing the same kind of “don’t think, act” mentality, coming as they did as the twentieth century came to a close, illustrate perfectly what the Irish philosopher George Berkeley put forth in his rather bizarre book entitled Siris, written in 1744. Berkeley suggested, as many others have since, that philosophy, though it may be considered and debated in academia, far from popular culture, actually rises from and informs the culture at large.

Berkeley said it thusly:

Prevailing studies are of no small consequence to a State, the religion, manners, and civil government of a country ever taking some bias from its philosophy, which affects not only the minds of its professors and students, but also the opinions of all the better sort, and the practice of the whole people remotely and consequentially indeed, though not inconsiderably.

That is, “If it feels good, do it,” “Just do it,” and “Why ask why, try Bud Dry” rose to such popularity precisely because they captured he prevailing philosophical wind of the day: modernism. We need not ask the hard questions or consider our actions – the consequences, if there indeed are any, are irrelevant in the face of our desire.

In art, film, and literature, this mentality translated into a visual aesthetic disinterested in beauty, movies that settled deep into the despair of a Cold War world, and books that reveled in the kind of freedom and carelessness that only comes from acting on impulse.

Many fault postmodernism with opening the door to moral relativism, but this “whatever floats your boat” mentality was born of modernist philosophy, and then exposed by those responding to the later movement. The line between modernism and postmodernism, both in theory and in time, is blurred, but one thing is certain: in the last decade, we’ve subtly begun to move away from the lack of interest in morality and the relativism so prominent in the twentieth century.

Is this a result of the simple pendulum swing that writes history? Is it a response to the events of September 11, 2001, when something so evil happened that a moral reaction was necessary, if not inevitable? Has the moralizing of religious fundamentalists – Christian, Muslim, and Jewish – taken hold?

Whatever the reason, the evidence is undeniable. In every cultural corner, moral questions are asked – in film and television, visual art and advertising, comic books and cartoons and literature.

In the last month or so, Paste has published “Best of the Decade” lists on its website (and in its most recent print issue). Surveying the lists confirms this assertion: many of the most critically acclaimed books, movies, albums, and television shows all dared to raise questions of morality.

A couple of standouts from the best books list are notable because, in some ways, their attention to questions of morality is what exactly what makes them noteworthy. As Paste points out in its synopsis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is both “meditation on the human condition” as well as post-apocalyptic “adventure book.” But each adventure is underscored by the weight it carries, raising questions of morality to the literal level of life and death. As in his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, set in 1980, McCarthy creates a space that is devoid of any sense of right or wrong, in which his characters struggle to reclaim their morality and, ultimately, their humanity.

McCarthy’s books explore questions of morality through fiction, but number 10 on Paste’s list, the late David Foster Wallace’s nonfiction collection, Consider the Lobster, parses the issue in essay form. Until about halfway through, the title piece is a beautifully crafted but otherwise standard bit of reportage of the Maine Lobster Festival. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, Wallace asks his reader (the piece was originally published in Gourmet Magazine) if it is “all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure.” And with that, a conscience is thrust into the reporting and the actual feelings of a crustacean are considered.

A more recent release (not on Paste’s list),Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, extends Wallace’s question to include all living things and, along with “Consider the Lobster,” illuminates one of the more interesting aspects of this trend toward moralism. This is not a return or a pre-modern kind of soul searching. The questions that are being considered in the twenty-firstcentury are very postmodern concerns. Look to the places where claims of morality are made the loudest, and often most convincingly, and you will find that they are not necessarily voiced by the traditional sources of moral indignation: religious organizations. Rather, the questions at the forefront are about the environment, treatment of homosexuals, access to health care, and the responsibilities of wealthy countries to their counterparts in the developing world, to name a few.

Though these questions make their way into the mind of Americans through books, they enter the popular psyche more forcefully through the more readily-consumed media such as television, film, and music. Paste‘s top twenty TV shows reveal intense interest in questions of morality played out in diverse genres from science fiction (Battlestar Galactica, which dealt weekly withissues ranging from discrimination to suicide bombers), to animation (The Family Guy filled the space that The Simpsons occupied in previous decades), to talk shows (The Daily Show and The Colbert Report;Oprah did not make the list, but is another prominent example). And, of course, standout, thought-provoking dramas such as The Wire, Lost, and Mad Men make the list. What did not make the list: any “show about nothing.”

As for film and music, Paste offered fifty of each, but the list-toppers serve to illustrate the point. In film, Fernando Meirelles’ City of God took the number one spot, and in music, the album Illinoise by Sufjan Stevens claimed top ranking.

I don’t pretend that the first decade of the twenty-firstcentury is somehow a more “moral” decade than its predecessors. (I’m not even sure how one would make that assessment.) But while in the recent past, questions of morality have been the exclusive territory of religious organizations, a veritable non-issue in the ivory towers of academia and the popular imaginations of American artists, they are being asked again with increasing fervor and a tremendous range of concerns.

A recent visit to Nike’s website turned up no sign of the old “Just Do It” mantra. Rather, a different kind of urging (in support of the Product Red campaign) is prominently displayed. It prods the viewer to “Lace Up Save Lives.”

Papa Fitz

My grandfather is dying again. I know because my mom called. And she knows because Aunty Cathy called her. This is the fourth time in two years my mom has called me with this news; the fourth time, she got the call from Aunty Cathy.

He’s not well – there’s no doubt about that. Papa’s battled just about every kind of cancer and has come out the victor each time. He’s tough. Small, but tough. Everyone in my family is small. Papa’s 5’1″, like me. My dad, the giant, is a mere 5’6″.

But not all of us are as tough as Papa. When I close my eyes and say his name I see us sitting at the kitchen table in the house that my dad grew up in, that Nana and Papa still live in. Papa’s holding his fists up in front of his face and kind of grunting. He wants me to do the same. I’m six. I raise my hands like his, my little knuckles sticking out like the tiniest mountain range.

“No, not like that,” he says releasing his stance to fix mine. “Here, higher. This is your shield. This keeps you safe. ”

I follow his lead, elevating my fist until he’s satisfied and resumes his stance. “Good. Now punch me.”

I look at him cockeyed. He answers before I ask, “C’mon, do it. You won’t hurt me, I’ll show you. C’mon. When I was a boxer in the army I could block anything.”

So I do it. I let one fly. A quick shot with my . . .

“Left! What are you throwing your left for?” he says as he blocks my slow motion punch. “Are you a lefty? Dot!” he shouts to my grandmother who’s only a few steps away at the stove, stirring sauce or something. “Dot, I think Jonathan’s a lefty.”

He’s laughing at me and I’m not sure why but he tells me its okay. He can teach a lefty to fight. He takes a swig of beer, Budweiser then and now, and resumes my lesson.

Papa was never a boxer in the army. This came out some years later. Nor did he see any action in World War II. The round scars on his stomach and chest that he said were bullet holes were not. Burns from working all those years at the naval shipyard, but not bullet holes.

He used to draw ninjas. This is a skill he told me he picked up from drawing the real thing, when he was stationed in Asia – which, of course, he wasn’t. But he could draw them well. Masks with slits for the eyes and bandanas waving in the breeze. He could draw long sharp kitana blades that gleamed with the light of a distant sun. I tell this to my wife as we drive through Boston to visit him in the hospital.

“How did he know what a ninja looked like, then?” Steph asks as we drive. I don’t know.

When we get there, Steph leads the way. I hate hospitals, but she was working with the elderly at the time. We make our way to the third floor where my mom told us we would find him. Room 313. We peek around the corner of the doorway to see him sitting up with one of those trays-on-wheels set over his legs. He has a plate full of food in front of him but he’s only eating yogurt.

“Yogurt as an appetizer?” I ask, assuming his food has just arrived.

“No.” He answers without looking up. “As dinner.” And finally his eyes lift from the nearly empty cup he’s been scraping with a plastic spoon. “Paul,” he calls out to me.

“Ah…” Is all I get out before he says, “Jonathan. I mean Jonathan.” And to himself, “Why did I call you Paul?”

He urges us to sit and so we do, I directly below the television and Steph beside his bed, nearer to him. We ask him how he’s feeling, how they’ve been treating him in the hospital. He answers that he’s not feeling so great but the hospital staff is nice. He tells us about a nurse that’s been taking care of him. He’s convinced she has a thing for him. I don’t doubt it; he’s a charmer.

There’s a side of Papa that resembles your typical Irish-American – think the characters of Frank McCourt or, more regionally accurate, Dennis Lehane or James Carroll. One of our family’s favorite stories involves beer, whiskey, and a bar fight between my dad and Papa. And he probably would have been that stereotype to a tee, if it weren’t for my grandmother. For all his Irish-ness, she’s every bit Italian, bubbling with emotion and energy and, over the years, her passion for life has leaked through the cracks in his old Irish skin. When they got married in 1940s Boston, theirs was considered an inter-racial marriage.

Sitting with Papa in the gray light of his hospital room, I suddenly become painfully aware that, despite all appearances, this is the same man who tried to teach me to fight all those years ago at the kitchen table. I stare at him. He’s small now. Not the same muscle-bound, beer-bellied man I remember. He looks like the skin of that man – the skin of a once great, although not actual, boxer in the army. The skin of that man is hanging on a smaller man’s frame, like mine, perhaps.

Steph jumps in to fill the awkward silence. “So who has come to visit you, Papa?” She calls him Papa. I don’t remember he or I ever inviting her to do so, but she does. And I love that.

“Oh, they’ve all been here,” he says. “Jane, and Jilly. Jilly comes often. Jennifer’s been here…” These are my sisters. He says their names first, making sure I know I’m the last to come. I’m about to say something when he realizes what he, consciously or subconsciously, has done. “But they don’t have so far to travel as you do,” he says to me in the way of consolation.

“Dolly and Sean, Eddie, Kristen, and the kids.” My cousins and their families. “Your father’s come down a few times.” I had hoped he wasn’t actually keeping count, but it seems clear now that he was.

I change the topic and though I’m not sure how we get there, suddenly we’re talking about his mother and brothers. We’re talking about Ireland and the plot of land he signed away years ago, sitting at that kitchen table at his house in Roxbury, to cousins in Ireland after his father passed away.

“Jonathan, whenever we went there and saw what I blindly gave up,” he looks, for a moment, regretful. “Ahh, we could never live there. Boston’s our home.”

When it’s time to leave we tell him that we’ll see him soon, but hopefully at home. He looks doubtful. He looks, in fact, like he’s thinking we won’t actually see him again. He kisses Steph on the cheek and tells me how beautiful she is. He says goodbye and calls me Paul again.

Resistance Was Futile

In perhaps the most memorable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Jean-Luc Picard is captured by the ruthless symbiotic alien race, the Borg. The Borg assimilate Picard into their collective, making him part machine and all evil. I remember sitting too close to the television, watching nervously from the floor in the living room of my family’s apartment in Malden, a working class suburb of Boston. Clutching a Star Trek action figure in each fist, I was transfixed; what would become of my beloved captain? It was a two-part episode, a cliffhanger. Part One ended the season in the spring and Part Two didn’t air until September. It was a long, nervous summer.

As one might expect, Picard was heroically rescued by his crew and returned to his ship. The ship’s medical officer, Dr. Beverly Crusher, removed the creepy electronics that the Borg had installed in Picard’s head and by the end of the episode he looked himself again, save for some strange pigmentation where the metal had been.

But Picard was never really the same. He had experienced the Borg collective, and having done so, a bit of the Borg’s mentality was permanently etched onto his consciousness – a trait that the show’s writers exploited in the following seasons and in the 1996 feature film First Contact.


My first contact came when I was seventeen years old. I was a senior in high school when I started dating Sarah. She was this sweet blonde girl with freckles all over her face. She always wore jeans or corduroys and a button up shirt – always.

Her family, the Borgs, were originally from Texas. Mr. Borg brought the family to New England when his company moved here. They settled in a large cube-shaped house in a small town about an hour west of Boston. Sarah went to school with my sister which, embarrassingly, is how we met. We only dated for six months but in those months I found myself in locations and situations I had never experienced before. And by the time they moved back to the South, back to the Collective, I was a changed man.

Growing up, and right through high school, the geographical layout of my world stretched no further than a few miles outside of Boston. I had been on airplane once (to Florida, to visit my grandparents); McDonald’s was my favorite restaurant; and just about every item of clothing I owned was a hand-me-down. My closest friends and I spent our time listening to rap, rapping, reading rap magazines, and trying to live the life of rap stars. Our parents had not been to college, though most finished high school, and their greatest accomplishment to that point was securing their sons a place in a private school, a move that, they hoped, would lead directly to college.

The Borgs were rich. They owned two Ford Explorers before every soccer mom in the world had a sport utility vehicle. They went out to dinner more often than they cooked, didn’t buy anything that they hadn’t first seen in a catalog, and had poodles. The most tangible indication of their wealth to me at that time was the over-sized towels that hung in their bathroom. These towels were huge and plush and after using them I found it nearly impossible to go back to the threadbare towels, barely bigger than hand towels, which my family had been using since before I was born.

The Borgs didn’t know what to do with their daughter’s new boyfriend other than attempt to assimilate me. A month or two into our relationship, they started buying me clothes, taking me out to dinner, introducing me to their friends, and inviting me to stay over so I didn’t have to drive “all the way home.” They managed to be surprisingly subtle as they squeezed out my humble, blue-collar background and replaced it with their upper class bravado. Some things went easier than others; my Boston accent was their top priority.

“Did it take long to get here?” Sarah’s mom politely asked the first time I visited their house.

“Yah. This is wicked fah from weah I live. I’ve nevah been out heyah befoor.” I said as both Sarah’s parents visibly took a step back in horror before returning polite smiles to their faces.

To look at pictures of myself over those six months tells the story. In the photo from my first date with Sarah I’m wearing a baseball cap, an oversized shirt and baggy jeans – my dad’s actually – sagged so the crotch was near my knees. The pictures from New Years Eve show me in my first item of clothing from Abercrombie & Fitch, a sweater Sarah bought for me for Christmas. And finally, in May at my high school graduation I stand flanked by the Borgs, cap and gown slung over my arm, in Dockers khakis, a tucked-in white collared shirt, and a blue sweater vest.

Within a month it was over and they were gone. They hated Boston and hated the cold, and so Mr. Borg jumped at the first job that opened up anywhere in the South. They moved to Atlanta, selling their house with all the furniture still in it.

It was only a few months, so many years ago. But like Picard, being absorbed into the Borg collective for even a short time left me changed forever. On the outside, my clothes were different and more expensive, I purged myself of the Boston accent, and had shorter hair, but something deeper, more fundamental to who I was, had changed as well.

Growing up in Malden, surrounded by friends and families who were like me in just about every way that mattered, I hadn’t had much contact with many affluent people. It’s not that I didn’t know they existed – surely I must have come across some families like the Borgs before Sarah – but they hadn’t left any kind of impression, and I hadn’t deemed it necessary to form an opinion. But I had seen the other side. I knew now what was wrong with the way I grew up, and my friends, and the way they grew up. I knew how uneducated my parents sounded when they talked. I was embarrassed.

I spent my first semester of college hiding in my dorm room as often as possible, emerging only to go to class or dinner. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and I couldn’t stop myself from trying to figure out where I fit in, and where others fit in. What was my roommate Seth’s family like? They were from Long Island. Did that mean they had money or were they just too poor to live in Manhattan? What about Dave? He came from Santa Barbara. I had never been there but if Saved by the Bell was any indication of life in Southern California, he must be rich. And who, after all, was I? Only a relatively short distance from where I grew up, but at college, in the country.

Jay, my best friend from high school, went with me to college, but he didn’t seem to have any of the same problems fitting in. He made plenty of friends and never seemed to recognize that they came from places very different from Malden, places where everyone’s parents had gone to college, where unemployment checks are rarely collected, and where cars are given as birthday presents. And that was the difference. He hadn’t been abducted by the Borgs. He hadn’t been made to feel uncomfortable by the other side, made to feel inferior. So he was able to blend in like I would have, if I wasn’t sure it was impossible to mesh so easily with people from such different backgrounds.

I almost transferred to a college in Boston, thinking if I went to school in the city I may be able to reconnect with the person I was before the Borgs made me into somebody else. But I had the clear sense that running wasn’t an option; the problem was inside of me. The remains of the Borgs’ implants were still fixed deep, and no matter where I went, the way I saw people was permanently altered. It was the feeling that I no longer had a home. College felt foreign; I felt like an imposter. But how could I go back to Malden, back to that second floor apartment I had grown up in?

Ordinary college-sponsored activities, like bowling or the movies, left me perplexed. At the end of a seemingly endless night of searching out a group that I could belong to, I would lie in bed scratching at my temples. “What had gone wrong? Why is every conversation I have with everybody so awkward? Why can’t I just be me?”

And that, I found in time, was the key. Somewhere inside, perhaps laying dormant, was the kid from Malden who had always had friends, who was always up for anything, who was fun. I had to find him, bring him out, try with everything in me to set aside the filters I had been applying to every person and situation I had encountered since arriving at college.

It’s a continuing process. Several years after Captain Picard’s assimilation and subsequent rescue, he reencounters the Borg in First Contact and has to come to grips, all over again, with his onetime abductors. I’ve not seen the Borgs since they moved, but all these years later the strange pigmentation from their machinery still lingers. I remain caught between two worlds. Ill at ease in Malden, I chose to remain in that college town for a while. I tried for a year, in graduate school, to return to Boston, but I found that even there, in a somewhat familiar environment, I was far too changed for it to ever be the same.

Memories of my time on the other side haunt me – the towels, the poodles, the sweater vest. I’ve left those behind. Until moving to New York City not that long ago, I never seemed to have a reason to travel west of Boston. I’ve traded those things for Birkenstocks, corduroys, and wool hats. I’m somewhere in the middle now. Different, and aware. Suburban, and educated. And yes, somewhat assimilated.

On the Road
and In the Book

Every time I fill my car with gas I think, “I could go anywhere.”

I know it’s silly. I know I can’t really just up and go. But to me a full tank of gas means possibility – the chance to throw some essentials in the backseat and take off. That spindly orange needle pointing at the big “F” suggests the freedom of the open road.

This all has a very definite origin – well, an origin and an inspiration.

The inspiration is the road novel. Chief among them in my mind is Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, but all stories of travel are perennial favorites because the best of them make this feeling – this experience of freedom, excitement, and corroboration – tangible. Like the “buddy comedy,” the “coming-of-age novel,” and the “rags to riches” story, a travel story – a road novel – captures a feeling that is impermanent and fleeting and makes it last, available on demand.

To discover the origin of my wanderlust we must travel back in time seven years to 2002, when I was a junior in college. That spring I participated in a semester abroad, but I didn’t go to Oxford as many of my fellow English majors did, or France or Italy, or anywhere in Europe that students tend to. No; I joined a small group of American students at Daystar University in Nairobi, Kenya.

There is not space here to describe all that that trip meant, how it shaped my life and set me on a course that has already led me back to Kenya once and will undoubtedly land me on the African continent several more times. I’m hooked. That happens.

But this isn’t about Africa. Rather, this is to say that when I returned home from Kenya in the summer before my senior year, I had a lot to think about. I had seen the extremes of utter poverty and absolute beauty often reported by those who have been to East Africa. I had to reconcile my beliefs with all of this, and my attitude about money and possessions. There was much to think about.

There was one thing I was certain about, however – one privilege among many to be grateful for that I did not need to force myself to reconcile with what I had just experienced. That is, specifically, the knowledge that having a car with a full tank of gas is one of the greatest gifts my short life in the United States had afforded me thus far. Of course, I was grateful for my family, for all of my freedoms, so on and so forth, but the freest free I could feel was found behind the wheel of my ailing 1988 Volvo sedan.

Last weekend, my love for the freedom of the open road – and that love’s origins – came to a wonderful nexus when I reunited with some of my fellow students from our 2002 semester in Kenya and we took to the road together.

My friend Brian came from Boston and met Jason at his parents’ home in Nyack, New York, before collecting me from my apartment in Jersey City. From here we drove out of New Jersey, the Manhattan skyline dissolving into dusk in our rearview mirror, across the East Coast Mammoth that is Pennsylvania and up to Cleveland, Ohio where we were joined by Courtney, who flew in from Seattle, Washington (surely, a tank full of jet fuel must invoke a similar, probably stronger, feeling in pilots).

We had some calls to make around Ohio, people to visit, universities to tour, and years worth of living on which to catch one another up. There is hardly a better place to reconnect with old friends and share stories and reminiscences than the road.

And this is precisely what the road novel teaches us. Whether it’s Sal and Dean speeding their way across the Midwest in On the Road or Jonathan Safran Foer’s quest through the Ukraine in Everything is Illuminated, being in transit paradoxically allows us the opportunity to pause as it is a temporary state acted out between here and there, two places where, presumably, the business of life awaits.

On the Road is a definitive travel novel, and certainly among my favorites, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Many other great road stories come to mind: Into the Wild by John Krakauer, Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thomson, many books by Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson – and for the post-apocalyptic traveler, there’s Cormac McCarthy’s recent masterpiece, The Road.

These books and the many, many others in the genre succeed precisely as they nail down the very unpredictability of travel, the adventure waiting, literally, around every turn.

Several years ago, in what could be called a rehearsal for this most recent, more comprehensive reunion of fellow travelers who met in Africa, Jason and I drove through the night, again from Nyack to the same destination in Ohio: a tiny town called Medina where every August a pig roast is held and friends from far and near are reunited. On that trip, as Jason drove and I tried, fruitlessly, to sleep in the passenger seat, we came across a car wreck that had occurred only moments prior to our arrival.

We found a teenager, just slightly younger than we were at the time, barely conscious and bloody in the mangled shell of his Volkswagen hatchback. He had fallen asleep and collided with the back of a tractor-trailer. Jason, a trained paramedic, cared for the man, who we learned was on his way to college, and I called the police. When the police and ambulance arrived and Jason’s help was no longer needed, we returned to our car, resumed our trip, wordless as we continued to drive through the misty Pennsylvania morning.

It was a reminder of what makes the road so alluring and potentially so dangerous and what makes books that capture the experience so wonderfully engaging. Anything can happen on the road. The freedom one feels while traveling overland at 80 miles per hour, with a full tank of gas and only a vague sense of what lies ahead, is directly related to the mystery, the unknown, the potential joy as well as the danger.

Courtney, Brian, Jason and myself all made it to our homes safely. We sped around Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey. and New York with windows down, listening to music, telling stories, and laughing. For three days we reveled in the freedom of the road. But on the fourth day, back at home with an empty tank of gas and work waiting in the morning, I scanned my bookshelves for The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators and Waiting Rooms, a collection I had purchased years ago after returning from another trip for precisely this reason – to make the trip last just a little while longer.

Star Trek
in the Park

William Shakespeare’s Statue in Central Park.
Photo: Peter Roan

This was going to be a very intelligent article. After using this space previously to gush about summer blockbusters and iPhones, I meant for this month’s subject matter to be smarter – or, at least, headier.

I fully intended to go for that most of academic of topics, the kind of thing you would have to read in one browser tab with Wikipedia open in another. Nothing less than the plays of the Bard himself – and, specifically, his comedy Twelfth Night – as recently and majestically performed by The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park in Manhattan’s Central Park was, you must know, my starting point.

Except, it’s Monday night and Monday night is (for those of you who still pay for cable) the night that the SciFi Channel airs four hours of back-to-back episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

So I have Star Trek on the brain, and yet I do very much want to share thoughts on this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park. And, if you’ll bear with me, I think we will find more connections between the works of Gene Roddenberry and those of Shakespeare than just the actor Patrick Stewart.

I assert that the plays of Shakespeare are heady and academic with my tongue in my cheek. The way Shakespeare is taught in high schools – and in some cases, colleges – is a misreading of what the man’s purpose was, what he meant for his plays to do. In this way, and without too much uncomfortable stretching, we come to our first similarity between Shakespeare’s plays and the continuing mission that is Star Trek: they are dramas performed in distinct acts, and they have it as their purpose to entertain, enlighten, and engage their audience.

It’s just as difficult to summarize the plot of Twelfth Night as it is to attempt to explain how time travel works in the Star Trek universe. I will say that Twelfth Night involves not one but two cases of mistaken identity, cross-dressing, possible homosexual relationships, and one of the greatest and least understood phrases Shakespeare ever wrote, at least contextually:

Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.

As it turns out, in the context of Twelfth Night these words are not spoken by way of motivation, as they often are used in our culture; rather, they are part of a ruse, a plot to embarrass a character that neither the audience nor the other characters much like. And, in the hands of the excellent cast of The Public’s presentation, this line actually carried with it the appropriate measure of innuendo as well. In short, even this most inspiring of moments, this most serious and heavy charge is, in context, a joke, a bit of entertainment.

Another very important similarity: both works are heavily influenced by their predecessors. At one time among so-called Shakespeare scholars it was very popular to actually try to debunk the Bard. People saw obvious similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and a number of sources that came before him (or, in the case of Christopher Marlowe, works written contemporaneously) and drew conclusions, painting Shakespeare in many shades of crook from plagiarizer to front man to myth.

These days (read: postmodernity) most accept that every story is a re-telling of some story that came before it, or, as my mother and King Solomon like to say, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” And this is fine with us. It is expected. We don’t and shouldn’t tolerate plagiarism, but we also do not fly off the handle every time something seems like something else.

For a more recent example, see the almost-conspiracy around that other widely read British author, J.K. Rowling. At the height of her fame (is she still at the height? will she ever come down?) many people accused her of lifting her tale from Adrian Jacobs’ The Adventures of Willy the Wizard. This is still being worked out in the courts, but barring some major shift, in perpetuity no one will care much that there once was a story about a wizard named Willy that bears many similarities to the more famous Harry.

Star Trek, too, is packed with other people’s stories, be it highly inventive retellings of Greek classics, verbatim performances of Sherlock Holmes and even, it turns out, many examples of Shakespeare’s plays being appropriated and adapted to the twenty-fourth century.

Shakespeare’s plays can be crude and funny, sad and moving, mystical and romantic, and any combination of these things. Mostly, though, they do what the best stories do. Elizabethan English makes them seem untouchably highbrow, but even this would have been funny to Shakespeare because much of his language, to his contemporaries, would have seemed base and coarse, as it suited the characters.

Imagine what the English language will sound like 400 years into the future; imagine how the works of Gene Roddenberry will sound to readers then. Will they be any more “highbrow” because they’re old? Certainly not.

Admittedly, Star Trek probably won’t be read or performed like Shakespeare’s plays are today. I don’t see there ever being a “Roddenberry in the Park.” Shakespeare is certainly on a higher level, but let’s not put him too high up on the pedestal.

Twelfth Night in Central Park ended its run on July 12, back here in the 21st century. It was truly fantastic, with an amazing cast that featured Anne Hathaway opposite several well-regarded Broadway actors. If you missed it, take heart: Shakespeare in the Park will be back next summer with Othello, and in the meantime The Public Theater’s next production, The Bacchae by Euripides, begins August 11.

And Star Trek: The Next Generation is on the SciFi network every Monday night. Make time for both, make time for it all: the plays of Shakespeare, the space operas of Gene Roddenberry, the blue notes of Miles Davis, and the crooning of Duncan Sheik. Find entertainment, enlightenment, and engaging stories wherever you can; really, they’re all around us.

Upgrade Me:
Are We Getting Better, Or Just Newer?

A confession: a couple of Wednesdays ago, I brought my laptop to work with me for one purpose – to download the latest iPhone update. Apple issued an upgrade to its iPhone software that day, which added such long-awaited features as Copy, Cut and Paste, Spotlight search, multimedia messaging, and a plethora of other add-ons to the already excellent operating system.

(Yes, this is going to be a nerdy article.)

The iPhone 3.0 software got me thinking about the way we twenty-first century dwellers have become obsessed with the concept of upgrading. Think about it: the upgrade, though always associated with the computer, was a phenomenon that was once only available every few years or so. I remember very clearly the excitement my dad felt at the introduction of Windows 95 or the dawn of the Pentium chip. But both of these upgrades required a purchase: a new piece of software, or new hardware.

But today, the upgrade isn’t necessarily something we do as much as something that happens to us. Open up your web browser (assuming, and hoping, it’s Firefox), and every so often you will get a message that a new version is ready for download. Sometimes this new version carries with it features that will change the way you work, like tabbed browsing, and other times it simply has security patches that you didn’t know you needed.

Or, for instance, if somehow you didn’t know the iPhone was going to be upgraded on June 17, you may have plugged in on Wednesday to drop some new music on your handset and found a new version of the software, with a plethora of new features waiting for you, and for the low price of just fifteen minutes of waiting.

But constant updating is seen in a much more common place, as well. Think about any of the websites you visit on a regular basis. You likely check sites weekly or daily because the content will be fresh. The site will be updated. As a web developer, I am drawn to the ease of updating this medium. I know that if I make a mistake, or if the information I’ve transmitted becomes out of date, I can simply make a change, upload it, and refresh, and I will have fixed the problem.

I think upgrading is great. I upgrade as often as possible: phone software, websites, computer hardware, anything. But I’m very much aware that something important is lost in all of this frenzied upgrading – namely, permanence.

For instance: consider that website you visit frequently. Imagine that the design has changed, but you really liked the way it looked before. Too bad – it’s gone now. This certainly has been evident in the many new iterations of Facebook that have been released in the last few years. Every time that social networking site updates their look or the way certain features work, a group (the existence of which was, of course, an added feature to their previous platform) is created decrying the new look and feel.

We, as humans, long for change, for the chance to better ourselves and our surroundings and yet, almost as vehemently, we mourn the loss of what we had. Take for example, the graphic designer who decided to print out 437 “featured” Wikipedia articles, producing a book 5,000 pages long and 19 inches thick, to “make a comment on how everyone goes to the internet these days for information, yet it is very unreliable compared to what it has replaced.” No one, not even this “artist,” is even sure what is being replaced, but we’re sure we’ll miss it – that is, if we take the time to think about it long enough.

But do we pause to miss those lost things, or do we press on, ever eager to keep up with the next best thing? It seems that since the beginning of the modern era the pattern has been such that younger generations rush forward, making leaps and bounds that improve the human condition in the face of great concern from the older generations that hold to tradition as supreme. And then, eventually, that once-younger generation, in the face of the improvements of their progeny, hold fast to their once new and now old ways, decrying the infringement on tradition by the younger generation.

But this may not be the case any longer. I mentioned that my father eagerly anticipated the release of the newest version of Windows back in 1995. In truth, he was eager to see Windows 3.0 before that and XP years later. And I was right there with him. My dad got an iPhone before I did, and when he could no longer wait for the next iteration of the phone’s software, he jailbroke it so he could upgrade as often as he cared to. I’ve always been a step behind my father on the technological curve, so clearly I cannot remember him ever decrying the way things used to be. Who cares about tradition when there are new features to be had?

I’m not sure how we are supposed to feel about this. Should we celebrate our ability to update ourselves, now that even our elders enjoy the benefits of perpetual upgrade? Or have we lost something? Was there something about tradition, about permanence, that we will miss when it is gone, swept aside to make room for whatever’s next? Or, is this silly to worry about? Have we built into our upgrades legacy versions, ways to document and even eternalize the past?

I’m torn. As I sit writing this, I’m surrounded by shelves overflowing with books and more books in piles on every visible surface. I love books. But at the same time, I’m listening to music that is playing through my computer. The shelves of compact discs, which replaced my parents’ shelves of vinyl records, are no more. They have been digitized, saved, and transferred, and they live on this computer and three backup hard drives. They will come with me into the future, but they no longer physically exist.

I don’t own a Kindle. I’m not ready to convert my bookshelves into gigabytes – but why not? A practical consideration, maybe. Perhaps I really feel like e-book technology hasn’t quite arrived. But most likely, in the not too distant future, I will wonder what took me so long to succumb to the inevitable.

Not long ago I downloaded the Kindle application for my iPhone. Since its initial release it has been upgraded to make for a more pleasant reading experience. It’s still not a book. I’m still not a convinced. But a few more updates, and who knows?

Endless Summer Cinema

I’m not a film critic. I’m putting that right out there. If you’re looking for film criticism, you don’t have to look far – this place is teeming with it.

It’s not that I can’t be critical. I love tearing into literature, or even the occasional music album. I’ve praised the merits of this writer or that performer, but I know, frankly, I’d be crap at reviewing movies.

The reason is simple: I’m far too forgiving of film. Here’s how I know I’m not enjoying a movie: if at any time I’m taken out of the story enough to stop and think, Am I really still watching this?

Not very demanding criteria. Even if I do actually hear myself asking this question, I will usually try to hang in there, ever a believer in the power of cinema to entertain me. There are times when this question has ultimately prompted me to leave the theater before the movie has ended, like during Final Destination, and other times when it really should have, as in Sin City.

This aesthetic, if you’ll indulge me and call it that, is why I am particularly merciful on the so-called Summer Blockbuster. The sole purpose of these big, booming tours-de-awesome is to generally delight for two hours at the end of a day spent in the sun. If they can accomplish this, if they add to my summertime delight, they have succeeded; if they do more than that, I am pleasantly surprised. And if, when the film has ended and I walk out of the theater into a still-balmy night, I can actually have a conversation with my wife about the implications of this or that plot twist, I know I am going to eagerly recommend the film to others.

Thus far this summer I have seen X-Men Origins: Wolverine (generally panned by critics, enjoyed by me), Star Trek (critics seem okay with it, I was in love with it from the opening sequence), and Terminator: Salvation (disliked by critics and by me). Admittedly, while growing up I was a comic book collector, Trekkie (or Trekker for those who care about those kinds of distinctions), and all-around sci-fi guy; so, as long as my precious expectations were not completely shattered, there was a good chance I was going to like each of these movies. But because each film is both a summer blockbuster and a prequel, each is subject to one additional criteria: whether or not it remained true to the spirit of the original story.

See, growing up, I was the kind of kid that wouldn’t play with my Ghostbusters action figures together with my Ninja Turtles guys. Sure, I knew that they both lived in New York City in each of their respective universes, but their universes were separate. It didn’t make sense in either narrative for the two to meet. At least not to my pre-tween self.

Fortunately, each of these three prequels – Wolverine, Star Trek, and Terminator – stayed true to the narratives that bore them, and two of the three scored big in entertainment value. But there was a time, somewhere in the middle of this Terminator, when I slipped out of the story to ponder, I wonder if this is the scene during which Christian Bale flew off the handle? And my next thought, was, Uh oh, I’m not thinking about the story anymore. Followed by, Why are my feet sticking to the floor?

But this isn’t a movie review. I’m terrible at that, remember.

The real question here, in light of these three movies is, “Is the convention of ‘prequel’ a shameless, money-making trick or is it a legitimate narrative convention?” There are two well-written articles from respected publications that elaborate each side and frame this debate. The first is a review of Star Trek in The New Yorker in which Anthony Lane rages against that film with a kind of snark that would have made his colleague David Denby blush. His main target is what he calls the “long-range backstory,” and he cites examples from the Willy Wonka remake to Batman Begins.

And he doesn’t like them, his thesis being that “there is a beauty to the merely given.” The fact that Hollywood seems so intent on delivering these backstories, he says, is an indication that those responsible for these films see their audience as little more than “plaintive children” who demand to have everything explained.

That particular metaphor, the audience as children, leads into the other article I mentioned, a piece by film critic Ty Burr that was published in The Boston Globe called “Backstory: Why we love prequels.” Burr acknowledges that the prequel is, among other things, used as a marketing tool – “business as usual,” he calls it. But then he takes it further, suggesting that the audience is comforted by the familiarity of known characters and the fantasy that these characters live, like we do, “between the connective tissue of our media experiences.” He also points to examples of prequel in other media ranging from scripture to television to music to literature, even calling the Aeneid a prequel to The Iliad, a reference that flies in the face of Lane’s assertion that backstory would have ruined classical literature like Hamlet. True, Burr acknowledges, prequels are a kind of “childish cheat” that prolongs the story, but, he concludes, what’s so wrong with that.

So I’m a child. I want to be entertained. I don’t want to be taken out of the myth. When I sensed that Star Trek was coming to a close, I turned to my wife and said, as sincerely as I’ve ever said anything, “I wish this would never end.” Luckily, if I know my Star Trek, there will be at least a few more sequels (and maybe even prequels) to keep the dream alive.

This may be a “childish cheat.” I may be asking for more than the “merely given,” but isn’t that what going to the movies is all about? And isn’t that an important part of all narrative? Isn’t that the power of myth? And isn’t the sound that Woverine’s claws make as they emerge from his knuckles wicked cool?

State by State,
and How I Made Amends with my Inner Patriot

State by State,
Ecco: New York, 2008.

My eyeballs hurt. I have the sneaking suspicion that too many years of HTML coding and general tech-geekery are coming to bear, and in the not-too-distant future, I may find myself standing in front of an eye chart in an optometrist’s office seeing icons instead of letters, a giant <a> tag where the big “E” should be.

But that’s alright. I don’t like that my eyes hurt, or that I squint more often than ever before, but, perhaps not so secretly, I’ve always kind of wanted glasses. I can hear the chorus of voices rising from my four-eyed friends: “You don’t know what you’re saying! It’s a huge inconvenience! And contact lenses! Think of the children!” (Someone in a crowd always shouts “Think of the children.”)

And I’m sure they’re all right. I probably don’t really want glasses. But there was a time, sophomore year in college, when I wore big, black, thick, horn-rimmed fake glasses around all the time. Sure they were fake, but I looked cool.

(Fact: Writers with thick glasses are cool.)

Sadly, it may be this very thing that attracted me to an author who is quickly becoming a favorite. That thick-rimmed, prolific, and word-nerdy author is none other than Jonathan Franzen, bearer, not only of cool glasses, but an excellent first name, and author of, most famously, The Corrections.

I was introduced to Franzen through his now-famous “Harper’s Essay” as it first appeared in that magazine under the title “Perchance to Dream.” In it, Franzen laments what he sees as the impending death of fiction by conjuring Flannery O’Connor’s emphasis on mystery as a major tenet of story. By the time I got around to reading the essay it was re-titled “Why Bother?” and had been included in Franzen’s first collection of essays, How to Be Alone.

This is all by way of explaining my tardy introduction to Franzen, and let me recommend one more piece before I move on to the actual subject of this article: as my wife and I make our way through life here in New York City, Franzen’s essay “First City,” also from How to Be Alone, provides a kind of meta-story for what city living means in the United States in the twenty-first century. I highly recommend it.

On a Friday night last December, I had the chance to actually see (and hear) the man in person.He was reading from a recently published book entitled State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, wherein Franzen, accompanied by Parker Posey (of Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, etc.), Sarah Vowell (author, most recently, of The Wordy Shipmates, a kind of irreverent history of the Pilgrims), and several other actors presented a staged reading of Franzen’s essay for that volume.

State by State is a collection of essays, stories, and reporting written by fifty contemporary authors – with a few actors, musicians, and artists thrown in there – about the United States, each writer taking on a different state. The inspiration for the collection is the American Guide series, commissioned by the government as part of the New Deal and completed as a part of the Federal Writers Project in the 1930s.

Franzen’s essay is about New York, not the state he’s from, but one he loves. He wrote his piece in the form of a short play, which is why it made for an entertaining reading and why he solicited the help of actors. In it, Franzen was trying to get an interview with New York State for his chapter in the book and found, much to his surprise, that the New York that he was in awe of as a young man has disappeared, replaced by a more superficial, commercial, and all-around unpleasant version of her former self, seen most notably in her largest city.He laments the lack of personality and the lust for money that he sees as typifying the city and somehow in the meantime manages to tell the history of the state, its geological makeup, and how it came to change from the place he remembers (or thought he remembered) to the place it is today.

I love the idea behind State by State. When I began reading it, its themes fed like tributaries into my stream of thought, simultaneously bolstering and challenging ideas I had been mulling in the year leading up to the election of President Obama, and even before. There was a time beginning with my junior year of college when I could have been, and often was, described as unpatriotic. It started after 9/11 while everyone was displaying the flag in their windows, on their cars, on their bodies, on advertisement – everywhere. I’m not even sure I actually was unpatriotic; I was just so busy asking questions that I forgot to go out and get an American flag bumper sticker.

The way I see it, too much was up in the air for me at that time, and not enough had yet landed. But as I began to sort things out, I realized that I never lost my American identity; in fact, my sense of my place in this country and in the world was greater defined.

I’ll explain it another way. Remember, during the endless presidential campaign, when Michelle Obama got in all kinds of trouble for saying that for the first time in her adult life she was proud of this country? I resonated with that. After the long night of pondering my personal identity in relation to my national identity, I woke up to a country that had answered a very planned and pointed attack with flailing punches in the dark. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, despite the fact that I and many others in New York City, and around the world, took to the streets to ask the President not to attack Iraq, he did it anyway. And then the next six years happened. It was quite a rude awakening for me.

But after all those years of questioning, I began to find some answers. Then, in 2004, I heard an inspiring politician (the first person, in my lifetime, to whom the words “inspiring” and “politician” both apply) give a speech that energized a party and, eventually, a country, and I was all in.

It’s a good time for Americans to read a book like State by State, a good time to remember why our country is great. It’s a time to look ahead and a time to heal. I’m interested now in knowing how they live in those “red” states that, for so long, have formed an unnavigable sea between the East and West Coasts, and, in each of the essays in State by State, I can get just that.

At Home in Jersey City

Things one knows about Jersey City prior to ever visiting:
One, it’s in New Jersey.
Two, it has the word “Jersey” in its name.
Three, you can see it from Manhattan.
And four, uh, it’s in New Jersey.

When my wife and I decided to move to NYC so she could go to grad school, everything we knew about the city on the other side of the Hudson fit neatly into the above statement, but Steph needed quick access to TriBeCa, and I needed to be able to drive out to Northern Jersey for work. Despite our lack of any real knowledge and our awareness of the stereotypes, we decided to give Jersey City a chance.

Stereotypes held concerning Jersey City: Many people, particularly those who live east of the Hudson, have some deeply ingrained but categorically unfounded stereotypes regarding Jersey City. These we discovered recently when we invited friends over for a visit. “Will it take about an hour to get there? But there aren’t any good restaurants, are there? Isn’t it all gas stations and strip malls? Does it smell? Should we bring a gun?”

Most people who hold these stereotypes have never visited. Some have.

Anyway, one true generalization concerning Jersey City is this: the closer one gets to the river, the nicer – and more expensive – the neighborhoods become. So, on a Saturday, just a few weeks before we hoped to make our move, I charted out a course for us that would begin in Jersey City Heights, located on a cliff above Hoboken and the least pricey part of the city, through Journal Square, and eventually to the downtown area and the waterfront.

A word about the Heights and Journal Square: These are two very up-and-coming neighborhoods in Jersey City, but with all due respect to those who live there, neither place was for us. The first few apartments that we visited did not give us any sense of “home.” Signs of development were visible but, we ultimately decided, we wouldn’t be living in the Heights or Journal Square. Slightly disheartened, we continued on.

I will never forget what happened next. The feeling that settled on us in our car as we descended Newark Avenue into downtown Jersey City can only be described as “coming home.” Dilapidated buildings gave way to beautifully restored brownstones. Dollar stores gave way to restaurants with names like Skinner’s Loft, Ox, Beechwood Cafe, and The Merchant. We drove slowly and rubbernecked at the openness of Grove Street Plaza, the elegance of City Hall, and finally, at the heart of the neighborhood we had come to see, the astoundingly well kept Victorian-era Van Vorst Park.

I was immediately taken by the rows of brownstones that surrounded the park, reminding me more of the Cosbys’ neighborhood than any notion I had of Jersey. Steph loved the fact that streets are lined with trees and the buildings reflect the obvious intention of the residents to beautify their homes. We explored down by the waterfront, walked the boardwalk along the Hudson River and took a short trip over to the vast open space that is Liberty State Park.

Within a few hours we paid a deposit and signed a lease for a one bedroom on the first floor of a brownstone building. As we sat in a local coffee shop and ate sandwiches, marveling at the range of emotions we had experienced in one morning, the inevitable line of questioning set in.

Questions one asks shortly after deciding to live in Jersey City: “So, can we still say we live in New York City? Do we have to say we live in Jersey now?” Steph asked. These questions had been on my mind as well, and all I had was more questions. “What will people think when we tell them we chose Jersey City? What will they assume about us?”

We’re coming up on a year here now. And in that year an amazing thing has happened: we’ve begun to make Chilltown our own, to proudly call it our home.
There is a feeling we try to describe to friends, but that they don’t understand until they visit. When we get off the PATH at Grove Street, we walk up the stairs, out of the station, into the open air of the plaza, and feel an unmistakable sense of peace. From the bustle of Manhattan, to our little corner of it all, there is that same experience of homecoming that we felt the first time we drove into town.

What Jersey City is really like: On our way home we might stop in at any of the bars or restaurants that, in good weather, spill out onto the sidewalks, tables full, depending on the time, with people unwinding after work, couples out for a walk with their dog, or families surrounded by baby carriages and young children. Some days we feel we are in the vast minority, having neither a dog nor children. But we are so happy to enjoy seeing the dogs and children of our neighbors.

Minor inconveniences related to living in Jersey City: Though our commute is short (seven minutes to the World Trade Center, 20 minutes to 33rd Street) and the PATH generally takes us where we want to go (downtown or the Village), if we want to go anywhere north of Herald Square we have to transfer to the MTA, and there is no free transfer from the PATH. We still often have to explain exactly where it is we live, sometimes bringing up the map on my phone to locate us in relation to Manhattan, and it is a lot more difficult to get people to visit us because they have to cross not only the Hudson, but the much wider psychological gap between there and here.

Becoming Jersey City Evangelists: Excepting those things, we have found a sense of home here that we didn’t expect to find anywhere outside of our beloved Boston. And, with this piece as evidence, we’ve become what I call “Jersey City Evangelists,” spreading the good news to any and all who will listen, though Steph is a bit more hesitant. “We don’t want everybody to move here,” she reminds me.

But why not? There’s plenty of space and, unlike many other places in the area, the perpetual construction of condo and apartment buildings continues even in the midst of this recession.

So, check out Jersey City. You may find that unique sense of homecoming that we experienced. At the very least you’ll enjoy some amazing Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty views, some good food and music.

And don’t worry: if you decide to move here, you’ll get used to telling people that Jersey is not all gas stations and strip malls.

Postmodernism, The Big Green Ogre

I’m a big fan of the Shrek movies. They enter the world of fairy tales from the perspective of an ogre – a character that has never been painted so sympathetically. But from this perspective, the story – all the stories, really – is turned on its head. Prince Charming, the traditional hero, is a whiny bad guy. His mother, Fairy Godmother, is evil. We are able to see from the point of view of traditional villains like Captain Hook, Rumpelstiltskin, and Snow White’s Evil Queen. Strangely, when the “angle of illumination has altered,” as John Updike wrote in his story “Leaves,” they’re not actually all that bad.

And then there’s the chorus of minor characters: the wise-cracking Gingerbread Man; Pinocchio, whose lies are so obvious he’s a constant source of truth; the wolf and three pigs who eat together; and the love-struck dragon who falls for Shrek’s companion, Donkey. It occurred to me somewhere in the middle of re-watching the final installment in the series that the Shrek movies are animated acts of deconstruction. They are striking examples of postmodernism in popular culture.

As it turns out, film is a fine way to enter into a discussion of postmodernism. I’m taking my cue here from a book by James K.A. Smith, unfortunately titled Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism. Smith insists – like American evangelical philosopher and theologian Francis Schaeffer – that philosophy has a “trickle down” effect into culture. That is, he differentiates between postmodernism, the philosophy, and postmodernity, the time in which we are now living. But postmodernity is permeated with, and perhaps is a result of, the concepts presented in postmodernism. Smith echoes Schaeffer’s assertion that “cultural phenomena tend to eventually reflect philosophical movements.” We can certainly see this in the upside-down universe of Shrek.

But then I started to think, what other parts of our culture bear the mark of postmodernism? Where else have the thoughts of mostly European thinkers from the early to mid-twentieth century nested in our contemporary culture? It seems that the most pervasive residue of postmodernism is my generation’s attraction to irony. Now, irony is not necessarily a tenet of postmodernism, but it is certainly a result of a few of the major ideas that come from postmodern thought: the belief that there is nothing outside of text, and an incredulity toward meta-narratives.

These two concepts come across as rather high-minded, and when they were first introduced, they confused many of their modern audience. But to our twenty-first century minds, they are not that difficult. The idea that there is nothing outside the text is most often attributed to Jacques Derrida, father of deconstruction. It posits that we can’t know anything absolutely, and therefore everything is open to interpretation, like a text. Not too crazy, right?

Another giant of postmodernism, Jean Francois Lyotard, put forth the other big idea – incredulity toward meta-narratives. For him, the biggest problem with modern thought was that certain overarching stories (or narratives) were allowed to make a claim to absolute truth, and do so unquestioned. Certainly religion falls into this category, but then, so does science. In short, anything that claimed to be right “just because” was suspect to Lyotard and his postmodern followers. Again, to our contemporary ears, this doesn’t sound so crazy.

The ironic sentiment that has settled on our generation is a direct result of these two ideas. Once everything is up for interpretation and grand truth-claims are suspect, a detached irony is the only way to safely navigate postmodern waters. The examples are everywhere: tune in to any TV show, read any of our contemporary authors, go to the movies, watch a commercial – irony is everywhere.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to the open exchange of ideas, would you rather be confronted with somebody who “knows” you’re wrong because they have direct access to truth, or someone who’s skeptical and exhibits her skepticism with a cool detachment?

Neither is ideal. The kind of claims to the absolute that modernity made often lead to solipsism and isolation, and over-irony leads to snark, as David Denby explores in his essay on the subject. An eager sincerity would win the day, but that’s a discussion for another essay.

Irony leaves room for the possibility that minds can be changed, learning can happen, and the door is always open. I maintain that one of the best examples of this in contemporary media is Shrek. Being ironic about the stories we grew up with allows us to see things from a different perspective, to take into account the feelings of those we otherwise would not have cared to consider.

The result of seeing from another’s perspective is generally a broader understanding, a more balanced judgment, and a kinder heart. Maybe Captain Hook really is misunderstood; perhaps the hideous step-sisters have some inner beauty; and maybe, just maybe, an ugly ogre is better served as an analogy for postmodernism than a Broadway musical.