The Final Frontier

In three weeks, assuming that the Grim Reaper has no plans to kindly stop for me, I will celebrate my 54th birthday.  My feelings about this can best be described by comparing them to the colorful gumballs in the bubblegum machine that greeted me every other Saturday in Mr. Council’s Barbershop on W. 4th Avenue in Red Springs, North Carolina, my hometown.  I would drop my nickel into the slot – yes, I am old enough to remember when bubblegum cost a nickel – twist the dial, and wait in anticipation of the shiny bubblegum marble that was rolling my way.  I rooted for the blue gumballs; but I really did not mind any of the other colors.  Turning 54 is like getting a red gumball; not my favorite, but an interesting change.

What really shook me, however, was that deep inside my sci-fi geek brain, I recalled reading somewhere that Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation or STNG) had assumed command of the U.S.S. Enterprise – D at or near the age of 54.  When STNG premiered back in 1987, I remember thinking that Captain Picard seemed to be a little old for the Captain’s chair. 

Now before you roll your eyes and start drafting well-intentioned comments reminding me that Jean-Luc Picard is a fictional character; let me assure you that I have not completely gone around the asteroid belt.  I still have a reasonably firm grasp on reality.  At least on Tuesdays.  That said, one of the things I love about the Star Trek franchise is the fascinating way in which it confronts complex and oftentimes uncomfortable issues.  And on this particular Tuesday that issue, for me, is aging.

Fans of the Star Trek movies featuring the original cast will remember chuckling at the toll time had taken on our heroes, led by the inimitable James Tiberius Kirk.  They were older, rounder, and grayer.  And although Admiral/Captain Kirk’s miraculously lush hair somehow defied both the years and the laws of physics, even he now had to read using old-fashioned spectacles.  It is also true that Kirk did snap at Dr. McCoy in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), “Galloping around the cosmos is a game for the young, Doctor.”  Perhaps.  But in reality, Kirk and his crew were not yet ready to hang up their phasers and check into the Zefram Cochrane Home for Retired Starfleet Officers.  Their long good-bye stretched over four more films – five if you include Kirk’s poignant “shuffling off [his] mortal coil” in Star Trek: Generations (1994).

Kirk’s worthy successor, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, is the steady hand at the helm of the Enterprise for seven seasons, more than twice the run of the Original Series (STOS).  When we last see Picard (“All Good Things…” STNG S7:E25), he is sitting down to play poker with his senior officers after having survived an adventure in which the fate of humanity itself had hung in the balance.  Accepting Lt. Commander Data’s offer to deal the cards, Captain Picard looks upon his crew with a mixture of fatherly affection and admiration, and chooses the game: “five-card stud, nothing wild, and the sky’s the limit.”  The final scene then rises from the card table to a sweeping shot of the Enterprise continuing its journey to where “no one has gone before.”  

Picard’s adventures on the big screen are, in a word, traumatic – bookended by the demise of the legendary Captain Kirk in Star Trek Generations (1994) and the android Data’s very human sacrifice in Star Trek: Nemesis (2002).  When next we see Picard (Star Trek: Picard, streaming on CBS All Access), twenty years have passed since the events in Nemesis.  Now a retired Starfleet Admiral, it is very clear that  Picard is not immune to the passage of time.  He is still haunted by Data’s death and a subsequent series of events in which he (Picard) had played a part.  And it is from this place of devastating grief and stinging regret that Picard, physically much more frail but still the determined man of principle that we first met in “Encounter at Farpoint” (STNG S1:E1), begins his greatest journey.  Out of respect for my fellow Trekkers, I will not say anything more about the intricate plot of Star Trek: Picard.  Take my advice.  Watch it.  Right now.

The creators of this spinoff series and the stewards of the Star Trek franchise are to be applauded for showing us that one of its most beloved characters does not exactly live happily ever after.  Far from it.  Picard, like the rest of us, must grapple with the inconvenient truth that our decisions and actions – even the ones made with the very best of intentions – can have consequences that we cannot always predict or avoid.  If we are lucky, time and circumstance may provide an opportunity to make amends.  But for most of us, the words of the Bard will ring the truest: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” (Julius Caesar)

Thus, I am forced to wonder if the familiar Vulcan greeting “Live Long and Prosper” is actually a bit of wisdom from the distant past when Vulcans expressed emotion and had not yet embraced the discipline of logic.   Perhaps Mr. Spock’s ancestors understood that the prosperity afforded by a long life was an understanding of self and the capacity to forgive oneself and others.

Or maybe I am reading too much into a television show.

Seven Things You Can Never Say In Politics

(In Memory of George Carlin, Requiescat In Pace)

When George Carlin died last year, I was deeply saddened.  He was one of the Great Comedians I had listened to from my childhood onward.  Indeed, I do not recall not knowing about Carlin, in the same way I do not recall not knowing how to read.

Anyway, the many obituaries and tributes that poured in paid homage to Carlin’s considerable talents, including his genius for skewering the human condition.  And, of course, they all mentioned his legendary “Seven Dirty Words.”  For a Black Baptist growing up in rural North Carolina, hearing these words was like discovering a lewd and truncated mirror image of the Ten Commandments.  (I should point out that my extremely devout grandparents, who would have cringed at Carlin’s unabashed use of the “Seven Dirty Words,” nevertheless allowed me to listen endlessly to Redd Foxx’s incredibly raunchy comedy records–on Sunday, at that.  Perhaps it had something to do with the way Black people tell stories.  Hmmm.  Methinks I have the subject for another post….)

Anyway, for some reason I felt inspired to write a little list of my own.  I have no idea why I chose politics as my canvas.  Perhaps the ghosts of Governor Eliot Spitzer’s recent resignation or the Monica Lewinsky scandal were clanging around in my head.  Who knows?  I humbly submit my “Seven Things You Can Never Say in Politics”:

  1. “I will never raise your taxes.”
  2. “Go ahead and follow me.  I have nothing to hide.”
  3. “S/he was just a staffer.  I never knew her/him personally.”
  4. “I welcome the opportunity to take my case before the American people.”
  5. “I never accepted gifts of any kind from that individual.”
  6. “I pledge to serve my full term.”
  7. “I am looking forward to spending more time with my family.”

Looking again at my list, I no longer find it as amusing as I did when I created over a year ago.  I guess you had to be there. 

Do not worry, Mr. Carlin, wherever you are.  I have no plans to give up my day job and try to do what you made look so easy for so many years.  You, Sir, were the Michelangelo of Mirth. 

[Expletive deleted.]

Michael Has Left The Building

Like much of the rest of the world — or at least that segment of it that cares about such things — I was shocked by the unexpected death of Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, last week.  News of the passing of Farrah Fawcett saddened me as well.  (The Pinup of My Generation had the misfortune of crossing the River Styx on the same day as MJ, and thus received diminished press coverage.)  Her death was actually more disheartening to me — perhaps because she had lost her struggle against cancer.  And though it may be harsh to say it, one expects — at some deep, dark, unspeakable level — that cancer is going to win most of those heroic battles.

MJ’s final departure from the stage was stunning because he, unlike Farrah Fawcett, was a part of my life almost from the moment I became aware of popular culture.  My cool cousins who lived in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D. C. had Jackson 5 albums on 8-track cassette.  (I listened to the songs so much that even today, I remember when the cassette player would “click” as it switched tracks during the music.)  I watched the Jackson 5 cartoon on TV and saw “The Wiz” in the movie theater.  And years later, as a student at a residential high school for North Carolina’s freaks and geeks, I sat spellbound in a crowded and hushed room as MJ’s “Billie Jean” premiered on MTV, then a fledgling upstart cable channel that previously had only played music videos by White artists.  From that point onward, my life could be divided into two epochs: BMJ (Before Michael Jackson) and AMJ (After Michael Jackson).  Okay, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration; but his music was the soundtrack of my adolescence.

The King of Pop’s personal eccentricities and later scandals, when I cared to take note of them, were in turns amusing and deeply troubling.  But the thing that really grafted MJ to my cultural DNA was his brief marriage to Lisa Marie Presley.  Elvis is the real musical love of my life; and though I participated in the joking about MJ’s relationship with Lisa Marie, I was secretly jealous of him for having wooed and won the daughter of the King.

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that I had foolishly believed, like most people in my generation, that MJ would always be with us .  We would grow old together and someday — many decades from now — die together.  None of us expected MJ to check out early.

Our 24-hour news and entertainment cycle is, at least for the moment, obsessed with measuring MJ’s impact on music, culture, and society.  That is well and proper as he was a figure of global stature, whether or not we wanted that to be the case.

But there is a small part of me that hopes against hope that the King of Pop is not really dead.  Maybe he just got tired of it all and decided finally to accept Elvis’ offer to join him at his villa in Argentina.  Rumor has it that Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina had a good time there.

Greetings from the Philadelphia Negro

Now that I have your attention, we should get a few things straight:

1.  I took the name of my blog from W.E.B. DuBois’ classic book: The Philadelphia Negro, A Social Study.  Now he was an intellectual.

2.  I am African American, a very liberal Republican (in the mold of the late Jack Kemp); and yes, I voted to elect President Barack Obama.

3. I am not a native of Philadelphia.  I am a Southerner, from North Carolina.  I have a Ph.D. in early American history (Princeton) and have been drawn to Philadelphia from the moment I read the first lines of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.

4.  I am interested in literature, history, science, music, and just about everything else.  I intend to write about it all.  Do yourself a favor and do not try to find a pattern in my posts.

5.  I look forward to thinking and writing about things, and to hearing from anyone who might be interested in the same stuff.