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It’s Annoying Being White

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Written for Martin Luther King Day, 1993, Honolulu Star-Bulletin

My daughter came home from school a while ago and asked what she was. “I don’t know what I am,” she said. “And no one will tell me.” She was puzzled.
“You’re a little girl,” says I. “Or, to be politically correct, you’re a chronologically challenged adult. We don’t want to be age-ist.”
“No, I mean what I am. Other kids are Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Okinawan, Samoan, Polynesian — we learn about them. Where they come from. But they don’t tell me what I am.”
She was feeling left out, and unsure why. No joking matter to a six year-old.
This is where you earn the big money as a parent. I could tell her the politically incorrect version, which, unvarnished, would come out as. “You’re a haole. That means your ancestors come from Europe, mostly, some time ago. They’re called ‘white people.’ They settled all around the world and threw their weight around as much as possible, which means that world culture is so heavily influenced by ‘white’ culture that teachers feel no need to emphasize that.
“An example. While Martin Luther King is almost always referred to as great ‘black’ leader, and Sun Yat Sen is a great ‘Chinese’ leader, Franklin Roosevelt is never referred as a great ‘white’ leader. That’s because haoles ran things for so long — and still do — that the fact of their racial background is not an issue. It’s taken for granted. Your teachers are trying to keep alive what’s special in other cultures. That’s good. And, as a 6-year-old haole, you must pay the price of centuries of injustice inflicted by people of your race on others.”
I could tell by her face this explanation wasn’t going to fly. It also creates an us-and-them mindset that I feel will be eventually damaging, because it so easily becomes us-versus-them. It’s a frustrating dilemma. The question of race or culture is too often a smoke screen for the real bottom line, which is economics and class systems.
Being a kid of the ’60s. I thought this would all be over with by now. Harmony would break out between cultures by the ’90s. We’d be the “golden race” that James Michener predicted, a blend of skin colors and ethnic cultures. I grew up in the world’s most integrated neighborhoods, U.S. military bases, where failure to recognize an individual except by rank was discouraged.
Instead, things are more fractionated than ever. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes up, the current state of racial relations is profoundly depressing. The upcoming Hawaiian Overthrow anniversary also threatens to become a whites-vs-locals flashpoint, when it really boiled down to who controlled the dollars back then.
I’ve always felt more American than white anyway. and the strength of America is in its diversity of cultures and peoples. My folks were North Country laborers who fled Scotland 300 or more years ago, and have lived here for so long that the “old country” is simply a phrase. Since then, we’ve soaked up other bloodlines, including American Indian, if my grandmother could be believed.
It’s more important, however, to learn from other cultures than to descend from them.
It’s annoying being white. Whites don’t get along any better than anyone else. Ask anyone in Bosnia or Northern Ireland. Besides, being called “white” or “haole” lumps you in with the French, the snottiest gang of simps on the planet. (OK, I do have my prejudices.)
None of this, however, was helping my little girl. So I went with the flow. Better to have an identifiable cultural background, however tenuous, than to spend a lifetime trying to fit into others. “You’re Scots,” I said to her.
“No!” I scowled. “Scotch is a drink. Scots are a people. And if someone calls you Scotch, be prepared to defend yourself. Don’t let anyone make fun of your cultural heritage — whatever it is.”

Godzilla attack!

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

Andy ain't scared of no Godzilla!

Actually, this Godzilla was firstborn Amelia’s favorite toy as a child. No dolls for her, she dragged around Godzilla. Considering that it’s been in the closet for 25 years, Godzilla looks pretty good.

Godzilla’s Big Foot

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

2 stars

It’s always interesting to see places you know well on the silver screen, and it’s even better if these places get destroyed by gigantic monsters. So when, in “Godzilla,” a military functionary announces there’s an “anomaly northeast of Diamond Head,” we barely have time to think “Kaimuki?” when the scene shifts to a trackless jungle dozens — maybe hundreds — of miles away from civilization, and the automatic reaction is, “That ain’t right …”

Spoiler alert: Movies aren’t reality. Movies are a fever-dream impression of reality. That’s why McGarrett and Danno can make a left turn on Waialae Avenue and immediately be on the North Shore. And why Godzilla can wade ashore on lovely evening in Waikiki, tear the joint apart, get attacked by fighter jets, and then hightail it across the Koolaus without waking up folks over in Waianae.

It’s interesting. The early Hawaii scenes are clearly filmed in Waikiki, but the mountains appear a little too close, or maybe they’re quite a bit too tall. They are towering over Waikiki. And uninhabited, because there’s no suburban streetlights visible. But we barely have time to focus on Waikiki before we discover that Oahu’s rail-transit system is already up and running, and the international airport has expanded mightily, with enclosed glass-window concourses. (And, alas, neither proves to be monster-proof.)

There’s just enough reality to lend reasonable suspension-of-disbelief to the rest of the proceedings. And the reason gigantic monsters destroy recognizable landmarks is because the landmarks are recognizable. D’uh, bro. The Golden Gate Bridge has been destroyed so many times in movies that I’ve lost count. The bridge eats it here too, naturally, when the monsters destroy San Francisco. Only the Transamerica Pyramid is unscathed, likely because its image is copyrighted and the Golden Gate Bridge is in public domain.

Oops, did I say monsters, plural? The “Godzilla” trailers have been most excellent in playing up the awesomeness without getting very specific on details. There are three, count ‘em, three monsters for the price of one in “Godzilla.”

How has it come to this? There’s no size limit where it comes to metaphors. The bigger the better. And when you’re dealing with a filmic metaphor that encapsulates both the harsh resiliency of nature and the bumbling hubris of mankind … well, the sky’s the limit.

Toho Studios’ surprise 1954 hit, “Gojira,” which was redubbed into English and some additional American scenes added, was released in the U.S. as “Godzilla, KIng of the Monsters” in 1956, and a classic movie monster was born. There have been dozens of versions since, and a not-so-subtle recasting of Godzilla from a Tokyo-stomper into a Japanese folk hero, but basically, all the films since boil down to a guy in a rubber suit kicking over balsa-wood model skyscrapers. You gotta love the schadenfreude involved, and the movies are the perfect arena to experience destructo-porn.

The original film, however, was a fairly dark — and not-so-subtle — metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war. This notion has pretty much evaporated, paralleling Japan’s increasing dependence on nuclear power.

The American nightmare that provides context and weight is the 9/11 attack, and the long shadow of that horror has permeated American films since. Add to that the crushing natural disaster of the 2011 tsunami in Iwate Prefecture that swamped the Fukushima nuclear plant, and you have a modern-day recipe for a Godzilla movie.

This grim background gives the new film some karmic weight. It all starts out promisingly a bit more than a decade ago as a nuclear plant in Japan has a meltdown, perhaps due to a concurrent and mysteriously regular seismic disturbance. The guy in charge (Bryan Cranston, looking bug-eyed crazy) and his wife (Juliette Binoche, looking fab) are harshly effected by the disaster, and when “Godzilla” zips up to the present day, their Seal-team son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) finds himself dragged back into the mystery as the seismic drumbeats start up again. Also on board are a freaked-out Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe, with odd English diction) and his Sancho Panza, a sidekick (Sally Hawkins) who doesn’t seem to have a name and exists mainly to provide expository dialogue.

Director Gareth Edwards, whose only previous series credit was the independent thriller “Monsters,” does a fine job here with Spielbergian camera moves and composite shots, plus that hard-to-capture sense of overwhelming awesomeness,

Predictably, on a human level, “Godzilla” is meh. The human “star” actors don’t last long, and the second-string actors who carry the rest of the film are, as you might expect, fall under Godzilla’s shadow. They’re mostly reduced to staring upward in horror or dusting themselves off after being buried by rubble.

The real stars are the monsters. Big, big, sprawling monsters. There’s the Big G himself (The film notes state that Godzilla is 350 feet tall, but who’s measuring?) plus some awkward-looking insectoid / pterodactylish / bullfroggy creatures they call “Mutos.” Godzilla spends much of the film getting from here to there so he can thrash them. Godzilla is so focused on this that he doesn’t notice the convoy of US Navy ships keeping him close company, or that he’s stomped Waikiki into brightly-painted rubble. Big G doesn’t even stop to eat.

Come to think of it, there’s been a curious switch in Godzilla’s diet since 1954. Instead of being a poster child for the horrors of nuclear radiation, Godzilla and the Mutos “eat” radiation for breakfast. Godzilla has retained his morning-after radiation breath, however.

Eating radiation? So much for science.

Hey, Mr. Science, can there really be giant monsters like Godzilla?

Actually, no. The problem is the tensile strength of the average cell. There is an upper limit to how much strain can be placed upon the cells in bones and muscles, and the enormous mass of such a creature would rend the cells apart. Even though some of the dinosaur sauropods were dozens of feet long, they were long and narrow in their physical structure. Cetaceans such as whales have large body mass, but they are supported by water, which is 800 times denser than air. Not to mention the caloric intake required by a Godzilla-sized creature to supply nutrients throughout its gigantic frame. A monster the size of Godzilla would collapse under its own mass, the pressure actually liquifying the body cells into a kind of protein ooze.

Gee, Mr. Science, you’re kind of a bummer. Think I’ll escape reality by going to the movies.

An update on the Pearl Harbor library situation

Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

I talked to NPS superintendent Paul DePrey today, and he was more encouraging about the Arizona Memorial/Pacific Historic Parks library situation. He was careful to point out that there is a difference between what they call the “library” and what they house in their “collection,” which are the artifacts, documents and other ephemera being preserved by park curators and historians.
According to DePrey, the library was simply some reference books they kept on hand for the in-house use of the staff. Although this is largely gone, they do still have some volumes, but DePrey says they’re nothing special, just generic Pearl Harbor books.
The collection, on the other hand, is boxed up and placed into deep storage at the Pacific Historic Parks warehouse. There is a plan afoot to house these items eventually in the new NOAA structure being constructed on Ford Island, along with NOAA’s own library. This is at least a couple of years off. So if you need to do research, hold your horses, and get a day pass to Ford Island, which isn’t easy for civilians. But there’s a plan in place, they say, never fear.
As for the library shelving and such, DePrey said that what was tossed wasn’t worth keeping, and the good stuff found homes elsewhere in the park. I’m hearing, though, that other office materials were canned. Government regs require an inventory and estimated value of disposed items, and it might be interesting to see what was dumpstered.

Sunday Matinee: Los Vampiros

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Sunday Matinee: Brain Leeches

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

Another history asset gone

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

I’m not real happy with the National Park Service right now. The NPS has shut down the research and archive library at what used to be known as the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center. It was a terrific resource for historians; I used it myself several times. But no more. Everything’s been boxed up and disposed of. Adding insult to injury, the library’s expensive solid-oak bookshelves were simply dumpstered. We could have really used them at the Ford Island museum! I would have thought that taxpayer-funded property went through a more reasonable disposal process. The whole thing is just weird. Museums and historical centers exist as repositories of knowledge and cultural heritage and to simply trash a collection built up over four decades is bizarre. And sad.

Sunday Matinee: Only Known Baby Movie of My Friend Mutt

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

Sunday Matinee: Up There

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

It’s in the cards

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

I’ve discovered that working at one of the top ten aviation museums in the country is a soothing combination of being up to your ass in alligators, herding cats and nailing Jello to a tree. Fun! I have a new name tag, just in case I forget who I am. And just to compare, here also is my photo ID building pass from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. I was told by management that being able to make out the ID part wasn’t really necessary.