Thursday, September 26, 2013

“Stugots,” or “Who Gives a F---” about Immigrants?

So, K. and I have finally gotten around to watching The Sopranos. I say “finally,” because the show was on TV from 1999-2007. There was a lot of fanfare around the show when it was on, and nowadays many culture critics cite the show as ushering in a new era of TV that focuses on complex plotting, multiple story lines, and oodles of characters, many of whom never make it to the final episode.
            The Sopranos is fairly easy to get hooked on, as it has several qualities that are generally of interest to avid TV drama viewers: mobsters, wealth, violence, and psychological depth. The main character, Tony Soprano, goes to a shrink (the show even makes a quick quip about Analyze This at one point, demonstrating that even the writers acknowledge that such a plot set up has already been done). Similarly, the characters are varied enough that we all have our favorites, and even the characters that we hate, we love to hate. Shows like Rome, Mad Men, Game of Thrones and no doubt many other HBO and Showtime series are indebted to the plotting and characterization techniques of The Sopranos, a show that frequently introduces new characters and plot lines without explaining them overtly to the audience. And like the later shows, The Sopranos has some local color—the action takes place in Northern New Jersey, among Italian Americans who are proud of their origins and often pepper their conversations with Neapolitan, Southern Italian and Sicilian dialect and pronunciation.
            As a former student of Italian language and a fan of Italy and its cultural heritage and food in general, as well as a former resident of another North Eastern enclave of Italian-Americanness (Long Island), I enjoy the show on a lot of different levels. One thing that bothers me, however, (and I’ll try to keep it just to that one thing) is that the set-up of the show does little to dispel the mythos of Italian-Americans as mafia gangsters with serious anger management problems. Sure, the show includes characters, like Dr. Melfi, her ex-husband who is a prominent member of the Italian American Anti-defamation League, and the Sopranos’ neighbors, the Cusumanos, who are Italian-American and deplore this stereotype. But this rhetoric of resistance against stereotypes seems to be the exception that proves the rule. By and large, the show focuses on Tony and his gang of capos and underlings who use explicit language and racial slurs, have no control over their anger, resort to violence at the drop of a hat, and constantly drink and smoke. That’s not to say that the Italian-American mobsters who inhabit the show don’t enjoy high culture. Tony frequently uses SAT words and makes allusions to literature; the characters often watch classic black and white films; and even Paulie takes his mother and some other senior ladies to see The Producers on Broadway. These moments, however, are often jarring or humorous precisely because we read them as a deviation from the norm.
            All these issues got me thinking about how annoying it must be for many real-life Italian-Americans to be represented so often on film and television as either poor immigrants or angry mobsters. When I thought about this a little more, I realized that immigrants in the US are almost always portrayed as either poor or gangsters—when they get a role on the screen at all. This characterization flies in the face of my own experiences. My parents moved to the United States because my father got a post-doc position at an American university. Growing up, nearly all the Polish people I met had graduate degrees, often doctorates, in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics and other lab sciences. I had friends whose parents had also immigrated to the US from other countries, like India or China, and whose parents were also solidly middle-class and educated. (One film that does represent such a “class” of immigrants is The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel.) Yet, when Poles do get time on the big (or small) screen, they are cleaners, plumbers, mechanics or other working-class characters. And I’m not even talking about just the representation of Polish immigrants (who are usually either cleaners, like on The Sopranos, or gangsters, like Ben Kingsley in the film You Kill Me. Yes, there are Polish gangsters.). Characters with Polish last names are almost always working-class characters. Consider Vince Vaugh as Gary Grobowski in The Break-Up or as Dave Wozniak in the recent Delivery Man (the title says it all). Or how about Dave Lizewski, the underdog superhero of Kick-Ass? Or the Lorkowski family that struggles to pay the bills in Sunshine Cleaning? The list could go on. Polish-American seems to equal working class in Hollywood. Why can’t there be a doctor or a lawyer with a Polish last name? Why do Polish or Polish-American characters have to be yet another version of Stanley Kowalski?
            When we consider the bigger picture, Polish-Americans and Italian-Americans are not alone. Rarely are there characters with non-Anglo names in film or television (the one exception may be Jewish characters, who are frequently depicted in entertainment media as business owners, lawyers, entertainers and doctors, among other professions). Regarding the rest of the many immigrant populations, the obvious mental block seems to be that people (read: Americans) cannot readily believe that someone named Dr. Kowalski could be a brain surgeon, or that a Ms. Abruzzo could be the CEO of a company. On the other hand, at least Italian-American actors have many roles to choose from, even if they are the same kind of role (a large percentage of the actors on The Sopranos have Italian last names, for example). When the actress playing the Polish cleaning lady on The Sopranos spoke in Polish on the show, she had an accent a mile wide. A quick check revealed that, just as I suspected, she isn’t at all Polish in real life; she’s Russian.
            But maybe the producers of the show thought we wouldn’t notice…Stugots!

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Puppy Diaries: The First Week

For K.K. and I had always known we wanted to be pet owners. From the earliest times of our relationship we discussed all our hopes and dreams, and both of us were in agreement that pets—both dogs and cats—would be in our future. We adopted our kitty, Calliope, in the fall of 2010, after some friends of ours adopted one. When I saw their adorable kitten, I decided then and there that we would not wait another month. I wanted a kitten, and I wanted it now. After several weeks of driving around to different shelters (most depressing thing ever), we finally found our little tortoise-shell miracle in a cage by herself at a large shelter on Long Island. She was about 12 weeks old and quite the bundle of energy and delight.

Calliope was a grumpy cat before Grumpy Cat.
But we still love her!
(This is at about 4 months old.)
As much as we loved Calliope, we still wanted a dog. I had grown up without pets (I don’t count my guinea pigs, which were boring and stinky, mostly) but yearned for a cat or a dog or both. I had always vowed to myself that I would get a pet as an adult. Mostly I thought of myself as a cat person, but dogs appealed to me, too. Once I took up jogging on a more regular basis in grad school, I especially liked the idea of having a dog I could go jogging or on long walks with. K.K. had always had dogs growing up and was nearly mad at the thought that we couldn’t have one in our duplex on Long Island. It just wasn’t feasible there, however, since we had no yard, a neighbor downstairs, and a picky landlord. Our move to Tennessee, though, and the house that we found with a gigantic fenced yard meant that it was puppy time.
            We picked up Bingley last Saturday from a breeder near Athens, TN. (N.B. Cookeville is near Sparta, TN. I believe there is also a Troy and a Carthage, TN. So it’s not just NY State with its delusions of Homeric grandeur.) Long ago we had decided that we wanted a breed of dog that would be predisposed to pleasing his owners, a naturally friendly and low-key breed. Around the same time, I had proposed that if Mr. Bingley, the character in the Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice, were to be reincarnated as a dog, he would surely be a Golden Retriever since he was so friendly, and he always desired to please everyone. (At the same time, he was very obedient in listening to his good friend, Mr. Darcy.) Thus, it seemed the very pinnacle of perfection that we should adopt a Golden Retriever and name him Mr. Bingley.
I mean...he even looks like a Golden, amiright?
A week into puppy ownership, I have to admit I wasn’t exactly ready for what it all entails. All our friends kept warning us it would be a lot of work and pretty exhausting, but no one explained that it was more psychologically exhausting than anything else. Having a puppy in your house is like having a stranger come to live with you.  A stranger who cannot explain his needs at any given time. I find myself constantly guessing, “Is he hungry? Is he tired? Is he annoyed? Is he sleepy? Does he need to pee? Have we spent enough time outside today?” After the first two days, I went back and reread some sections of the puppy books we bought used off the internet, and I felt better when I realized that many people get a puppy and then go right back to work. Our puppy has the advantage that one of us was home almost all day long, since we teach on alternate days. Maybe I wasn’t such a bad puppy mommy after all. Similarly, the book explained (something I had missed in my earlier reading) that between 8-10 weeks, you cannot expect your puppy to do much of anything, obedience-wise. You are lucky if he doesn’t pee in the house or whine at night. (Bingley does neither, barring one small accident. But one accident in the first week seems fine to me!)
            Of course, Bingley is a little bundle of joy, too. He is probably the cutest thing with four paws every to walk the planet (except for Calliope when she was a kitten, of course). He looks a little like a teddy bear, and sometimes, when he’s rolling around on his back waiting for me to pat his belly, I swear he’s smiling at me. He’s especially adorable when he’s asleep, pooped after a day of chewing his toys, running around the yard, discovering all sorts of new smells, and occasionally growling at his trout-shaped chew-toy. But it’s hard not to smile when he comes running over to you, too, to say hello and give you a friendly lick. He’s still transitioning from being dog-oriented to being people-oriented—after all, it’s only been a week since he’s been away from his mom and dad and littermates.  But it seems like he’s adjusting pretty well. I look forward to the time when he’ll be ready to learn how to respond to commands, walk on a leash, and sit calmly when guests come to visit. (Right now he seems to think of guests as chew-toys…) For now, he’s just a puppy baby: sweet and cute even when he’s growling at a stick in the yard. And of course he’s tiny—he weighs just about the same as the cat!
Gaaaah! too cute!
And speaking of kitty…Calliope is slowly adjusting to having the pup around. We have a baby gate set up for now between the kitchen (Bingley’s domain) and the living room and the bedrooms (Calliope’s territory—for now). The first day, from behind her side of the baby gate, Calliope observed the dog in a position that clearly screamed, “I’m ready to run at any second.” Sunday morning, it was clear that Calliope had not expected that the dog would still be here. So far she has alternately ignored him, watched him carefully, hissed at him (he’s barked at her only once so far), and run away. Increasingly, she has become more curious. At first she would only come into the kitchen when we took the dog in the back yard. Then she would scramble awkwardly onto a counter and over the gate back into the living room. Last night, however, she boldly sauntered into the TV room, which is just off the mudroom/kitchen area, where K.K. and I were watching The Sopranos with Bingley asleep at our feet. While he slept, she hung out in the den, climbing up the couches, but always keeping a watchful eye on the dog. She didn’t hang around long once the dog started to wake up, but this could be the start (we hope) of an interspecies perestroika.