Nighttime Game at Camden Yards

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Orioles Park at Camden Yards; Baltimore, Maryland, United States

Marble Canyon

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Marble Canyon, Arizona, United States

Diamondbacks Game at Chase Field

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Chase Field; Phoenix, Arizona, United States

Desert Botanical Garden

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Desert Botanical Garden; Phoenix, Arizona, United States

The Japanese Friendship Garden

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park; San Diego, California, United States

“Got to, This is America, Man…” – Anatomy of a Scene

“‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.”

‘The Wire’ is the greatest television show of all-time. Even as the show nears the 20th anniversary since when it first aired on American cable television network, HBO, it still rings as culturally relevant and as emotionally stirring as it was when it first debuted in the Summer of 2002. While technology may be different now, the characters would not be the same, the setting could be different from the show, the overall themes, and messages from ‘The Wire’ as well as the institutions that the show focused on for five great seasons have not changed that much.

I could write a thesis on ‘The Wire’ and devote at least 10,000 words on the show in terms of an in-depth breakdown on how it’s the modern equivalent to a Shakespeare tragedy or drama. However, in this ‘Anatomy of a Scene’, I am going to focus on one of my favorite scenes in this classic television show. This scene is the opening one for the entire five-season series and discusses a core tenet of the show not just about what kind of ‘game’ that the characters play, but also the ‘game’ inherent to the setting of Baltimore, Maryland as well as America as a country.

The opening scene, more than any other scene, even if it is the 1st, one pinpoints exactly what ‘The Wire’ is about. In the first shots, you can see a young man lay face down dead on the ground on some dark city street with the police collecting evidence and a main character, who is a detective, questioning a potential witness. The associate of the victim talks about how they were involved with street gambling and how it was not fair that it was not right to kill the victim, non-ironically known as ‘snot boogie’ to the game’s players. The victim of the crime has a real name but is endeared to the rest of the game’s players by that nickname alone.

As the witness explains to Detective Jimmy McNulty of Baltimore Police, ‘Snot Boogie’ was the victim of the crime, but his associate did not expect him to be killed for stealing from the other players of the street game for playing craps. The associate tells McNulty that the victim is known for stealing and grabbing the money to run away but they never want beyond just ‘beating his ass’ up a bit.

While it is a grim description of the dangers of gambling illegally on the streets, the witness to McNulty’s murder case explains that there is an unwritten rule to the ‘game’ of street gambling and that ‘Snot Boogie’ should not have been murdered for stealing from the other players. Nobody ever tried to kill the victim even after he was found guilty of stealing money from the street game players even if they did often catch him and beat him for having done it multiple times.

The witness refuses to tell McNulty who killed his associate in this game and does not want to go to court even though he believes it was disgraceful how ‘Snot Boogie’ was killed because they always let him play even though he would always steal from them.
“I got to ask ya, if every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away…why’d you even let him in the game?”
“…What?”
“If Snot Boogie always stole the money, why did you always let him play?”
“Got to, This America, man.”

McNulty looks incredulously as the witness tells him this reasoning because at its face, it does not make much sense for a guy who steals from folks repeatedly to continue playing a dangerous and illegal craps street game. It’s clear to both characters that life itself, and life in America is far from being fair at the end of the day especially a man got killed, which was against to how the game was being played, according to the witness, even if he was stealing from them.

Even if the game is fair or is rigged to some degree, it occurs to the witness and then McNulty after he sees the guy’s reasoning that even if the game was not meant to be won and the result would always be the same, you still let the game play out. The game may not be fair like life itself in general or in America, but it must be played by everyone. It may not be a fair shot and there is no equal outcome, but there is equal opportunity out there for each player to be involved even if someone cheats, steals, and comes back to play again. The game exists for everyone to be given a shot at it and if they don’t, that’s against the principle of life itself and life in America.

There are tragic consequences to this craps game for Snot Boogie who loses his life senselessly as well as for the men who will go to jail for it or lose all their money, but the game goes on and it’s open to everyone. Like the witness explains, the game deserves to be played by everyone equally although the outcome may not be something everyone will like or even will cost some people dearly. This excellent opening scene opens with the most prominent themes of The Wire perfectly and almost seems like a graphic novel come to life. Its visuals are striking, the characters are who you can relate to on a human level, and there is a lot of foreshadowing about the rest of the show and its messages to the viewers from this tone-setting scene.

‘The Wire’ is a show about the early stages of 21st century America in its first decade of the 2000s but it is as still as relevant about 20 years later. The metaphor of this opening scene for not just a couple of guys in a craps game gone wrong in the street can pair directly too what can happen when capitalism can go off the rails when someone tries to beat the rules or try to gain an advantage when they are put at a disadvantage to begin with. If the game is rigged from the get-go even if you’re given a shot at it, what’s the point in playing by the rules? If you can beat the system even if there are dire consequences, is it not worth trying?

‘Snot Boogie’s associates knew he was a thief and a cheater because they believed that he still deserved a shot at winning like everyone else even though it was likely rigged so he would never make it after multiple tries. As the opening scene of the greatest television show of all-time shows the viewer, everybody can play the game even if they are a cheater in the sense of having equal opportunity, but what happens when no one is held accountable when the odds are stacked against them from the start of the game and there is no other way to win than by cheating the system and facing serious consequences?

The show may not be defined by its iconic opening scene but as you find as you watch the entire series, the metaphor for what that scene represents about the show and about the ethic that binds American society together long after you finish watching each of its five seasons.

Balboa Park

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: San Diego, California, United States

The Yearning for Nostalgia

“Whether it is an escape through our popular culture, a preference to revisit the past than to explore what may come in an unknown future, or to enjoy simply what we have been accustomed to, the power of nostalgia should not be underestimated.”

What is it about nostalgia that stirs such powerful emotions in us all? Why do we insist on revisiting, remaking, and reconstructing the past? This innate yearning that is part of being human, I would argue, is a part of gaining back some comfort and familiarity in an increasingly unfamiliar and complex world. Whether it is an escape through our popular culture, a preference to revisit the past than to explore what may come in an unknown future, or to enjoy simply what we have been accustomed to, the power of nostalgia should not be underestimated.

As the new year begins, looking at the popular culture, which reflects trends in our overall society, this yearning for nostalgia has only gotten more prominent in the recent years, especially with the continuing of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are multiple examples in pop culture where nostalgia is the rule rather than the exception. One example would include video games where remakes, sequels, and remastered games from the Halo series to Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty are still the most popular even after being decades long in terms of their original creation.

Another example would be television shows where one of the most popular series released recently is ‘Cobra Kai’ whose origins come from the Karate Kid movies of the 1980s, but for which has had a rebirth with the same actors almost four decades later but also with new characters who compliment the original story. Other popular shows involve those from the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Marvel’ series whose revitalizations include the bounty hunter Boba Fett (also from the 1980s as a character) and popularly known comic book heroes including ‘Loki’, ‘Captain America’, and ‘Hawkeye.’ While these comic book heroes may be new to some viewers, they also date back in their creation back to the 1990s or even earlier allowing their fans to indulge in their own nostalgia in seeing these comic book heroes come to the small screen.

I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of movies from ‘Licorice Pizza’ (1970s), ‘The Power of the Dog’ (1920s Western), ‘The Matrix: Resurrections’ (1990s-2000s), released just in the past few months who pay homage to the past from settings we are familiar with or at least recognize. While there are films and TV series that do focus on mankind’s possible future(s), such as ‘Station Eleven’ on HBOMax or ‘The Expanse’ on Amazon Prime, most popular media today focuses on either adapted stories or at least remakes of stories with slight changes or new ideas related to the same characters to keep its popularity going.

In 2022, nostalgia sells the best, which is why new Halo video games, new Spider-Man movies, and new Game of Thrones books still rule the day in terms of our popular media consumption. Now, that does not mean that our appetite for new and original ideas in our popular culture are going extinct, but you can tell that we live in an age of rampant nostalgia, which is the norm rather than taking a chance or a risk on a new story or new ideas.

I believe that this resurgent nostalgia does have its positives to give people some familiarity with what they already know from their own past and for which they have experience in liking already. In addition, it can take more time to warm up to a new story, a new idea, or a new experience when it’s easier to go with something or someone you already know. Stories can change or adapt or get better sometimes over times and just because we are familiar with a character, or a series does not mean that it automatically gets boring after a certain point.

However, it is much easier to rely on nostalgia rather than to forge a new path. In anything in life and not just popular culture, it’s not as challenging to look back on what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or what we’ve experienced than to go forward, challenge oneself, and try new things. The impulse to be comfortable with what’s familiar rather than the unknown is a powerful force and an impulse that can be hard to overcome without pushing yourself. Nostalgia does not create lasting comfort though usually and it can be rather stale to rely on reliving things, experiences, or places rather than to look forward to unknown occurrences in the future.

Sequels, remakes, reshoots, adapted materials are harder to make better than the originals and they also do not break any new ground. Whether it is film, music, art, books, or in general, it may be easier to rely on nostalgia for creation but if it does not work out, it can be harder to bounce back from that failure. If you do something original or unique instead, it will stand out much more currently, and while you may polarize people who have gotten so used to nostalgia everywhere, you can be more wildly successful in your endeavor potentially and create a new cultural touchstone.

One great example from this past year that generated not only a cultural touchstone, but a worldwide phenomenon from Seoul to London to New York was the Netflix original series, ‘Squid Game.’ While the popular show contained elements from other TV series from the past, it had its own flair to it with unique set design, memorable characters, and a compelling and timely plot. It was the #1 TV series on the global streaming platform for over a month or so and generated important conversations in the public sphere regarding capitalism, income inequality, and debt servicing. The creators of the series took a big gamble, and they could have failed but they put their heart and soul into this unique show, and it paid off in more ways than one.

‘Squid Game’ and other original programming are a lesson for us all to not let our imaginations be stymied by what’s familiar and already known. Even in an uncertain world being continually upended by a pandemic and the effects of climate change, people want to be challenged to discover what’s new and what’s important. There is room in this world for both what’s new and what’s nostalgic. I think our problems begin in society when we only crave what’s comfortable or only what’s nostalgic to us. If we only choose to focus on what we already know, we won’t be able to face what’s new or on the horizon for us. It is not good to dwell only on what’s past and to rehash forever and ever what we already like rather than not trying to discover what we may like or embrace in the future that can help us learn more about the world around us.

“…It’s Just A Business” – Anatomy of A Scene

“As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.”

“America is not a country, it’s just a business.”

‘Killing Them Softly’ is a 2012 movie that flew under the radar at the time of its release. It may seem on the surface as a movie about the mob regarding unpaid debts, illegal gambling rings, and retribution for those caught in the crossfire, but what makes this movie different is its allegory laid out in the film regarding its relation to the financial system. As the mafia tries to prop up its system of illegal gambling rings and extortion rackets by using different hired hitmen, there are radio and TV clips highlighting the role of different politicians trying to prop up the financial system in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. To keep the system functioning, drastic measures are taken.

As the U.S. economy suffers, illegal activities flourish and there are those people who get caught up in resorting to crime to keep their head above water. When the illegal system malfunctions such as a Mafia protected card game gets robbed by criminals outside the system, Jackie Cogan (played by Brad Pitt) is called upon as an enforcer hired to restore order to prevent the local criminal economy to collapse.

When any economy, illicit or legal, are ripped from its foundations, there will be enforcers or politicians who will need to clean up the mess left behind. While the allegory is not spelled out in the film, As Jackie is left to clean up the mess of the robbed card game by getting revenge on the small-time criminals who wanted to disrupt the system, many scenes highlight how the U.S. economy needs to be bailed out due to the irresponsible actions of the bankers and financial traders who got the country into this mess. While it may not be the most pertinent allegory, Jackie Cogan, is there to maintain order in their own local illegal gambling racket, similar to how leading politicians in government are called upon to maintain order when the national financial system is ready to crash.

Jackie Cogan is on his own throughout the movie and must rely upon himself to fix the mess left behind from the mob-protected robbed card game’s aftermath. He knows other mob enforcers who could help but they’re jaded, bitter, or too worse for wear having done Jackie’s job multiple times before to keep the mafia afloat. Above all else, Jackie is in it for himself to get paid and survive in an economic situation that is affecting everyone, criminal or civilian.

U.S. political leaders, similarly, were asked to intervene on behalf of the government, to step in to save a system that was being abused by financial firms, but also individuals, who made irresponsible decisions, and even illegal ones, which caused the national economy to crash. To prevent the system from collapsing, former Presidents, George W. Bush, and then Barack Obama had to step in to save the economy even though the system itself was at fault.

In the wake of the financial crisis that still resulted from the bad decisions and greedy actions of its players, when there’s a resulting increase in unemployment and poverty as the film depicts along with the collapse of some communities, some people will inevitably turn to criminal and illegal activities including gambling, extortion, and drug dealing. As one economic system is thrown into recession, other illicit ones, such as illegal gambling tend to flourish in its wake, which is what ‘Killing Them Softly’ does a good job of showing the effects of a recession leading to a boom in the illicit economy.

Without spoiling too much of the film, the ending scene takes place with Jackie and the mafia’s head accountant meeting at a bar to discuss his payment rendered for being an enforcer to keep the Mob card game running afloat after the perpetrators were punished for robbing it. Jackie, like the head Mafia accountant, are using each other for the money and stability of their own enterprises. Jackie Cogan is in it for himself as other enforcers were not able to do what he does, and he wants to be rewarded for it.

The Mob accountant is looking to make sure his illegal enterprise stays afloat without paying more than he needs to. In this scene, Jackie raises the rate of how much he charges for committing the hits on the people who robbed the card game due to the ‘recession.’ The mob accountant counters by saying that what they would him are the ‘recession’ prices and that he’s getting what another enforcer who couldn’t do the job would normally get.

“You know this business is a business of relationships.” The accountant tells Jackie that they want to keep the relationship with him going since every other enforcer is unavailable so he should not ask for more money given he might need to help them again. Jackie isn’t fooled by this plea to continue their ‘working’ relationship because at the end of the day, it’s about getting paid by them and they could not care less what happens to the enforcers who clean up the mob’s mess.

The accountant is listening to the 2008 election night acceptance speech by then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama imploring Americans to see each other as ‘one people’ and ‘out of many, we are one.’ Jackie doesn’t buy it given the circumstances for which he lives out his life in America. The accountant labels him as a ‘cynical’ person but he has reason to be as ends up cleaning up messes violently and criminally to keep the gravy train for others rolling.

Jackie sees even one of the founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson’ as a hypocrite because while he wanted freedom and liberty for all, he still owned slaves and wasn’t actually fighting for the ideals he espoused in the Declaration of Independence. Despite being known as an ‘American Saint’, Jackie believes Jefferson was out for himself and his own interests and that there are no unifying ideals that bind the country together besides the need for ‘money.’

“Don’t make me laugh…I’m living in America…and in America, you’re on your own. America is not a country, it’s just a business.” Jackie Cogan, after what he goes through in the film, is looking to get paid and survive at the end of the day. He is corrupted and evil but justifies his actions by telling himself and the audience that he’s on his own like many other people were in the financial crisis and must take this blood money from the mafia to make it in America.

When Jackie Cogan hears American politicians say that “we’re all in this together”, “we are one community, one nation”, he believes that no one is looking out for him, not even his mafia employers, and must fight for every dollar he can have because he would not survive otherwise. ‘Killing Them Softly’ is not just about a low-level mafia enforcer keeping a mob-run gambling ring going after doing contract kills on three people who robbed one of the games.

Throughout the film, whether its news clips, radio segments, or the desperate actions of its characters, ‘Killing Them Softly’ is primarily about the larger and looming allegory for the larger failures of the economic system who could not protect many of its citizens from financial ruin in the wake of the 2008 crisis. The effects of this past crisis reverberates even to this day, whose mess created such dire circumstances for people across the country to fend for themselves. While the small-town mafia and Wall Street can get propped up by those who intervene to save it, the film makes it a key point in this ending scene that for too many Americans, they believe they have been left behind by a financial system that does not work for them and for a culture where it’s “winner take all” and if you get left behind, nobody is going to be there to bail you out.

Padres Game at Petco Park

Camera: iPhone 12

Location: San Diego, California, United States

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