Are you kidding me? Judging by all the bitch-babies (myself very included) on social media the last few days, I’m not the only one who thought 2013 deserves to burn in a thousand searing hells. And then today, two goddamn seconds after we get that stupid year out the door, 2014 kicks us in the balls by robbing us of one of the only true beacons of unfettered paternal strength we had, James “Uncle Phil” Avery, who died yesterday at age 65. Not the way to warm up a room, 2014.
I always think people who freak out about the death of a celebrity are stupid and clearly just desperate to feel something. Unless you know someone in real life, I can’t imagine you are nearly as affected by their demise as you are acting on Facebook. You’re just relishing in the collective hype that always occurs when any tiny thing changes the landscape of our existence; like, oh cool, this person is dead now, and our world is the tiniest fraction different, so let’s all lose our shit like this person was our goddamn child. It’s silly.
The exception to this, of course, is if the recently deceased created or achieved something that influenced you in a significant way; writers, musicians, etc. Like, I cried when Vonnegut died. It’s cliché but I was 21 and I totally support 21-year-old me shedding fat tears that day. I understand that. But otherwise, please calm down and stop fronting like some random C-lister’s death is giving you the dry heaves of anguish.
Because I feel that way, I was infinitely confused at my strong reaction when James Gandolfini died last year. It knocked the breath out of me. I cried. I was wracked with emotion, which made no immediate sense to me. I mean, I liked The Sopranos, but that wasn’t it. It wasn’t until a few days had passed, during which time I continued to feel frequent waves of sadness and general sense of real, personal, inexplicable mourning, that I finally figured out the source of my feelings: I had binge watched The Sopranos during the winter I turned 20. I was in the middle of breaking up with my 15-years-older boyfriend, who I lived with, who hated me after having just aborted his would-be child. In other words, I was positively awash in a confluence of conflicts and feelings that all centered around the idea of parenthood and the roles of men in my life. And it was during this time, locked away alone, that James Gandolfini’s strong, complex, sexual, violent, endearing father character was the most prominent presence in my daily life. And somehow, he gave me exactly what I needed in those days. Tony Soprano, and by subconscious extension James Gandolfini, became grounded, rooted, and completely entangled with my navigation into an adult sense of ownership over my feelings about dads and men.
Growing up, my dad wasn’t really around. Don’t worry, we’re not going to dig into that can of worms. This is not that kind of post. I’m a grown ass woman who has thoroughly addressed the adult manifestations of the subconscious emotional wounds inflicted by having a father whose greatest impact on my formative years was his absence. In other words, I’ve already boned lots of dudes twice my age. It’s been worked out. But that wasn’t true back in the days when I imprinted on James Gandolfini, resulting in me later experiencing something vaguely like the loss of a parent when he died.
I bring up Gandolfini because in a much simpler, more childlike way, I’m realizing today that Uncle Phil served a similar role for me as a child. Instead of helping me get through the feelings clusterfuck of my early 20s like Tony Soprano, Uncle Phil simply taught me not to be a shitty human being. And he didn’t even murder anyone or buy even one single whore during the whole series. I’m a 27-year-old American, so naturally, I’ve seen every episode of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Trust me, he didn’t buy any whores. And upon further examination, that’s only the beginning of the qualities that make him a moral titan for our generation.
For starters, Will was a piece of shit. I’m just putting that out there. If I had been his caretaker, I would’ve been shoving near-lethal doses of Ritalin up his ass in his sleep until he chilled all the way out. Uncle Phil was a saint for how rarely he lost his cool. He was admirably unshaken by his ridiculous nephew’s incessant harassment. Because let’s be clear: Very few of us would’ve held up as well if we had lived with Will. If a loud teenage boy had lived in my house and replied to everything I said with a comment about how fat I was, it would’ve taken about 2 weeks before I was sitting in a corner covered in my own urine, eating my hair. Uncle Phil was a hero of self-image. He was an accomplished, intelligent lawyer. He was a black man who lived in Bel-Air in the 90s and didn’t have to play sports to do it. He had arguably the greatest wife ever, three aesthetically blessed children, and a fucking British butler. Full-time, son. He was a living, breathing reminder to always be proud of what you’ve got going for you and never to let yourself be mentally taken down by any asshole who’s trying to work out his immature insecurities by attacking literally the only way you aren’t a nearly perfect human.
And when that fuckhead of a nephew had a weak moment where his comedic bravado was an insufficient defense to hide all his secret pain, Uncle Phil was there to comfort him. Fresh Prince continuously made Uncle Phil the target of Will’s good-natured abuse, but just as consistently made him the loving, compassionate rock. Whether you had stable parents around or not to reinforce the lessons on life and healthy family dynamics reflected in the show, it couldn’t have done anything but benefit us to have Uncle Phil to look to each week as a reminder that, in families, you can be annoyed or angry or disappointed with each other, but the undercurrent of love overrides all of that. It was Uncle Phil’s ceaseless love for his family that gave Will the paternal validation to overcome his daddy issues, Hillary the perspective on her privilege to work out her rampant materialistic vapidity, Carlton the stability to be neurotic as fuck, and Ashley the freedom to make me feel ugly.
As I get older and start worrying about losing my edge (as I sit at home on Friday nights watch reruns of Fresh Prince; the question answers itself), Uncle Phil has started embodying an entire new crop of aspirational ideals: growing up doesn’t necessarily mean selling out; settling down doesn’t mean losing your fire; and not screaming about injustices like a child doesn’t mean you aren’t fighting to change them. In fact, looking at old episodes of Fresh Prince with ever-more-adult eyes, Uncle Phil has gone from being merely the straight man to Will Smith’s jokes to being a character of almost alarming depth. He’s a totem of kind of grown up coolness and effectiveness that we lack the capacity for nuance to appreciate as kids, but crave like crazy once we get old enough to know it exists.
Will: Hey look, man, I don’t have the problem, all right. YOU have the problem. I remind you of who you are and what you used to be. Now I don’t know, somewhere between Princeton and the office, you got soft. You forgot who you are and where you came from.
Uncle Phil: You think you’re so wise. Look at me when I’m talking to you. Let me tell you something, son. I grew up on the streets just like you. I encountered bigotry you could not imagine. Now you have a nice poster of Malcolm X on your wall. I heard the brother speak. I read every word he wrote. Believe me, I know where I come from!
Bad. Ass. RIP.