Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cheap Shots

Earlier this week, conservative columnist Debra Saunders slammed President Obama for being photographed during his Martha's Vineyard vacation riding a bicycle while wearing a helmet.

Granted, the pose and the helmet did make him look something of a dork. But imagine the firestorm of public outcry that would have erupted if he were photographed without a helmet -- you'd hear criticism ranging from his obligation to serve as a role model to children all the way to his responsibility of protecting the brain that holds the codes that trigger nuclear attack.

This is a familiar tactic of the GOP, to besmirch the masculinity of a Democratic politician or candidate. It wasn't so long ago that the abhorrent Ann Coulter called former Senator and presidential hopeful John Edwards a "faggot." (This was before the revelation that an affair with an aide had resulted in an illegitimate child.) Coulter, who inexplicably makes morning show TV appearances attired in a cocktail mini as though she were some sort of Beltway hooker, eventually retracted, saying she hadn't meant Edwards was gay, she was just using the word as a schoolyard taunt. Right. This is the same woman who once stated that she found Dick Cheney's crooked corporate raider leer "sexy," so it's obvious that it's power, not sex appeal, that floats her boat.

Oddly, the same people who are so quick to paint Democratic leaders as friends of Dorothy make a practice of branding female leaders like Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer as "bitches." What successful women in politics or, for that matter, the business world haven't been recipients of that charge?

Sarah Palin is the casebook pro at this maneuver, sneering at peers who actually read newspapers and don't shoot wolves from pontoon planes. It's like the Republicans are the fat redheaded bullies of the schoolyard calling out rude names at the smart kids, and the Democrats' response is always to just tuck their books under their arms and head for French lab.

It's not like I want to see the President of the United States harpooning whales like Soviet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (as it turns out, he was only assisting scientists in obtaining skin samples, a fact that conservatives like Saunders omit when comparing the two world leaders). But it would be helpful to his image, and to the political future of our country, if he used his intelligence and charm to rebuke criticism in a way that was more forceful and self-assured. Bullies don't deserve kid glove treatment.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Standing On the Wrong Side of History

Exactly who does gay marriage harm?

The proponents of California's Proposition 8 have spent at least $40 million defending their perception of marriage, with more than half of that funding originating from out-of-state sources, including the Church of Latter-day Saints -- commonly known as Mormons -- who seem to think that polygamy and child marriage are just swell. 

Since one of the most long-standing condemnations of the gay lifestyle has been the perception that gays are wildly promiscuous, shouldn't society as a whole welcome a shift to committed marriages? And at a time when home foreclosures are at their highest in history, shouldn't communities embrace the emergence of solid, generally two-income citizens contributing to their tax bases? And what about all those children orphaned by the endless civil unrest and upheaval in our world -- what would be better for them than to be adoped by two solvent same-sex adults able to provide them with a loving and stable home?

It's a complete fiction to insist on a family model headed by a mother and a father when the reality is that more than 13 million American families are single-parent, with 80% of those headed by a female. (It's even higher in the U.K. and Australia.) Of the supposedly "normal" families I can think of, it's hard to summon up an example of one where the extraction of at least one of those traditional parents wouldn't have resulted in fewer neurotic, ruined adults populating the waiting rooms of America's therapists. 

I think the movement to oppose gay marriage really comes down to one simple thing: people who perceive themselves as "haves" love to deny a basic right to the people they perceive as "others." It was the same when pograms annihilated entire villages of Polish Jews in the 19th century, or when Irishmen were denied entry to New York bars at the turn of the 20th century, or when interracial couples were harrassed during the 1960s. Gay marriage is inevitable and affirms our progress, however slow and halting, as a species. Who really wants to stand on the wrong side of history?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Good Grief

Last Thursday night, a 32-year-old man leapt to his death in full view of the concert audience at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, an affluent suburb south of San Francisco.

I'm sure concertgoers in the ampitheater were shocked and horrified to be witnessing a violent death during what should have been a pleasant summer evening of musical entertainment -- the man's body plummeted to the stage inches from where Irish musician Glen Hansard, of a band called Swell Season, was performing. But this morning KFOG radio reported that the concert venue had deployed grief counselors to work with ticket holders who'd witnessed the tragedy.

A few years ago, an unfortunate accident claimed the life of a young coworker at about the same time a couple of other unrelated deaths occurred within my company, triggering a team of grief counselors to descend on our corporate campus to initiate rounds of group therapy sessions. In the one I attended, a young designer -- oddly, he was 32, the same age as last week's suicide -- struggled to express his feelings to the therapist. "All this death lately, it just makes me feel like nothing's safe," he said. "It makes me feel like the universe is just this random chaos where anything can happen." Gee, you think? 

It speaks volumes about the protective bubble most Americans reside within, where occasional exposure to life's grim realities necessitates a flurry of soothing therapies and navel gazing. There are places on this planet where toddlers are rounded up like cattle so their arms can be hacked off with machetes, where bombs go off daily in crowded marketplaces killing babies and old women, where women and girls are gang raped for being of the caste or tribe not currently in power. On last night's news there was a report of an attack on a hotel in Mumbai where dozens of people were murdered by a mob, including, inexplicably, the hotel's shoe shine boy.

Maybe it's because I helplessly watched so many friends in the bloom of youth die horribly protracted, pointless deaths during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, but if there's one thing I've learned, it's that death can come at any time, with no rhyme or reason. Isn't that what life is all about, really? To have a bunch of spoiled Americans whining that a simple reality the rest of the world copes with on a moment-to-moment basis makes them feel threatened and afraid strikes me as the height of arrogance and self-indulgence. I'd even go so far as to say that if we approached death a bit more realistically we'd enact social reforms to ensure the care and comfort of our elderly, and perhaps be less likely to inflict death so cavalierly on the far-flung people of our world.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tweet Misery

Imagine how much sooner the Hollywood studio system would have collapsed if stars back in the day had had the option of Tweeting or writing on each other's Facebook walls.

For most of the 20th century it took a barrage of lawyers, publicists and press agents working overtime to keep stars like Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplin out of the papers or jail, and even then the peccadilloes of these film legends still landed them in constant trouble. But at least there was a mechanism in place to protect movie stars from themselves.

Now celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Courtney Love are only too eager to air their sordid family laundry and minimal grasp of the basics of grammar in a medium that exposes their rants to millions of people in real time.

If Marilyn Monroe had been able to Tweet about her relationships with the Kennedy brothers, her life might have had an entirely different outcome -- or it might have ended even sooner. I can imagine her posting her current mood online the way people do today, but in her case she'd select something like "slutty/suicidal."

Take a look at just a fragment of Ms. Love's Tweets about her ongoing custody battles for Frances Bean, her daughter with rock legend Curt Cobain. It's sad to see a woman cut off from her child (who just turned 18 this week) and trying to rationalize the mess to herself and her indifferent daughter, but is this the forum for such jumbled, personal emotion?

i shouldve hooked up in some loveless marriage to a powerful hedgefund guy then youd be safe, im sorry i didnt. for your sake.i love you.

im done, you arent dumb you know what youve done what youve sold i couldnt shelter you from them i suppose its my fault, im so sorry bean. x

and im sure her dog., everyone else has a fucking agenda , that chantel if i see her shes a goner thats for dammed sure. grosspig≥poisonkids

with that that kid s=mustr ee somne accountability or shes going to believe thier insanity narcissism and lies, one human loves her truly ME

at her most vulnerable and feed her uttter bullshit based ona FORGED forensically proven to be FORGED operating agreement, so well have fun

she a little baby; sheltered to SOME degree, phony cop raids, seeing her mother cuffed for no reason other than i found out and theyGRABHER

The wall that once kept us from seeing that celebrities are as misguided and fallible as we are has been eroded, and in its place is a 24-hour gossip cycle that makes them seem as mundane as the rest of us. It makes me nostalgic for the days when movie magazines told us the stars were different from us, even if we never really believed it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Chewing the Fat

When I was a little kid growing up in Maine, I loved reading the full-page advertisements in the Sunday Parade magazine for a diet supplement with the unfortunate brand name of AYDS. Each one was a testimonial -- a time-honored advertising format that's particularly effective when the product you're selling claims transformative properties -- from a formerly overweight man or woman who had lost 100 pounds or more simply by nibbling a chocolate-flavored appetite suppressant. It was wonderfully satisfying to read about people finally overcoming their life-long weight disability, allowing them at last to become the active, attractive person they'd always known was buried under all that blubber.

Of course, in the early '80s, the product underwent a name change due to the emergence of the AIDS pandemic, which could also be counted on for a swift, dramatic weight loss followed by an untimely demise.

Which brings me to the ongoing series of commercials for Jenny Craig. Granted, the weight-loss food system has had its spokesperson problems of late. For one thing, it probably wasn't the wisest choice to pick Kirstie Alley as the "face" of Jenny Craig given her butter addiction
So when she was replaced by the young actress Sara Rue, I wondered about the career implications of being a performer known primarily as a chunky comedic actor who suddenly drops 50 pounds. Yes, she looks great, and who wants to be fat? But when casting directors are saying "I need a funny, overweight girl for this part" they'll no longer be calling Ms. Rue, who now looks like a million pretty young women clamoring for parts in L.A.

Don't get me wrong, Rue is a likable young woman and at 31 she's already had an enviable career in show business that speaks to her obvious talents. I wish her the best. But when veteran actress Valerie Bertinelli was brought out of semi-retirement by Jenny Craig, the point was to use the product to restore her to the slim television personality we remembered from sitcoms and made-for-TV movies. She promptly lost 40 pounds and revived her career with a lead role on Hot In Cleveland, and that in itself is a great testament to the effectiveness of the product line. But Rue's lifelong weight problem was in a way her personal brand, and now it's completely altered. The challenge will be if her innate talent can bring her the success her quickly identifiable physique once did.

The same goes for the remarkably talented Jennifer Hudson. She's only been on the scene a few years, and we learned to associate her amazing singing voice with her heavy stature. Even her Academy Award-winning performance in Dream Girls was based on her ability to inhabit that character's size and the limitations it imposed. Now that she's slimmed down, she's less identifiable, and somehow more ordinary. That's the risk of adjusting any brand, be it personal or product, and it will be interesting to see how it plays out for both of these talented young performers.

Imagine if Jenny's new spokesman Jason Alexander continues to pare down. Does anyone really want to see a skinny George Costanza?

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cathy Gets Erased At Last

The news that Cathy comic strip creator Cathy Guisewite is finally putting down her pen after 34 years couldn't have been more welcome.

Though Guisewite's artistic ability never improved an iota in over three decades, when it first appeared in 1976 the strip apparently resonated with the growing population of single women struggling with career and dating. Cathy was a somewhat blearier Mary Tyler Moore, obsessing about her weight, her boss, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Irving. Formless and somehow indistinct (she had no nose except in profile), she was a more neurotic but less succinct Zippy, who managed to get his point across in only one panel. Cathy is the kind of strip people read for its reassuring sameness, like Marmaduke or Dennis the Menace or The Family Circus, whose maestro Bil Keane has been content to run the same tiresome gags for nearly fifty years. Guisewite's schtick managed to endure for so long (there have been about 30 books of Cathy collections) that eventually she had to succumb to a slowly advancing story arc, finally marrying off the aging single to Irving in 2005 and letting them both settle down with two appropriately politically-correct shelter dogs. 

Lots of strips run their course, like Lynn Johnston's far more realistic For Better or For Worse, which started just a few years later than Cathy. Johnston's characters aged naturally, with the children becoming adults and having children of their own, the pets dying, and the parents experiencing mid-life crises. But when she decided to end her long-term endeavor, Johnston did something inexplicably self-indulgent: she started over, zapping the kids back to toddlerhood and turning the couple back into young marrieds. It was a bizarre move, like someone not just paging through their old photo albums but actually reanimating all those old memories. I personally have no interest in revisiting these characters for a second go-round, unless this time she plans to kill them all off in a series of unfortunate accidents.

There are, of course, comic strips that were so consistently well-drawn and finely-conceived that their early demise is still regrettable years later -- or, to use Cathy's trademark catch phrase: Aaaack! I could read Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes all day, even if it focused only on the suicidal snow people that Calvin sacrificed on his enlightened, TV-depriving parents' lawn to embarrass them in front of the whole neighborhood. The character's stasis as a precocious six-year-old could easily have continued for fifty more years because it was so thought-provoking, variant, and entertaining. The panel artwork could be pastorally pretty when Calvin and his stuffed tiger played in their close-knit suburban world, or sweepingly majestic when he explored the far reaches of the galaxy as Spaceman Spiff. Berkeley Breathed's Bloom County was similarly imaginative and intelligent, though far more topical. Both men knew when to close shop, leaving us wanting more, and I'd even venture that the ability to pull the trigger on a long-running cherished project might be more of a male trait.

So I'll give Guisewite props not exactly for knowing when to quit -- she should have folded Cathy's shaky tent a good 15 years ago -- but for choosing to focus on her family and parents at a pivotal time in her life. After decades of wide syndication and marketing tie-ins, I'm sure she can afford it. Perhaps she'll even find time for a drawing lesson or two. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Please Stow Your Anger In An Upright Position

America has a new folk hero, and his name is Steven Slater.

Anyone who has traveled extensively for business in the last few years can identify with the plight of the JetBlue flight attendant who yesterday "went ballistic," as first reports of the incident claimed. But imagine being responsible for the safety and comfort of 100 self-entitled, ill-mannered slobs and their unruly children, and having a passenger actually call you a "motherfucker" for insisting that he obey Federal Aviation regulations? 

On every flight there are always several passengers who insist on getting their enormous bags out of the overhead compartments before the pilot has turned off the seat belt sign. If you're a frequent business traveler sitting in the rear of the plane you've learned to relax and just let them lumber out with their rolling coffin-sized carry-ons. Not long ago I boarded a Denver-bound flight that had originated in Honolulu and found myself sitting next to a hugely obese woman holding a crate of pineapples on what we'll call her lap. "You know," I finally said, "you can buy perfectly good pineapples in any supermarket." You can imagine what her response was.

You can expect Steven Slater's story to get a lot of play because we can all relate to reaching the boiling point on a job and doing something dramatic and perhaps even career-ending -- most of us just don't have an emergency chute at our disposal so we can slide away as an exhilarating punctuation to our take-this-job-and-shove it statement.  In Mr. Slater's case he may face federal charges that could result in seven years in prison, but I predict he'll soon be making the rounds of late-night and morning talk shows as something of a media sensation. I can already see him dishing with the girls on The View. Math skills, though, apparently aren't a requirement for flight attendants -- I don't understand what he meant by "there's goes 28 years" when he's currently only 39, unless he practiced for his airborne career by serving peanuts and drinks to his G.I. Joes and Barbies when he was eleven. So far I've only seen video of him doing a smirking perp walk in handcuffs, but if he has any stage presence at all he may have launched an entirely new career in television. I certainly hope so.

If you have a story to share of your own spectacular on-the-job melt-down, please use the Comments section below to post it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Disappearing Act

When the Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded in April, it set in motion a litany of lies: first that the crude oil entering the Gulf of Mexico would have a negligible impact on the ecology, followed by weeks of vastly underestimating the quantity of oil being emitted, unchecked, into the sea. Even the underwater images from BP's control center proved to be doctored. Never mind that the accident, which killed and maimed dozens of workers, happened in the first place because of safety regulations that were ignored and alarms that were dismantled.

Now BP tells us that the more than 200 million gallons of oil have "disappeared." The miles of reddish tarry tendrils that were being tracked from space have miraculously dissolved, they tell us, so now we can go back to worrying about Castro's prediction of nuclear annihilation and the possibility that Sarah Palin will be the next Republican presidential candidate. 

The disgraced oil conglomerate's explanation would be risible if it wasn't just flat-out insulting. By this point we should have learned not to believe any magical thinking encouraged by their public relations machine. The reality of the situation is far more dire: unprocessed crude oil, unlike the substances normally released by oil tanker incidents like the Exxon Valdez accident, has an entirely different composition and physical properties than treated crude. So instead of merely dissipating and disappearing, the thick blankets of oil have sunk far below the surface, creating unimaginably vast oxygen-deprived kill zones that will have a much more profound impact on ocean life and the food chain than the floating lakes of oil that coated and killed so much surface life already.

Why are we so willing to accept corporate lies? Because we're so used to hearing them, for one thing. But mainly because ignoring a truth so impactful and long-reaching is so much easier in the short run than confronting the horrific reality.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Money Changes Everything

It's hard to imagine now, but when Bill and Hillary Clinton were originally installed in Washington on the heels of the first administration in the disastrous Bush dynasty, they crackled with a home-spun authenticity that hadn't been seen since the days of President Carter. They were the original egalitarians, fresh from Arkansas, a state most of us couldn't have picked out on a map, and to prove it their first task was a failed attempt to revamp the health care system. That's probably when they began to realize that the American political system was bigger than both of them.

That was a long time -- and a lot of money -- ago. Despite their extensive and costly legal battles over the years, the Clintons are what most former presidential families find themselves to be if by some thin chance they didn't start out that way: millionaires. So it's been interesting to see how this formerly plebian couple, who were married in 1975 at a friend's home in the unassuming college town of Fayetteville, have handled their daughter Chelsea's wedding in this new-found, to-the-manor-born style. To her own ceremony Hillary claims to have worn a "lace-and-muslin Victorian dress I had found shopping with my mother the night before," while in photos of the event Bill is wearing a spotted tie most definitely not of a designer label. He even spent his wedding night bailing his young brother-in-law out of jail on a DUI charge.

But, as they say, money changes everything. The idealistic, frizzy-haired, post-hippie couple who embarked on the rough road of marriage together 35 years ago sprung for a wedding last weekend that cost a reported $3 million. There was the $11,000 gluten-free wedding cake, Vera Wang gowns for all eleven bridesmaids (and two specially-designed VW gowns for the bride), and this time Hillary didn't settle for a last-minute rumble-sale grab -- she wore an Oscar de la Renta ensemble befitting her new Brahmin status. Bill apparently took his father-of-the-bride role so seriously he went on a crash diet and successfully lost 20 pounds.

So yes, fame and fortune are corrupting, and it's tough to resist the siren call that lures you to the shoals of comfort and entitlement. I'm not sure why, but somehow I still expected the Clintons to set a slightly less ostentatious example to the world, especially at a time of struggle and need for so many. Perhaps I'm still naive; even Sarah Palin, that aw-shucks people's-choice populist from Alaska, has managed to amass a $15 million fortune since she was nominated for the vice presidency just two years ago. Although that doesn't surprise me at all.