Odds and Ends

September 21, 2009

  • Eli’s coming, hide your heart ‘boys: G-men, way to show Big D what’s what. Eli loves a two minute drill (I think he loves giving me heart palpitations even more…) and the win we pulled out on Sunday was incredible. Go Giants! (Now if only the Yankees could clinch the AL East, I could rest easy.) 
  •  Health Care for Foo:  Chris Shiflett, the talented and affable guitarist for Foo Fighters, reacts to POTUS’s recent health care speech and attempts to Rally the Troops.
  • Are you watching “Glee?” It is the best new show on T.V.  A high school Spanish teacher, played by dream boat Matthew Morrison, takes on the thankless task of teaching/coaching glee club, complete with divas, footballers and other misfits. The show is ultimately about finding your voice (pun intended) in the high school caste system.  The bonus (as if Matthew Morrison wasn’t enough) is that fantastic musical numbers abound.  Many of them employ the old show-within-a-show device, as we watch the glee kids rehearse or perform (a rousing rendition of “Push It” was a highlight of the episode Showmance.) Others reveal the students’ inner feelings, including Lea Michele (brilliant as Wendla in Spring Awakening on B’way) tearing up “Take a Bow” (…not the Madonna song, as I thought when I read that song would be sung on the show.  It’s a Rhianna song and Lea kills it!) Some of the best numbers, though, are fronted by Mr. Morrison.  While I particularly liked his cover of Kanye’s Gold Digger (Morrison is a white boy so him rapping was fun and funny for a whole slew of reasons) I liked his version of 90s hits by Montell Jordan, Bel Biv Devoe and Color Me Badd quite a bit, (though I really like “I Wanna Sex You Up” for reasons it would be unlady-like of me to explain.)
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Thrill: From the Vault, RS 690, September 8th, 1994

Top 10 Singles

  1. Boyz II Men, I’ll Make Love to You
  2. Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories, Say (I Missed You)
  3. John Mellencamp and Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Wild Night
  4. Babyface, When Can I See You
  5. Changing Faces, Stroke You Up
  6. Coolio, Fantastic Voyage
  7. Elton John, Can You Feel the Love Tonight
  8. All-4-One, I Swear
  9. Warren G, This DJ
  10. Ace of Base, Don’t Turn Around

Granted, some of those songs are awful (I’m looking at you, Ace of Base,) but they bring up delicious feelings of nostalgia, particularly of my youth-in-revolt-against pop phase.

Chill: Top 40 Albums [current – for the week of August 26th, 2009]

Number 3 – Third Eye Blind.

 Ugh. Gross.  First of all, they have a new album? Why? Second, and really the more important question, people are buying it? Why?? They’re so awful, I’d rather listen to Ace of Base. Stephen Jenkins – what a douche cougar. Meanwhile, Green Day dropped eight spots and Neil Diamond went from number two to six.  Music buying public, you’ve got some splainin’ to do!

Let Obama Be Obama

August 26, 2009

If ever there was a how about leadership it was The West Wing.  There is an episode at the end of season one called Let Bartlet Be Bartletin which Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ spend the day dangling their feet “in the water of whatever the hell it is [they] dangle [their] feet in when [they] want to make it look like [they’re] trying without pissing too many people off!” (Two waters they’re dangling their feet in throughout this episode are FEC appointees and repealing the appalling don’t ask don’t tell policy.) It’s a rather slow moving episode, though it makes strong arguments for all the waters, but the last act is really where it’s at.

President Bartlet and Leo get into an argument over some polling numbers and fear they’re losing what little political capital they have – and, more importantly, losing hold of their ideals.  Leo tells the president: “Everything you do says, ‘For God’s sake, Leo.  I don’t want to be a one-term president.’” The argument continues:

Bartlet: You brought me in on teacher.  You brought me in on capital gains.  You brought me in on China.  And you brought me in on guns.

Leo: Brought you in from where? You’ve never been out there on guns.  You’ve never been out there on teachers.  You dangle your feet, and I’m the hall monitor around here.  It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far. …

Bartlet: Leo, if I ever told you to get aggressive about campaign finance or gays in the military, you would tell me, “Don’t run too fast or go too far.”

Leo: If you ever told me to get aggressive about anything, I’d say “I serve at the pleasure of the President.’ …You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to.  These people who showed up to lead.  …

Bartlet: This is more important than reelection.  I want to speak now.

Leo: Now we’re in business. 

Leo then scribbles something on a pad of paper; Bartlet asks him if there’s a strategy and Leo says he has the beginning of one, showing him the pad of paper.  Written on it in bold letters is “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Leo then goes back into his office where Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ are waiting for him.  He says to his young and eager staff: 

If we want to walk into walls, I’d want us running into them full speed.  …And we’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues.  We’re gonna put them front and center.  We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.

Leo’s sentiment is simple:  Let Bartlet Be Bartlet; let the president be the leader he is, eschewing political pressure and instead leading from a place of honesty, integrity and sincerity.  The plan was to champion the sides of issues Bartlet truly believed in, rather than what he and his staff concluded would score him political points.  Fast forward two episodes and, with this strategy in place, their approval rating shot up nine points (an astounding feat for anyone who knows numbers!)

Right now I wish Rahm would Let Obama Be Obama.

Bill Maher wishes that too.  The final New Rule of his August 14th show pleaded with the president to “Be who you are… a basketball-playing, Jay-Z-listening, arugula-eating hipster.” Excellent rule.  One that should not be broken.

It seems to me that between the health care tailspin, weak-ass and industry favorable environmental laws and gross inaction on equality (with particular regard to gay issues), Obama is whussing out on many of his campaign promises.

For example, during the campaign he was a big proponent of a single-payer health care system, really the only system that makes sense.  Now, there’s nary a public-option in the watered down bills being bandied about, one of the most egregious of which is from the unfortunately name Group of Six. (For a terrific analysis of the genesis of these ill-formed health care bills, read Matt Taibbi’s latest treasure in the current issue of Rolling Stone – the one with the boys from Liverpool on the cover. And check out the online video in which Taibbi breaks down his argument.  Here’s a brilliant excerpt from the article to whet your palate: “Last spring, when [Obama] met with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the co-chair of the Congressional progressive Caucus, Obama openly said [he wanted a single payer system]. ‘He said if he were starting from scratch, he would have a single-payer system,’ says Woolsey.  ‘But he thought it wasn’t possible, because it would disrupt the health care industry.’ Huh? This isn’t a small point:  The president and the Democrats decided not to press for the only plan that makes sense for everyone, in order to preserve an industry that is not only cruel and stupid and dysfunctional, but through its rank inefficiency has necessitated the very reforms now being debated.” Seriously – go read the article!)

Obama has embarrassingly back-peddled on gay rights.  (Stop pandering to religious fanatics; you’re not one and the people who worked so hard to elect you aren’t them either; furthermore, just as Aristotle claimed the law is reason free from passion, our founding fathers ensured that the law is also reason free from religious doctrine.) Fortunately, supporters of logic, I mean equality, won’t let POTUS or Congress off the hook so easily.  Spearheaded by Cleve Jones, October 11, 2009 will see passionate people marching on Washington to demand equality. The Broadway community is rallying the troops, with the producers of Hair going so far as to cancel that day’s matinee performance so the beautiful hippies can be a part of the march.  Visit Broadway Impact for more details.

And the compromises made in the attempt to curb the climate crisis have fallen short of what many experts say is needed.  In issue 1085 of Rolling Stone, NASA’s director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and leading environmentalist James Hansen offered criticism of the administration’s lackluster efforts.  The interviewer says of Obama, “He seems to be saying, ’The current climate bill is the best we can get, given the political realities’.” Hansen sharply replies, “That wouldn’t be true if he took a stronger position.” Amen.

Obama is a leader.  He certainly acted like one in the campaign.  That was what was so inspiring about him as a candidate.  He seemed like he was going to change the ballgame.  And now, when he’s actually in a position to make the changes we want to see, he’s appearing spineless. 

In the same issue of Rolling Stone, Michael Moore was part of a three person panel assembled to discuss the administration along with Paul Krugman and David Gergen.  The biggest surprise of all was that Moore came off as the optimist of the group.  Seriously.  Michael Moore sounded like Pollyanna. It was bizarre.  But, he made a point which could quiet my aspersions, cast above.  Moore seems to think that this is Obama’s plan; he’s lulling the “defense’ into a false sense of security and then just when the moment is right, he’ll unleash his arsenal of leadership and executive power and put all the dunces in time-out. And put us on a better track. I hope he’s right.

This isn’t to say that Obama isn’t a good president.  Surely, it’s much too early to tell.  He has made strides and leaps; he’s helped to restore (most) of the world’s goodwill toward us; he has showed grace under fire; and he speaks to us like we’re intelligent people.  Thank you, POTUS.  As an intelligent person, I appreciate that.  It’s a shame that the bar was left so low by W that a man who can put together a cogent sentence is seen as such a vast improvement – we really must demand more and better of the people we choose to represent us.  I’m glad we have an executive who values intelligence and thought and care and analysis and science.

But President Obama is lagging on his campaign promises.  In Wicked, the wonderfully schmaltzy and touching musical juggernaut that teaches us to love who we are, green gal Elphaba warns us, “Don’t lose sight of who you are.”  Mr. President, take it from a colored girl – don’t lose sight of who you are.  Let Obama Be Obama.

Unplugged

July 22, 2009

The New York Times recently published an article, Driven to Distraction, which took an in-depth look at driving while under the influence – of cell phones, that is.  In this article, journalist Matt Richtel chronicles several anecdotal examples of the perils of driving while distracted by talking or texting on a cell phone, both hand held and hands-free styles.  A couple of days later, Richtel reported on a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which had been withheld until that day under direction from some in Congress.  On Wednesday, Maureen Dowd devoted her column to the subject, astutely pointing out: “The tech industry is our drug dealer, feeding the intense social and economic pressure to stay constantly in touch with employers, colleagues, friends and family.” Indeed, Ms. Dowd.  Indeed.

I tend to agree with Maureen on any given day and today was no exception.  People driving while carrying on a conversation on a cell phone is a pet peeve of mine; now that I live in New York I am hardly ever the driver.  But I am a pedestrian and that means I still have to contend with cars manned by distracted drivers.  More over, and certainly less lethal, when walking on the sidewalks I have to contend with the distracted walkers.  You know the one:  He’s got his headphones on so he can’t hear what’s going on around him – like the ambulance with blaring sirens; he’s typing a text message so he can’t see what’s going on around him – like the fact that he’s drifted into another “lane” of traffic and is about to bump into a woman walking in the opposite direction; he’s concentrating so hard on this text message – a message that apparently can’t wait a minute to compose and send – that he is oblivious to his surroundings – namely me walking beside him and nearly being trampled on when he takes a step in my direction, completely unaware of the fact that I’m there.  I can’t stand contending with this people and as the articles mention the ramifications of such distraction are even greater when you are using one of the most deadly weapons – an automobile.

I think we can all agree that distraction is bad and its results are even worse.  But the problem really lies in why we feel the need to multitask when already engaged in such a detailed and nuanced act – driving.  This is where Maureen is hitting the bullseye:  We Americans (and I’m sure plenty others around the globe) feel a completely unreasonable pressure to be available all the time. Why do we do this to ourselves?

For my part, I make a point to unplug.  I turn off my cell phone when I go to sleep.  I don’t check work email when I’m not working (and I rarely work from home or outside of normal 9-5 office hours.) Sometimes when I receive an email I let it sit in my inbox for a day or, gasp, two before responding.  I do read these emails with spotty regularity so nothing truly urgent goes unnoticed – but that’s just it! Within our culture of get-what-I-want-the-moment-I-want-it, we’ve forgotten what is truly urgent or what must be answered and attended to now and what can wait. 

 Here’s a quick way to tell if you have to respond right now: Are you dying? Is the person emailing you or calling you dying or in extreme physical harm? No? Well, then it can wait.  If no one’s life directly depends on you carrying on this conversation, don’t have the conversation while driving.  The consequence, as demonstrated in Richtel’s article, could be fatal. 

Yes, that’s dramatic but it’s also true. 

When I lived in DC, my laid-back hippie sensibility didn’t quite jibe with the DC culture of ‘needing everything to be finished yesterday’ and ‘my work is the most important thing – ever.’  If you give me a deadline, I’ll meet it.  Otherwise, don’t bug me for something.  And unless you’re a heart or brain surgeon nothing you’re doing is so terribly important that it can’t wait a day or an hour or even five minutes to allow me to go to the bathroom before you begin your diatribe regarding your latest proposal. (Yep, I’ve had some unpleasant work experience in DC.  Oddly enough, the pace slowed down when I moved to New York, a city known for its frenetic energy.)

I would venture to say that part of the reason we want to be available 24/7 is because we want to feel we are needed 24/7.  But the truth is, is anyone needed by anyone else 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Maybe a baby needs its parent(s) 24/7.  Maybe a senior citizen battling dementia needs an orderly all the time.  Everyone else, though, can take a breather.  I happen to have worked for a man who, while dining with his wife while on vacation in Jerusalem, answered a work email.  I assure you this was non-essential, even to our work, much less to the greater good of society.  True, he was sitting safely in a restaurant and not driving a car, but he was on vacation. With his wife. In Jerusalem.  Put the crack-berry down. 

Just because we can be in constant contact with everyone doesn’t mean we need to be.

Why does Bernie Madoff get 150 years in prison while convicted child rapists and other violent offenders get far, far less? For that matter, why do non-violent drug offenders (and really, who are they offending?) get more than these violent criminals? Madoff seems to be the scapegoat for a lot, if not all, of our frustration over the financial meltdown.  Yes, many people blame the Wall Street financiers but they are a group – just a collection of navy pinstripe suits.  Madoff is one, tangible person.  I am not trying to solicit sympathy for him but rather put this sentence into some perspective and urge folks not to loose sight of what is at the crux of this crisis. 

It’s not that one person got greedy; it’s not that one company got greedy; it’s that Gordon Gecko’s (satirical – seriously, ask Oliver Stone,) motto was taken to heart and this nation got greedy – every one of us. 

Okay, maybe not everyone and maybe not everyone is greedy with regard to money, but we are a gluttonous nation, to be sure.  We always want more; we want what’s bigger and better (even if it’s really not better…) We want the new and improved edition, even though if something is new it cannot possibly be improved (it’s new – there was nothing there before to improve upon.  A product is either new or it’s improved – not both.) We super size our meals and get the larger popcorn for only a quarter more – what a great value! As a nation, we gorge on the things we don’t need more (or even any) of and balk when we’re encouraged to scale back to sensible portions or options.

What Bernie Madoff did was wrong.  He should and is being punished for what he did.  The economy is in the toilet, though, not solely because of what Madoff did; lots of other people and companies and, yes, the government, are culpable.  Where’s their punishment? AIG got bailed out.  Heads did not roll (at least the way they should have.) 

Matt Taibbi’s Rolling Stone article, The Big Takeover, took an in-depth look at the causes of the financial crisis and it wasn’t Madoff.  Taibbi explained what all the derivatives were, where the money went, to whom it was promised and so on; readers got an economic education. He made the argument that the gross deregulation that went on over the last 20, really almost 30 years, is what laid the ground work for the kind of unraveling currently taking place. 

The worst part of all this is that the same overpaid lobbyists who championed such deregulation are still swinging.  And many of them on our taxpayer bailout dollars.  That’s right:  Some of the financial institutions that received bailout money are using said money, i.e., yours and mine, to pay, at well above minimum wage, fat-cats to continue to pressure Congress and the Obama administration to uphold the non-regulations.  Where’s their punishment?

Madoff gets 150 years in prison.  His wife has to give back her mink.  The oldest established permanent floating financial boondoggle is still upon us.  Who’s won?

All the news that’s fit to print… online? Newspaper editors are bemoaning the fact that people don’t read the physical paper anymore – mostly because content is free online. So now Hearst-esque folks are suggesting online readers should pay to read the news online. I have no problem with this. I read the Times, although only selected articles, online Monday through Friday. I would pay a few dollars a month for this service; I understand that in order for me to be able to read the news someone has to report it and while any chain-smoker in a mumu (a la Lemon Lyman) can post her thoughts online and call herself a journalist, respectable and credible journalists, the ones I am inclined to read, won’t work for free. I support their work and therefore would not oppose to paying for an online subscription to the Times.

But in his editorial about micro-paying for the news, Slate founding editor Michael Kinsley touches on a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: Over-saturation. He says, “Just a few years ago, there was no sweeter perch in American capitalism than ownership of the only newspaper in town. Now, every English-language newspaper is in direct competition with every other. …When the recession ends, advertising will come back, with fewer places to go.” [Emphasis mine] The news market is oversaturated with “news outlets.”

I had the same thought when watching two recent PBS specials, Make ‘Em Laugh and the telecast of the Mark Twain Award for Humor, presented posthumously to George Carlin. Both specials focused on comedians and the evolution of comedy, but the point taken from them is easily applied to musical acts as well, a timely comparison given the Grammy celebration which took place Sunday night, but more on that in a moment. The specials highlighted the role of The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in launching so many of these comedians’ careers. I thought to myself, “Why was going on Johnny Caron such a big deal?” Because he was the only game in town. You hear your parents and others of their generation and before talk about watching Elvis or The Beatles on Ed Sullivan – how watching The Ed Sullivan Show was a family-wide Sunday evening ritual. And that’s how stars were made.

The Beatles’ arrival in America was largely announced on The Ed Sullivan Show – and everyone, everyone, saw it. I cannot think of any program on television these days that everyone watches. Yes, we think everyone watches the Super Bowl and a great number do – maybe that’s why performing at the halftime show, for example, is such a coveted gig. (Way to go, Bruce!) But that happens once a year; it doesn’t afford us the opportunity to experience, for ourselves, new acts. These days, if Dane Cook bombs on Leno (to go back to the comedy vein,) he can always (try) to redeem himself with a better performance on Letterman. Or on the internet, where Cook in particular is known for having built up a strong presence. (By the way, I’m not endorsing Cook’s mostly unfunny comedy…)

But these myriad options are why, switching again to music, there were so many nominees and performers at Sunday night’s Grammy awards whose songs I don’t know. I recognize the name of most of the performers because I see them mentioned in Rolling Stone. But I don’t listen to the radio anymore – mostly because I don’t drive but even when I did I always had my own c.d.s with me because radio sucked. (…Plus there were those pesky commercials.) And I don’t watch MTV or other so-called music channels because they don’t play music and the music they do play is rarely without a gimmick. The burlesque showgirls of Gypsy were ahead of their time when they sang “You gotta have a gimmick to get ahead.” I don’t know who this Katy Perry girl is – but I know she sang a song called I Kissed a Girl. (Didn’t Jill Soubile do that years ago? And doesn’t Perry look like Zooey Deschannel?)  I’ve never heard anything about her talent or lack thereof but I know about her gimmick. What a shame that music – popular music which was once the arena of Jimi and Janis – is being infiltrated by commercialism and sell-ability rather than quality.

There are so many choices out there and everyone wants to be a star. That’s why Miley Cyrus performed on the Grammys. Record executives don’t listen to music – they’re pitched gimmicks and marketability and that’s what they sign. That’s why, in the late nineties, we got ambushed with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, Hillary Duff and others all at once. Now that it’s been ten years, fortunately we see that the talent has allowed those who posses it, Christina, to have a flourishing respectable career, one that has allowed her to perform with other talented and non-gimmicky artists. On the other hand, Britney is still in our zeitgeist – mostly as a cautionary tale – but her career isn’t respected. And she’s not performing with Aretha Franklin (frankly, no one can – there’s no room on stage when she’s wearing a hat!); instead, she’s performing with the queen of gimmicks – Madonna.

Good music and comedy and theatre and films are all too often pushed aside because of the overwhelming number of options Kinsley referred to. Hotel for Dogs gets green-lit and hits theatres (really? Were people asking for a movie about kids and dogs?) while Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is taking over two years to find a distributor. (I’m no champion of the book but I know John Krasinski made the film out of a true and pure passion for the material, not because he thought it would be financially advantageous.) Perhaps if we had less than a thousand plus channels to watch every night, (meanwhile there’s nothing good on T.V. aside from Jeopardy and The Daily Show,) the shows on the paltry 900 channels would be better. When executives concern themselves with quality rather than quantity (kind of like how I feel about religious observance – don’t do everything if nothing means anything to you) is when everyone wins. We won’t be bombarded with horrible trash like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire (really, conservative television execs? You okay rubbish like that and then want to talk to me about the sanctity of marriage? Really?) and quality television, like the prematurely aborted Studio 60 would be given a chance to find its audience.

And to bring it back to the news: When news broadcasts finally revert to what they used to be (i.e., an apparatus for disseminating the news, totally independent from the entertainment division and therefore not beholden to ratings – which mean nothing, particularly in these days of DVRs…) maybe I’ll watch the news again. But when Brian Williams is forced to report on the rehab habits of Amy Whinehouse (talk about brief interviews with hideous men) it no longer becomes news – it is infotainment and he loses all credibility. Walter Cronkite would not have stood for this.

But we keep perpetuating the cycle by tuning in and allowing our senses to be assaulted with garbage (like Coldplay.) It’s time to boycott trash and demand better of the gray lady, Clive Davis and the Weinstein brothers. I know Howard Beale is with me – who else?