Day of Reckoning

Just because you’re late to the party doesn’t mean your time there is irrelevant.  That’s what I thought when I finally caught up with “The Dark Knight Rises” this weekend and liked it much more than I’d decided I would.  The reason?  It’s a movie that embodies – or more closely swallows whole and spits right back at you – the year 2012.

The cliché one-liner, if I were still a movie critic as I was 30 years ago, would be “a cautionary tale for our times where the HAVE NOTS rise up against the HAVES.”  No wonder Rush Limbaugh was scared.  But as usual he got it wrong.  “Dark Knight Rises” isn’t at all about the villain being named Bane – the same sounding moniker as Bain Capital, the private equity company that is largely responsible for Mitt Romney’s quarter of a billion dollars worth of wealth.

ehh… not a good look.

In “DKR,” Bane is really a HAVE NOT on steroids – a sort of odd, anti-hero who is mad as hell after a lifetime of living in the margins and watching other people getting a chance to be happy and wealthy and so he decides to destroy everything to punish those who are living large and, well, larger.  It’s about the very small 1% of people who had every advantage that a stacked deck could buy (and then some) and made sure the rest of us didn’t.  If the filmmakers really wanted to make a Romney-Bane connection they would have made the villain a billionaire banker – not the crazy person wreaking havoc on them.

But really — that’s beside the point.  Since in this case the HAVE NOTS are much more evil because they feel nothing.  They are nihilistic because they have finally begun to recognize the almost insurmountable odds against anyone growing up in a prison (literally AND figuratively) of poverty; of hopelessness; and in an unsafe world they’re afraid will forever be against them.  Hopefully, this doesn’t sound familiar to you personally or professionally – but perhaps it does.

In any event, Bane announces to the citizens of Gotham (let’s be real: New York)– “We are liberators” who want to return control of the city “to the people.”  But really this is only to distract them until he can launch a nuclear bomb and destroy everything so the world can start anew.  That’s actually the master plan.  A total wipeout of stasis.  A do-over.  A chance to shake the Etch-A-Sketch screen clean.  Hmm.  Does that sound familiar?

Thanks internet!

Well, I’m at an age where I haven’t had any major ailments – yet.  But I do find myself fantasizing about the idea of trading this body in for a younger model.  This is thinking not unlike the supposed “villains” of “Dark Knight Rises,” instead they want to do it with all of society.  These are people who have waited and waited forever from the sidelines – biding their time until they can trade what’s becoming their unsavlageably messy world in for a younger, cleaner, newer one.  The thinking is – sometimes it gets to the point where things, bodies and/or societies are unfixable and there is no other choice – painful and unfair as it seems.

My analysis is my own, but it certainly explains a lot about the 2012 world to me.  You can feel the fevered pitch in the social and political landscapes.  The bubbling intolerance of the times.  Aside from income inequality, it’s also about the desire of some to go back to the social mores of the fifties – though it’s hard to tell if it’s the 1950s or 1850s – when men and women knew their place and there wasn’t so much, well, talked about publicly.

Yes, I’m talking about Mitt Romney and Missouri Congressman Todd Akin, the latter of whom in a television interview coined publicly anew the oxymoron “forcible rape” and more than implied a wacky fringe medical opinion that women who are indeed “forcibly” raped secrete some sort of secret lady potion that prevents them from getting pregnant.  The former has his own awkward reasoning for a 1950s view of women’s choice and a reason to turn the clock back on the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v Wade and assure no female has a choice to a abort a baby in any way, shape or form.

Akin’s report card: F in Biology

But lest anybody get confused, this POV is not solely about religious beliefs.  It’s bigger than that.  It is also about the politicization of that personal morality at a particularly dark time in American culture.  A time when it’s not enough to be able to believe what you believe – you also have to make sure everyone else believes it – or at least is forced to adhere to your doctrine.  As a child in the 60s and 70s, I was brought up to understand that living in the United States meant the opposite.  The whole point was that we were always at least working towards a “live and let live” doctrine that didn’t exist in almost any other country on the globe.  Sure, things weren’t perfect here – but the one virtue we operated on is that our ideal was that you could choose your own morality (well, within reason), find your tribe in some town or city in at least one of the 50 states and no one could really say or threaten to do anything about it.

Now we’re in a global crisis and globally-speaking, it doesn’t feel that way anymore.  And “The Dark Knight Rises” is simultaneously shedding a huge spotlight on it while cashing in on it, both in real life and on the screen.  In the movie perhaps there is an obviousness to the fat cat privileged characters doing charity benefits for the poor saps living well below them in Gotham City but superhero films are nothing if not, in many ways, archetypal.  And anyway, why not since those facts couldn’t be any more obvious in real life?  Turn on the TV, your computer or walk the streets of Manhattan – more than ever before you can feel the money and the lack therof depending where you are geographically.

Perhaps part of the lure of the more popular than ever fantasy movie land genre is the violence and the excess of archetypal behavior.  There certainly always was darkness to the comic book genre where humans have special “powers” that make them different as they focus outside and inside themselves and the fight between “good and evil.”  But Christopher Nolan has taken the “Batman” series to new depths of darkness and desperateness in 2012 Gotham.  Lucky him, he is doing it in a particularly dark and desperate time in the world.  Hmm, lucky him?  Well, maybe.  My students think so.  But with good fortune comes responsibility.  And given the fallout from the film, one could argue he isn’t solely lucky at all.

As I say to my students, you can’t plan where your film (or even television show) will fit in the zeitgeist.  All you can really do is write about what you feel and what you see, especially when it takes a couple of years at minimum from conception of a script to its release date.  Of course, some people have an innate ability to have their hand on the pulse of what is happening and what will be happening because, well, it’s part of their talent and them being who they are.   Madonna used to be like this.  Christopher Nolan still is.

Seeing the writing on the wall.

He has tapped so into the darkness – so much so that not only have his Batman films made a fortune, they have the distinction of having caught the attention of at least one very disturbed individual who appropriated its onscreen nihilism and took it one step further into real life.  This in NO WAY MEANS Nolan and Co. bear any responsibility for the Colorado shootings or that “Dark Knight Rises” should be censored one bit to soften the blow of what’s going on today.  The price of freedom/lack of censorship means that horrible stuff as well as good stuff can happen at any given moment and arise out of any random piece of action we do or art we create.   What it’s ultimately about (and certainly what “Dark Knight Rises” is about) is balance – or light and dark –  of good and evil, or corruption and honor.  And there’s a cost to each when we live in a world that willingly traffics in enough freedom to allow free market indulgences of both.

Which brings us to our financial system.  In the world of “Dark Knight Rises” the HAVE NOTS (meaning most of us) rally together to torture the rich because they know only one thing for certain – the game has been rigged against them.  It’s the ending of the great 1969 Jane Fonda film “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?” where you find out the dance was fixed all along (sorry, spoilers here), or like watching Babe Ruth lose the World Series for the Yankees instead of becoming the hero he became.  Or even worse, watching a hero like Lance Armstrong, who emerges victorious over not only the powers-that-be but over a killer like cancer, give up when the authorities finally manage to prove their case against him.  Or perhaps the most succinct analogy, to borrow from another archetypal pop culture fantasy — it’s like watching as the curtain is pulled back and exposes the fact that the Wizard of Oz is not only not as powerful as was advertised but that, in the end, he really has no power at all.

Pay no attention…

Of course, that is only one side of a story that could be taken two different ways.  For despite its pseudo happy ending coda for the sake of the franchise and studio, Nolan’s final “Batman” film captures the rage and verve or our times perfectly.  Not only for the Have Nots, but — for THE HAVES.

I mean, to hear the haves tell it, there was a long period in our history when people made a lot of money and no one got to know how or how much.  And that was preferable, civil, even moral.  This was also a period when people didn’t do or say so many sexual things en masse for all the world to see and, if they did, all of their sex talk/actions certainly weren’t being publicly accepted by the large mass of the country.  An era where men were men, women were women and it was clear which was which and what the rules were.  And a time when certainly rules that ensured that when people deviated from such behavior that they were punished.  Or at least if not punished, certainly not accepted as engaging in an alternative (read publicly acceptable) lifestyle. (Because let’s face it – anything goes for any of us, but especially the 1%, if we are at least willing to have the courtesy to hide it behind closed doors where it belongs).

One has to feel a bit sorry for those who felt like they played by the rules and came out on the top 1% – rigged game though it might be.  In essence, they achieved quite a lot but in 2012 are forced to live in a world whose majority now pretty much hates them for being so clever.  This is harsh, I know, and truthfully it still doesn’t go against the idea that we 99% don’t hate the rich.  It’s not the rich we really hate.  It’s the system that got them there that we despise and the failure of many of them to recognize and/or admit publicly the corruption and do something about it rather than circling the wagon and protecting their young – as most human beings are want to do when times are hard – that we very much and particularly loathe.

But it is ok to hate Mr. Monopoly.. greedy bastard.

I’m not sure what the answer is to any of this – or if indeed there is one.  Like the movie business, the one thing we know is certain about society, aside from death and taxes, is change.  “Dark Knight Rises” is pretty bold about the change – literally in its computer graphics; creatively in its merger of larger than life comic book superheroes and believably tortured moral human drama; and publicly as a symbol for one of what is turning into a small handful of mass gunmen in America right now who have gone off the deep end.

As a writer I always ask myself and my students – why right now?  Or, more to the point, as a former teacher once commented to me when explaining any good Shakespearean play – “why this day?”  That’s the rule of thumb for fiction.  A story can start a million different ways, so why did it start here?  One can’t help but feel this should be the question we ask ourselves right now about real life in 2012.  In addition to what the ending should be.  As all good writers know, endings dictate beginnings and vice-versa.  So it is only in the understanding of both that we have any insights into what our true Act II struggles are really about.  And if we can begin to identify the real reasons behind out true struggles, perhaps we can begin to write the real ending – the happy ending – that we deserve.

A famous writer (okay, Socrates) once wrote – “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  Liberal or conservative, religious or heathen, moviegoer or pop culture hater – it feels like a good time to take that advice and intelligently move forward.  While we are all still around to do it.

All this from “Dark Knight Rises?”  Perhaps there is some small hope for the movies after all.

That’s What De-Friends Are For

My virtual friends.

How do you de-friend someone who was never really your friend to begin with?  That was the dilemma this week when I was called a stupid, ill-informed moron by someone I’ve never met.  But irony of ironies, this person is publicly billed as my friend for all the world to see and knows at least 57 of almost 500 other people who know me.

Of course, I’m talking about Facebook .  One of my oldest friends looked me in the face and said “friend to the friendless” several decades ago as she observed the unusually large number of good, real-life friends in my life.  What can I say – I like people?  I’m a people pleaser?  I don’t like to be alone?  I need approval, an audience or a way to focus on others rather than my own needs?  Or maybe, well – I’m just a really nice guy who likes being around different kinds of people that I really like. Of course, in the same vein I can also really hate being around an awful lot of awful people that I really don’t like.  So there is that.

(One of the perks of getting older, by the way, is that you don’t have the patience for the latter and, as you age, there is even less expectation for you to tolerate nimrods than there is when you’re in your twenties and thirties.  So – that’s one good thing about the disintegration of the body to look forward to – that is aside from Social Security and Medicare while it lasts).

Which brings me back to the subject of de-friending. (Think about it, as you ponder why corporations aren’t people).  As I found out this week, it’s a lot easier to de-friend someone virtually (just a couple of clicks on your mouse) than it is when you’re operating in any sort of physical reality.

When you truly have a REAL friend you’re done with there is often the inevitable unpleasant conversation/fight or the ignoring/freezing out of another human being that at some point is likely to unearth a gnawing kind of guilt in your soul (assuming you have one and that souls indeed exist) that will likely do some sort of damage to you in some other area of life (e.g. karma or retribution).  Live human feelings, good or bad, are like that.  They can make you feel things.  But in turn, your real life and real life friends, if they are truly such, have a way touching you (again good or bad) in places you had never dreamt possible.  That’s what makes, through the ages, the in-person, old-fashioned version of friends and friendships both so agelessly cool, difficult and impossible to quantify or categorize.  It’s a sort of a long-term love affair without the sex (well, most of the time) but with many of the same perks, benefits, shorthands and, yes, responsibilities.  Who needs it, you might say?  Well, as Woody Allen once brilliantly observed of himself (and us) in relationships – “I (we) need the eggs” and I concur.

I’d also stretch that observation to include not only flesh and blood love affairs but also flesh and blood real-life friends.

HOWEVER….

A lot of us now spend as much or even more time in the virtual world where the connections, feelings and costs are not the same as they are in real time/life.  Or are they?  Well, let’s say they’re different.  The fact that I’m even writing about an online de-friending  event would seem evidence enough to make the case that “de-friending” even a virtual pal means something emotionally, though perhaps nowhere near as much as it would if any of us actually knew that person we’re consistently hanging out with via our social media page.

This distance is perhaps one of the key benefits of online life because a virtual way of living lets you say and do things you might never consider in the flesh (or even in the same room, city or neighborhood).  For a writer, or anyone who fancies themselves a bit clever with words, there is something addictingly delectable about this, about all things online, web-based, immersive or virtual.  I know it’s cool to be down on Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg and, and, and… but you won’t hear any of that from me.  I thoroughly enjoy being able to spout my opinions (surprise!) on any subject I choose, connect with people who a decade ago I’d have surely lost touch with, and spy on and share any number of photos, articles and clips of pop culture that I or you would have missed in the simpler decades before most of my college aged students were even born.

My personal fall out (and perhaps yours) from all of this is that it’s emboldened me (us?) to a consistently much bigger and more diverse audience of followers, nee friends, than even before.  So, for instance, when I, a devout liberal, post my concern that the Republican party is about to nominate someone who exhibits severe sociopathic behavior, it’s not just me speaking up and arguing at a dinner party.  For one thing, at a dinner party you don’t get to play, as evidence, a clip of a lesbian mother relating that when she asked then Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney about what to tell her daughter when her daughter asks why one of her “Moms” can’t visit the other at the hospital, he icily replied “I don’t really care what you tell your daughter.  But I suppose you can tell her whatever you already tell her.”

In addition, you also don’t have your significant other, or best friend, kicking you in the shin or under the table before you start that particular argument or play that clip.

Not that it would have made a difference in my case, trust me.  Because, truth be told, I like a good argument and believe one of the biggest problems about contemporary life is that there are not enough of them.  HUH????  Yeah, there are not enough GOOD arguments nowadays.  Meaning it’s important that people challenge each other’s opinions with evidence, discourse, facts and even real and dangerously personal emotions.  How else can we better understand opposing views and move forward even just a little bit, if we don’t?  I look for these kinds of exchanges in the classroom all the time but they happen all too infrequently.  I look for them at family gatherings but usually no one wants to hurt each other’s feelings and they stay silent.  I look for them in journalism – print, TV and radio – but mostly people seem to be shouting or speechifying each other with planned talking points on both sides rather than engaging in any kind of meaningful way.

My Facebook rating of public discourse

Enter the Internet – a sort of a wild west existence where every so often you can really get a raw exchange of views among “friends” that you might not ever get in real life.  It’s crazy, to be sure, but it’s also pretty uncensored and true when it’s working right.  That’s one reason why I enjoy posting about political issues and welcome reading posts from others who are trying to share something they’ve thought and read about regarding the issues of the day.  I mean, if we’re not going to get enough of an exchange going in real life, perhaps we can at least begin virtually, where we can seethe and breathe fire and curse out our opposition within the confines or our own little megabytes.  To put it another way – some reaction is better than no reaction.  Isn’t it?

The upshot, of course, is being ranted at and being called a stupid idiot by those who oppose you – people you might have thought twice of engaging or who might have thought three times of engaging you face-to-face due to some mental defect on either one of your parts.  In the case of my “former friend,” let’s just say in the last year or so I’ve heard him rant and rave in half-crazed ways on the pages of many other mutual friends.  I chalked it up to his passion and general manner and the fact that he seemed so much more shrill to me because I so disagreed with pretty much everything he had to say.  And given that, I was determined NOT to de-friend (un-friend?) him.

But I learned this week, as my former friend’s words got very personal, nasty and more than a little troubling, virtual friendships can signal some of the same warning bells that we encounter in real life ones.  Just like you don’t stay with an abusive, insulting mate, friend or even boss. — the same applies to any kind of online engagement.

wink

I tell my students all the time –  there is NO JOB in show business (or any other business, for that matter) worth staying at where one needs to be consistently insulted and abused.

Well, the same goes for public discourse.  No one EVER gets to call you stupid, or a moron, or even worse in the course of your day.  No matter how controversial they might see your viewpoint.  Online, as in real life, certain rules apply.  Even  Especially for friends.   And if they can’t play by those simple human rules, they are no real or virtual friend of yours at all.

Diary of a Chair: Escape from Chicago

Sure, it looks good now, but just wait…

Saturday, Aug. 11, 10pm –  Our last night at the Chicago hotel that hosted this year’s tribute to Harry Potter-obsessed teenagers – Leaky Con.  This means that upon arriving into town three days earlier there were more than 1000 (mostly) teenage girls dressed as characters from all the books and movies in the lobby. When I asked the bell captain what was up he snidely smiled as he told me – “there are 4000 of them staying here to attend the conference.”  Yuk. Yuk.

As it turns out – 98% of the crowd are sweet and lively.  About 25% were young men.  And 5% were parents and adults of questionable character. Think — the cast of “Glee” but instead of musicals they all like young people’s English literature for their own particular reasons.

a sampling of attendees

Note:  Costumes were all homemade and one girl insisted I do a secret handshake with her, which turned out to be fun.  Of all those under 21, all were polite except for the two 18 year olds in the early check out line who happened to be staying in the hotel – but instead of being into all things Potter were mostly into oblivious texting on their sleek, black phones.  I can’t help but think this observation is significant.

Saturday, Aug. 11, 7pm – Earlier that evening, we’re at the finale banquet dinner of a 3-day academic conference held at the Adler Planetarium.  The views outside are  spectacular and it’s a fine choice for a finale.  But I do miss the Potter gals.

love her.

Also, I discover Planetarium light shows have not changed much since I was in fourth grade.  Why do we go out of our way to remind children of how insignificant humans are in the existential scheme of planetary existence??

Sunday, Aug. 12, 1:00 am – I can’t sleep thinking about the 5 am wakeup time to get to the airport for the 8:30 am flight back to Los Angeles.  It could be partly due to the root canal awaiting me this week and my dentist’s parting words:  “and then hopefully we can save the tooth.”  No one cared about such things in Potter world, I think.  In fact, I know that to be more of a contemporary American thing and consider picking up one of the books myself prior to flying.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 7:30am – I’m at the super cool Virgin America terminal awaiting to board our hipper-than-hip plane that allowed me to listen to Amy Winehouse on the departure flight while I was watching “Jeff Who Lives At Home” on the screen of the young girl next to me without the sound.  I am not stalking young females.  No.  Really.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:00 am – Mechanical problem on the plane that they’re working on.  Meanwhile, we talk to three sisters in their 70s going to visit a fourth sister for a “sister’s reunion” on Catalina Island.  I realize they’re way funnier than anything in the movie as they talk of ducking outside for “smokes,” the fact that one of their sons is wasting his life “shoving chicken out a window” at the neighborhood KFC and should go back to college, and question if the logo on one of a competing airlines is actually Lucifer or just looks like him.  I couldn’t make this stuff up.  Really.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 11am – A pilot who looks like the younger brother of Capt. Sully of Hudson River fame, explains to us they’re still working on the plane and there’s no word but that he will keep us informed and, yeah, it stinks to be so inconvenienced.  He’s sorry.  Aside from liking his manner and the fact that he’s central casting for a trustworthy airman, his name is Steve – as is mine and my partner in travel (and life).  I take this as a sign that everything will be okay.  Really.

Our pilot, in about 20 years

Addendum: Virgin gate attendants give out a game with 15 jumbles of airline-related words.  The two Steves have five college degrees between them and smile as snidely as the hotel bell captain, convinced we will be among the first five winners to unscramble them all and get free food and drink vouchers.  We don’t even come close.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 12:30 pm – Virgin scrubs our flight.  Since we’ve all been awake since 4am and waiting, no one is happy.

Bad news:  No other airline at O’Hare has empty seats at this late date on a Sunday.

Great news!  Snappy and “with it” Virgin Air will provide a special plane for any of us who want it that will get us out on a flight to L.A. that leaves at 11:00 that night.  We can hang out or just come back to the gate at our convenience an hour ahead of time.  As the Barefoot Contessa says on the Food Channel, “How Easy Is That?”

“SO easy,” says Ina.

In “I’m cool” news:  I manage to be the first to give my name the Virgin Air personnel so I don’t have to wait on line with the other 100 plus people reserving space for 11:00 pm.   And a few minutes later the sisters are even snuck a Virgin gift certificate to free meals at the Olive Garden!  It’s true – seriously!

Sunday, Aug. 12, 2:30 pm – We finish a not-so-good lunch at another terminal and, in an airport walkway, a passenger from our plane tells us our special 11:00 flight was cancelled and it’s a good thing he saw us cause we need to get back to the gate asap.  Not sure what this means for the sisters at the Olive Garden but we skedaddle to selfishly take care of ourselves.

Gee thanks, Ina

Sunday, Aug. 12, 4:00 pm – We are sent downstairs for ticketing and spend 90 mins. waiting on line trying to get rebooked for any later flights at all but everything’s sold out.  A lady from Iran starts to yell, fearing she’ll lose her job if she doesn’t get home.  She later tells me later that she “expects this in my country because everything is like that – but this is America.”  I’m not quite sure what to say right then and there.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 4:30pm After two hours waiting, Virgin Air promises swears they will provide a plane at 9am for us since their other flights TOMORROW are booked.  They give us a voucher to the Double Tree Inn,  a 10-15 minute tram ride away and send us half a mile to the baggage claim area to pick up our bags once checked.  Then they instruct us to return to this airport no later than 6 or 7am the next morning – three hours prior to the take off of this flight.  My tooth finally starts to hurt.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 6:30 pm – The tram driver was Third Reichish , it’s starting to rain and we listen as a fellow passenger – a 20something guy with long-hair and a very cool affect – tell his odd relationship history with women to a female traveler from Hong Kong in the next seat who he flirts with.  I realize once again in my life that looks aren’t everything.  I hope to God she realizes this and I’m not even religious.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 9:00 pm – The long-haired guy is still bending the ear of the young woman in the Double Tree Inn Restaurant but they’re both in new outfits.  Uh, oh.  Also, a bartender with a deep voice who claims to have known Ryan Seacrest when he was working in Chicago radio (as the Olympics plays on TV behind him), plies two women with drinks on opposite ends of the bar.  One eventually starts to cry and he steps out from behind his post and rubs her back.  The other later orders another drink and he drops that he’ll “be here till 11.” Then she hints she might return.  As my grandmother used to say, “oy vey.”  I, however, admit to being equally repulsed and intrigued.

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:39 pm – After watching snippets of the closing ceremony of the Olympics we leave the TV on NBC because the hotel room’s remote control won’t change channels and we need a diversion.  We miss several musical acts but get to see the pilot of something called “Animal Practice” and the Sunday night Chicago news, whose weather forecaster promises big morning thunderstorms.   When The Who show up to close the Olympics post newscast and I can’t help but wonder what happened in London as we were staring at a TV pilot, the local news and the threat of a Midwest electrical disaster that could down our plane.  A voice answers: NBC hubris.  But at this point I’m too tired to really fight.

WHO even saw this?

Sunday, Aug. 12, 10:53 pm – My cell rings and it’s a local number.  But not one I recognize.  It’s our same favorite corporate Virgin Air reps telling us the 9am aircraft for tomorrow has mechanical difficulties too.  They can squeeze us on something that leaves Monday night but that there are only a few seats left and that, really, there is no guarantee with them or anyone else if we don’t book now.  The other Steve (my partner – not the pilot) starts to uncharacteristically fling nasty, non-Harry Potter insults at the Virgins in the background as I ask if we can count on this flight actually happening.  I’m told that “nothing is ever 100%.” Duh as if I didn’t already know that.  And truthfully, I wouldn’t write that anywhere.  Well, except here.

Monday, Aug. 13, 12:30 am –I think I see lightning. It is now raining.  Since I don’t like flying even in nice weather, this concerns me.  As do my teeth because due to stress and the fact they upset my stomach, I missed the last 6 hours of antibiotics meant to keep an almost dead tooth from becoming infected.  The other online-intrepid Steve meanwhile scours the web and eventually sneaks us on a 7:55 am United flight (take that, Virgins!) so we can get back in the nick of time for our jobs and my tooth.  To ensure this and to accommodate the machinations of weather and dictatorial tram drivers, we pony up another $800 as my finger shakily sets the hotel room wakeup call for…4 ayem.  I’m convinced I don’t need to sleep because not being alert to everything around you is obviously much too dangerous.

How I imagine this flight.. or the beginning of Lost

Monday, Aug. 13, 5:00 am – A new tram driver misses our stop at United completely even though we and another couple told him three times of our destination.  Note:  This couple bears no resemblance to any couple mentioned thus far and is not recognizable from the airport, bar or hotel.  I’m not sure if this is significant but think even the smallest detail could be at this very crucial and very early time.

Monday, Aug. 13, 8:15 am – We are seated on our new United plane, convinced we’ve gamed the system (somewhat) and mentally composing our letter (email?)/phone conversation with the hideous Virgin Air to reimburse us. (Unless I can persuade a powerful friend who has met Richard Branson to give me his email address and his vacation home).  That is, until the pilot announces there is a bad smell in the baggage/engine area in this new United airplane that they need to investigate.

Monday, Aug. 13, 8:17 am – We are told we can deplane if we like and walk around while they tinker or we can stay put until there is news.  I begin to worry about the other Steve next to me, reassured somewhat by the airline rule against passengers carrying guns onboard a plane and thrilled no Steves I know (or live with) actually have a permit to carry one.  Remembering the advice of a former writing teacher from many years ago, I quickly decide to listen to Earth, Wind and Fire’s greatest hits to calm me down..

Monday, Aug. 13, 10:15 am – We are ordered to take our seats again, passengers are ordered back inside, the engines rev and we are told we will be taking off.  No one seems to know what the smell was or if it’s affected the engine.  It’s as if it never happened, though suddenly I detect a distinct gasoline odor and become very concerned.  The other Steve threatens to behead me with his iPhone if I dare utter one word about it.  I shrink down in my seat, the stench of fumes all around me, and cover myself with a thin blue United Airlines blanket with a disinfectant chemical odor all of its own.  For many reasons, I don’t want to die this way.  I am not really happy.

Roughly how I spent the flight.

Monday, Aug. 13, five hours later, 1:30 pm – We land safely at LAX, 36 hours after our initial return trip began.   But I begin to wonder what Orville and Wilbur Wright would think about both the popularity and reality of air travel today.  And consider that more can happen since we haven’t deplaned.

A few minutes later, I think of the fine Lichtenstein exhibit we snuck off to at Chicago’s spectacular Art Institute and wonder if I’m too much of a complainer who hasn’t yet caught on to the fact that we’re all living in our own version of one of his comic book paintings.  I also ponder if me asking this very question is what Lichtenstein had intended all along.

I give in.

As we walk through the airport to L.A. baggage claim, I think of JK Rowling and consider if when she sat in her apartment conceiving Harry and Hogwarts if she ever dreamed of what the ripple effect would be of her mass invention (or if it would be).  And also, if she’s even aware of this obscure Midwest convention of Potterites called Leaky Con that, its brochures clearly note, have nothing at all to do with her or any of WB’s “Harry” films.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  Not even close.  The only thing I do know is that – strangely – I do miss the Potter kids at the hotel.  Though I have no plans in the near or distant future to ever travel back on an airplane to see them.

Then I have one last thought –  that perhaps I can invent another way – one that doesn’t involve the corruption of a really neat invention – by either mere neglect, inconsideration or some other sort of corporate malfeasance.

In a Potter-like land of make believe, I find myself, once again, hopeful.

The Pedestal

“It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail,” Gore Vidal once famously said. A brilliant novelist, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, chronicler of history and curmudgeonly bon vivant, the 86-year old Vidal died this past week.  Yet his words rang as fresh and as true and, perhaps, as prescient as ever.

Watching any number of Olympic athletes under 30, and even 20, succeed to seemingly inhuman golden heights while others became runner up winners (silver and bronze) by not rising as high but still way above the rest of us, one couldn’t help but consider the weight and currency of one of our most renowned contemporary wordsmith’s most famous words and wonder – why do they feel so timelessly true about American culture in particular?

After an Olympic week of victorious thrills and agonizing defeats covered almost as grotesquely as the moment-by-moment commentary in “The Hunger Games” (but in our case it comes up to 8 hours after you learn the results of the actual races), I can come to no other conclusion than our American culture, or as it is referred to in electoral politics “American exceptionalism,” is in serious need of an attitude adjustment.  And I don’t say this lightly since the amount of attitude I have in need of adjustment can often cover the needs of an entire Olympic team from at least one small sovereign state.

The Patriotic Chair

Still, that doesn’t let the rest of you Americans, or the coverage of those who live here, off the hook or off the train of nastiness, pettiness, bitterness or envy.  What else can one think after watching 27 year old Michael Phelps being counted out as something akin to lazy and over the hill by much of the American zeitgeist after placing fourth in his first race in London and coming up one spot short of a medal?

The LA Times, among so may others, gleefully jumped on the bandwagon, immediately trumpeting in one headline story that “Without burning desire, Michael Phelps flames out.” Writer Bill Plaschke somehow managed an Olympic worthy feat of leaping into Phelps’ most inner psychological state only to further go on to describe the swimming phenom and his presence as “the weary flotsam of a shrugging hero.”  He also spent some time observing/predicting an over-the-hill guy who seems “less interested and confused with every lap.”

Certainly, we still live in a free enough country where Bill and his ilk are entitled to print their opinions as the pseudo facts they are, but if one is setting oneself up as a mind reader and predictor of the near future one also needs to deal with some pesky, soon-to-be facts.  Michael Phelps went on to win six more Olympic medals (four of them gold) and the most of any other US athlete in London in the next 7 days.  He would also go on to shatter several more World records and generally outswim teammate Ryan Lochte – the man the Times had dubbed the new golden boy in that same article.   Clearly, this didn’t seem to be an example of an athlete whose Olympic torch was “snuffed” rather than “passed,” as Plaschke wrote about Phelps.  But when we so enthusiastically move to bask in the glory of someone else’s failures  – especially failure of those whose success we find impossible to equal, or even more jealously, to fathom – that is what happens.

(NOTE TO PLASCHKE: FINAL PHELPS CAREER OLYMPIC MEDAL COUNT: 18 GOLD, TWO SILVER, TWO BRONZE).

I think you know where you can kiss it.

It’s a shame that we live at a time where we demand extreme immediate reactions to everything as if the full story has already been written before the final verdict (or in this case, swim) is in – and that, for the most part, the members of the media happily follow.  Though at one point it was the job of The Fourth Estate to attempt an unbiased version of current events – news, sports and entertainment – that is no longer the case.  The task is now to feast on the failure – moral, literal or otherwise – of others and the strategy is spin and prognostication instead of facts and informed analysis.  While the media bears some responsibility for following along for money, ratings and perceived relevancy (HBO’s new great show “The Newsroom” asks the question ‘what would happen if reporters chose to go against the popular grain?’), one has to question who else comprises the world we all live in.  Looking in the mirror that would be the reflection you see.  Meaning — they are spurred on by us – their audience.  We are the public that demands a certain kind of flesh-eating dramatization of the weak – especially after they’ve fallen from any sort of height.  One could argue that if we didn’t buy it en masse then perhaps the Fourth Estate wouldn’t serve it up to us so bloodily and consistently.

hours to build up, and one second to take down.

Which brings us to 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, the young American who just won two gold medals in London for best all around female gymnast and as a member of the best team of female gymnasts (while also becoming the first African American female in history to do so).  You would think there isn’t much you can say to bring down a teenager who personified grace under pressure (what were you doing at 16 years of age?), leaving home in Virginia Beach at 14 to move to an Iowa town where she was the only dark-skinned woman to train and study (and where, due to economic conditions, her visits with her Mom were limited to Skype).  But we, the quick-to-judge public, found a way.  Numerous comments and commentators in this country seemed particularly perturbed by Douglas – but not because of her athletic performance.  In many strokes of a pen that would certainly cause suffragette Susan B. Anthony to spin in her grave – Gabby Douglas was raked over the coals for no less than her – hair?

Yes – you heard it right – HER. HAIR.  Well, as they say – Whatever works.

Here’s a lovely example of one of our fellow Olympic watchers (from the Daily Beast):

“I love how she’s doing her thing and winning,’’ says 22-year-old Latisha Jenkins of Detroit to The Daily Beast. “But I just hate the way her hair looks with all those pins and gel. I wish someone could have helped her make it look better since she’s being seen all over the world. She representing for black women everywhere.’

Want more?

“It’s taboo culturally to be seen in public with a kinky hairline and your ponytail is straight,” celeb hairstylist Larry Simms, who styles Mary J. Blige and Gabrielle Union, told the Daily Beast. “The textures don’t match her own hair and the added-on hair and that’s a problem. I think black girls in particular view her as a representation of themselves for the world to see. She just needs some Smooth and Shine gel and she’d be OK.’’

Word.

Let’s recap — this 16-year-old from Virginia Beach is now the first African-American woman, as well as the first person of color, to win gold in the gymnastics individual all-around competition. She is also the first US gymnast in history to win both individual and team gold at the same Olympics.  But keeping human interest going is a tricky thing – especially when we’ve heard countless Olympic stories of sacrifice, real-life tales of rising from working class roots to the heights of fame and riches, and morality lessons of young people achieving what seems inhumanly possible.  However, tapping into the not too often enough mined sensibilities of Black woman and their hair – especially the hair of a Black woman who is newly famous – then wow, we’ve really got something. (And we haven’t even gotten into the idea of 13 and 14 year old female athlete’s de rigueur requirement to wear numerous shades of eye shadow to enhance some idea of camera-ready beauty).

Of course, the media and we in the public could be more responsible.  But this would also require some cooperation from the corporate powers-that-be to take a bit of the lead and not throw up roadblocks in reflecting some of society’s other wants and needs.

That doesn’t appear likely.  In fact, NBC has taken its boom in record ratings from London to interpret that its coverage is both wonderful and cutting edge and what it defines as a “new kind of American viewing.”  The network prefers this analysis rather than the truth – that NBC is just the only game in town that any sort of Olympics fan is able to watch.  The network’s hubris is like running unopposed in a presidential election, winning in a landslide and basking in the glow of being the popular favorite.  Funny – as a college political science major in 1970s America I was taught to easily recognize this kind of behavior in the victories of totalitarian elections in the third world and other types of countries.  Like when people like Saddam Hussein or Ahmadinejad run ostensibly unopposed.

Must have been the dismount.

Of course – you don’t need to take my heavy-handed words for NBC’s sense of self.  Here’s the take of NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus about the network’s ratings:

“I think what we’ve proven is that the American viewing public likes the way we tell the story and wants to gather in front of the television with their friends and family — even if they have the ability to watch it live either on television or digitally,” Lazarus said. “I inherently trust that decision is the right one and that people want to see these events.”

Lazarus does acknowledge complaints about the brand of this year’s Olympic coverage and NBC’s decision to run most of its key moments 8 hours after the results are widely known.   He heard the public complaints.  But much like presidential candidates who refuse to release a record of their taxes – he claims the rights of the public “to know” are really just limiting, and the federal decision once upon a time that the public really does own the airwaves and that NBC is just renting them, is a limited way to look at things.  Because, he reasons, in the end, one’s business model trumps everything.

“As programmers, we are charged to manage the business,” Lazarus reminds. “And this is a business,” he said. “It’s not everyone’s inalienable right to get whatever they want. We are charged with making smart decisions for our company, for our shareholders and to present the product the way we believe is best.”

With this logic of  “we will do what we want because we want to” – without any sense of what is fair, balanced or perhaps morally right for the people we serve – we reinforce a Culture of Id.  Not only in our decisions but also in saying what comes to our mind in a knee jerk fashion without much thought.  In other words, giving in to our lowest instincts of envy, greed and jealousy.  It might be human nature to be prideful – or strive to be the Olympic ratings/moneymaking best.  But to do so to the detriment of others – or worse when taking down people whose desires or successes or wants annoy or threaten you or your bottom line – is that really just another human story?

Well, it is what Vidal so wisely put to words and reasoned that we indeed are so many decades ago.  And judging from the last 10 days, it doesn’t seem like we’re going to change anytime soon.  Unless enough of us are willing to form our own elite team of change whose hope it is to rewrite the words of one of our masters.