Billionaire Boys’ Club

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 11.25.54 AM

I heard a troubling statistic this week – 80 billionaires own HALF the wealth in the WORLD. You read that correctly. There are eighty people on the planet as wealthy as 3.6 BILLION of the poorest people. Not to mention, of those, 50% live in the United States. And you thought we were a country in decline?

Please.

Of course, if you’re female the news is not good.   Of those fortunate 80, only 8% are women.   Surprisingly, it’s not much better for young people since 68 of the 80 are over 50.

So if you reject the cliché of rich white men essentially owning the rest of us, well, you can’t argue with facts. This is NOT a debate on global warming.

The struggle is real

The struggle is real

You might be comforted to know the cut off point to make the Elite Eighty is a net worth of $13 billion. Though that means Oprah’s $4 billion plus doesn’t put her even near the top 200. Somehow it only seems fitting that she be there as OUR rep. But what’s fitting, or even seems so, is not reality. That much most of us 21 and over already know.

There is one piece of good news in all of this – not even The Republican Apprentice makes the team. I don’t know about you but I find some comfort in finding he’s not winning at everything – that is if you don’t count decency.

Here’s his latest invective from the campaign trail in Sioux City, Iowa this weekend:

I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any votes. It’s incredible.

See, even he can barely believe it.

LOL... he says

LOL… he says

Do I have to write the words Donald Trump? I suppose so since my prediction at a dinner party two months ago that he was the likely Republican presidential nominee this year seems to be coming true. I couldn’t foretell more than 33% of the Golden Globe winners two weeks ago yet with this I appear to be right on target. Well one can only hope history holds true and I don’t know a whole lot about what any of our futures hold, most particularly yours.

Perhaps it’s all my years working in and around the entertainment industry, but I for one have no desire or belief that a famous rich person would or even could rescue me. Too many deals fall apart; it’s easy to make promises when you’re at the top of the heap you don’t necessarily plan to, or might not even be able to, keep.

Since to get there you usually have to have enough smarts to possess a large personal wealth and career cushion, not to mention several other types of back up plans, you never really have much of your own skin in the game. Intentions are good, or not, but they seldom ever put this group in any real danger of falling in with the rest of the herd that we comprise. Yeah, you heard me. That would be us. Mooooo….

Truth bombs

Truth bombs

Therefore, it’s quite perplexing to me to see the world reaching out to today’s uber wealthy in order to lead. Putting Lord Trumpness aside, the latest news is that another mega billionaire – former three term N.Y. Mayor Michael Bloomberg – has enlisted a team to research the viability of his own independent run for the presidency. Bloomberg’s net worth is said to be $37.2 billion, which would easily put him in the top twenty of the Elite Eighty. Though for some reason he seems to be absent from the current 2015 list. Debate on that all you want but what is undebatable is he could still easily buy and sell The Ass-holian Apprentice several times over.

Oh Chairy, don't make me laugh!

Oh Chairy, don’t make me laugh!

Does this then mean it’s us against them and our only hope is the polar (Note: That’s not a blizzard joke) opposite of a 73 year-old socialist senator from Vermont – the state with the least amount of people in the country next to Wyoming? Well, Bernie Sanders’ net worth is under $1 million so that doesn’t seem likely. Pres. Obama, a senator and best selling author, was already worth at least triple that when he was elected to the presidency more than 7 years ago.

Hillary Clinton, whose net worth is at least $31 million seems more in line with populist sentiment at the moment – and not only because she’s married to a former president who on his own is worth more than $80 million, not counting his political skills. Yet despite an initial excitement that we could finally elect our first female chief executive in U.S. history and an initial groundswell of excitement and support – the enthusiasm level for her seems to be faltering. I guess it’s no longer enough to elect someone from a minority group in the country. Oh right, females actually are the MAJORITY of voters. Perhaps, that’s it. We really do hate ourselves.

Words fail me

Words fail me

Which brings us back to the wealthy, white male elite. What better personification can there be that we’d all relate to than the virulent #OscarsSoWhite uproar over the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees? Forget that the real fight is a much larger, ongoing battle of equal opportunity in the film business. How dare those guys not nominate Will Smith for Concussion and Spike Lee for…Chi-Raq? We’ve now got Will, Jada and Spike sitting it out this year, despite Chris Rock hosting and even though the Academy has nominated Spike and Will several times in the past, awarded Spike an honorary award this year for his many contributions to the industry and currently has a Black woman serving as its president.

Not that any of the above means a damn thing when it comes to diversity. Though, nor do the Oscar nominations. They’re hardly ever fair as a barometer for anyone or anything. I mean, I for one am glad I’m not 9 year old Jacob Tremblay’s father right now or little Jacob myself. I’m not sure I could ever imagine topping that bravura performance in Room even if I lived to be Gloria Stuart’s age. Which is fast approaching.

Just kidding... this is so me!

Just kidding… this is so me!

Nevertheless, pseudo liberal bastion that it is – the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, quickly announced this week it would be modifying its nominating process to disqualify some members from voting for future Oscars if they don’t have credits within the last 10 years. Plus, it is doing a massive campaign to recruit (and presumably admit, since it’s tough for anyone to get in these days), more non-white members.

Well, I’m not sure if this is entirely right or wrong but if it gets rid of a few of the macho homophobes who refused to award Brokeback Mountain Best Picture back in 2005 and instead chose the more bland and mainstream Crash – it’s all right with me. Though for sure, I’d trade it all for clean water in Flint, Michigan.

Great, now my head is now pounding with confusion about equal opportunity, wealth and fairness. Still, if anyone thinks of themselves as somehow lesser-than for not being at least a millionaire several times over at this point in their lives –here’s one last fact:

Sarah Palin’s net worth is estimated at $12 million.

I know

I know

Clearly, you don’t have to be a guy or particularly smart, seemingly sober or, well, even vaguely rational, to lead. Okay, you often do need to be white but relax –the Motion Picture Academy has picked up the mantle from Pres. Obama and is already working on that. Please don’t set us all back and, like a 1950s Disney princess, hope some wealthy white guy from the ruling class will rescue you. Movie endings don’t usually happen in real life. It’s a fantasy business.

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American Tussle

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I’m a terrible liar – both in person and on the page.  On the surface, this would seem unlikely.  It feels like the very essence of being a writer is possessing the ability to concoct fictional characters who play out stories you make up that don’t ever quite happen exactly the way you write them.  Of course, that is the irony of the writing life.  Unless you are telling the truth about the people and the situations you are making up out of whole cloth you are nowhere. Though the exceptions might be the screenwriter of a tent pole, blockbuster Hollywood movie or an unchecked politician.  Then all bets are off and you become very, very rich or very, very powerful, though seldom both. Still, if you so choose you can arrange a semi-fictionalized alternate version of events that, when told in the order of your own choosing, can sometimes create the greatest fake out of the truth that the real world has ever seen – events that can then be passed off as your truth.

This week we were treated to a movie length press conference – a sort of tent pole of press conferences – of pained New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie copping to some sort of massive, corruption scandal within his administration where his top aides – on their own, he emphasized – exacted some revenge against the usually non Christie-like, Democratic leaning town of Fort Lee, NJ by shutting down some of its major access roads for four days and causing the largest state-wide traffic jam in 12 years.

when it rains, it pours.

when it rains, it pours.

The Governor claims that he only found out the truth about this four month-old event several days ago via email after a workout, which presumes he was dripping sweat and dirty at the time since he also announced that just as knowledge of the situation came across his smart device he was about to jump, naked and spent one would assume, into his morning shower.  Never mind that there are a myriad of images here that I will never be able to get out of my mind because of the governor’s ability to be quite vivid and very specific about some of the events that happened four months after the scandal but to literally draw a blank on all of the other the events that happened during the actual scandal.  Well, maybe that’s too much to expect.  After all, he’s not the screenwriter of a tent pole movie – a person who inherently knows which dramatic points in a narrative to emphasize that will work best for the public – but merely a politician who is “disappointed” and “heartbroken,” to use his very own words.

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What Christie really wanted to say…

Despite being widely known as someone who runs a very tight ship with an iron hand, Gov. Christie proclaimed endlessly at his marathon gabfest that he knew not a single thing about a bogus traffic study and other occurrences that led to the gigantic marathon gridlock that top members of his administration presumably orchestrated as some sort of payback to the Democratic representatives of the town of Fort Lee and, in turn, its residents. This plan involved the closing of two of three local access lanes in the town – a hub for commuters throughout the state – into the George Washington Bridge- also known as the busiest bridge in world and the state’s prime roadway into New York City.  This traffic jam lasted for nearly 100 hours from September 9- 12 and affected tens of thousands of people, including a 91 year-old woman who paramedics were attempting to rush to the hospital through traffic and who eventually died.  It also continued through the 12th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in N.Y. and is, in fact, the worst traffic snarl up in the tri-state area since Sept. 11, 2001.

For those who are not east coast residents or have never traveled on the GW Bridge it should be noted that gigantic is probably an inadequate word for the kind of multi-hour gridlock drivers from all over the town, the state and elsewhere experienced during that time.  As would be employing the words infuriating, upsetting or frustrating to describe one’s reaction at getting caught in a car or any other non-moving vehicle on any one of those days.  To get an idea of just what a random person’s reaction might truthfully be, at least from this writer’s perspective, imagine a fictional character – say New Jersey’s own Tony Soprano – without his henchmen and at his angriest, sans weapon and unable to use his hands for strangulation or his feet for kicking a car into the Hudson River.  Then double it.  Actually, maybe quadruple – no sextuple it.  And I’m being conservative, though certainly never politically.

yeah that sounds right

still not enough, Chairy

There are lots of simple links to understand the nuances of this scandal.  For your viewing pleasure, they include:

1. The Washington Post’s infographic

2. 10 things you need to know about Bridge-gate

3. Will Bridgegate end it all?

4. EMS delays 

Suffice it to say that the Governor’s deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly was fired as was his chief spokesperson Michael Drewniak.  David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority, turned over some of his emails to lawmakers as part of a legislative inquiry but pleaded the 5th amendment several days ago to all questions about the incident.  However, his attorney later suggested that if a deal for Mr. Wildstein’s immunity could be brokered, there might be quite a bit of new and very specific information his client could impart that would shed new light on the issues.  Can’t imagine what those would be but given what we have seen in political corruption scandal films involving politicians in New York and New Jersey it could be worthy of at least a David O. Russell production.  Unless the director feels he already covered that territory this year in American Hustle.

At least he already has the fat suit

At least he already has the fat suit

Though in truth, you could even use some of the real life Christie administration dialogue here.  For instance, on the morning right before the lanes were closed and the snarl up started, here’s the real life e-mail exchange between Ms. Kelly and Mr. Wildstein.

Ms. Kelly (Laura Linney?) at 7:35 am:  Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.

Mr. Wildstein (Mark Ruffalo?) at 7:36 am:  Got it.    

CUT TO:

EXT. GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE – FORT LEE ENTRANCE – DAY

A battlefield of automobiles lined up at various angles all honking, screaming and cursing at each other amid closed lanes, Port Authority cones and traffic officials blocking off escape routes via exaggerated hand signals.  It’s 100% massive gridlock at its worst…or best.

Like most good scenes the dialogue is terse and dramatically leads us into a series of memorable images in order to make its main point.

As for Gov. Christie, despite what is being called an initially masterful performance in front of the cameras that degenerated into a too obvious plea to show his “pain” and prove he is a regular guy of the people who is “not a bully” and can still get “hurt” and “humiliated” (again, his words), the verdict is still out.  Clearly if this were a traditionally structured tent pole film made in Hollywood we are now at the end of the second act – the classic low point for a lead movie character.  That is the worst possible moment (unless we’re not quite there and there’s more to come) on his journey that would lead us into Act Three.

Did someone say impeachment?

Did someone say impeachment?

The latter would then entail the moment from which our hero must rise up against all odds, learn a lesson based on everything he has endured up to that point, and go on to defeat the enemy (perhaps even more them one, or perhaps merely no one but himself). Any and all of those points open many possible dramatic doors in Act Three of a story to which there are lots of possible, if not probable, endings.

Act 3?

Act 3?

  1. Christie could be found out to be lying and forced to resign; step away voluntarily for the good of the state in a brokered deal before word gets out; or stubbornly stay put and be impeached.  This is better known “pulling a Nixon” and thus will probably be avoided at any cost
  2. Christie could whether the storm of the scandal somewhat unscathed and serve out the rest of his term “under the radar.” This could then include doing some good work for which he will never really be credited even though he deserves to be, thus making him into an ironic, sort of flawed hero and would be considered an indie-type ending that maybe filmmakers only as iconoclastic as the Coen Brothers could sell to a studio.  That is assuming those guys would even be attracted to this story in first place – which is a distinct possibility since one of the actors they’ve worked with most frequently, John Goodman, would be perfect casting for the embattled governor.
  3. Christie emerges victorious from the scandals though we never know his true guilt or innocence until a book is written decades later.  In the meantime, he solves some significant unemployment or money problems in New Jersey and once again becomes the people’s hero.  He then runs for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, defeats Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election and…well, you get it and I can’t write anymore.  This is obviously the ending both the governor and the film studios and/or television networks would prefer.  A very human, though clearly less than saintly everyman who emerges victorious against all odds and leads his hometown and his country to national glory because, deep down in his heart, he is a really, really good guy who cares.
Jon  Hamm says: Only time will tell

Jon Hamm says: Only time will tell

Which ending do you believe?  And which one do you think we’ll get?  And which one do you think is true?  Write in and let us know.

In the meantime, one last fact:  The Democratic leaning town of Fort Lee actually voted in clear majority for Republican Gov. Christie in the November election, which occurred two months after the GW Bridge incident and a month before the scandal broke.  This means there was never any need for retribution against the town to begin with because the majority of its people WERE on the side of the Christie administration and the governor himself after all.  But the key word there is WERE. 

Stay tuned.

MILLENNIALS: A Love Story

Narcissist couple taking self portrait.

My students, usually aged 20-23, are, as a group – smart, motivated and kind of terrific.  So I’m sick of the media, as well as others, picking on them. The selfish millennials.  The Me, Me, Me Generation.  The narcissists who live off their parents as long as they can, don’t want to do hard work, strive for fame rather than creative or intellectual achievement, and are far more concerned with how many friends or followers they have on social media than the people who like or even love them in real life.

As Bill Clinton said about Barack Obama during Mr. Obama’s 2008 Presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton: “GIVE. ME. A BREAK.  This whole thing is the greatest fairy tale I’ve ever seen…”

Though I don’t have Bubba creds, as a screenwriter, journalist, teacher and human being I can tell you that cleverly made up stories, like both clichés and really good lies, ALWAYS have a grain or two of truth.  As does all great fiction.  So it’s not wholly untrue that the insults cast about against young people today have zero reality to them.  But it also doesn’t mean that, on the whole, they are correct.

We all know it's true

We all know it’s true

Or to put it another way: just because the new mocha and carrot cake cupcakes from that great bakery in your neighborhood taste lousy doesn’t take away from the fact that their classic vanilla and chocolate ones, which far outnumber the former anyway, aren’t still fantastic and wouldn’t win you first place on Cupcake Wars.  Given the choice, most people go in for basic flavors (which, for my money, are always better), yet they are never featured upfront as the specials of the day.

A non-Jon Hamm drool worthy pic

A non-Jon Hamm drool worthy pic

And no, I don’t think I’m pushing the metaphor.

I just finished reading 26 screenplays in 12 days, notes and all, from these young people and I can tell you what’s on their minds -–forbidden love, dysfunctional parents and families, escape from their troubled or mundane worlds to a mythical or alternate one in the past or future, society’s vacant value system and lack of responsibility to future generations, and the general existential tragedy of life as seen through a broadly comedic or intensely overdramatic lens or mindset.

Yes – all the things that bothered the Generation Xers, the Baby Boomers and I suspect each new coming-of-age group back through the decades and centuries of time remain intact.  Sure, the packaging might be different because we’ve gone from carrier pigeon, to Pony Express, to snail mail, to email, to texting, and to Twitter.   But the actual themes, passages and journeys in existence remain constant.

I know how difficult it is to write even a bad script since I have done it many more times than I care to remember.  So I can also tell you that while some (or even many) of these young people write their screenplays in between periods of YouTube gazing, web surfing or gchatting, their sentiments are equally sincere, if sometimes over or understated – just as all of my peer group’s are were.  Perhaps that’s why they are being over-categorized and subtlety dissed, just like we were – but with an even nastier streak.

Eyeroll

Eyeroll

Time Magazine hurling insults at The Me Me Me Generation in its recent cover story harkens back to 1967 when the magazine, during in its heyday, voted its annual Man of the Year award to the 25 and Under.  The difference is, 45+ years ago Time went out of its way to profile and categorize all types of people in this new generation in various POVs and color shades of the rainbow.  Last week, however, the only famous millennial it quoted in its entire cover story was Kim Kardashian.

Said Kim:

“They (millennials) like that I share a lot of myself and that I’ve always been honest about the way I live my life.”  (“Ha!” – The Chair)  “They want relationships with businesses and celebrities.  Gen X was kept at arm’s length from businesses and celebrity.”

Well…okay.

When I asked 25 of my students several years ago about Kim and their peer group’s fascination for her they simultaneously laughed in my face and groaned.  It wasn’t at all what Kim did or didn’t do that made her interesting, they agreed, but “how ridiculous she is” and “how much some people make a fuss about her.”  In other words, it was the postmodern version of a Kim Kardashian existence that intrigued them, not the now about-to-be new Mom herself or the vast Kardashian empire ($80 million and climbing) that she, her sisters and her own mother created by not being particularly good at anything but being famous.

We can at least thank them for this brilliant parody

We can at least thank them for this brilliant parody

There have been individuals of every generation well known for well, not very much.  Consider the classic line towards the end of the movie musical Gypsy, based on the memoirs of renowned performer stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, when her press agent tries to get her to lighten up in front of the lens of a photographer, who is about to shoot her naked in a bubble bath for a huge spread in Life Magazine:  “Smile Gyps, show us your talent!”   To which Gypsy throws back her shoulders and shoves out her breasts.*

The difference is, of course, Gypsy Rose Lee was never held up as representative of her entire generation.

This all reminds me of what it was like when I was a reporter for Variety (1977-1983, I was 5 years-old at the time, obviously) and every year they’d put out an anniversary issue where they would ask us to do trend stories.  I hated those stories.  Because they always involved generalizations about a group of people or professionals or ideas that were conveniently being grouped together so we could reduce them to a catchy sociological phenomenon or cultural stereotype.  I think it was the year of the woman at least 3 times during that period and perhaps oh, I don’t know, 15 times since.  There has also been the emergence of the gays and gay power or – as it used to be called back in the day – the PINK mafia.  In the 60s it was Black power.  Before that it was the rise of the immigrants.  Now, it’s the rise of illegal immigrants (the least offensive term), or, to put it more kindly – the emergence of The Dreamers.

Something like that...

Something like that…

It’s all sort of the same thing when you get down to it because it’s the story of our country, if not the world.  A group emerges onto the scene that somehow seems to threaten the status quo, who in turn fears it will (and perhaps is) beginning to lose its power.

But writing from the other side of the generation gap it’s easy to see this simple fact:

Everything, after a time, makes way for the new, whether that thing likes it or not.

I’m around the new a lot and generally like what they’re about.  I talk to them.  I even hang with them occasionally.  It could be that I like them because I’ve taken the time to know them and not categorize them.  I also understand the unvarnished truth – that they’re not here so much to take over but continue with us on the journey – and then steer the ship when, inevitably, we no longer can.

(* The line (and all the lines) from “Gypsy” were written by the very brilliant playwright/screenwriter Arthur Laurents.  Lest anyone think movie characters think up what they say themselves)

The Passion of the Chair

Watching the hour-long NBC fundraising concert special for Hurricane Sandy survivors, one saw A LOT of talent on passionate display.  And not so coincidentally, this talent all hailed from the affected areas.

Christina Aguilera: Staten Island Girl

Bruce Springsteen: Jersey Boy

Billy Joel: Long Island Boy

Steve Tyler: Yonkers, NY Boy

Mary J. Blige: Bronx Girl

Sting: Okay, he’s the exception but since Sting is not his real name we’re not going to deal with him right now.

It can be enough to be extremely talented. But if you want to deliver 200% on your potential you also have to figure out what aspects of your talents in your passionate sweet spot you can use to take you to, as Stevie Wonder once sang, your Higher (Highest?) Ground.  As a writer, what are the stories you lived or saw others close to you live that you have to tell?  As a visual artist, what moves you the most and what do you urgently even require to express to us visually?  What kinds of people and situations hit home for you as an actor that you are compelled at all costs, especially embarrassment, to embody?  Most people have one area where they are best or at least most emotionally connected.  And yes, it is possible to be very good and financially successful at stuff you don’t love or care about. But you will never reach the heights in that field the way you will by using a skill in an area that truly unleashes your inner passion.

Meet Jack Passion. Yes, that is his real name. I bet you can all guess what he is passionate about.

Most actors are not equally adept at comedy or drama. But for the few that are there is still a universal depth of character in all of their performances that accounts for their stand out work, rather than timing, lucky breaks or a facility in a particular genre.  For example, Sean Penn is a rare actor who can do both.  In comedy, no one can forget his iconic Malibu stoner Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but I would argue this is partly because he grew up in Malibu among stoners who attended schools like Ridgemont High and admittedly carried that memory deep inside.  Mr. Penn won his second best actor Oscar for playing political crusader Harvey Milk but it would also be logical he was particularly able to rise to one of his greatest roles in part because Mr. Penn has been a real-life political crusader for 20 plus years (no I’m NOT saying he’s in Harvey Milk’s category, please…) and can innately understand how that feels.

Righteous, Dude.

In particular, real-life politicians also fit this bill.  Bill Clinton is never better than when he is charming crowds of people with the Southern charm he grew up on.  Barack Obama is also inspiring to large crowds but usually emits a coolness that seems to imply he does not suffer fools gladly, or, at least, does not feel their pain in the same Clintonesque fashion.  On the other hand, Pres. Obama seems to have a very strong personal moral compass, instilled in him by his Kansas born and bred mother and grandparents that Mr. Clinton doesn’t always have, that seems to engender likeability and respect (well, mostly on the latter).  He and his staff also know how to marshal forces in a conspicuously effective way partly because of the traits that enabled Mr. Obama to be the outstanding community organizer in Chicago he once was and, as some would argue, continues to be, only now on a national and international stage.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who tried to take apart the President as Mitt Romney’s keynote surrogate at the Republican convention, has a talent to be a plain talking everyman, albeit one who is brash and pushy.  Some people dismiss this as simply an ability to bully people into his beliefs rather than based in talent or personality.  Perhaps it is a talent to use one’s personality to a bigger goal.  Clearly, we all might have these hidden talents that we reserve for actions with family and friends but using it outside our inner circle in work and in public life allows us to transfer these traits into other arenas and enables us to develop them as one of our truest talents. If we don’t choose to work at them and go public, these traits are still ability but not one we might put to maximum talent effect.

Proof that we can work together

Yet if all this is true, why was Gov. Christie’s speech as a scripted attack dog roundly panned at the Republican convention when his impromptu brashness at press conferences – most recently this week’s performance praising Pres. Obama for his quick Hurricane Sandy disaster response in New Jersey – consistently seem to get him praise?  I would argue that’s because Mr. Christie’s brash abilities are put to their best use when he finds a cause that hits home, in this case literally.  When his beloved New Jersey found itself devastated this week by a hurricane, mostly out of love of his birthplace and partly out of self-preservation as governor, he dropped his negative attack dog mode and with the best of his passion and talent reached across the aisle and gave everything but a tacit endorsement of the man (Pres. Obama) he tried to take apart to millions of television watching voters just several months earlier.  Mr. Christie’s talent for impromptu passionate speaking – okay, perhaps bullying plain logic –worked in an entirely different and arguably much better way to greater effect when he found a cause that hit closest (again, literally) to where he lives rather than in the philosophical, issue-oriented faux world of politics.  More simply put, recovering his state from natural disaster could have provided something perhaps equally valuable — a tipping point for national bipartisanship in a hopelessly polarized political landscape across the country.

Watching people rise to the height of their talents and potentials in a certain area can be dizzying, thrilling, emotional, sweet, lovely, fun or just plain nice.  I’ve had any number of careers and have been good at all of them.  But some took much better advantage of my talents than others.  I find that teaching makes the most of many of them.  When all I did was write for a living I got lonely.  When I worked as a reporter I found myself not being creative enough by solely sticking to the facts.  I enjoyed the money I made doing publicity but disliked being a salesperson who had to often push “items” (nee movies) I didn’t personally believe in.  While I could marshal my talents in discourse, writing and general geniality to do well but as a sales person, something always felt off for me even when I was successful at it – as if I was in the wrong place at the right time.

Creative people are faced with this all of the time in the commercial marketplace.  I teach my students to work on what they care about but to also understand the outside world and take steps “to be able to eat” in choosing at least some of the work they do.  The latter can be either inside their discipline or in taking “day jobs” outside of it to pay the rent if the former isn’t comfortable. Clearly, no creative person feels equally passionate about each creative job they’re paid for.  But part of the task in doing your work well is to find a glimmer of passion in that particular task that will enable your talent to shine through and bring your work on that particular task to the best of your professional levels at the time.

Even icons in the entertainment business have to deal with the issue of passion.  Here’s a pop quiz:

Who is the only recording artist to have five #1 singles on the Billboard  charts – one each decade – in the1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and aughts?

No — It’s not Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, Billy Joe, Barbra Streisand or Frank Sinatra.

It’s….Cher.

Cher-fro

Yes, Cher.  But as much as she’s achieved over the last 50 years, one could argue that Cher’s creative life has probably not been best displayed or utilized in the public arena in the last decade.  She seldom makes films and when she does (“Burlesque”) they’re more campy rather than memorable.  Her records are few and far between; her stage shows are fun but sort of walk-throughs down memory lane.  And yes, at this point of course she’s entitled to have taken some time off from talent, passion or whatever.  However, she hasn’t.  Not really.  What’s publicly moved Cher lately to her greatest effect is being the politically active mother to Chaz Bono  – perhaps one of the most famous members of the gay, lesbian and transgender community.  In the last few years, Cher has taken to Twitter, gaining respect and fame as a plain-talking mother hen spokesperson for the cause.  She has over a million Twitter followers and advocates tirelessly not only for LGBT rights but also on women’s issues – often getting into trouble for tweets like this:

Friends who’ve known me for years might be surprised at my Cher shout-out since they all also know I worked with her in the mid-eighties and, let’s just say, didn’t have particularly favorable anecdotes from the experience.  This was solidified a few years later when I found myself with her and a friend in a post movie screening social situation and the subject of life as a gay person came up in conversation.  While I tried to argue one could be gay and have just as happy and fulfilling a life as anyone else, Ms. Bono Cher argued that I only thought this because I was young and that as gay people got older their lives would be quite lonely because their world was particularly youth-oriented, they couldn’t marry and that the vast gay majority would, inevitably, age and die sad and alone.  And no – I am not embellishing what she said.  Not.  At.  All.

Which is why her transformation to what she most clearly and publicly believes today is all the more impressive and worth noting.  The world has changed in so many ways.  This is part natural evolution and part due to many individuals, especially creative people and their personal passions to fuel whatever they deeply believe in through whatever work they’re doing.  That work is at its best when it comes from a particular and usually awfully private place from way, way back or from a more recent but no less personal place that one finds themselves newly invigorated by.  That’s why it’s important to stay engaged in the world – you never know how a change in thought will move you, or others, to a cause – artistic and/or political – that you once believed, or have yet to believe in.  Or how it can move it into whatever spotlight (either large or small because it doesn’t matter – all spotlights inevitably lead into each other) that you will eventually cast.

Listen

There is something both great and awful, yet at the same time scary, offensive and exhilarating —  about listening.  How many activities can engender such a range of responses and emotions?  Not many unless you count the reaction to the renewal of NBC’s “Whitney” or thoughts on the new Adam Sandler trailer “That’s My Boy” and feedback concerning the voice Mr. Sandler is using to play Dad to the movie’s title character.  But who wants to get into all that now, anyway, even in the safe space confines of a user-friendly (one hopes) Internet blog.

The death of singer supreme Donna Summer this week got me thinking about listening, as opposed to my usual rants about being heard. At one time not so long ago, Ms. Summer’s sultry yet powerful voice played on many more radios than Rush Limbaugh’s ever did but, unlike Limbaugh, her voice was a clarion call to an emerging culture of people who were tired of the way things were and wanted the society to, if not change, at least be broadened enough to include something a little bit more colorful and different.  That was, until, disco sort of imploded upon itself (sort of like what’s happening to Limbaugh at the moment), and created a backlash that sent Ms. Summer’s music underground until decades later when it was sort of okay to listen to her again in a nostalgic, albeit kitschy way.

Dancing Queen

Though I was no Disco baby, I never did lose my taste for a Summer record like “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park” or even “On The Radio” – all of which I listened to as a young person who, at least on the inside, felt different enough to hear what she had committed to vinyl (uh, yeah, vinyl) over and over again.  I think this was due, in part, because it made me think and, more importantly, feel things I had never felt, or dared to feel before.   For those not getting this last statement – use your imagination.  For those still not getting it – phone a friend (girl OR boy).  Or better yet – listen yourself to her very first hit international hit in the confines of your own study, crib or own safe space.

Music is one way to listen – or not to – but these days, of course, there are a lot more, partly because there are many more outlets. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean there is more worthy stuff to hear.  The challenge is – choosing what to listen to.  Now I’m not one of those armchair liberals who only listen and look (the latter often a requirement of listening in the 2012 age) to those who agree with me – that would be boring.  But that doesn’t mean that my version of listening requires me to watch what passes for news on Fox Broadcasting (I have Jon Stewart to siphon that off) or expose my diminishing hearing to anything within the smell zone that the cigar-chomping Limbaugh chooses to Rush at me.  There are variations of the ilk I will watch or read – pundits or even bigots that make my blood boil at a little lower temperature (Peggy Noonan the former, or Tony Perkins of something called the Family Research Council, being the latter).  This is just in the off chance I can learn something or be forearmed in the very off chance that they might, at some point, or even now, be listening to me.  (A long shot, I know, but, like Bill Clinton, I try in my mind’s eye to still live in a little town called Hope).

Best cheeseburgers in town.

I honed my listening skills as a young reporter, a field where you are pretty much forced to listen to everything in an effort to synthesize and tell the “real story” of an event to people who are depending on you for the truth.  Well, at least that’s the way I learned it back in journalism school.  Unfortunately, times have changed.  Back then most writing and reportage was not about advancing an agenda but actually attempting to get all sides and then tell the most truthful version of it that you could in your own, inimitable fashion.  This does and did not mean that many stories – both news and features – didn’t have a point of view.  Of course they did.  Since complete objectivity is a human impossibility it is a given that the retelling of anything will be synthesized in some way given that mere mortals are telling it.  But as any decent filmmaker knows, POV doesn’t change the actual story elements – it merely shifts focus and moves the audience in a direction.  It is then up to the audience to do what they will with the information given to them.

Or not given.

That’s a trick too.  When no one is listening or reading or watching hard enough, merely arranging the same facts a certain way can cause people to interpret the story exactly the way you want them to.  But that’s pretty much only in the case of people who are not really listening or at least are not practiced listeners. Which, these days, means pretty much everybody.

Everyone. Everywhere.

If we, as storytellers (professional or just plain folks like us), don’t listen we won’t have enough information to tell the story the way it is because we won’t be able to recognize that there are indeed missing details.  And our version will become someone else’s faulty version – someone who is depending on us for the truth – and then they will retell it to yet another who creates still another version with a lack of proper information or facts that we provided them in the first place.   One need only look at the political situation in the Middle East or the “true love” choices on “The Bachelor” to get confirmation of that.

Certainly, we all listen differently and most of us are too busy looking for either work or validation or love or money (sometimes all four) to be focused on getting to the bottom of anything.  That is, unless the real story will provide us with one of the four  (see “The Bachelor” or “Bachelorette”).   In some ways, this was always the case.  We humans usually don’t listen hard enough unless we can get something out of it.  Or, to put it another way: “what’s in it for me?”

Stlll, the baseline was – how do I put this – a bit higher.  There was a time when television news was required by law to present both sides.  But that was abolished under Pres. Reagan’s FCC in 1987.

There was also a time when there was no:

– free porn on a small screen in your home whenever you wanted it

– 1,438,928 cable TV stations vying for your attention

– opportunity to listen to as much of Donna Summer, Adam Sandler, or anyone else you wanted without charge if you clicked the right set of keys on a laptop computer anywhere in the world.

Can you do better?

Chair Translation — we’ve gotta raise the bar – just a tad, or even a hair.  Or two.  Even if it’s calmly trying to discuss and investigate whether the news story your friend posted on Facebook is little more than someone else’s faulty retelling of someone else’s rant.  Or asking your friend, lover or family member to calmly tell you what they are saying and then stepping back and spending more than five minutes deciding for yourself how much you want to believe or whether you want to take at least another five or even ten minutes to do some investigating on your own.   Which might then lead you to talk to someone else about this very situation.  A situation (and NOT the “Jersey Shore” kind) this person might very well be interested in or have pertinent information about, but found that said story in the form you are advancing had never crossed their path.  And that, in turn, can do or change all kinds of things.  Or if not, forge the discovery of yet another “something else”.  Something that might not have been heard before if someone wasn’t listening to you (or vice versa) in the very first place.

All of this can be done to the tune of the Donna Summer record of your choice if you so desire.  Or perhaps, simply, in silence.  I suggest the latter but certainly understand the former, depending on your mood.

Pun Intended?

Yes, there are carcinogens in hot dogs but we continue to eat them (most of us) because we love them and there is a debate as to just how many can hurt you over how long a period of time.  There are also carcinogens in the public discourse – many different types and varieties – probably more than there are found in the average hot dog.  Or in — as they used to say in the Cub Scouts with a lot of snickers – the average weiner.  Weiner!  Hahahah!

Yes, we’re talking about NY Congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal (Note: sexting defined as sending sexually explicit pictures and/or sexual words over your phone, through the internet or in any other hand held device… yuk, yuk).  One talking head on cable news this week called it a real life tragedy.  Tragedy?  Like, uh, Columbine?  AIDS?  Genocide in a third world country?  Are they kidding?

Being born and bred in New York, I got a good chuckle from the poll released yesterday that more than 50% of New Yorkers surveyed don’t want Weiner to resign.  I haven’t lived there in many years but I don’t get it either.  Yeah, yeah, I know – he now can’t do his job with the same effectiveness because all the other uber-ethical congress people won’t work with him, he has bad judgment and can’t be trusted and – the biggie – HE LIED!!  (Imagine, a politician trying to cover up a sex scandal!).  But New York has always been a bottom line kind of place.  Does he deliver the goods to us?  If so, then I don’t give a —- what the —– he does.  Who cares!!  Fuggedaboutdit!!!!

I tried explaining to a very good friend of mine that this kind of sexting behavior is how MANY Internet savvy people (single presumably but not necessarily) often flirt these days.  There are degrees, certainly, but it’s pretty common.  (Who’s shocked?  Raise your mouse.  Eek!).  Truly.  Really.  I didn’t grow up with the Internet and am a bit shy so – disclaimer – this isn’t my thing.  But I know of many, many people who treat some sites on the internet, or some phone numbers or email addresses of people they meet (in person or on the Internet) the way people of my generation would treat people or experiences at an in-person mixer or singles bar.  Taking or stretching this metaphor further (pun intended), there are all kinds of mixers – all kinds of bars.  Use your imagination.

But this isn’t the point.  The real point is – exactly what DID happen in this case?  The Congressman had no physical contact with anyone. I mean, it would be a REALLY BORING scene if I were writing it in a screenplay.  I guess Aaron Sorkin could make it sound interesting with lots of provocative dialogue or a director like Danny Boyle could pump it up visually (pun intended).  But strip (yet another pun!) all that aside and we’re still left with this basic dramatic question – was he unfaithful to his wife?  (or us?)  Is virtual sex immoral in the same way physical sex is?  Be careful here.  Think about it.  Now keep thinking while I promise not to send in the thought police.  And I give you this example — in the seventies, Jimmy Carter got some flack admitting during a Playboy interview he had “lusted in his heart after women.”  Isn’t that ridiculous??????  And side note:  in the seventies, Playboy was seen as a LEGITIMATE and prestigious JOURNALISTIC SOURCE.  It also trafficked in naked pictures (mostly female body parts but still…) AND interviews with presidents like Carter, movie stars like Barbra Streisand and famous writers like Kurt Vonnegut.

That (of course) is not the case today.  Imagine today’s president doing an interview for a magazine with naked pictures of women.  (Certainly one that featured naked men would be downright carcinogenic).  A magazine like, well, uh – What is the Internet equivalent of Playboy?  Is there one?  Can there be 2011 respected journalistic publications that feature us (humans) as our maker (is that God or our parents?) made us or as we entered this world? Is there one that isn’t porn or halfway in between?  Is there no halfway point anymore?  That is the Weiner question.  Pun intended.  What is the moral compass that points you to the moral line you can’t cross?  As the Supreme Court decided in an obscenity case I did a social studies report on in high school (yeah, that was in the seventies, too) – it depends on “community standards.”  What are those  – your community? The Internet community (is there such a thing?)? Uh, well, it depends who you are and where you live.

William Hurt asked this question in the great movie “Broadcast News” .  (Yes, I quoted BN in a previous blog but it’s great movie dialogue so indulge me) when his (sorta) girlfriend played by Holly Hunter chastised him for possibly fudging part of a news story when he did a retake of himself (the reporter) crying when a woman he interviewed on camera related a sexual trauma that happened to her.  You mean, that’s “verboten?”  Hurt’s character asked?  Well, Hunter’s character was incredulous that he could even ask such a thing — how he couldn’t know that he had “crossed A LINE.”  Hurt’s reply – “well, they keep moving that little sucker, don’t they?

Questions:

  1. Is Weiner’s problem as bad as Bill Clinton’s in person sexual dalliance with intern Monica Lewinsky?
  2. Is Weiner’s problem as awful as having an affair with a male or female staffer (IN PERSON) in the office?
  3. Is Weiner’s problem more offensive than soliciting another guy LIVE in a men’s room if you’re a married male congressman?
  4. Is Weiner’s problem worse than hiring numerous prostitutes, having real sex with them and charging it all on your personal credit card to the tune of many thousands of dollars?
  5. Is Weiner’s problem a problem for us?  Or for him and his now pregnant wife?

Logic would tell us it could now be a problem for all of us because it now renders him unable to do his job because of bad publicity.  Logic would also tell us you can’t lie to the world and your colleagues for a week and then expect full support from them given the climate in the world or American political reality show entertainment.  But logic has nothing to do with any of this.  It’s all about personal and/or “community standards.”  And the line is fluid (pun intended).  With little wiggle room (hahaha!) for anyone anymore.