These ARE the Days

Here’s how much I loved Don Rickles. When I was 14 years old instead of hanging out with the other teens at the playground of our apartment building in Tarzana I sat in my Dad’s air conditioned blue Dodge listening to his “Hello Dummy” eight track tape over and over again. Until my Dad lectured me about car batteries. How much ya weigh, Tiny? You’re an Arab and I’m a Jew…And to all my Mexican friends… Well, you get the picture.

American classic

Joan Baez. I did a book report on her autobiography “Daybreak” in the 11th grade when I was 15 (yes, an overachiever) and I was so effusive I remember my teacher wrote in the margins, “is this love?” But I considered that a victory rather than an insult or personal intrusion. Perhaps I convinced him of her worthiness and to pay more attention to someone who worked through song and protest to change the then Nixonian political events of the day. Then again, maybe he was just making a kind observation.

a goddess

And then there’s Broadcast News, a perfectly prescient film of love and news, not necessarily in that order, which spoke to me via the sometimes too large chip that used to sit on my shoulder (Note: Used to?) when confronted with what I perceived to be idiocy and immorality in the workplace or in my personal life.

I’ve quoted it before but, since it’s been a theme of my life, why not again:

There is a wonderful absolutism in art and to looking back. Everything seems funnier, smarter and more lovingly beautiful than it ever could have been. Though it can also mean exactly the opposite. It depends on your mood and point of view at the time. The one thing that seems clear – we can’t be objective.

Still, our outlook and actions are really all we have. Aside from chocolate ice cream, pizza and the occasional well-marinated chicken breast or Portobello mushroom if we’re being careful and/or vegan. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing to look back and appreciate them as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking we can ever recapture that precise moment of joy again in our present day or depress ourselves into believing some perhaps even better experiences don’t await us in the not too distant future.

 

May 2014. Me. Italy. #YUM

No, this is not a new age, new version of a Hallmark card. The truth is, one does never know what’s waiting around the bend. One day it’s an orange tinged Hellion and the next it could be…anything, or anyone, else. Consider U.S. presidential politics in November 2008 at the end of the Bush era. Or the great Nixon-Kennedy debates. Time in this country (and probably elsewhere) is an inevitable and necessary period of change and torch passing – sometimes for the better and in other moments regressive – depending on where you’re sitting or whom and what one is remembering.

All that being said, the passing of 90 year-old Don Rickles really did throw me for a loop this week. The Sultan of Insults, The Merchant of Venom, Mr. Warmth – whatever you want to call him, he represented a breath of fresh honesty to me in a period of my youth where it felt like no one in the older generation was ever telling the truth. Rickles was who you especially needed in the sixties and seventies when no one trusted anyone over 30 (and with good reason) because he was A LOT over 30 and looked a lot older and was forcing us to laugh at the hypocrisy of it all with the kind of scorching benevolence only a master insult comic could get away with. But boy was it ever effective for those many moments he held the stage.

“Show business is my life. When I was a kid I sold insurance, but nobody laughed.”

As for Broadcast News, it’s always been a favorite film of mine but never more so than lately, where it feels like there is no longer anything but a news business masterfully dictating to the various niche audiences now comprising the U.S. on what to not only feel but believe. Facts are subjective and up can be down, if you edit it precisely enough. And that was exactly what filmmaker James L. Brooks chronicled and warned us about a full 30 years ago in the vein of what was essentially a romantic comedy centering on a smart, uncompromising female heroine who managed to be just strong enough to choose herself over either of the two eager guys desperately vying for her ultimate attentions.

There was a major effort to nail a new kind of heroine, Mr. Brooks said on a panel at the Turner Classic Movies Festival this past week of the uncompromising Holly Hunter/Jane Craig character prior to a screening of the film.

A rare 80s classic where style doesn’t distract #butsweatdoes

But though he saw the film essentially as a romantic comedy, co-star Albert Brooks noted that part of the power of the film is that it takes place at a time when news stories still gained traction on content.

At the time of Broadcast News there was no Drudge Report. It was not an issue of trying to shock people…And now look at what people are shocked at – nothing.

Nevertheless, it became obvious as the pre-talk continued that what makes both Brookses (no relation) the artists that they continue to be is their ability to extrapolate pessimism into a perhaps more palatable truth of where we are or could soon be.

I actually think Trump’s saving journalism. There’s been a resurgence of our two most important newspapers (the New York Times and Washington Post) doing some of their best work in years. So I’m strangely optimistic, said James L.

How I really feel about that #WHY

The news used to need individuals like Walter Cronkite for the story to matter. Now the individual doesn’t matter as much. Fifty people retweet and repost something now it can change minds. The story matters, said Albert B.

Of course, what the STORY is or is actually portrayed as is up to us. It requires, actually demands activity. Participation. And a certain type of…dare we say it…

Activismthe policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

UGH NO.. NOT THIS

This is where Joan Baez comes in.

It is encouraging to realize that at 76 years old anything is possible – particularly artistic productivity, not giving up and the determination to fight against what one sees as injustice in the hope of a better future.

Return of the Queen

But rather than doing this by lecturing and looking back at the bad, good old days that most either won’t remember or, more likely, will individually recall quite differently, real leaders in their field instead choose to dwell in the present, using the experiences of their past as a kind of secret fuel.

Certainly Joan Baez, a singer who was an early trailblazer in helping end the Vietnam War, the assault on migrant farm workers and countless other causes, knows that one song alone won’t change public perceptions of policies. But what she is also wise enough to realize at this point is that it is a start towards something, anything to build a new momentum. That is what social change IS about at its essence. A dwelling in the present. An attempt by one individual to speak out and do all they can, hoping they then reach others, who will in turn join and take on the mantle.

Which line will you get on?

Then soon it becomes a group effort, and a movement, and then a massive wave towards a change we all can believe in. As ineffective as it can be to merely look back, it is equally self-defeating to dismiss this power in taking one small step towards something as some sort of Pollyanna-like view of our futures that can never happen.

In the spirit of which – we will now end with the latest protest song (Copyright 2017) written by Joan Baez and sung in that timelessly haunting soprano voice. It might not be quite as high as it once was (which of us is) but it pierces right into what is at the center of what ails many. No – it’s not a solution. Just merely a start.

Of something.

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Can you spare any CHANGE?

lprc_06_08Apr2013

Can people really change?  This is the question asked by the season finale of Mad Men on Sunday and it is our question about our born in the Old South (and possibly racist bred) 66 year-old Queen of Butter – celebrity chef Paula Deen.

It might seem strange to conflate Ms. Deen’s jokey use and tolerance of the “N” word (as well as her less talked of jokes about Jews, gays and who knows what else) with the machinations of fictional characters playing out the social changes of the 1960s on a cable television series.  But it isn’t.  There is barely a visible line between any of the real and the unreal touchstones in our world at this point in time.

Finding togetherness at rockbottom

Finding togetherness at rockbottom

Since we’ve learned from a low level systems analyst, who has thus far eluded the entire law enforcement apparatus of the US, that the American government now could very well be listening in on YOUR (certainly not mine!) daily phone calls, I find I’ve even begun to wonder how truly false the activities are of the Housewives seen on television in any major US city.  I mean, just because they’re BRAVO cable TV creations cheekily billed as “Real,” and everyone knows Bravo reality TV shows are fake (don’t we?), how do we know for sure in this climate that they actually aren’t all an even more clever trick – a dead honest representation of what a large segment of our lives have become.  A world we don’t want to admit to in the same way Mad Men’s Don Draper and the deposed Food Network diva Paula Deen don’t want to cop to their foibles until they both are absolutely forced to.

Since I’m not a housewife, nor can I technically be considered an authority on married adult family life since I couldn’t be legally married in the US or even considered part of my own adult family until a few days ago  (and the jury is still out on that if I decide to move into any other of the majority of our “united” states), I can’t speak for those shows on BRAVO (Note: though ironically, I am a key demographic in their target audience).  I am, however, a big Mad Men fan and have on more than one occasion gotten a hoot out of the over-the-top unhealthy food choices and personality of Paula Deen on the Food Network (especially when almost 10 years ago my dear friend Michael, in all seriousness, dubbed her “a murderess”). So I can mouth off with some authority to the general bulk of the subject at hand.

Couldn't help myself

Couldn’t help myself

The thing about change is —

You can do it but it takes A LOT of will and focus and diligence to truly alter who you basically are because it means modifying what you were taught (or through experience decided) to believe was fundamentally true.  We build up defenses – systems for being in the world – formulas for success or even right or wrong ways to be.  Through our lives, these ideas are learned and unlearned.  Sometimes what you learned or were taught works the first time out and it is great!!! Many other times they fail you and you wonder why you’ve been left in the dog house when all you’ve done is follow the rules or did as you’ve always done and are now suddenly being told that formula is outdated, not useful or just plain wrong.

This is when reinvention or re-education comes in.  In other words, change.

No one stays the youngest, the smartest and the most handsome forever – as Don Draper, brilliantly played by Jon (“He deserves his Emmy already”) Hamm has finally begun to learn.  Even when you stay handsome, as Don/Jon certainly has, the starchy early sixties thin-lapeled suits and tight slicked back hair give way to the more desirable shoulder length tresses and striped bell bottoms (do we really want to see DD THAT way?).  The same way the actions of a cool, scotch-swilling square jawed Lothario, he of the chic Madison Avenue success story, can quickly become the cold, desperate acts of a lying alcoholic whose behavior no one will tolerate anymore when, really, his actions are to himself, deep down, only just a little bit more or a little bit less than what he’s always been.

Whether one is an avid MM watcher or not, we all can relate to that point in time when we know the jig is up.  This is where Don Draper is at the fiercely ended sixth season.  A guy who has been fired from his personal and professional worlds and can either keep going on a downward spiral or decide, in some small or big way, to make an attempt to deal with the dreaded Big C – in this case, Change.

The big reveal

The big reveal

For Don Draper his admission of his past and how he was raised – poor, unloved in a whorehouse, a young boy who was occasionally given affection and life lessons from the random prostitute who took pity on him, or on herself by using him – is a big step forward and would almost seem cliché unless one were to have witnessed all six seasons of his life up to that point in time.   This is much like it is in real life when a person exposes a particular painful part of their past to you after admitting to a particular heinous act of their own towards you, and asks for forgiveness.  It depends how willing you are to make the leap with them given what you know of them, and how big, smart or able to open up your own heart is (or, more correctly, decides to be).

... and if you can get Oprah to cry, bonus points!

… and if you can get Oprah to cry, bonus points!

As a loyal viewer and participant in the Draper saga, I found it incredibly moving when he turns to his troubled 14-year-old Sally – who has begun to carve a somewhat delinquent road of her own thanks to her father’s lies – and stares her down as they finally stand together in his truth in front of the crumbling brothel in question.  But even more effective is Sally’s gaze back up at him – perhaps the only look of true love in her eyes towards him when she realizes for the first time in her life her father has chosen to show her, unvarnished, who he really is.  Talk about a change – on both counts.

A memorable glance

A memorable glance

Now admittedly this type of change might have particularly moved me since I would be only a year younger than the fictional Sally was at the time of this look and I remember quite well how infrequently this type of stuff happened between parents and children in 1968.  Which is understandable since at the time the country and adult Americans were both coming-of-age, a circumstance that usually needs to happen before real change can come from them towards us and everyone else (and vice-versa).  Which brings us to the much written about, proud daughter of the South – Paula Deen.

Uh oh is right Paula

Uh oh is right Paula

I’ve never made a joke that included the “N” word in my entire life (really, I haven’t!) and I never heard either parent make one.  I did, however, witness plenty of racial epithets from their friends and relatives growing up and gotten into my share of arguments over them.   For example, as a Jewish kid I would often hear the Yiddish word “schvartze” used to simultaneously describe and denigrate Black people – a term you’d be right to think of as our ethnic version of the “N” word.

Now some or even many of the people that use this word occasionally will argue to the death or your own exhaustion – whichever comes first – that this term it is not derogatory because it derives from the Yiddish word schvart, which is the actual word for Black in that language.

To those then and now who defend the word or its usage on this historical basis I say this: YOU KNOW YOU ARE FULL OF SHIT!!!

You KNOW and are FULLY aware of what that word means and what it connotes.  That is why you used it then and that is why you use it now.  And to the deceased Israeli guy I almost got into the only fist fight of my life with for using this insane explanation to justify his constant use of the word while telling a really bad joke at a public dinner in Santa Monica during the eighties – I’m sorry you died but you will always be full of shit vis-à-vis your justification on this matter.

This Steve got it right

This Steve got it right

As for Paula Deen – she not only KNEW and KNOWS what she said was wrong in the 1980s (even though she claims she only said it at gunpoint to a Black man who was holding her up) and she sure as heck/hell (or whatever) KNOWS it was wrong a few years ago in the context of a joke, even if she was simultaneously telling jokes and using questionable terms to describe other ethnic groups, including her own.

It is not a coincidence that the master of the ethnic insult, comedian Don Rickles, 87 years old and still going strong, has never used the N word in his act.  Or any other ethnic slurs.  Sure, he markets in stereotypical behavior and is an equal opportunity offender that way, but there is a reason he always drew that line.  Chris Rock IS Black.  He can use the N word if he so chooses, just as Richard Pryor did before him or Chevy Chase was able to do in a vintage SNL skit WITH Richard Pryor.

But Paula Deen – not a comic, at least by trade – built a vast financial empire when, as a single mother in the sixties, she started making sandwiches for her young sons to sell door to door.  Cut to last year alone when she earned in excess of $12 million.  During that time, she’s traveled all over the world and hung out with all types of people of many different shades, including some very famous (cough, cough, Oprah) ones.  She knows what is right.  And what is not right.  She went against that, for whatever reason.  And, because she’s famous, she got caught.

Yes, because she’s famous she is subject to different standards than you or I.  Boo hoo.  That is the cost of being a play-uh in that game.  We don’t each get to make millions trading on our famous faces for endorsement deals so we don’t have to worry as much about getting publicly caught like famous people do.  That doesn’t mean we should use those words either. But life is not fair.  I’d like to make a few mill for proclaiming the merits of another college professor, or screenwriting program or even blog, publicly.  But I don’t.  So boo hoo for me on that score.

DonCries

Paula Deen has committed the crime of callousness, bad taste and perhaps prejudice towards some employees.  She is not a murderess (well, unless you use my friend Michael’s definition) but she is also not guilt-free of wrongdoing.  And the good news – she can continue to be a national teacher in a different field – change.

As a person born and raised in the segregated South, Ms. Deen now has the opportunity to not hide from one of her problems but to recognize the problem exists and lead by example.  This does not mean picking herself up by her bootstraps and eventually rebuilding her empire.  It also doesn’t mean starting her own Food Network or privately urging others to seek retribution against the companies who fired her for her misdeeds.

All of us who make mistakes – from Don Draper to Paula Deen, and down to you and me – have only two essential choices: to continue on essentially doing what we always have, or to CHANGE the way we think about ourselves and the issue at hand by letting down our defenses and admit that, despite what we’ve always thought, we are, indeed, wrong.  And have wronged.  And attempt in some real ways, to behave differently from now on – meaning forever.  And to do it in a positive open manner, hoping for the best because, in the end, we’re now giving our best.

Don Draper is fictional so he has an army of very good writers to decide his fate, actions and choices.  Paula Deen, being an actual person, has only her own conscience and the choices she decides to make.  Which is no different than what we regular people have.  Fame can elevate but it can also be a great leveler.   As such, this last thought especially goes out to any real or aspiring real housewives:  Be careful what you wish for.   And how you act both before and after you get it.