Who’s Naughty and Nice?

If the bar for presents from Santa Claus is who’s been naughty or nice why shouldn’t we also use it for all the fictional characters in our lives?   These days they seem far more alive than any number of real people we come across daily – especially those we see daily reports about on television.

Yes we, or perhaps only I, have gotten to the point where what’s out there on an hour-to-hour basis is more impossible to fathom than any extreme or even random action taken on any one of our favorite TV shows by any one of our favorite friends um, characters.

The best reason to be antisocial this season

The most overused expression of 2017 – aside from the world is ending – has to be “we live in The Golden Age of Television.” Nevertheless, we do. The choices feel infinite and, instead of what used to be 439 channels and still nothing to watch, we’ve now got so much we want to watch and so little time to do so.

Make of that last sentence what you will. And drink each time you ponder the part about time and little.

Certainly, it’d be a bit alarming to start buying actual gifts for your favorite friends characters. Or would it? I, for one, have a new bar for alarming and it’s neither nice or naughty. It’s scary.

Just call me Kenneth the Page

Which is not the case for the best of my fantasy buddies. They’re not only naughty AND nice, they never fail to disappoint me – especially in the toughest times – which in these days is every day.

THE LIST:

#5 – Hannah Baker (Thirteen Reasons Why) and Jack Pearson (This Is Us), played by Katherine Langford and Milo Ventimiglia

Just give me all the Kleenex now

Well, why NOT start with TWO DEAD PEOPLE? No, these are not spoilers. In the theme of reality IS fantasy these two characters are more alive to their friends and relatives in death than perhaps they ever were when they were actually living.

You can say both are naughty because they seemed to have ultimately caused their own deaths. For Hannah, it was a suicide. For Jack, well – the writers haven’t quite revealed it yet but the drinking and his repressed dark side are both pointing to a demise that was at least, in part, his own doing.

Which makes it all the more memorably heartbreaking to recognize that Jack and Hannah were/are both – so damn nice!

Jack Pearson is the fantasy Dad whose bon mots are timeless life lessons passed on to us, along with endless supplies of sensitivity and an eternally buoyant hairline. Oh, the hairline.

#HAIRENVY

Hannah Baker is girl that got away (literally), the girl who made you laugh, the girl who was the smartest and most infuriating in high school and the girl who you still wonder about decades later and would choose over almost any one else to have just one more final meeting with.

They both remind us that life is fleeting and every so often make us want to contact the estranged parent, friend or person we haven’t yet gotten the nerve to talk to before it’s too late. Which, in itself, is pretty damn nice, indeed.

#4 –  Dougie Jones/Agent Dale Cooper/Evil Doppelganger Cooper (Twin Peaks: The Return), played by Kyle Maclachlan

Hair is becoming a theme here

For those who didn’t tune in to this limited Showtime series to see what happened to Agent Cooper 25 years later, suffice it to say that these three people are indeed all part of one person.   No, you don’t want the explanation. Just accept it.

Dougie Jones walks and talks like a programmed robot (which he indeed may be) but all bets are off when he enables a “homeless” woman in Las Vegas to hit numerous jackpots on the slot machine and bring reams of his own winnings to his long suffering wife and kid – all while unwittingly bringing out the best of two dim-witted Mafia guys with his innate kindness.

Which doesn’t mean he’s incapable of choking a person who gets in his way. Though much of this is left to his Evil Doppelganger who shoots, bites, knives and brutally kicks his way through multiple murders. This version is the irresistible id of evil – someone we all revile because he’s the miniscule evil part of us we would never publicly admit we occasionally have to repress. Not that I just did.

Not me… all the time

As for Agent Cooper, what can you say about a guy who has barely aged a day in a quarter of a century? You admit he’s one of your faves, meet him for pie and coffee and find out his secrets – many of which are still to be revealed.   A 2042 sequel?   We’ll see. On second thought, maybe one of you will.

#3 –  Offred/June Osborne (The Handmaid’s Tale), played by Elisabeth Moss

Peggy Olson sure has changed #jonhammwhereareyou

No one expressed the naughtiness of our current reality and dystopic alternative reality than Offred. It feels reductionist to say the most famous handmaid on any plane was the precursor to the #MeToo movement and impossible to believe that she became the poster child for all of our worst fears about America in the Age of T—P.

Before Offred was an enslaved, raped and tortured handmaid she was the fun-loving, feisty and sweet June Osborne – just a gal making her way in a big city where she worked, fell in love and lived a life. It wouldn’t seem imaginable that her past could serve as prologue to her future but that’s the point – both we and June are often too busy and not observant enough to pick up the signs.

This is where Offred takes over and shows us there are times when naughty is the essential survival skill and nice is a but a mere luxury – some would say relic – of the past. If that seems applicable to the way we live now, well perhaps it is. Or soon will be.

#2 – Dustin Henderson (Stranger Things 2), played by Gaten Matarazzo

CODE RED

Twelve year-old Dustin has a lisp, unruly hair, mad crushes on two teenage girls who will prove unattainable and a look that will forever read best friend rather than star anything.

But Dustin also subverts every stereotype as we watch him not only tame his hair but prove time and time again he is the smartest, funniest and overall most charming in the room – or in town.

don’t forget that Farrah Fawcett hair product #thankssteve

This is not to say he is without his faults. Hiding a slimy and mysteriously growing little creature in your home and allowing it to eat everything you can find, including your (NO SPOILERS HERE but you can imagine) wasn’t the best of ideas. Nor is his unwavering loyalty to the bonds of childhood friendships. Or is it?

The latter is a question we all ask and re-ask ourselves through the decades, which is why every victory this kid has and each mistake he makes feels impossibly awful and improbably life-affirming.

Dustin manages to be a piece of the young us we will always be on the inside.   That he not only brings back those awkward times but makes us simultaneously long for them and embrace him, is the ultimate achievement of both the character AND the young actor who so effortlessly embodies him. And us.

#1 – Miriam (Midge) Maisel (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel), played by Rachel Bronsnahan

Bring it, Midge!

What we all needed in 2017 and will need in the future is funny and MIDGE IS, most of all, FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny. How ironic is it, then, that she exists in 1958, 1959 and 1960?

Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a relatively new streaming series that many of you have not yet sampled but will surely do so as it gains awards and attracts critical attention, steam and an expanded audience in the near future.   This is because it is indeed FUNNY. Funny, funny, funny, funny.

Midge is an unlikely mainstream star in her time – a young, Jewish housewife/daughter/mother on the upper west side of New York who is much too smart and too witty for her own good, at least in the decade in which she lives, yet just creative enough to make it work for herself in the most unlikely of professionals – stand up comedy. Or so one hopes.

SLAY

If you’ve ever wondered if you’d have been better off being born in another decade or place (and which of us haven’t this year), Midge gives you hope. She’s the ultimate problem solver for herself and everyone else – that is until it all falls apart and she has to rethink everything and everyone she once knew for sure.

She fails, gets lucky, fails again, opens her mouth when anyone in their right mind would hold back, gets lucky once more, stumbles – and through timing and fate keeps talking back – until she begins to finally get heard. Only to lose a little more ground once more after a big gain.

Midge gets shoved onstage, performs drunk and/or stoned, bombs big time and occasionally slays – in a small club in Greenwich Village, N.Y. with sticky seats where the men tell jokes and the women sit there and laugh.   It’s hilarious watching her discover what those close to her have always known but never ever told her – that she’s the best joke teller in the room.   But it’s even better when she begins to discover what pretty much everyone else in the world knows: she too is an artist – though not quite the kind she had thought or even ever hoped for.

That Girl

I have a close female friend in my life I’ve always called a can-do gal to her face and have always made sure she knew it was the highest of compliments. That is because this is a person who, despite everything, always manages to make it happen and always does so with humor. She has fun.   Not only that, when you’re with her you get to have fun. And at least feel like you’re accomplishing something.

Midge is this kind of person. You can’t help but want to hang out with her, hoping that some of that can-do joy will eventually rub off. Not to mention, she’s…well, you know.

That’s why these days she’s my #1. Fictionally, at least.

Fred Astaire – “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

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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.

Time to Pass the Torch

It strikes me as the height of irony that the Olympics are all about competing to be your best yet NBC’s coverage of the event is a monopoly that has allowed it to be its worst.

I thought this on Friday night as I sat watching the opening ceremonies “live” from London, a full half day after they happened –- which as it turned out was as quickly as any human being in Los Angeles (except those who work at NBC) could get them.

This would have been bad enough had the opening ceremony not gone on to include duds like:

  1. The real Queen of England and the real actor playing James Bond exchanging pleasantries in Buckingham Palace, followed by their (presumed?) stunt doubles jumping out of a helicopter into Olympic stadium.
  2. A floorshow featuring an odd pastiche of agrarian, industrialized and social media-ized Great Britain over the course of several centuries, interspersed with very brief verbal recitations by Kenneth Branagh and J.K. Rowling while hundreds of extras danced in period costumes to the point of distraction.
  3. And a finale of Paul McCartney singing a slightly off tune “Hey Jude” (why that of all his songs?) that made one wonder WWJLD (What would John Lennon Do?).  In answer to the latter I say something welcomingly naughty, but one can only IMAGINE on that score.

What is happening here??

Call me crazy ( or even “maybe” since its Olympic-related) but all this activity made me rethink if being a little desperate and hungry is a good thing (as opposed to starvation and “The Hunger Games”), and if perhaps a few rounds of good old, level-playing field, REAL competition in the world might not just be the better answer for at least some of the things that ail us.

These thoughts surprise me since I’m not much into sports and certainly don’t think unfettered, free-market capitalism is the answer to anything but 21st century greed.  Still, you have to wonder when a corporation like NBC is able to shell out $4.38 billion (yes, that’s a B!) in order to hold you captive to its whims, ratings or otherwise.  One could argue that for billions of dollars a corporation (who the US Supreme Court recently ruled is indeed human) has earned/bought the prerogative to do exactly as it pleases and, legally, one could argue that one is right.  Except – if you toss out legalities and use common sense – is it???  And is it wise for us?

The Olympics are about excellence, humanity (the non-corporate kind) and grit.  Yeah, there’s money and sponsorship and opportunity thrown into the mix but, when it comes down to it, you can’t prevent a superior athlete from a war-torn country from decimating another from a large, rich industrialized nation and thus prove his or her superiority for all the world to see.  In other words, at the end of the day it’s not about how much money you have but how good you are at what you do.

This is not the case for cash rich NBC or for the rest of us who choose to watch the show and, as fans, expect to at the very least see the real version of a live event we elected to watch.

Despite Twitter, You Tube, Facebook and other streaming technology, NBC has figured out a way to block almost all immediacy of every match up and thus render its billion-dollar coverage pretty lackluster for world-wise consumers.  Yes, there is online streaming of each event but only if you are in front of your computer at the precise moment NBC’s cameras happen to be there in London time.  Otherwise, for the competitions geared to primetime (meaning all the ones you really want to watch), you have to wait 9-12 hours in order to raise NBC’s prime time ratings.

In need of a serious lift…

True, you can watch it some 9-12 hours later on your tv/tablet in high resolution and technically feel as if you’re there, both out front and backstage.  But that’s only technically – meaning high def, clear as glass pixel images.  What you might consider the best parts of the event STILL get cut or filtered by correspondents who you’d rather see serve as the actual bullseye in Olympic archery than pose as experts asking the questions you might never ask if given the opportunity to have been there live yourself half a day before.

For example, in its infinite wisdom, NBC chose to excise what was arguably one of the most emotionally moving segments of the opening ceremony – a haunting tribute to victims of the 2005 (7/7) terrorist bombings in London which occurred just a day after the city was chosen to broadcast this Olympics.  Instead, NBC decided American audiences couldn’t relate to worldwide terrorism and chose to run an interview by its new resident haircut Ryan Seacrest (who Deadline Hollywood’s Nikke Finke recently dubbed the “Viscount of Vapidity”) with uber Olympian Michael Phelps that could have won Olympic gold itself were they giving out medals in television blandness.

Am I sounding bitter and petty?  Then don’t take my word for it – judge for yourself.

The memorial tribute you missed

click for full video

vs.

click for full video

The Viscount of Vapidity barely distracting Michael Phelps on TODAY

(because all copies of the infamous Olympics interview has been removed from the Web)

Seacrest is an apt target of derision not because he’s uber successful and wealthy but because he is so clearly devoid of anything related to what the Olympics is really about – namely excellence and grit.  He is everything the Olympics isn’t.  As was NBC’s decision to use this interview instead of staying with one of the few planned emotional moments that director Danny Boyle (who also had little competition) created for the London ceremonies.   It makes one wonder whether the Olympic Gods actually decided to curse Phelps to fourth place and thus deny him a medal of any kind in his first race in London in retaliation.

Thanks Zeus!

Certainly this is life in the real world when everything, including all of us, are on the chopping block for a price.  But what the top 1% of the “job creators” need to know is that the changing platforms in world media will not allow them to gorge themselves with a diet of indulgent choices forever.  At some point, there is an Arab spring for everything – a “tipping point” where audiences turn off and, as they used to say in the sixties, “turn on” in ways their elders never imagined.  Ask the music industry.  Check in with the production heads at film studios.  Survey some of the smarter, more prescient business people in the world who make their money by inventing things and recognizing trends or potential needs.  You might want to even call some of the leading climate scientists who were being laughed at 10 or 20 years ago if the recent rash of heat waves across the country haven’t knocked out your phone service.

All of this is what makes the world a still somewhat pleasant, amusing and consistently wondrous place to live in.  There is indeed something called evolution, despite the very vocal minority of worldwide religious fundamentalists who to this day spend a lot of their capital (both financial and intellectual) trying to deny it.  Evolution is defined as “the development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.”  What that means is that try as one group might to make choices for you that you don’t want, eventually that one group will overreach and the world will change enough and evolve to something more complex that will accommodate the majority.

Oh I could puke.

There is no timetable on this, as much as one wishes there were.  But it will happen as sure as Seacrest will manage to annoy me sometime in the very near future (try today).  Because what it will come down to is a world that runs, and has always run on good old level-playing field, real competition – whether it be women’s volleyball, horse dressage or corporate indulgence (some might even go so far as to call it censorship) in any particular industry in any particular year.

Competition ain’t so bad!

The wisest among us, both individual humans and the corporate kind, will take the lead of the most practiced Olympic athlete at their peak performance and prepare for the race that will inevitably come.  The competition is long but ultimately there can only be one real winner.  Despite what we’re being sold.  Or told.   And both history, as well as evolution, have a way of making things right – or at least giving the least likely among us more of a fighting chance that we will run with.