More Whine Please

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When you’re a politician and lash out at the media for asking you questions you don’t want to answer it means you are attacking them for doing their job and ill-prepared to do yours. – The Chair

What a bunch of whiners. I’m talking about politicians – particularly the GOP candidates in Wednesday’s second Republican presidential debate. And who better to know than a reformed whiner and complainer like myself. Oh, it’s not that I don’t still bitch and moan too frequently. More that a combination of age and looking around at the rest of the world and its misfortunes has made me realize that, when it comes down to it, I can scale back the bellyaching by at least 50-75%. Besides, as my father used to tell me, what good does it do anyway? (Note: To which I used to retort – It makes me feel better! Yeah, for 5-10 minutes – but consider what it does to your friends. Not to mention the general audience)

I don't know Chairy... I'm still counting my millions (billions?). #ultimatewhiner

I don’t know Chairy… I’m still counting my millions (billions?). #ultimatewhiner

I went to grad school in journalism at Northwestern University during a time when newspapers really were made of PAPER and the people and profession was generally seen as a noble quest for the truth by slightly odd and often dysfunctional people who were nevertheless smart and in your face when it came to digging up your inconvenient truth. The ultimate job of a journalist is not to be its subject’s advocate or friend, though both can easily happen – but to inform its readers – nee the public – on what’s what. Not the party line but what’s really being said at the party – behind closed doors.

Imagine it this way – you’re at a family dinner and you need to find out exactly what Aunt Clara and Uncle Artie have been hiding all these years in the locked back room of their house. Is it a trunk full of money, a dead body or simply the art projects they have been working on for the last 50 years? It is well-known among your relatives that one NEVER asks Artie and Clara about that room, much less goes into it, but for the future of the world, the safety of your neighborhood or the piece of mind of your mother who’s asked you to fulfill her last dying wish, that you find out what the hell is in that godforsaken space they’d never let her into.

Would you be able to resist?

Would you be able to resist?

So what would you do – how far would you go to find out? And how much do you think Clara and Artie would hate or blame YOU once you were done finding out? Because clearly you WILL uncover it since everyone that knows you realizes this is your area of expertise. In fact, that’s why the world, the neighborhood or even your family enlisted you for this duty in the first place. You’re the investigator-in-chief of putting people’s feet to the fire and unearthing the truth.

Oh, and you only have two hours to do it.

Are you getting the picture yet? I thought so. When electing the leader of the free world is the issue, investigators – chief or not – aren’t supposed to be nice. (Note: Did anyone see the members of Congress cross-examine Hillary Clinton at the Benghazi hearings?) I don’t have time to sugar coat for Clara and Art if all you’re giving me is two hours. My mother is dying for god’s sake and I’ve been hired by the world to do this. Failure is NOT an option. Tell me what’s in that effin room!!!!

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh!

How do you not ask the self-proclaimed politically incorrect Republican Apprentice a question about temperament and being a loose cannon? Do you ignore the fact that Gov. Mike Huckabee has built his entire campaign on traditional family values and not ask him a question about morality? Does one ignore accusations of financial impropriety against Sen. Marco Rubio when he’s running to be the head of the largest economy in the world? Does Sen. Ted Cruz, who campaigns on national television talk shows bragging about not caring about being liked by his fellow senators, NOT get asked a question about his ability to unite the warring political factions of the country?

There’s no such thing as a GOTCHA QUESTION when the security of the world or granting my mother’s last dying wish are concerned. I’ll stop at nothing. Are you kidding?

I can personally confess that people whine and complain to deflect attention from the real issue at hand. When you have a rough day at the office the loud chewing sound of your spouse at dinner makes you feel like you’re eating in the center of the track at the Indianapolis 500 – in the rain. Without an umbrella. So you yell about it to deflect from the real problem to which you have no solution. Not that my husband chews loudly. He doesn’t. In fact, he does nothing wrong at all. We just care so much about each other.

OK.. maybe not the best strategy

OK.. maybe not the best strategy

See, that’s the party line. Without journalistic investigation. But to answer the direct question – no, he does not chew loudly. Though yes, of course there are times when he pisses me off. And CERTAINLY vice-versa. But we argue, discuss, reason, cajole and sometimes even all out fight about them. That’s why the relationship works. Confrontation is not always a bad thing. Better to confront this stuff now than let it fester into a HUGE problem down the line. Does anyone remember the near collapse of the American financial system almost seven years ago that ensured the election of Barack Obama to begin with?

One of the most cunning skills elected officials posses is the ability to perform expert slight of mouth. That would be the ability to reply to an inquiry with a seemingly related yet ultimately irrelevant retort that avoids the original topic posed entirely. In laymen’s terms, this is called changing the subject. You learn all about sources, subjects and the avoidance thereof in any journalism 101 class. Or simply watch All the President’s Men.

... or apparently any other movie starring Robert Redford

… or apparently any other movie starring Robert Redford

Somehow, with the dissolution of the Fairness Doctrine, which used to require that all news programs offered up opposing opinions and helped usher in the era of partisan journalism, we’ve gotten to the place where fair and balanced seems to be equated with not challenging anyone with whom you agree with or like on an issue they might not like or want to be on the record with. When what’s required in our new age of worldwide media is precisely the opposite. More questions. More answers. More truth. Because the TRUTH will come out anyway.   These days everyone has a camera and knows how to use it. The more challenges our elected officials, especially the next leader of the free world, has to endure in front of them, the more prepared she or he will be to lead us into the future. Hopefully, one a few less Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhs.

 

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An Off Day

Has Meryl Streep ever turned in a bad performance?  I don’t believe so.  But has she given us examples of acting not up to her usual caliber?  Certainly.   (Watch 1982’s “Still of the Night” and report back). Tony Kushner’s genius “Angels in America” set the bar about as high as it could go for a playwright – and pretty much for any writer.  Forget that he won the Pulitzer Prize.  That particular piece of work, which he labored on for years of rewrites as he watched AIDS devastate life around him, will also live on for generations as the quintessential dramatic evocation of a plague whose ruthlessness and scope defied description.  That is why sitting through his musical “Caroline or Change” some years later one couldn’t help but feel  that, well…every brilliant writer deserves at the very least a “gimme.” (okay, that “one” was me – a severely disappointed fan in a severely UNconservative way at the time).  The list goes on an on and most recently ends but certainly doesn’t stop with President Barack Obama.

Split screen is not our friend.

The buzz is abuzz with POTUS’ debate performance last week against his Republican challenger Mitt Romney.  Among the colorful adjectives used: “devastating,” “bumbling,” “crushing,” “mediocre” and  “defeated.”  Even the venerable Dan Rather, who was brought down from his perch atop CBS for daring to suggest Pres. George W. Bush had avoided military service in Vietnam by joining the National Guard (even though Dubya was a member of the National Guard in the Vietnam era and did not serve in the military) proclaimed the next day on MSNBC: “Let’s say it for what it is, he got his clock cleaned…there’s no other way to put it.”

Trivia note:  According to the NY Times, the phrase “clean your clock” was first used on the SPORTS pages (I should’ve known!) of the Trenton Evening Times, July 28, 1908 about a couple of local baseball teams – “It took the Thistles just one inning to clean the clocks of the Times boys.”  This certainly doesn’t make the use of the term any more complimentary, but perhaps knowing its origin does take away some of the sting of this currently overused phrase.

Whenever I hear guys on TV (and it’s almost always guys, let’s face it) use sports metaphors to describe or critique anything but a ball, a puck or pair of human legs reaching their preferred destination, it sets off a warning bell deep in my soul.  But that bell doesn’t zzzing. Instead it tells me in a measured voice we are no longer describing a factual event but indulging in the “oh so witty” (not!) opinion of the person observing such an event.  In which case, you might want to task another person with deciding if your timepiece was indeed really laundered or perhaps even to determine if its bath was as thorough as everyone on the sidelines of its supposed unauthorized spa treatment says it was.

Like many people, especially those in the arts, I’ve been described as overly dramatic, opinionated and argumentative by more than a few over the years (who… me?).  I’m never insulted by these commonly accepted “off” terms because to me this also means that I’m passionate, committed and quite forceful, depending on the day, arena and reviewer.  In fact, there are probably days where my audience (that’s you) see me as passionate where I feel I might be a tad overdramatic; and others where you’re nauseated by my insane opinions while I revel in the fact that I’m so committed to an issue and getting its truth out there that deep down in my soul I truly believe I am the long lost son of either Emma Goldman, Caesar Chavez or Gandhi. (okay, admittedly that feeling has only occurred once or twice).

Some days are better than others in the life of every human just as some performances are superior and some written works are more memorable (or, at least, relatable). Objectively speaking, there is no way to measure how good or bad anything is.  That is why it all comes down to two things – consensus and feeling.  And neither one can be counted on as being absolutely right or wrong.

The general consensus is that the President was having an “off” day (actually it was night) in his debate with Mr. Romney.  And perhaps he was.  Using our aforementioned standard of “consensus” we’d have to concede “off” would be the kind word.  But remember, consensus is not necessarily always correct.  I mean, the Grammy Awards voted Milli Vanilli their coveted Best New Artist award in 1990 and NBC renewed “Whitney” for ANOTHER season AND are giving her a reality show.  So if you’re still so hot on the validity of consensus well…  blame it on the rain.

What about feeling?  Hmmm.  Well, one can only imagine how Pres. Obama felt spending the night of his 20th wedding anniversary on stage in front of almost 70 million viewers debating the jollily avuncular Mr. Romney, who some say charmingly (though I say obnoxiously) joked about the prez being forced to spend his special evening onstage with a slick-haired 65 year-old man and a gaggle of television cameras.  Annoyed?  Preoccupied by a romantic encounter that already was, would happen in the future, or not occur at all because he had chosen to become President at one of the worst times in American history to begin with?  All very possible.  But despite the President dropping a few public hints, we will never quite know for sure.   Though one radio host I listened to the next day speculated that Obama was playing “the long game” (ugh, another sports metaphor), deciding that his strategy was to let Mr. Romney hold the stage unchallenged as long as he liked so in subsequent debates Mr. Obama could then hold the former Massachusetts governor to all the blatant half-truths he had so genially helped himself to.

Further Note:  Al Gore even suggested Obama’s “off” was due to the Colorado altitude and the fact that the president had arrived into town just two hours before show time.  But we all know Mr. Gore and Presidential debates are not a winning combo so I wouldn’t take his analysis to heart

Rocky Mountain “High”

The only thing we can correctly surmise about an “off” day is that every single person in the world has one or more and that no other person in the world can know with full assurance why or if the day is truly off (and by how much) other than the person who is having it.  If everyone batted 1000, there would be no reason for batting averages (jeez, now I’m even using sports?).  If it truly is all good, then does that mean not even one day can ever be bad Oh please! (Clearly, I am not Gandhi’s son).  Finally, if one believes in the consensus (dubious in itself) that it takes approximately 10,000 hours (or 3 hours a day for 10 years) of practice to truly be a master in any one field, isn’t it a good bet that a significant number of those days yield many desirably “off” results in order to allow one to become more proficient in said field, which will subsequently serve as the fuel to vault into the so desired master category a decade later?  

Speaking of which, I caught up with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” last week – a movie that is quite brilliant in parts and seems to indicate that 10 years of off days in a human life can be just as interesting as 10 years of on ones.

But I digress…

We are all so quick to discount our “off” days as something to be shunned, scorned or avoided that we hardly have time to consider just how valuable they can be.  And we need to do this, if for no other reason than to provide a break from the monotony of our perfection.

I’m kidding, of course – but only in part.  There is a dangerous rumor going around the zeitgeist that every performance needs to be played to the back row and that unless one hits a home run (yikes, I’m doing it AGAIN!) or pitches a perfect game, he (and perhaps one day she) is not worth that gazillion of dollars their multi-year contract ensures they will get paid.

As any expert in anything will tell you, there is a lot to be said for singles and doubles, for punts and for walks (oh, screw it – now I can’t stop!).  Of course, no writer wants to have their play or movie or book bomb but, on the other, hand, it certainly does take away everyone’s expectations for your next work and emboldens you to perhaps take a bigger chance in the follow-up since clearly no one will ever like anything you produce ever again.

We have no way of knowing how on or off anyone, including ourselves, will be on a given day other than to know that either verdict is certainly possible.  More likely, however, is that we’ll fall somewhere in between.  On — but in the judgment of others not as on as we could be or have been in the past.  Or definitely off — whether we (they?) love what we’re producing or are feeling lousy or annoyed enough to have not even gotten out of our bedrooms (for good AND bad reasons) at the time the day began.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter what the verdict is.  What matters is that we show up.  This is what people like Meryl Streep, Tony Kushner and Barack Obama consistently do – knowing full well that some days will be judged much better than the ones before or after it – by themselves and, mostly assuredly, by others.

Or – (ATTENTION: ONE FINAL SPORTS METAPHOR!) — as the great hockey player Wayne Gretsky once so eloquently put it:

“You miss 100% of the shots you never take.”