Monday, March 31, 2014

My favorite TV themes

The A.V. Club runs a feature called AVQ&A, where staffers offer answers to various pop-culture questions. I'm sometimes inspired to offer my own answers, and here's the latest. This week's question is: What's your favorite TV intro?

My answer:

My favorite TV themes are tied only loosely to my favorite shows. For example, two of my favorite cartoon themes of all time are Disney's Adventures of the Gummi Bears and The Get-Along Gang, and yet I couldn’t tell you much about either of those series. Conversely, while The Dukes of Hazzard was my favorite show as a small child, and I remembered it very well, it wasn’t until I watched a rerun at 16 that I recalled Waylon Jennings’ legendary intro. The original Transformers series, my second era-defining show, also had a theme I apparently didn’t bother to remember (though the post-movie theme that replaced it is a stone-cold classic that I've never forgotten).

As far as my favorite shows that have my least-favorite themes, Family Guy ranks at the top. It’s not that I hate that show’s catchy showtune theme (I don't), but I won’t be seeking it out on YouTube and jamming to it anytime soon.

For the most part, though, my favorite shows had my favorite themes. There are too many to count here (let’s just say most of NBC in the 1980s and ABC in the ’90s, and also Square One and Greatest American Hero, of course), but there’s only one that I ever centered my entire week around: Family Matters. Though the series began in 1989 with Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” that was quickly replaced with “As Days Go By” by Jesse Frederick (who is also responsible for Perfect Strangers, another all-timer). In 1990, “As Days Go By” wasn’t just one of my favorite theme songs; it was one of my favorite songs, period. And Friday night at showtime was the only time I’d hear it, so it was always worth the wait. Shame on ABC for shrinking it along with all other intros; the long-form version is still the best.



While I bemoan the trend of shrinking and nonexistent opening cards (again, thanks, ABC), I can’t say I miss two-minute opening extravaganzas with stock clips from the show and lengthy exposition. They just aren’t necessary in the era of binge-watching, IMDB and TV menus. Nor do I miss the no-theme aesthetic that hit its stride in the late 1990s and was obviously in the interest of advertisers. Many of today’s shows get it exactly right, such two of my favorites, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics, whose quick openers I love for different reasons — Workaholics because it establishes the bro vibe and the title’s irony in just a few seconds, and Sunny because its funny episode title juxtaposed with standard nightlife B-roll and patriotic music accurately illustrates the show’s silliness.

Bonus answer: I also really loved the game-break music CBS did for NFL games in 1990-91, but the only YouTube video I could ever find of it was taken down. I filmed that clip with my phone, though, so at least I have it for posterity.

Inverse answer: My least-favorite theme at the moment is South Park, both because it's overloaded with what I hate most about the show (the voices) and because it's a total earworm.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Of Colbert and intent

Combing through the #cancelcolbert Twitter thread — which I recommend if you're feeling too good today and want the non-pain to stop — I realize I was way off on who is most aggressively driving this campaign. For the most part, it's not conservatives with prepackaged hate for Stephen Colbert, nor is it those apparently unfamiliar with the Comedy Central superhost. 

It's rigid, humorless, professionally outraged liberals. 

Yes, there is a lot of injustice and tragedy in this world. Yes, racist jokes are not cool or funny and people don't need to just "lighten up" about them. There are indeed hardships that whites, being a majority people, never have to experience firsthand. No argument on any of that.

But here's the thing. 

Intent is important.

If you're unwilling to separate the satire of Colbert from the real, honest-to-God destructive racism out there, then you are going out of your way to not think. You're letting self-righteousness cloud the integrity of your views.

OK, so it's one thing to be outraged absent the appropriate context. Or to receive the context and still think the joke or satire fell flat. But if you get all the context afterward and you still lump Colbert in with real monsters, then the problem is you.

(By the way, while the tweet lacked the full context of the TV segment, it was still a complete one-liner originating from a verified Comedy Central account. That should have been all the context needed to cast doubt on its sincerity.)

The risk with satire is that it's often mistaken for the real thing. After writing enough satirical columns for my college newspaper, I left some people thinking I was racist, sexist and (in one especially blatant April Fool's case) a Republican convert. The first two allegations hurt me in particular, not just because I'd written numerous non-satirical columns decrying racism and gender inequality, but because the people levying the accusations were smart, progressive and truly hurt by what they thought I said. In most cases, I was eager and able to sort out the misunderstanding. Even if they ultimately decided that I was a clumsy writer, they at least understood that I was not one of the bad guys.

But there was that occasional militant type who stubbornly stuck with their original impression, apparently unconvinced that they could misconstrue something, or was otherwise satisfied in their superiority. These people undermine what they stand for with their disinterest in perspective, which in turn makes it harder to address our pressing social ills — the very ones that satirists like Colbert work to bring to the forefront with wit and humor. 

It's important to know the difference between a Colbert and a bigot, and even more crucial to acknowledge that difference. The only thing more misunderstood than satire is subtlety.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Cancel #cancelcolbert

So a campaign to cancel The Colbert Report has arisen after a controversial tweet from the show's official (or is it?) Twitter account. Talk about missing the point.

The tweet said that Stephen Colbert was "willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever." Which would be indeed be offensive — if lampooning intolerant, egotistical, jingoistic, Anglocentric, right-wing blowhards wasn't Colbert's defining act. Granted, the tweet by itself lacks context, and Twitter is not the best forum to set up extended satire (the segment the tweet was based on played better on TV). But Colbert succeeds in general because we know that, in real life, he's a diversity-embracing, humble, liberal family man. His joke, then, is not on Asian-Americans, but on anyone stupid enough to caricature them (or any other group that could have been plugged in to make the same point). Colbert's show, books, interviews and appearances are littered with gags in this vein, and all of those jokes are on anyone who would take (or make) them in earnest.

(Indeed, the above tweet is a direct, satiric response to Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder announcing an indigenous outreach foundation that critics say is his attempt to deflect charges that Redskins is a racist name. The linked Nation article makes a suggestion as to what Snyder's foundation should be called, and cites another by Slate, both of which sarcastically employ racial slurs in the same vein they allege the real name does. If the target of that snark is clear, the intent of Colbert's camp shouldn't be any less so.)

Colbert plays his character so well that casual observers often mistake him for the genuine article. That's most likely how he landed his infamously brutal White House Correspondents' Dinner roast of the Bush administration in 2006, and why I've had both liberal and conservative friends unfamiliar with The Colbert Report ask me if he really is Jon Stewart's balancing act. I'm guessing that the new outrage stems in part from this crowd. Albeit a very, very small part.

Mostly, it seems to emanate from people who see Colbert for the brilliant satirist he is and hate him for it. People who are just as (or more) likely to be outraged over the perceived hypocrisy of, "He can say it! Why can't I?" as actual racism. 

So, at its core, the #cancelcolbert movement is a mix of people unfamiliar with Colbert's persona, and those using this as an excuse to condemn him (when their outrage over such slurs is often, to be diplomatic, inconsistent). It shows.

One mistake in this incident was the crew's deletion of the tweet. I'm sure that was a well-intentioned err on the side of sensitivity because, again, they're not actually terrible people. But it gave critics ammo for their entirely false charges, and did nothing to zap the tweet out of public consciousness. Instead, Colbert should have owned the tweet and mocked the often-deliberate misunderstanding that resulted. 

I hope that, right this minute (or at least next week, being Friday and all), The Colbert Report is working on a killer segment about the whole incident. For a show that so ably dissects the absurdity of American thought processes, it's gold-medal material. The Colbert Nation would appreciate it. Our nation needs it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

I can think of some ways


I was ready to rip into this because of its lionization of people who never stop because the word "stop" is not found in "go-go," which I wrote about yesterday. But then I hit this passage, which is another thing entirely (emphasis mine):

With two substantial incomes, they can have Margarita work full time, though she’s not needed much as a nanny anymore. She cleans during the day, drives the girls to soccer practices, takes Scotty to a weekly program at Imagination Stage, and makes the kids dinner, leaving around 6 or 7. Missy gets home between 7:30 and 8, about the same time as Scott...

The subtitle of this story is, "We went searching for Supermom. We found her in Chevy Chase." 

Supermom indeed. You single moms raising special-needs kids in small apartments on meager incomes all lose. Where's your six-figure income and full-time nanny? Where are your expensive private schools that cater to the specific needs of each of your children? Where is your husband and his additional six-figure income? Your NFL-champion personal trainer? Your six-bedroom home that you designed with lavish soirees in mind? Your extensive network of power players in your ultra-affluent community? Maybe you should try harder. Then you too could overcome all of the extremely minor inconveniences the Supermom calls problems.

Most of the "problems" this family faces wouldn't even be considered problems to most people. Aw, the Christmas tree fell once? Kids didn't pick out their school outfits until morning? Parents occasionally had disheveled hair and exhibited real emotions? Hah! 

If anything, I'd say this family has irreversibly conquered every genuine hardship. Good for them. But that's not a testament to superlative parenting as much as to the power of wealth. 

This isn't to pick on a single person, but to highlight what is perhaps our nation's biggest social ill: economic inequality. Specifically, how so severe it is that articles like this run with zero sense of perspective or self-awareness. 

There seems to be a genuine belief among many elites in this country that poor people don't care about a decent standard of living or what's best for their kids. Conversely, these people believe their own success is due to their pluck, rather than connections and limitless resources. When framed that way, it's easy to hail the rich and piss on the poor. But really, it shows that if we invest in public schools and in low-wage workers, among other measures, then a lot of these problems take care of themselves. But that doesn't jibe with the bootstrap mentality, and keeping up that facade is apparently more important to us.

Supermom's real power is stability. Without it, she'd be ... an actual Supermom.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Being a busy bee is your business


I enjoyed this article because I've always despised that humblebrag (or full-on brag) attitude that many people have about the breakneck pace of their lives. In Rat Race America, being slammed is a virtue, a sign of being wanted and valued. Like with money, whoever has the most "overwhelm" wins and has a duty to lord it over others.

There's a difference between having a breakneck life (which most people have at least sometimes) and actively flaunting such. If someone has time to diagram all the reasons they're blowing someone off (especially in response to the need for two seconds of their time), they're just trying to impress. And it isn't working. 

Fortunately, I don't deal with this attitude much, even though most people I know have perpetually full plates. When responsibilities aren't status symbols, they tend to just get handled and that's the end of it. Personally, I'm more about being productive than being busy, and am far more impressed when people block out time to breathe than when they're aggressively scheduled. 

The need to be the busiest can literally kill. Have a life instead.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Dead precedents


I say it is. And not just the incremental anti-counterfeiting measures that have been evolving since the mid-1990s — our money is overdue for a complete overhaul.

Yes, I realize that this is a logistical and political dead end. Americans hold our currency dear! Its look is deeply rooted in tradition and its representative figures call back our earliest roots!

But that's precisely the problem.

As the CBS Sunday Morning report above notes, U.S. currency used to change every few years, depicting a multitude of figures and dynamic scenes that impress even today. But from 1929 to 1996, only the signatures and serial numbers changed. (And since 1996, changes have been all about the security.) That might have cemented the greenback image in the mind of the world, but it didn't do much to reflect our foundational spirit.

The men and women who adorn our currency earned it by being pioneers, not by adhering to decades-old conventions. So much has changed in America in the past century, including in our transactional documents, and yet our money barely reflects that change at all. 

What are we afraid of? That the money will look silly? It looks silly now! You can mesh 21st-century microtechnology with a 1920s template only so much before it resembles a GPS on a Model T. At some point, you've got to get a new car. The roads are different. And so is the population.

We've done well collectively over the past few years to acknowledge the diversity that has made this country great. And yet, it's still a big deal when a woman is on a coin. Never mind different races — Sacagawea is the only nonwhite person, and one of only two women, on American currency. Seriously? 

Even beyond the whiteness of our greenbacks, the U.S. has some of the world's dullest dollars today. They have served us well, but it's time to move on. For the most part, our bills and coins still reflect a staid, somber, Anglocentric view of America — and we revere this because we've been immersed in it our whole lives. Meanwhile, most of the world's other countries have colorful, dynamic, evolving money that acknowledges that things have happened in the past 50 years.

I'm not sure how I'd redo the currency, though I like some of the ideas bandied about in the CBS article. Martin Luther King Jr. absolutely belongs on a bill, and Neil Armstrong and Rosa Parks could merit it as well. Barack Obama could be a good choice a century from now. Anyone who blazed a trail that we'll remember just as we now remember the Founding Fathers and other icons. (I'd say leave entertainers for stamps.)

But if latter-day political figures are too polarizing, then maybe take faces off altogether. One redesign has the Statue of Liberty on the one. We could do this with numerous landmarks, perhaps even rotating them every few years. Best of all, we could integrate 21st-century security technology without continuing to clobber classic art.

Another point, and a delicate one, is this: take off "In God we trust." That would come off as political, but its inclusion (in 1864 on the coins, and 1957 on the paper) was itself a political move — in both cases, to declare that God favored America during conflicts (Civil War, Red Scare). It's not only not religious, it's arrogant. God is explicitly not in the Constitution, the idea being that faith is a personal thing. It's a divisive issue these days. If we're rebooting, leave it off. E pluribus unum.

I guess what I'm saying is, let's at least talk about changing our change. Let's not be afraid to embrace progress. The people on our money weren't.

It took a while, but I'm finally right

Here's a weird, random thing I noticed yesterday.

When I was 12, a dance song came out called "Love U More." I'd listen to it on the radio and liked it well enough, but never owned the single or sought it out in subsequent playlists. Last night, I decided to find it for the first time since it dropped off the airwaves. I thought this whole time that "Love U More" was by Jade, but it was actually the work of Sunscreem (Jade did "Don't Walk Away," also a cool song I remember from 1992).

OK, so that's an easy-enough memory lapse; the songs were in rotation at the same time, and were the biggest hits of their respective groups. That isn't the weird part.

Searching for the song took some time because I didn't have the correct artist (also, because I was typing in "Love You More," because I'm a copy editor). Even when I finally struck gold, it was a remake of the sought song (Which I guess is striking silver?) — a 2011 cover by Sunday Girl that's very faithful to the original.

Sunday Girl's real first name? Jade.

Anybody have a mop? 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Vidiocracy

Rule #238: Viral containment

If a video screams, "THIS IS BEING BANNED," not only is it not being banned, it's a hoax. Or hearsay. Or a viral marketing campaign in another country that got its tagline lopped off. 

The only videos that ever get deleted on the Internet are songs, shows and event footage for which deep-pocketed corporations claim copyright. And even those tend to resurface faster than you can say "Prince."

So, don't worry. The Internet will continue to serve your deep desire for government coverups, UFOs, lizard people, anti-vaccine propaganda and Obama's true (satanic) roots for decades to come. No one's actually trying to ban any of those videos. 

OR ARE THEY? 

No, they're not.

Strip artistry

One of my most overarching ambitions growing up was to be a cartoonist. In my late teens, however, I lost confidence in my artistic abilities (which I've since gained back) and increasingly lost patience with the tedium of drawing. So I still draw, or digitally draw, occasionally, but only when I have solid ideas that aren't better conveyed through writing. When that happens, I remember why I enjoyed the art form in the first place.

I've been flooded with ideas lately, and just wrote some down for the intent of drawing very soon. Now that I have a table in my home office specifically for artwork, and all my art supplies to go along with it, I have no excuse not to finish them. Hold me to it.

One of the perils of being a kid who likes to draw — as I was back in the day — is that well-meaning people will stick a piece of paper in your face and say, "Draw something nice right now!" And when you couldn't, or the work was underwhelming, they'd be disappointed. And then you'd be disappointed, just for not feeling it.

Even when I was feeling it, I know I couldn't possibly have been as good as I remember. When I was about 4 or 5, I decided to draw Velma from Scooby-Doo. I remember it coming out looking exactly like her (and of course that's what my Pop said), but who knows how far off I was? I'd love to see it now.

Also, I patted myself in the back for drawing a perfect orange tabby in an anthropomorphic seated position in my kindergarten class — until years later, when I saw that exact drawing in The Real Mother Goose — the book I had with me that day. Who knows what I actually drew?

Fortunately, I drew on every book I owned, as well as some game boxes, school notes and even family photographs, so I know I was at least budding. Nowadays I doodle on our newspaper page proofs. I'm almost 20 percent better now.

In any case, don't be afraid to exercise your muse, no matter your grade of ability. Because the inspiration behind it ensures that it will turn out just fine.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Don't be weird about being weird

This is directed at no one in particular; it's more of an overarching request gleaned from years of observations and, for whatever reason, it's on my mind today.

Stop trying to be weird.

Being weird, or quirky, or any similar attribute, is not something you can force. You either are or you aren't, and it's OK either way. Embrace who you are, and don't try to be what you're not.

And whatever you are, don't make it (or let others make it) into a commodity. 

Here's what I mean by that. I hate most white, creamy food. Mostly it's a texture thing, but it's also a taste and nutrition thing. It's a very longstanding disgust, having first manifested itself at age 2 or 3. This is a source of much amusement for my friends (and even for me). 

At some point, this quirk of mine became a commodity. Friends would tell other friends, "Ian hates creamy white food. Watch this," and place something white and creamy in front of me. I was then expected to overreact to it, which I did, for laughs. But after doing it enough times, it felt like a party trick, and I felt cheap for doing it. I've often mocked people for, say, overreacting to scripted TV shows, but in those cases I was acting the same way. And I realized I didn't need to, because my genuine disgust is all the entertainment anyone needs.

And in cases where people try to play up their own weirdness, it seems insincere, even if it's true. But especially if it isn't. And that diminishes what's truly there and worth celebrating.

So, be yourself no matter what. Don't make it weird.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Will you please turn down the arena rock?

Today is Proposal Day, because some guy apparently decided that was a thing. I learned that by reading Slate's This Is Why Stunt Marriage Proposals Are So Annoying. It's an interesting exploration of gender norms as they apply to proposals, giving the ritual a retroactive feel. But the article skips entirely over why I (and I imagine many others) think stunt proposals are tacky.

I'm not the most lovey-dovey type of romantic. My ideal relationship is an equal partnership where company is the point, but I don't have a pressing desire to be in one. I find most traditionally romantic conventions to be stilted, forced and outdated. I cannot comprehend the idea of spending money to prove love, nor of being with someone for its own sake or for appearances. Though I'm not closed to dating, I do not feel incomplete as a single man. But even if none of that was true, I suspect I would still hate stunt proposals. Because even if I were an incurable romantic, I would still be an introvert. And as such, I shy away from being a captive audience.

Once I thought I was witnessing a public proposal about to happen, and every fiber of my being wanted to bolt out the door. That turned out not to be the case, and the relief I felt was palpable. 

Proposals, at their best, are confirmations between two people who decide they're in it for the long haul. Anything more than that is showy and emotionally manipulative. But I wonder if even the simplest proposal is more than a formality, because I'd imagine two people who want to get married are going to be on the same page about it. Also, so many people talk about proposals months or even years before the fact, sometimes within full earshot of their squeezes. How anticlimactic is that?

And what if it is climactic? Any person for whom a proposal carries genuine suspense is taking a huge risk by making it public. That goes beyond annoying into potential pity territory. YouTube is full of these fails. And, frankly, they're entertaining in a way they wouldn't be if they'd gone smoothly, at least from the perspective of a stranger who's been roped in to another's personal stage show. I don't laugh at the rejection, but I grin at the profound misjudgment that goes with being over-the-top when things are so lopsided.

Also, there's the whole matter of elaborate, expensive, extensively choreographed viral videos created by professionals with casts of hundreds of their closest friends. Those are about love the same way Fruit Roll-Ups are about strawberries. 

Take it from someone who doesn't know: The best proposals are the ones with the smallest audiences.

Fred Phelps — Pushing up pickets

Fred Phelps is dead. I'm feeling not much more about it than he is.

The Westboro Baptist Church became a caricature of itself long, long ago — not that it was ever anything else, really. There's only so much you can seriously say, or even joke, about a group that protests literally everything. Given that Phelps was apparently excommunicated from the church this past summer, the church might protest his funeral as well, causing the universe to fold over itself like a paper football.

What baffles me about Phelps is that he started out as a fierce civil rights attorney in Kansas in the 1960s, meaning he was a very busy attorney in Kansas in the 1960s. He did a lot of good in those days. But what he did after that is the dictionary definition of "cancel out." I'm fascinated, in the disturbed sense, with the thought processes that compel someone to go from civil rights champion to the ultimate symbol of modern hate. If Phelps were a fictional character in a screenplay, the writer would be taking an extra dishwashing shift about now. As a biopic, however, it might make ratings history.

If there's one thing I'm happy about, it's that Phelps lived long enough to see that America is irrevocably trending toward gay rights, his homophobic vaudeville act having gone a long way to engender sympathy among the masses. Mostly, though, it's hard to feel glee over the passing of a sad and misguided man whose monster hate machine became so extreme that even he was a casualty of it. That machine will go on without him, barely breaking stride. That's the saddest realization of all.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The case for mincome


A guaranteed income is one of those things I liked even before it became any sort of real idea. Granted, in some respects it seems insane. But in others, it's one of the best proposals the nation could consider. AlterNet does a terrific job of not only making a case for "mincome," but highlights examples of it in action (such as the town in Canada where they coined the term "mincome").

The premise is this: Since we already pay to supplement the poorest Americans through a convoluted labyrinth of programs, there would be value in paying them a flat paycheck that reduces the need for such programs, and could be a more efficient use of taxpayer funds. These recipients would then spend that money, thus upgrading their lives and stimulating the economy, leading to jobs and an attendant reduction in crime.

It would also provide a boost to those who might want to start a business, undertake a creative enterprise or otherwise do something valuable but not necessarily profitable in the short term. 

Or, we could make all work worthwhile by substantially increasing the minimum wage to exceed the cost of living. But that's apparently an equally radical idea.

The downside of arrogance

For a few days now, I've had several tabs open in my Web browser with the intent of springboarding them into blogs. Some involve the recent hoopla over a New Orleans transplant daring to suggest the city doesn't run on voodoo spells (which I addressed once already, and which earned kudos from the Esquire blogger), while another defends "arrogant atheism."

But really, they can all be one blog, because of arrogance.

If I had to guess how I've changed the most in the past few years, I'd say my tolerance for arrogance has dropped to negative levels. It's never been my favorite trait in people, but I was more selective about who it applied to — if they had the truth on their side (or if I thought they did), I mostly let it go. I gave off a fair share of arrogance myself in those situations. I believed, subconsciously if not consciously, the old saying, "It's not bragging if it's true."

But over time, something changed. Maybe some people whose opinions I agreed with became too smug. Or that their unblinking gloom and cynicism as political waters shifted revealed their need to feel smarter than everyone else. Whatever it was, I was no longer enchanted by ideological brethren who browbeat their opponents.

I've never been a fan of street preachers and similar types who love to tell people they're going to hell. No one screaming in my face that I'm wrong and a terrible person is going to change my mind. Yet, many people holding perfectly sensible views wield the same hammer. Some of the most brilliant progressives are obnoxious people in mixed company. They care less about people seeing their view than about basking in their own superiority. What does that accomplish? Nothing.

And no, it doesn't matter if they're right. The human brain is wired to be defensive in those situations, so all it does is make the target of the harangue even less likely to entertain another view.

Atheists are especially prone to arrogance these days. Emboldened by recent strides to make America less of a theocracy (which I fully support), many atheists are displaying a certitude that rivals that of religious fundamentalists — as if making laws more sensible in the United States means God has been disproven and they win the universe. Which in turn means they're exempt from humility and decorum.

But the right and wrong of society is on a different plane than the Ultimate Truth, which is all guesswork, whether you believe in God or not. In the meantime, we know society is a real thing and that maybe its laws shouldn't be based on the arrogant certitude of unprovable beliefs.

Arrogance also reared its vain head in the recent New Orleans/Louisiana magic debate. The attacks on Dave Thier's transplant status I thought were especially vile. "Oh, he's only been there for three years! What could he possibly know?" asked at least one person who's lived there for five. "These hipsters couldn't possibly understand. I was here before it was cool."

Maybe it's because I've been a transplant many times (sometimes for far less than three years), but I don't think you have to live in a city your whole life to have an opinion about it, and in fact it helps to have a fresh perspective. In any case, I'm less inclined to consider what a lifer or longer-term resident has to say if they have to act superior while saying it. Humility helps. After all, someone who has never moved doesn't know any more about the trials of transplantation than a transplant does about a lifetime in one place. No one's right or wrong in that respect, and thus no one can claim absolute truth.

All arrogance is undeserved, because no birthright, no achievement, no higher ground, no sense of certainty ever justifies it. Arrogance arises not from being correct, but from the narcissistic need to be right, and better, all the time. When that urge takes hold, people can be very, very wrong. Even when they're right.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A chance encounter

Last night while grabbing dinner, I was cornered by an elderly man who was clearly aching for someone to talk to. He was friendly enough, so I was game for the duration of my meal. We chatted about back ailments and how cellphones adversely affect pacemakers. The usual.

After a while, he asked the question that far too many assertive people are far too comfortable asking perfect strangers:

"Do you like to read?"

Oh, here we go.

"I've got a book I think you'd like."

I gazed over to his table and saw an open book. I couldn't tell what it was, but I know what it usually is in these circumstances. I scrambled to build up the mental steel.

And sure enough ... it was a book by Arianna Huffington.

Didn't see that coming.

This actually piqued my curiosity, so I lingered for a few more minutes. He open to a chapter on energy stocks and told me he lost lots of money in the Enron crash. Then he went on about George W. Bush being a terrible president, a pale shadow of his father and a fascist.

Then he said Obama was a closet Muslim.

Didn't see that coming either.

Still, the man was very nice and I wish him well.

I should get out more often. Or not.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Why David Brenner is to blame for me

On Friday, I was finishing up two weeks of unpacking my long-delayed possessions by organizing all of my physical media in my living room. Atop an empty CD tower, which I was about to load up, sat the one audiobook I own: I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup! by David Brenner. I stumbled upon his post-9/11 ode to the healing values of comedy at a bookstore in Springfield a few years ago, and (as always with his work) was glad I did. Ever since then, that box of cassettes has occupied a unique, and sometimes odd, place among my DVDs, CDs, videotapes and Blu-rays. Which is appropriate, given that the man, who died Saturday, occupies a unique niche in my personal pop culture.

There's no obvious reason why I should be a Brenner fan. His career peaked in the 1970s and early '80s, and he's most often known for his Tonight Show appearances at a time when my bedtime was 9 p.m. at the latest, or never because I wasn't born yet. He was a streetwise Jewish guy from Philadelphia living in New York, and I was none of those things except streetwise. By the time I got into him, he had fallen nearly completely off the pop-culture radar. Few, if any, of my friends knew who he was, and it took his random appearance on The Rosie O'Donnell Show in the mid-1990s for me to even confirm he was still alive (ah, the pre-Internet-in-my-life age).

Nonetheless, as a high schooler, I was way into him. Like with most of my anachronistic entertainment obsessions, it began with my parents' shelves. In those days, our house had a wall-to-wall, nearly floor-to-ceiling bookshelf (which you can see a quadrant of, including the Brenner book I had yet to read just to the left of my head, in this picture). Underneath those shelves were several rows of records my dad had accumulated over three decades of working in radio. I mined both of these all the time for entertainment.

Midway through my freshman year in late 1994, I decided to read the book whose title I'd long giggled at, Soft Pretzels With Mustard. To say I got to know Brenner was an understatement — it's one of the best and most thorough autobiographies I've ever read about anyone. He tells us about nearly every aspect of his intense (and age-fudged) life, and all about his friends and family — leaving just enough mystery (such as oh-by-the-way references to his two early marriages) that it doesn't feel like an overshare. He does such a good job of it that his two best childhood friends share foreword billing with Joan Rivers and you're equally interested in all three passages. And above all, it's laugh-out-loud hilarious.

I read Soft Pretzels With Mustard repeatedly until it fell apart, and still have the pieces. I found Brenner cuts on some of my dad's comedy records and played them over and over. I checked out as many of Brenner's subsequent books as I could find, and taped his 2000 comeback special, Back With a Vengeance!, when it premiered on HBO. (His advice to then-candidate George W. Bush: "DON'T TALK!")

Brenner's humor in all its forms resonated with me because he could mine comedy, or a meaningful anecdote, out of nearly anything. I've been working at that ever since. The forces that compelled me to start Not Right About Anything are rooted in Brenner's inspiration. 

Above all, though, I'll remember Brenner for a single, pivotal statement that's largely determined who I've been ever since. 

In one chapter of Soft Pretzels With Mustard, Brenner talks about favorite sounds, and how everyone has a different one. The final sentence of the chapter is, "For me, the greatest sound in the world is laughter!" That resonated so much with me at 14 that I can remember where I was, and what everyone was doing around me, at that moment. Before that, comedy seemed like just a diversion. But I decided then that I would laugh more, make others laugh more and generally lighten up about life, something I needed to do then (and sometimes still do now). Because laughter really is the greatest sound in the world, and he made sure we heard plenty of it.

R.I.P., David Brenner. May your gravestone read, "If this is a joke, I don't get it."

Friday, March 14, 2014

The harsh truth about harsh truths

One trait that fascinates me most about people is — for immediate lack of a better term — the need to be slapped. 

Welcoming motivation and/or constructive criticism is one thing, but that's not enough for some people. They enroll in various boot camp-style programs and tough-love seminars and earnestly read articles by the likes of Matt Walsh. All so they can chase that rush of, "Thanks! I needed that slap to the face!"

I suspect this is a privileged, upper-middle-class phenomenon, where the well-off have to fabricate challenges for themselves. The rest of us don't have to bother with searching, because the challenges slap us every day. And because we've had to struggle with life's obstacles rather than have the luxury of inviting them in if we please, we have a more nuanced and empathetic understanding of the circumstances.

That's why people like Walsh make my blood boil. If you're looking for a slap in the face, he's got one of the best hands in the business. But why would you want that? Dear God, why? (Granted, I can see why someone would read him to validate their own lack of compassion toward others, or as a way to feel their own success had no roots in the social contract or dumb luck. Just like with Ayn Rand.)

But even if Walsh is 100 percent correct, what does that say about his ideal world? "Start your engines. The race to the bottom is about to begin."

In The Four Harsh Truths That Everyone In My Generation Needs To Accept, Walsh offers somewhat contradictory advice: The world owes you nothing, so take literally anything you can get, even it's the lowliest fast-food gig, and like it — oh, and don't be afraid to take entrepreneurial risks! Because you have inherent value. Also, you are worthless. And all struggling people are lazy video-game players who hate to work and want to undermine America.

Look, I get that people aren't always going to land their dream jobs, especially at a young age. And that oftentimes people have to swallow their pride and take a stopgap job to pay their bills (I've done it multiple times). But Walsh, in the fine tradition of Ronald Reagan and numerous other right-wing "motivators" before him, fetishize this stopgap as inevitable and character-building. (Funny how these people are always in positions of power, not working fast food, and some of them never even came close to having to.)

There's a saying of which I'm particularly fond: "If you shoot for the farthest star out there, the worst that will happen is you miss and reach the moon. If you reach for the moon and miss, you'll land right back where you started." These guys wouldn't even have you reach for the moon — they want you to aim your rocket at Mount Everest and crash in the Middle East somewhere. And you weren't smart enough to build a better rocket, then tough luck, buddy. Man, that's a world I want to live in!

But I guess I'll settle for an imperfect world where hard work is no guarantor of success, but it — and dreams — are encouraged. And even more importantly, where it's acknowledged that an entire generation of Americans cannot find jobs suited to their talents, education and work ethic through no fault of their own, and are making sensible economic decisions (such as living with their parents) that will guide them long after they've overcome this hump, all of this in the face of a hostile crowd that hypocritically accuses them of being lazy and entitled. 

We're tough. We can handle it.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The tricky magic of Louisiana

Well, this enraged a lot of people:


I was not one of them. I read this article unaware of the backlash, nodded my head and probably wouldn't have thought twice about it were it not for the criticism that followed.

Louisianans jumped all over blogger Dave Thier, decrying his alleged stance that there is nothing special about Louisiana and calling him a smug carpetbagger who watches too much Netflix instead of going out and being a New Orleanian, which he couldn’t ever truly do because, again, carpetbagger. That posturing riled me up more than anything he said.

A few points about me going in, if you don't know already:

• I am a south Louisiana native who lived there for 28 of my 34 years.

• I worked as an extra in the Louisiana film industry, most often in New Orleans, for more than a year.

• I've lived in four cities in three states, including Lafayette and Baton Rouge in Louisiana.

So if Thier is going to get static for the horrible sin of being born somewhere else and living in Louisiana for only three years so far (which is another, long blog entirely), then maybe my opinion will hold a little more weight with the lifers.

Not only do I agree with his view, but I think most Louisianans would, if they'd focus on what he actually said, and who he was talking to.

In sum, he said that Louisiana has a lot going for it, but it lies in real life, not the otherworldly, mystical aspects played up in pop culture. I could have said that. I have said that.

People with exotic notions of Louisiana (which they often equate with the more mystic aspects of New Orleans) seem to forget that the state is also part of the United States in 2014. That was the point of one of Thier's most-maligned comments:

I’ve been in New Orleans for three years ... Here is my life in the most magical city in the world: I watch a tremendous lot of Netflix. I play a tremendous lot of video games. I eat red beans and rice occasionally, but Pad Thai much more frequently. I go to music sometimes. Mostly, I do the things that American middle-class white guys in their late 20s are doing all over the country, because, as it turns out, New Orleans has been a part of the United States of America for more than 200 years.

Even though I would guess plenty of New Orleans residents indulge in Netflix, many took it to mean Thier was deliberately not immersing himself in the culture — giving them a convenient cue to dismiss him out of hand.

I interpret it differently. He brought up the mundane aspects of his life to remind outsiders that mundane things exist just as surely in “magical” Louisiana as anywhere else. He understands, as I do, that not everyone realizes that.

At a party in Utah in 2006, I was chatting with some friendly locals about life in Louisiana. One of their cellphones rang to the tune of “Take On Me” by a-ha. I remarked that I loved that song, to which the phone’s owner replied, with genuine surprise, “You have ’80s music in Louisiana?”

Do we? You can dance to ’80s music in the French Quarter! I have. Badly.

Thier is not trying to tell Louisianans what he thinks of their state — he’s telling outsiders what not to think of his adopted state. Considering that Hollywood South is increasingly turning Actual Hollywood into New Orleans West, that dialogue is pretty pertinent.

This is not to say that this city and this state are not great and unusual places, in a great many ways. ... But Hollywood wants Louisiana to be something more than a state. It wants an oasis from America, a netherworld right in our backyard with two nonstop flights from LAX every day. We might make a documentary about the plight of poor people in the slums elsewhere, but in Louisiana we can make Beasts of the Southern Wild. You don’t have to feel bad because it’s all magic, and magic just is what it is. We quickly leave the realm of celebration and move wholeheartedly into fetishization -- Southern Orientalism, an obsession with an imaginary other.

He wants fellow out-of-staters — in particular, the ones who have a hand in shaping national and world perception of Louisiana — that the “magic” is an entirely different kind than they're imagining. One grounded and coexisting with real life. A real, and better, magic.

The closer something seemingly magical is to reality, the more compelling I think it is. South Louisiana is a fun place to visit and live because it is a unique and energetic place with lots of history, attractions and friendly people. It has its share of spiritual curiosities, but even if you don’t believe, you’re still immersed in charm. All of this is true without any need to make a netherworld of the region; it's even more amazing because it is all real. That’s all Thier is saying, and he’s so right.

Indeed, the myth of south Louisiana damages it in more ways than any portrayal on camera ever could. When New Orleans becomes a netherworld, it’s easier for outsiders to dismiss its hardships. When political corruption and shoddy infrastructure become accepted parts of the Louisiana fabric, they become nearly impossible to fix. When poverty breeds mystique, the inclination to address it fades. When no one, regardless of residential history, can express complex thoughts about Louisiana without facing a brutal, personal backlash, the whole state suffers.

The best thing that could ever be said about Louisiana is that it’s an epicenter of unique culture where sometimes people stay in with their Netflix. That’s magical. More importantly, it’s real.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Culture War has been won


This selfie of Bill Nye the Science Guy, President Barack Obama and Neil deGrasse Tyson is a real thing. It wins the Awesome People Hanging Out Together Award for 2014, for sure. Close that contest down. It was over on Feb. 28.

But this picture rules for an even more important reason. Think about the collective brainpower in it. Two of America's leading figures of popular science along with the president, who is a Harvard-educated former professor of constitutional law. 

Contrast that to the CPAC, the annual conservative conference that just ended. CPAC featured most of the heavy hitters of today's Republican Party, as well as a Rhino Records-worthy compilation of past superstars. Even with that concentration of conservative talent, could they pull off an equivalent selfie? 

Not a chance. They're still too busy promoting Sarah Palin as a keynote speaker. And arguing that climate change is a fake problem cooked up by people who want to cripple businesses. And insisting that women don't deserve equal pay and can ask for rape. And who think so little of science that they want to replace it with unquantifiable myths in schools — schools they want to gut if public but bankroll generously if private, no matter how unaccountable. 

We need science, and people who value it. Science is about collecting and evaluating data, arriving at conclusions and being able to change those conclusions as evidence warrants. It's about a march toward progress and understanding — truly understanding — the world around us, so that perhaps we learn to deal with our problems before they become insurmountable.

Our leaders don't have to hold doctorates in astrophysics, but they should at least subscribe to this century.

So, yes, this photo is awesome. But you know what would be even more awesome? If both major political parties were capable of it. That would be a credit to America's collective intelligence.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Who? Drat!


All I have to say about the New Orleans Saints' ongoing massacre of every player anyone's ever heard of is this:

It better be worth it.

Oftentimes, it is. Aging, expensive talent makes way for younger, cap-friendly successors. Perhaps new players are needed for ever-evolving schemes. Individual cuts are logical even if the sum looks uncertain. Et cetera.

But the sweeping scope of these cuts looks simply to me like feverish and panicked attempts to cut down the salary cap to afford Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham — a hot combo that nevertheless works mainly as a function of not being the only thing on the field (and even then, only sometimes).

The players left still have lots of promise. I hope I have my tail between my legs come January and they read my remarks in another one of those "get your story straight now" ads. But as it stands now, I think the Saints cut more of their foundation too suddenly than is good for their chances at continued success.

I'm betting most of these guys, if not all, will find their way to other teams. And they will be good. Probably against the Saints. When that happens, none of us fans will give the first F about salary caps or business acumen.

It's a business, yes, but rushed concern with the immediate bottom line is bad business. 

Also, the "Thank You" graphics from the team are a bit much. Those should come from fans, not the organization that severed ties with the player. "Don't let the pat hit you on the back on the way out!"

Sigh. Is it too late to get into knitting?

Friday, March 07, 2014

Of pain and tables

It's amazing how you adjust to life in ways you never realized.

When I had back surgery in 2001, I had been walking in pain on a near-constant basis for about seven months. Even after the disc was fixed and the pain was gone, I sometimes subconsciously resorted to walking delicately and/or with a limp.

For about a year after regaining the voice I lost for a week in 2009, I wouldn't whisper, but would silently mouth quiet words as I had during that week.

A shoulder injury that same year had me holding up my right arm like I was carrying a football. I still revert to that sometimes. 

On Tuesday, I received my furniture and effects after having them in storage for 17 months. I've lived for the past seven months in my apartment with what fit in my car and a few other items purchased since then — and the previous 9 1/2 months was spent at my parents' house, among their furnishings and shared bathrooms, keeping my toiletries and laundry in travel totes. In sports terms, I hadn't nested since the NFL was using replacement officials.

It's enough of a time period where you don't even miss things, but forget you have them, and forget you need them. It plays with your head. 

I'm not talking about luxury items, either, but tables and basic bedding. I've gone seven months without a proper table. It's all set up now, and I'm still reminding myself that I don't have to eat my soup on the floor or on a lawn chair. I still get excited about my actual bed, which consists of a mattress, a box spring and the most skeletal frame. But after months on an inflatable mattress (and eventually the floor) and all the back pain it's brought back, to me that bed is the Four Seasons. This is the first blog I've written at my desk since 2012. My apartment, which I got used to being cavernous, looks like my old apartments now. The normalcy of it is taking some adjustments.

On another level, I'm still getting used to having disposable income. Today, I'll be getting a new haircut, groceries and possibly a new computer desk. Even with the cost of the move, I don't have to go without, and yet I still do out of habit. 

This is a good problem to have. I know I'm lucky, and that I was lucky to have what I had in the two years I was struggling. But I think about those who face much harder challenges every day of their lives, with little to no hope of improvement. How is their daily parade of deprivation changing their barometers? There comes a point when street smarts and a sharp sense of practicality cross the line and become self-defeating habits. When someone is poor for long enough, that metaphorical phantom limp or sore throat lingers until they don't know what it's like not to be in pain. And sadly, many politicians are all too happy to promote that forgetfulness.

This is why I have sympathy for many down-and-out people, even when logic dictates I should feel otherwise. Just as not having a table took me out of the habit of using one, so do adverse circumstances compel people to adopt new ways of living with pain. When you aren't feeling pain, it's easier to judge these people and want to punish them.

Instead, we should consider what's causing the pain in the first place.