The weirdest acting gig in showbiz

Wendy has a boyfriend. You’ve probably noticed; she brought him to meet the family, and he panicked when she mentioned they were having Gouda cheese with chicken. Made him think he’d severely underdressed, so he grabbed some flowers out of a convenient flower pot, handed them to Wendy’s Mom. Awkward; they were having a new Wendy’s Gouda chicken sandwich thing. Very informal. But also normal; in Wendy-land, nobody eats anything but Wendy’s sandwiches.  Ever. This is, BTW, at least her second boyfriend that we know about; she used to date LDS actor Kirby Heyborne. I don’t know why they broke up; maybe because he was kinda cheap. But I don’t think she would have minded cheap. She only eats at Wendy’s, after all. (Though, in fact, she doesn’t. She’s never taken a bite from any Wendy’s sandwich in any commercial).

Still, Wendy has a life. She has friends she hangs out with. She has friends with boyfriend issues. She has office cubicle type job, and a nerdy co-worker who’s into her. And of course, that’s the point. She’s a nice, normal, girl-next-door kind of friendly person, who really really likes Wendy’s food.  That’s how they’re selling her, and thereby selling sandwiches.

Wendy is actually Morgan Smith Goodwin, an actress from Alabama, now based in New York. She’s apparently done a lot of stage work, but only two short films.  Mostly, she just plays Wendy, the red-haired girl in the Wendy’s commercials. And that, actually, has made her kind of famous. She also did a webseries called Just Us Girls, in which she’s one of a group of socially awkward computer nerd girls.

But Wendy, man, that’s a boss gig. I have no idea how much she’s paid, but it has to be pretty substantial. And it’s become her career. My guess is that her contract with Wendy’s prohibits her playing, you know, the perp’s ex-wife on CSI or something. She’s Wendy, for at least the foreseeable future. (And for the rest of her life, she can’t ever ever ever tell anyone that she actually prefers Burger King. Or that she’s vegan).

This thing, creating fictional characters for a series of commercials, is nothing new. Gordon Jump, a fine LDS actor, played the Maytag Repairman for years. Dick Wilson,played grocery store manager Mr. Whipple for twenty-one years, relentlessly scolding women not to squeeze the Charmin. Remember Joe Isuzu, from all those Isuzu ads? Played by David Leisure, who parlayed his gift for playing smarmy creeps into a long sit-com career.

But that’s part of what’s new today. Gordon Jump was better known as the station manager on WKRP in Cincinatti.  Dick Wilson was a regular on Bewitched, and David Leisure, of course, was on a number of popular shows. Today, though, the trend is to hire an unknown actress, and let her build a character. (They’re not all female characters, I suppose; AT&T’s doing a new series with a couple of computer network installers, one of them incurably romantic. But mostly, these commercial characters are women). The newest is Lily Adams, a hyper-competent AT&T saleswoman. She’s played by actress Milana Vayntrub, who is, turns out, from Uzbekistan. She’s a hoot; I love this short film she wrote, directed, and starred in, about an actress who has built an entire career out of playing dead people.

Of course, the superstar of all commercial actresses today has to be Stephanie Courtney, who has played Flo in over fifty of those Progressive Insurance ads.  Courtney’s from upstate New York, moved into the city and went to acting school, spent years pounding the pavement trying to get acting gigs, then moved over to standup. Here’s her act. Then she landed Flo. She’s been Flo for six years now. I think a lot of Flo’s appeal is that she’s so relentlessly upbeat about selling car insurance. Lately, though, Flo’s gone kind of post-modern, moving out of that relentlessly white futurist office and into settings inspired by film noir, romantic comedies, or biker movies. It gets weird, though. Surf the ‘net for Flo, and you’ll find all sorts of strange things, like a line of sexy Flo-style Halloween costumes. (“Is Flo hot?” is apparently quite a popular internet meme).

But the worst of it is that Flo is now the face of Progressive Insurance. And when Progressive refused to pay a claim, Flo’s avatar was used to defend the company. I have to think that would be awkward, to have a company use your image and likeness to defend itself against malfeasance they committed. Obviously, none of this is the fault of Stephanie Courtney, who is simply an actress playing a character. But note that Flo’s entire pitch is about the affordability of Progressive Insurance.  It’s obviously not her fault if the company turns out to be dodgy. But it must feel . . . unsettling.

I have an actress friend who has become the public spokesperson for a product line. In her case, the product is poo pourri. The commercials are remarkably funny, and I couldn’t be happier for her. Still, it is poo pourri.

My point is this. These actors are interesting people, talented people. I think it’s awesome that they’re making a living in this incredibly difficult profession. But there’s also a downside. I don’t think playing Lily or Wendy or Flo is likely to lead to much else, in part for contractual reasons. I suppose Morgan Smith Goodwin might parlay Wendy into a TV series or rom-com or, more likely, a quirky indie film. But she’s been Wendy for three years and it hasn’t happened yet. And Stephanie Courtney has to sit there and watch Flo, her character, (or at least an avatar of it) defend a sleazy insurance company. Flo’s not to blame for Progressive’s misdeeds (and their misdeeds were confirmed in court), anymore than Wendy can be blamed for me getting fatter every time I mow down a Baconator.  But those roles weren’t why they went into show biz.

And not every fan of Flo, Wendy or Lily is . . . benign. Researching this, I stumbled into some insanely creepy websites and chat rooms, with literally hundreds of posts, all from guys, that I felt like I had to take a shower after reading. Incredibly disgusting, in that human-cockroach sort of way only the Internet brings to the surface. For all of them, for Wendy (or Red, as she’s generally known), and Flo, and Lily. I don’t know what kind of security these actresses receive, but I hope it’s considerable. Weird, but lucrative sub-set of acting gigs, then, with considerable downside and a scary fan base. And this profession is tough enough that I hardly know a single actor who wouldn’t jump to be the next Flo. Hardly one.

 

 

What’s news?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched Anchorman II, astoundingly silly Will Ferrell turn as a newsman. Also this morning, as is my wont, I watched last night’s The Daily Show, getting my Jon Stewart fix, and followed it with my Stephen Colbert fix. Also watched some Rachel Maddow, and caught a little news, some on Fox and some on MSNBC. And then, finally got to Sunday’s John Oliver show.

John Oliver got his start on Jon Stewart, and filled in one summer when Jon was off making a movie. He was so good that HBO gave him his own show, Last Week Tonight.  It’s amazing. Of all the fake news shows out there, from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update (“Francisco Franco is still dead!”) to Bill Maher to Stewart and Colbert, Oliver’s show is, IMHO, the best. Oliver does still laugh at his own jokes, which can be annoying. But because he’s only on once a week, he’s able to dig deepest, focus on just a few issues, really take some risks.

Anyway, on his show last Sunday, he did this story, about the Miss America Pageant (warning: the clip has some bad language). It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the Miss America Pageant, or more anachronistic. As Oliver put it in his opening, “how the &$^$^(@ is this still happening?”  It’s the year 2014. How does an event, in which a fully clothed male stands in front of a line of half-naked women, so they can be judged, still be a part of American culture?

Okay, it was a funny bit. But then Oliver dug deeper. First, he showed the ridiculous questions the contestants get asked, and then showed one young woman, in 20 seconds, give a thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced response to a question about ISIS. His point is clear: yeah, it’s a beauty contest, but these are some exceptionally sharp young women. It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to think that these bright and talented women have to parade about in swim suits to earn a college scholarship.

But of course, Miss America is a scholarship pageant. That’s what’s at stake. These women are competing in an organization that prides itself on being the biggest provider of scholarships specifically for women in the world.  And they probably are. At least, Oliver and his staff researched the question, and couldn’t find anyone else providing more money.

And then they dug deeper. The pageant claims that it ‘makes available’ 45 million dollars annually. That’s a lot of money. Is it true? Oliver and his staff dug deeper. The Miss America pageant is a non-profit organization, required to file publicly accessible financial reports with the government. Oliver’s staff dug through those records, and found that the pageant actually gave out $482,000 in scholarship funds. So they pulled the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.

What they discovered was that the 45 million dollar claim is basically bogus, that Miss America reached that number by counting every scholarship any affiliated school might possibly offer.  If a young woman is eligible for scholarships at one of four Pennsylvania schools, for example, Miss America counts the total value of all four school scholarships, though obviously Miss Pennsylvania is only going to attend one of them.  That kind of thing. Miss America does not provide 45 million dollars in scholarship funds.

It was a very funny comedy routine. But it was also informative, well researched, and quite probably true. The Miss America pageant felt it necessary to respond. So did other scholarship programs for women. And nobody really disputed Oliver’s research. His story was funny, yes, but it was also truthful, accurate and disturbing.

So how was it not journalism?

And that’s the point. The line between fake journalism and real journalism, between the way comedians deconstruct the news and the often preposterous sideshow 24 hour news has become is, at the very least, very thin indeed.  If it exists at all. I know people who get all their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don’t necessarily strike me as ill-informed.

I wish more people read newspapers. But newspapers are dying. I look nostalgically back to the days when news was delivered by the Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys of the world. But that time is long past.  What we have is. . . well, what we have is this.

Anchorman 2 is an incredibly silly movie. The characters are buffoons and fools, selfish and self-centered. That’s why they’re so funny. (In fact, the one genuinely human moment of connection in the film is the relationship between Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who play a weatherman and a secretary, both of them dumb as bricks). But it’s also an incisive and intelligent satire on the news industry, on 24 hour news networks, who try to bring people “the news they want to hear, not the news they need to hear,” as Ron Burgundy puts it. This means overt calls to patriotism. Car chases. Soft-core titillation. Weather people buffeted about by hurricane winds (because how can you report a hurricane without putting some poor schmuck in the middle of one). A lot of the movie is pretty flabby, honestly, but in middle of it is some pretty sharp satire.

Jon Stewart has been accused by conservatives by having a liberal bias, which he freely admits is true. But his main target on the Daily Show is not in fact conservatism. It’s the same thing comedians have always made fun of: human stupidity and incompetence. Hubris and arrogance and people in power with their pants around their ankles. Fools behaving clownishly. Ron Burgundy is an idiot, of course, but his twenty-four news show is successful. There’s one sequence in the movie where Ron’s wife, a news anchor on a mainstream news show, is interviewing Yasser Arafat, a huge scoop for her (the show is set in the 80s). Ron, meanwhile, decides to follow a random car chase taking place in Milwaukee. His story gets much better ratings, of course. And it would. That’s why the scene is funny; that’s what would happen.

So if Jon Stewart is liberal, and Colbert plays a conservative idiot for laughs, and obviously John Oliver is liberal, and Bill Maher is so liberal he bleeds blue, why hasn’t there been a conservative fake news show?  There actually was one on Fox for a short while–it totally bombed. It bombed for an exceptionally good reason: because it wasn’t funny.

The real answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t just have a successful fake news show, they have an entire fake news network. CNN is funny because they’re lame; they’re funny in the same way that earnest people taking silly things seriously is always funny.  CNN is funny because CNN covers Justin Bieber the same way it covers ISIS.

Fox is funny in much the same way; that combination of earnestness and triviality is always going to be funny. But add ideology to the mix and the whole thing becomes hilarious. They’re not just earnest people taking trivial issues seriously, they’re also people who always, always have the Right Answer to any question, found in an unswerving allegiance to a specific set of ideas. The federal government: bad. Global warming: non-existent. Corporations: good. Barack Obama: Satan.

But look at they way they repackage classic comedic tropes. Take that Fox standby, the pompous, pontificating elderly authority figure. Polonius, in other words. The fathers in all of Moliere’s comedies. Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Bill O’Reilly epitomizes the type. Remember, during the Ferguson stand-off, Bill O giving those condescending scoldings to black people? Offensive, sure. But also really really funny, as hubris always is (that is, when its not tragic). And Sean Hannity; isn’t he also a comic type? Eddie Haskell, maybe? Alex Keaton? Obsequious young suck-up?

I mean, why are all the Fox News reporters and co-anchors pretty blondes? I don’t mean to suggest that attractive blonde women can’t read the news, or that they’re universally bad at their jobs. But come on. Isn’t it at least a little funny that a news organization can’t find anyone else to hire? The Stepford Wives jokes aside, is it an accident that Fox’s demographics skew so severely old, white and male? A generation of men who grew up girl-watching? And that, simultaneously, all the news presenters are attractive young women?

I know the response from conservatives. MSNBC has a liberal bias worse than Fox’s conservative bias. Plus, so do CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN. PBS. Fox is a necessary corrective. I’ve heard all the arguments. My point, though, is that Fox is itself basically a fake news organization. They have the trappings of real news–the sets, the graphics, the anchors sitting at a desk, the field reporters–while actually sort of ducking the responsibilities and obligations of actual news reporting. And John Oliver did a real news story–dug for facts, asked tough questions, researched and reported. So what’s news? What counts anymore?

 

ReReading Job: Book review

Michael Austin’s Re-Reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem is a terrific book; smart, thoughtful, funny. I honestly didn’t think a literary scholar’s close reading of the (boring) Book of Job would be so compulsively readable. I didn’t think it would be the kind of book I would find myself unable to put down at two o’clock in the morning. Honestly, I thought reading it would be kind of a chore; that I would trudge my way through it dutifully, seeking a nugget of enlightenment in the mucky stream of turgid prose. Instead, I got all caught up in it.

This isn’t a hard book to recommend–go, now, buy it, read it.  But the task of recommending it requires that I acknowledge some barriers at least some of my friends are likely to put up.  First of all, Austin is openly LDS, and gives Job an LDS reading.  For some of you, that’s a problem. You’re likely thinking, “crap, an apologetic reading of Job. Pass.” But it’s not. It’s not, like, a correlated reading of the text; nothing like that at all.  This is Job from the perspective of a very smart, very well read, first-rate literary scholar, who also happens to be LDS, and whose initial personal history with the text (which he acknowledges), was that of an LDS kid struggling to read a boring book he didn’t understand.

It’s also possible, of course, that some of you might buy the book hoping for a correlated reading of the text, hoping, in fact, for something authoritative and definitive and McConkey-ish.  You won’t find that here either. This is a literary scholar reading a poem, reading it as a poem. An inspired poem, to be sure, but a poem nonetheless, a work of fiction, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a work of fiction. Austin doesn’t know, for example, if Job actually existed. He doesn’t care; he doesn’t think that’s a significant issue with the text. He wants to engage with the text as it stands, and he wants us to engage with it along with him. And what I’m trying to convince you is that you should, go on the journey the text demands of us.

The fact is, most people (most Mormons, but also most Christians) share a particular reading of Job built largely on the frame story found in Job‘s first two chapters, and final chapter.  Job was a wealthy man, who is tested by God (or by Satan, with God’s permission), is remarkably patient despite his afflictions, and is eventually rewarded by God with even better stuff than he had when the whole thing started.

I don’t want to give too much away, but what Austin wants to persuade you is that the frame story, the suffering patient Job rewarded story is the Disney version. And that all the middle chapters are the meat of the poem, and a profound and powerful deconstruction of the frame story. The body of the poem is entirely different from the frame story, different in approach, in style, in language and in intent. And that’s a good thing.

Because the case Satan makes in the frame story is particularly insidious. If God rewards good actions and punishes bad ones, if that’s all that’s going on, then nobody is actually good. We’re lab rats in a Pavlovian experiment based on a sophisticated reward/punishment binary. Is Job good? If he’s only good because he expects to be rewarded for being good, and expects as well to be punished if he isn’t good, then his supposed goodness is entirely illusionary.

Job’s friends insist that he must have sinned, for why else has he suffered such dreadful misfortune?  But he knows perfectly well that he hasn’t sinned and that the bad things that have happened to him are entirely arbitrary. And he isn’t remotely patient about it. He’s furious, and repeatedly and powerfully curses God for allowing him to suffer so. Job’s suffering is inexplicable, and one of the purposes of the poem is to suggest that inexplicable suffering is part of mortality.  We need to get our heads around that reality.

I don’t want to go on and on. Suffice it to say that Austin writes in a clear, fresh, clean, readable prose blessedly lacking in theoretical jargon or supererogatory turgidity. That I’ve spent more time thinking about this book than any other I’ve read for awhile, and that it made me re-read Job.

I just have one tiny quibble. I don’t think Job‘s a poem; I think it’s a play. That opening scene is theologically weird, but it’s dramaturgically sound; neat way to frame a tale. And most of it’s in dialogue. I have no idea what Job’s performance history might be, if it had one, but it would certainly work as a play, and many of the best literary works that it’s inspired are plays.

But that’s also not a crucial point. This is a great book.  Buy it. Read it. Now.

When institutions fail

The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem.  Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends.  A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch.  Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity.  But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.

The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com.  While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign.  Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all.  Because they could.  Because football fans didn’t much care.

And that’s the larger point.  Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it.  Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to.  Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans.  The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.

So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself.  Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode.  And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond.  And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else.  And everyday we heard a new narrative.  Bill Simmons captured it best:

And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!

Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less.  It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson.  As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer.  A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.

But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.

It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore.  Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion.  And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore.  May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?

 

 

Columbus

So, a recent column in the Deseret News was all about Christopher Columbus, and how he’s referenced in the Book of Mormon, and how the Spirit led him to America. This article called arguments that Columbus was “motivated by ambition and materialism,” and that he was “an embodiment of rapacious greed and Western colonialism, an imperialist forerunner of genocidal oppression” mistaken, “at best, one-sided and misleading.” Because his own writings showed that he considered himself led by the Holy Spirit to the Indies. Plus he liked a lot of the same scriptures Mormons like. So: good guy, quasi-prophetic and deeply moral. That’s the narrative.

Except Columbus set a gold quota for the Indians under his charge, and any who didn’t make quota lost an arm. Columbus enslaved a shipload of Indians and took them back with him to Spain, where they all died.  Columbus refused to allow his priests to baptize Indians, because Church law didn’t allow baptized Christians to be enslaved.  And when his lieutenant told him about raping a native woman, Columbus didn’t so much as admonish the man.

I’m fascinated with Columbus, and Amerigo Vespucci, and that whole era. I’m particularly interested in Father Bartolome de las Casas, a Columbus contemporary who treated the native peoples with whom he interacted with kindness, compassion and respect, and who wrote letters back to Spain condemning Columbus’ treatment of them.  A genuine Christian, and a heroic individual in every meaningful sense.

So I wrote a play about Columbus, and the ‘discovery’ of America; took about two years to research and write.  Called Amerigo, the premise is that Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, trapped in Purgatory, have been arguing about which of them should get credit for finding America, and their fights have increasingly disrupted the repose of the truly penitent.  So Nicola Macchiavelli has been asked to moderate a debate between them.  And the judge will be Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a Mexican nun, who was also the greatest Spanish writer living in the Americas.  Those four characters, in purgatory, arguing about America.

It was produced by Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake City in 2009.  It won City Weekly’s annual award for best theatre production in Salt Lake.  It got good reviews, like this oneAnd this one. And it’s available for purchase, in this collection.

I don’t understand this need by some Latter-day Saints to defend Columbus, though. I think it’s related to the myth of American exceptionalism. God inspired Columbus to come here, leading to more Europeans colonizing the Americas, leading to the creation of a safe haven for religious dissidents, leading to God’s favored nation, the United States of America.  I’m familiar with the narrative.  And I find it deeply troubling. The main reason Europeans were able to colonize the Americas is because of the greatest pandemic in human history, a terrible plague in which tens of millions died, possibly up to 95% of the human population. Of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ that depopulated these two continents, the Germs were by far the most effective/destructive.  Am I to believe, therefore, that God intended it that way, that God sent bacilli to decimate the New World? Because the other possibility, the more likely and the (slightly) less troubling narrative is that germs just happen, that God allows for pandemic just as He apparently allows for genocide, as an essential part of this testing ground on which we find ourselves.

And if it was all a test, de las Casas passes.  And Columbus does not.

Let’s dispense with the borderline blasphemous intentionality model for colonization, and admit what was really going on. Accident, disease, conquest, misunderstandings, miscommunications leading to violence. Male, white privilege, cultural hegemony. And genocide.

And we know a lot about it. Amerigo Vespucci, for example, was a businessman, interested in trade. He’d been a pimp; he’d sold everything to anyone. But at least he had the grace to see how beautiful the lands were he intended to exploit.

And Columbus. And yes, he was pious, in the peculiar sense in which 15th century Catholic religious fanatics could be pious. He thought he was looking for the Garden of Eden. He thought it was the source of all spices on earth. He thought that if he found spice, he would find enough to fund a Crusade, King Ferdinand leading an army to conquer the Holy Land, leading to the Second Coming.  He certainly deserves credit as a seaman–he was a tremendous sailor. But he was also, let’s face it, kind of a kook.

So that’s America today: Columbus and Amerigo. A land of religious fanaticism and extremism. And a land of rapacious capitalism.  Moderated, only occasionally, by the good sense of a Sor Juana, and the moral power of Bartolome de las Casas.

That’s the America I love, and the America I’m glad to celebrate.  The America of, not Columbus, but de las Casas.  The America of, not Vespucci, but Sor Juana.  An America of literary and artistic achievement, and progressive activism. An America build on tragedy, but also an America built around at least the possibility of positive change.

And absolutely, we should honor Columbus. But we honor him best by getting the facts about his life right. Don’t let ideology overrule history. Let’s tell the truth, about him, and about America, what it is, what it was, what it might become.

Constitution Day

Today is Constitution Day, a national holiday established in 2004. We celebrate it on September 17, because that was the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution. Or the people who were still there signed it, many of the Convention members having already left Philadelphia. The Framers were probably relieved, first to have the ordeal done with, and also because it was September, following a particularly sweltering summer of 1787. With no air conditioning. Or good fans. Or even open windows, which remained closed for fear of eavesdroppers.

Still, this is a good thing, to celebrate the Constitution. And for families with children, the Constitution Center has a website with lots of fun activities designed to teach kids about it.

The Constitution is actually a pretty easy document to read, once you get used to eighteenth century vocabularies and usage.  It’s really pretty simple. It basically describes the process by which laws will be passed, who will pass them, how they will be elected to the task, and who is responsible for executing them. The principle doctrine that informed its creation is ‘separation of powers.’  The Framers were worried about political power. Most of the world of their day was governed using the ‘insane hereditary dictator’ system of government, a popular form throughout most of history, for reasons that defy comprehension, since it never works very well. Anyway, what is political power, how should it be wielded, who exercises it, how can it be channeled in positive, beneficial directions?  Nobody knew.  And when the Framers finished the document, they were generally skeptical about what they’d accomplished. What if it didn’t work? Because maybe it wouldn’t.

James Madison and the other Framers built the theoretical framework for a Constitution out of untested and frankly pretty radical political theories, which they believed in and thought would work in a practical sense, but which they couldn’t be sure of at all.  Key to those theories was the notion that political power resided with the people, and not with a sovereign blessed by God. Throughout most of history, the theory had been that God had, in His Infinite Wisdom, placed everyone in a particular station in life, for inscrutable but wise reasons of His own. If you were a peasant, it was because God wanted you to be a peasant; if a nobleman, again, God’s will.  And kings, of course, were likewise divinely appointed, and ruled by divine right, and therefore, by fiat, by unobstructed decree.

Now, its true that our political traditions were mostly British, and that Britain had, ever since the Glorious Revolution of 1688, been a more or less constitutional monarchy. The political theories Madison believed in had, for the most part, and in rudimentary form, been tried out in Britain. The ever-evolving British constitution did allow for some freedom and personal autonomy; the Magna Carta was in both American and British backgrounds. So there is a sense in which the Framers took the best of their British political heritage and rejected the worst of it.  I certainly don’t think a non-British colony, granted independence, would have come up with anything like our Constitution. It was still radical, and perceived by some as dangerous–dangerously monarchical by some, dangerously anti-monarchical by others. Was the office of the President too strong? Not strong enough?

Some conservatives today believe that our Constitution established America as a Godly nation, a Christian nation, with Christian values. We hear, for example, that the Framers opened their sessions with prayer. They didn’t. They did think about having a prayer once, but rejected it, because it might look bad; might look like they were squabbling so much they needed a priest to sort them out. It certainly never occurred to any of the Framers that they could pray. Wasn’t something gentlemen did.

It’s important to understand that that this Christian document malarkey isn’t remotely true, and that if it had been true, the document would have reflected the traditional understanding most Christian denominations had of political power.  The Framers would have reinstituted the monarchy; would have provided for a king. When historians point out that the Framers were, for the most part, Deists, that isn’t an insult. The Constitution is a Deist document, reflecting Deist values. Deism is not atheism; Deists believed in God.  But they believed in a distant God, who had set the universe on its path and chose not to intervene subsequently in how it worked. The Deist God was a clockmaker God, who wound up the universe and then let it tick along on its own.

This doctrine didn’t disenfranchise God, but it did empower ordinary (property-owning, white, male) citizens. People were generally free to decide what they would make of their own lives. Birth and wealth and privilege didn’t matter much; what mattered were the decisions of free men, working out their own destinies. And that meant a democratic document.

But the Framers were just as afraid of the raw power of pure democracy. They were savvy enough to know how easily mobs could form and be swayed and the destruction they could wreak.  So democratic power had to be limited in scope, turned into a Republic, in which enlightened citizen-philosophers, elected by their fellow citizens, could make decisions that would be binding and conclusive.

Another familiar conservative trope is that the Framers intended a ‘limited government,’ that they would be appalled by the massive behemoth that our current federal government has become.  This is likewise nonsense. The Framers were in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation.  They’d tried Federalism. They’d tried small government. They’d tried the ‘local government is best government’ experiment. If there was one thing that united them, it was disgust with the ineffectual, bankrupt mess the Articles had created.

Again, their solution was separation of powers. They wanted to disrupt the traditional centers of power.  A democratic House, immediately responsive to voter concerns needed to be checked by a more contemplative Senate, protected from passionate demogoguery by its leisurely six year electoral cycle. If laws were passed that violated the rights of minorities, a Supreme Court could declare them invalid. Presidents nominated Court members, but those nominations required Senate ratification.  The Framers didn’t want government to be powerless; indeed the very doctrine of a separation of powers presupposes that government would have significant powers that needed separating.

What they established (or were at least willing to live with) was a government that would be inefficient. They didn’t mind much that the process of passing a bill was cumbersome and ineffective. That was all right. They figured that sooner or later, legislators would compromise, and the measures that resulted would be regarded by most as ‘not great, but probably the best we can come up with, given the circumstances’.  They were fine with half-measures, with watered down legislation, with debates in which egotists and gasbags and show-offs and grandstanders would hold forth endlessly on subjects they knew nothing about. They weren’t afraid, in other words, of American governance getting pretty comical at times.  They were pessimistic optimists, in other words, realistic about human self-delusion, but also certain that in the end, future Americans would muddle along well enough.

They also knew their work wasn’t perfect, and that changes would need to be made. That’s why they included an amendment process. When James Madison was elected to the House he’d helped create, his first, self-imposed task was passing a Bill of Rights. That’s worked out pretty well. But the Constitution was absurdly accommodating to slavery, and most of the Framers knew well enough that that was going to be a problem, that they’d basically shuffled a major slavery confrontation off to their grandchildren. The Framers may well have been ‘inspired,’ but collectively, their work was informed by self-interest, anticipated personal economic benefits, and moral cowardice every bit as much as nobility and sagacious wisdom.

And the Constitution is deliberately and intentionally vague about a lot of issues that it might have been nice to have clarified. (Like, what they meant by ‘bear arms,’ for example!)  From time to time, you’ll hear people declare, in terms of utter certitude, that some action or other by some President is ‘unconstitutional.’ That’s the basis for Speaker Boehner’s amazing, risible lawsuit against President Obama; the President unilaterally changed some of the deadlines in the Affordable Care Act.  But it’s not remotely clear what the constitutional line is between  ‘Congress passing legislation’ and ‘President executing laws.’  The Framers give us, like, two sentences on those issues. So you can make a case for the President’s actions being unconstitutional, but you can make an equally plausible case for those actions being perfectly constitutional.  The Constitution is kind of infuriating that way.

And that’s what I like about it. It’s a framework, a set of guiding principles.  It’s not Holy Writ. Did the Framers intend for the US of A having a modern social welfare state? Providing health care? Regulating car safety? Passing environmental legislation? Child safety laws? Gay marriage? Access to public buildings for people with disabilities?  How could they possibly have anticipated any of those issues? Article One Section Eight does offer a few suggestions regarding the kinds of issues Congress might consider, but there’s no hint that those are the only questions they properly could address.

Do you want a big government or a smaller one? Do you want a bigger army or a smaller one? Do you want more money spent to help disadvantaged people, or do you want less money spent on those efforts?

We’re the People. We get to decide. And that’s the genius of the Constitution.

 

 

Dizziness

For eleven days, now, I have been pretty well constantly dizzy. It’s especially bad when I stand up, or walk around. And I’ve been to a few doctors about it, and they pretty well agree about what’s wrong. What sucks is that it doesn’t seem to be terribly treatable.

Here’s how it’s been explained to me.  When people stand up from a sitting position, blood should rush to the feet, and we should all feel light-headed. But there’s a nerve cluster by the carotid artery that regulates blood flow. Blood vessels are sent a signal to constrict, reducing blood flow downward. Most people experience a drop in their blood pressure of a point or two, but it’s very minor, and mostly we don’t notice it.  We’ve all experienced that occasional vertigo when we stand too quickly on a hot day. But mostly, the human body has that situation covered.

But in my case, that nerve cluster seems to have been damaged, a kind of neuropathy, probably because I’m diabetic.  So when they take my BP from prone, then sitting, then standing positions, three measurements in rapid succession, they record a drop in blood pressure of sixty points or more.  And it lasts awhile; twenty minutes or more. And so I’m dizzy all the time, especially when I try to stand to do something.

And it sucks. It’s makes life pretty miserable. I’m directing a play right now, and rehearsals are an endurance contest, an exercise in just hanging on. Driving is possible, though difficult.  I do tend to drive like a little old lady; very carefully. My Mario Andretti days are over.  Except Mario’s 74 years old, so maybe I drive like him still!

I was up for a couple of hours last night, just thinking about this.  And of course, the first reaction, the immediate human reaction, is self-pity. Why me? Why this?  After fighting polymyositis to a draw four years ago, with the subsequent loss of muscle tissue and fine motor skills, now this?  It doesn’t, to be honest, feel terribly fair.

But why not me? What makes me so frickin’ special?  Everyone gets sick, everyone suffers, everyone dies.  That’s the reality of life on this planet. Being dizzy a lot isn’t that bad, considering some of the alternatives. God is great and God is good, but God isn’t particularly nice, nor gentle.  His divine plan includes hurricanes and tsunamis, malaria and smallpox, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. As He shouted to Job from the whirlwind, he populated this planet with behemoth and leviathan; monstrous creatures with unimaginable destructive power. And they’re needed.  And also the smallest of bacteria, which kill so many more, so insidiously. And they’re needed too. Why? Beats me. But arguing against His justice seems a trifle pointless.  We’re here to cope.

Meanwhile, I need to stop this cowardice and self-pity and get on with things. And I don’t mean major accomplishments. I mean cooking dinner tonight, serving my wife, who serves me so loyally and uncomplainingly. I mean making the bed, and tossing in a load of laundry.  I mean driving an auto-less ward member to a crucial appointment. I mean going to rehearsal tonight, and going again tomorrow night, and serving these wonderful actors who had the courage to audition for a theatre production.

I need a theme song, and I found one: Tommy Roe’s Dizzy. Preferably in a wretched punk cover.  Or oh-so earnest acoustic version. I can keep doing this: Youtube has dozens of covers.

Above all, I need to be able to laugh at this. When I texted one of my sons with the news, his reply was ‘I’d tell a dizzy joke, but I’m afraid you’d fall down laughing.’ That’s the spirit!  So, any dizzy jokes come to mind?  Is there a dizziness joke website, perhaps?  Of course there is.  (“I’d see a doctor about this, but I don’t know ver-ti-go”).

We’re here on earth to serve each other, and serve our families, and serve our friends, and forgive and love and serve our enemies, even. And you can’t get a note from teacher excusing you from that assignment.  We have to push forward, move on, show some courage and humor and get things done.

And that is what I intend to do. So no pity, please.  Laugh at me  and laugh with me, and tell me what I can do for you.  Deal?

 

The ‘decadent party girl’ pop song

I’m an old guy. I like rock music; grew up with it. I don’t listen to the radio much and don’t follow the pop charts. When I become aware of a trend in popular music, it sort of dawns on me slowly: ‘oh, that song’s a bit like that song.’  And my insights, such as they are, are probably way way passé.  And above all, I want to avoid moralizing. When I was a kid, I detested the ‘rock music’s going to destroy society’ sermons, and I’m not about to start preaching them myself.  Besides, harrumphing old guys pontificating about the life styles of the young have been a staple of comedy ever since Polonius sent Laertes off to college. I am not that guy. Having made all those disclaimers, though, there is a genre that’s interesting right now, and I thought I’d offer some examples and analysis.

The genre I have in mind is the ‘decadent party girl’ pop song. It’s a song in which a girl sings about how fun it is to party all the time. And, again, this is nothing new. Madonna’s Material Girl and Cindy Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun are classics of the genre, which really dates back to Marilyn Monroe singing about how diamonds are a girl’s best friend. (Marilyn’s song, of course, is way creepier than the songs today; girls today are arguably celebrating their own empowerment, while Marilyn is essentially (tragically) promoting prostitution, or at the very least her own subjectification).

Anyway, the recent song that caught my attention is, as I write this, still in constant top forty rotation; Iggy Azalea’s Fancy. (The video is particularly interesting, borrowing its look from Clueless). And, again, the lyrics celebrate what Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’: “Cup of Ace, cup of Goose, cup of Cris, high heels, something worth half a ticket on my wrist.” It’s all carefully encoded, and also the kind of thing male rappers have celebrated for two decades. ‘This is where I am, this is what I’ve risen to, this is me, owning my own Veblenian economic empowerment.’ The kind of lifestyle depicted in Sophia Coppola’s movie Bling Ring.  Wow, it’s awesome to have tons of money, and awesomer to spend it on bling and drugs and cars and clothes. It’s all pose, of course, all surface and image. But those images are a potent enough combination of temptations, to which I have no doubt it would be sort of fun to occasionally succumb. But the song doesn’t dig deeper than that fairly obvious insight.

Example two: Ke$ha and We R Who We R. Ke$ha’s particularly interesting in this regard. She carefully cultivated her ‘dirty party girl’ image in song after song and in video after video.  But she’s also brilliant: scored over 1500 on her SATs, was accepted into Barnard College, but dropped out to pursue a pop career. I can’t help but think that her ‘dirty party girl’ image has been very carefully crafted, both by her management and by her.  She writes her own songs, negotiates her own contracts, and apparently invests her money intelligently.  She wouldn’t be the first singer to cynically cultivate an image and cash in by creating pop songs that fit the zeitgeist.

But what’s really interesting is to see the deconstruction of the ‘decadent partier’ song. That’s where the amazing British songstress Lily Allen fits in. She’s hardly new–nor is this genre–but after just three albums, she combines an eclectic pop sensibility with wickedly spot-on lyrics, as with this song, The Fear.  When she sings “I’ll take my clothes off, and I will be shameless, ’cause everyone knows, that’s how you get famous,” it’s clearly satire.  But when she sings “I don’t know what’s right, I don’t what’s real, anymore,” she’s reflecting on the emptiness of the very ambition the rest of the song so cheekily expresses.  “It doesn’t matter, ’cause I’m packing plastic, and that’s what makes my life so f-ing fantastic.” Word.

Lily Allen is sharp, smart and funny. Lorde’s Royals is sad, powerfully plaintive, tragic. It’s a poor girl’s reflection on celebrity worship, on the world of pop star worship that she can only view from the outside. And, as brilliant as Lorde’s own performance of her song is, somehow Postmodern Jukebox exceed it, in a version sung by a seven-foot tall white-suited clown.  Trust me, it’s great.

Of course, any trend needs a final brilliant parody to cement it in our consciousness, and nobody is better at this than Garfunkel and Oates.  Content alert; there’s some language here (there’s actually quite a lot of bad language here), but my gosh, it’s funny: This Party Just Took a Turn for the Douche.

As for the trend itself, it’s interesting to me, the way it both embraces and rejects celebrity culture. As usual, the smartest performers have figured that culture out, and find it both amusing and insubstantial. And the least sensitive and sensible song-writers  will have made (and spent) their money, and then faded away soon enough.

 

 

 

Presidential lying

I’m going to do something that I’m normally reluctant to do; respond to a source without providing you a link to that source. I’m not just going to respond to it, in fact, I’m going to judge it, declare it utterly worthless.  And I’m going to confess right now that I haven’t actually even read the article in question. And I feel absolutely comfortable doing all this.

The subject is Presidential lying, and the article in question, based on its title, makes the case that President Obama is a liar of the first order, that he lies all the time, routinely, pathologically. That he is, in fact, the worst liar ever to occupy the White House. As I say, I have not read the article, and I’m not going to link to it, nor even tell you where it might be found. A conservative friend linked to it on Facebook, and I read some of the commentary about it on his FB page. So, again without reading the article or examining the author’s evidence, I’m prepared, right now, to say that this article is worthless, and that its very existence fundamentally discredits the website on which it appeared.

Presidents and lies. And first of all, let’s define what a lie actually is. If I claim that yesterday, I grew wings out my upper back, and flew around the neighborhood, and using those wings, was able to hover in the air outside one of the upstairs rooms of my house and fix a broken window, that would be a lie. I don’t have wings, and even if I did have wings, wouldn’t be able to fix a window. But if I said to you that the company I hired to fix that window did a terrific job on it, and that I recommend their professionalism and workmanship, and you subsequently hired that company and they did a poor job on your window, my recommendation would not be a lie. You might be angry at how bad a job those window-fixers did for you, and how dishonest and corrupt they seemed, but my recommendation was offered in good faith. I had a good experience with that company, and told you of it fully anticipating that you would have a good experience too. If I say to you ‘I strapped a magnet to my back, and my back pain went away,’ and you strap a magnet to your back and it doesn’t do you any good at all, I still didn’t lie to you.  Even if I say to you ‘magnets cure back pain,’ that wouldn’t necessarily be a lie. Maybe I genuinely believe that magnets can cure back pain. Maybe I say ‘scientific evidence proves that magnets draw healing chemicals to the source of the pain in your back’, again, that’s not necessarily a lie. It’s nonsense, but it’s not a lie, unless I know it to be nonsense when I say it.

Presidents are politicians, and part of the politician job description is to be a salesman. Politicians try to sell us on their ideas, on their programs, on their proposals, and of course, also on them.  And so, when describing a program, a politician, like any salesman, is likely to emphasize the benefits of that program, and soft-pedal possible downsides. If there are three estimates regarding the cost of the program, a politician will emphasize the lowest of those estimates. That’s just sales. And it’s not fundamentally dishonest. Our political system, like our legal system, is adversarial in nature. One pol says ‘this is a good idea,’ and his/her electoral opponent responds ‘no, it’s a terrible idea,’ and we voters sort it all out on election day. But it wouldn’t be accurate to say that either politician lied to us. They were both making a case for their ideas.  They just disagree.

Now sometimes, a politician really does just lie to us. He’ll say something like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”  Or he’ll say “I am not a crook.”  Usually, we see right through it.  We look at President Clinton and we say to ourselves, “you did too have sexual relations with her.”  Or we look at President Nixon and say to ourselves, “I don’t believe you.  I think you are a crook.”  And that kind of lie is a very serious matter, and massively destructive to that politician’s career, when they get caught. And they always get caught. Nixon would have been impeached if he hadn’t resigned. Clinton was impeached, though not removed from office.

Presidents can’t really get away with those sorts of lies for very long. People notice, people pay attention. Any claim that President Obama lies all the time just doesn’t hold up. Watchdog groups, like Politifact, don’t seem to have noticed any massive whoppers like the two I just cited. If President Obama lies all the time, it’s not obvious the way the Clinton and Nixon lies I mentioned were.

But, then, lies regarding policy are not as obviously lies. Take two examples, one from a Republican and one from a Democrat. When President Bush told the American people that Saddam Hussein, in Iraq, had weapons of mass destruction that endangered American interests, that turned out not to be true. But I don’t think it’s accurate to call that statement a lie. There’s no question that the Bush administration genuinely thought the evidence of Saddam’s WMD was credible. A statement that turns out not to be true is not necessarily a deliberate falsehood.

By the same token, when President Obama said ‘under the ACA, if you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep him,’ that wasn’t a lie. The best information he had suggested that almost all insurance plans would meet the ACA guidelines. He didn’t know that health insurance companies would suddenly sell a bunch of low-premium, low-benefit plans that would have to be canceled when the ACA kicked in. He was trying to sell people on the benefits of the Affordable Care Act. Maybe he exaggerated a little, but there’s no evidence of him consciously and intentionally lying. Politifact called the ACA statements lies, because there’s no question that the President said things that turned out not to be true. And he’s paid a heavy political price for it; his approval ratings are very low right now. But deliberate, intentional lies?  Did he know that a great many people would actually lose their insurance and their doctors, and say the opposite, on purpose?  If so, why tell so obvious a whopper?  Is he really that stupid? No. I suggest to you, therefore, that his statement was offered in good faith, and that it was not a lie.

But there are always people who despise the current President, whoever he is, for partisan reasons. I’m a liberal; I thought George W. Bush was a very bad President. My conservative friends think Barack Obama is a very bad President.  Everyone, every person in the country, suffers from some form of confirmation bias. But for a hard-core political partisan confirmation bias gets amped up to eleven.  So every time a President we dislike says anything, we parse it carefully.  We take every slight exaggeration, every tiny misstatement, every failed projection as a deliberate and intentional falsehood. We never cut a President we disagree with any slack at all.

So on the periphery of our national political conversation, we can always hear, buzzing in our ears, a tremendous amount of partisan white noise. I have liberal friends who will go their graves ‘knowing’ that President Bush deliberately lied our nation into war, so he could enrich his wealthy oilmen friends. I have liberal friends who think President Bush ordered explosives placed inside the Twin Towers foundational gridwork; that 9/11 was an intentional Bush plot. I have conservative friends who are equally convinced that President Obama is a foreign agent, a secret Muslim terrorist and also a communist, born in Kenya, trained by Al Qaeda; that his agenda is to destroy America.

So liberal partisans are convinced that everything George W. Bush (or Dick Cheney) ever said was a lie, a deliberate intentional falsehood. And conservative partisans are convinced that President Obama is essentially a pathological liar, congenitally incapable of telling the truth, about anything, ever. There are liberals who suffer from ‘Bush derangement disorder.’ There are conservatives who suffer from ‘Obama derangement disorder.’  Both disorders are catching, and probably best avoided, and the best way to keep from catching them is to shut them out of our heads.  So when conservative white noise, about Obama and lying, appears on my FB page, I’m not going to read it, and I’m not going to link to it.

It’s perfectly possible to think that Bush’s Iraq policy was a mistake without considering the man a hideous monster. It’s perfectly possible to have misgivings about Obamacare, without considering Obama a tyrant.  Let’s have a reasonable conversation about politics. Let’s focus on policies, and on evidence, and on reason. Let’s leaven rancor with humor, certainty with humility, conviction with compassion. We’re all Americans, after all, and our elected leaders are human beings, susceptible to error, capable of great achievements.  And Presidents have the hardest job in the world. Respect the office, if you can’t respect the person holding it, and let’s keep our cool.

 

 

Obligatory bad theatre

I don’t know why it is that every major life event for individuals and institutions all require the performance of really bad theatre. Oh, I do sort of get it–rites of passage are culturally universal–but what isn’t clear is why the ceremonials have to be so ridiculous. Because they really are.

What prompted this was an university-wide email my wife received about today’s coronation inauguration ceremony for the new BYU President, Kevin Worthen. The memo directed everyone’s attention to the exquisite symbolism of the event, culminating in President Worthen’s being invested with the crown scepter medallion, which got hung around his neck like an Olympic medal. The actual draping of the bauble was done by his wife, a nice touch. Except, as my wife pointed out, the memo didn’t specify that it would be done by his wife, but by his (gender-neutral) ‘spouse.’ This, of course, opens up the possibility of a future female President of BYU, something that will never, ever, not in a million years ever happen.  Which we all know. So having the wife do the trinket-dispensing isn’t actually a nod to gender equality at all. The BYU President selection process is, well, seems to be, well, actually nobody knows anything about it at all, transparency being a virtue with which BYU has had little difficulty in abandoning. But whatever process they use, it’s never going to result in a woman President, and everyone knows it.

(I see no evidence, BTW, that BYU’s non-transparent, entirely secretive search process ends up with radically worse university presidents than the far more inclusive and open processes in place at other universities.  I can’t think of any more comically inept group of individuals in American life, except for the House of Representatives, than university presidents.  When I point out the the leadership of the hopeless, idiotic, sensationally hypocritical NCAA comes entirely from university Presidents, I think my point is proved.)

I’m sorry, I’m sure it was a solemn occasion.  I’m especially imagining the long walk off-stage by former President Cecil Samuelson, measured steps, to a drum roll, pausing briefly under a basketball standard, waving goodbye a la Nixon on the helicopter, then off into the darkness, followed by a moment of silence, and a single echoing gunshot.  And then from the rafters, drifting quietly down, the ashes of his now cremated season basketball tickets.  (I think probably they didn’t actually shoot him.)

No, I’m imagining a ceremony entirely risible, because most ceremonials are like that, fantastic exercises in laughter-suppression.  My all-time favorite is one my oldest son’s school did when he finished 1st grade.  All us parents were invited to the school, to attend ‘an important event.’  We showed up, and watched as our children were given identical certificates of ‘anticipated achievement.’  The kids were all lined up, and we parents were invited to contemplate the wonderful things these six-year olds were going to do.  And, you know, that’s a lovely thought. I’m sorry now I found it hilarious.  But come on: a certificate of ‘anticipated achievement?’ Seriously?

When I was in Boy Scouts, we had award-ceremony-things all the time. We’d get merit badges, and there’d be this whole event, and then we’d get an itty-bitty little tiny pin, which we were supposed to pin on our Mom’s blouses. This was not a bad idea, actually, since the earning of merit badges was always a two part process–the kid did the work, the Mom did the nagging.  The pinning part, though required a mastery of fine motor skills of which of I was entirely incapable; I think I stuck my poor Mom with the pin for every one of my 21 merit badges, then once again when I got my Eagle. Plus it had that horrifying ‘pinning the corsage on your prom date’ horrifying proximity to, uh, female chest areas vibe. Not cool.

When my kids were in grade school in Utah, we had this annual event called the Patriotic Program. OMG it was horrible. Every grade in the school had to take its turn and stand up on risers and bellow tunelessly these pop-country songs about America. “Oh I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free!” they’d holler at us like zombies, under the gimlet eye of the school music teacher, who was 179 years old and absolutely looked like someone you did NOT want to mess with. I didn’t know there were that many pop-country songs about America, all sounding alike. And meanwhile, we were treated to a slide show, usual stuff, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone and Yosemite and Lincoln Memorial and Bush on that aircraft carrier: Mission Accomplished. (I couldn’t help notice than after Bush left office, the slide show did not feature images of the next guy.  Wonder why that is?)  My wife and I resorted to all manner of deviousness rigging the ‘which parent has to go this year’ sweepstakes. I’m a theatre guy; I was lucky. I often had rehearsal that night.

Without question, though, the most tedious, endless, comical, absolutely obligatory rite-of-passage American ceremonial has to be a high school graduation. There’s the long wait while all the kids file into the college gym where they hold the thing. There are the endless awful speeches, full of false optimism and boosterism. Then we have to wait all over again while every single kid goes up there and gets his diploma. it never takes fewer than nine hours to get through, and the only part that interests you–your kid getting his/her diploma–takes eight seconds. I’ve been through it four times. That’s fifty seven hours (I’m bad at math, sue me) of my life I’m never getting back.

There are tons of things like that. For a long time, my wife and I made extra cash singing at funerals and weddings. Funerals were way more fun. For one thing, you sing better music at funerals.  The families don’t usually want tacky love songs at funerals; they want Bach.  For another, the person being honored wasn’t likely to complain about the song selection and performances. Brides (and Brides’ Mothers) were less reticent about pointing out the specific ways in which our performances had Ruined Her Special Day. But funerals were relaxing. Peaceful.

I’m already making plans for my own funeral, and I don’t doubt that it’ll end up being as tacky as most people’s funerals are. The fact is, human beings crave ceremonial. We want to recognize achievement by making a public fuss. The fact that the theatre we perform is often hilarious is just part of being human. We’re ridiculous creatures, we human beings, and never more so than when we’re being solemn.