Inferences From A Magazine Rack

When you’re killing time during a long layover in an airport, and a Hudson News is the only non-fast food place to visit, you tend to check out the magazine rack. So, what does the generic airport magazine rack tell you?

First, it tells you that magazines aren’t exactly thriving. The current magazine rack is pretty shrimpy by comparison to the full wall of magazines you found in the old days. Airport book options are shrinking, too.

Second, it suggests that modern Americans aren’t all that interested in serious reading. Once you go past The Economist, you’ve pretty much exhausted the serious reading category. Time and Newsweek have become the print equivalent of clickbait and don’t even try to present themselves as serious journalism. The rest of the shelves are devoted to the celebrity culture and the Royals — which is pretty much the same thing. How many interviews with, say, Taylor Swift is a person going to read?

And third, has any celebrity couple been the subject of a longer run in the romantic speculation/break-up/make-up category than Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt? Didn’t they first hit the gossip rags more than 20 years ago? And yet here they are, the subject of rumor and speculation and disclosures by purported insiders. In the history of American popular culture, is there any other couple that has had greater tittle-tattle staying power than these two?

The Risks And Rewards Of Book Recommendations

Recently JV strongly recommended Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci.  I like biographies, so I got a copy of the book from the library, read it, and concluded that JV was absolutely right:  it’s a terrific, thought-provoking book about a fascinating, almost unbelievable genius that is well worth reading.

61acccc4wwl-_sx330_bo1204203200_JV’s review, though, got me to thinking about the act of making book recommendation to your friends.  When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of trust and courage to do it, because you’re exposing a bit of your inner self in doing so.  If you read a book and give it a rave review to your friends, there’s a risk that they will read it and think it’s not exactly the bee’s knees.  What you think is a deeply moving tale they might find to be banal and superficial, and what you think is a fascinating bit of history they might conclude is a long, boring slog.  And, through the prism of the book and your review of it, they might just revise their perception of you, too.

It’s a chance you take whenever you give a hearty thumbs-up or a crushing thumbs-down to any piece of popular culture, be it a book, a movie, or a TV series.  People have different interests and will find different things appealing, or off-putting.  The risk that people will disagree, though, probably causes some vulnerable people to shy away from talking about their reactions to books, movies, and the like.  If so, that’s a shame.  Anything that might discourage people from talking about books is a bad thing.

I like getting book recommendations from friends and family, precisely because they do give you some insight into the personality and preferences of the recommender.  And, too, I find that their real-world reviews tend to be a lot more reliable than some lofty, self-consciously intellectual review written by a literature professor in the New York Times book review section.

Egon Sadly Gone

I was very saddened today to read of the death of Harold Ramis.

Ramis was a titanic yet nevertheless underappreciated cultural figure who played a large role in many hugely popular, clever, often brilliant movies — like Animal House, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and Caddyshack — and who dazzled in some small roles that helped to make good films, like As Good as It Gets and Knocked Up, even better. Anyone who could write Animal House, direct Groundhog Day, and bring a poignancy and warmth to the role of Ben’s Dad in Knocked Up has more talent that most people could even fathom.

I’d like to focus specifically, though, on Ramis’ depiction of Egon Spengler, the genius who created the hard-scientific core of the spirit-catching team in Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler is arguably the greatest depiction of a true scientific nerd ever to grace the silver screen. Ramis captured every element of the character, from the Eraserhead-like hairdo to the lack of awareness of normal social behavior to the immediate knowledge of every page of obscure spirit guides and ghostly treatises to the willingness to create catastrophically dangerous ghost-catching devices without a second thought. We knew the Bill Murray was the clown and Dan Aykroyd was the rumpled everyman, but Egon Spengler and his protonic inventions is the one who allowed the Ghostbusters to match up with Gozer and could explain the extraordinary danger in it all by using a Twinkie as a illustration.

Ghostbusters is a great movie — one of the first “high-concept” blockbusters, where the gist of the plot could be captured in a single sentence — and Egon Spengler is what really made the movie work. The Spengler character made the Ghostbusters concept plausible, and Ramis had to sell that brainy, socially oblivious character as someone who could design ghost-catching traps and understand cross-dimensional portals. He did it brilliantly and hilariously . . . and, equally important for the nerds among us, in the process he somehow made being the nerdy scientific geek kind of cool.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many other modern figures who had the impact on popular culture of Harold Ramis. He was only 69, and these days you can fairly say that people who die at 69 die much too young. He will be missed.

The Twilight Of Talk Shows

Last week Jay Leno stopped hosting The Tonight Show. I was amazed to see that he had been the host of that venerable show for 22 years. That means it’s been 22 years since I last watched The Tonight Show.

I’ve got nothing against Leno, who could capably tell a joke and mug for the camera. He’ll be replaced by the smug Jimmy Fallon, whose claimed talents have always been lost on me, and I won’t watch the show then, either. It’s just that the talk show concept seems so trite and formulaic, it takes a gigantic talent and iconic figure like Johnny Carson to make it watchable. None of the current crop of hosts even comes close — which means the appeal of late-night talk shows is strictly limited to insomniacs.

At the dawn of TV, the staples of programming were westerns, variety shows, news documentaries, and talk shows. The Tonight Show, for example, started in 1954 with Steve Allen as its host. Sixty years later, the westerns and variety shows and documentaries are gone from the airwaves, but the talk shows remain.

In 60 years, the creaky format of talk shows hasn’t changed much, either. We’ve seen Jack Parr, Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and countless others I’ve long since forgotten sitting behind their desks and coffee cups, with some phony backdrop behind them. There’s a monologue, a skit or parody, and some banter with the band leader or sidekick, and then the guests come out — a film star pitching her movie, a new comedian trying to hit the big time, and perhaps a political figure or quirky character who won a yodeling contest or collects rocks that look like U.S. Presidents. A few rote questions, some banal conversation, and its time to move down the couch and bring on the next guest.

Why are talk shows still on their air? Do people find some comfort in the familiar format? Why is a vintage concept that began decades before the internet, CDs, streaming video, and Netflix still around, when everything else about our popular culture has changed so dramatically?

Drifting Into Old Fartdom

Justin Bieber was arrested last week for drunken driving and resisting arrest. It was one of those pop cultural stories that dominate the headlines even though, in the grand scheme of things, Justin Bieber’s difficulties are of no significance whatsoever.

I’ve never listened to one of Justin Bieber’s songs or seen him perform. I know he is, or was, one of those child stars who had a carefully cultivated squeaky clean image. Now he seems to be rebelling against it and, like other child stars before him, wants desperately to establish an adult persona. It’s a familiar, downward path that typically includes public drunkenness, arrests, and an “edgy,” embarrassing, hypersexualized public performance. Before they know it, they are universally viewed as jackasses and their squeaky clean images are gone forever.

But I digress . . . or actually, I don’t. The kind of outburst above is a sure sign that I am sliding into Old Fartdom. For some reason, the Grammys seem to bring this out every year. Because I long ago stopped listening to on-air radio stations I don’t know most of the popular artists, and I’m fed up with the self-absorption and conspicuous consumption of many of those I do know. I don’t need to see people sticking their tongues out at me or “twerking,” thank you very much.

I think the long drift into Old Fartdom begins with music. You eagerly listen to new music through your college years, try to keep up with it when you start working, then finally quit listening to insipid on-air radio in disgust and really focus on music that you like. After a decade or two, the current hits and artists like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus and interchangeable hip-hoppers are as alien to you as Rudy Vallee.

When that happens, you’ve taken your first step onto Old Fart Avenue, and you may as well embrace it. You’re not going back.

Where, Precisely, Do The Lines Of Propriety Lie?

Martin Bashir, a host on the MSNBC network, resigned yesterday.  His resignation came several weeks after he made an extraordinarily vulgar and offensive comment about Sarah Palin.  In his resignation statement, Bashir described his comment as “ill-judged” and added:  “I deeply regret what was said.”

It’s nice to know that, in a world where popular culture seems to grow irreversibly coarser with each new performance of a song or comedy routine, there are still some lines that can’t be crossed.  Of course, drawing the line at statements that someone should perform a gross anatomical act in the mouth of a political figure doesn’t exactly say a lot about our current cultural boundaries.  Such statements may be off limits — for now, at least — but where does the line lie?  Why didn’t Bashir immediately realize that his contemplated comment was “ill-judged” and then refrain from saying it in the first place?

This isn’t a question of free speech, or rough-and-tumble politics, or rejecting antiquated Victorian notions of correct behavior.  It is a deeper issue that strikes at the core of our society.  It isn’t improper to insist that people treat each other with respect and propriety and recognize that not every public performance or statement needs to push the envelope.  If political figures, Democrat or Republican, have to endure appalling, mean-spirited, over-the-top comments as the price for their involvement in the political world, people who might otherwise help us find our way out of our current predicament aren’t going to throw their hat into the ring.  That’s obviously bad for everyone.  We need to show that we can disagree with each other in ways that are proper and dignified and reflect well on the maturity and fundamental decency of our culture.

I’m glad Martin Bashir realized that he crossed the line with his comment, even if it took him a while to recognize that fact.  I’m hoping that this incident helps to establish a stronger, clearer line that all radio and TV hosts and pundits, regardless of their political affiliation, recognize and respect — a line that falls well short of the crassness, vulgarity, and unseemly personal attacks that we seem to see with increasing frequency these days.

The Rehabilitation Quandary

Last night, on our way to a visit with Richard in Columbus, Missouri, Kish and I spent the night in Terre Haute, Indiana.  (For the record, Terre Haute means “upland.”)  We stayed in a Candlewood Suites downtown.

IMG_5032One block away was a magnificent movie theater — the Indiana.  Located on a corner, it had a fantastic wraparound front, a central ticket window, a fine neon sign, and especially beautiful, detailed stone or plaster work above the entrance.  You could easily imagine walking into the theater to watch new releases like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or some other film from the golden era of Hollywood.

I could only imagine what the interior looked like — because the Indiana was closed, of course.  Like many of the magnificent downtown theaters in America, it has fallen out of favor in an era of multiplexes and cinemas where a dozen films are offered and some theater screens as only slight larger than the big screen TV offered at Best Buy.

There was a big dumpster outside the Indiana, and a small piece of machinery that indicated there was a rehabilitation effort underway.  That’s the big quandary for towns like Terre Haute, I suppose.  You’ve got tremendous structures from your glory days, but they just aren’t economical anymore.  What do you do with them?  Do you sink money into them, and hope that you can figure out a way to keep them busy and marginally profitable?  Or do you just recognize that societal forces have sent structures like the Indiana the way of the dodo?

I say give it a shot.  Keep the Indiana, and hope that you can find a way to support something that is beautiful and unique.

“Knee Ticklers” In The Age Of Innocence

In 1971, our family moved from Akron to Columbus.  We left behind the world of Cleveland TV personalities, like Barnaby and Captain Penny, and moved into the orbit of Cincinnati TV shows that were carried on Columbus stations.  One of the Cincinnati shows was a silly daytime variety show called The Paul Dixon Show.

Paul Dixon was an older man who appeared to wear an obvious toupee.  I’m not sure whether he had any special talent, but he had been hosting his show for years and was a celebrity in the Cincinnati area.  One of his trademark segments was to attach a “knee tickler” — a kind of dangling ornament — to the hems of the dresses of the housewives who made up the studio audience for his show.  Campy music would play, Paul Dixon would make a few lascivious facial expressions at the camera, and then he would demurely attach the “knee tickler” to the one-piece, just above the knee mini-dress of a stocky middle-aged woman with a beehive hairdo.  This routine was viewed as “naughty,” edgy, just barely acceptable stuff in the world of daytime TV in the early ’70s.

It was a more innocent time then.  I thought of The Paul Dixon Show recently when I saw a grown man wearing a t-shirt that had a depiction of a hand giving the finger and used the “f”-word, spelled out in bold letters.  He was at a sporting event where lots of people, including kids, were in attendance.  He obviously thought it was hilarious stuff, but for me it epitomized the increasingly vulgarity and crassness of our popular culture.  We’ve gone from times where putting a “knee tickler” on a woman’s dress pushed the envelope to the point where the queen mother of curses is casually displayed on clothing worn at a public event.

I don’t yearn for a return to Victorian sensibilities, but I regret the direction in which we are heading.  If we’ve reached the point where obscene t-shirts are an accepted part of popular culture, what’s the next stop in our downward spiral?

Duck Dynasty Days

In the fascinating book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about one curious aspect of our culture — the moment when something seems to just be everywhere you look, being talked about by everyone.

We’ve reached that point with Duck Dynasty, don’t you think?  It’s got all of the buzz in the world going for it.  The ratings are through the roof.  Even highbrow publications are writing about the show featuring the guys with the signature ZZ Top beards who manage a duck call fabrication business, trying to figure out whether the show’s success is the result of carefully cultivated entertainment savvy or southern Christian values (or stereotypes).  The show’s not quite an overnight success — after all, it’s in its fourth “season” — but it’s reached the popular culture pinnacle.

I don’t watch Duck Dynasty. I don’t watch much TV, and most “reality” shows don’t appeal to me.  For all I know, Duck Dynasty could be a fabulous, richly entertaining show or it could be idiotic, but at this point it doesn’t make much difference.  What’s fascinating is that the tumblers have clicked into place, the PR campaigns have succeeded, and the opinion makers are all heading in the same direction.  When seemingly everyone is talking about the same thing in this broad and diverse land of ours, it tells you something about the power of popular culture, and  the power of peer pressure.  How many people have started watching Duck Dynasty because everyone seems to be watching it, and they don’t want to be left out?

We also know one other thing about popular culture — no one and no thing stays on the top of the heap for very long.  Just ask the producers of American Idol.

When You’re Not Watching The Super Bowl . . . .

Not watching the Super Bowl is kind of liberating.

You know that pretty much everybody else in America, from the President on down, is glued to the TV, either because they are interested in the game or they’ve bet on it or they want to watch the commercials or they think the halftime show could be interesting.  They’re all sharing in one of the very few common social experiences in our diverse, sprawling country.  Tomorrow, everyone at work will be talking about the game — or, more likely, about the commercials — but I won’t be able to join them.

I don’t care.  I’m tired of the prevalence, and glitz, and the over-the-top nature of professional sports, and I need to take a break.  The Super Bowl seems like a good time to start.  So, I’m listening to Verdi opera choruses and surfing the net, trying to get caught up on the latest developments in robotics.  For once, I don’t have to fake that I care about a simple football game that has been relentlessly pumped up into something that is grotesque and ludicrous.

It’s like when you’re in high school and you finally decide to stop trying to be popular and just be yourself, no matter how nerdy and out of it you might be.  When you make that call, the pressure’s off — and that can be very enjoyable.

The President’s Speech

During a recent interview with Rolling Stone, President Obama said that kids have “good instincts” and added:  “They look at the other guy and say, ‘Well, that’s a bullshitter, I can tell.’”  Does it matter that the President used “bullshitter” in an apparent reference to Mitt Romney?  It’s just one word, after all.

I think it does matter, for two reasons.  First, the presidency remains an aspirational position — although I recognize that may be an old-fashioned view.  The President is the Leader of the Free World and the head of the world’s greatest democracy.  We want the President, through his words and deeds, to represent the best about America.  It’s what people mean when they talk about a candidate for the job appearing to be “presidential.”

Prior Presidents understood this, and paid careful attention to their public conduct and public speech.  They were careful to keep their vulgarities hidden behind the walls of the Oval Office.  When President Obama forsakes the high tones that traditionally accompany that office and uses crass language like “bullshitter” instead, it reflects a depressing coarsening of our culture.  If even the President uses gutter language to refer to his opponent, in an on-the-record comment, what does that say about our society and American culture?

Second, the President’s comment, as well as much of his recent behavior, is fundamentally contrary to the approach and persona that attracted and inspired so many people in 2008.  In that election, reporters covering an Obama speech often referred to his “soaring rhetoric” — and it was soaring.  During his “hope and change” campaign, the President consciously sounded high-minded themes that were fully consistent with the aspirational aspect of the presidency, and refrained from name-calling, cheap stunts, and other tawdry political tactics.

That is what makes the “bullshitter” reference so jarring.  It suggests that the Obama that so many found so appealing in 2012 is gone, if he ever existed.  It’s hard to envision the 2008 Obama calling someone a “bullshitter,” or making the harsh and patronizing comments about aircraft carriers and submarines in the most recent debate, among other less than idealistic behavior the President has exhibited during this campaign.  That conduct directly undercuts some of the most appealing aspects of candidate Obama in 2008, and makes people feel like they were hoodwinked when they pulled the lever for that candidate four years ago.  Americans don’t like to feel like they’ve been played for fools.

Babymoons, Push Gifts, And Other Novel Pregnancy-Related Cultural Developments

There hasn’t been a pregnancy in Webner House for more than two decades.  A lot has changed, apparently, since Russell greeted the world back in 1988.

Yesterday I went to lunch with two young female colleagues, one of whom is in her second trimester.  They talked about “babymoons,” whether she expected a “push gift,” and other topics that made me feel like I had been dropped into an alternate world where people speak what seems to be English but the words have no meaning.

It turns out that a “babymoon” is not a reference to a part of fetal anatomy, but rather a honeymoon-like trip that an expectant couple takes before the life-changing birth of their first child.  That sounds like a good idea to me, although if Kish and I had known what the immediate weeks after childbirth would be like our babymoon probably would have focused less on romance and more on racking up as much sleep as possible.  A “push gift,” on the other hand, is a somewhat crass term for a present the mother receives from her fellow parent to compensate for the pain of labor and childbirth.  No word, however, on whether the other parent receives any gift to acknowledge the challenges involved in living for months with a hormone-charged being who might burst into tears at any moment for no readily apparent reason.

What else is new in pregnancy?  Well, thanks to Demi Moore and her famous Vanity Fair cover photo, more pregnant women are having naked photos taken, some at weekly intervals to track their progress, and then posting them on on Facebook and other social media websites.  It’s also apparently popular to take a plaster casting of the pregnant woman’s belly, the better to preserve her condition, in all its three-dimensional glory, for posterity.

I can’t imagine our doing any of that stuff, but then our grandparents undoubtedly would have thought it was weird that we were practicing breathing techniques and back rubs at Lamaze classes, that Kish was wearing anything other than black tent-like garments intended to mask the fact of pregnancy, and that I would want to be in the delivery room when the big moment finally arrived.  How people deal with pregnancy seems like one of those areas where there have been quiet, but profound, changes in our social and cultural mores.

Oblivious To “Icing”

At a certain age you begin to suspect that you may have lost touch with popular culture.  You realize you don’t really listen to popular music or watch TV shows aimed at the 18-to-30 demographic anymore.  You start to ask yourselves questions like:  “When did everyone get so huggy?”  And:  “When is it socially acceptable to ‘fist bump’ as a form of greeting?”  And then, in some innocent social gathering, you experience the dreaded incident.  Some younger person looks at you, wide-eyed, and says:  “Seriously?  You’ve never [heard of/listened to/watched] [insert current cultural reference]???”

I had this kind of feeling recently when an associate at the firm patiently explained the current practice of “icing.” The background goes something like this.  There is a bottled alcoholic beverage called Smirnoff Ice that is something like a wine cooler.  Some people think it is a pretty lame drink.  So, as a razz, people out at bars started sending the drink to their friends.  You’d return to your seat and find a Smirnoff Ice in front of you, say, or one would be placed under your coat.  If you got “iced,” you were supposed to chug the bottle and plan your prompt retaliation, and everyone would have a good laugh. (Sounds like a pretty good cultural development for Smirnoff, incidentally.  In fact, there are questions about whether Smirnoff came up with the idea and implanted it in the first place.)

I was, of course, completely oblivious to this.  If I had gone to a bar and found a bottle of Smirnoff Ice at my seat, I would have tried it, thanked my fellow patrons for their generosity, and gone on my merry way, missing out on all of this Gen X (or Gen Y, or whatever it is) camaraderie and causing the other patrons to conclude that I am hopelessly lame.  Since I don’t go to bars, I’m not too troubled by this particular possibility, but it makes me wonder — am I utterly unaware of other common forms of modern communication?  What other social signals are being broadcast that my antiquated social antennae are just not receiving?