You can’t handle “your truth”!

Oprah Winfrey’s Golden Globes speech sure struck a chord, didn’t it? The erstwhile talk show host and current media mogul said enough to spur online discussion of a made-for-TV 2020 Presidential matchup.

There’s certainly plenty to say about what the whole concept says about current affairs, politics, and culture.

Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire and the Wall Street Journal’s Byron Tau, among others, picked up on a phrase Winfrey used, “your truth.” The context (from the full transcript):

What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.

This is one of those tricky phrases that means different things to different people, which makes discussion difficult. Critics of Winfrey’s phrasing note that the truth is the truth. People may have different perspectives or opinions, but objective facts are objective facts.

That’s certainly accurate, from a certain point of view. One person may look at a three-dimensional cube and, seeing only one side, claim it’s a square. Their perspective – or lack of it in this example – does not change the objective fact that this is a cube.

That’s not really what Winfrey’s talking about, though.

As the mentions in her speech, Winfrey’s life experience meant living through turbulent times when being black carried overwhelming social baggage. As a woman in show business in the 1980s, she likely had to deal with the same harassment issues that are only now being brought to light. Today, you may look at Oprah Winfrey and see the “truth” of a powerful, car-giving-away, bread-loving media empress who could build or ruin a career at whim. Her vantage point is different; when thinking about her “truth” Winfrey also remembers the local news anchor struggling her way up the ladder.

“Truth” is a strong and probably miscast word for perspective, but intentionally so. Its strength validates experiences. In the immediate context, it validates women who suffer harassments in all walks of life, and see those experiences echoed in the current mess in the motion picture industry. It isn’t just your story, Winfrey seems to say; for you, it is the absolute truth.

There’s a parallel to draw from President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which so famously used language that most politicians did not, and Winfrey uplifting her audience through subtlely coded language. In each case, it fosters a connection with the audience that just about every speaker tries for, but which few can establish.

The next election sure ought to be fun, huh?

Advertisements

Two Forgotten Christmas Classics Turn 30

A Garfield Christmas Special / christmastvhistory.com

According to IMDB, A Garfield Christmas Special and A Claymation Christmas Celebration both premiered on December 21, 1987, on CBS. They both turned 30 this week.

You can be forgiven for forgetting: Neither seems to have aired on a major network this year… or in the past several years, for that matter. But both used to be seasonal staples for CBS.

Christmas specials tend to fall into one of two broad categories: Either a grumpy killjoy learns the “true meaning of Christmas” (the myriad re-tellings of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” fall into this bucket) or a hero must “save Christmas” by making sure Santa Claus can make his rounds. (One might argue the existence of a third category about finding love for the holidays. I highly recommend the We Just Saw a Movie podcast, which has explored this odd genre in great detail over the past two Yuletides.)

A Garfield Christmas

A Garfield Christmas Special falls into the first category, inviting us to the Arbuckle family farm for a “good old-fashioned Christmas.” There are no human children characters, but thirty-something brothers Jon and Doc-Boy Arbuckle prefigure criticisms of today’s millennials by immediately reverting to childlike behaviors. (Also, we learn that Mr. Arbuckle paid for nearly a quarter century of piano lessons for Doc-boy. That’s… odd.) Garfield, for his part, plays the closest thing the episode has to a Scrooge; while not openly hostile toward the holiday, he welcomes Christmas with a shrug and a trademark, “big fat hairy deal.” He has a heart-to-heart with Grandma Arbuckle (a stereotypical 80’s “sassy old lady” in the mold of Sophia from the Golden Girls) about her late husband, then both gives and receives thoughtful gifts to inspire a change of heart.

As a media franchise, Garfield doesn’t get a lot of credit for its subtle, Letterman-esque sarcasm. There’s passive-aggressive friction between Grandma Arbuckle and her daughter-in-law. There’s Mr. Arbuckle, wondering aloud why he has to entertain his grown offspring with children’s stories, while his wife enables their sons. The family gawks at the Christmas tree that probably looks like every Christmas tree they have put up for decades. Doc-boy spends Christmas morning wearing a bunny rabbit onesie; Jon receives a horrible oversized sweater but seems fairly appreciative nonetheless.

The Arbuckle Family Christmas is at various time silly, ridiculous, tedious, immature… and ultimately perfect because it belongs to them. Garfield himself summarizes the message: “It’s not the giving, it’s not the getting, it’s the loving.”

A Claymation Christmas Celebration

Remember when the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom? Decades before that debacle, the stop-motion animated California Raisins went from selling dried fruit to multi-media stardom.

The signing raisins were the grand finale of A Claymation Christmas Celebration. Claymation is the rare children’s Christmas program which doesn’t fit into the categories mentioned above; it has more in common with variety specials by the likes of Michael Bublé. Six short, unconnected, musical vignettes fit around the banter between Rex and Herb, a couple of dinosaurs trying to find the definition of the word “wassail.” (They eventually learn from a  band of leprechauns or elves who appear to be driving with open containers.)

Each song is a unique take on a classic. The Magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar sing the traditional verses of “We Three Kings,” while their camels provide jazzy, upbeat improvisational choruses. Walruses ice dance to “Angels We Have Heard on High” while inadvertently tormenting a waddle of penguins. The Carol of the Bells is played by an orchestra of anthropomorphic bells who whack themselves with mallets (including one who has apparently taken a few too many hits). And the California Raisins improvise after missing a bus by crafting their own magic sleigh to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

There’s no story to be had here, but each vignette is funny in its own way.  And the music is fun. (There is also something to be said for true, stop-motion claymation. Imagine the painstaking process of sculpting the characters and bringing them to life.)

Why We Don’t See Them Anymore

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, Garfield and Claymation were holiday television staples. They aren’t anymore. That’s probably fine.

Cynically, one might blame it all on merchandising. Suction cup Garfields don’t adorn every third car anymore, and dancing clay figures aren’t selling dried grapes. Why devote prime airtime to specials that advertise yesterday’s product when Olaf’s Frozen Adventure could start building excitement for the upcoming-but-still-far-away Frozen 2?

On the other hand, yesterday’s Christmases are yesterday’s Christmases. Today’s Christmases are the wholly owned domain of today’s kids.

Garfield hugging Odie might inspire misty-eyed memories for me, but I can buy Garfield on DVD or watch him on YouTube if I need a nostalgia fix.

Other people (like me) grew up watching this stuff, but my kids don’t know Garfield. They know Olaf the snowman. We watched his special this year, and we all liked it. It was an imaginative story which doesn’t fit into either the “grump finds Christmas Spirit” nor the “save Santa/save Christmas” categories, and that’s a bit refreshing. The music was catchy, and the messages about Christmas traditions and being with loving family were there.

The characters might be different, but the best Christmas stories run a little deeper than that. Maybe, 29 years from now, my kids will look at the calendar and think, “Wow, that Frozen special is 30? That reminds me of when I was a kid…”

 

 

Heroes versus role models

This week, Louis C.K. confessed and verified accusations of his inappropriate behavior from female comics and colleagues. This controversy shares its news cycle with sexual misconduct accusations against Roy Moore, a candidate for the United States Senate who was the darling of a certain strain of religious conservatives.

The chain of accusations continues to grow. It looks like Kevin Spacey, a great actor, has acted less-than-great as a human being. Harvey Weinstein, a champion of offbeat films, proved all too adherent to one of Hollywood’s longest-standing clichés. Bill Cosby, America’s Dad in the 1980s, is now America’s creepy old man who allegedly drugged and took advantage of women.

If you count yourself as a fan of C.K., or Moore, or any of the many figures having their very serious flaws exposed, you’re excused for feeling let down. Really, who can you root for anymore? It seems like any time you put your faith in someone, you’re setting yourself up to be let down.

Oddly enough, it reminds me of a chapter on role models in one of my favorite books, Success Is a Choice – written, appropriately enough, by Rick Pitino.

Pitino, one of the most successful college basketball coaches of the past 30 years, is currently on unpaid vacation thanks to his association with an alleged recruiting scheme currently under FBI investigation. It’s not the first – or even the worst – scandal during his time at Louisville. In many aspects, Pitino has become an abject disgrace.

Pitino, perhaps presciently, defined the term role model narrowly:

Role models are not necessarily people you admire or people you are fans of. … Role models are people you can emulate, people you can learn things from. And you’ll find them everywhere, from the person sitting next to you at work to someone in your family. A role model is anyone who has anything to teach you on your journey to success.

Growing up, many of us have heroes – parents, grandparents, teachers – who can do no wrong in our eyes. As we get older, we may admit actors, musicians, or athletes into our pantheon of heroes based on what we can observe of them – how they come off on screen, or how far they hit a baseball.

The definition Pitino used for Success Is a Choice, gives role models a much narrower influence. You might read stories about how Derek Jeter showed up to spring training weeks early to put more prep work into his upcoming season; that doesn’t mean you have to hold on to grudges as Jeter famously did during his playing career.

Or, you can use Pitino’s book as a blueprint for success, while still recognizing his ugly failures to follow his own plan.

Role models are useful, but you can’t extrapolate an entire personal profile from a favorable characteristic or two. This distinction becomes more important with each scandal showing that those with prominence and power don’t always behave well.

 

 

Weinstein, Trump, and the nature of power

During a Twitter back-and-forth with CNN’s Chris Cillizza, singer John Legend made a point about the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal in the context of President Donald Trump’s own checkered past with women.

In that second tweet, Legend appears to suggest we ought to expect more from elected leaders; at face value that’s not particularly controversial. A completely acceptable and probably right thing to say.

Setting aside the particulars of Weinstein’s sins and Trumps unacceptable language for now, think about the nature of the Presidency. In most cases have eight years to promote and enact their philosophy before someone of the opposing party jumps in and undoes all the hard work. They toil in the world of politics – a world of little interest to most Americans.

Weinstein? He boasts a much longer shelf life. His film production career stretches back about four decades. His hands have touched a range of work as a producer or executive producer, from the boundary-pushing Pulp Fiction to the family-friendly Air Bud; he has been connected to some of the most influential independent/art house films but had plenty of commercial successes in between. He has been influential, and think how influential television and movies are in shaping culture.

Trump will be gone in either three or seven years, depending on how 2020 goes. Some will surely blame him for lowering American political discourse or making discussions crass, but only those who haven’t been watching for the past 20 years or so. Outside of launching a nuclear war (stay tuned?) what lasting legacy will Trump have in politics?

Obviously, Trump is a public figure and role model, so how he treats or talks about women naturally reflects something about our society. Weinstein has been on the cutting edge of Hollywood for four decades. John Legend had a point: We should aspire to elect leaders who represent the best of what we imagine our society can be. But people like Weinstein are the ones shaping our imaginations. As Andrew Breitbart is so often quoted as saying, “Politics is downstream from culture.”

Six Years of Fantastic Frustration

When my twin daughters were born six years ago, my elders tried to warn me, in the midst of their congratulations, about what was ahead.

“It’s a challenge,” they said. “It’s hard work, but the rewards are tremendous,” they said.

In those hazy, sleep-deprived days of early parenthood, I only remember my grandfather using a certain word: “Frustrating.”

It stood out back then and has continued over the past six years. My grandfather – “Grampy” – is one of the wisest people I’ve known. He had ten kids of his own, including my Mom, and they all turned out pretty well. What his parenting advice lacks in recency, it more than makes up for in volume of experience.

Raising children can feel like watching a schlocky horror movie from the 1980s. You often know exactly what comes next, but the characters behave absent of logic or perspective. No matter how many times you yell, “Don’t go through there!” at the screen, you still wind up with Cheerios spilled all over the floor, or a bump on the noggin, or a scraped knee, or any number of the horrors which may befall a young child. (You then have to convince said child that their pain and fear is temporary and minor. Good luck with that.)

The thing is, you know the ending (or at least what the ending could be). You’ve watched your kid succeed, and you know they can climb whatever mountain is in front of them. Kids don’t always see it; the view over their shoulder isn’t so long.

The kids themselves aren’t the biggest source of frustration.

A young child’s schedule has a surprising density to it, including school, doctor’s appointments, activities, and parties. They become easy to get wrapped up in. Then one day, you’re walking your kid to the bus stop for their first day of kindergarten, and you grow acutely sensitive to the passage of time. You feel the moments ticking past like grains of sand flowing through an hourglass, and wonder if you’ve appreciated it all as much as you should have. Did you really savor the holidays, the vacations, and even the lazy, rainy Saturdays as much as possible? You try to collect as many details in your memory as best you can, but you can only grab so much. There are so many, and yet so few all at the same time.

It’s frustrating.

Now for the sweet to go along with all that bitter: There’s more time. It’s not an infinite amount, and no one can know how much, but it’s there. Which means instead of getting weepily nostalgic for the past, enjoy building memories in the present.

So long as there is more time, there are more moments to enjoy, to gather, and to treasure.

 

 

Laugh about ESPN’s Robert Lee decision, but skip the outrage

Did you hear that ESPN has reassigned this weekend’s college football games because an announcer named Robert Lee was going to broadcast the University of Virginia game from Charlottesville, Va.?

Of course you have. It’s been reported everywhere. And ESPN has gotten plenty of internet grief for the decision today, ranging from mockery to outrage.

This is actually a pretty good decision by ESPN. Think about it: Would you want to walk through that town with the name Robert Lee right now? Nothing good can come of it.

And ESPN knows exactly what they would see on Saturday afternoon once Lee introduced himself on camera: Screenshots of the game announcers, their names highlighted on the chyron underneath, with snarky tweets and Instagram posts shared far and wide. Old pictures of General Robert E. Lee would be photoshopped into the announcers’ booth.

There would be another element, too: Instead of taking criticism for being overly cautious, they would catch hell for being insensitive.

Instead, ESPN moved him to another game. They apparently tried to do so quietly, though the decision was leaked – and the internet’s enthusiastic dog pile shows that yes, people will pay attention to announcing assignments. The current situation is the worst case scenario for the option ESPN chose. The alternative worst case scenario – Lee and the network being raked over the coals for latent racism and insensitivity – seems worse.

Given how horribly ESPN has whiffed on America’s move to streaming video so far, this represents a savvy understanding of modern media. (Way to make it to 2011, ESPN.)

But the outrage is unwarranted. ESPN probably didn’t hurt Lee in making this decision (and the current story out of Bristol is that the decision was mutual, anyway). It’s sort of funny, worth a little needling, maybe a late night monologue joke or two, and that’s it. ESPN shows its share of bias in its programming and reporting, but this is not an example.

Robert Lee becomes the big winner in this whole situation though: This weekend he goes to Pittsburgh (a great city with a real college football tradition) instead of being forced to watch three hours of a slap fight between Virginia and William and Mary over who gets to claim Thomas Jefferson for the next year. (Spoiler: No one cares.)

Come to think of it, this may be the first time someone named Robert Lee went to Pennsylvania and came out ahead.

 

 

 

 

 

What if Obamacare HAD been repealed?

Even with Russian investigation news sucking up oxygen during the last half of the week, Republicans have egg on their faces after swinging and missing on so-called “Obamacare repeal.” After seven years of campaigning on health care, the GOP had nothing to offer on health care.

But can you imagine if they had passed a plan? Over at Medium I point out that the now-endless campaign cycle means the histrionics would have started before President Trump had finished signing the new bill. It would have meant an ugly few years of Democrats essentially accusing Republicans of murder. I bet the GOP wasn’t ready for it. They’re probably lucky the bill failed.