Rudolph is actually QUITE problematic. Here’s why.

Last week at Medium, I had a post about the kind-of-sort-of controversy around Rankin Bass’s Christmas classic, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Really, no one probably cares all that much about the non-issue, but it’s a fun way to look busy during December. Still, as silly as it is to call the 1960s children’s cartoon racist or bigoted, there were some things that are deeply bothersome about this special:

  1. At the end, Hermey the Elf schedules his first appointment for the week after Christmas. The week before Christmas, he was practicing on dolls, and the week after he’s authorized to poke around someone’s gums?
  2. Staying with Hermey, during the climactic scene he de-fangs the abominable snowman – or “The Bumble,” as Yukon Cornelius calls him – just before Rudolph, Clarice, and his family are about to be killed and consumed. The Bumble, as near we can tell, subsists on venison and other meats, probably requiring a protein-heavy diet to carry himself around. So what i he supposed to do without teeth?
  3. Rudolph’s nose is bright enough to cut through dense cloud cover that would have otherwise cancelled Santa’s yearly flight. This level of fog is implied to be unprecedented, yet Rudolph’s light cuts through it. All of the other reindeer laugh and call him names, but did no one think to contact a doctor? At the very least, as a public health measure they should have quarantined him for testing.
  4. Following from point number three, Donner’s attempt to cover Rudolph’s nose is not only poor parenting but wreckless endangerment of public safety.
  5. Also, in the picture where Hermey the Elf is playfully touching Rudolph’s nose – shouldn’t his finger be a singed and possibly tumor-ridden mess?
  6. And by the way, Santa knew about this so he’s complicit. Between this and letting people practice unlicensed dentistry, there’s a potentially massive class action liability here.
  7. Didn’t the Island of Misfit Toys seem a little odd? The winged lion, King Moonracer, insists on Rudolph, Hermey, and Yukon leaving the island pretty quickly, refusing their requests for asylum. On the other hand, he happily brings so-called “misfit” toys to the island. Note the toys on the island they aren’t simply unwanted toys that children have outgrown or grown bored with; the misfit toys he brings back are either obviously defective (such as the cowboy who rides an ostrich) or made to feel defective (such as the Charlie-in-the-Box who functions appropriately, but simply has a different name). It all suggests that King Moonracer is seeking out damaged toys (or toys who can be convinced they’re damaged). He clearly wants Santa to distribute these toys after they’ve been on the island for a while. This seems wrong. Moonracer is up to something.
  8. What’s Yukon Cornelius’s story, anyway? I get that he’s looking for silver and gold, but does anyone already have mineral mining rights on the land he’s dropping his pickaxe on? And if so, what’s his plan – try to buy them out by affecting the appearance of a bumbling prospector? This seems the most realistic business plan he’s following.
  9. Wow, Sam the Snowman seems to know a lot, doesn’t he?
  10. Most problematic of all: People spend way too much time thinking about this stuff. Present company included.

What if Luke Heimlich is telling the truth?

Luke Heimlich did not get drafted by a Major League Baseball team this week. He was expected to, but last year’s revelation that he admitted to child molestation charges as a minor has made him pretty much radioactive.

Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan, perhaps realizing this possibility, wrote a pre-emptive column bemoaning that sports teams would overlook such a sordid past. Others have suggested his past crime makes him unfit for a job as public as a professional baseball player. Yet, even in the 40-round MLB Draft, where teams assume they won’t be able to sign half the players they select and where late-round picks are routinely flushed on nepotism, no one wanted to be anywhere near the former top prospect.

Heimlich maintains his innocence. In recent interviews, he claims his guilty plea to charges of molesting his niece were a play for family harmony and based on poor legal advice. Such a non-apology tour sure seems like something you would do about a month before the MLB draft if you were starting to sense that they wouldn’t call your name from the podium.

But Heimlich’s side of the story also sounds fairly reasonable.

Imagine being a 16-year-old star athlete, getting early attention from MLB and college scouts, and suddenly having your future placed in jeopardy because you are accused of a crime like this. Assume, for a moment, you are also innocent (which is a big assumption, but within the realm of the possible so let’s run with it).

Your lawyer presents you with two options: Option A is a lesser conviction with a very light punishment (probation, therapy sessions, and a court-mandated admission) plus a sealed record in five years. Option B is a more public trial, family discord, the risk of a much harsher punishment (including time in a juvenile detention center), and the probability you will lose scholarship offers and a future professional baseball career due to the public scrutiny. You also face a court system that rightfully tilts toward the victim.

Assuming you were innocent, which would you pick? Option A sure does sound like a low-risk alternative.

Remember that law enforcement officials offer plea bargains to avoid the risk of losing a conviction. They are not always used for the benefit of the accused.

Also worth remembering: The only reason this is public at all is because a sheriff in Oregon made a mistake, citing Heimlich for missing a reporting requirement which turned out wasn’t required. That citation made his previous conviction public. In other words, if not for a bureaucratic snafu, no one would ever know about Heimlich’s past. Heck, he could have been drafted last year and might be halfway through his first year of Single-A minor league baseball by now.

I still breathed a sigh of relief when the New York Yankees passed over Heimlich; fans of every other team probably did the same. The reality is that, outside of a complete exoneration, Heimlich would have brought a media circus with him to whatever sleepy, short-season rookie league he would have been assigned to. And that mess would follow him throughout his career – which might not last that long anyway. It’s tough enough to make the major leagues without having to constantly justify a child molestation conviction. That’s to say nothing of any remorse or guilt Heimlich may carry onto the field with him if he actually committed the crime.

That “if” is, of course, an important factor.

The only person who really knows for sure what happened is Luke Heimlich himself. He could be a monster who really did molest his niece and who presents a predatory danger to any other child he’s around. He could be someone who perpetrated an evil act and who will hopefully and rightfully bear the consequences for the rest of his life. Or, he could be someone who, faced with the promise of short-term pain, admitted to something he did not do for the sake of expediency.

None of those three situations are far-fetched. Each is reasonably plausible. And each conclusion spawns more questions.

Much of the pre-draft coverage assumed Heimlich’s guilt and asked to what extent his past actions should influence his future.

Yet if Heimlich is innocent, doesn’t that raise some important red flags about the legal system? If a star athlete can get his life derailed with bad legal advice, what happens to people who don’t have that level of privilege?

The story of Luke Heimlich’s career in baseball (and whether it continues or not) is the story of a series of uncomfortable questions. As the story unfolds, it’s only fair to ask them all.

 

RIP Reg E. Cathey, who used to teach math

Most of Reg E. Cathey’s obituaries have referenced his roles on House of Cards or The Wire. That work is both excellent and recent, so those mentions make sense.

But one of Cathey’s earliest roles was one of his most important. Cathey’s first regular gig was a spot on the cast of Square One Television.

Did you know that if you take any number, multiply it by nine, and start adding the digits, you eventually get nine? It’s true. Here’s Cathey explaining it:

(Come to think of it, Cathey died on February 9 and the CNN obituary says he started acting at the age of nine… but that’s probably all a coincidence.)

Square One was a cousin of Sesame Street, a Children’s’ Television Workshop-produced PBS kids’ show. Just as 3-2-1 Contact tried to get kids into science, Square One tried to stoke interest in math. Cathey and his cast-mates acted and sang in sketches to illustrate concepts like percentages, patterns, and probability.

Surely, no one from the cast was solving equations on a chalkboard in the back room or finishing up a masters’ thesis on Fermat’s Last Theorem between takes. Yet when the cameras’ red lights blinked on, they became math professors.

Effective education goes beyond the simple regurgitation of knowledge. The ability to impart that knowledge is a skill of its own. Cathey taught probability while taunting a pizza guy running from a mummy, and joined a Motown ensemble to explain percentages. There’s a subset of a sub-generation that learned those concepts from him and the rest of the Square One cast.

Reg E. Cathey built a distinguished career as a dramatic actor. It’s worth remembering that he was a pretty good math teacher, too.

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.”

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.