#Oscars So Awkward


Jordan Horowitz, Warren Beatty, Jimmy Kimmel

The 89th Academy Awards closed with an embarrassing gaffe and a surprise upset win by the low budget coming of age movie Moonlight.

The telecast began in a more or less conventional way with a peppy song and dance number by Justin Timberlake, whose song “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was nominated for Best Song. As the camera panned the A-list acting crowd, though, I was surprised at the lack of rhythm in a room full of performers.

There were the expected humorous digs at Donald Trump from Jimmy Kimmel, who was funny in a low key way. My favorite was when he tweeted the president with the message “Meryl says hi!” There were also many serious references to tolerance and inclusivity on the part of presenters and award accepters, including a protest statement by Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who had refused to come to the ceremony in protest over Trump’s travel ban.

Also as expected, the overrated La La Land began to clean up in the awards department, winning technical, writing, acting, and most importantly, directing Oscars. So it seemed inevitable when Warren Beatty, looking befuddled, fumbled with the envelope, and Faye Dunaway’s clear voice rang out, “La La Land.” The whole cast and crew, it seemed, trouped onstage to receive the golden trophy.

I was musing over the irony of the white producer, surrounded by mostly white actors and producers, rhapsodizing about inclusivity in the movies, when the unthinkable happened. Mid-sentence, Jordan Horowitz abruptly switched gears and told the producers of Moonlight that the Best Picture Oscar was theirs. I thought this was one of those self-important but slightly condescending attempts to honor a fellow movie-maker. But he was insistent and held up the Best Picture card for the camera to capture the word, “MOONLIGHT.” Apparently, someone picked up the Best Actress envelope, and it had been given to Beatty instead of the Best Picture envelope. I had never seen anything like it.

I have to hand it to Horowitz and the other La La Land folks. They were very gracious as they were replaced onstage by Barry Jenkins and the mostly black cast and crew of Moonlight. It surprised me that such a small movie about a controversial subject would be the favorite of Oscar voters. And although I haven’t yet seen the film, I’m glad La La Land, a sweet but unremarkable movie, did not sweep the Oscars this year.

There were other awkward aspects to the ceremony. Viola Davis gave an overwrought speech claiming artists are the only people to “celebrate what it means to live a life.” And Hollywood seems to have both a short memory and its own share of hypocrisy when you consider that Mel Gibson sat smugly in the audience, his anti-Semitic rants apparently forgiven and forgotten, and Casey Affleck, who settled a couple of sexual harassment suits against him in 2010, won for Best Actor.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the Oscars spectacle. I love checking out the gowns, hairstyles, and personas of Hollywood stars. I like to see scenes from movies, and I always appreciate the solemn memorial to those in the movie business who passed away in the preceding year. I also think entertainment vehicles such as movies and television shows help marginalized groups attain acceptance in society. Actors and movie makers, themselves often from the fringes of society, do seem to understand the struggle for acceptance of differences from society’s norms.

Still, Hollywood’s elite could do with an occasional dose of humility and self-awareness. Maybe the big Best Picture gaffe will remind them that they too are only human.

White Men: Stop Whining



Post-election analysis has concluded that angry white men tipped the scales for Donald Trump and propelled him to victory. These men apparently feel left out and disenchanted by government policies. Throughout the election, white men were portrayed as victims of bad trade deals and immigration policy, both of which have supposedly robbed them of jobs.

I find it ironic that the same people who have for years been decrying political correctness, identity politics, and the victim mentality of minorities have themselves been playing the victim. But who are they kidding? Take a look at the composition of governmental bodies, corporations, law firms, banks, and even most manufacturing concerns, and you will see a preponderance of white males. We have had one black president and no women presidents in over 200 years of our existence as a nation.

The fact is that white males are still the dominant group in American life. Not only do they hold the reins of political power on both the national and local levels, but white men are more likely to be your bosses and school administrators. While the economic dislocation caused by loss of manufacturing and automation has affected all working class people, it has hurt minorities more than it has harmed white men.

If you are a white male, you are less likely to be stopped randomly by a police officer. You are less likely to be beaten or killed by a spouse or intimate partner. You are much more likely to see yourself portrayed in movies and on television as a hero. Guess what, white men? Your places of worship are not being terrorized or burnt to the ground. You’re not cowering in the shadows worried about being deported. If you commit horrible crimes, no one calls you thugs. They describe you as “disturbed.”

I have great sympathy for individuals who find themselves struggling financially. If I were president, I would be concentrating my efforts on providing retraining for workers displaced by the loss of manufacturing jobs. I would widen the safety net, not shrink it. Yes, I feel for people of all races who are hurting economically in this country.

But the one group I am not in the mood to coddle? White men.

Pen and Sword



Many Fox News media personalities (I hesitate to call them journalists) are crowing over the president’s smackdown of the “liberal media” in his now infamous press conference last Thursday. Having been singled out by Trump as praiseworthy for their supposed fair and respectful coverage of His Highness, Fox pundits went on their own rant about liberal media bias with conservative comedian (also a term I’m using loosely here) Greg Gutfield yesterday. What Gutfield and friends don’t seem to realize is something Trump, however buffoonish he appears, understands quite well: The pen is mightier than the sword.

When Trump tweeted, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!,” the entire political establishment on both the Left and the Right should have called for his immediate resignation. Instead, the lone critic among conservatives was Sen. John McCain, who to his credit has been unceasingly critical of Trump’s unconscionable statements.

On his show, Gutfield proved that he has totally missed the point of Trump’s relentless attacks on the media by pointing out that no one has tried to ban or silence news outlets. But the Trump administration knows it doesn’t need to take such drastic action. Instead, they seek to create a reality in which the media in general is suspect, not to be trusted. Among Trump’s loyal supporters, this has already been the case for months. But as serious allegations surface concerning the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia and other Trump administration ties to the despotic regime, it has become imperative for them to discredit the very independent press that could do the most damage to their existence.

I grew up during the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. America learned about the Republican dirty tricks and coverups of the Nixon administration only because two intrepid reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, relentlessly pursued the truth. I have no doubt that there are serious journalists right now who are investigating Trump’s ties to Russia. But will they be believed?

There are some encouraging signs of the media fighting back. Chris Wallace, anchor on the right-leaning Fox News channel, took White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to task this morning for Trump’s words. As he pointed out to Priebus, “You don’t get to tell us what to do, Reince. You don’t get to tell us what to do any more than Barack Obama did. Barack Obama whined about Fox News all the time, but I’ve got to say, he never said we were an enemy of the people.”

A free press is the very foundation of a democracy. Without true freedom of speech and an acknowledgment of the difference between facts and opinions, a democratically elected president can become an autocrat. It is up to responsible journalists to keep asking the probing questions, to keep investigating, to keep seeking the truth, whether it favors the Right or Left.

And it is up to the American people not to let a bully tell them whom or what to believe.



Crystal Ball



I recently saw a movie that asked the question, If you could see the future, would you change anything?

That question has certainly been at the center of many sci-fi movies, such as The Butterfly Effect and Minority Report. In these films, the hero is trying to stop terrible things from occurring – with unintended consequences.

But what is most interesting to me is thinking about what has already occurred in my life and what I might do differently. I lost my mother at the age of 13 months. She died giving birth to my younger sister. If she had known that it would kill her, would she have gotten pregnant? Maybe so. Maybe she would see that my little sister and I would become so close, best friends, and that my father would meet a new woman who would double the size of our family by bringing her own children into it.

I also think about my own choices: career paths, friendships, moves, romantic relationships. These were certainly not without pain. But had I not experienced them, I would not be in the place I am today. A couple of years after I had my first child, I suffered a miscarriage. I was despondent in the immediate aftermath of the loss. But had I not miscarried my child, I would not have had my son a year later.

Every loss, just as much as every joy, moves us along the path of our lives. Knowing that we will experience these losses shouldn’t stop us from living. Quite the contrary. It should urge us to make the most of the present and the good times we have.

Recently my daughter asked if we thought she should get a DNA test to find out if she has any genetic markers for disease. Because she is adopted and her family history is unknown, she has a very legitimate concern about what might befall her in the future. I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, if there are steps she could take to prevent or mitigate a disease, it might be worth knowing. On the other hand, such knowledge might be a heavy burden, especially if she were to find she is marked for a terminal illness.

Fear of pain should never stop us from living. After all, from the moment we are born, we are beginning to die. It is the journey in between that gives our lives meaning. Let us venture forth into the great unknown, the future, with open hearts.

A New Spin on Curing Cancer


170211_115416When I signed up to participate in Cycle for Survival, a “spin marathon” to support cancer research, I didn’t have a solid answer to the question on the website: “Who are you riding for?” To be sure, I have known many friends and family members who have been touched by cancer. I have friends and family who are cancer survivors, as well as loved ones who died of this terrible disease. Certainly, I would be riding for them. However, I didn’t know that I would find a much more urgent reason to put the pedal to the metal.

My daughter has been leading a team for Cycle for the past three years in New York City. Her involvement was the result of a very dear friend’s loss of her mother to cancer. I am so proud of my daughter and the support she gave her friend throughout the horrific ordeal of her mother’s cancer and death. That support led my daughter to action that may save the life of someone else’s mother:  involvement with Cycle for Survival.

Cycle for Survival is a nationwide fundraiser for Memorial Sloan Kettering  Cancer Center in New York City. Through the support of Equinox gyms across the country, riders have raised millions of dollars that have gone directly into research and treatment of rare cancers at MSK. Rare cancers are difficult because there is often no protocol for treatment and usually no organization to advocate for each particular type of cancer. Naturally, I’ve supported my daughter’s efforts emotionally and financially over the years. This year, however, my daughter assembled a team here in my hometown of Chicago, where she is currently attending business school. So she invited me to get off my duff and sign up to ride one of the dozens of stationary bikes at Equinox downtown.

There was a lot of energy and heart-pounding music when I arrived at the gym with my younger daughter and a friend. I remarked to my friend, “This place is like a bar without the alcohol!” My older daughter greeted us and helped us get set up on the bikes. Before our cycle session started, though, a young man stood up to speak. He told the story of his sister, a cancer survivor, and how she had gone on to marry and have a baby. Now, however, her infant son is in a battle of his own against cancer and is currently undergoing treatment at MSK. Through my tears, I started to pedal, knowing I had a new focus and an imminent reason to ride.

This disease is so hideously indiscriminate and unfair. What united all of us at Equinox gym yesterday, and what spurs the efforts of so many people across this country in events like Cycle, is that we have all been touched by cancer. It’s up to all of us together to help doctors and researchers wipe out this terrible scourge.

If you are interested in learning more about Cycle for Survival or contributing to this cause, please visit my page at: http://mskcc.convio.net/goto/maryrayis. One hundred percent of all donations goes directly to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

A world without cancer: That is truly something worth spinning for!


Patriots Day



The New England Patriots may have won the game, but the real Patriots of the 51st Super Bowl were the advertisers.

While conservatives were publicly fretting over what political diatribe Lady Gaga might subject them to at halftime, Coca-Cola, Apple, Budweiser and the like were quietly subverting divisive rhetoric with their commercials steeped in positivity and inclusion. Ads depicted people from all walks of life peacefully mingling, whether at a bar, the gym, or the city streets. Anheuser-Busch made a pointed commercial about the two German immigrants who met by chance and created one of America’s great breweries. Even the NFL aired a commercial stating that no matter their differences, players come together “within the lines” of the football field to reach a common goal.

There was a gentle, optimistic tone to the advertising this year. It was as if to say, We don’t endorse the hateful rhetoric of our recent presidential campaign or the exclusionary policies of our new administration. We can not only get along, but are made richer by our differences if they are directed toward kindness and good will.

The most controversial ad was by 84 Lumber, and it depicts a mother and daughter from south of the border trying to make their way to America. The ending, which depicts a massive wall such as the one President Trump insists he wants to build, was never aired because Fox decided it was much too political.

But most of the commercials were not overtly political. My favorite was the Coca-Cola ad, which features people of different ages, races, religions, ethnicities, and even sexual orientations singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages. The messages in these ads give me hope that Americans can see past the divisions being fostered by our political climate.

As for the dreaded Lady Gaga performance? She let her lyrics, the diversity of her dancers, and her own soaring vocals speak for themselves.

Hidden Fences



At the Golden Globes, Michael Keaton mixed up two movies with predominantly black casts and called one Hidden Fences. He was roundly criticized for his racial insensitivity by the left and then attacked for political correctness by the right when he apologized profusely for the gaffe. Such is the state of race relations in modern America.

No doubt Michael Keaton means well. He is not a closet Klansman, as Bill Maher sarcastically pointed out on Real Time. However, his well-intentioned mixup does indicate what is a natural tendency: to lump together people of the same race or ethnicity. I did this once myself as a high school teacher. I had two Asian-American male students in my class, and I once called one of the boys by the other one’s name. I was filled with chagrin at the mixup, even though I meant well. Today, as the mother of a Chinese-born child who is sometimes confused with her Asian classmates in school, I feel even worse about that mistake from long ago.

The fact is that even seemingly innocent acts of overgeneralizing or stereotyping can be harmful and prevent people from seeing each person as an individual. And as we know from our history, such stereotyping can lead to outright discrimination and worse. In today’s America, where Middle Eastern Muslims are looked upon with deep suspicion and black citizens are far too often stopped for the crime of “driving/walking/sitting outside while black,” we need to make an honest effort to change things.

In his gaffe, Michael Keaton unwittingly used what could be a metaphor for today’s race relations. The “colored only” water fountains and restrooms are gone. Blacks are no longer relegated to the back of the bus. But there are plenty of “hidden fences” that block the equal treatment of minorities in this country. Racial segregation still plagues big cities, and schools in black neighborhoods get short shrift on resources. Blacks still struggle for equal access to good jobs. Studies have shown, for instance, that candidates with “black-sounding” names are less likely to be invited for job interviews.  And even when they are hired, many people assume black employees are affirmative action hires who are not as qualified as whites. In the film Hidden Figures, the three black female mathematicians have to be brilliant, not just adequately smart, in order to be given their due.

The other reality Keaton’s mistake highlights is the fact that there are too few forms of art that portray the lives of black Americans. When there are only a couple of “black movies” in the awards season mix, it’s more likely that whites will unthinkingly bunch them together. If people of different races and cultures were interwoven in books, movies, and television shows in the same proportions as they exist in our population, viewers would stop noticing race and focus on individual characters and actors.

Whites have a long way to go in adjusting our attitudes and beliefs about minorities. In a telling scene of Hidden Figures, the mathematician Dorothy Vaughan’s white boss tells her, “I hope you know that I’m not against y’all,” referring to the dozens of black female “computers” Vaughan supervises. Vaughan gives her boss an appraising look and replies, “I know. I know you believe that.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out in his devastating book Between the World and Me, whites have a stake in “believing themselves to be white.” By believing in our own racial superiority, we can grab the most prizes: money, prestige, power. It’s a bitter pill to recognize that fact and work to do something about it.

We can mean well, but we need to act and advocate for equality among all Americans if we are ever to tear down the hidden fences in our society.