Ice Queens

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The Winter Olympics have started, and that has turned my attention to the only event I actually follow during the weeks-long spectacle: women’s figure skating.

Years ago, my oldest daughter and I were captivated by the likes of Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, and the adorable Sasha Cohen, all of them American figure skaters chasing a gold medal. Following in the tradition of American Olympic gold medalists such as Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, and Kristi Yamaguchi, only Sarah Hughes managed to grasp that gold ring. Still, their graceful performances on the ice were magical, and we even bought tickets to see them skate on their post-Olympic tour.

Beyond the beauty, elegance, and athleticism of these masterful skaters, their personal stories are part of the magic. This year’s crop of American Olympic hopefuls all come from ordinary, even humble, origins, and their fierce drive to succeed can be seen as against the odds.

Bradie Tennell is from my own home state of Illinois. The daughter of a single mom, she started begging to be taken ice skating at the age of 2. Unlike Tiger Woods’ father, Bradie’s mother only reluctantly allowed her daughter to enter the world of competitive ice skating. And as opposed to many Olympic hopefuls, Bradie has had the same coach for the past 10 years. That coach, Denise Meyers, refers to Bradie as “a scrapper.” Bradie Tennell stunned the competitive figure skating world by becoming the gold medalist at the U.S. Championships this past January.  Her climb to a spot on the U.S. Olympic team is considered a Cinderella story. Another heart-warming part of that story is the fact that United Airlines plans to fly Bradie’s mother and brothers free of charge to South Korea so that they can see her compete.

Mirai Nagasu is another U.S. ice skater who is more than familiar with hardship. Her parents are Japanese immigrants who work long hours running a restaurant in Arcadia, California. Mirai credits her parents’ hard work and sacrifice for her successes as a figure skater and her dream spot on the U.S. Olympic team. Mirai is best known for executing the difficult triple axel, a feat that she will try to accomplish in the PyeongChang Olympics this month – and a feat no other American figure skater has accomplished in the Olympics. And while her parents have seldom been able to attend her skating competitions due to the demands of running their restaurant, they will be on hand to watch her potentially make history in South Korea.

Karen Chen rounds out the list of U.S. Olympic hopefuls in women’s figure skating. Her championship medal at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the bronze she won in this year’s competition make her a definite contender. Like Mirai Nagasu, Karen’s parents are immigrants, in their case from Taiwan. But unlike the other two skaters on Team USA, Karen has an Olympic gold medalist in her corner: Kristi Yamaguchi, who hails from the same hometown of Fremont, California, and has become a mentor to Karen. According to Karen, Kristi routinely signs one of Karen’s ice skates before a competition for good luck. And at a mere 5 feet tall, Karen’s favorite quote is from Shakespeare: “And though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Although none of these three skaters is expected to medal in this year’s Winter Olympics, it will be enjoyable to watch them skate and to cheer for them, knowing their back stories and their hard work to achieve excellence. Two Russian figure skaters, Evgenia Medvedeva and Alinas Zagitova, are apparently the ones to watch this year in PyeongChang. Having been exempted from the ban on Russian athletes enacted after the doping scandal at the Sochi Olympics, they are sure to have something to prove as they compete with other young women from around the world.

As snow blankets my world here in Chicago, I’ll be happy to curl up in front of the TV and see the grace and skill of these young figure skaters. May the best women win!

 

 

 

 

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The Magical World of Children

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Children’s literature and films are rife with stories about magic: from ancient fairy tales to the 1,001 Nights to modern day blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series. A world in which magical things can happen appeals to the imagination of children in part because of their natural wonder at a world that seems big and mystifying.

Thus the appeal of the magical worlds described in such works as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Magic Treehouse series, to name just a few. Although these fantasy worlds can be scary at times, they are also filled with such wonders as a chocolate river, talking animals, caves filled with gold and the like. It’s no surprise that in Alice in Wonderland, the titular character is nodding off with boredom during a history lesson when she spies a mysterious white rabbit and follows him down a hole into Wonderland. Charlie Bucket of Chocolate Factory fame also longs to escape a rather poor and dreary existence by entering the wondrous world of Willy Wonka.

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Indeed, magic in children’s stories serves as a form of wish fulfillment. For instance, in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, a group of siblings discover a magic coin that they use to make wishes, to both comical and disastrous effect when they realize the coin will only grant half of their wish. Their adventures serve as a diversion from their life with a strict nanny and absent parents. Similarly, in the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the main characters are poor young men who find riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Many characters in children’s literature use magic to escape terrible childhoods. In Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphan being raised by a pair of abusive aunts when he discovers said peach, climbs aboard, and escapes his tormentors. The same is true for young Harry Potter, who is forced to live with his cruel aunt and uncle after his own parents are killed. When dozens of owls bombard Harry with invitations to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it’s a dream come true. In C.S. Lewis’s iconic Narnia series, the children are escaping the fears of a world at war and the loneliness of being separated from their parents. For the children of A Wrinkle in Time, magic is a way to save and bring home their missing father. All these works speak to the normal fears and anxieties of children, for whom the world is often a scary and confusing place. And they give children something that may be missing in their own childhoods: hope.

Children especially seem to love books that take the whole magic story line one step further: that is, the children themselves discover their own magical powers. Matilda, another Roald Dahl classic, features a young girl whose powers help her overcome negligent parents, nightmare teachers, and schoolyard bullies. In Escape to Witch Mountain, two orphaned children with extraordinary powers discover their origins and the place where they truly belong.

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And, of course, there is Harry Potter, the main character in one of the most beloved series of books ever written. Harry discovers that he is a wizard and that there are many other children who have the same types of powers he has puzzled over for years. Over seven books, Harry Potter enters the world of Hogwarts, faces unimaginable perils, and learns to use his powers for good.

The success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes from her keen awareness of the tribulations of childhood. For children, whose world is largely beyond their own control, the idea that they may have it within themselves to escape their fears, shortcomings, and circumstances is a powerful one indeed. As Percy Jackson, a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon in The Lightning Thief, puts its, “The real world is where the monsters are.”

 

 

 

Music or Lyrics?

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tdy_klg_terms_151113.today-vid-canonical-featured-desktopMy kids thought it was hilarious one day when they heard me singing the pop song “I Can’t Feel My Face.” My son informed me, “You know that song is about taking drugs, don’t you, Mom?” Honestly, I didn’t. To me it was just an upbeat, bouncy tune that I liked. Now it’s tainted by my knowledge that it’s about cocaine-induced numbness.

So many popular songs today have dubious subject matter and language. Rap is an obvious example. But what about more light-hearted sounding tunes? Back in the Sixties, much was made of the “hidden” drug references in such songs as “Along Comes Mary,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “White Rabbit,” and yes, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Songs were routinely censored, and the Rolling Stones were forced to amend the lyrics “Let’s spend the night together” in order to perform the song on the Ed Sullivan Show.

With the advent of rap in the 1990s, Tipper Gore led the charge against profanity and violence in song lyrics and was successful in getting record producers to put warning labels on albums deemed offensive. When I hear some of today’s pop songs, my old favorite “Please Go All the Way” sounds positively tame by comparison.

The question is, which is more important, the music or the lyrics? I tend to go by the standard of the old pop music TV show American Bandstand: whether it has a good beat and I can dance to it. If so, it’s good enough for me. I’m reminded of a funny Chris Rock stand-up bit in which he describes young women gyrating happily to sexist and offensive hip hop songs. For the purposes of dancing or even getting from point A to point B in my car, the lyrics to a song are beside the point.

Yet meaningful lyrics can also bring so much depth to a song. Sometimes I take to a song with a monotonous tune because I love the meaning behind the song. A good example for me is “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Another is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which, let’s face it, is something of a dirge. But what lifts these songs for me are the words and meanings behind them. In fact, as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed using popular song lyrics as poetry in my classes.

In any event, musical taste is an individual thing, and I will continue to enjoy my bouncy pop or rowdy rock music, whether I like the lyrics or not. Just don’t tell me what “Cake By the Ocean” refers to. I don’t want to know; I just want to enjoy it.

 

The Worst Noel

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A one-hour listen to the all day Christmas music on my local radio station has taught me something. There are a lot of lame Christmas songs out there. Aside from the fact that the station runs through the same 50 songs on a loop 24/7, many of them are just unbearably cheesy or even offensive.

For instance, just yesterday I was listening to the Band Aid song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” which was written and performed as a fundraiser to stamp out world hunger. There’s one verse, though, that has always bugged me. After describing the terrible plight of many people in the world, the song admonishes us, “Well, tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.” What kind of Christmas message is that?

For years women have been complaining about the veiled date rape message of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: “Say, what’s in this drink?” To be sure, that and many songs that find their way into the all day Christmas song marathons were written in a pre feminist era. Still, it’s cringeworthy in this day and age to hear a man plying a woman with drinks and pressuring her to stay overnight. (I must confess, though, that I like the rendition of “Baby” sung by Will Ferrell and Zooey Deschanel in Elf.)

There are some incredibly tacky and inane holiday songs out there, such as “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” and the annoyingly lisped old charmer “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” And then there’s the plain schmaltz: “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and the interminable “Feliz Navidad,” the song that really put Jose Feliciano on the map. Feliciano, who had been booed and catcalled for his rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at a World Series game (Atlantic, Dec. 16, 2015), reasoned that if he inserted the English language line “I Wanna Wish You a Merry Christmas” into his song, the radio stations would have to play it. Unfortunately, he was right.

I know some people love these songs. Some of it, I suspect, is nostalgia. How else to explain why anyone would listen to Jimmy Durante rasp out “Frosty, the Snowman”? And it’s easier to do a remake of a popular song from the 40s or 50s than to come up with new music and lyrics. Hence, the 80 millionth version of such gems as “Santa Baby” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

My objection to these radio station playlists is that they miss so much classic and great holiday music. All the beautiful carols I learned as a child: “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and on and on. These kinds of songs get little playing time. There are some hauntingly lovely songs such as “The Coventry Carol” and “Breath of Heaven” that speak to the dark beauty of the Christmas story. And even more contemporary Christmas songs, such as Amy Grant’s nostalgic, “Tennessee Christmas,” never seem to make their way onto the air.

If stations playing holiday music 24/7 during the season really put their minds to it, they could play a list of songs with virtually no repeats all day long. Maybe then I’d enjoy some of the fun but currently overplayed hits like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Still, there are some holiday classics that, for me, never get old. Nat King Cole’s silky smooth “A Christmas Song” comes to mind. I guess I’ll spend the Christmas season listening to my own holiday song collection in the comfort of my home.

What are your favorite songs of the season?

 

 

The Upside Down

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The_Upside_Down_-_Public_Library_(exterior)I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the plot of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things revolves around the Upside Down, a shadowy world that lurks beneath the ordinary world in which the characters live. The Upside Down resembles the real world, but something very out of the ordinary resides there.

The Upside Down is a good metaphor for the American scene today. While the surface looks the same and the sun rises and sets in the way it always has, the fabric of American society is dark, frayed, and oozing corruption.

Take our climate. Despite huge ice melts in Antarctica, rising sea levels, and an upsurge in cataclysmic storms across the globe, the Trump Administration persists in its denials that climate change is real and continues to push the consumption of fossil fuels, a practice that scientists the world over agree has contributed to the warming of the Earth. We can’t see all the storm clouds gathering in the Upside Down, but they are indeed there.

On the economic front, Paul Ryan is leading the charge on so-called tax reform, which is really just a giant handout to the rich masquerading as tax relief for the middle class. The “zombie-eyed granny starver” is stomping around in the Upside Down and preparing to chew on the meager earnings of senior citizens and the poor. And if he’s really lucky, he will eliminate health care for millions of lower income Americans at the same time. A twofer!

Along with widening the divide between the haves and have nots, our government is insidiously eroding our freedoms. Donald Trump’s repeated attacks on the press have been designed to discredit negative media reports about him and his administration. Meanwhile, in the Justice Department, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has clamped down on news leaks and is reviewing department policy on subpoenaing reporters, both of which may have a chilling effect on investigating corruption. Sessions has also backed away from the Obama era mandates on police reform, promoted tougher sentencing on non-violent drug offenses, and renewed the war on marijuana at a time when states have begun recognizing its medical usefulness and relative benignity as compared to opioids and other drugs.

It seems that big business is the shadow monster that lurks in the American Upside Down these days. The proposed tax bill, the push to help the coal and oil industries, the deregulation of financial institutions, and, most recently, FCC indications that net neutrality may become a thing of the past – all favor the moneyed interests in America and, indeed, the president’s own businesses themselves. Yet for all the howling about Hillary Clinton’s supposed conflicts of interest as Secretary of State, I don’t hear many complaints about policies that will make Trump and his family even richer.

But for me, the most disturbing aspect of this upside down world is the abdication of character and moral responsibility. And our president, Donald Trump, lurks at the center  of the morass. His complete disregard for women, minorities, and even the disabled; his petty squabbles with anyone who dares criticize him; his constant self-aggrandizing boasts and outright lies – they all create a primordial slime that makes the Upside Down seem dainty and quaint. Since Donald Trump became president, incidences of racially motivated hate crimes have skyrocketed. White supremacists have become emboldened to march with torches and riot gear and hurl hateful racial epithets with impunity. And for all Trump’s howling over sexual abuse allegations against prominent Democrats such as Harvey Weinstein and Sen. Al “Frankenstien” [sic], he has shown no interest in condemning a serial child molester, instead tacitly encouraging voters to make Moore the new senator from Alabama.

I find it especially ironic that Trump would liken Sen. Franken to a well-known literary and movie monster. With Trump’s own questionable business dealings and sexual history, I guess I’d have to say, it takes one to know one.

 

 

 

 

The Art vs. the Artist

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Revelations of sexual misconduct have roiled the entertainment industry, among others, in recent months. The allegations of sexual harassment, assault, and intimidation against producer Harvey Weinstein seemed to have unloosed a dam in Hollywood, and numerous directors, actors, and other entertainers have been accused of using their positions to abuse women.

In light of the accusations, networks have been cancelling TV series and specials, and no doubt the fate of some feature films hangs in the balance. I’m heartened by the change in attitude towards sexual impropriety in the workplace; it’s long overdue. But I wonder how to balance our admiration for the talent and artistry of a person with the ugly reality of his behavior in real life.

For decades there has been debate about such figures as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen and the degree to which we should ostracize their work out of protest at their sexual misdeeds (although in the case of Allen, many people see nothing wrong with his dating and eventually marrying his ex-wife’s adopted daughter. I would not be one of those people.) Heavyweights in Hollywood have always stood up for these men, even though Polanski had to flee the country on a statutory rape charge. But the question is, should we not see Chinatown, The Pianist, or Rosemary’s Baby – or indeed even recognize their greatness as films?

Sometimes the rejection of an artist’s work is based on unambiguous factors. Leni Riefenstahl, for instance, used her directorial talents to create propaganda for Hitler and Nazi Germany. It also doesn’t take much hemming and hawing to denounce D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a film that glories in the creation of the Ku Klux Klan. But what about the well-known anti-Semite Richard Wagner? His Nineteenth Century operas and other classical music are renowned works of art. Should we protest any productions of his work today, knowing what we know about his bigotry and xenophobia?

Over the years people have boycotted entertainers for political reasons. In fact, it seems like the entire world of the arts is fraught with politics these days. In fact, recently I had to stop and consider whether someone might be offended if I gave their child a book written by Bill Nye, the Science Guy. But short of objecting to the content of a specific book, movie, or other work of art, I’m not sure I want to let my personal opinion of an artist affect my appreciation of their work.

I don’t have the answers here. It seems to me that works of art should be judged on their own merits. Yet I would be hard pressed to attend a Louis C.K. performance these days. And should I finish binge-watching House of Cards or shun the series in protest over Kevin Spacey’s lame excuses and rationalizations for preying upon young men? Do time and distance make an artist’s work more palatable? I just don’t know.

Still, I am glad to see the cult of celebrity being shattered a bit to allow victims the ability to confront abuse and intimidation. After all, actors, directors, comedians, musicians and other artists are only human. They should be held to the same laws and standards as other humans, famous or not.

The Resonance of Two Tiny Words

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When I was a young teen, I was walking alone on a street in my safe, suburban town when a middle-aged man in a white sedan pulled up alongside me. He stared at me out of his rolled-down window and said, “Would you have sex with me for $100?” I fled. A few years later during my college years, at my summer job in an insurance agency, the boss called me into his office on my last day of work and made me kiss him on the lips.

These unpleasant memories have come back to me as the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal has lit up the news and social media. Weinstein joins a long line of men who have used their power to sexually prey upon women. Thus when actress Alyssa Milano wondered what would happen if all women who had been sexually harassed posted “Me, too” to their Twitter accounts, social media exploded with those two seemingly innocuous words.

It is hard to have grown up in our culture without having experienced unwanted sexual attention from men: catcalls and wolf whistles; boys rating girls’ attractiveness as they walked down the halls of school; groping and leering. In the Sixties and Seventies to which Weinstein alluded in a lame attempt to justify his behavior, treating women as objects was commonplace. A cursory viewing of the TV series Mad Men has such verisimilitude that it’s enough to give women my age unwelcome flashbacks. The workplace was particularly daunting for women. For example, flight attendants were subject to weight requirements, and women could be fired from their jobs for becoming pregnant. Employers openly told their female employees that men were paid more because they had to support families.

While women have made many strides in society, their characterization as sexual objects persists. Although Weinstein’s detractors are many, some noted celebrities have come to his defense. Woody Allen, for instance, complained of a “witch hunt” atmosphere in which a guy couldn’t even wink at a woman (or child, in his case) without getting into trouble. That’s right, Woody. We don’t want your winks – or pinches or whistles or any other demeaning or sexist gestures. You see, we are human beings, not your fantasy objects.

Mayim Bialik also completely missed the point by claiming that unattractive actresses (presumably herself) are not harassed in Hollywood. Bialik clearly thinks that Weinstein’s (and O’Reilly’s and Roger Ailes’s and Bill Cosby’s …) predatory behavior was about sex. But for sexual predators, it’s all about power. Objectifying women and threatening their careers if they don’t “put out” are ways of keeping women in their place. And judging from the “Me too”s all over Facebook and Twitter, women in all walks of life have been subject to this same power game.

There are laws on the books to protect victims (both male and female) of sexual harassment. The problem is that a code of silence often prevails, and those in power buy the silence of their victims. It is easy from the outside to say that these actresses should have gone public immediately to stop the predatory behavior of Michael Weinstein. But in an industry as difficult to succeed in as is the entertainment world, it’s understandable why women would choose not to rock the boat. And it is maddening that in the 21st Century women should need to call men out on this dehumanizing behavior.

I am currently reading a book titled Get Savvy: Letters to a Teenage Girl About Sex and Love by Kathleen Buckstaff. In the book, Buckstaff reveals her own emotional struggles after being sexually abused as a teenager at an East Coast boarding school. Like many victims, she kept her abusers’ secrets, but the emotional fallout led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adulthood. Clearly the stakes are high in our culture for victims of sexual predators.

We need a sea change in our attitudes about gender roles, power, and sex. But first we need to break the code of silence and tacit acceptance around sexual abuse and harassment. And maybe it starts with saying, “Me, too.”