Rooting for the Underdog

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This year’s NCAA basketball tournament results were a mixed bag for fans of the underdog. While reigning women’s behemoth UConn was dethroned by Mississippi State, the perennial top seeded North Carolina Tar Heels once again won the men’s championship title.

Unless my or my husband’s alma mater is involved, I am almost always for the underdog in sports. I love to see a scrappy team without much prestige or many resources fight its way to victory. Some recent triumphs of the underdog include the 2014 Dayton Flyers upset of Ohio State and the little known University of South Florida Bulls making it all the way to the third round in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

As a perennial champion of the underdog, I am well placed living in Chicago, the home of shattered hopes and dreams. Whether it be our post-Michael Jordan Bulls or the ever-disappointing Bears, I can commiserate with my fellow Chicagoans and pray for the demise of the hated New England Patriots or Miami Heat.

Which brings me to my dilemma: how to handle the World Series champion Chicago Cubs? The “lovable losers” finally won it all, so where does that leave this fan of underdogs? As baseball season begins, the Cubs have some pretty high expectations riding on their shoulders. Record-breaking crowds watched them warm up at spring training camp in Phoenix, Arizona, last month. No doubt Wrigley Field will be sold out for every home game this season.

I must confess that last fall, when it looked as though the Cubs were going to lose the World Series to the Cleveland Indians, I consoled myself with the fact that the Indians are also underdogs who have not won a title since 1948. Notwithstanding their terribly racist logo, Chief Wahoo, I would not mind seeing the Indians get another chance at the prize this year.

Meanwhile, I can enjoy seeing the young, talented, and entertaining Cubs players display their skills at the ballpark. I will certainly root for their victory, but if they don’t make it all the way to the World Series, I will cheerfully philosophize, “Wait ’til next year!”

#Oscars So Awkward

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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.

Crystal Ball

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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.

Patriots Day

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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

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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.

Love, Actually

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Last night my daughters and I watched the movie Love, Actually. This 2003 film has fast become a Christmas classic for many viewers, with its humor and light romantic touch and its climax occurring on Christmas Eve. But the movie is about so much more than romantic love. It is about the enduring bonds of friendship and family, about loss, about bridging gaps between cultures, and about the triumph of love in the midst of life.

The first time I saw Love Actually, I’ll admit I was mostly focused on the couples, or the would-be couples, in the movie. Hugh Grant’s charming turn as a single British prime minister in love with an employee; cuckolded Colin Firth finding romance with his Portuguese maid; a little boy bereft of his mother falling in love with a classmate; wonderful Emma Thompson getting short shrift from her long-time husband, played by the late Alan Rickman. I felt the young man’s pain as he endured the love of his life marrying his own best friend, and the angst of a young woman in love from afar with a coworker but burdened with responsibility for her mentally ill brother.

What I like about the movie is that it is not all “happily ever after” for each romantic pair. And that is because other kinds of love often trump romance. For instance, when the woman and her colleague finally get together, the woman gets a call from her brother, and that familial love continually forces her to sacrifice her own happiness. Likewise, the forlorn member of the love triangle struggles to keep his feelings to himself so as not to harm the friendship he has with her husband. The young boy may be in love with a young girl, but it is the story of him and his stepdad and their growing relationship in the absence of a wife and mother that really takes center stage. And the Emma Thompson character stays with her unfaithful husband (for shame, Alan!) for the sake of their family.

At the end of the movie, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we see love in all its many permutations as loved ones are reunited at Heathrow Airport. Parents and children, lovers, friends – all embrace in the comfort of their love for each other. Each snapshot is strung together on the screen until there is a “wall of love.”

Love, Actually is a cute, clever, but also surprisingly realistic depiction of the ties that bind. What better way to finish out Christmas Day with the family?*

 

*The movie is rated R for nudity, subject matter, and language. So save it for when your little ones are mature enough.

 

 

Next Year Is Here!

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The reality has not quite sunk in. I saw that game, but I can’t quite believe that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series. After decades of being the underdogs and the butt of jokes, the Cubs are bringing home the world championship trophy from Cleveland.

After seven games slugging it out against the Cleveland Indians, with game seven delayed by rain and forced into extra innings, I admit that I was getting poised to repeat that Cubs fan mantra, “Wait ’til next year.” That wistful saying has been part of my life since childhood, and along with it, the disappointment tinged with eternal hope that was the lot of fans who gave their hearts to the north side team.

Over the years, the Cubs’ status as permanent underdog has been blamed on the famous Billy Goat Curse and memorialized in music and theater. Steve Goodman’s song, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was a sarcastic lament about the team’s certain failure year after year. It was made poignant only by the fact that Goodman wrote it while suffering from the leukemia which would take his life some years later. Meanwhile, Chicago theater luminary Joe Mantegna conceived a play titled Bleacher Bums about the less than well-mannered behavior of people in the cheap seats at Wrigley Field.

In the past two years, the excitement built for a young team loaded with talent and expertly led by Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. The “W” flags started appearing much more frequently over Wrigley Field and in the windows of Chicago homes. People jumped on the Cubbie bandwagon, and team merchandise popped up in stores all over Chicagoland. “Go Cubs, Go,” a much more hopeful song penned by Steve Goodman, became the unofficial anthem for our beloved baseball team.

I cried when the Cubs won the World Series. I was thinking of my father, a die hard Cubs fan like many of his generation, who never got to see the Cubs win a World Series. My dad took us to games at Wrigley Field, taught us how to fill out the scorecards, bought us Frosty Malts, and took us on marathon marches back to where our car was parked after the game let out. I’d like to think he’s smiling down on his favorite team right now and singing along with fans, “Go Cubs, go. Go Cubs, go. Hey, Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs are gonna win today.”

It may be hard for Cubs fans to adjust to cheering for the winning team. Our status as dejected losers is so ingrained. Oh, well. I guess there’s always the Bears to keep us humble.