I’ll Be There For You

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Rumors that Netflix was about to drop the iconic Nineties series Friends from its lineup put my daughter and me into a frenzy. We’d started watching reruns of the smash hit 10-season comedy the year before and were determined to make it through to the final episode, which originally aired on May 6, 2004, and was the most-watched series finale at the time.

I’d watched Friends on and off when it originally aired but never really encouraged my kids to tune in to the inevitable reruns that popped up in syndication a few years later. For one thing, there’s a lot of frank talk about sex and hooking up, a subject I didn’t really want my kids being privy to. I also thought the series might seem dated to the generation growing up on smartphones and laptops. By the time our youngest was in high school, I had relaxed my standards. After all, she was already watching shows like Gossip Girl and One Tree Hill.

So the two of us started capping off our days with a nightly viewing of a Friends episode or two. The series starts off awkwardly. The laughs seem forced, and the chemistry among the characters takes a few episodes to develop. My daughter seemed unimpressed as she sat through those first few episodes stone-faced.  After a while, though, she and I found ourselves laughing hysterically at the foibles of the six young adults living and working in New York City.

Never mind that Friends shared the unrealistic depiction of NYC that almost every movie and TV show has over the years. Despite their lack of funds or spectacular jobs, the friends live in spacious apartments in the heart of Manhattan. They spend inordinate amounts of time at a coffee shop instead of at their jobs. Ross and Rachel each have young children, but they are conveniently out of the picture for entire episodes.

But looking for realism in a sitcom is a fool’s errand, and over this past year, my daughter and I have found much to enjoy about the show. There are just so many laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Joey gets a turkey carcass stuck on his head. Recurring characters such as Janice with her donkey bray of a laugh also add to the humor. The actors who portray the six core friends are expert physical comedians. Sometimes their facial expressions alone cause hilarity.

But what truly makes Friends a special series are the many moments of true love and sacrifice that the characters make for each other throughout the series. There are serious subjects tackled in Friends, including a sexual abuse storyline that is played for laughs but also gets the point across that what happened to Joey as a child and then Chandler as an adult was inappropriate and wrong. The series also deals with infertility, adoption, excessive drinking, and the pain of divorce. And the way these six friends help each other through the bad times is a reminder of the theme song lyrics, “I’ll be there for you.”

One of the other most popular sitcoms of the Nineties was Seinfeld. It also featured a group of friends living in New York City. But the tone was more cynical and heartless. Not one of the main characters was particularly sympathetic, and they weren’t all that kind or supportive of each other. So it was easy to laugh at each of them when bad things happened to them. You kind of felt that they deserved it. Friends was an entirely different kind of comedy. Although the characters could at times be selfish and competitive, when push came to shove, they always chose their friendship over themselves.

It turns out the rumors about Netflix ditching its Friends were unfounded. The series will continue to be streamed through 2019. That gives my daughter and me a little breathing room as we head into the home stretch in season 10. But as hooked as we are on our late night bonding over the trials and tribulations of Monica, Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe, I suspect we will have finished the series before we ring in the New Year.

 

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Baby, It’s P.C. Outside

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On a recent long drive, I heard five different versions of the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” While the 1944 Christmas classic has always been played at this time of year, I suspect the reason for its renewed popularity is that some radio stations have banned it on the grounds that it references sexual coercion.

In light of the #MeToo movement and the conviction of Bill Cosby, who drugged women and raped them, the song’s lyric, “Say, what’s in this drink?,” has taken on sinister overtones. Critics argue that the woman in the song keeps saying no and the man keeps refusing to take her “no” seriously.

But the full context of the song paints a different picture. The woman is mostly worried about appearances: “The neighbors might think,” and”There’s bound to be talk tomorrow.” It’s clear she wants to stay: “At least I’m gonna say that I tried.” And she keeps accepting “maybe just a half a drink more” and later “a cigarette more.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is an old song that reflects very different sexual mores. It would have been considered improper for a woman to spend the night at a man’s place. Her family would be upset, and people would gossip. There was also a double standard (which, sadly, still exists today) that men were expected to pursue women openly while women had to act demure and as if they were too virtuous to want sex.

So is the song sexist and retro? Yes! But I don’t think that is grounds for banning it from airplay. There are so many songs from the past that have sexist and downright disturbing lyrics. Take the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb.” It’s all about how the man has asserted dominance over his woman. Isn’t anyone offended by the lyrics, “the way she talks when she’s spoken to?” And how about “Run For Your Life” by the Beatles: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” And don’t even get me started on the lyrics of a lot of current music.

I realize that part of the brouhaha over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is that it’s supposed to be a feel good holiday song. I understand why people find it offensive. And certainly, no one should be forced to listen to it or any other song to which they object. But to ban it? I personally cannot watch the movie “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” due to the racist portrayal of an Asian character by Mickey Rooney. But I’m not interested in preventing others from watching it. Nor do I consider them racist for liking the film. The level of sensitivity to what offends us these days has gone overboard.

The irony of the “BICO” ban is that the song seems to have become more popular than ever. Obviously, people don’t want to be told what they should or should not listen to. So let’s lay off “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Frankly, I’m getting really sick of hearing it.

NOel

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Yesterday a station on Sirius XM radio started playing Christmas songs. Mind you, not just the occasional festive holiday tune thrown in among other popular offerings. Nonstop, 24/7 holiday treacle. Is it cliche to scream, “TOO SOON!”?

It’s sometimes hard to wrap my mind around the fact that our society could take a  feast honoring a poor, imperiled Christ child in a manger and turn it into a shameless commercial bonanza. (Of course, the ancient Romans and Celts are rolling over in their graves at their “pagan” festivities being coopted by the Christians.)

Take something lovely and pure, and someone will try to monetize it. Romantic love? Let’s sell pricey roses, candy, and jewelry and make those items stand in for our feelings. Love your mom? Nothing says devotion like an overpriced all-you-can-eat hotel brunch, a $7 greeting card, and yes, more flowers.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a holiday involving the ritual of gift-giving would eventually get over the top. When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes buy our tree on Christmas Eve! Nowadays, people put their artificial Christmas trees up in early November, and I still see them in the windows on Valentine’s Day.

One of my favorite Christmas specials to this day is A Charlie Brown Christmas. In it, Charlie Brown is frustrated by the hoopla and commercialization of Christmas. Finally he cries out in frustration, “Does anyone know what Christmas is all about?!” His friend Linus, of course, adorably quotes the gospel of Luke, which describes the scene of Christ’s birth.

There’s so much to love about the Christmas holidays, so many fun and beloved traditions. But let’s wait until the leaves have fallen off the trees and I’ve gotten sick of pumpkin products. Let’s enjoy a fallow time between the excess of Halloween and the folderol of Christmastime. Let’s tramp through the leaves and enjoy hot apple cider by the fire with a good book or a good friend. Let’s plan our feast for Thanksgiving without the distraction of Christmas songs and pre-holiday sales and peppermint mochas.

Luckily there are dozens of other good stations on the radio to listen to during this wonderfully uncommercial season of the year. Beatles channel, anyone?

“Midwife” Delivers Nostalgia

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My sister and I share tastes in many things. We both love sweets, good books, and serious theater. So it was a bit odd that I didn’t immediately take her up on her suggestion that I watch the PBS series Call the Midwife. For the better part of two years, my sister would mention how much she loved this period piece about midwives set in London in the early Sixties. And for two years, the idea of the show lacked appeal to me.

Finally, I decided to give the show a try. I instantly fell in love with the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House, a home for midwives in Poplar, a poor district in the East End of London. In each episode, these nurse midwives tend to the growing families’ needs for medical care, sustenance, and moral support in often rather grim conditions. Their life’s work is imbued with optimism and love, for both God and their neighbors.

The series, which completed its seventh season this past spring, also delves into the lives and loves of the Nonnatus House residents themselves. Based upon the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series begins with Jenny moving into the midwives’ domicile and struggling to be accepted in the small world of Poplar – and in the world of the religious sisters themselves. One of the nuns struggles with her growing affection for the local doctor. Another shows a gruff exterior that hides a kind and caring interior. The non-religious midwives also have their trials and tribulations, such as alcoholism and the hidden love for another woman.

I love the faithfulness to the culture of the early 1960s, where abortion and homosexuality were illegal, birth control was in its infancy, and most women in the area of Poplar gave birth at home. The clothing, hairstyles, music, and topical references all add to the realism that transports the viewer to another time and place that many remember well. In the season seven finale, for instance, the Nonnatus House residents learn that President John F. Kennedy has been killed.

I’ve learned some interesting things from watching the series. For example, I never knew that there were Anglican nuns. The sisters and their religious devotion are treated with great respect in the series. The beauty of their rituals, the habits they wear, and the love with which they minister to the needs of their community are all lovely depictions of what a life of faith can bring to the world.

Call the Midwife is a deeply heartfelt paean to a world and a time and place that seem distant but in many ways are not so far from our own modern trials and tribulations. There is plenty of childbirth on screen, so the show is definitely not for the squeamish. But the series has evoked so many tears from me – tears of sorrow, yes, but also tears of joy.

When season seven concludes, it is 1963. I look forward to next spring when the residents of Poplar take on 1964 with the same cheek, gusto, drama, and neighborly love that they’ve shown season after season on this wonderful series.

Newcomers to the series can catch all seven seasons of Call the Midwife on Netflix. Season 8 will debut with a Christmas special on PBS in December, followed by season 8 in the spring.

As for me, I will never doubt that sister of mine and her conviction that I’d like something. When it comes to most things, we are two peas in a pod.

Why Representation Matters

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I finally had the chance to see the blockbuster hit Crazy Rich Asians. I had been so excited about the film ever since learning that Kevin Kwan’s fabulous satire was being made into a movie.

I’m happy to say that the movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was as delightful as I’d hoped. I took my Chinese-born daughter with me, and her reactions after seeing the film highlighted for me why this movie with an all-Asian cast is so important. First of all, she found it gratifying to see so many Asian characters and actors in a movie. More surprising, though, was her comment that she’d like to visit her homeland of China some day.

This was a first for my very American daughter. As much as I’ve tried to interest her in Chinese culture over the years, she has always just wanted to be a regular American girl. She has even complained at times about her Asian middle name. Any time I’ve mentioned a heritage trip back to Anhui Province in China, where she was born, my suggestion has been met with indifference.

Such is the power of representation in popular culture. The characters in Crazy Rich Asians are not stereotypes or relics from a far too distant past. They are rich, modern, fashionable, and subject to the same foibles and machinations as the characters in a Jane Austen novel. At the same time, their Asian languages, customs, and sensibilities are important parts of their characters. In other words, Crazy Rich Asians is not just a version of Dynasty with an Asian cast.

When someone like my Chinese daughter can see herself represented in popular culture, whether in movies, television, books or music, it enhances her self-esteem and widens her expectations for herself. And for whites, minority representation helps tear down stereotypes and encourages us to see people of other races and ethnicities as individuals, not members of a monolithic group.

Years ago when my son was about 4, he asked me, “Mommy, can boys be doctors?” Score one for feminism, I laughingly thought to myself. But the question also gave me pause. In his young life, my son had never met a male doctor, so he wasn’t sure if it was a role that was open to him. I can only imagine how demoralizing it must be never to encounter professionals, actors, or even fictional characters that look like you.

The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians is so much more than just a coup for author Kevin Kwan and director Jon M. Chu. It is a sign, I hope, that we are hungry for stories about all kinds of people from all walks of life in all parts of this great big, beautiful world of ours.

Just Be It

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In our current political climate, controversies abound about displays of patriotism – or the lack thereof. Colin Kaepernick’s famous (or infamous depending upon your point of view) decision to take a knee during the national anthem has incited a nationwide debate over such displays. And last week, the Nike campaign honoring Kaepernick’s protest has fanned the smoldering flames just in time for the start of football season.

Also last week, there were protests about the new movie First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. People objected to the omission of Armstrong planting the American flag on the moon, correctly pointing out that the American landing was a victory in the space race of the 1960s during the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The filmmaker’s decision to depict the moment as more of a human achievement than a political one was seen by some as evidence of a namby-pamby liberal sensibility.

Of course, controversy over demonstrations of patriotism in America is nothing new. In the Sixties, many protests against the Vietnam War featured the burning of the American flag. Fierce battles over Americans’ First Amendment rights vs. respect for our national symbol raged. More recently, President Trump has suggested punishment for people who would burn the flag. And so the controversy goes on.

The problem is that it’s one thing to stand up for the national anthem and another thing altogether to be a true patriot. It’s somewhat hollow to wave a flag over the bodies of men, women, and children killed in a pointless and immoral war. It’s easy to plaster a “Support Our Troops” bumper sticker on our cars but more important to fight for the safety and dignity of our military men and women, both active duty and veterans. And the sight of the Stars and Stripes is cold comfort to black families who have lost innocent spouses, parents, and children to police brutality.

The other day I noticed that the flags in my small home town had gone up, no doubt to commemorate the devastating losses our country suffered on 9/11. I admired the grace and beauty of the flags lining our streets as they rippled in the breeze. They brought to mind all that has transpired, both good and bad, since that horrible day when terrorists attacked our land.

What I most admire from that fateful day 17 years ago was the outpouring of support for the victims of 9/11 and their families. The courageous acts of first responders. The leadership of then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. The rebuilding of the site where the Twin Towers fell. The tireless advocacy by Jon Stewart and others to maintain the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help those affected by the horrific act of violence. Sure, people started putting out flags and adorning their cars with patriotic messages in the wake of 9/11. But it was action, not symbolism, that made a difference in people’s lives. It was people being patriotic, not just saying they were.

One of the most iconic photographs from World War II is the Pulitzer-Prize winning shot of marines hoisting the American flag at Iwo Jima. The image captures the gritty reality of war, courage, and sacrifice. Some of the flag-raisers were killed in action a few days later. The image has been depicted in movies and made into a U.S. postage stamp.

But it was the selfless sacrifice of fighting for freedom and against tyranny that made the difference – not whether or not the American flag waved from the top of Mt. Suribachi. So as we mourn the losses we sustained on 9/11 and in the ensuing years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, let’s do more to be the patriots we claim to be when we raise the flag or place our hands over our hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Poetic License

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My car’s Illinois license plate sticker just came up for renewal, and I was disappointed. It was not one of the automobiles slated to be replaced by the updated design being phased in in the State of Illinois. Our current license plate is decidedly bland: a plain white background with the words “Illinois” and “Land of Lincoln” scrolled above and below the license plate number. The new plates have an azure blue sky accompanied by an imaginary skyline that includes both the State Capitol building and Chicago skyscrapers, as well as half of Honest Abe’s visage.

I’ve read that the oldest license plates are being phased out first, so I will have to wait awhile to see the bright new plates on my car. I know the fact that I care this much about getting a new license plate falls under the category of “Get a life,” but I’ve always loved looking at car license plates.

As a child on family road trips, I would play the license plate game to pass the time. This highly complicated game consisted of trying to find license plates from states other than our own. Usually, we had to settle for sightings of Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin or some other nearby Midwestern state. Occasionally, though, we’d see an exotic Texas (Lone Star State) or Florida (Sunshine State) plate. In recent years, I actually saw an Alaska plate and learned that its license plate motto is “The Last Frontier.”

That’s the other thing I like about license plates. I like to learn the mottos or other captions that are used on them. Here are some that I’ve seen firsthand:

Indiana – Crossroads of America OR In God We Trust (Of course, in Mike Pence territory)
Michigan – Pure Michigan (Tell that to Flint residents)
Wisconsin – America’s Dairyland (Bragging Cheddarheads)
Minnesota – 10,000 Lakes (Apparently there are actually more than that in Minnesota!)
New York – The Empire State (Typical New York arrogance)
New Jersey – The Garden State (a bit or irony?)
North Carolina – First in Flight (Ohioans are ticked that NC claims the Wright Brothers)
Massachusetts – Spirit of America
New Hampshire – Live Free or Die (I’m scared of New Hampshirites!)

On a trip to Washington D.C. a few years ago, I did a double take when I saw what was written on their license plates. It actually says “Taxation Without Representation.”

So I will continue to play the license plate game in search of unusual specialty and out of state plates. I enjoy the game so much I’m thinking of getting a vanity license plate that says: LCNS LVR.

What’s on your license plate?