Face Time

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When I was a child, one of my favorite family outings in Chicago was to the Museum of Science and Industry. It had the coolest exhibits: a giant heart that you could walk through, a coal mine, and a real German U-boat you could climb into. But one of my favorite exhibits featured communication technology. It featured sleek new designs for telephones, including touchtone models that were just starting to appear in people’s homes.

In the communications exhibit were futuristic models called “picture phones.” Imagine the fun of dialing a number and seeing your friend across the miles as you spoke with her! Imagine indeed.

Somehow, the fact that this childhood dream of mine has become a reality hasn’t awoken my sense of wonder. My daughter in New York routinely “FaceTimes” me while walking the city streets or lounging in her apartment. I enjoy seeing her lovely face as we talk and try not to dwell on the little aging visage in the corner, the image that she sees.

FaceTime and Skype ostensibly solve one of the issues I have always had with talking on the phone. It’s important to me to see the facial reactions of someone to whom I’m speaking. I can gauge the subtext of their words better face to face. And for loved ones living in far flung places, these face to face calls are a small antidote to homesickness. (Remember calling home from college on Sunday nights when the rates were lowest?)

In my childhood, I imagined a “picture phone” as a giant screen on a wall in your home and wondered whether someone’s face would just suddenly appear there, catching you in your pajamas. My sisters and I would wait patiently in line for our turn to use the new-fangled contraption. We could not have imagined that in a few decades we’d be carrying tiny computers around and have the ability not only to see each other’s faces on the phones but communicate by email and text as well.

Still, even in this world of advanced technology where people would rather text or SnapChat each other than actually speak, there is no substitute for real face time. Coffee with a friend, stories shared around the table at family dinner, late night debriefings with our teens: these are the true opportunities to connect. In a world of endless possibilities for staying in touch, let’s never forget the most elemental of all.

For the Birds

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I have never really understood the purpose of Twitter. Communicate an idea in 140 characters or less. But why?

Sure, I can see the allure of posting pithy sayings that get a lot of likes. I can pat myself on the back for my cleverness, but that sense of self-congratulation doesn’t last. I can also see that Twitter might be a good space in which to vent, to spew out into the Twitterverse one’s anger or discontent.

But to me, the Twitter world creates more harm than good. Look at our current president. He spend hours rage-tweeting and creating angst. What is our Commander in Chief doing ranting through the night and revealing an enraged, bullying, and narcissistic personality to the entire world? And for Trump, the now-280 character limit doesn’t really work. Instead, he posts a diatribe through a series of tweets. If only the Unabomber and Son of Sam had had Twitter!

These days, Twitter wars erupt over all kinds of minutiae. Celebrities get into vicious spats, and we’ve even seen all-out fights over which chicken sandwich is the best. Even more dangerous, world leaders have taken to Twitter and nearly incited real wars. Whether it was Turkey vs. Greece or Israel and Pakistan getting into it, the war of words can come dangerously close to a war with real weapons. And, of course, our fearless leader takes to Twitter routinely to threaten friends and foes alike. His recent tweets threatening to decimate Iranian cultural sites caused an uproar. Sad when the U.S. president has to be scolded for publicly threatening to flout the rules of the Geneva Convention.

Twitter may have been the perfect commercial enterprise for the sound bite generation. But it is a poor substitute for reasoned discourse and general civility. This #NeverTrumper pledges to be a #NeverTweeter. Care to join me?

 

Race, Class and the Royals

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We Americans like to think of ourselves as egalitarians, not at all interested in separating people into social classes. Yet we have an endless obsession with the life of the royals across the pond. Last week the world was riveted by the rift exposed when Prince Harry and his wife Meghan declared their intention to live apart from the royal family for some  portion of the year and to become financially independent.

While our own Senate begins its deliberations about whether to remove the president from office, our obsession lies with “Meghxit” and what it will mean for the future of the dynasty that has had us in its thrall for decades. There have been no shortage of news stories and op eds about the defection of Harry and Meghan. Speculation about how Queen Elizabeth will handle these upstarts also runs rampant.

Many in the press are sympathetic to Meghan Markle and the fact that she has had to endure some racially biased attitudes since her engagement to Prince Harry. Despite the huge influx of immigrants from around the world into the UK, English society holds onto strict class distinctions. Kate Middleton may have been a “commoner,” but she was a distinctly well-bred white woman. With Meghan Markle’s mixed racial heritage and her past as an American actress, she has had to fight the disdain of this class-conscious society in which she lives. Even baby Archie is not immune from the thinly-veiled racism, having been described as looking like an ape by a British journalist.

On the other hand, Meghan Markle did not exist in a bubble when she met her prince. The royal family’s stuffiness, the British public’s relentless prying and open criticism of various members, and the tabloid nature of many British publications should have clued her in that her every action would be scrutinized and that is was unlikely she would remain unscathed under such a microscope. As Maureen Dowd put it in her spot-on column, “It is hard to feel sorry for the Duchess of Sussex complaining that her diamonds are heavy.” (“Gone With the Windsors,” Maureen Dowd, The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2020)

There is also some sense that Meghan has been responsible for causing, or at least exacerbating, the enmity between brothers Harry and William. And as a royal living off of public funds, she has certain responsibilities to that public that she has refused to honor. For example, she refused to be photographed leaving the hospital after the birth of Archie. She and Harry have insisted on a level of privacy that is just not possible in their positions. Now they want to abscond to Canada, necessitating expensive security measures that they are in no way able to afford “independently.”

Is Meghxit a sign that the authority of the British monarchy is on the wane? Is it a breath of fresh air into the stuffy halls of Buckingham Palace? Or is it an entitled and childish tantrum against the golden chains that bind the royals to their destiny? Whatever the case, our enduring fascination with monarchs and class distinctions indicates that we may not be as democratically-minded as we like to think.

 

The Evolution of Humor

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In the old days, comedians had to tow a strict line when it came to language and content. In the early Sixties, for example, Lenny Bruce was routinely arrested for using profanity and sexual references in his comedy. In the Seventies, George Carlin made hay with “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” repeating the obscenities over and over for humorous effect. I remember listening to this bit and being scandalized.

At the same time, comedians were allowed to make blatantly racist jokes, and Archie Bunker was everyone’s favorite lovable bigot on TV. Disrespect for women was also totally allowable. Take Jackie Gleason’s catchphrase on The Honeymooners: “One of these days, Alice – to the moon!,” implying that if she didn’t stop her yapping, he’d punch her lights out.

Nowadays, we have seen almost a complete reversal of these late Twentieth Century standards. Chris Rock can stand up and riff about deviant sexual practices using graphic terms, and no one bats an eyelash. Foul-mouthed comedians are a staple of  comedy clubs. Even on network television, still a bastion of common decency, characters can use swear words such as “hell” and “damn” and vulgarities such as “bitch” without censure.

Yet on sensitive subjects such as race and sexual harassment, comedians tow a fine line today. And violence, particularly involving shooting, has become verboten in the world of comedy. I was thinking about this recently when I recalled the lines of a humorous Christmas parody written by my brother-in-law a few decades ago. The song describes the nightmare before Christmas when a parent tries to put together a gift using the English-language-challenged user’s manual. One of the verses goes:

O come, o come and pay the man the bail
And ransom captive Da-a-ad from jail
He got so mad he blew a fuse
His rampage through the store was on the news

 With today’s reality of mass shooting after mass shooting, I’m not sure we can joke about people “going postal” anymore.

I think that for the most part, this evolution in comedy is a good thing. Making it socially unacceptable to joke about hurting people or to denigrate someone’s race or gender is, overall, a good thing. But our desire to be “politically correct” can sometimes make us humorless.

Humor is, after all, the juxtaposition of the acceptable and the unacceptable, the normal and bizarre, the right and the wrong. Back in the day, when Henny Youngman said, “Take my wife – please!,” it was a corny but tongue-in-cheek dig at the sacrosanct institution of marriage.

When we take ourselves too seriously, we refuse to see the inconsistencies and hypocrises in our and others’ behavior, in our families, and in our institutions. For example, John Mulaney, a favorite comedian of mine, regularly mocks his Catholic upbringing. While I have grown to appreciate my Catholic faith more and more as I’ve grown older, I recognize the exasperation of a young person sitting through what can sometimes feel like the interminable and pointless rituals of the Mass. And I sense a fondness Mulaney has for his experiences even as he makes fun of them.

In the area of comedy, there will always be people who are offended by a particular skit or remark. As much as I am happy to know that spousal abuse is no longer something to joke about, I hope that we don’t completely lose our sense of irony and humor about the ills of our world. A world without comedy is no laughing matter.

 

The Age of Disinformation

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Recently on Facebook, I started seeing stories purporting that arsonists had started the wildfires that have engulfed huge swaths of land in dry, brittle Australia. I soon learned that the stories were false, an attempt to dissuade the public from thinking that this latest catastrophe had anything to do with global warming.

We live in an age where the risk of disinformation is extremely high. During the 2016 presidential election, there was a preposterous yet widely reported story that Hillary Clinton was among a cabal of evil pedophiles running a ring inside a D.C. area pizza place. The story reminded me of a plot line from the TV series Homeland, in which a Russian operative doctors a photo of a survivalist’s wounded young son to imply that the son had bled out alone in a hospital emergency room. Posting the photo was an attempt to destabilize the the US government.

In real life, there have been recent instances of such doctoring for political reasons. One shows former President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian president Rouhani, a man Obama had never actually met. Then there was the video doctored to make it seem as if Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words. And Democratic presidential hopefuls such as Joe Biden were falsely depicted as racist through the editing of video clips.

Social media giants like Facebook are making some effort to identify and take down fake news that appears on their sites. But the magnitude of the problem and the free speech issues involved make it difficult, if not impossible, to monitor all this disinformation. It is a great threat to our democracy if we cannot tell truth from propaganda.

The internet has in many ways been a democratizing force on the dissemination of information. No longer does one have to have the connection to a publisher or media network in order to express ideas or bring important stories to light. But the danger in its “no holds barred” format is that the internet has become increasingly like a Wild West of competing ideologies and agendas.

As we gear up for the Democratic primaries and the November election, we Americans need to take seriously our responsibility to be informed citizens. We need to consider the sources we credit and sometimes (as in the “Pizzagate” case) just use common sense to be critical consumers of news and other media.

Most of all, every American needs to be engaged in meaningful thought and research about the important issues of the day. Every American needs to be determined to vote for the candidates they feel most closely share their positions and values. Let’s go into the 2020 election year with open eyes and analytical minds in order to ferret out truth from falsehood. Only then will our democratic republic continue to thrive and prosper.

Affluenza

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day-after-washington-square-crowd-2012jpg-9fa154e14a0ab044Shoppers hit malls the day after Christmas (oregonlive.com)

 

Just before New Year’s, I read a disturbing statistic in The New York Times: “Americans have among the lowest levels of happiness and work-life balance in the developed world.”

I wish I could say I was stunned to learn that the wealthiest nation in the world was among the least happy. But I had noticed that immediately after Christmas Day, a day when many of us showered each other with countless gifts, the malls were packed with after-Christmas shoppers. Sure, some of those shoppers were returning or exchanging gifts that didn’t quite work. But many people were undoubtedly there for all the post-Christmas bargains so that they could amass more stuff.

The need to acquire more and more material goods and wealth is a symptom of an inner discontent. We tie our worth, not to our intrinsic goodness as human beings, but to the prestige of the car we drive, the handbag we carry, and the zip code in which we live. Then we wake up the day after Christmas and find that none of those gleaming presents around the tree have made us feel any better about ourselves.

No surprise that too much is never enough in a land where everything is available. Look at the levels of obesity in the United States, which are some of the worst in the world. A few years ago, I read a news story about an African teenager who had been brought to the United States to be educated and cared for at a charitable residential school called Mooseheart. The young man came to prominence because he was a star player on Mooseheart’s basketball team. Describing his early life in the United States, he described being taken to a hamburger place and being able to eat only half of the food put in front of him. He was amazed at the bounty in America. We are indeed lucky to have an abundance of food and other essentials here in America. Yet that same abundance tends to breed excess.

The other consequence of all this materialism is that we need to work harder and longer hours to acquire an affluent lifestyle. Technology, which should be seen as a labor saving boon, is instead used to connect us to our workplaces 24/7. Hard-driving workaholics are the admired ones in our society. We give lip service to family values, but our culture encourages us to leave our families and chase more money, power, and prestige.

As we begin a new decade, we as Americans should reconsider our values. It starts with each individual. I can start to recognize what truly makes me happy: spending time with family, giving to others, having solitude in which to read and reflect. I can shed the need for more material things. I can start to judge myself and others not by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, or the jobs we hold, but by how we treat each other in this land of endless bounty.

 

2020 Vision

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As we begin a new decade, I’ve been thinking about the periods of growth and stagnation in my own development. I’ve noticed that as I plunge headlong into my sixties, I’ve become a little set in my ways. My interests, values, likes and dislikes have been established, and I’ve seen no need to depart from them. That might not be the best way to age gracefully.

I have decided that my goal for 2020 is openness. The way to fight stagnation is to open oneself to new experiences and to other people. For example, when my husband and I were younger, I was game to see all kinds of movies with him, to attend rock concerts, and to share in his MSU Spartan fandom. Over the years, though, I lost my patience with action movies, loud music venues, and trips to East Lansing, Michigan. As a result, my husband and I are often two ships passing in the night, retreating to our separate TVs and interests. In order to grow together and not apart, we need to embrace each other’s passions to some degree. Maybe a date night at the new Star Wars movie is a place to start.

I am an inveterate homebody. I love nothing more than to stay home with a good book and my family. But getting out and being with other people is healthy. Last night, a dear friend of mine from college hosted my husband and myself at her home for dinner. It was so great to reconnect with her and her husband and to be social. My sister is another person who helps get me off the couch and out into the world. Because of her, I see more live theater than I ever would if left to my own devices. In 2020, I plan to be the seeker and initiator of more experiences with others in my life.

Openness also means the willingness to listen to others whose beliefs differ from my own. Especially in this charged political climate, it has seemed impossible to cross the partisan divide. As a presidential election looms, I plan to seek other outlooks on the candidates and the issues facing America today. Such openness will either confirm my current beliefs, alter them, or expand them to include more nuance, more areas of gray. I hope Americans on both sides of the aisle at least attempt to hear each other instead of constantly listening to the echo chamber of their own political stances.

I’m looking forward to a new decade. My children are (mostly) grown, and my time is more than ever my own. I plan to make good use of it as we head into the new Roaring Twenties.