Latest 3 Things

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

3 Baffling Bests

We are obsessed with comparing things. Or more to the point, we are fascinated with ranking them. And as you might expect, in a way only Americans can appreciate, we really only care about who’s number one. The late, great Dale Earnhardt captured our national sentiment best when he quipped “Second place is the first loser.” Even in seas full of talent and excellence, we insist on a winner. Can you even remember who lost the Super Bowl? It was only three months ago, and already we’ve forgotten. We select our bests in countless different ways: secret ballots, tournaments, public voting, mathematical formulas and more, and each of them has its imperfections. But on balance, because of the attention we pay, our highest honors are rarely awarded improperly. The command performance gets the Oscar, the prettiest girl wins the tiara and the best team wins the championship. There are however, those most subjective awards, whose secret selection process in private rooms seems not only fallible, but downright wrong. In this first year of a new decade, I’ve noted more misses than hits, more snubs than locks and more undeserved praise than an episode of Celebrity Rehab. I think you’ll agree, here are 3 questionable bests, and who really should have won:

1. Need You Not. First off, let me just say, I’m a big fan of country music. Say what you like, if you haven’t been to a honky tonk (i.e. country bar), you have no idea what you’re missing out on. And with that in mind, I couldn’t be happier to see country enjoying a popular resurgence. Country music just has a different kind of soul than the rest of the stuff that’s out there. Trust me, I’ve converted more than a few people over to my way of thinking about it. But even with all that, the Recording Academy couldn’t have missed by more when it gave its top Grammy award (Record of the Year) to Lady Antebellum for “Need You Now.” Don’t get me wrong, they’re a great band, and they have some great songs. But that’s no more the best record recorded this year than any of the forgettable drivel expelled by the Bieber/Cyrus/Swift collective. I discovered the real record of the year during a seemingly scripted exchange with a disc jockey at my favorite country bar. “Hey, what was that last song?” “F*#k you!” “Hey, f*#k you, Frank! I just want to know the name of the song!” “No, that’s the name of the song!” “Oh... catchy!” Modern R&B has become so forgettably formulaic that I normally wouldn’t recognize a single track from the entire Billboard R&B Top 100. But Cee Lo Green's iconic track successfully fused post-modern doo-wop, hip-hop attitude, R&B vocals and a sentiment so universal that it nearly obviates the foul language required to express it. This song will be played in every kind of club for decades (take it from this DJ) - and I’m pretty sure the only reason it didn’t win more awards was the watered down “clean” version which took half the fun and all the “pop” out of the real track. “F*#k you” is this generation’s “Baby Got Back” - and will license more cussing at weddings, barmitzvahs and company Christmas parties than bad catering, open bars and “Mony Mony” put together.

2. The English Patience. For the record, having ten movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar is the worst awards show idea since, well, letting James Franco and Anne Hathaway host one of them. Seriously, I’ve seen shades of grey combined to greater effect than those two mooks. It was like watching an open mike night at a suburban comedy club - mostly just desperation and hopeful (albeit disingenuous) applause. But, I digress. Why anyone would believe that there were ten movies worthy of the show’s most coveted award is beyond me, let alone five. But, despite the super-sized slate of films from which to choose, the selection of “The King’s Speech” was already preordained. After all, not only was the film a “true story” (an apparent prerequisite these days - no matter how loosely based on real events the story actually is), but it was also performed in English accents, which has now become Hollywood’s most reliable imprimatur of artistic merit (outside of casting an English actor to not use their accent, except during press junkets). Despite 235 years of distancing ourselves from them (in ongoing rebellion) - it seems that we still look back to the mother country when we start to lose our social direction, all of our art starts to look the same or too many former SNL cast members start making bad movies. “The Fighter” was a better story (and almost got me to forgive Christian Bale for his "Batman voice"), “Inception” was more engrossing (and did get to forgive Leo DiCaprio for Titanic), “127 Hours” was more artful/independent (but still didn't excuse Franco’s hosting performance), and “The Social Network” may have been the only real zeitgeist in the bunch (and completed Justin Timberlake’s transformation from boy-band-member to legitimate artist - ala Marky Mark). Just because something sounds like art doesn’t mean it is - after all, the Best Picture should be something other than the best movie that will someday air on PBS.

3. J-No. As your average red-blooded American male, I have often engaged in a vigorous debate about the most beautiful women on the planet. When I was young, my tastes ran towards Alyssa Milano, Christie Brinkley and pre-ruined-by-hip-hop Mariah Carey, as I got older, I became a little more Jenny McCarthy, Pam Anderson and a touch of Carmen Electra. Then I began to class it up with with Vanessa Marcil, Jennifer Love Hewitt and, on my particularly cultured days, Jane Seymour. Ultimately I’ve arrived at the conclusion that each of them has a claim in their own right, and while the occasional Swimsuit Issue model and Victoria Secret angel may catch my attention, you never really get over the women who first made you feel like a man. That being said, I don’t have any idea what kind of parallel-reality/Bizzaro-world that the editors of People magazine are living in to declare that Jennifer Lopez is the most beautiful woman in the world, but I know that I don’t want to live there. The girl who scans my groceries is more attractive than J-Lo, and I’m fairly confident that it would take three of her (taped front-to-back) to equal one J-Lo sized backside. And spare me the nonsense about “real women have curves”; for one, this is supposed to be about finding The Most Beautiful Woman In the World - do you really want her to look like everyone else? And for another, there’s nothing “average”, “healthy” or “beautiful” about having an ass you can set a drink on. Seriously, what are the odds that the most beautiful female on the planet is married to Mark Anthony anyways? Sure, she can sing - and yes, she’s doing a passable job on the world’s most popular show, but c’mon. With that much make-up and hair, I can look like J0Lo. You know who has curves? Sophia Loren has curves, Catherine Zeta-Jones has curves, Kim Kardashian has curves - what J-Lo has is a giant ass, and the day she’s truly the most beautiful woman in the world is the day I’ll leave it.

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The fact that we get it wrong from time to time, shouldn’t really discourage us all that much. Choosing the best of anything can be a dicey proposition at best, and we are imperfect creatures using our imperfect judgment. However, we should resist the temptation to run far afield of what we truly know to be good or true simply to prove a point or earn the approval of those around us. The world is not a fair place, despite all of our constructs to the contrary. Pretty often trumps ugly, fast often trumps slow, and if we’re lucky, smart often trumps dumb. Working to create exceptions to these rules, however, is not only disingenuous, it also devalues the rare and wondrous occasions when it happens on its own. Underdogs aren’t underdogs if we build the system to favor them. It is just as quintessentially American to love winners as it is to love the rags to riches, bottom to top, last to first story. The American dream isn’t born of staying at the top, it’s about scratching and clawing your way up there, through sheer force of will. What used to be a universal desire to be the best has become, of late, creating bests where they don’t really exist: giving every kid a trophy, refusing to name valedictorians, and letting more and more teams into championship tournaments. But if we’re all the best, then none of us are - and instead of all winning, we all lose.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

3 Political Paradoxes

I’ve never considered myself a particularly political person, and would consider political activism (e.g., picketing, protesting, rallying, etc.) to have roughly the same time efficacy as watching the Jersey Shore, and yet, I have always been unable to escape the matter. Whether it's folks recommending I run, my family inexplicably turning Tea Party crazy, or just the intermittent traffic on my Facebook news feed - politics follows me like a crazy ex-girlfriend. In general, however, I try to keep up. Even as an official member of the “middle aged” demographic (35-45), I make an effort to stay connected to trends in technology, commerce, art, music, business, etc. And to that end, very little catches me off guard. But I don’t have any idea what’s happened with politics. I feel like I’ve been in a cryogenic chamber for 20 years, woken up, and everything’s gone completely crazy. I don’t recognize politics; I don’t recognize the players, the people or the sides. I don’t know when everyone got so mad, and I certainly don’t remember when the stakes went from haughty disagreement to murderous rage. But as I try to step back and take a good look, there remains some confusion - and so as an alternative to the 24-hour news/commentary cycle, here are 3 political paradoxes - that I just can’t figure out:

1. The Wrong of the Right. Up until a year ago, I was registered for my entire adult life as a Republican. It always just made sense to me. I grew up idolizing Alex P. Keaton, and in a country were Ronald Reagan was a modern day Eisenhower. Capitalism went from helping us lead the world to putting us in a class of our own. It was all about making the money and keeping the money. Government was there in the background - but the world was about business, and politics was there just to keep everyone playing by the rules (for the most part). But somewhere along the way, being a Republican became being a conservative, and being a conservative became being religious. In the span of my adult life, the GOP went from Gordon Gecko to Sarah Palin. We started out as captains of industry bent on self-made success, to trailer park, bible thumping mouth breathers who claim they’re the “real” America. Now, I’m no sociologist, but I’m fairly certain there’s never been a successful society who heralded as champions, its 50th percentile - and I’m sure there’s not a successful political party that’s ever done it. My old party, no longer grand in any sense, has become a tyranny of fools - built on the paranoia of ignorance, and shaking its fist at the storied academic halls that bore its greatest traditions. Capitalism has never been successfully navigated by fools, and never ridden to the highest classes by those whose faith outpaces their work ethic. And yet, these are leaders of the modern day right. The Tea Party is the worst bastardization of a good idea since New Coke. And just like Coke, I’ll forgive them for messing it up, as soon as they start bottling up GOP Classic again.

2. Missing the Middle. It might just be a function of my old age, but lately I feel like pulling kids aside and telling them about the good ol‘ days, when there was a big group of people (read as: the majority of folks) who liked a little bit of each party’s politics - though they may like one a little more than the other. When the balance of power transferred from one to the other (as was destined to take place), they endured a little bit of what they didn’t like for a little of what they did. Each party would insist that the other party had it all wrong - but in the end, they’d come together and reach compromised solutions that had the country’s best interests at heart. Unfortunately, just like the disappearing middle class, the political middle has similarly vanished. Being a moderate is now viewed as traitorous and weak-minded. Being non-committal as a voter is just as unforgivable as if it were the politicians themselves. Modern day political participation requires, as a prerequisite, that you choose a side. And by choosing a side, it means you whole-heartedly commit to one, and abandon as utterly without merit, the other. The problem with this idealogical segregation is that it reduces personal opinion on an impossibly diverse set of issues to a single choice. It’s like choosing a college based solely on the mascot - or a house based on how the doorbell sounds. Take it from someone who got the education of a lifetime at a school with a goat for a mascot - it’s better to take a deep look, at your school, your house and especially your politics. I don’t care if I’m the only one there - I‘m stepping back to the middle, feel free to join me.

3. To The Extreme. I can remember when being hard-core into politics meant more than one bumper sticker, a few signs on your yard, and showing up to a rally or two. These days, it means plotting the actual death of the other side’s leaders, likening its proponents to historically evil ideologies and/or spewing rhetoric so caustic that it makes that one crazy uncle you used to have that served in the Army seem like Miss Manners. Incompetence, ignorance and dishonesty used to be capitol political crimes; now they seem like prerequisites. Hyperbole has become the regular language of political discourse, and U.S. Senators now defend the use of completely contrived pseudo-facts on the Senate floor, as necessary to make their point. In a world of nearly universal and constant media bombardment, it seems that we’re remiss to pay attention to anything that doesn’t threaten us (or the world at large) with imminent harm or descent into anarchy and chaos. As a result, every disagreement roils into a high-stakes, life-and-death conflict of wills, that can only really be decided by the death, dismemberment or severe handicapping of the losing party. All liberals are Communists, all conservatives are fascists. The “slippery slope” argument has become the “sheer cliff” argument - where any inkling turns into blinding allegiance. Any failure to disclose turns into a conspiracy so vast and sinister that the JFK assassination seems like a Sunday picnic by comparison. But how can we be expected to keep our cool when the people we elect and pay to have perspective behave more like members of rival gangs than professionals with differing opinions?

* * *

When it comes to politics, I have always been the tolerant sort. After all, it was a recognizably cyclical process, and if you didn’t like the way things were going all you really needed to do was wait, and pretty soon they’d be headed in a different direction. When this whole Tea Party thing started, Fox News lost its mind, and otherwise normal people became convinced that the President of the United States was literally out to get them - I bit my tongue, retreated for a bit and hoped it would pass. But as time has worn on, this movement has not worn out, and I fear that we’ve finally found a way to punctuate the end of the Information Age - with the Decade of Ignorance. There is not much that I fear more than a tyranny of fools - and in that, the fear-mongering set may finally have found a way to get to me to be scared right along with them. But as I’ve often been told, bravery isn’t about not being scared, it’s about being strong in the face of fear. So for my part in this brave new world, despite my aversion to idiocy, I’m fighting the good political fight with the one weapon that appears to be missing from current political battlefields: reason. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

3 Things to Remember

A wise man once said: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” And twenty five years later, life’s moving a whole lot faster than we ever could have imagined back then. It’s never been easier to lose sight of the forest for the trees, and with more self-indulgent tools at our fingertips than ever before (e.g. Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and even blogs), it’s a wonder we can ever see past our own noses. It is also our nature to focus on the negative, and take the positive for granted. After all, no matter how much good is in our lives, we still seek to eliminate the bad - so it should come as no surprise that we’re conditioned to pay it the most attention. And so with lives full of love, we see the few who hate us, and with lives full of success we replay and relive our failures - daring to call ‘deluded’ anyone who doesn’t similarly commiserate. The gift of perspective is often an unexpected one, and is usually forced to arrive with a good bit of force to jar loose our stubborn tendencies; and I have been fortunate to recently receive it. And while I continue to battle with my propensity for paying attention to the most negative people in my life, I was reminded of those precious few people who really make all the difference in our lives, here are 3 things to remember when you’re busy forgetting them:

1. Someone Looks Up To You. It’s a heady realization - for any of us. Because for all of us, it’s true. We are all role models to someone. When we are young, we look up to nearly everyone; the adult world beyond our reach - impossibly mature, complex and stylized, our more popular and attractive peers - seemingly effortlessly navigating an otherwise suffocating social hierarchy, and those charged with helping us make the transition to adulthood - our parents, teachers and coaches, whose knowledge and judgment often seems infallible. But as we grow and continue to look up, we often neglect to look back down and see who’s looking up at us. Sometimes they are the obvious ones: younger siblings, pupils or children we care for; but often times they are unexpected and even more often go unknown. I recently had someone from my past not only tell me that they had looked up to me twenty years ago - but also, what they thought of me: how I seemed to have it all together, have strong convictions, etc. What struck me about this revelation was not how utterly wrong it was (my life was so tragic it was almost comic, almost), but how horribly I must have acted back then. The idea that anyone would look up to me at that point was so outlandishly foreign that I never considered, in that context, what I said, did or, more importantly, failed to say or do. Self-pity is an ugly and un-inspirational thing - especially when you remember that someone is watching you with those same eyes that you used to look at your big brother/sister, parents and/or teachers with. The opportunity to inspire is as precious as any, and it often takes little more to take advantage of it than recalling that as poorly as you may think you’re doing - someone thinks you’re absolutely nailing it, and prays they can do it just like you do.

2. Someone Misses You. One of the most astounding and saddening by-products of our brave new world of connectivity is just how profoundly alone it makes us feel. I can connect with the people in my life more effortless and robustly than I could even have dreamed just a few short years ago. I can send short messages, long messages, voice messages and even video messages with the touch of a button. I have over five hundred friends on Facebook, and thousands of people will read this. And yet I sometimes find myself as disconnected and lonely as I’ve ever been. We have been presented with a world of infinite connections, and it makes our own limited connectivity feel small and unworthy. We fawn over personalities with millions of “friends” or “followers” and long, enviously, to be known and desired by people we don’t even know. Even those of us who neglect to drink the Kool-Aid handed out by the Church of Fame are guilty of taking for granted of looking ahead at the expense of remembering to look back. We are the product less of the countless people who have touched our lives just for a moment than those special few who changed it immeasurably. And conversely, for the innumerable lives we will only briefly touch, we will deeply affect but a precious handful. As it turns out, in those moments of solitude, if you close your eyes and think about it, it’s not the adoring crowd that you miss - it’s those scarce few who make all the difference. Thankfully, the hole they leave by being gone is best filled by remembering that they miss you, too.

3. Someone Loves You. You’ve seen love. You know what it is; read about it, watched it, and listened to someone sing about it with more conviction than could possibly be faked. If you’re lucky you’ve felt it, but you’ve probably also felt what it’s like to lose it. But, no matter what your experience with love, the one thing that unites us is our universal feeling of unworthiness. We know nothing so intimately as our own imperfections. We know our failures, shortcomings and deficiencies more intimately than our own names - and when anyone sings our praises, a voice inside tells us that they couldn’t possibly have seen all of us, for no one who can see the warts (both inside and out) could love that. I recall believing in my teenage years, as a truth every bit as universal as the sun rising, that I could not be loved. But it wasn’t any more real for me then as it is for any of us now. No matter how wretched, horrible or utterly unlovable you believe yourself to be - someone loves you. Someone can’t imagine a world without you. Someone thinks you're perfect, just the way you are. But most importantly, someone is waiting for you to notice, to feel it, and to feel just as worthy as they think you are.

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It’s so easy to get caught up in the negative, the banal and the downright depressing, as there’s just so much of it around. In this Information Age, the real tragedy is not the flood tide of data that we’re scarcely able to consume but rather that most of this unending flood of information we’re getting is bad news. If you listen carefully you’ll discover that you’re not good enough, not rich enough, not cool enough, not hot enough, not smart enough and most certainly not happy enough. And while I’ve always felt that the one skill essential to becoming educated is the ability to listen, I also know that listening to too much without thinking for yourself will turn your otherwise useful brain into so much strawberry Jell-O. One of the greatest tools we have been given is our memory. Our ability to learn and grow depends on it. But as important as it is to use it for the facts, lessons and skills we’ve acquired over the years, it is even more important to use it to keep those people who matter most close to us, no matter how far away they (or we) get.