Monday, March 29, 2010

Living With the Gray

One of my readers has suggested that I write more about controversial issues. This reader is not in my target demographic, and so may be less than captivated by my nostalgic Baby Boomer musings.

However, being controversial at my age is not as easy as it sounds. When you get older, things turn gray. I'm not talking about hair. I simply mean that once you've lived through multiple decades, crises, and presidents, life's political issues don't seem so black and white anymore. For example:

War. History vilifies English prime minister Neville Chamberlain for appeasing the Nazis in 1938; the Germans then overran Europe. Sometimes I think we suffered through the Vietnam War because politicians didn't want to see that same sequence of events — then referred to as the domino theory — replayed in Southeast Asia. It didn't happen, but we spent 50,000 lives and untold billions figuring it out.

We're purportedly in the Middle East today to keep it from being taken over by Islamic fascists, and yet, some of our allies there are as bad as the people we're fighting. World War I sowed the seeds for World War II; are we sowing the seeds for World War III in the Middle East today?

Pre-marital Sex. Once upon a time, pre-marital sex was bad. It brought unplanned pregnancies (the term "unwed mother" predated "single parent"). It spread sexually transmitted diseases. But society's disdain for it, like so many things, was hypocritical. Before marriage, boys were supposed to sow their wild oats and girls were supposed to be virgins. This is mathematically impossible.

Today, of course, there is no such thing as pre-marital sex. It's just sex. To my moderate mind, it helps couples see if they can reach the deepest levels of intimacy before they commit to a lifetime together. The alternative is to wait, discover you've chosen badly, and then divorce. But the same people who are against pre-marital sex seem to also be against divorce. This is emotionally impossible.

At the same time, it strikes me as unfair and even sexist that when young men and young women engaging in premarital sex create an unintentional offspring, it's the women who end up being the single parent. I believe the vagaries of the human spirit require some societal flexibility, but I worry about a world populated by only children who don't have the advantage of two parents who can trade off when one gets tired, not to mention the social graces they learn by having to share with siblings.

Politics. This is my grayest area of all. Rebelling against New Deal-Democrat parents, I registered as a Republican after my 18th birthday. But I went contrary to the tenet "if you're not a liberal by the time you’re twenty, you have no heart, and if you're not a conservative by the time you’re forty, you have no brain." I have become more, but not completely, liberal. Like a lot of people I know, I've left the Republican party but still can’t bear to join the Democrats.

I've come to realize that not everyone has had the advantages I had growing up, and the government in its vastness should offer some assistance to people who are trying to better themselves. But I also believe that you can't fund everything forever. We seem to have devolved into government by attention-deficit disorder, wholly reactive and short-sighted as opposed to focusing on how to make the country better and stronger for the next generation. Congress uses the future like a credit card that never comes due, so it can take credit today.

But the bigger problem is that while I'm mired in gray, much of the rest of the country is mired in black-and-white thinking. The result: an increasing polarization of the country, an increasing demonization of opponents (casting a racial slur at John Lewis makes as much sense as calling George Washington a traitor to King George III). One side seems to spend precious little time even acknowledging that there may be another side. It twists the perspective on almost any situation to fit its own. I sit here discouraged because I feel like we've lost a sense of accommodation, of compromise, of working together for a common goal.

Maybe this is my generation, the me generation, writ large: we want what we want and to hell with your opinion. I find myself yearning for less extremism and more centrism, in essence a wider understanding that in a complex world, there is no black and white. There is only gray and we have to get used to living in it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

With A Little Help from Friends

The funny thing about pop culture is the way we amalgamate pieces of it into our lives. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would ask each other "Do you feel lucky?" years after Dirty Harry was released. To this day, I don't have to be standing knee-deep in galactic garbage to intone, "I have a bad feeling about this, Han Solo."

Furthermore, it's something we never outgrow. Even before the series ended, my wife and I had started incorporating bits and pieces of Friends into our lives. That's not surprising — not only was it was a funny, popular show for ten years, but it was one of the first TV shows to have all ten seasons available on DVD. (Some of us are still waiting for the complete Perry Mason and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) And of course, its reruns are as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy once was.

That's why I frequently ask cattily, "Did I say that out loud?" like Chandler, and my wife echoes Jack Geller by insisting, "I’m just saying." Occasionally, we'll quote Phoebe by shrieking, "This is madness … MADNESS!"

But the best thing we've extracted from Friends — and the one most germane to the theme of this blog — actually comes from a minor character: Mr. Heckles, the downstairs neighbor. Mr. Heckles was the neighborhood curmudgeon; even his name connoted someone bothersome. Played with hangdog perfection by character actor Larry Hankin (pictured), he had, among other traits, a bizarre attraction to animals. He claimed that the cat that belonged to Rachel's paramour Paolo was actually his, and he dressed Ross' capuchin monkey Marcel in outlandish outfits.

But mostly Mr. Heckles complained about the noise that came not only from Monica and Rachel's apartment, but from all the friends in general. When he died of a heart attack, leaving all his belongings to "the noisy girls upstairs," they discovered that Mr. Heckles kept a meticulous journal, nicely embossed with the words My Big Book of Grievances.

In this journal, he recorded all of his aggravations. "Italian guy [Joey] comes home late; excessive noise." "Italian guy’s gay roommate [Chandler] brings dry cleaning home; excessive noise."

This is the pop-culture concept we have taken into our hearts.

Mr. Heckles' book is the perfect antidote to the aggravations of life. When someone cuts me off in traffic, my wife says gently, "Put it in the Big Book." When a checkout line isn't moving fast enough, or when dinner doesn't look anything like the picture that accompanies the recipe, we simply look at each other and chime, "Big Book!"

It is the perfect release, a realization that most aggravations in life are not only transitory, but insignificant. And the mental image of recording something in an imaginary book has the exact opposite effect of actually writing it down on a piece of paper — instead of remembering it forever, it vanishes almost immediately. Instead of remembering the slight, we simply remember the Big Book.

That’s what Friends is for.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Slinking Through Time

Why is it that when you're a kid, everything close seems far away, but when you become an adult, everything far away seems close?

When I was a kid, World War II seemed very far away, even though my father and most of my friends' fathers had fought in it. Cars with fins seemed positively ancient, mostly because there had been a profound shift in design principles in 1961, when seemingly every single car manufactured in Detroit got lower and shorter.

I remember watching Some Like It Hot (1959) on television as a child, a movie that took place in 1929. I was horrified by the wanton destruction in the opening scene of what I considered to be antique automobiles. I realize now that they were only 30 years old at the time. When I see cars from 1980 today, they don’t strike me as valuable antiques; they look like candidates for wanton destruction.

But now I can watch movies from the 80s and not consider them dated at all. Movies from the 30s and 40s, not so much. I think it's because I lived through that era; having experienced it, it does not seem distant (that doesn’t explain the thing about the fins, though, because my father owned a 1960 Chrysler Imperial that had two of the most massive fins Detroit ever devised).

This is why I feel perfectly comfortable hearing Beatles tunes coming out of in-store music systems. It only strikes me as odd when I look at the people behind the counter and realize that the music is frequently older than they are. Did in-store music systems play Big Band music from World War II thirty years ago? Will they be playing Eminem and Larry Platt in thirty years?

In trying to understand this phenomenon, I ran across an entry in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy called The Experience and Perception of Time. To be honest, it gave me a headache trying to understand it. I really just wanted an answer to the question I stated at the top of this entry, but I found myself knee-deep in concepts such as A-theory and B-theory and even the Special Theory of Relativity. Heavens to murgatroid.

Since I couldn't grasp those philosophical theories, I've developed my own theory: the AM and PM theory. Anything that came After Me (AM) is familiar and comfortable, and remains so even as I age. My temporal perspective just keeps expanding like an infinite Slinky, and I keep gathering memories that seem like they happened yesterday. Everything what was Previous to Me (PM) just might as well be sitting at the wrong end of a telescope, perhaps close but still appearing distant. I think this is a much simpler theory to grasp.

And they call Baby Boomers self-centered.

Monday, March 8, 2010

When The Brass Ring Slips From Your Fingers

Leading up to the Academy Awards ceremony last night, Turner Classic Movies has been screening its traditional 31 Days of Oscar festival. During this time, it broadcasts a flurry of wonderful films that either won or were nominated for Oscars.

Which always makes me wonder ... whatever happened to some of those actors?

This is not idle curiosity. Earlier this year, I wrote of my lingering yearning for fame and fortune (When Should Boomers Euthanize Their Dreams?), and I have long been fascinated by what happens to people who strive so mightily for the spotlight, only to have it turned off long before they would have flipped the switch themselves. I remember reading once in People that Donna Douglas (Elly Mae on The Beverly Hillbillies) went into real estate. She seemed happy with the decision.

There almost seems to be a palpable pattern. Take an actor like Michael Paré, who made big splashes with Eddie and the Cruisers (1983), Streets of Fire (1984), and The Philadelphia Experiment (1984). Shoot, he doesn't even come up under "popular searches" when you look for him in the Internet Movie Database; Michael Park and Michael Pate do (who?). After those three movies came a short-lived TV series (Houston Knights), supporting roles, and either TV movies or movies with straight-to-video titles (Ninja Cheerleaders, BloodRayne II: Deliverance).

It’s not just actors. Whatever happened to Robert James Waller, whose novel Bridges of Madison County created such a splash? And the legions of one-hit wonders in the music industry? Do they constantly yearn for those early days of promise? Do they wallow in the inflection points of the lives and careers and wonder what would have happened if they'd done just one thing differently?

What happens when they run into people who remember their glory days? What’s that conversation like? I always remember the classic exchange in Sunset Boulevard, when William Holden says to Gloria Swanson, "I know you. You're Norma Desmond. You used to be big." Gloria Swanson replies imperiously, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." Of course, Norma Desmond was completely crazy.

I'm sure some of these people live shockingly middle-class lives. But what if instead of a suburban home, they live in a two-bedroom apartment in a seedy neighborhood, the money gone and the spotlight's filament long ago fizzled? How do they feel then? Grateful for the moment they had? Jealous of those whose careers seem to thrive even with the occasional bomb (come on, Harrison Ford — Hollywood Homicide?). Scheming for a chance at a comeback?

For people like this, I believe there is great comfort in the words of actress and singer Bette Midler, whose career has certainly had its ups and downs. She started out her movie career with a big hit (The Rose) and she followed it up with a stinker (Jinxed). Back in 1987, she explained her feelings about fame to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter: "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, and if you're not prepared to lose, then you shouldn't be playing the game. It's absolutely inevitable that it's going to go away once you get it, so you shouldn't invest so much emotion in it that it's going to crush you when [that time] finally comes. You have to be more devil-may-care, more cavalier. You have to have fun."

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Rich Are Different Than You And Me — Sometimes They’re Stupider

Silicon Valley is currently reeling from the loss of five people in two small-plane crashes just a few days apart. Three engineers from electric car manufacturer Tesla died when their plane apparently lost power in the fog and clipped an electrical transmission tower. A biotech lawyer and his fiancée died when their plane went down just one-eighth of a mile from their destination.

I have never — never — understood the rich's fascination for certain toys. Take golf courses — all that grass, all the water to keep it green, and all those fences to keep other people out. Take sailboats — they cost a fortune to buy and berth, and you spend more time maintaining them than actually being out on the water.

Let me make clear that I'm no populist, communist, or socialist. I'd like to be wealthy myself. I like flying first class. I like staying in hotels that overlook the Grand Canal in Venice. I like six-way adjustable leather seats.

But this fascination with small planes baffles me the most. I was in New York City the night of July 16, 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. (pictured), his wife Carolyn, and her sister Lauren took off in a small plane piloted by Kennedy headed for Martha's Vineyard for a wedding. They never made it. Some trivial matter delayed them, and they ended up flying at night, for which Kennedy, a licensed pilot for less than two years, was apparently both untrained and incapable.

Before I left the following morning, I thought about asking the taxi driver to take me down to Kennedy's apartment building in Tribeca to see the flowers piling up outside, but that seemed a waste of time. We went, instead, straight to Kennedy airport (irony strikes again).

When it got dark, Kennedy could have just gotten on a commercial flight to Martha’s Vineyard, or taken one the following morning. Would that have been so terrible? The Tesla engineers were flying from Palo Alto to Hawthorne, in southern California. Had they flown commercially, they would have had the choice of not one, but two airports: LAX and Long Beach. You can't tell me that, even with security lines, it takes longer to fly to southern California on a Southwest Airlines 737 than it does in a Cessna.

As for the biotech lawyer, okay, he was headed to Groveland, which is out near Yosemite National Park, far from any commercial airports. Still, I don't see the attraction of taking your life and that of your loved ones into your own hands. Wouldn’t the litany of celebrities who’ve died in small plane crashes — Jim Croce, Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline, Cory Lidle, Paul Wellstone, Aaliyah, Payne Stewart, Otis Redding, and Will Rogers, among others — be a deterrent? Life seems to be dangerous enough as it is without coming up with new ways to tempt fate.

Or is tempting fate what made them rich in the first place?