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Let Your Heart Be Light*

charlie brown

The days are getting noticeably shorter and carbohydrate cravings are growing stronger. By mid-October there’s no denying that there’s a change a coming. The first scattering of little costumed people and dogs have appeared (either going to pre-Halloween celebrations or having trick-or-treating dry runs.) By this weekend the streets will be alive with all manner of elaborate costume. Children will take on the mantle of popular movie, cartoon and video game characters. Young (and not so young) women will dress as slutty; nurses, waitresses, devils and angels. It will all build to the crescendo that is the Village Halloween Parade, an event that celebrates wit, witticism, irony and drag. And then ladies and gentlemen the party really gets started.

Before the last candy corn has been eaten (or tossed) it will be time for “the holidays.” As you pull the fake cobwebs down from your walls you will be implored (by television, radio, podcast, website, magazine, and newspaper) to perfect your turkey. Every year the “experts” come out to tell us the failsafe way to remedy our annual poultry failings. Personally I have never known any Thanksgiving that hinged upon the perfection of the bird. There is way too much family drama (not too mention side dishes) to really focus on grading the turkey. Besides, isn’t gravy’s job to democratize and flavor? But never us mind, the airwaves will blast with brining, frying, boning promises. Tips for new and exciting ways to invent old favorites will appear. As if Thanksgiving is a cocktail party not a holiday celebrating tradition and very specific foods. Let’s face it the only help any of us need, short of an invitation to someone else’s house, is the Butterball hotline. Those little holiday angels make up for every bad customer service phone bank everywhere. We love you Butterball!

While all this media “filler” (or should we call it “stuffing?”) occurs, the rumbling of the real “holidays” train can be heard. The “holidays” as we now seem to call Christmas, begin to be feverishly pitched earlier and earlier, but still subscribes to a certain; Thanksgiving first, etiquette. At 11:58 AM EST Thanksgiving Day, Santa Claus heads into Herald Square signaling that it is now polite to discuss his special day. (By the way, if there is any confusion over the overt euphemism of “the holidays” pay close attention this year. Chanukah will be over on December 5th yet dollars to donuts the talking heads will still be referring to last minute “holiday” shopping and “holiday” gift ideas until December 24th.) There is actually much to be said of this time of year. People’s spirits (outside of shopping malls and large toy stores) are lifted and light. Everything looks prettier as Christmas wreaths and trees pop up in even the most secular of locations. If you’re lucky, invitations and chances to dress up increase and there may even be presents.

For some however, it’s mostly frenzy. Even if you don’t work as a Christmas elf, chances are your workload dramatically increases before “the holidays.” Deadlines and meetings get squished into that apr├Ęs Thanksgiving, pre-getting the hell out of town, period. People (and by people we mean mostly women) who feel it’s their responsibility to create the holiday, don’t necessarily bask in the sights and sounds of the season. There are many people whose activity or responsibilities don’t seasonally increase, but their loneliness or sadness does. Even those not mired in loss or illness, may find this time of year triggering a short-term discrete melancholy. Memories can be haunting as can unfulfilled dreams. Whether we’re leading the holiday charge or feeling the parade is passing us by, it’s important to keep in touch with how we’re feeling. For people who love nothing more than a 4-page to-do list and arms filled with shopping bags, there’s not much internal checking in that needs to occur this time of year. But those little Santa’s helpers are in a great position to check-in on those around them. Everyone knows someone who’s suffered a loss or is naturally fragile. This time of year provides ample opportunity to reach out. Issue invitations or drop by with small gifts or treats. All that matters is that you connect. For those who have a hard time, know your triggers. Step away from the television, especially when It’s A Wonderful Life comes on. Stay away from places that feel overwhelming or lonely. Do less that you don’t enjoy and more that you do. Plan lovely things for yourself. Is there a book you’ve been meaning to read, a place you’d like to visit, a food you’d like to try? Now is the time to plan gifts for yourself. It may seem as if the whole world is trimming a perfect tree, clinking egg nog glasses and singing carols. But the truth of the matter is that very few people actually live in a fantasy world. Most of us struggle in one way or another, and knowing that can be a great comfort.

The best we can do, this time or anytime of year, is to not get ahead of ourselves. Christmas and the New Year are four days of celebration two months away. There are over 60 days worth celebrating until then.

*Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (1943) – Ralph Blane & Hugh Martin

 

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Still Dreaming After All These Years

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Fifty years is a long time; a very long time. A 50th anniversary is always worthy of commemoration, and naturally occurs within the framework of modernity. Fifty years ago, on an oppressively hot humid day on August 28th, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people marched for freedom and jobs in an event twenty years in the making. They came on buses, trains and on foot; slept wherever they could or perhaps not at all. They marched through the nation’s capital, towards the mall, not knowing what to expect or how things might end. It was a dangerous time for protestors and in Washington D.C.; imprisonment, beatings and even killings were (and continued) to occur. But they came in their finest, marching and standing in that unrelenting heat all day long.

Fifty years later, in 2013, it took days of events to commemorate all that occurred on that one day. A week’s worth of marches, demonstrations, speeches, and festivities culminated in an all-day rally on August 28th, 2013. Over five hours a schedule of military minute precision brought performers and speakers to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Early on the crowd (which stretched from monument to monument) was led by Andrew Young in; Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Freedom. This set a communal tone for a crowd diverse in age, background and agenda. Another sing-along that either conjured strong memories or made one think of one’s parents, was Peter and Paul singing Blowin’ In The Wind. Anyone familiar with Peter (in particular, but also,) Paul and the late Mary won’t be surprised to learn that Trayvon Martin’s parents stood with the performers. Many who took the stage were living remembrances of the 1963 March. Representative John Lewis (the youngest speaker in 1963) invoked sentiments repeatedly echoed on the steps; “The scars and stains of racism still remain deeply embedded in American society, whether it is stop and frisk in New York or injustice in Trayvon Martin case in Florida, the mass incarceration of millions of Americans, immigrants hiding in fear in the shadow of our society, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, hunger or the renewed struggle for voting rights. So I say to each of us today, we must never, ever give up. We must, ever give in. We must keep the faith and keep our eyes on the prize.”

Two of Dr. King’s children spoke, but it was Christine King Farris, King’s older sister who surprised and moved the crowd. She referred to herself as perhaps not the oldest person present but certainly the only one who had known Dr. King since he was in diapers. She hadn’t been able to attend 50 years prior, due to a bad flu, but had watched her brother on television and knew something magical had happened. She spoke eloquently, powerfully and personally and the crowd felt they had been invited into the circle. Reverend Bernice King, clearly inheriting her father’s gift for oration, was inspiring; “We are still chained by economic disparities, class inequalities and conditions of poverty for many of God’s children in this nation and around the world. If we are going to continue the struggle for freedom and create true community, then we will have to be relentless in exposing, confronting and ridding ourselves of the mindset of pride, and greed, and selfishness, and hate, and lust, and fear, and idleness, and lack of purpose and lack of love as my brother said for our neighbor.” She ended her remarks at precisely 3:00 PM for the ringing of the bell. The bell, the crowd learned, was salvaged from the Birmingham Baptist Church, a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that led us to this day.

The most remarkable aspect of the day’s programming was that of having three United States Presidents on the agenda. Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama were greeted like rock stars and did not disappoint. They paid homage to the work of Dr. King and the strides of the movement, but as one would expect from world leaders, they also carefully criticized complacency, or worse; backsliding. It is a difficult conundrum, complacency. While it is natural to be reactionary to policies and actions that are blatantly racist, it is challenging to keep the fire burning day to day. When we are no longer daily confronted with signs of “Whites Only” or bus and school segregation, our shoulders lower and we breathe easier. But, as the speakers reminded us throughout the day, there is so much left to do. Poverty, incarceration, immigration, voting rights and equality are very current issues. Progress has been made, but we are nowhere near the finish line.

It is so tempting to lose our focus, to give into distraction. In fifty years we’ve evolved into a nation of perpetual distraction and extroversion. Where the 1963 March was an open and accessible event, the 2013 event was constrained and produced for the media. Enormous television camera towers blocked the view for all but the “ticketed” attendees (an oddity juxtaposed to a day celebrating equality.) Celebrities with no obvious connection to the movement spoke and sang (or lip synched) for the cameras. Two dance groups (in very photogenic costume) performed, an odd artistic choice for any rally with limited views. The singers (except for Peter and Paul) sang gospel music, even though international (and even national) folk singers still abound today. But the 2013 event was packaged for viewers back home. That isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just different. As were the 20-somethings playing candy crush during the speakers, and the thousands of selfie pics being taken throughout the day. But amongst all that noise were young, middle-aged and 1963 alumni, riveted and moved. Heads bowed and bobbed, hands waved in solidarity and to this attendee it looked like hope.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2013 in Cultural Critique

 

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A Delicate Balance

nurse

As long as the world exists there will be cause for concern. There will always be people treating each other badly, leaders using extraordinarily poor judgment, and exasperating public sentiment. It is tempting to become mired in the infuriating or insipid. But it is not advisable. Most people, unless they fall into the sociopathic spectrum, care about the world around them. Some of us are more inclined to empathize with the natural world; some consider human rights their bailiwick. There are others who are more meta in their concerns and look at the world as a whole and think; OMG! Whether you choose from column A, B, C or make your own hodgepodge, it’s crucial to keep perspective.

There are people who dedicate their entire lives to affecting change. Their work, lifestyle and every waking moment are spent trying to eradicate something. Most of us however are not chaining ourselves to trees or sleeping outside of the Supreme Court. We do what we do; write checks, canvass voters, write elected officials, participate in protests, adopt strays; and hope it makes a tiny difference. We talk about what’s important to us in the hopes of raising consciousness (and with the fear that silence=complicity.) We teach our children about our politics and social values in the hope that they will be engaged and do good work. But just a small step beyond this lays the tricky territory. Thanks in no small part to our 24-hour news cycle & group think of social media, we can easily become mired.

We know this is more likely to happen during any type of disaster (“disaster” for our purposes is defined as anything that is named and given a news show graphic.) Rarely is there any “news” after a disaster, but the coverage churns on. When the last of the confetti has been swept, the media rolls out the “how to talk to your kids about (insert disaster moniker)” “Experts” tell us how to speak to children of every age (hint: make it age-appropriate.) Nobody ever seems to question how a child would know of this disaster. Unless the child is directly affected by it, why is anyone exposing them to the incident? We run the risk of having our child think of the world as a frightening unpredictable place. There’s no reason for them to know that just yet. Let them wait until they’re big and strong and feel less vulnerable.

Disasters aside, dismal things are always happening and as adults we must find our way. We must walk away from the chatter and toward meaningful conversation. We need to know our limits and put down the paper or remote. We need to decide how much is too much and find our balance of engagement. Life is more multidimensional than simply repairing the world. Life includes relationships, celebrations, and pleasure. It doesn’t help anyone or anything to compromise these gifts of life. What point is there in repairing a world in which there’s no joy?

 
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Posted by on July 22, 2013 in Well-Being

 

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Step Right Up And See The Show!

tent

Is there anyone so decent as to not enjoy watching the mighty slip and fall? Schadenfreude; it’s not just fun to say! There is nothing shameful in experience just the tiniest thrill when celebrities’ true colors are flown in full view. It’s not that we’ve been campaigning for their demise or even giving it a moment’s thought. It’s just that sooner or later we grow tired of the monsters we’ve created.

A celebrity is nothing more than someone who has orchestrated our interest. They could not exist were it not for our buy-in. Playing a sport well does not make you a celebrity (as anyone who’s played an obscure sport in the Olympics) nor does proficiency in the arts (quick: who’s the ’2013 Face of Oboists’?) Being a celebrity means we know who you are. That’s all. Sometimes the phenomenon is accidental; say, the result of landing an airplane safely in the Hudson River. But statistically speaking far more celebrities are self-created.

Most of us, even while queuing up to see the latest blockbuster or buying the latest gizmo or gadget, mildly resent being manipulated. We don’t mind it enough to stop buying what’s being sold but on some level it rankles just a tad. Which is why it makes things a bit entertaining when they go awry. Our pleasure is less distasteful due to the fact that these people will rise from the (artfully placed) ashes. Anyone who has come from a blue-collar New Jersey town, or sold sandwiches or window treatments door to door is going to bounce back just fine. These are scrappy and ingenious self-promoters who will not go gently into obscurity. Sure they might put a Kmart contract at risk while in the slammer, but don’t you shed a tear. They will figure out how to get the biggest publicity bang out of the experience. That’s the beauty of celebrity. Who you are and what you can do are immaterial; it’s all about your barker skills. Placing gourds around your home in the fall, adding mayonnaise to every meal or using ‘really good vanilla’ are not unique or even mildly interesting techniques. But describing these endeavors with proper lighting, condescending tone or good-ole girl twang, is a great gimmick. (And you know, it really is best to get a gimmick.)

So when these celebrities who have cultivated a brand of ‘don’t you wish you were me?” have their underbelly exposed it’s just a tiny bit satisfying. We are not disappointed and distressed as we are when elected officials or society folks show their worst selves. Instead we have just a nanosecond of ‘no, I really don’t wish I were you.’ We still buy the junk they’re selling of course. But for at least a moment we will be aware of the ingredients. And being aware of what we consume, even if it’s only for a moment, is never a bad thing.

 
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Posted by on June 22, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Media/Marketing

 

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Sideshow

freaks

It’s now been several generations since we considered a carnival sideshow an acceptable form of entertainment. Today photos or drawings from early 20th century circuses tend to evoke gasps. It’s jarring to consider that people who had an unconventional appearance were put on display and were considered entertainment. What societal limitations caused people to take to the circus tent? What kind of people would take pleasure in viewing a ‘freak show’? We will cover these and other questions in Intro To Reality Television: Evolution and Devolution.

After the Elephant Man heyday of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Americans got hold of themselves and backed away from such voyeurism and exhibitionism. Later, with the advent of political correctness we bowed our heads in shame and taught our children not to point. If we came across a midnight showing of Freaks (1932) we watched it in the dark, with a certain amount of guilt. And then we got our base groove back. Sometime during the Reagan boom years we found comfort in gawking at the rich. It’s okay to gawk and make spectacle of those (economically) better off, right? Robin Leach was the mid-1980s barker of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and we gawked. He paved the way for us to release our pent up desires. Soon the business of celebrity boomed, to feed our insatiable appetite for fodder. It was okay to gawk and poke fun at people who had what we did not. But like any indulgence, it lost its ability to satisfy. Soon it wasn’t enough to see a child actress implode in front of our eyes. After a dozen or so of those kids, it ceases to impress.

Media abhors a vacuum, and can spot a hole in the market from space. Cue the new wave of reality television. A modern audience would not be satisfied with viewing a stock still anomaly on a stage, we are happier to see these specimens in their ‘natural’ habitat. We want to see people with their; 6,8,12,18,20 children going about their daily lives. Viewing wealthy people’s staged homes is no longer enough. We need to see them in prompted dramas. We need to see them dressed in award ceremony gowns to attend barbecues. We want to see them squabbling and behaving like junior high school students. We care little that there is no real wealth (and often bankruptcy.) Who cares that a title has been purchased, the hair is synthetic and the faces could be used as flotation devices? What we love is the sideshow behavior. It matters not that the behavior is created for our viewing pleasure. Who really cares that a toddler’s beauty pageant (in a sad little rural motel) is the most boring event one could ever imagine? With enough manufactured histrionics and adept editing, it’s more fun than a cross-dressing General Tom Thumb. Having a messy house, clipping coupons, or choosing a dress, are a snore fest. But throw in a few “No she didn’ts” or a litany of psychobabble and you’ve got yourself a show. The more fragile a participant is, the better the show. Make them cry, make them sound certifiable, and we’ll grab our chips and put down the remote. Emotional instability not your thing? Fear not, we’ve got shows about little people, the conjoined, the fattest man, the fattest woman, and the tattooed. Sound familiar? P.T. Barnum would be so proud.

In preparation of our next session: Professions Made To Look Glamorous; please review Baking, Trucking, Fishing shows and the newest addition to the golden age of television: The Search Is on for the Best Hooker in America.

 

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