Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

We like to commemorate in the United States. Coming up, what I refer to as The-Anniversary-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named recalls a horrible event ten years ago when four planes, two towers, and several thousand lives were destroyed in an attack on U.S. soil. In the days that followed, we came together, focused not on hate and destruction (at least to my grief-stricken, New York-centric eyes) but on resilience and purpose.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Not that my husband or so many others were killed but that, ten years later, we’re farther apart than ever. Everyone has an opinion as to why that’s happened (everyone has an opinion on everything, freely spoken and easily distributed through the unfiltered megaphone that is the Internet). For me, the decade is captured (albeit in a simplified manner) in a letter I had published in the New York Times the other day in response to an article by Tom Friedman:

After my husband died on 9/11, I hoped the American public, which had come together in a spirit of resilience rather than one of anger, would resist the temptation to blame, to justify, to point fingers or to follow an “us versus them” scenario. Instead we’ve devolved into a selfish group of squabblers, ready to throw strangers under the bus and kick friends off the ladder. A small group sacrifices abroad while we dither about the endgame; here at home, we expect our neighbors to fend for themselves and our government to do its job without revenue. The list of enemies foreign and domestic grows longer; we trust no one. While I’m mindful that my husband may be more fairly called a victim than a hero, I am still saddened that his legacy and that of so many others might be tied to a period of profound civic retrenchment.

On my worst days, I’m tempted to blame everyone, including me for sitting at home and indulging in blame. I want to slap the collective citizenry across the face and yell, “Grow up! Stop fighting! Behave yourselves. No one is always right and no one is always perfect. We have to work together to get anything done. Get off your high horse and get to work!”

Honestly, I hate feeling angry as much as I hated feeling grief-stricken. That’s not who my husband was and it’s not who I am. And so I leave my friends, acquaintances and various readers with this rather hopeful thought, played out visually by a lovely dance troupe of children from Denver, CO who have channeled what we used to think of as the American spirit to produce a stunning montage. Sure, it’s sappy but deep down inside, I’m a sap.


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Although I have friinternet-addictedends in the town where I live, I spend more of my free time online, socializing with people, many of whom I haven’t met in person. This is the new normal, where we can morph into hunky superheroes or meet and “marry” our soul mate and start a Second Life that’s much more interesting than the first one. It’s possible to spend too much time online,but most of us know when to sit back and look up…most of us.

“I need to get out more”

Thanks to social networking, the word “friend” has acquired a new fluidity. What is a friend anyway? Someone whose interests you share? With whom you can swap stories or exchange confidences? Someone who’ll lend you money,  take you to the airport, water your plants or show up at your funeral? At some point, the only people we can count on for those sorts of things are either family or people we pay, and the latter group is often more reliable.

Online friendship is relatively easy: I like you; your sensibility or sensitivity or sense of humor; you seem like “good” people;  we have friends in common—boom! You’re my friend. Many social networking circle-of-people sites don’t even require that you be acquainted with someone you embrace as a comrade. I have “friended” the comedian Lewis Black and the journalist Charles Blow. Of course, that the creepy guy who used to follow me home in high school can ask to “friend” me, but I can always virtually run in the other direction via the “ignore” button.

Just as I get used to this loosey-goosey, all-inclusive buddy system, along comes Google+ to throw all my choices into question.

google-plus-logoGoogle + is a new social networking site who some people think (and others hope) will knock Facebook back on its heels. Thanks to a few tech-forward friends, I’ve been invited to poke around on the site.  There are many cool-looking features I’ve yet to try, but Google’s big selling point is that it solves the “too much information seen by too many people” problem by creating a classification system. This theoretically allows you to organize your networking by organizing your network; sorting out friends from family (some of whom might or might not be considered friends, but never your mother or your crazy brother) and from acquaintances, people you don’t really know except through someone else. Then there are people you’re “following” (a nod to Twitter): people you only wish you had as friends who in truth don’t know you from Adam. You can customize your circles:  you might have a professional circle (very LinkedIn), or a common interests circle ( like a bunch of, say, writers).

Circles are supposed to be good. They represent strength, unity, connection, community; commonality, unbroken and everlasting. Yet the very act of separating everyone out is giving  me agita.


I get that someone might want to share professional or technical  information only with people she thinks might be interested. But as far as privacy is concerned, let’s not fool ourselves: if it’s on the ‘Net, it’s absolutely, irretrievably public. Maybe not instantly but eventually. Forget circles or squares or compartments or e-mails marked “private” or password-protected sites. If there’s anything you don’t want anyone to know—ever—your best course of action is not to type it out—ever.

“Hell really is other people.”

The truth is, I don’t want Google or anyone else to help me sort out my relationships. I feel I’ve earned the right to be vague or uncertain. At the same time, my maturity doesn’t protect me from re-experiencing those painful high school-era feelings about belonging. It’s bad enough to invite someone to “friend” you and get ignored. On Google+, you can add someone to your friends’ circle and learn they’ve tagged you as a mere acquaintance or worse:  they haven’t included you in any of their circles. That’s harsh. And must I be denied the thrill of claiming Lewis Black as one of my peeps?

friends Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture; Google+, please,  help me out.  Why can’t we all be just friends? Even if we’re not in real life.



parenting support circles
Bartolomeo Di Fruosino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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We’re So Vain


Once upon a time, when Carly Simon sang her hit song, “You’re So Vain (You Probably Think This Song is about You)”, fans tried to guess which of her former lovers she was essentially calling a pompous, self-regarding ass (Mick Jagger? Warren Beatty? Kris Kristofferson?).

The current crop of performers are singing their own tunes, thank you very much, reminding their audiences just how hot, how sexy, how empowered and yes, how pissed off they are. Now three psychologists who’ve been checking out Billboard’s Top 100 have made a discovery: in 2011, we’re all so vain.

image: baby pictures.org

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The three—Nathan DeWall, W. Keith Campbell and Jean M. Twenge—conducted a study of song lyrics over the last thirty years and noted an evolution (or devolution) in pop music. Where in the 1980s, most singers sang about love, togetherness and peace, today’s tunes are ego-driven. The doctors cite lyrics from performers like Beyoncé and Fergie of Black-Eyed Peas. They claim the self-absorption manifest by the singers is reflected in the generation of fans (primarily college age). “Late adolescents and college students love themselves more today than ever before,” says Dr. DeWall. Adds his colleague, Dr. Twenge, “In the early ’80s lyrics, love was easy and positive, and about two people. “The recent songs are about what the individual wants, and how she or he has been disappointed or wronged.”

Twenge, who along with Campbell also published a book a few years ago called The Narcissism Epidemic, sees the current crop of young people as far more narcissistic than previous generations. The authors take as evidence the results of an annual survey—The Narcissism Personality Inventory—that’s been administered to college students over the past several decades.

Narcissism has been in the news lately. Last winter’s recommendation from an advisory board to leave out Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) in the upcoming version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (psychotherapy’s diagnostic Holy Grail) was met with outrage by many in the psychiatric community. A Boston Globe article at the time noted that “narcissism has been done in by its own success. Because so many narcissists are thriving—at the expense of the rest of us—it’s hard to classify ‘narcissism’ as a disability.”

Small wonder in the age of “Brand Me.”

If certain levels of vanity, selfishness, entitlement and an exaggerated self-regard are becoming more acceptable, the implications for society are profound—and not just because we are confronted with the likes of Donald Trump, the man who would be king of the world. An increase in ego-centric behavior is bound to affect (if it hasn’t already) the way we conduct business, make policy, view social services–or communal activities or charity—and build and sustain relationships.

As a certified amateur/armchair psychologist, I’ve joined many others in writing about (and worrying about) our national predilection for self-absorption. A great many of our fellow citizens young and old seem to have difficulty separating what they need from what they think they ought to have. We talk about what we deserve or we are owed. We demand not just our rights but also attention. We get angry when we’re denied our due. It’s all about us, each and every one of us.

On the other hand…

Maybe we’re not suffering from mass narcissism, or at least not to any degree greater than previous age groups. Each generation has something to say about the one that came before and certainly the one that came after. As a baby boomer, I’m beginning to take umbrage with the spate of articles castigating me and my fellow boomers for our selfishness. Meanwhile, we are not without suggestions for ways to curb our self-regard. In recent weeks, New York Times columnists David Brooks and Ross Douthat have both proposed that we Americans add back a little hellfire into our religion. We’ve apparently got it too easy with our relaxed acceptance of a benign Supreme Being. Brooks and Douthat suggest we need the threat of eternal damnation. Nothing like cosmic intimidation to keep us humble.

As for college kids, that they’re self-serving and self-regarding and prone to posturing should be no surprise to anyone. Perhaps it’s become more socially acceptable to flaunt your hotness or sexiness or to tell people you don’t like to go f-ck themselves. Maybe it’s more permissible, or even necessary in this hyper-competitive age, to let people know how important you are—even when you’re taking a survey that measures your self-regard.

The students are also angrier and more depressed, according to the results of a survey last January I reviewed at the time. Like the study of song lyrics, the survey is one that takes into consideration only the past twenty-five year period. Since my memory extends back twice that far, I can’t help but suspect that we are in some kind of cycle wherein our nation mood coincides with our recent history.

Moreover, we’ve always been entertained by large personalities, as long as we don’t have to hang out with (or live with) them. Performers may have “come out” in terms of broadcasting their fabulousness but ego has long been a staple of the entertainment industry. The word “diva” has morphed from being a female opera singer of surpassing skill to a female vocalist with a big voice to a woman with an outsized ego—a bitch. Lyrics that express pride in being a bitch (or a bad-ass) among female singers are more common, but again, no surprise. After years of singing about busted promises and broken hearts, the women have been kicking back for at least a decade. Somehow the message seems less about self-centeredness than about empowerment. Who wouldn’t want to take a Louisville slugger to the beloved car of a low-life two timer as Cary Underwood does? These days, though, I prefer Sara Bareilles’ approach. If “King of Everything” were what my daughter listened to, I wouldn’t worry a bit about whether she thought the song was about her.

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You probably didn’t know Sally Goodrich. She was, among other things, a teacher and school administrator; a cancer survivor; wife of a small-town lawyer from North Adams, Massachusetts;  the mother of a young man killed on 9/11; and eventually, a dedicated advocate for Afghan civilians, particularly for girls and young women.

It was in this last role that Sally attained a modicum of notoriety. Not nearly as much as Greg Mortenson, the internationally acclaimed humanitarian and author of Three Cups of Tea. This week, in a devastating article published online and in a “60 Minutes” interview, author Jon Krakauer accused Mortenson of falsifying his memoir and worse, of ripping off the charitable foundation he established.

We’re going to be hearing a lot about this story; we already are–which is why I’ve been thinking of Sally. The accusations against Mortensen, if true, present a depressing “teacup half empty” view of relief efforts in Afghanistan. Sally’s story, heartbreaking though it is, fills the cup again.

Immediately after 9/11, Sally started, along with her husband Don and a few others, Families of September 11 (FOS11), an organization that worked on behalf of 9/11 relatives around the globe. I got to know Sally when I worked with the organization, first on the board and then as its executive director. She was a gracious and giving, with a sharp New England wit. Like all of us, she was suffering. Worse, on top of the delayed grief and depression, she had to deal with a diagnosis of ovarian cancer which came in 2002. It was a difficult time.

Then, in 2004, Sally heard from a Marine in Afghanistan, a friend of her late son Peter, who asked her to collect supplies for school children. It was then Sally found her calling, a way to lift herself out of depression and create something positive to honor her son’s spirit. In 2005, Sally and Don founded the Peter M Goodrich Memorial Foundation.

The organization has raised over a million dollars which was used to build a 500-student coed school and support others. It also supports an orphanage in the Pashtun region. Sally and Don have helped many students attend college in the United States. It also raises money for, among other projects, disabled landmine victims, a dental clinic, exchange students in the United States, victims of natural disasters and other school projects.

Sally made several trips to Afghanistan beginning in 2005. That year, she was ABC’s “Person of the Week” because she “turned personal loss into hope for hundreds.” She traveled back in 2007 and again in 2009. Then her cancer returned. In December of last year, Sally died at the age of 65.

Sally was an eloquent woman but she never wrote a book, never went on a speaking tour, never took any money from the foundation. The projects gave her back her life, she said, and that was enough. For the hundreds she’s helped, it’s more than enough.

Filmmaker Rick Derby has created a short film—Axis of Good about Sally’s work. I hope this might take some attention away from the Mortensen story. Of course, big scandal and big money make up a bigger story, but sometimes a small tale holds a big heart.

image: Axis of Good

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 My early teen years were a struggle, to say the least. I was ungainly, unsure and decidedly uncool. Eventually, I would  attain the even teeth, the carefully ironed long hair,  even an  acceptable body shape.  But in 1964, I wanted to look like my older  brother’s cheerleader girlfriends. More seriously, I wanted to be
someone else–anyone else except me.

I was miserable at school. I couldn’t hide my smarts or keep my mouth shut; couldn’t get my footing  or find my place. Ripe for teasing, I tried to stay clear of the mean  girls and sought refuge in music and books. Then, beginning September  22nd of that year, I had a chance to latch onto a debonair chap and his sexy partner, the stars of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLEThe show was both an homage to and send-up of the popular James Bond movies and starred Robert Vaughn and a young Scottish actor named David McCallum. They played agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (UNCLE), an international organization dedicated to stopping THRUSH from exercising its evil plan to take over the world.

The casting was impeccable, the setup fantastical and the details were  inspired. Vaughn’s character, Napoleon Solo, was the classic spy in the 007 mold: suave, clever; with a fondness for the good life and a weakness  for women.  He was cool in an old-fashioned sort of way; a throwback to previous decades.

But it was McCallum’s character, the elusive Illya Kuryakin, who caught and held my attention. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. a few months earlier and like so many girls my age, I was drawn to the safely boyish Paul McCartney. But in Illya, I found my soul-mate: a mysterious,
educated (Masters degree from the Sorbonne; PhD in quantum mechanics from University of Cambridge) Russian whose hip calm exterior hid, I was certain, a treasure trove of passion. He seemed to own a wardrobe of swoon-inducing black turtlenecks.  Best of all, he and Solo were working in a spirit of global cooperation to defeat terrorists, anarchists and the like in the middle of the Cold War.  I was hooked.

My mother, in a display of solidarity and support, took pictures of our television set when the show was on and gave me the images. I can’t tell you what that meant to me; it was like having your mother approve of your first boyfriend.

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” lasted four years and took me through high school. Even after I grew out of my ugly duckling phase, I remained loyal to the intrepid spies and to the attractive Illya.   Encountering McCallum in recent times on another show that has saved me–NCIS–is like  olderMcreuniting with an old love. McCallum’s Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard is a little fussy, but also funny, smart and sensitive, with a soulful side
that probably owes to his Scottish origins (okay, I’m projecting). He’s not quite the sexy Kuryakin I remember–except perhaps for the twinkle in his eye. But he seems wise in ways that matter. I’m sure he’d forgive my crush on  Mark Harmon’s character. I like to think we have a deeper, more meaningful relationship. He was, after all, my first love.

sources: IMDb; Wikipedia
images: nnbd  firstachurch, photobucket

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I’ve been thinking about a movie I saw recently: Source Code, starring Jake Gyllenthaal. This science fiction cum action thriller (with a dash of romance) had a fair amount going for it: stellar cast, great special effects, tight plot; even the requisite happy ending.

I liked it. A lot. But then again, I’m a sucker for films that posit such an optimistic view of the brain’s power to transcend any and all physical limitations.

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We live in a world where anything goes. Sort of. Okay, not really. It depends. Money has a lot to do with what’s acceptable. So does
influence—who has it, what she does with it, how it relates to making money. Tastefulness or appropriateness? Sure that might come into play, somewhere behind money and influence.

I’m reminded of what flies—and what doesn’t by two seemingly unrelated New York Times articles. In one, entertainment critic Jon
Pareles noted
the ubiquity of the F word; three out of the top ten songs on Billboard’s “Top 100” have the word f-ck in the chorus—at least I think that’s what he meant when he referred to a “percussive four-letter word.”  This was front page in the print edition, mind you. Of course, the author also recognized that the F word was so common in popular songs right now that it’s kind of lost its punch. If Enrique Iglesias, the smooth-skinned, smooth-voiced Latin crooner, is using it in the title of his new song about, er, making love, then who can argue that crude sells?

The other article, buried in the business section, announced that Gilbert Gottfried, the irascible comic with the irritating voice, was fired from his presumably lucrative gig as spokesduck for insurance giant Aflac. Gottfried’s grating sound and on-stage persona was a perfect match for the reliable, if short-tempered duck. Apparently Gottfried tweeted tasteless jokes about the situation in Japan—and that was that.

My first reaction was one of disbelief that Gottfried had sabotaged his day job so foolishly. Hello? Brain to mouth (or in this case,
fingers). As an ad agency executive put it (in the careful manner of someone who used to walking a fine line): “I think you should think before you speak, and you should think before you tweet.”

Well yes, but let’s recognize that Gottfried is a raunchy comedian of long-standing who has cracked tasteless, inappropriate jokes for years now. His jokes (reported online, although pulled off his website) were stupid, sophomoric and silly—vintage Gottfried. Here’s one:

“What does every Japanese person have in their apartment? Flood lights.” Source: Syracuse Post-Standard

I know—it makes you squirm; me too. But that’s what Gottfried’s known for; and that’s what his employers must have known about him.
Yet they were offended; rather, they were shocked and offended, which prompted my second reaction: Really? A raunchy comedian who has built his career making frequently offensive jokes has surprised you?

Gottfried has a long history of in-your-face humor. Columnist Frank Rich recalled in 2005 that the comedian told what may have been the first 9/11 joke only two and a half weeks after the attacks that took the lives of so many, including my husband. According to Rich, Gottfried, appearing at the Friars Club, claimed he couldn’t fly non-stop to California because “they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.”

The joke fell flat

Undaunted, Gottfried pushed ahead and offered up his version of a famous dirty joke that was being recounted by various comedians, whose
performances were then made in to a movie—“The Aristocrats.” Like the professional provocateur that he is, he got the audience guffawing in short order.

I wasn’t offended by the joke. We humans often joke as a way to find relief, especially in the wake of horrific events. Obviously, there’s a
line that separates humor from cruelty, but I’d like to think we can parse the difference. Besides, tragedy is also part of life and life is fair game for the comedian.

Those people who suggested 9/11 was retribution for our sins; or the earthquake in Haiti was a response to devil-worship; or the Japanese “got what they deserved”—those are the people who should be ostracized. But that’s not how things work in our mixed-up, everything goes and nothing goes society. Some can sing about screwing to an audience of screaming preteens, using that percussive four-letter word, and end up being the goose that lays the golden egg.  But a comedian might well be censored—or worse—for doing what he does.

That’s just quacked up.

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