Posts Tagged ‘pop culture’

 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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I was surprised to learn, via a recent New York Times article, that scouting for older kids (“young adults”) has expanded to include training to deal with terrorist attacks, hostage situations and border skirmishes. The training involves producing life-like settings “not intended to be applied outside the simulated Explorer setting.”


Phew, that’s a relief.

Things have certainly changed since my older brother was an Explorer back in the sixties. The teenaged boys (no girls allowed until later) were offered adventures above and beyond what traditional scouting had to offer and the chance to acquire some useful skills, like wilderness survival, navigation and first aid or even, as part of the Sea Scouts, nautical training. It was all kind of wholesome, albeit in a God-centric, homophobic kind of way.


Times are different. The article noted the training represents “…an intense ratcheting up of one of the group’s longtime missions to prepare youths for more traditional jobs as police officers and firefighters.” The accompanying photo made these kids – sorry, “young adults” – look like SWAT team mini-recruits. Very intense.


I suppose you can’t have too many people trained to police our borders, or be ready to take on terrorists. But if BSA (Boy Scouts of America) wants to offer its older members excitement, discipline, growth possibility and not only career but life-skills training (I think I’m fairly synthesizing the Explorer goals), the organization is missing some real opportunities. I mean, why stop at possible jobs with police or fire departments or Homeland Security? What about training for a position that might more typically be available to young people in these days of budget cutbacks? To give just one example of a simulation focused on career preparation:

Call Center Customer Service: Explorers are trained to multi-task by simultaneously pretending to listen to customer complaints, reading from a prepared script and updating Facebook pages. call centerParticipants are also encouraged to find other, creative ways to fend off mind-numbing boredom while at the same time avoid getting caught by the floor manager or called out by a customer who demands to talk with a supervisor.

As for a practice session that simulates an absolutely true-life situation:

Explorers must stand patiently in line for up to six hours at a job fair or unemployment office before coming face to face with an uninformed, unhelpful or openly hostile worker who will either send the Explorer to the back of the line, to another line, or home. Participant will be expected not to react violently, but instead restrict reaction to mild, inaudible grumbling while complying with orders from a clearly inferior person. The exercise teaches patience, temperance and belief in a Higher Authority or at least payback. unemployment

I’d like to believe neither of these situations or the several others I came up with (but didn’t include) might require training in dealing with terrorism, hostage situations or skirmishes with immigrants both legal and illegal. Then again, it’s a whole new world out there – Scout’s honor.  scout

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Beset by bills, dismayed over depressed savings and tense ahead of tax time, I turned my attention to the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual display of dogs. Some of it has to do with the fact that I love dogs; I’m fascinated by the ritual involved in judging best of breed and best in show and by not only the dogs but their owners, trainers and handlers.

There are any number of contests and competitions about dogs, ranging from the most professional to the really ridiculous.  At the top of the heap stands (sits? stays?) the Westminster show, two days of mind-boggling logistics , cramped quarters, endless grooming and very specialized judging at New York’s Madison Square Garden. This invitation-only competition has, thanks to savvy marketing, become quite the event and it’s where anyone involved in breeding dogs wants to show. The dogs are grouped according to the primary function for which they were originally bred (i.e. sporting group, working group). They are then judged within their breed as to how they conform to an ideal set of standards involving general appearance, movement, temperament, and specific physical traits. The best in show is presumably the dog that most closely matches the ideal.

Obviously much of this is subjective, albeit the judgments are made by people with keen eyes and years of training. In past competitions, popular sentiment (the roar of the crowd) hasn’t always conformed with the judges’ decision. But recently, audience hearts and judges’ minds were both won by scrappy little contenders, who were considered, well, underdogs going in. Last year, Uno, became the first beagle ever to win Best in Show, making doggy history and turning out to be just so doggone adorable. Uno made the rounds, appearing not just at high-falutin’ locales like the White House but also at children’s and veterans’ hospitals and at various schools; he even rode in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. This year, more dog history: Stump, the Sussex Spaniel, came out of retirement to become the oldest winning dog ever. At ten years old and even allowing for new calculations based on longer-living dogs, he’s well into middle age. Talk about inspirational!

Westminster winners of the past have been enviably gorgeous animals, elegant and almost inaccessible, the purebred we ogled while our lovable mutt napped next to us on the couch. Uno and Stump, also purebreds, nevertheless seem like regular dogs, an image reinforced by images of Uno happily wagging his tail and braying and reports that Stump likes to hang out in bed with his best friend JR.  It’s nice that in these troubled times, where anger over perks and bonuses and ill-gotten gains have ignited an unpleasant kind of class warfare, at least some of our top dogs have come down off their pedestals to hang with the rest of us.

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Several young friends, including some mothers, have written me to ask that I comment on the Myley Cyrus “scandal”. This involves the series of photos for Vanity Fair  for which the “Hannah Montana” star, beloved of way younger than pre-teens, posed recently.  Disney Productions, which has carefully cultivated and controlled the image of its money-making teen celebrity, is joining a chagrined Cyrus in blasting Vanity Fairand celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. If you don’t know who she is, click here and you’ll see her  famous photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono among many other classics.

Okay, here goes: First, Myley apparently thought the shot was artistic but now is upset because it’s in the public domain. Doesn’t she know – don’t her handlers know, for heaven’s sake, that everything about her is going to be in the public domain? And what, no one knows who the infamous photographer Annie Leibovitz is and what kind of pictures she takes and what kind of pictures Vanity Fair runs, which is to say, provocative and grownup?  Second, supposedly her dad, former country star Billy Ray Cyrus, had left the set after the all-too ubiquirtous daddy figure posed with daughter Myley in a shot (definitely click on this one) which creeped me out far more than a picture of the thin teen’s backbone, although her rumpled bed hair was over the top.  He looked like her, um, much older boyfriend. Now that’s provocative.

Second, I sourced this story by looking at two articles, from AP and from the Daily News article and the two pictures of 15-year-old Myley in her little dresses leave little to the imagination. She’s entitled because that’s how we market teens nowadays which is why this overkill reaction seems a tad hypocritical in the age of Britney Spears. The majority of high fashion models these days appear to be between fourteen and nineteen and are dressed to suggest activities beyond their “maturity level” (to paraphrase the title character in the hit movie “Juno” ). It may be out of control but it’s what we’ve all accepted.

Third, I thought it interesting that several articles referred to Myley’s fan base as being teens because I’ve seen girls in the 6-10-year-old range drooling over the cute teen as their slightly older sisters did with Hillary Duff, who’s gone to full-fledged vamp in less than a year. This is what pop culture is nowadays and expressing selective outrage, as the Disney Company did only because of the selective backlash from the mothers of tiny fans is about as hypocrtical as watching scantily dressed teens compete on “American Idol” and then voting one off because the song she sang, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was considered “blasphemous” by the voters.

While I continue to believe that our pop culture reflects the inconsistant and conflicted views we have about youth, puberty, sexuality and women in general, we’re the consumers and we’re the ones buying. The teen stars rule and everyone wants to imitate them, with middle-aged moms dressing up as if they were getting ready for prom night and little kids dressing up as if they were getting ready for wedding night.  Given all the real problems in the world, it’s laughable that so much outrage is expressed over something like this (then again, France is expressing similar outrage over its leather jacket wearing President and his sexy Italian model-wife). But our outrage has a shelf life. As with everything else, from global warming to government waste, we get excised, then we get over it.

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It’s only the second day of the New! Fall! Season! on TV and I’m already kicking myself for not buying the HBO/Showtime package my cable service offered last month. Call me a slave to lowbrow culture but I used to eagerly anticipate the new lineup of shows as much as any holiday. I’d watch nearly every show once, then make my selections. In the pre-Tivo days, I’d plan my evenings around those must-see shows and agonized when the networks scheduled favorites in the same time slot – those cads! Basic cable gave me more to choose from, especially with its summer series. Something’s off this fall. Nothing grabs me. Grey’s Anatomy? Been there, done that. House? I still love Hugh Laurie but his constantly curmugeon-y character is a drag to spend time with. Lost and 24sorry, but what the hell is going on anymore? The franchises are feeling stale and while I’m happy to see some of my favorite comedians hosting this or that game show, I’d rather watch their club routines on pay-per-view. I can’t tell on competition show from another – they all have one British (or Aussie) judge and another with some kind of issue (drugs? divorce? sexual identity? sleep deprivation?) The new stuff feels as if it’s planned for the 16-30 set – and maybe it is. Advertisers drive programming and apparently I am part of an undesireable demographic whose brand loyalty makes us less susceptible to the lure of new products than those fickle twenty-somethings. I won’t start on how wrong that thinking is – if they don’t believe our set is on the prowl for things to try and buy, it’s their loss. But I still want something to excite me. Maybe TV isn’t the best place to start; I do have a pile of interesting-looking books to read. Or I can still call my cable service; I think I’ve only missed two episodes of Tell Me You Love Me.

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I took some time today to review the findings of a recent poll commissioned by the New York Times/CBS News/MTV of young adults (ages 17-29) looking at cultural views that might shape their voting choices in 2008. The article indicated that those polled leaned slightly more “left” than the population as a whole but I am always suspicious of those kinds of observations. The group does appear a little more open-minded, at least when it comes to social/cultural issues such as gay unions or universal health care. But what I find most intriguing are the dichotomies that come through. For example, 51% appear more optimistic about a favorable outcome in Iraq, a higher percentage than for adults as a whole, yet 70% believe the country is headed in the wrong direction; obviously more than the war is troubling them. While 77% said they felt the votes of their generation would have significant bearing on who would become the next president, the percentage of those who said they were paying close attention to the race was 51%. That’s a much higher percentage of those interested than in 2004 in this age group but I wonder why the other 26% who think the youth vote will have an impact aren’t paying close attention. Are they planning to vote? Finally, while the poll showed that only two candidates generated enthusiasm among the young voters (Clinton and Obama , with Clinton paradoxically also scoring high for negative recognition), I thought it was far more interesting that fewer than 40% were excited about anyone running. The candidates hopefully understand how unpredictable the youth vote really is; clearly the young voters seem to realize that their very unpredictability makes them as significant as a majority of them thought they were.

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I am waiting for my insurance company to cover some physical therapy visits from last February. While I’m on hold for the umpteenth time to talk to the umpteenth person, I’m reading a review of Michael Moore’s new movie “Sicko” and thinking I really ought to see it. I mean, I may not be as desperate (yet) as some of those fighting their insurance companies, but I can relate. And look at this: the new movie starring Angelina Jolie, “A Mighty Heart” seems as if it would be quite moving. I’m especially interested in a scene this review referred to where Jolie’s Marianna Pearl puzzles one observer because she isn’t crying. Later she observes that she’s not crying because she’s angry. I can relate; when my husband was killed on 9/11, there were plenty of tears but also days of cold-eyed fury on my part. Still on hold and listening to dumb elevator music, I see that Paris Hilton has been offered a million dollars for a post-jail interview; apparently said interview sparked a bidding war between NBC and ABC. You know, I can relate. Oh wait, no I can’t.

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I read pretty voraciously but I admit I enjoy sitting in front of the tube, usually while doing something else like reading. I tend to like the traditional dramas or “dramadies” as they’re now called. There are a few shows I watch regularly but nothing has inspired me to become a long-term fan like I used to be. This year’s season finales have really annoyed me for some reason. I guess that’s okay. I won’t need to make the effort next season to be home on Thursday (or Wednesday or Sunday) evening. I’ll read more or get out more. Still, I can’t help but feel disappointed, as if an old friend has let me down. Maybe I should look into premium cable.

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