Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Coma

Monrovia, California

Friday, January 27, 2012

I blogged a couple of months ago about the soap opera I’m watching, The Young and the Restless. Since then I’ve become somewhat more knowledgeable about the story and the characters, and I must say that in this case familiarity definitely has bred contempt. These people have one thing going for them: they’re even dumber than those of us who take the time to watch them each day. Oh sure, they’re wealthy, and the writers would have us believe some of them actually earned their money, or at least made it the old fashioned way by stealing it from others. But they're very dim where matters of the heart are concerned, which I think contributes greatly to the appeal of the show. We are made to see that the good people of Genoa City, Wisconsin, when it comes to love and lust, are just as clueless as the rest of us. The men are goofy in their utter captivity to the women they desire, and the women choose their mates poorly, time after time, in a continual and reassuring example of the soap opera imitating life.

My favorite character is Adam Newman (pictured above), the bad son of Victor Newman by one of Victor’s eight different wives (including Sharon, whom he just married while he was in prison and from whom he will soon obtain an annulment). I say “different wives” because in fact Victor has been married ten times if you count his three separate marriages to Nikki. And it looks as if they’re going to get married yet again. The relationship that produced Adam was Victor’s brief marriage to the blind Hope Adams when Victor was in Kansas and presumed dead back in Genoa City. I’m not sure why or how he ended up there. Maybe he clicked his heels together three times. He might have been trying to escape the pressure of being a billionaire entrepreneur who always gets his own way. Anyway, Adam was the spawn of this brief episode.

Today Adam is a graduate of Harvard Business School, come to Genoa City primarily to torture his dad. (Though born in the 1990s, Adam was subjected to the SORAS—Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome—and he is now in his mid 30s.) He has a tendency to do bad things, like abducting children and springing deranged women from nuthouses. But along the way he has developed another obsession, and now Adam’s poor twisted soul can’t decide between an unexplained desire for revenge against the old man, which manifests itself in rather naked business schemes, and his apparently real love for his ex-wife Sharon, who has previously been married to Adam’s half brother Nick and to Jack Abbott, and is at this moment married to Adam’s dear old dad. Her complete name at this point is Sharon Collins Newman Abbott Newman Newman. This makes her, by Y&R standards, practically a virgin.

One reason I like Adam is that his character actually seems to be doing something most of the time, or planning to do it. It’s usually a bad thing, but at least it’s something. The rest of the dopey Newman and Abbott families just drink coffee and champagne and talk and have sex, which is fine if you’re in a French movie. Even Victor, the godfather and paterfamilias of the show, rarely does anything but rumble and threaten imperiously in his stilted baritone accent. His favorite expressions are “I want you to listen to me very carefully,” and “Got it?” both of which he delivers as if he’s so used to giving orders that it matters not whether he’s talking to a son or a business rival or his true love Nikki. Not so the brooding Adam, who, though he likes to toss back shots of booze at the bar in the hotel where he lives, prefers the company of himself alone, except when it comes to Sharon. Also, the writers of Y&R, who seem to be as clueless from week to week as the viewers and the characters are, tend to give Adam the best lines—little zinging insults and epithets he delivers with a smirk and sometimes with a smile of genuine pleasure. (For example his name for a veterinarian who had a brief fling with Sharon was "The Goat Whisperer.") As for most of the rest of the cast, especially Jack Abbott, what little wit they possess is cancelled out by their long puzzled stares as each scene ends. Adam’s fade-out looks (mandatory for all characters in soap operas, apparently) are full of smoldering intensity. It’s as if he realizes he’s stuck in a story with a bunch of genuine idiots and he can’t escape except by doing something so bad that even the inept Genoa City police will have no problem sending him to prison for the crime.

Adam is also a fairly snappy dresser, though he sports the bed-head hair style fashionable among young white men a decade or more ago. Like his brother Nick, he refuses to shave regularly. For a pair of multimillionaires who could afford to be barbered daily the Newman brothers are quite cavalier about their personal grooming. But then why bother?—it’s not like they’re competing for anything in the material world. They’ve got all that, and also have had pretty much all the women their age in Genoa City except for their sisters.

Another reason I’m partial to Adam is that the guy who plays him, Michael Muhney, isn’t a bad actor. Not great, mind you, but better than just about all the rest of the Y&R cast. Melody Scott Thomas, who portrays Nikki, is okay too, with her Liz Taylor voice, but she plays such a hopeless case that it vitiates her best efforts somewhat. Most of the time the scenes in Y&R have the flavor of a high school or college drama club production, and you can tell that the people who star in it were lucky to look pretty good, or at least interesting, or else they wouldn’t have made it into regular paying gigs in Hollywood. Eric Braeden, who plays Victor, has one set routine as a character, which he repeats tediously and endlessly. At least today, in his early 70s, he looks sort of handsome in a stern graying way. Back in the 20th century he looked like a cross between Robert Goulet and a porn star, skin too tanned and hair too black and moustache too large—a cheesy combination if ever there was one.

So what does Adam Newman crave, apart from his beloved Sharon? I think it must be the respect of his father and a piece of his power. I’m tempted to portray him as a tragic hero along the lines of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. He is the son of the most high, but as a result of his own envy and warring ways, has been cast down into the lower regions. The old man will never give him the respect he feels he deserves, and if he got it he wouldn’t recognize it as such. It’s a no-win situation for him, because he’s so obsessed with the idea that he’s been disrespected that he’s unable to do anything to earn respect and unable to find anything approaching respect in the eyes of others, particularly Victor. The writers of course miss a good deal of opportunity here in terms of plot and character development from a purely dramatic point of view, but I think I understand why they don’t try to make him more understandable and prominent. It’s because this isn’t a story with a plot. Like life, it’s only an unending procession of events, in which the players act in all the inconsistent and haphazard ways real people do, albeit while dwelling in a fantasy world. Odd juxtaposition, but there it is. Adam could be full of hubris and tragic flaws, driven by a sort of inner nobility of purpose gone wrong; instead, as a real tragic hero said, he’s only full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

I think I’m reaching the end of my temporary infatuation with Y&R, but like many an addiction it’s easier to keep at it unfulfilled than to quit. I continue to watch, hoping something clever or redemptive or at least realistic will take place, all the while knowing that it won’t and that instead, just around the next corner, there awaits another evil twin or amnesiac or long lost bastard or SORASed child. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Another bride. Another groom. Another coma.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Family Business

Monrovia, California

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Time for an update on the Republican primary front. As I and many others predicted, as the smoke begins to clear it’s apparent after only two states that Mitt Romney will be the nominee. Rick Perry is gone, so is John Hunstman, the Romney clone. Rick Santorum will soon fall by the wayside. We'll never have a president named Rick. We had one Richard and that was enough. South Carolina, being such a ruthlessly hateful (not to mention insane) place, may give Newt Gingrich some false hope, but in the end—and that end will come soon—Romney will be the guy. Barzini’s dead. So is Philip Tattaglia, Moe Green, Stracci, Cunio. They may not settle all family business today, but by the first week in February they will have done so.

Such is the nature of the exhibitionistic way they decide these matters that the nomination will be a foregone conclusion ten months before the election. Forget the smoke-filled rooms--you can’t smoke anywhere anyway, except in Herman Cain ads. The saddest and most dispiriting thing is that we will then be subjected to a full-bore election campaign between the Republican and Democratic candidates for what amounts to nearly a quarter of the presidential term. If the race were closer between some of the Republicans, at least Obama could relax for a few months longer as they continue to duke it out, and we wouldn’t have to be subjected to as much of the extra bullshit that gets thrown when the election itself is at stake, during which we will all get (more) sick of our own guy as well as the other guy.

The other aspect of the maddening preoccupation of the media with the political campaign as a form of reality television is that it gives the public outside the primary states the false impression that they have something of a voice in the process. I’ve pondered the phenomenon of “reality TV” for years, wondering first why anyone likes it enough to watch and second how they keep coming up with people who are willing to expose themselves to the nation for the utter nitwits they are. The answer to the first half of the question is what I suspected it was all along, namely, that it is somehow comforting to the viewing public to see people on television who are (if this is possible) even stupider than they are. The answer to the second half came to me very soon after I began producing my own public access TV show back in Connecticut in the early years of the new century. People (including me) love to see themselves on television, regardless of what they’re doing. The quizmasters of the 1950s knew this even when the medium was in its infancy.

Let’s get back to the “extra bullshit” thing I mentioned. To be sure, the stuff the Republicans are hurling at each other now scores very high on the old Shit-O-Meter. But the splitting of hairs of distinction among various card-carrying members of the official Party of Fear and Loathing in the U.S. isn’t the same as what’s coming up once it’s Obama versus Romney, mano a mano. As things stand now, those of us who wouldn’t vote for a Republican to save our lives can simply tune out most of their silliness and smile smugly at their buffoonery. But once the Mittmeister and Barack-o-rama square off we’ll be treated to the Final Insult, when the two candidates begin to try to out-God-Bless-America each other. Because there really won’t be much else to talk about. Both guys will promise the moon and the stars to the public, swearing they’re going to fix the economy, bring about world peace through superior firepower, clean up the environment while creating jobs, promote businesses small and large, put a chicken in every garage, etc. But in the end no president can actually do any of those things. They never could—the government simply isn’t set up that way for the most part. Nevertheless every four years we succumb to mass hypnosis and believe that one person can heroically pull us up by our bootstraps. We get this idea from inaccurate memories of presidents like FDR and JFK, who seemed to run the country by sheer charisma. (In fact, in our lifetimes it was the decidedly uncharismatic LBJ who came closest to running both the executive and legislative branches simultaneously.) Anyway, the country is really so completely in the thrall of Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and Hollywood that probably nothing that could happen in real life would ever make much of a difference either to our future or to our everyday lives. So the only thing left for the candidates to do is to tell the American people what a great and powerful and wonderful and divinely ordained country we live in, and that they are going to make it even better. Over and over, ad nauseam.

And as if that weren’t bad enough, all the sound and fury, signifying nothing, between now and November, the jillions of dollars pissed away on advertising, the endless hours of commercials, will be to capture a comparatively small percentage of the electorate. If they were to hold the election tomorrow the majority of the voters would simply choose the candidate of their party. They might not like the man much, and might think he’ll do (or continue to do) a half-assed job, but they’ll hold their noses and vote, based on what their party stands for. It’s as simple as that, and that accounts for over 80% of the votes cast in any election. But it’s the “undecideds” the advertisers and the candidates are courting. Some of these are folks who might not otherwise vote at all, and some will be genuinely undecided between the candidates, like breakfasters who are undecided about whether to order hash browns or home fries with their eggs and bacon.

I must here say a few words regarding persons who are undecided about whether to vote Republican or Democratic. They are idiots. This may offend some of my readers. Indeed, if you’re not sure which party to vote for, I wish to offend you. You should know better. Cynics on the far left or right will say there’s not much difference between the parties, and they may be right. But to be seriously wondering about whether to vote for the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, which publicly stands for racism and selfishness, or the Democratic Party, which publicly stands for equality and generosity—well, there’s just no excuse for that. I have more respect for a rock-ribbed Republican who knows his own nasty little mind than I do for a person who is genuinely undecided between the two parties.

The more strategically-minded among you might be thinking, “Yes, but if it’s the undecided voters who swing an election, then wouldn’t you rather they swing toward the Democratic side? Idiots or not, their votes are needed.” I suppose so, but what I’d really like is to live in a country where people know their own minds and don’t seriously believe that individual political candidates are going to make their lives better.

There is one important reason for us to put Obama back in office, notwithstanding his fecklessness so far and his almost limitless capacity to disappoint. That reason is the Supreme Court. The next justice to croak will probably be Ruth Ginsberg, a comparative liberal, and it would be a shame if a Republican were president when she does. And then there’s the possibility, remote but real, that Scalia, Alito, Thomas, Kennedy, and Roberts will get hit by a bus at the same time. Or individually for that matter. Or be accidentally gibbeted by a rope carelessly flung over a lamppost. Or be decapitated by a flying lawnmower blade. Or have their intestines….. Oops, sorry. I’m fantasizing.

So gird yourselves for the months to come. Put on your raincoats, put in your earplugs, and hold your noses.

.... Come on, Newt, what are you afraid of? Do you think I'd make my sister a widow? I'm godfather to your son. No Newt, you're out of the family business, that's your punishment.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The View From The Air

Romulus, Michigan

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

I am at the Detroit airport awaiting my flight to LAX. To be precise, waiting to fly to Nashville, Tennessee and then to Los Angeles, the result of one of those routing arrangements made and understood only by personnel well above my pay grade. In general I enjoy airport terminal gates. You’ve gotten past the strip search part of the process and have consigned the heaviest of your bags to someone else, trusting against all odds that it will get to where you want it to go and come popping out, probably upside down or sideways, onto a luggage carousel thousands of miles away. Near the gate there are lots of bathrooms and little fast food joints and convenience stores, minus the hassle of parking. And there are lots of TV screens.

Here at Gate D21 most of us sit in wide leatherette chairs held together by robust aluminum framing. I’m up on a barstool affair with the computer plugged into electricity. Unlike many of the people down in the chairs, I can’t use the battery on my venerable laptop, as the charging mechanism deep within the machine ceased to function a few years ago.

People will become pretty docile when know they have to wait for things they want or need. I’m always amused and a little surprised when I see bits on the news where passengers act petulant and put out at airports. I’ve really never seen that kind of thing—but then I’m no world traveler. Once in a while someone in front of or behind me in a line will say something deprecating about airports or airlines in general, but I’m convinced they do it mostly to show how jaded and well-traveled they are. Their expectations seem to be that they are entitled to travel in a manner equivalent to first class on the Orient Express early 20th century. But air travel is mass transit in a way it never was even back when Pan American and TWA operated. It’s estimated that on any given day between 1.5 and 2 million people fly in the U.S. And while it’s true that at one time the seats and service aboard airplanes were better, those days are so long in the past that I doubt if the middle aged dude in the suit—the Glen Beck watcher whose clarion voice you can’t ignore—really remembers those days.

Of course there are people who just love to complain, and they’re everywhere, not only at airports. I was at the front of the line at the post office a couple of weeks ago, waiting at the spot where they tell you to stay until the next person is available to help you, carefully watching the two employees to see which of them would summon me to the counter. About six people back a woman was huffing loudly that we should just be able to go up to the counter when we got to the front of the line, not wait to be called. It was a trivial idea, at best, and I concluded immediately that it came from a mind clouded and crowded with the trivia of life. It was the middle of the day and from the crap she was carrying I suspected that the woman was one of those local business people or self-employed types who is apt to be at the post office during business hours in the first place. God save us all from these denizens of the downtown. When Napoleon called England “a nation of shopkeepers” he meant it as an insult, as indeed it is.

From having worked at the post office briefly, and simply from observation, I know there are at least a few things the counter people have to do besides wait on customers, like making computer entries that accomplish automatic inventory control, moving packages around from one place to another, and going to the back to do other jobs. Someone is always telling them exactly what to do, whether it's to work the front desk, go back and sort mail, or pass out special deliveries to the carriers. Postal employees are some of the busiest and most efficient people I have ever encountered in the workplace, so I’m on their side, notwithstanding their bad reputation. Also, postal employees know what anyone should know but most of us forget. Newman the mailman on Seinfeld knew it, namely, that the mail never stops, and the customers never stop, and nothing ever stops until it’s time to go home, and when you're home even more mail comes in. So there’s no point in rushing. Work steadily, work accurately, but don’t break your ass. And I quite agree.

But this woman behind me was someone who thinks that for 44 cents (surely one of the lowest domestic postage rates in the world) you should get the royal treatment. In fact, as a small business owner (I’ve already got her pegged, you see) she thinks the nation and the world revolve around her. Why? Because people keep telling her so. She believes all the hogwash and propaganda our government and advertisers put out about how “small businesses are the backbone of the economy.” If that's the case, we've got serious spinal problems. So the thinking (even of the liberals) goes, don’t go to a big nasty store with lots of employees, where economies of scale keep prices low and there’s at least a chance the workers have a union or if not then some regular benefits. No, go instead to a little store run by your neighbor, who is apt to cut corners, ignore safety rules and wage and hour laws, skip paying his taxes, and engage in unproductive nepotism, either because he’s incompetent or he can’t afford to do anything else. Makes sense, right? Don't patronize a place with enough money to withstand being sued by its employees or customers without going out of business and flying by night. (Here I admit that the bankruptcy laws of the U.S. have made it increasingly easier for large businesses to fly by night, too.)

This love of the small businessman, the one with the 75% chance of failing in the first year or so, must be part of our national weakness for the underdog. In any case, it is one of the great mysteries of American economic life to me. People love, almost venerate, the idea of small businesses. I suppose it’s because they can see themselves in that role, whereas it’s hard to see oneself as a scion of the Ford family, for instance. But let’s face it, even moderately successful small businesses are usually run by grubby cheapskates who, by the way, are exempted from many of the wage and hour, insurance, and pension laws that govern their larger brethren. We all have stories about having worked in such places, whether they’re local independent pizza joints or group homes or party stores or motels. These roach pits get all the glory in the mythology of American capitalism. They are for some reason viewed as the virtuous little acorns from which the mighty oaks of the Fortune 500 grow. But it was only in the large, well-organized mega-businesses, like coal mines and Pullman train cars and Ford and GM, that unions were able to force collective bargaining on a shop-wide basis. Try organizing the workers at your beloved little corner restaurant or coffee shop some time and see how far you get. In those places you’re supposed to work for the sheer joy of laboring alongside your fellows and knowing the boss personally.

But back to airports. Funny things you almost never see anywhere else exist in airports, like people movers, those horizontal escalators that let you rest a bit or walk faster. Cool and sort of silly at the same time. And lots of corridors and immensely high ceilings and carpeting and big thick windows. Quietude and the occasional announcement, many of which are as familiar to air travelers as are the liturgical pronouncements of a priest. "Do not leave your luggage unattended." "The National Transportation Safety Administration advises that...." "Don’t offer to carry anything strange for anyone who looks like a nervous Bedouin." I have a theory about these announcements and it is simply this: whatever might be next in the way of terrorism, you can be sure we’ll never see it coming. It’ll be like the proverbial bolt of lightning or the bus that appears out of nowhere and runs you down, but with an even lower statistical chance of happening than anything like that. So fuck it.

Then I’m in Nashville, where famous hillbilly singers like George Straight make welcoming announcements. However I don’t tarry in Music City longer than it takes for my connection to LA to arrive and begin loading. Once we're aloft I try in vain from my window seat to figure out what's what on the ground. The view goes from too close to take it all in to too far to comprehend it except as patches of varying shades of brown. I wish the states really were different colors like they are on the map. The Mississippi River must be down there somewhere, but I can't find it, and soon I'm above clouds and the sun has set and that's it. Then a nap and then it's the long descent into the lights of the most populous county in the United States. As the wheels touch ground I reflect on how glad I am that it’s not as easy to start an airline as it is a taco stand. No small businessmen allowed here, and no complaints from me.